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Yale Environment 360: What’s Wrong with Putting a Price on Nature?

Author: Richard Conniff
October 18, 2012

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The concept of pricing ecosystem services and allowing them to be bought and sold has gained wide acceptance among conservationists in recent years. But does this approach merely obscure nature's true value and put the natural world at even greater risk?

Ecosystem services is not exactly a phrase to stir the human imagination. But over the past few years, it has managed to dazzle both diehard conservationists and bottom-line business types as the best answer to global environmental decline.

For proponents, the logic is straightforward: Old-style protection of nature for its own sake has badly failed to stop the destruction of habitats and the dwindling of species. It has failed largely because philosophical and scientific arguments rarely trump profits and the promise of jobs. And conservationists can't usually put enough money on the table to meet commercial interests on their own terms. Pointing out the marketplace value of ecosystem services was initially just a way to remind people what was being lost in the process — benefits like flood control, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and species habitat. Then it dawned on someone that, by making it possible for people to buy and sell these services, we could save the world and turn a profit at the same time.

But the rising tide of enthusiasm for PES (or payment for ecosystem services) is now also eliciting alarm and criticism. The rhetoric is at times heated, particularly in Britain, where a government plan to sell off national forests had to be abandoned in the face of fierce public opposition. (The government's own expert panel also found that it had "greatly undervalued" what it was proposing to sell.) Writing recently in The Guardian, columnist and land rights activist George Monbiot denounced PES schemes as "another transfer of power to corporations and the very rich." Also writing in The Guardian, Tony Juniper, a conservationist and corporate consultant, replied in effect that Monbiot and other critics should shut up, on the grounds that campaigning against payment for ecosystem services "could inadvertently strengthen the hand of those who believe nature has little or no value, moral, economic or otherwise."

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