The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.

Ecosystem services — the benefits to human well-being that nature provides — have become a major focus at all of the major conservation NGOs.

While the idea isn’t new (the concept of “multiple use” on U.S. federal lands is very similar, and dates to the 1960s), it is one of the exciting new buzz words in conservation. I spend much of my time professionally working to make sure that The Nature Conservancy is considering ecosystem services in our conservation activity, fostering conservation that is both good for biodiversity and good for human well-being. But while I’m a true believer in the power of ecosystem-service based conservation, I have some lingering concerns.

To understand these concerns, one has to understand how ecosystem services relate to the market system we all live under. Most ecosystem services are outside of the market — they are benefits that we get from nature for free.

As such, any damage that an economic actor does through pollution, etc., to an ecosystem service is what’s known in the trade as a “negative externality,” because it damages all of us but doesn’t directly fit into that actor’s economic bottom line. Hardin’s concept of the tragedy of the commons most vividly (and simplistically) describes the end result of this process. Rational individual decisions can systematically destroy a common resource such as ecosystem services.

Many ecologists know Hardin’s essay, but not the historical process he was referring to. The common areas of England, which did tend to be overgrazed, were privatized in a process called “enclosure,” where a particular individual got to build a fence around the field and label it as his private property.

In some sense, this is an ecologically and economically rational thing to do, for in principal it removes the incentive to overgraze the common land. However, the process was manifestly unfair and inequitable. The rich and politically well connected got land, while the poor now had to pay rent for land they were able to use for free before.

Many ecosystem-service conservation programs require a similar privatization. A service that once was free, and perhaps has been degraded, is now “paid for” by someone, typically the beneficiary of that service. There’s ample evidence that these kinds of ecosystem-service conservation programs work in terms of reducing degradation of the service over time.

However, there are lots of different ways to set up the system, with very different equity consideration. For instance, in a hypothetical cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions:

  • If the allowances are auctioned off, the polluters are paying for the right to pollute;
  • But if the allowances are given away for free, polluters are actually given rights with substantial monetary value.
Most conservation NGOs have been careful with equity considerations while creating ecosystem-service schemes. But I do worry that the process of privatizing ecosystem services, if hijacked by for-profit groups, may be profoundly unfair and inequitable.

In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel argues that the process of privatizing ecosystem services represents the enclosure of nature’s commons. Given that estimates of the total value of ecosystem services are on the same order of magnitude as global GDP, this may be one of the biggest enclosures in economic history.

Given the checkered history of privatization, with the rich and powerful tending to benefit, it behooves environmentalists to be extremely careful about how we introduce the concept of payment for ecosystem services into the market, so that the concept of equity is central to what we do.

— Text by Rob McDonald, Cool Green Science Blog

Ecosystem services: Enclosing nature's commons?
It's an exciting new buzz term in conservation -- valuing nature for what it gives us. But what happens to considerations of equity when for-profit groups start