As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love/hate relationship with the idea of valuing ecosystem services. I recognize that it’s important to quantify the benefits we gain from bats who eat insects, or marshes that filter contaminated water, and that the most effective, attention-grabbing way of quantifying these benefits - at least for now - is to assign a dollar value to them.
But I also recognize that once a dollar value has been assigned, it tends to crowd other types of value out of the picture. And I’m not even talking, as the objectivists have forbidden me to do, about intrinsic value; I’m talking about the difficulty of putting a dollar value on the quality of life, or on survival itself.
An article on apiculture in WorldChanging raises my hackles to the limited extent that it promotes this giddy, reductionist approach to the natural world. I’m not naïve enough to believe there’s such a thing as “wilderness” anymore. But I’m also not naïve enough to believe that “entrepreneurial thrill and DIY satisfaction” are a plausible solution to the loss of biodiversity.
Sarah Rich and David Zaks note that the population of bees has plummeted, and that this spells trouble for farmers who rely on “pollination services”:
From a strictly financial perspective, pollination is an invaluable service, provided by bees at no cost. But the cost we'd incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.That’s a fairly wide range, which goes to show you that valuing ecosystem services is a very inexact science. Still, as I’ve said before, it’s better to argue over the amount of value provided than to pretend it doesn’t exist.
They mention the “entrepreneurial opportunities" offered by declining bee populations, but concede that hand pollination, at least, really isn’t a viable business niche. And they briefly discuss other natural pollinators, while noting that many of them, too, are in decline. Without faulting the authors’ concern, or grasp of the big picture, the problem with ecosystem services is precisely that it encourages people to think about "services" in the everyday sense: service providers compete for our business, and if we can’t get what we want from one, we’ll simply go to another. As long as we wear shoes, or eat bread, someone will seek to profit by making shoes or running a bakery. World without end, amen.
But "nature" doesn’t care whether we need our crops pollinated; it has no incentive to give us what we need to survive.
Another problem with ecosystem services is that once we’ve identified a “provider,” we tend to assume that a state of symbiosis will be maintained. Because it’s in our best interest to have pollination services, we’ll look after our pollinators, and they’ll thrive accordingly. Unfortunately, species that don’t enter into this “contract” may then be undervalued, as a professor quoted in the WorldChanging article explains:
To some extent, historically, there have been feral bees, wild bees that people haven’t domesticated that contribute pollination services. But when verola mites were introduced, feral populations all over the country crashed; nobody was there to protect them. And as a consequence, nobody has been there monitoring them, we have no idea what the feral bee population is in this country, whether there are bees that can fill in for the missing bees is just an open question.In the end, though, my quarrel with the article really comes down to this claim:
Bees are a fantastic example of taking an ecosystem service and through skillful management, turning it into a commodity. As the delivery of this service is put in jeopardy, it is essential that we look for ways to maintain our pollination needs.Perhaps “fantastic” is intended as a mischievous reference to chapter one of Das Kapital. And perhaps “skillful management” is intended as irony of an especially dour sort. But I don’t think so.
I don't see anything “world changing” about reducing ecosystem ecology, however tentatively or temporarily, to a branch of microeconomics; commodification of our environment is what got us into a good deal of the mess we’re in. And while it may indeed be “essential” for us to “maintain our pollination needs," what’s essential remains constrained by what’s possible. And what’s possible decreases with the loss of biodiversity.
I should add that having read other articles by Rich and Zaks, I believe they understand these issues as well as I do, if not better. I'm not questioning their knowledge or intentions, so much as their choice of language.
(Illustration by Edward Julius Detmold, circa 1911.)