Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders: our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world. One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems. A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers. There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees. Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish. By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.
Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn. The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees. The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees. You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.
The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species. This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct). All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind. The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.
What? Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book? Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions. Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops? What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up? What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated? Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish. Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.
In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations. The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid. The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate. But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?