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Ecosystem Services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder

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In this paper, the author makes three critical points. First, while the stock- flow framework underlying the concept of ecosystem services conceptually links ecological and economic systems, this framework only utilizes one of the many ways ecologists understand ecosystems, leaving out many of the other frameworks.

Second, the theoretical literature on ecosystem services, their valuation, and payments for ecosystem services have been framed within a partial equilibrium framework that assumes “other things are equal” (ceteris paribus). Similarly, the implementation of the concept of ecosystem services has been on a project-by-project basis within existing national and global institutional structures. Yet the driving motivation, from the initial use of the ecosystem metaphor to the implementation of PES projects, has been to instigate significant institutional and consequent economic change in response to what are perceived to be very serious environmental problems generated by the economy we have. Using a general equilibrium framework, the author shows that the more significant one thinks our environmental problems are, the more inappropriate has been the partial equilibrium and project-by- project approach for utilizing the concept of ecosystem services.

Third, the author explains why we need new global institutions and more resources devoted to environmental governance. The flurry of enthusiasm for optimizing the economy by including ecosystem services has blinded us to the more important question of how we are going to make the substantial institutional changes to significantly reduce human pressure on ecosystems, especially by the rich, and to adapt to and work effectively with the rapid ecosystem changes being driven by existing and foreseeable climate dynamics.

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