The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…
As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).
I felt confused, because I cared about both!
Similar sentiments arose a few weeks later. This week’s release of the IPBES global assessment report on loss of biodiversity & ecosystem services, one of the most important policy guidelines in human history, happened on the same day as the Met Gala and the birth of the Royal Baby Sussex.
Popular media had a choice, and some people criticised those choices. How could anyone possibly be more interested in a Royal Baby, or a Glamour Parade, than the Future of Life on Earth?
The fact is, some are. Human diversity includes diversity of values. ‘The Media’ includes a diversity of platforms, which cater to a diversity of audiences and interests.
While watching these conversations unfold, I kept thinking about ecosystem services. To me, the strawman “Yeah, but what about Nature..!” argument echoed a similarly misguided argument that persists around ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services is often misrepresented as simply an economic approach to ‘putting a price on nature’. Some conservationists think it’s all about a simplistic instrumental vs. intrinsic dichotomy (which is a false dichotomy anyway). This isn’t accurate, but the myth persists.
In reality, ecosystem services is a powerful concept and framing device for understanding how to value Nature – the ecosystems that keep us alive. This process of valuation has value itself, because it can help to protect nature. Valuation can provide managers and decision-makers with a practical tool to identify that the numerous long-term benefits gained by protecting and restoring biodiversity and ecosystems almost always outweigh the consequences of removing or degrading them.
Sure, economic values have had the most airtime in ecosystem services discussions, because they are relatively easy to quantify and can be directly compared across systems. But values are multiple and pluralistic: economic value is just one type of value among a catalogue of valuation systems that exist in human society. A single entity, like an ecosystem or species, has meaning across multiple different value systems.
Most of these different types of values can’t be directly compared or measured on the same scale. This makes it hard to identify which one is more ‘important’ than the other. Again, importance is a subjective concept based on value and context. There can be multiple ‘important things’ in a single system.
Notre Dame and Nature are incommensurable, especially in terms of intrinsic value. They exist on different scales in different systems. They are both important to human society, in different ways. How can you directly compare the cultural, historic, artistic, and aesthetic values of the Rose Windows with the ecological value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s simply not possible to say which of these is more ‘important’ or intrinsically ‘valuable’.
But if we consider their instrumental values to nature, we can quantify how much environmental harm the loss of a stained glass window is likely to cause (very low), compared with the loss of the world’s largest coral reef (very high). This is a justification for directing conservation effort, policy decisions, or governance change, but it’s not denying the intrinsic value of either.
Conservation should never be about Nature vs. The World. When it comes to addressing urgent global environmental problems, like climate change and land degradation, what we need is sustainable leadership and governance, not popularity. Everyone benefits from healthy, functioning ecosystems, regardless of whether they actively care for or engage with those systems.
We need better ways to discuss contradictory values. We need better ways to measure the consequences of trade-offs and synergies between different types of values, particularly non-economic ones. But most importantly, decisions, whether for conservation, land management, community well-being, or food production, need to be based on evidence, ethics and consequences for the greater public good, not on particular interests. This is where ecosystem services, the science of valuing nature, comes in.
© Manu Saunders 2019