Monday, February 2, 2015

Stacking Ecosystem Services

Given my long hiatus from posting, I should probably devote a full post solely to our article on stacking, released last year, which has been 5 years in the making... the co-authors are a diverse group including two social scientists, an urban planner, an academic hydrogeomorphologist, a professor of environmental law, and a stream restoration professional.

On the way to getting this article into print -- after eight rounds of review at three journals -- we faced some unique challenges.  Honestly, the odyssey may well be turned into another article called "Writing about Stacking Ecosystem Services".  We were all called to defend, to each other and to reviewers, some key assumptions we make about how ecosystems operate and how commodities are defined.

There's one tension I want to highlight specifically, and it surfaced repeatedly in the peer-reviews performed by economists.  Twice (at two different journals) we received reviews from economists that were longer than our manuscript.  Something about the way we were treating this topic was deeply disturbing to the axioms of mainstream economics, and it was our characterization of the "ecological problem" with stacking:  If you sell salmon habitat and water quality from the same spot, what if the same functions operate to create those two services?  Doesn't that mean that the two credits aren't fully separable?  This calls into debate some very basic issues in the definition of a commodity.

In short, we believe that ecosystem service credit commodities aren't fully discrete and separable from the functions which create them.  To our friends from economics, this was simply unintelligible:

The second concern was the “Ecological problem: integration of underlying functions.”  I frankly don’t understand this concern.  Ecological systems are complex and interdependent. Ecosystem processes jointly produce multiple ecosystem services.  Management changes leading to changes in ecosystems simultaneously affect the provision of multiple services.  Separately accounting for ecosystem services does not deny the joint and interconnected nature of their provision.  ...  There a close analogy with industrial processes characterized by “joint production” resulting in the production of multiple commodities from an integrated process.  ...  This whole section seems fundamentally misguided and I recommend deleting it entirely.  
The underlying assumption from this reviewer is that the identity and existence of a commodity is defined ONLY by its ability to be consumed and desired, NOT by its production process.  You can't really challenge that and still stay in the same model-world as mainstream economists.  And we learned that the hard way.  

This is something to keep in mind when reading economists writing on ecosystem services: they can't think the relationship between the service commodity and the functions that create it in a way that an ecologist would.  It appears to be an axiomatic conflict.  To say that a commodity called a "salmon habitat credit", once produced, is affected by other kinds of production that happen at the site is like saying that because your car and my car were produced at the same factory, the way I drive my car affects your car.

This is clearly not true with cars.  So why is it true with ecosystem services?  The answer reveals a lot about the limitations of the economic model world with regard to nature.

Of course, this is not to whine about the long process of academic publishing -- that's life in the big city.  And we are very grateful for the long hours spent dealing with our article by many editors and reviewers.  We all learned an awful lot.


  1. It's great post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is a telling anecdote. It is significant how the ambition to reduce nature to a set of independent variables fits so comfortably into nature's commodification. People seem to think that if only we could come up with sufficiently thorough metrics, we could monetize ecosystem services so that financial self-interest and ecological well-being would be one.

    Anyway, Morgan, I am writing a book on climate change and would love to cite your work. The germ of my thesis is in this article originally published in Resurgence/The Ecologist: Unfortunately, all of your papers are behind a pay wall (I am not affiliated with an academic institution). May we get in touch by email? My email address is my first name at

    Thank you for your work!