Selling nature to save it

Why should we make an effort to conserve ‘nature’?

This is a question that loomed large in a lot of the material I engaged with whilst studying for my Master’s degree. As I begin a PhD in which I will explicitly analyse the ‘value’ of the landscape of the catchment of the River Welland, it is a question I find myself returning to (see my ‘about me’ page for details of my project). What are the next four years of effort going to amount to? What is the significance of the work that I will produce and why is it worth investing in?

Reflecting on these questions I feel the need to first establish one definition of what I mean by nature. As someone who subscribes to ecological theory I find it useful to think of nature in terms of communities; ‘ecosystems’, consisting of the plants, animals and the physical environments that they inhabit. Between these three components exists flows of material and energy, as well as intra and interspecific interactions.

The healthy functioning of ecosystems provide us, human beings, with a host of ‘ecosystem services’. Ecosystem services are defined as “the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human wellbeing” (TEEB, 2016). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), published in 2005 took “a giant step forward in developing a widely shared vision” of the pressure that these services are under (Kareiva, 2011 p.5) and categorised these services as supporting, regulating, cultural and provisioning services.


The MEA (2005) helped mainstream the concept of ecosystem services and bring it beyond academia into the spheres of governance and industry (De Groot et al. 2010). Some would argue that ecosystem services make the valuation of nature more tangible (Daily et al. 2009, Kareiva, 2011, Costanza et al. 1997) and that if we can conceptualise the benefits that functioning ecosystems create for us we may be more inclined to protect them. Daily et al. (2009) comment that the concept of ecosystem services are one of our best hopes for making conservation mainstream and that the vision of the MEA (2005) is of a world where people and institutions appreciate nature as an asset; subsequently making more sustainable decisions regarding its use. This approach to conservation, founded on the concept of ecosystem services, places great emphasis on the instrumental value of nature.

Arguments such as this inspired the title of this post, is such an approach to conservation selling nature to save it? One interpretation of the concept of ecosystem services is that it commodifies nature (Portman, 2013). Indeed many contemporary conservation strategies work in this way; through establishing payments for ecosystem services (PES). PES, in its ideal form (as defined by environmental economists), is a voluntary payment from the user to the provider of an environmental service conditional on satisfactory provision, the aim of which is to internalise environmental externalities to achieve market efficiency and reduce degradation of the environment (Wunder, 2005, Kosoy and Corbera, 2010, Pasucal et al., 2010). One of the longest running and best known PES schemes is the ‘Pago por Servicios Ambientales’ (PSA) from Costa Rica which is often discussed as a triumph of market based approaches to conservation and resource management (Pagiola, 2008, Fletcher and Breitling, 2012).

This approach is not without its critics who worry that the neoliberalisation of environmental management will create more problems than it solves (Matulis, 2014, Redford and Adams, 2009). It could be argued that PES evolved from a growth mind-set, that continuous economic growth is possible and desirable. Economic justifications for environmental management will always be convincing because of the prevalence of this way of thinking but until concerns with growth and efficiency are muted we will be inadequately positioned to effectively manage our environmental resources. What I believe must gain more prevalence is an appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature. In ‘A Sand County Almanac’ a book that I always return to, Aldo Leopold wrote:

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics” – Leopold (1948) p. xiii

This ‘land ethic’ perfectly encapsulates to me why conservation is necessary.  We should seek to conserve and protect nature because we have an ethical duty to do so, it is the ‘right thing to do’. It is possible to frame nature in terms of the tangible benefits that it provides us (in fact this is often a useful way to demonstrate the value of conservation to those with the power to act upon it) but it should not be the driving motivation for conservation. Nature has an intrinsic value that transcends any effort on our part to account for its instrumental value.

The ontology of sustainability is often presented as a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles of society, economy and the environment, with the sweet spot in the middle representing sustainable actions. To me this way of thinking has always reinforced the belief that humans exists outside of nature, that it is something to be balanced and ‘worked with’. I would argue that a more realistic ontological hierarchy, in terms of the importance of nature and our relationship with it is as below:


Nature is the most important component of this ontology, and EVERYTHING depends on a healthy, functioning environment. Nothing exists, can function or grow outside of environmental limits. This is the mind-set that I wish was dominant amongst politicians and the people with power.

My belief that the intrinsic value of nature trumps any attempt to quantify its instrumental value means that I will always grapple with the concept of ecosystem services; even as I begin a PhD where the quantitative analysis of ecosystem services forms the central body of my work. By engaging with the concept and contributing to research in the field am I reinforcing some of the issues that I have raised in this post? Or am I engaging with the dominant paradigm because it is the best way to advance the beliefs and values that I hold most dear? Remaining reflective and critical will be a crucial part of navigating my PhD and I hope that posting regularly to this blog, exploring not just the technical and methodological questions of my work, but also the ethical, will make me a better researcher.


References (must reads in bold!)

Costanza, R., Farber, S., Naeem, S., Raskin, R.G., Sutton, P., de Groot, R., Limburg, K., Paruelo, J., van den Belt, M., Hannon, B., d’Arge, R., O’Neill, R.V. and Grasso, M. (1997) ‘The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital’, Nature, 387(6630), pp. 253-260

Daily, G.C., Polasky, S., Goldstein, J., Kareiva, P.M., Mooney, H.A., Pejchar, L., Ricketts, T.H., Salzman, J. and Shallenberger, R. (2009) ‘Ecosystem Services in Decision Making: Time to Deliver’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7(1), pp. 21-28

de Groot, R.S., Alkemade, R., Braat, L., Hein, L. and Willemen, L. (2010) ‘Challenges in integrating the concept of ecosystem services and values in landscape planning, management and decision making’, Ecological Complexity, 7(3), pp. 260-272

Fletcher, R. and Breitling, J. (2012) ‘Market mechanism or subsidy in disguise? Governing payment for environmental services in Costa Rica’, Geoforum, 43(3), pp. 402-411

Kareiva, P.M. (2011) Natural capital: theory & practice of mapping ecosystem services. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kosoy, N. and Corbera, E. (2010) ‘Payments for ecosystem services as commodity fetishism’, Ecological Economics, 69(6), pp. 1228-1236

Leopold, A. (1948) ‘A Sand County Almanac – and Sketches Here and There’, Oxford University Press, New York

Matulis, B.S. (2014) ‘The economic valuation of nature: A question of justice?’, Ecological Economics, (104), pp. 155-157

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005) ‘Ecosystems and Human Wellbeing: Synthesis.’ Island Press. Washington, D.C

Pagiola, S. (2008) ‘Payments for environmental services in Costa Rica’, Ecological Economics, 65(4), pp. 712-724

Pasucal, U., Muradian, R., Rodríguez, L.C. and Duraiappah, A. (2010) ‘Exploring the links between equity and efficiency in payments for environmental services: A conceptual approach’, Ecological Economics, 69(6), pp. 1237-1244

Portman, M.E. (2013) ‘Ecosystem services in practice: Challenges to real world implementation of ecosystem services across multiple landscapes – A critical review’, Applied Geography, 45, pp. 185-192.

Redford, K.H. and Adams, W.M. (2009) ‘Payment for ecosystem services and the challenge of saving nature’, Conservation biology: the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, 23(4), pp. 785-787

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2016), available at: (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Wunder, S. (2005) ‘Payments for ecosystem services: some nuts and bolts’ Occasional Paper No. 42 Centre for International Forestry Research, Nairobi, Kenya