Valuing ecosystem services in a time of austerity and rampant disinformation

It helps to think of value as a verb rather than a bright shiny object, because ecosystem services only have value if people actually value them.  From this perspective, valuation is a process of learning and reconsidering one's values in light of new information and lessons learned from previous experience, in the context of multiple and often conflicting rights and objectives.

Once upon a time, I believed that this process of overhauling values to include ecosystem services would occur in the face of threats and that stakeholders might recognize a mutual interest in resolving conflicts. I also used to expect more regular weather cycles and a full counting of votes in US elections. What I had not factored into the equation was rampant denial, reinforced by scientific disinformation (think "climate wars"), nor the escalation of congressional budget battles. In this new context of austerity, the case for spending on ecosystem services can sound almost quaint when faced with cuts for basics like weather satellites and foundational research demystifying ecological threats. 

In spite of the explosion of information about ecosystem services, many people outside the bubble of conservation practitioners are still not even familiar with the term. And the climate wars have taught us it’s not enough to present the facts as they are unlikely to persuade anyone not already persuaded. Although markets provide a familiar frame of reference for ecosystem services, and in many cases may even be the most cost effective way to protect them, it has also led to obscure technical discussions about quantifying them, that has left behind the familiar discussions on rights and stewardship, and what is at stake.

The implication? It’s time to consider what we have learned from all of this, and ask how we might broaden the frame of reference. How can we manage knowledge so as to better communicate about trade-offs and enable stakeholder learning in this rapidly shifting context?

Can you point to good examples of stakeholder learning processes in the context of ecosystem services initiatives?

Author bio: 
Sylvia S. Tognetti is an independent environmental science and policy consultant specializing in the analysis of payments for ecosystem services associated with watersheds and land use carbon sequestration projects, and also on knowledge management activities. For selected projects she has also developed and implemented communications and outreach strategies. She recently also became an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia, where she teaches a course in World Regional Geography. You can read Sylvia’s blog at (More info:


Linwood Pendleton

Thanks for this important

Thanks for this important SoapBox Sylvia!

Instead of broadening the frame of reference, I think there is a need to be more strategic about how we bring people (those outside of the conservation bubble) along in thinking about ecosystem services.  Much of the work to date on ecosystem service values has come from advocates of particular types of species, habitats, or even ecological functions.  As a result, the discussion is often too narrow or esoteric for the average stakeholder (whether she be a pedestrian, landowner, or a member of Congress).  Sometimes, the service in value is so obscure or difficult to understand that the proponent has to resort to heroic efforts to get an estimate of value that will get people's attention (e.g. extrapolation over a huge population or a heavy reliance on estimates of existence value).

Another approach is to start with the more tangible ecosystem service values, gain acceptance in measurement and use in decisionmaking, and then broaden the conversation from there.  With that in mind, I now almost always start the conversation with a discussion of ecosystem or environment-dependent economies.  Even the most ardent climate change deniers I've worked with in the rural US see the clear link between ecosystem condition and their local economies (tourism, swimming, hunting, fishing, shoreline protection, timber).

While Total Economic Value and a fully integrated Ecosystem Based Approach to managing ecosystem services is important conceptually, its a disaster to try to force all of this on those who are just beginning to get their heads around the role of ecosystems in our economies and in our economic wellbeing.

Best wishes,




Peter Donovan

Sylvia, I appreciate the post

Sylvia, I appreciate the post too. You have described what I regard as a tip of an iceberg.

Much of the marketing ecosystem services conversation and policy has been maneuvered into the offset space, of managing AGAINST what we do not want, such as fossil fuel emissions or destruction of wetlands. Seeking markets with both buyers and sellers, this is completely foreseeable.

I encounter various layers of huge dissatisfaction with the approach of managing AGAINST problems, from energy to water issues to food security to climate. This general orientation is common in individuals, organizations, and governments, and seems to lead to turf battles, backlash of all kinds, hierarchy, and leaving things in general to "experts." Most of us are deeply grooved into this orientation, and incentive systems of all kinds reinforce it daily.

The Soil Carbon Coalition is trying to take a different approach. We think we need to manage FOR increased soil organic matter, which we believe is the mother of most ecosystem services. Managing AGAINST fossil fuel emissions for example seems to lead to all the issues mentioned above, as well as seeming to lack significant near-term leverage on the overall carbon cycle.

We're not waiting for offset programs, which are yet another manifestation of managing AGAINST what we do not want. Instead we are working with people  who have the freedom, commitment, and interest to manage their land for increasing soil organic matter -- mainly graziers so far. Most of these recognize the eonomic benefits to their own operation of increasing soil organic matter. Albrecht recognized this in the 1930s and recently NRCS has come around too.

Our Soil Carbon Challenge is based on careful, repeatable measurements, but it is not research in the traditional reductionist sense. We are wanting to bring out positive deviance, show what's possible, and move from "expert answers" to a higher quality of ignorance about the carbon cycle (in Stuart Firestein's sense of the word ignorance). It's fundamentally about reorienting imagination and belief. And my experience so far is that it is becoming a "stakeholder learning process," because it is centered on stakeholders, rather than on some kind of program priorities or offsets. We also do workshops.

For more on our approach and work so far, see

By the way, the incentives long employed by USDA and the Farm Bills may appear to be effective methods, but overall they turn farmers into rule-following, game-playing donkeys, responding to carrot and stick, stifling their own creativity and stewardship, and currently we are suffering the enormous negative consequences of these incentives, such as massive quantities of water-holding soil organic matter turned into atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Peter Donovan,