The debate and practice of valuing ecosystem services is hotting up. We are currently involved in initiatives such as the Valuing Nature Network where there are some interesting discussions on valuation as a concept. At the UK scale the UK National Ecosystem Assessment provides a snapshot of ecosystem health and the importance of natural systems for the human condition and our economy. Internationally the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (which kicked it all off in 2003) takes a global view and is a rich vein of information and ideas about the value of nature.
What do we mean by ecosystem services? In a nutshell, natural systems (ecosystems) have inherent structures and ecological functions (the process of life itself) and some of those functions can provide the basis of what we like to call final ecosystem services. Final services are the outputs from natural systems that can improve human welfare (e.g. fisheries, landscapes, cycling of nutrients and waste, carbon sequestration). From these final services humans can obtain benefits... food, health, security, inspiration, recreation, art, spirituality.... the list goes on. We like to classify these services as provisioning services (i.e. food), regulatory services (ie. carbon sequestration) or cultural services ( sense of place, aesthetics, education, spirituality). In order to understand their importance, we are now looking into different means of measuring ecosystem services, that is, understanding their value.
Let me start by saying that I think the valuation of ecosystem services is a good thing. It is an additional means of understanding how the natural world links to the social world. Quantifiable and monetary measures may be useful in determining trade offs or providing payments to communities for ecosystem services. For example, the ability of forests to absorb and lock in carbon, is worth a financial value to communities who conserve their local habitats. I'm looking forward to more action on blue carbon and communities being funded to conserve local wetlands, seagrass, and saltmarsh for carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Quantifying regulatory or provisioning services is a good step forward - and makes sense.
That said, I think we have to be very careful about what we are doing in regard to the suite of cultural services from ecosystems. Quantification and applying monetary values does not apply to everything particularly those to do with deeper appreciation of the coastal environment. In fact, I believe it may be quite harmful to do so. In the literature Ive seen aesthetic values of the coast measured by house prices, individuals expressing a 'willingness to pay' for a local wetland, or asking people to rank and weight their spiritual or sense of place values against other uses of the coast. Let me give some context to why I feel this is important. I was raised on the coast in Australia. On one particular beach I grew up walking, swimming, surfing, and camping. I took girls for walks, I walked alone when I'd been hurt. I sat there with mates and talked about the world. I sat there a few weeks ago with my Dad when I went home to visit and talked. We forced our local council to clean the beach up and install proper sewage treatment infrastructure. This strip of sand and sea is a cultural reference point. Its the backdrop to where I grew up and for when I go home. The salt is in my blood. Can I give you a willingness to pay for it? (infinite / immeasurable?). Can I provide a weighting against other values? No way. It's unquantifiable.
I often hear the phrase (or excuse) 'if you don't measure it you don't value it'. Well... I don't buy it. I think that is an excuse for simplification and unnecessary reductionism. It also makes a lot of people nervous. For some of the 'deeper' cultural values we need to get smarter and more sophisticated in our valuation methods. It not about throwing $ or £ at a service. Policy rarely is just made or applied on cost/benefit arguments. It is, about qualitatively understanding peoples relationship to the sea - deep and rich and complex, and feeding it into the (political) debate on valuation. We could for example look at proxy qualitative measures...one idea would be to examine local political engagement and media coverage about coastal environmental issues as a proxy for community value. I'm not against valuation, and I think its beneficial. But when it comes to cultural services.... lets not oversimplify for the sake of scientific or political expediency.