What's a sunset on a still lake worth? Or a sip from a spring on a summer bike ride? What inspires novels, poems, and essays about water? These questions raise the idea of the value, in terms that might relate directly to many people's experience. Other kinds of value are not as readily as perceived. For example, there is value in a clean river, or in ground water that is available for plant uptake and evapotranspiration. There is value in the cooling and heating properties of lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and there is value in the existence of healthy fish communities that may provide both protein and recreational pleasure.
Collectively, ecologists and others have begun to refer to these different kinds of values as ecosystem services. The concept gained attention during the 1990s as scientists began to realize that natural ecosystems were being damaged and destroyed by humans at unprecedented rates, due to human population growth and the resulting increased exploitation of natural resources. Further, there was concern that this environmental damage might not only be irreparable in many cases, but might also fundamentally alter global cycles, such as the hydrological cycle or the global climate. Scientists feared that many ecosystem properties would be altered or lost before understanding their importance, for example, biodiversity in many systems. Ecologists coined the term 'ecosystem services' as a way of conveying the idea that ecological systems provide services, in addition to goods, that underpin human well-being. These goods and services provide value to humanity in both direct and indirect ways.
No one knows precisely how long humans have held formalized concepts of value, but the philosophical roots go back at least several thousand years. The Greek philosopher Aristotle struggled with the value of using things, versus the value of exchanging things, and how there could be parity between them. An often-cited example of the difference between use and exchange value is the ''diamonds and water paradox.'' Water, which is essential for life, has been extremely cheap, historically; on the other hand, diamonds, which are exchangeable luxury items, are extremely expensive. The history of economic thought embodies the search for measures of value, wealth, and exchange. This chapter will not go into this history, but references are included in Further Reading.
Essentially, value is the difference that something makes to someone; it may be tangible and apparent, like a durable good, or it may be something that people overlook in their day-to-day activities. The value of many ecosystem services falls into the latter category. It is also true that value is subjective and contextual. The value of some ecosystem services in a generally deteriorating environment may be higher than in a 'pristine' world.
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