Nature and economics: a necessary marriage?

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

Adams et al. (2013; p. 585): “Neoliberalism may offer a new set of mechanisms in pursuing conservation ends, but also creates new risks and challenges.”

Sustainability and social and economic human prosperity resulting from ecosystem services provided by nature form the heart of the principle of human–nature connectivity (see UK NEA, 2011). Such services are categorised as supporting (e.g. soil formation), provisioning (e.g. food), regulating (e.g. flood regulation) and cultural (e.g. education, recreation) by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005). These services can then be assigned an economic value and, theoretically, be more wholly incorporated into a neoliberal economy where conservation is seen as protecting an area’s economic value, rather than diminishing it.

Adams et al. (2013) note regular mention of such ecosystem services in UK ‘Large Conservation Area’ (LCA) project descriptions; a shift towards neoliberalism in conservation, and the apparent need to assign an economic value to designated conservation areas, is present in the UK. Such themes also extend to conservation the world over, as we can see by two recent major biodiversity reports.

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Two separate recent international reports on biodiversity – Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the WWF’s Living Planet Report – have been widely referred to by the press. Both reports discuss ecosystem services and the benefits of nature conservation to our well-being and economy. The Telegraph, on the WWF’s report, discusses how humans “depend on ecosystem services”. Meanwhile, The Guardian and Blue & Green Tomorrow discuss the Global Biodiversity Outlook report and the overall failure to meet current global conservation targets. Perhaps then, better incorporation of nature into neoliberal economies via ecosystem services is necessary to convey the value of nature to policy and decision makers, in the UK and beyond.

Of course, ideas of ecosystem services are seldom isolated from opposition to the valuation of nature and for its inherent value, which is arguably priceless. Key arguments against such valuation include: (i) not all of nature’s outputs are useful services, indeed some are disservices, or are neutral, in relation to ‘serving’ people, but the areas providing these may house amazing species and ecosystems (are they at risk if they cannot provide a useful service?); (ii) ecosystem service arguments imply that the conservation of nature should only happen when it is profitable to do so; (iii) technological advancement may surpass nature’s services in the future (then what of a nature reserve that was being protected just because of a service and associated value?); (iv) nature has an intrinsic value and would be better argued for on moral, rather than economic, grounds (list summarised from McCauley, 2006 in Nature). Also see The Ecologist on biodiversity offsetting who ask: “How many pandas is a five star hotel worth?”.

Nature conservation, and associated themes (e.g. biodiversity offsetting, ecosystem services), in the UK and the wider world will only increase in importance and relevance as environments continue to change and, perhaps inevitably, the so called neoliberalisation of nature continues. As territories reserved for nature (and the value of these) are debated, understanding the spatial patterns of biodiversity, and indeed how these will change through time, will be vital so that we can move towards informed, resilient and sustainable decisions. Perhaps true sustainability can only ensue if nature’s intrinsic value takes a dominant role in discussions? Perhaps not, though; perhaps economic valuations will dominate by necessity? Personally, I hope that such intrinsic value is never overshadowed and that economic arguments, where necessary, simply supplement moral ones.

 Adams, W. M., Hodge, I. D. and Sandbrook, L. (2014). ‘New spaces for nature: the re-territorialisation of biodiversity conservation under neoliberalism in the UK‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, 574–588.

60-world2 Bertini, I. (2014). Governments have failed to protect wildlife, UN biodiversity report findsBlue & Green Tomorrow.

60-world2 Global Biodiversity Outlook 4: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014)

60-world2 Lean, G. (2014). Life on earth is dying, thanks to one species. The Telegraph.

60-world2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

 McCauley, D. J. (2006). Selling out on natureNature 443, 27 – 28.

60-world2 Scrivener, A. (2014). Nature as an ‘asset class’ – the free market’s final frontier? The Ecologist.

60-world2 UK NEA (2011). The UK national ecosystem assessment: technical report UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.

60-world2 Vaughan, A. (2014). UN biodiversity report highlights failure to meet conservation targetsThe Guardian.

60-world2 WWF et al. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014.

One thought on “Nature and economics: a necessary marriage?

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s