Sixty years ago Aldo Leopold posed what was then a rhetorical question: “Do economists know about lupines?” Today, to the surprise and delight of conservationists past and present, the answer is, increasingly, “Yes.”
Whether we live in the city, country, or somewhere in between, we are familiar with the many goods and services that ecosystems provide us. These ecosystem services, however, have traditionally been seen as externalities that lie outside the realm or consideration of financial markets, which has left them undervalued if not completely ignored. That’s beginning to change at an emerging intersection of conservation and economics.
While conservationists have historically taken an interest in protecting ecosystems for their own sake, one of the most persuasive arguments for maintaining the integrity of ecosystems is that they provide essential services. Even if we’ve rarely captured them in our accounting, the value of these resources is hardly inconsequential.
Imagine for a moment: would human society be able to sustain itself without the supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services we draw from the natural world? Could we hope to engineer man-made systems that replicate natural processes like air and water purification, crop pollination, aquifer recharge, fisheries, climate and flood regulation, erosion control, seed dispersal, carbon storage, and soil fertilization and renewal?
Economists and conservationists are now working together to build models that document, estimate, and assess how changes in natural ecosystem services affect not only environmental condition of our environment, but also our ability to continue to obtain these goods and services now and into the future. Placing an economic value on these services can help reveal the connections between actions taken by people (whether individually and collectively) and the impact of our actions on those things upon which we fundamentally depend.
- Ecological Society of America, Ecosystem Services Fact Sheet
- Defenders of Wildlife - Conservation Economics Program
- The World Resources Institute, Valuing ecosystem services
- The Rand Corporation, Nature’s Services
- The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Ecosystem Services Research Program
- Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont
- Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison, “The New Economy of Nature,” Orion Magazine, Spring 2002.
- D.J. McCauley, “Selling out on nature,” Nature (2006): 443:27-28.
- R.B. Norgaard, “Finding hope in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” Conservation Biology (2008): 22:862-869.
Reed Noss contributed to writing of this overview.
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