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Keywords:

  • Biodiversity conservation;
  • ecosystem services;
  • nonmonetary valuation;
  • value pluralism

Turnhout et al. (2013) identify some of the problems with the ecosystem services concept, including the potentially problematic “hierarchies of values” that may be created in decision-making processes. However, their characterization of the ecosystem services approach is misleadingly narrow. They state that “the Ecosystem Services discourse promotes a technocratic and economic perspective on biodiversity. In particular, it frames biodiversity in specific reductionist terms: as ecosystem services that can be represented with a single measure.” There is no dictum fundamental to, or implied by, the ecosystem services concept that states that ecosystem services can or should be represented by a single measure. Many authors explicitly argue that multiple measures (value pluralism) are required to meaningfully express the values that humans ascribe to biodiversity and ecosystem services (Abson & Termansen 2011; Kenter et al. 2011; Morse-Jones et al. 2011; Wegner & Pascual 2011). The tools used to reveal these ascribed values are often implicitly tied to particular normative frameworks (i.e., utilitarian exchange values) regarding the nature of value (Kumar & Kumar 2008). This does not mean that other normative valuation frameworks do not exist or cannot be applied to the ecosystem services concept (Wilson & Howarth 2002; Gomez-Baggethun et al. 2010). The ecosystem service concept does not “reduce” biodiversity to a single value, rather it expresses particular values that are ascribed to particular aspects of biodiversity by societies (Abson & Termansen 2011). There is, as Turnhout et al. suggest, a danger that a narrow, utilitarian perspective on biodiversity loss becomes the dominant normative discourse in conservation biology. A potential antidote to this narrow focus is to use the ecosystem services concept to emphasize problems with such a framing; many such critiques appear within the ecosystem services literature.

The assumed link that Turnhout et al. make between monetary valuations and the subsequent commodification of biodiversity is also problematic. They state that “when biodiversity is translated into a singular measure or currency that becomes the bearer of value, it may thereby enter into systems of banking and exchange.” However, there is no direct, or inevitable, link between such valuations and the commodification of nature. For a good to be traded on the market what is required is not an ascribed monetary value (this is provided by the market itself), but rather the assignment of property rights to that good. While there are theoretical problems in trying to ascribe exchange (monetary) values to public goods like biodiversity, doing so does not mean that those goods automatically become private good to be bought and sold.

Turnhout et al. imply that the ecosystem services concept represents a single discourse that seeks the commodification of nature. This is a misleading characterization of a field, which contains multiple discourses seeking to understand and express the various ways in which humans ascribe values to nature and how such values can be fed into decision processes. Indeed, the ecosystem services approach, at its best, seeks to embed biodiversity research within pluralistic understanding of social–natural relations that Turnhout et al. identify.

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