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With scant evidence that market-based conservation works, argues Douglas J. McCauley, the time is ripe for returning to the protection of nature for nature's sake.
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Selling out on nature
With scant evidence that market-based conservation works, argues Douglas J. McCauley, the time is ripe
for returning to the protection of nature for nature’s sake.
Probably the most important trend in con-
servation science at the moment is ‘ecosystem
services, typically seen as economic benefits
provided by natural ecosystems
1
. They form
the basis of most market-oriented mechanisms
for conservation. The underlying assumption
is that if scientists can identify ecosystem serv-
ices, quantify their economic value, and ulti-
mately bring conservation more in synchrony
with market ideologies
2
, then the decision-
makers will recognize the folly of environmen-
tal destruction and work to safeguard nature.
But market-based mechanisms for con-
servation are not a panacea for our current
conservation ills. If we mean to make signifi-
cant and long-lasting gains in conservation,
we must strongly assert the primacy of ethics
and aesthetics in conservation. We must act
quickly to redirect much of the effort now
being devoted to the commodification of
nature back towards instilling a love for nature
in more people.
Gold rush
The proponents of market-based mechanisms
for conservation bolster their argument by
repeatedly citing one example: the Catskill/
Delaware Watershed. Through this project,
New York City invested in conserving a water-
shed that filters its water as effectively as a
filtration plant, and more cheaply.
A growing number of ecologists, economists
and environmental scientists hold this shining
example aloft and proclaim that where there
is one golden nugget, there must be others.
They describe, mostly in hypothetical terms,
a world of win-win scenarios. It is a message
with broad appeal: for the public, which is
notoriously averse to bad news; for business-
oriented politicians, who see an opportunity to
further liberalize markets while appeasing the
environmentally anxious; for philanthropists
who wish to do good without straying too far
from their economic comfort zones; and for
foundations that want to use the familiar capi-
talist rhetoric of ecosystem services to draw
out new or wary donors.
It is both true and obvious that ‘ecosystems,
in some sense of the word, are necessary for
human survival. It is also true that there will
be cases in which it will be lucrative to protect
nature, and that people will derive benefits
from this conservation effort. However, eco-
system services are rapidly assuming an impor-
tance in discussions on conservation that is far
out of proportion to their actual utility.
As conservation tools, ecosystem services
are limited in four fundamental ways. First, the
logic of ecosystem-service-based conservation
rests on the implicit assumption that the bio-
sphere is benevolent — that it provides us with
useful services and protects us from malevolent
abiotic forces such as hurricanes, floods and
rising temperatures. This reasoning ignores
basic ecology: environments don’t act for the
benefit of any single species. There are myriad
examples of what might be labelled ‘ecosystem
disservices. Trees take water out of watersheds
3
;
forests may be contributing to global tempera-
ture increases
4
; wild animals kill people and
destroy property
5
;
and wetlands can increase
the risk of disease
6
. Market-based conservation
strategies, as currently articulated, offer little
guidance on how we are to protect the chunks
of nature that conflict with our interests or
preserve the perhaps far more numerous pieces
of nature that neither help nor harm us.
Markets in flux
Second, although most conservationists would
argue that nature should be conserved in per-
petuity, the strength and direction of market
forces that are now being called upon to moti-
vate nature conservation are anything but
perpetual. The often illusory and ephemeral
relationship of the market to conservation is
well illustrated by the case of a former coffee
plantation, Finca Santa Fe, in the Valle del
General of Costa Rica
7
. A recent study found
that native bees from two forest fragments
The incentive to conserve the Catskill watershed could be lost if technology replaces natural filtration.
Profit-oriented conservation strategies may fail
to protect animals that conflict with our interests.
L. B. AIUPPY/GETTY IMAGES
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adjacent to Finca Santa Fe yielded approxi-
mately US$60,000 a year in pollination serv-
ices to the coffee plants. This was hailed as an
example of how conservation can yield ‘double
benefits’ for biodiversity and agriculture.
Shortly after the conclusion of the study,
however, Finca Santa Fe, probably affected by
one of the worst dips in coffee prices this cen-
tury, cleared its coffee and planted pineapple
instead. Pollinators are irrelevant to pineapple
production. So simple logic suggests that over
a period of several years, the monetary value
of the pollinators in forest fragments around
Finca Santa Fe dropped from $60,000 per year
to zero.
To make ecosystem services the foundation
of our conservation strategies is to imply —
intentionally or otherwise — that nature is only
worth conserving when it is, or can be made,
profitable. The risk in advocating this position
is that we might be taken at our word. Then, if
there is a ‘devaluation’ of nature, as in the case of
Finca Santa Fe, what are we to tell local stewards
who have invested in our ideology, and how can
we protect nature from liquidation?
Watershed down
Third, conservation based on ecosystem serv-
ices commits the folly of betting against human
ingenuity. The entire history of technology and
human ‘progress’ is one of producing artificial
substitutes for what we once obtained from
nature, or domesticating once-natural services.
One of the primary selling points for protecting
the Catskill/Delaware Watershed was that the
costs associated with constructing and operat-
ing a filtration plant
would have driven up
water prices in New
York City. However,
recent reports
8
indi-
cate that increased
turbidity might ulti-
mately force New
York to turn to technology to filter its water,
in essence negating this much-ballyhooed eco-
nomic incentive for conservation.
Several other major US cities still rely on
natural filtration, and in some of these cases
it is difficult to imagine that technology will
soon produce a cheaper artificial alternative
to these natural watersheds. Yet it would also
once have been difficult to imagine cost-effec-
tive manufactured alternatives to rubber and
timber. Although we will never replicate all of
the ‘services’ offered by nature, I would argue
that conservation plans that underestimate the
technological prowess of humans are bound to
have short lifespans.
Lastly, although it has been suggested that
in most cases the services that come from
nature are valuable enough to make conser-
vation profitable, making money and protect-
ing nature are all too often mutually exclusive
goals. Take the case of Africas Lake Victoria,
where the introduction of the invasive Nile
perch (Lates niloticus) contributed significantly
to the decimation of local biodiversity while
dramatically boosting the economic value of
the lake. Local people profiting from trade
in the fish hail its introduction as a success,
whereas biologists have condemned the event
as “the most catastrophic extinction episode of
recent history”
9
. John Terborgh
10
, discussing
similar issues in tropical-forest conservation,
remarked that these forests are “worth more
dead than alive”. If Ter-
borghs assessment is
not always true, it is
true all too often. So
we must directly con-
front the reality that
conservation may be
expensive and stop
deceiving ourselves and partners in conser-
vation with hopes that win-win solutions can
always be found.
Infinite value
Are there other socially viable paths for con-
servationists besides the commodification of
nature? Yes. Nature has an intrinsic value that
makes it priceless, and this is reason enough
to protect it. The idea is not new.
We view
certain historical artefacts and pieces of art as
priceless. Nature embodies the same kind of
values we cherish in these man-made media.
Some ecologists claim that these intrinsic
values, often referred to as cultural services,
figure prominently enough in their valua-
tion programmes. However, this co-option
seems in many cases incongruous. I suggest
that the aggregate value of a chunk of nature
— its aesthetic beauty, cultural importance and
evolutionary significance — is infinite, and
thus defies incorporation into any ecosystem
service programme that aims to save nature
by approximating its monetary value.
All of this is not to deny a role for ecosystem
services in our general efforts to protect nature.
Individual ecosystem services will occasion-
ally prove to be useful bargaining chips in
specific conservation plans and, as such, can
meaningfully support programmes aimed at
protecting nature for natures sake. However,
to avoid trading in significant long-term con-
servation successes for marginal short-term
gains, philosophical clarity is essential and
caution is needed. When we employ the aid of
ecosystem services to help pay the bills of con-
servation, we must make it abundantly clear
that our overall mission is to protect nature,
not to make it turn a profit.
Some will argue that this view is simply too
optimistic. They may believe that the best way
to meaningfully engage policy-makers driven
by the financial bottom line is to translate the
intrinsic worth of nature into the language of
economics. But this is patently untrue — akin
to saying that civil-rights advocates would have
been more effective if they provided economic
justifications for racial integration. Nature con-
servation must be framed as a moral issue and
argued as such to policy-makers, who are just
as accustomed to making decisions based on
morality as on finances.
The track record of achievements by conser-
vationists motivated by a moral imperative to
protect nature for natures sake is impressive:
consider the international ban on commercial
whaling, the national parks of the United States,
and the CITES ivory-trade ban. Meanwhile, the
only ‘successful’ large-scale ecosystem-service-
based conservation project yet achieved is the
imperilled Catskill watershed. But this ‘nugget
may turn out to be fools gold.
We will make more progress in the long run
by appealing to peoples hearts rather than to
their wallets. If we oversell the message that
ecosystems are important because they pro-
vide services, we will have effectively sold out
on nature.
Douglas J. McCauley is in the Department of
Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford,
California 94305, USA.
1. Daily, G. C. Nature’s Services (Island Press, Washington,
DC, 1997).
2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and
Human Well-Being: A Framework for the Assessment (Island
Press, Washington, DC, 2003).
3. Hayward, B. From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use
and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR
International, UK, 2005); available at www.frp.uk.com/
assets/Water_book.pdf.
4. Gibbard, S., Caldeira, K., Bala, G., Phillips, T. J. &
Wickett, M. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L23705 (2005).
5.
Woodroffe, R., Thirgood, S. & Rabinowitz, A. (eds)
People and Wildlife, Conflict or Co-existence? (Cambridge
Univ. Press, New York, 2005).
6. Willott, E. Restor. Ecol. 12, 147–153 (2004).
7. Ricketts, T. H., Daily, G. C., Ehrlich, P. R. & Michener, C. D.
Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 12579–12582 (2004).
8. DePalma, A. New York Times New York’s water supply may
need filtering (20 July 2006).
9. Wilson, E. O. The Diversity of Life (Belknap Press of Harvard
Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992).
10. Terborgh, J. Requiem for Nature (Island Press, Washington
DC, 1999).
Locals around Africa’s Lake Victoria benefit from
trading in the ecologically detrimental Nile perch.
“We will make more progress
in the long run by appealing to
people’s hearts rather than to
their wallets.
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Publishing
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©2006
... The concept of ESs has been criticised as being anthropocentric, as the concept means that ESs do not exist without human presence. Being anthropocentric, in this critique, suggests that humans are the only species that matters, excludes the intrinsic value of ecosystem, and may promote an exploitative human-nature relationship (McCauley, 2006;Raymond et al., 2013;Redford and Adams, 2009). This critique is concerned about environmental ethics regarding whether human actions towards nature should be based on an anthropocentric or biocentric view (Jax et al., 2013;Schröter et al., 2014). ...
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Can economic forces be harnessed for biodiversity conservation? The answer hinges on characterizing the value of nature, a tricky business from biophysical, socioeconomic, and ethical perspectives. Although the societal benefits of native ecosystems are clearly immense, they remain largely unquantified for all but a few services. Here, we estimate the value of tropical forest in supplying pollination services to agriculture. We focus on coffee because it is one of the world's most valuable export commodities and is grown in many of the world's most biodiverse regions. Using pollination experiments along replicated distance gradients, we found that forest-based pollinators increased coffee yields by 20% within ≈1 km of forest. Pollination also improved coffee quality near forest by reducing the frequency of “peaberries” (i.e., small misshapen seeds) by 27%. During 2000–2003, pollination services from two forest fragments (46 and 111 hectares) translated into ≈$60,000 (U.S.) per year for one Costa Rican farm. This value is commensurate with expected revenues from competing land uses and far exceeds current conservation incentive payments. Conservation investments in human-dominated landscapes can therefore yield double benefits: for biodiversity and agriculture. • bees • ecosystem service • landscape • pollination
Book
Cambridge Core - Ecology and Conservation - People and Wildlife, Conflict or Co-existence? - edited by Rosie Woodroffe
Article
The benefits of wetlands are now widely appreciated. Less widely known is that historically many wetlands were drained to help control malaria and other deadly diseases. This essay's general theme is that there are pros and cons to restoration or creation of wetlands. The specific theme is that mosquitoes pose practical and theoretical problems. In particular, abundant mosquitoes should not be regarded as an after-the-fact surprising side effect but rather, abundant mosquitoes should be viewed as a primary and foreseeable effect of providing habitat suitable for them. Yet our funding mechanisms and educational institutions often fail properly to address the reality that restoring or creating wetlands has a downside.
New York Times New York's water supply may need filtering
  • A Depalma
DePalma, A. New York Times New York's water supply may need filtering (20 July 2006).
  • E Willott
  • Restor
Willott, E. Restor. Ecol. 12, 147-153 (2004).
  • G C Daily
Daily, G. C. Nature's Services (Island Press, Washington, DC, 1997).
From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR International
  • B Hayward
Hayward, B. From the Mountain to the Tap: How Land Use and Water Management Can Work for the Rural Poor (NR International, UK, 2005); available at www.frp.uk.com/ assets/Water_book.pdf.
  • T H Ricketts
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