I've written before on attempts to place a dollar value on ecosystem services, a trend I feel is necessary in theory, but increasingly troubling in practice.
In Texas, researchers are currently attempting to calculate the value to farmers of the Mexican free-tailed bat, based on the number of destructive insect pests the bats eat.
Up until now...estimates assigning a dollar value to Mexican free-tailed bats have been roundabout guesses, based on rudimentary counts of the bats' population, research into their diet and analysis of the quantity of pests in fields. The current study would be the first to quantify it....A local agronomist said that in Frio County alone the bats save farmers $2.5 million in pesticide.What continues to bother me about market-based ecosystem valuation - apart from the fact that it assumes markets are rational, instead of seeing them as a ritualized, socially sanctioned form of hysteria - is that it commodifies things like free-tailed bats. If these bats do indeed save farmers $2.5 million, it's very likely that farmers will support bat conservation. However, it's also likely that they'll see bats as their property, in some obscure but vehement sense, and will view future developments from that standpoint. In other words, in a conflict between what benefits bats as self-directed entities, and what benefits farmers as "consumers" of bat-provided services, decisions are likely to be based on the onerous economics of pesticide application.
Can super-bats be genetically engineered, or made to eat different sorts of pests? Might we see Mexican free-tailed bat populations fall victim to downsizing and right-sizing, as more effective predators are bred or introduced? The problem with valuing ecosystem services is that it runs the risk of reifying a haphazard economic arrangement into a law of nature. Further, it has a normative tendency that can lead to pseudo-objective distinctions being made between "useful" and "non-useful" bats...those who pull their weight, and those who don't. The notion of life as an end in itself remains disturbingly alien to homo economicus.