Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ecosystem Services

As our readers know, we've lately railed against the tendency of environmental groups to compromise, forsaking land and critters in unbalanced bargains and unsustainable strategies. There's plenty of examples here and here and here.

But here's something else we've been thinking about. We think it's a compromise to talk about the environment in economic terms. Ever since Costanza established a going rate for our planet's production of what we need to comfortably live, we've been watching environmental groups fall in line, discussing the value of intact ecosystems in terms of dollars and cents. Whether it's discussing the value of protecting imperiled species because they might someday have medical applications or protecting wetlands for flood control, it's putting a dollar sign on something we have no right to monetize.

Ah, if only we had a land ethic!
One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbird are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century song birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to b valid.

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.
Let's continue to draw nearer to a land ethic, and not keep reinforcing the economic servitude of the natural world. Let's not speak of ecosystem services. Let's just speak of ecosystems, and let them be invaluable.