Reviewed by Mattijs van Maasakkers, Harvard University
Managing ecosystems services can reduce poverty.
Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, edited by Hali Healey, Joan Martinez, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter and Julien-Francois Gerber, Routledge, 2012
Nature’s Wealth: The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Poverty, edited by Pieter van Beukering, Elissaios Papyrakis, Jetske Bouma and Roy Brouwer, Cambridge University Press, 2013
The popularity of the “ecosystem services” concept continues to grow. Recently, two new edited volumes were added to the seemingly ever-expanding library of books describing the benefits that nature provides to people. Both publications follow the same general structure: offering a broad introduction to the idea of ecosystem services, followed by a series of in-depth case studies from all over the world. Perhaps surprisingly, this is where the similarities end.
The examples in Nature’s Wealth: The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Poverty are organized around concerns like biodiversity, marine and coastal ecosystems, and forests. The central hypothesis of the book is that the protection or restoration of ecosystem services is likely to alleviate poverty. Most of the case studies in Nature’s Wealth indicate that environmental protection, like the creation of Marine Protected Areas, can reduce poverty in a variety of ways. This kind of analysis, it turns out, doesn’t really need to dig into the ecosystem services concept at all. In fact, in the chapter on marine protected areas in the Asia-Pacific, ecosystem services are hardly mentioned. This is troublesome. An increasingly pressing question is whether using the concept of ecosystem services is helping to inform better resource management practices or not.
As Antunes et al. write in their introduction to Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, “The value commitment to work for a sustainable society has always been a distinctive feature of ecological economics as a scientific discipline” (p. 2). Or, to put it differently, the goals of the proponents of the ecosystem services concept have never been purely academic. So, while an ever-increasing number of publications using the ecosystem services concept indicates popularity among scholars and researchers, some of the original proponents have expressed concern that the practical goals associated with the concept have yet to be achieved. It has been more than five years since a group of prominent scholars argued that it was “time to deliver” (Daily et al. 2008). Since then, one of the early proponents of the concept has lamented that ecosystem services has gone from being “an eye-opening metaphor to a complexity blinder” (Norgaard 2010).
The book Ecological Economics from the Ground Up represents an original, useful and accessible examination of how the explicit use of the ecosystem services concept can inform environmental decision making in practice. For example, the introduction includes an extensive table of environmental advocacy organizations showing how they use ecosystem services concepts and methods. The remainder of the volume places the goal of working towards sustainability at it center. The writers of many of the cases are environmental activists directly involved in the conflicts they describe. This approach does not always yield the most even-handed accounts, but it does provide a detailed sense of how specific ecosystem service-based concepts and methods have been used to influence decisions. More disinterested (but certainly not uninteresting) explanations of key concepts and methods appear in text boxes throughout what are often deeply controversial cases. In the most successful chapters, this provides a rich account of how concepts and approaches drawing on the ecosystem services idea can influence environmental decision making in practice.
In summary, both of these books contribute to the environmental literature. Nature’s Wealth seeks to empirically test the hypothesis that environmental protection alleviates poverty under a variety of conditions and in different ecosystems. Since this assumption has come to be almost taken for granted in some quarters, this is a meaningful scholarly endeavor. However, this project is in some ways only tangentially related to the concept of ecosystem services. Ecological Economics from the Ground Up, on the other hand, is less scholarly and limited in its ambition to test specific hypotheses. It is a truly exciting and innovative contribution to the literature on ecosystem services.