Sense and sensibility: the importance of utilitarianism in nature conservation

The term “ecosystem services” sits uneasily with George Monbiot. The popular environmentalist, in a recent Guardian article1 entitled Putting a price on rivers and rain diminishes us all, writes:

Gunnerside village Swaledale Yorkshire Dales

“No longer will we be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight; we’ll be told that its intrinsic value has already been calculated and, doubtless, that it turns out to be worth less than the other uses to which the land could be put”.

In other words, if we conceptualize nature only in terms of its benefit to us, we do two things. We protect nature less effectively (a), and we impede the development of a flourishing conservation ethic where nature is protected for its own sake (b).

But this argument fails for a number of reasons. Firstly, protecting nature by relying solely on a strong conservation ethic is beset by conceptual and practical problems. Georgina Mace, a conservationist herself, articulates this in a recent paper2. She points out that traditional “intrinsic” reasons for conservation are flawed because they have nothing to do with the species being protected and everything to do with cultural, human preferences. For instance, policies were long guided by the idea that nature is a wilderness. In the name of this idea, ecological mistakes were made (e.g. longstanding removal of wolves from Yellowstone National Park) and human mistakes as well (e.g. removal of the Maasai from the Serengeti). Even with a better concept such as “biodiversity”, charismatic or emblematic species tend to receive more conservation attention. According to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, we have little data about functional species (e.g. microorganisms) compared to culturally prized species.

Another tenuous argument in favour of conservation ethics is that ecosystem services misunderstand ecological science. In Monbiot’s words, “the functions of the natural world cannot be safely disaggregated”. However, relying on a holistic answer to address the question “how does biodiversity affect human wellbeing?” is not satisfactory. Especially considering how urgent the problem is, we cannot simply say that we depend on all of nature, therefore let us protect it all. It is only an ecosystem services approach that allows us to ask quantitatively how reliant we are on biodiversity, and how to prioritize effectively.

The holistic argument also limits conservation to what it is often detrimentally portrayed as – tree hugging. It is hardly realistic to presume that a majority of people will be moved by a moralizing approach such as Monbiot’s, particularly given how polarizing a figure he is himself. Ecosystem services, by focusing on utility too, have much more immediate appeal to the non-conservationist and policy-makers alike. Money is a strong incentive where conservation ethics are scant (e.g. agricultural sector), and in such cases the utilitarian argument is a strong one.

We should therefore think of nature conservation fitting into a broader ecosystem services agenda. On the one hand, biodiversity can be a good, and this involves traditional conservation based on whatever values we think are desirable (evolutionary distinctiveness, existence, charisma, etc.). But biodiversity can also be utilitarian, i.e. it can be an ecosystem service itself or a regulator of ecosystem processes. For example, we might maintain biodiversity because species have properties useful for developing medicines. Or we might simply maintain a patch of forest because it provides more clean air.

Yet a problem remains. While ecosystem services often support traditional conservation arguments, this is not always the case. The goals of biodiversity as a good (traditional conservation) and biodiversity as useful to humans may conflict. For instance, higher plant diversity does not tend to increase crop yields – it diminishes them (see picture). What is to be done: enhance plant diversity or enhance plant yield? Mace concedes this is a problem: “it would be naïve to think that these additional arguments will apply in all cases”. Monbiot embellishes: “If a quarry company wants to destroy a rare meadow (…) it can buy absolution by paying someone to create another somewhere else”.


This a real challenge, but it would be foolish to discard ecosystem services altogether because of this, as Monbiot suggests. On the whole, ecosystem services are likely to be beneficial rather than threatening. Empirical evidence supports this hunch. The EU Agri-Environmental Scheme, for example, compensates farmers for undertaking less intensive agriculture in order to protect pollinators (long known to be crucial to crop success). A recent study4 showed this kind of scheme to be beneficial to pollinators in the UK. Models of land use5 also show that strategies that aim to enhance ecosystem service provision also enhance biodiversity. Nevertheless, in cases where there is conflict, informed cultural communicators of conservation (such as Monbiot himself) will be necessary to prevent utilitarian excesses.

As our bent for charismatic species shows, cultural preferences (“wonder and delight”) still play a dominant role in conservation. Hence, for now at least, the adoption of ecosystem services must be considered a necessary and pragmatic response to the real problem of nature overexploitation, and a step towards better nature management. It benefits humans because it quantifies how reliant we are on nature. It benefits nature too, by promoting ecological research and providing more explicit, understandable and implementable policies towards stemming biodiversity decline. If used wisely and with cultural sensitivity, putting a price on rivers and rain should enhance us all.

1. George Monbiot, Putting a price on rivers and rain diminishes us all, The Guardian, 6th August 2012.

2. Mace, G., Norris, K. & Fitter, A.H. (2012) Biodiversity and ecosystem services, a multilayered relationship. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 27, 19-26.

3. Cardinale, B.J. et al. (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486, 59-67.

4.Carvell, C. et al. (2011) Bumble bee species’ responses to a targeted conservation measure depend on landscape context and habitat quality. Ecological Applications, 21, 1760-1771.

5. Nelson, E. et al. (2009) Modeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7, 4-11.


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