The myth of “eco-systems services”

In: Uncategorized

12 Apr 2009

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs correspondent, tries to popularise the flawed notion of eco-systems services in a comment in this weekend’s newspaper. The globetrotting correspondent uses the example of Costa Rica to show that:

“As we debate a new energy future, we need to remember that nature provides this incredible range of economic services — from carbon-fixation to water filtration to natural beauty for tourism. If government policies don’t recognize those services and pay the people who sustain nature’s ability to provide them, things go haywire.”

There are at least two fundamental problems with this argument:

* Nature does not provide “services” in the way suggested. Without the application of human labour it does not provide anything. Even something as basic as water generally needs to be collected, stored and transported.

* It can lead to the perverse conclusion that an economy with a rapidly rising GDP can be experience slow economic growth because it is running down “natural capital”. Minimising the impact on nature, rather than maximising the benefit for humanity, become the goal of economic policy.

The myth of “eco-systems services” is discussed in more detail in James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky’s Energise (p457-462) (for review see 9 February 2009 post).

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