Monday, September 19, 2011

Ecosystem Services in the NY Times

It's right to start this blog with a consideration of Gretchen Daily, surely one of the most forceful and admirable advocates for the Ecosystem Services approach in policy today. She was featured last month in a NYTimes writeup that served to introduce readers to her work and the concept of ecosystem services. I don't really have an issue with Daily's work as it's presented, but rather the journalistic framing. I wrote the following up as a letter to the editor that I never sent, because I decided to start a blog instead.

While Dr. Daily’s work, and the work of the Natural Capital group, has been pathbreaking, it is not the only path. The “ecosystem services” approach is presented in a slightly cartoonish, Goldilocks fashion as the rational middle ground between a kooky deep green environmentalism on the one hand and rapacious economic exploitation on the other.

We know how this drama plays out. The piece casts Dr. Daily on a too-familiar stage: on the one hand, “nature’s intrinsic worth,” and on the other, the blinkered but practical and “anthropocentric” calculus of economic worth. Maintaining the mutual irreconcilability of these approaches has been very convenient for both economics and environmentalists, and its invocation is a kind of ritual. As long as nature’s true wealth is “vast, immeasurable,” economists are allowed to ignore it or honor it in the breach – it appears on stage only to be quickly shuffled off.

Likewise, deep green environmentalists are allowed to forego calculation at all, having ceded the entire exercise of quantifying value to economists. The two views simply talk past one another, and the common conceptualization of ecosystem services does nothing to change this. The profound barrier between what Dr. Daily describes a nature’s “own realm” and the realm of “current decisions” must be overcome.

If we must render values equivalent through money it should be in the service of the larger goal of establishing decision frameworks where no values are illegible. Ecosystem services policy can either aim to find money equivalences for more and more elements of nature, or it can lay bare the limits of economic calculus by addressing the values of that vast, immeasurable country beyond.

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