Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Green Accounting

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Green Accounting

Article excerpt

In "Putting a Price on Ecosystem Services" (Issues, Summer 2016), R. David Simpson provides a thoughtful assessment of the concerns raised by the valuation of ecosystem services. I, like Simpson, have been working in this area for close to two decades. I have marveled at the ascent of ecosystem services from obscure terms in the mid-1990s to near ubiquity today, while expressing concern that the concept's mainstreaming risks meaning all things to all people.

Simpson's core concern is that "The assertion that ecosystem services are undervalued is repeated so often, and so often uncritically, as to seem almost a mantra." He points out, rightly, that few studies have credibly provided economic valuations of service provision in the field, and that in many cases service provision may not actually be worth very much. He is certainly correct that location matters. At the same time, if service provision is simply ignored in land use decisions, as is often the case, then their value becomes zero. That is almost certainly incorrect. I would suggest though, that focusing on the inadequacies of service valuation risks missing two larger points.

First, although economic valuation and big numbers may prove rhetorically important in persuading policymakers that they should pay attention to the provision (or loss) of services, calculating their dollar value can often be irrelevant to policy decisions where the key concern is relative cost. In the celebrated story about New York City's drinking water, for example, officials had to choose between ensuring water quality through a built treatment plant or land use investments in the Catskills watershed. Investing in the Catskills proved much less expensive. In this case and others, the absolute value of the ecosystem service doesn't matter. …

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