Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ecosystem Services 1970s-style: The O.G.

Ecosystem services folks are a relentlessly forward-looking crowd -- the field typically spends very little time in navel-gazing or genealogy.  But since academics specialize in the latter activities, and somebody will eventually write the history of the approach, I wanted to remind everyone of one of the germinal papers: Walter Westman's 1977 article in Science entitled "How Much are Nature's Services Worth?"

Was this the first use of the term "services" in connection with the kinds of things we mean today when we say "ecosystem services"?  Probably not.  The term was an outgrowth of the ecological economics approach of the late 1960s, and a natural contrast with the typical resource-economics treatment of nature as a set of material "goods".  But it probably was the first programmatic research statement to make it into the highest echelons of academic publishing -- the first clarion call to sound, as it were -- using "services" in a way immediately recognizable in today's debate.

Here's what's cool about Westman's piece.  First, he immediately fingers the deepest issue underlying all attempts to define ecosystem services: the central role concepts of rationality and utility play in our politics and economics.
 "And yet, in the inexorable quest to rationalize the activities of the civilization, policy-makers in Western societies have increasingly asked the monetary value of items and qualities formerly regarded as priceless:..."
This is big-picture philosophizing of the kind that was part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s: noticing the water we're swimming in. It now sounds dated or unhip, or perhaps a bit wild-eyed, to talk about such things as "civilization" and "Western societies".  Too bad -- we're still swimming in that water.

But the payoff of such big thinking is that, second, he really does define an entire research program, asking questions which still have no answers, 35 years on:
"It is important at the outset to recognize some of the corollaries inherent in assuming the decisions that maximize benefit:cost ratios simultaneously optimize social equity and utility. (i) The human species has the exclusive right to use and manipulate nature for its own purposes. (ii) Monetary units are socially acceptable as means to equate the value of natural resources destroyed and those developed. (iii) The value of services lost during the interval before the replacement or substitution of the usurped resource has occurred is included in the cost of the damage resource. (iv) The amount of compensation in monetary units accurately reflects the full value of the loss to each loser in the transaction. (v) The value of the item to future generations has been judged and included in an accurate way in the total value. (vi) The benefits of development accrue to the same sectors of society, and in the same proportions, as the sectors on whom the costs are levied, or acceptable opposition has been transferred."
We have well and truly whistled past these questions, with the clear exceptions of (iii) and (v), which are accounting questions involving discounting and baselines. And it's not only that the rest remain to be answered, it's that even asking them is a problem.  Try this at the next ES conference: stand up after the keynote and ask "Does the human species have the exclusive right to use and manipulate nature for its own purpose?"


And perhaps that's as it should be -- hard to move forward with real policy when you insist on metaphysics.  But let's just note that most of these remain unresolved and ignored.  For the most part these are quite radical questions about distributional equity (vi), value theory (ii and iv) and the nature of moral action (i).  ES scholarship and policy has moved forward mainly by accepting the mainline economics-textbook answer to these potentially-paralyzing topics.  Value is utility proxied by money, distributional equity is assured by the two theorems of welfare economics, and morality is expressed in preference revealed by market actors.  These are all the answers that make the rest of the social sciences so exasperated with Economics, and reflect a profound uncuriosity about the nature of human thought and agency in the complicated social world of markets. 

His definition of services is aimed mainly at combating the notion of nature as a set of material goods, the vew so prevalent in most of economics at the time: "The functions of an ecosystem, on the other hand, are characterized by the ways in which the components of the system interact, they are the dynamics of ecosystems -- nature's free `services.'"

In fact, a good part of the article is taken up with this fight against the mainstream approach: inasmuch as "substitutability" (of natural resources with manufacture) was a fundamental tenet, it had to be defeated by environmental economics and ecological economics.  Part of this was defeating the "replacement cost" method of assessing the value of nature, which Westman targets at length.

But a more modern concern surfaces towards the end: stacking and bundling.  He is clear about the idea that "services" cannot easily be separated from each other, and that ignoring this integration of multiple services can lead to deceptively simple stories:
"It is well to remember that these calculations represent only partial costs of the loss of the pasture, since the plants will at the same time absorb other pollutants, bind the soil, maintain a certain radiation balance, and fulfill other functions."

"It is in part because of the interconnected nature of the complex systems of nature that valuation of individual services lost is so inevitably misleading."
Oh, and he was on top of the whole non-linearity of nature, something which still gives the best ecologists in the business headaches when economists ask them for response curves:
"Yet one is plagued here, as when assessing other isolated development projects, with the fact that there may be a nonlinear relationship between the destruction of a certain amount of habitat and the resulting perturbation of the climate."
In the end, what sets Westman above and apart is that he squarely faces the political nature of ES talk.
"Evaluating the contribution of ecosystem functioning to human welfare is a complex task. It is the task of weighing human social values and is the quintessential task of politics."
Today, it is common for markets or dollar-valuation to be invoked a way to avoid politics: if there is a difference between 1977 and 2012, it is that describing nature as a commodity or valuing it in dollars are now generally accepted (in most ES talk) as ethically, politically, morally, and technocratically neutral elements of policy.  Indeed, one finds scientists and environmentalists of many stripes invoking dollar-valuation as a way just to get everyone "on the same page".

In the end, Westman is committed to using ES as a way to combat the wrongheadedness of traditional resource economics, but exceptionally clear-eyed (or skeptical, depending on your view) on the potential of thinking of nature as services:
"Although the literature on environmental cost-benefit analysis is becoming increasingly sophisticated, in the eyes of many in our society it has not yet improved upon the poet's summation of nature's worth."
Such a civilized and almost romantic response!  And a research charge for us in ecosystem services scholarship: "Improve upon the poet."  We will fail, but at least the attempt will be worth reading.

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