Ecosystem Services for whom?

Darcey, Wanstead Park bluebellsEcosystem Services – the idea that we benefit from goods and services provided for free by nature. To be frank, the phrase is ugly. It’s ugly language to use to describe so much beauty – Nature; the bringer of joy, spirituality, reflection, contemplation, solace, inspiration.

Nature, the wellspring of human creativity, degraded to a service provider – like just another G4S or Carillion.


Language is vital. The words we use to describe things and processes constrain our thinking about the world – this is the main message of research on values and frames.

As it is with Natural Capital, so it shall be with Ecosystem Services.

Ecosystem Services is also a lie. The notion of a service provided conjures in our mind the idea that it is an economic transaction, just like going to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk (see how I framed that example?). But of course it is not a transaction, it is an extraction of resources, of goods, where nature has no choice about whether to provide the service or not. When we look at farm animals providing us with meat, do we call them service providers?

If a human takes a “service” from another human without permission, without payment, there are whole set of words to describe that relationship, none of them are pretty. So let’s avoid being too emotive about it and call it Ecosystem Servitude. A stronger, but equally appropriate word would be Ecosystem Slavery.

In a recent article, which I commented on this Monday, leading Oxford economics professor Dieter Helm described the idea that nature has intrinsic value as “harmless or dangerous”. To start with Helm displays his contempt for the notion of intrinsic value by misdefining it (perhaps through ignorance perhaps for effect). He suggests that intrinsic value means nature provides people with pleasure! What it is to see the world through such a utilitarian frame.

No, nature provides people with pleasure and this is a hugely important benefit for people, but it does not mean that therefore nature has intrinsic value. It may lead people to believe nature has intrinsic value, but that is a different thing. Anyway Helm regards whatever people believe or feel about nature as “harmless”, which is kind of him.

He goes on to suggest that it is dangerous for people to think nature has some kind of value in and of itself “that nature has value independent of people.” “to claim that there is value without us opens up the possibility that the world might be better off without us.”

Heaven forfend!

Does Helm seriously believe the world was put here for our benefit? Is Helm a christian of that ilk? Note how similar the language is to uber-neolibertarian Andrew Lilico, about whom I wrote yesterday.

I put to you a thought experiment. Take your average nature reserve and consider what “services” it provides, to dogs. (or look at a specific example here)

  • A place to run around
  •  Do a wee and a poo
  •  Chase birds and rabbits (if they’re lucky, even a beaver!)
  •  Follow scent trails
  •  Dig a hole
  •  Social interactions with other dogs

There are also incidental benefits for owners.

If an alien arrived from a distant galaxy and landed near a nature reserve in lowland England, taking up an unobserved position to do a spot of nature-watching, what would they conclude? They would see an awful lot of people being led by their dogs to this place, where the dogs would have a great time. They would conclude that these places had been purposefully created to provide benefits for the dogs, wouldn’t they?

Nature Reserves provide ecosystem services for dogs.

Now consider ecosystem services for bees.

Taxpayers pay farmers through agri-environment schemes, to grow flowers (pollinators mixes) instead of food crops. So we are paying farmers to provide ecosystem services, in the form of nectar pollen and places for them to build nests, to bees. Unfortunately, we are also paying farmers to use bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides on the adjacent crops, which via the soil, inevitably find their way into the flowers, killing the bees, or at least poisoning them.

Clearly we have not thought through this particular provision of ecosystem services for bees.

Add together the services for dogs, for bees and for every other living thing on the planet. This is one way of looking at the intrinsic value of nature. Perhaps Prof Helm could explain exactly why that is a dangerous concept. Perhaps it’s dangerous because it challenges the neoliberal frame which Prof Helm and his Natural Capital devotees wish the rest of us to adopt.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in bees, Dieter Helm, dogs, ecosystem services, Natural Capital, Neonicotinoids and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ecosystem Services for whom?

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Sustained tirade, Miles! Now I know why you were surprised that the Natural Capital Committee had used non-market, public goods as a measure in their last report – it was about the distribution of new woodland.

    As much as the Juniper-Monbiot joust may have been a great spectacle, and the respective handbaggings by Avery and Helm entertaining, I don’t see how these are going to divert the course of the monster tanker that is TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity).

    Neoliberalisation of just about everything nowadays, including nature conservation, occurs on the back of willing participants, including the wildlife trusts (remember, the Edinburgh event is a commercial service of a trading company of SWT!) and self-interested voters.

    Civil disobedience was once advocated when governments over-rule conscience, making us “agents of injustice”. If I could think of one effective way of being disobedient in the cause of wild nature that would make a difference, then I would devote myself to it!

  2. Roger Hicks says:

    It is not just nature that we degrade by the language we use in referring to it, but also OURSELVES, especially when using the terms human resources, customers, consumers and clients, i.e. voters.

    On the other hand, we should value these degrading ways of describing human beings as providing an accurate picture of how we, i.e. the system, views them, because just changing the name isn’t going to change anything.

    The state and the economy it provides the legal framework for have always been concerned primarily with facilitating society’s SELF-exploitation, to the personal advantage of its ruling elites and favoured (especially wealthy and academic) clients, at the expense, and ultimate self-destruction) of society at large. Most academics, who are privileged clients and employees of the state, want us to believe that with the advent of democracy the purpose of the state changed to one of serving society at large, but this is simply not true.

    In order to understand the true nature of the state and the purposes it serves, one must view it from a human-evolutionary perspective, which a previous generation academics, in overreaction to the half-baked ideas of social Darwinism being hijacked and abused by the Nazis, made a taboo of.

    Here’s a link to an introduction to such a perspective and what it reveals about the true nature of the state:

  3. Rob yorke says:

    On a roll Miles (in amongst the dog poo bags hung on shrubs at the nature reserve). But you are simplistic and selective on your bees neonics stuff. The reality, as you know, is damn complex – with lies on all sides.
    Oh, how I wish we could consume on the terms that you advocate. Slip into Tesco and not be driven by neoliberalism in supermarkets to then wonder why biodiversity continues to decline without daring to see or make the connection.
    Yours aye

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Rob. Of course it’s simplistic – the point was to question the assumption that ecosystem services is only for humans, not to describe the complex web of relationships that bind people to nature.

  4. All I can say is it sounds like a Dickensian Gradgrind nightmare. I wonder what services the changing weather might provide!

  5. Pingback: Biodiversity Day | a new nature blog

  6. Pingback: Englishman, Mad Dogs – Chris Foster

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