An introduction to ecosystem services

The neo-liberal market model of economics is in very simple terms an attempt to create an economy that is guided and directed by price signals rather than government policies, rules and interventions. Some economists liken price signals to traffic lights, the effective timing of which maintains flows of traffic and helps to avoid congestion. When traffic lights are not working properly we end up with traffic jams and vehicle accidents. The same holds in economic terms.

Monetary price signals play a vital role in the efficient allocation and distribution of economic goods and services. Unfortunately, ‘economic efficiency’ is not the only economic goal that is important to society. Other goals exist (e.g. social fairness, ecological sustainabilioty and cultural survival) that also require effective price signals (according to economic theory). Creating effective (monetary) price signals that assist in guiding markets towards socially fair, ecologically sustainable and culturally resilient outcomes has proved to be a very difficult problem to solve. Unfortunately, while western scientists (cf. economists) search for answers to this pricing problem, economic markets (globally) are attempting to function in an absence of adequate price signals. Without these economic traffic lights, the global economy continues to spiral downward in an increasingly socially unfair, ecologically unsustainable and culturally destructive manner.

In the early 1990s the idea of ‘ecosystem services’ emerged in an attempt to (i) create a common language between economics and ecology that would (ii) make possible to the creation of an ecosystem pricing system through with the aid of both market and non-market valuation research. At the time, the ecosystem services approach was hailed as an important breakthrough. Ecological economists here in New Zealand used this approach to (i) economically justify the creation of New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy and (ii) to drawn greater awareness to the failure of our system of national accounting (SNAs) to appropriately price and account for the annual ecosystem services contribution to our national and regional GDP calculations. However, it is now increasingly clear that ecosystem services research and valuation is not the ‘easy solution’ that we were hoping for. Over the last 2 and half decades it has become increasingly clear that ecosystem services valuation methodology – in particular – is fraught with both theoretical and methodological problems.

As part of our Korero Māori report series we are about to release a series of reports that explore explore ecosystem services thinking, method and relevance to Māori communities who are seeking reclaim, reframe and restate the mana and mauri of the Māori economy.

This Korero Māori Report 2 outlines the findings of an ecosystem services valuation project for the Nelson Bays in New Zealand. In undertaking this ecosystem services valuation project, an attempt was also made to understand, document and where possible, remedy the theoretical and methodological problems associated with rapid ecosystem services (valuation) assessment (RESA). As such, this report provides an important insight into the underpinning assumptions and real-world limitations of an ecosystem services valuation approach.

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