‘Ecosystem services’
 and the role of the market:
 a concerned view

Notes from an invited talk given as part of a Public Dialogue on the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment, held at the Royal Society London in 2014.


There are a range of different ways of representing the relatively new term and concept of ‘ecosystem services’. Here’s one:

ES repn adj

As you can see, in this image ‘cultural services’ are placed at the centre – as simply one element inside the grid of Ecosystem Services identified by the global Milliennium Ecosystem Assessment that concluded in 2005 which forms the foundation of the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment of 2014.

I work as an environmental anthropologist. Put simply, I study the ways in which cultural norms and values shape relationships between people and nature.

From this perspective, terms and categories such as ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’ are particular cultural ways of thinking about nature that have arisen in a specific historical and economic context. In this sense, the idea of nature as an ‘ecosystem service-provider’ is set within a very specific cultural way of thinking about the natural world, as illustrated in the image below.

ES and culture adj


What then is relevant for me is to study the effects these concepts are having in the world in terms of,

  • how we understand our relationships with and moral obligations to nature;
  • as well as considering who stands to gain or to lose from the application of particular ways of framing nature.

Indeed, many other ways of understanding what nature is and how, therefore, we might conduct our relationships with its interconnected constituents, exist in the world and have existed historically.

For example, I have worked since 1992 with people of a culture that is indigenous to the dry lands of northwest Namibia. In the image below they are offering gifts and words of praise to the ancestor spirits associated with places in the landscape. They are humbly asking for safe passage through the landscape, as well as for success in finding the foods and medicines they were seeking on this day.


Giribes composite for booklet copy
Enacting tsē-khom at |Giribes
In May 1995, Nathan ≠Ûina Taurob (R), Christophine Daumû Tauros (centre) and Michael |Amigu Ganaseb (L) took myself and my Namibian research collaborator Welhemina Suro Ganuses to gather grass seeds from harvester ants nests in the plains known as |Giribes, north-west of the village of Sesfontein. On arrival at |Giribes (|girib = jackal), they enacted the practice of tsē-khom. In this practice, known ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead are respectfully greeted and given gifts. They are requested to take care of the people as they move through and seek sustenance from these potent landscapes.

In the image above, ≠Ûina, Daumû and |Amigu enact tsē-khom as they look across the |Giribes plains towards their home area of Purros in north-west Namibia.
Photo: Sian Sullivan, May 1995 (for original image see here), composite made with Mike Hannis using four 10 x 10 km 2008 aerial photographs from the Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek, July 2017, as part of a series of images for the exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia


To take another example, if we go back into the history of Western European thought, we might stumble across the Pythagoreans – a community of mathematical and mystical thinkers who lived several centuries BC. The Pythagoreans were very occupied with finding relationships between numbers and nature. But their emphasis was less on counting things and on quantities, than on finding numbers that expressed the quality and essence of the dynamic forms found in nature, such as those describing the logarithmic spiral, variations of which are found everywhere in nature. What drove the Pythagoreans was a desire to live attuned with what they perceived as the cosmic order, beauty and harmony of the universe.

Pythagoreans adj
Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869


spirals adj


In both these cases, cultural valuings of nature and of the conditions supportive of life, have encouraged a set of ethical practices built on some key characteristics. These include: moderation in consumption; relatively egalitarian social and economic relations; and rich symbolic and poetic celebrations of life.

The emphasis has been rather less on how nature serves us as an ‘ecosystem service provider’. And rather more on how people might best serve and honour nature so that life’s abundance continues into the future.

Let’s return to the particular cultural context that is now encouraging a conception and construction of nature as a service provider, and as a stock of natural capital assets.

These metaphorical ways of categorising and thinking about nature use terms associated with economy, economics and accounting. Indeed, an explicit intention is to make the gifts of nature more visible economically. Here, for example, are some screenshots from the ‘Bank of Natural Capital’ website established by the UN and EU programme on ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ – this site represents nature literally as a current bank account showing stocks of natural capital and flows or ‘dividends’ of ecosystem services.


bank of natcap adj
Screenshots from the ‘Bank of Natural Capital’ website established by the UN and EU programme on ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’.


Given this emphasis on making nature more visible economically, it seems important to think about what sort of economy we are making nature more visible to.



First of all, we inhabit a capitalist market economy.

Capitalism emphasises the accumulation or growth of wealth, via the institutions of private property and trade. As such, the generation and accumulation of wealth is paramount, as is the ability to partition this wealth according to inviolable rules of private property.

money on trees etc adjUnder capitalism, wealth of all kinds is accounted for in monetary terms. Making nature more visible economically – as in natural capital assets providing billable ecosystem services – thus means coupling nature’s productivity closely with monetary values. The ‘green economy’ promotional images shown to the right here – from money growing on trees to trees growing on money – indicate this growing elision between nature and monetary worth and wealth.

Given the private property rules underpinning capitalist economic relations, making this new nature worth visible economically creates new possibilities for wealth accumulation amongst those able to claim private property tenure over the contexts generating this newly visible wealth. – I return to this point below.



A second term by which we can describe our economy is neoliberalism. Our economy is characterised by deregulation and the privatisation of formerly public utilities and goods – from the railways to Royal Mail to the delivery of health via the NHS, and of education via schools and universities. This shift towards the private sector is justified by assertions that markets offer the most efficient and equitable means of allocating wealth and resources. Under neoliberalism the ownership and management of publicly-owned assets and amenities is thus moved to the private sector. Arguably, as a nation, we have been systematically asset-stripped of publicly held goods and utilities through this privatising impetus, such that shareholder value now reigns supreme, as wittily illustrated in the cartoon below.

forb cartoon adj


Market-based approaches to environmental management seem set to do something similar for nature by increasingly outsourcing nature conservation to the private sector and to those amongst whom land and wealth, including so-called ‘natural capital’, is already concentrated.



This takes me to a third term describing our economy, namely plutonomy. This term is used by Citigroup analysts to denote a situation of highly and increasingly concentrated income and wealth – as shown for the UK below – with a disproportionate influence over the economy by the extremely wealthy. Plutonomy is of both social and ecological concern. For example, research has shown that economic inequality – both between and within countries – is a robust predictor of rates of biodiversity loss.

plutonomy uk adj


These circumstances beg some questions.

Are market-based approaches to nature conservation simply creating new mechanisms where by newly accounted for assets and services of nature can become concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy?

And through doing so are we further undermining conditions for healthy social and ecological systems?



In relation to these questions, let’s work through a handful of real world examples of market-based approaches to nature conservation and their consequences.


Case 1: Offsetting the offset in Thaxted, Essex

First of all – In order to make nature’s capital and service values visible in monetary terms counting methods and metrics need to be applied that turn nature – in all its dynamism and complexity – into numbers.

Numbers representing nature can give the appearance of making different places equivalent to one another, thus emphasising the possibility of trade-offs between them.

Consider, for example, the ‘biodiversity offsetting metric‘ created by the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – shown below. This metric provides a method for scoring the habitat condition and distinctiveness of places. This scoring mechanism enables a number to be given to the calculated ‘units’ of harm caused by a development in one place, which can then be matched with an equivalent or higher number of units of habitat gain in another, different place.

DEFRA metric adj

A concern is that this offsetting methodology can make permissible what would otherwise have been impermissible development under existing planning regulations. It is this concern that has generated a widespread sense that offsetting is a conservation trading technology that will work more for developers than for nature.

Take, for example, a planning case unfolding in Thaxted in Essex, as analysed by Mike Hannis1.

Here, permission has recently been granted on appeal for a development of 47 houses, at the site shown in images 1 and 2 below. These houses will be built on an old grassland site – marked here with a red circle.

This proposed development site was in fact already providing ‘wildlife mitigation’ for the same developer’s adjacent earlier development of 55 houses. Lizards and orchids were moved onto the proposed development site (in images 1 and 2), which thus formed the previous offset for this earlier mitigation.[efn-note]Decision ref. APP/C1570/A/13/2206357, 22 May 2014. Documents here.[/efn_note] In this case, then, the first offset designation does not in fact appear to have protected the site from future development.


thaxted adj


Calculations of habitat condition and distinctiveness, using the DEFRA biodiversity offsetting metric shown above have assisted the proposal of a third site some distance away on private land, as an offset for the new development site – shown in images 3 and 4 above. The impact of the new development will thus be compensated for by paying to improve the condition of 5 hectares of different grassland 9 miles away, improving it from its current ‘poor’ condition to ‘good’ by year 10 of a 25-year management agreement. This improvement is to be achieved by bringing in seed-bearing green hay from another (fourth) site. The lizards moved initially to the first offset site which is now the new development site, will be moved (again) to the new offset site shown in images 3 and 4.

One thing the new offset land will not compensate for is the loss of public green space in Thaxted. This is one reason why the development has been strongly contested by local inhabitants.

The process of calculating the habitat value on the development site has been controversial because as this case shows there is in fact no single, objective way to apply the biodiversity metric so as to quantify, objectively, losses and gains. In this case the council’s ecologists came up with different figures for the habitat value of the development site from those provided by the brokers used by the developers, a private company called The Environment Bank. The developers used expensive legal representation to back up The Environment Bank’s calculations, and made clear that the Council risked very large legal costs if they stuck to their own numbers. The District Council eventually gave in and didn’t contest the appeal.

Arguably, quantifying and exchanging habitat values in this case has meant that:

  • development has happened which otherwise would probably not have been permitted;
  • commercial gain has been delivered at the expense of local environmental values;
  • the apparent simplicity of the offset calculation disguised fierce battles over alternative expert interpretations of ecological data;
  • a previous mitigation site has quickly become a development site, requiring “offsetting of the offset”;
  • the broker’s role was central, and raised major conflict of interest questions;
  • and finally, claims that habitat value has been conserved at the offset site rely on questionable assumptions about how ‘like-for-like’ the development and offset sites are, both now and in the future. The offset that is to replace the nature being lost to development will not appear in its full habitat credit value for several years – in a dynamic world beset by systemic challenges such as global climate change and financial crisis, it is difficult to be certain that the offset will in fact replace what has been lost.


Case 2: Payments for Ecosystem Services at Tortworth Estate

On the other hand, Payments for Ecosystem Services schemes to enhance the generation of specified environmental aspects might work well under certain conditions – particularly where there is an easily identifiable and quantifiable environmental aspect that is to be supported, and where tenure arrangements are longstanding and robust.

An example is a case from the west of England that colleagues of mine at Bath Spa University have been working on. In this case the proposal is that Tortworth Estate, as the landowner, and potential service provider, could receive payment from Wessex Water for provision of land for the construction and management of an Integrated Constructed Wetland to remove Phosphorus from an upstream Sewage Treatment Works, thus contributing to Wessex Water’s downstream water quality commitments. The configuration of these ‘components’ of the scheme is shown in the image below.

Tortworth adj


A key factor in this case is that there is a relatively easily definable and measurable environmental aspect (i.e. reductions of phosphorus in downstream water) to be improved through direct payments for a new installation to a defined landowner.

At the same time – it is not clear exactly how framing this in the language of ‘ecosystem services’ adds here to the simple recommendation to make decisions that are both supportive of natural processes and economically viable under current structures.



Case 3: REDD+

These conditions of a relatively easily definable ‘ecosystem service’ to be paid for compbioned with a long history of private property rights over enclosed areas of land, however, do not necessarily exist in many parts of the world where there is something of a rush to measure and calculate aspects of nature such that they can enter into market exchanges.

Consider, for example, the massive global programme led by the United Nations called REDD+, which means Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. The idea here is to enhance the so-called ‘service’ provided by southern tropical forests as sinks for industrial carbon emissions produced elsewhere – as illustrated in the image below. The critical link is to pay local people living in tropical forests to leave the forests standing, with the value of such payments being linked with global carbon market conditions.



In connection with REDD+, what is happening is that throughout the tropical world people are being encouraged to measure and account for the carbon value of the forests they have dwelled in and alongside, more-or-less sustainably, in some cases for millennia. REDD+ carbon measurement and accounting initiatives – as illustrated below – are thereby greatly transforming peoples’ relationships with forests.


REDD adj


But perhaps more perniciously, as these forests increasingly become visible as new sources of carbon wealth, there are noticeable signs that this carbon value is being grabbed by more economically powerful interests. Sometimes a rise in carbon values under REDD+ projects has been linked with violent evictions of people from forested land areas. Monetised tropical forest carbon is becoming a new source of value that can be mined, in ways that can marginalise the existing values and livelihoods of people who live there.

In part, this situation arises because the way our financialised market economy is structured tends to push monetised values of commodities upwards away from primary producers – in this case people living in forests and now measuring carbon. As illustrated in the image below, it is secondary markets dominated by intermediaries, brokers and speculators that gain, ultimately shifting financial wealth towards the plutocrats at the top, many of whom have built their enormous financial wealth through speculating on commodity markets.


Munden adj
Structure of forest carbon markets from The Munden Project 2011 “REDD AND FOREST CARBON: Market-Based Critique and Recommendations“.


In other words, contemporary economic structures work in the opposite direction to the assumption that wealth will ‘trickle down’ to low-income people, and there is little to suggest that new monetisations nature will do something different.


Value visibilities?

As these examples suggest, enormous work is going into making so-called ‘ecosystem services’ more visible as services that can be paid for, so as to create income-streams for existing land-owners. Rather less political work appears to be happening so as to reduce the multiple and interconnected forces driving decline in environmental parameters: I’m thinking here of good old-fashioned taxation and regulation to reduce damaging production and consumption; combined with confident and progressive government that supports the redistribution, rather than the consolidation, of wealth, including so-called ‘natural capital’ assets.

The synthesis report of the National Ecosystem Assessment’s follow-on research emphasises three principles: ‘pluralism, pragmatism and precaution’. I support all of these, although note that it may be difficult to control processes of grabbing and speculating on new green values once these have become visible to powerful players in the global economy.

But, to return to where I started this essay. Let’s not forget that what also connects and attunes us with nature is poetry. Or, at least, the feelings and values associated with poetry – I’m thinking of joy, love, empathy, awe, and the heart-opening sense of being part of something bigger than oneself. It is through such indivisible experiences that we value the fabric of the species and natures with which we live and conduct our lives.

I sincerely hope that the economic boxes and partitions of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’ thinking assist us to take forward into the future the diversity and productivity of the nature we have been privileged to enjoy in the present. But let’s keep reminding ourselves that life itself lives outside these categories, that money is not nature, and that we have the capacity to care out of love for the extraordinary natural world in which we are privileged to live.


thank you adj


Naturally Speaking….A public dialogue on valuing and managing our environment, at which this talk was given, was organised in 2014 by Dr Rob Fish and Dr Eirini Saratsi. The final report of this dialogue project for the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment can be found here and a record of my contribution can be found here.


Connected peer reviewed publications

Especially – Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2017 ‘Mathematics maybe, but not money‘: on balance sheets, numbers and nature in ecological accounting. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 30(7): 1459-1480.

Sullivan, S. 2019 Towards a metaphysics of the soul and a participatory aesthetics of life: mobilising Foucault, affect and animism for caring practices of existence. New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory & Politics 95(3): 5-21.

Sullivan, S. 2018 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies 31(3): 47-76.

Carver, L. and Sullivan, S. 2018 Creating ‘good biodiversity yield per hectare’? Calculating conservation yields in the English Biodiversity Offsetting Pilot, pp. 122-144 in Bracking, S., Fredriksen, A., Sullivan, S. and Woodhouse, P. (eds.) Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter. London: Routledge Explorations in Development Studies.

Carver, L. and Sullivan, S. 2017 How economic contexts shape calculations of yield in biodiversity offsetting. Conservation Biology 31(5): 1053–1065.

Sullivan, S. 2017 Natural capital, fairytales and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.


  1. See Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2017 ‘Mathematics maybe, but not money‘: on balance sheets, numbers and nature in ecological accounting. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 30(7): 1459-1480.

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