Toward a Protected Role Within the Global Economy

Ecotourism has long been one of the most potent forces favoring conservation and will continue to be so. Ecotourists are consumers of services that nature provides (beauty, adventure, life lists, etc.), and they obligingly pay for these services in many ways (paying for park entry fees, rooms at hotels, vehicle repairs at the local mechanic, etc.).

But ecotourism is exceptional in these respects. The biosphere provides a steady stream of other direct and indirect benefits to humanity for which nobody pays. The last decade has seen ''ecosystem services'' transformed from an abstract academic concept (Ehrlich and Mooney, 1983) into an applied research program and a powerful policy tool (Daily, 1997; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005a). These services include, but are not limited to, providing raw materials, natural water filtration, carbon sequestration and storage in forests, flood and erosion mitigation by plant communities, and pollination of crops by wild animals (Daily, 1997). Ecosystems, in addition to being reservoirs of biological diversity and an integral part of our planetary and cultural heritage, are capital assets.

The global economy does not in any serious way account for the value of ecosystem services. The perversity of this situation is obvious. The costs, both in the traditional economic sense and in terms of human health and well-being, of losing these services would be immense: many economic institutions would either collapse outright or require technological surrogates vastly more expensive than simply conserving the relevant ecosystems. The archetypal example of an ecosystem service in action is the conservation of the Catskill watershed, which has (thus far) spared the city of New York the $8 billion cost of building a water-filtration plant. Elsewhere, there are indications that mangroves and other coastal vegetation might have protected some coastal villages from the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004 (Danielsen et al., 2005). Recent population crashes of honey bees (Apis mellifera) have threatened an approximately $15 billion crop-pollinating industry in the United States, highlighting the importance of conserving diverse native-bee communities (Kremen et al., 2002; Winfree et al., 2007). These case studies are small components of a total-biosphere value that is, effectively, infinite (Dasgupta et al., 2000).

The idea that economic growth is independent of environmental health, and that humanity can therefore indefinitely expand its physical economy, is a dangerous delusion. The problem is that although we know that individual ecosystem services are valuable, we rarely know precisely how valuable. And although quantitatively estimating the dollar value of individual services can be an eye-opening exercise, the effort required makes doing so prohibitive for every ecosystem (to say nothing of the futility of trying to add up to infinity). The challenges, then, are to provoke society to acknowledge ecosystem-service values (even though approximate or only qualitative) and to maintain service provision by protecting service sources.

340 / Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert M. Pringle

In addition to the individual efforts of a growing number of academics and practitioners, innovative programs are emerging to tackle these twin challenges at large scales. The Natural Capital Project is an international collaboration involving Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund that aims to integrate ecosystem-service values into land-use and policy decisions (Aldhous and Holmes, 2007). By developing new decision-support tools—including software to quantify and map the value of ecosystem services across landscapes and seascapes— and applying them in several demonstration sites across the world, the project hopes to promote more forward-thinking land-use decisions.

In some cases, protecting ecosystem services (or even engineering them) may not enhance biodiversity conservation (Chan et al., 2006; Turner et al., 2007), but it may be useful for other anthropocentric reasons. We should be frank about that when pondering how to justify and finance our operations. We should also think about how increased valuation of ecosystem services might spill over into other sectors of the economy: If we rely on an ecosystem to do a job, are we putting a human being out of work, and might that person retaliate against the service-providing ecosystem?

Finally, we must recognize that, for whatever reason, demand for particular ecosystem services will wax and wane, but that the sources of the services must not be allowed to wax and wane in sync. As proponents and critics of market-based conservation approaches both point out, complete commodification of ecosystems is not the goal. Yes, ecosystem services have enormous value in traditional economic terms for their role in sustaining and enriching human life, and efforts to ascertain these values are important. No, ecosystems and their biodiversity cannot compete on the open market as service providers alone (Chan et al., 2007). To subject ecosystems to all of the same demands and risks that commodities and corporations face in capitalist economies would be to ensure their eventual diminution and demise.

Globalization intensifies this hazard. In a globalized, demodularized world, goods and services can often be imported and outsourced more cheaply than they can be obtained locally—and this includes goods and services provided by ecosystems. ''Endemic'' ecosystem services, which cannot be supplanted by goods and services from distant sources, will likely be the most effective allies to biodiversity in the future.

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