Ecosystem Services vs. Conservation: a storm in a teacup

Every so often, another opinion piece claims that ecosystem services approaches hinder nature conservation. A couple of recent examples: a Monbiot column rehashing his views against the natural capital approach (which is an economic tool for applying the ecosystem services concept), and this opinion piece in Biological Conservation by Bekessy et al. arguing that ecosystem services is not a useful communication strategy for conservation advocacy.

Two key arguments recur in these opinions, both based on conflated issues:

  • practical applications of the ecosystem services concept (e.g. economic valuation) are conflated with the concept itself
  • ecosystem services are equated with instrumental values, which are conflated with economic values, and portrayed in opposition to intrinsic values (stay with me here)

Ecosystem services is a concept, a communication strategy, and a valuation framework.

It’s not the nemesis of conservation and it’s not all about putting a price on nature. The concept simply provides a framework for valuing the many ways humans benefit from nature. For any given benefit, there are also many ways to identify or measure its value, both quantitative and qualitative. Some measures are more appropriate than others, depending on why you want to value something and what the context is.

Economic valuation in monetary units is simply one tool in that broader framework; it’s a practical application of the concept, not the essence of the concept itself. No ecosystem services scientist has said that economic valuation is the only or best way to value nature.

“Just as it would be absurd to calculate the full value of a human being on the basis of his or her wage-earning power, or the economic value of his or her constituent materials, there exists no absolute value of ecosystem services waiting to be discovered and revealed to the world…”

~ Gretchen Daily in “Nature’s Services”

The intrinsic vs. instrumental values argument is a false ecosystem services dichotomy (just like services vs. disservices).

Intrinsic valuation is about protecting something for what it is, while instrumental valuation is based on what that thing does. Some people mistakenly equate ecosystem services with instrumental (or utilitarian) values and portray intrinsic values of nature as an alternative view that is being ignored or undermined by ecosystem services discourse.

This argument is flawed for a few reasons.

Intrinsic and instrumental values are complementary to each other, not mutually exclusive. There is overlap between them and most things have both intrinsic and instrumental value simultaneously. Sometimes, an object’s intrinsic value can partly depend on its instrumental value. There are centuries of published thought, going back to Kant and beyond, on the philosophical complexities of intrinsic and instrumental values – it’s far from a simplistic dichotomy.

Instrumental value is not synonymous with economic value. Any parent who appreciates having their child help with household chores has placed an instrumental value on their child. This doesn’t mean they will offer their child for sale to other people wanting their house cleaned, nor does it negate the intrinsic value they also hold for their child.

Instrumental value is not a bad thing. It simply means you are thinking about the function of the thing being valued. Don’t take anything in nature for granted. For ecosystem services, this is why it’s so important to understand the ecological functions underlying the services that we want to value. Ecosystem services don’t just appear from thin air. They arise from ecosystem functions and processes involving species-species and species-environment interactions. This is why hundreds of ecologists around the world are currently working on unpacking the complexities of biodiversity—ecosystem function—ecosystem services relationships.

Relational values overarch instrumental and intrinsic values. We need to move on from the intrinsic vs. instrumental argument. Many ecosystem services scientists recognise the importance of relational values – valuing something within a given context based on your relationship with it, as well as your relationship with other stakeholders. Focusing on relational values allows us to focus on interactions with, and responsibilities to, nature.


Social science research on stakeholder perceptions of ecosystem services often finds that even if people have never heard the precise term ‘ecosystem services’, they understand the concept and are quick to relate it to their own experiences (e.g. here and here). Most farmers I’ve worked with know what ecosystem services is about. Many land stewardship organisations have the concept front and centre in their operations. Here’s a paper written by a landholder from Australia’s New England region describing his experience revegetating his family’s grazing property to restore ecosystem services. There are many more success stories to discover when it comes to engaging people with ecosystem services and conservation.

Sure, ecosystem services can be complicated. But it does provide a useful communication, valuation and framing tool to promote nature conservation. The only caveat is that any successful application of the concept requires a philosophical, ethical and moral approach that is grounded in context and relationships with nature.


© Manu Saunders 2018

11 thoughts on “Ecosystem Services vs. Conservation: a storm in a teacup

  1. Bartosz Bartkowski June 4, 2018 / 11:22 PM

    A very good piece, thanks. You don’t mention one debate, however, which seems relevant here: some people (Peter Kareiva is probably the most influential) argue that we should move away from “traditional”, Leopold-like conservation focusing on intrinsic values and give much more (all?) weight to instrumental considerations, i.e. ecosystem services. Meanwhile, others disagree, and there is evidence that the two perspectives lead to different results (though the evidence is rather tentative mostly, like in this case: Of course, this is not about the ES concept, either, but rather about what one does with it. But I imagine that this is one of the reasons why many people oppose the concept as such (similar case to economic valuation) – because they believe that it “invites” purely instrumental, utilitarian arguments. [P.S. I still agree with your interpretation/assessment, though;-)]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom Barrett June 5, 2018 / 9:16 PM

    Thanks, some good points! At the end of the day even intrinsic values are driven by how nature makes us ‘feel’. And knowing that nature, and all it’s diversity, is conserved makes some of us feel good and contributes to our sense of well-being. When it comes to changing behaviour I believe it should be a case of ‘horses for courses’.. This is articulated well by futerra’s Branding Biodiversity on page 19 where they suggest using the ‘love’ message to bring about public change and the ‘need’ message to promote policy change.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sleather2012 June 9, 2018 / 8:53 PM

    Great post – I particularly like your example of instrumental value versus economic value. Also great to have seen you via the big screen on TRT World 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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