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Perspective: Martin Sharman on ethics and the ecosystem services paradigm

July 3, 2013

In this guest post Martin Sharman opens up a rich area of debate by arguing that as a policy concept, ecosystem services puts human wants first and foremost and undermines moral-aesthetic value arguments for conservation that are widely held in society. 

A “resource” is something that is useful to someone. A “natural resource” is something in the natural environment that a human can use to satisfy want or increase wellbeing.

To adopt this vocabulary is to adopt a forthright utilitarian view of the natural environment, and implicitly to accept that human benefit is the only good. Not only is human benefit the only good, but it is quantifiable – for if not, then we can never agree on what constitutes a resource, or who has the greater right to it. Thus someone who speaks of natural resources accepts, again implicitly, that happiness and wellbeing can be quantified. The vocabulary also requires that this quantified human benefit remains, if not constant, then comparable over cultures and generations.

More than this: the wellbeing of the “resource” is insignificant. It is only by setting concern for the wellbeing of the resource to zero that one can regard it as merely something to satisfy human want. Human benefit is the only good. This is the First Commandment; in the limpid words of the King James version of the bible, thou shalt have no other gods before me.
takes a second to say goodbyeIn this observation lies much of the moral argument against the concept of ecosystem services: just as oranges are not the only fruit, so humans are not the only species.

The concept of ecosystem services is one thing; the premise of its proponents is another. It is, in short, that conservation based on intrinsic value of biodiversity has failed to stop the loss of species, ecosystems, and the complex web of interactions between them. Since an ethical argument has failed, then we should try self-interest. By demonstrating that human wellbeing is increased by the services rendered by ecosystems, we can motivate people to protect the source of the service – biodiversity.

We know that conservation is not working because we continue to lose biodiversity. Oh yeah? This is the equivalent of me deciding that my accelerator is not working because my car is losing speed. Why is such a daft non-sequitur accepted by otherwise intelligent people? You immediately thought of many reasons my car might be losing speed – I have the brakes on, I’m going up a hill, I’ve run out of fuel, I’ve run into sand, I’ve hit an oncoming truck. The obvious reason that we are losing biodiversity is the memento mori that stares at us from our looking glass – biodiversity loss is the inevitable result of our debt-based economic system and our swelling population’s unsustainable demands on nature. We all know that. Why do we mutely accept the dangerously diversionary nonsense that “biodiversity is being lost because conservation is not working”?

Ecosystem services takes the utilitarian logic of natural resources one important step further. A “service” by definition benefits humans. If we are to protect services only if they benefit humans, then what happens to the useless ecosystems? Are they simply to be cemented over?

I recently heard a discussion in which one person said “most people are useless”, meaning that they are surplus to requirement. The outrage that this provoked was spearheaded by someone saying that you can never prove that anyone is useless, because you can never know enough about their contribution to their social fabric. So does this mean that you can never show that an ecosystem is useless? If so that leaves the ecosystem services argument saying that because some ecosystems benefit humans, we have to protect every ecosystem.

this picture

Which may be the right answer, but why reach it by such objectionable means?

For those of us with a reverence of nature, the ecosystem services rhetoric and mindset are abhorrent, being fundamentally immoral and unethical. They take the most ecologically damaging invasive species in the history of life, and place it above all other species on Earth. They cast all other – voiceless – species in the role of consumables. This mindset might have worked for Homo habilis. It will not work for Homo sapiens.

Martin was the policy offer responsible for biodiversity and ecosystems in the European Commission’s DG Research & Innovation up until his retirement last November. During his career he made an enormous contribution to biodiversity research and policy, including the initiation of the BioFresh project. The opinions expressed in this post are, of course, his own and are not intended to represent a position of either the Commission or BioFresh.

Read other articles in our Special Feature on Freshwater Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Sonja Stendera permalink
    July 3, 2013 09:23

    Excellent post!

  2. July 3, 2013 10:22

    This post puzzles me. Sharman has initiated the BioFresh Project, on which we can read (on the upper right hand of the post) that it serves to “protect our freshwaters for generations to come”. Mind the “OUR freshwaters”. A few lines earlier, we can read that “diversity of freshwater life is vital in supporting our everyday lives”. Sounds fine to me, but apparently not to Sharman himself: it makes me wonder if he, in retrospect, also criticizes his own BioFresh project for this evidently utilitarian view.

    His car-metaphor also fires back at his own argument. For could his car thus far have gained speed (i.e. progress in fighting biodiversity loss) for other reasons than his fine accelerator (i.e. conservation strategies based on a non-utilitarian logic)? Might his car not have gone downhill, or was it perhaps pulled by another vehicle?

    What strikes me most is that Sharman makes an either/or argument out of it. Biodiversity policies will and should always have a mixture of ‘moral foundations’ (see Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous mind). The richer this mixture, the more effective policy can be on the longer term. Making an either/or argument can only lead to a poorer mixture.

    Biodiversity policies in my view will gain from the ecosystems services logic. There is nothing morally wrong with using resources, as long as we don’t take anything for granted and we’re doing it Brundtland-smart.

  3. July 4, 2013 07:44

    A very interesting perspective and thank you for provoking some thought. It raises several points for me. First of all, a significant proportion of the general public are not sufficiently aware of the intrinsic value of biodiversity – and the “goods and services” soundbite could potentially make it more difficult for those people to assume that society is “the master of nature” and can exploit/dominate it without consequence.

    This is particularly true for those who currently exploit/utilise the natural landscape in order to make a living (e.g. the farming community or property developers). For those demographics, profit and loss is generally a more meaningful language – even if they view nature as a “nice to have”. To take that “nice to have” view and transform it into “essential for future of human survival” would be an immense win. It could only improve the prospects for both biodiversity AND a desire to learn more about it (and perhaps come to appreciate it for its own sake).

    Furthermore, those who already appreciate the inherent duty for conservation are likely to already appreciate that “Ecosystem Goods and Services” is simply a handy re-packaging of “Ecosystem Structure and Function” or “Trait-based Ecology” ideas (albeit an anthropocentric repackaging). For this reason, the propagation of a goods and services approach is unlikely to be a disincentive for those who care about the natural world for its own sake.

    Even if “goods and services” messages are simply used to provide a stepping stone in understanding that leads to a swelling of the ranks who perceive the inherent, moral responsibility for us to conserve the natural world – that would only be likely to improve the chances of actually achieving better outcomes for biodiversity.

    In the absence of appealing solely to a self-interest, what could possibly motivate the ill-informed to look more closely at the intrinsic value of nature? Why would it matter to them? It has absolutely zero perceived impact on the lives of millions of people in the UK currently…so why would they vote for its protection?

  4. Mosheh Wolf permalink
    July 5, 2013 19:30

    I am copying my comment that I wrote in LinkenIn by request:

    I find Martin Sharman’s views naive and even a bit tone deaf. The piece reads like the musings of a person who has the leisure to think about other species because he no longer has to worry about his own continued supply of food, clean water, and shelter. The idea of caring about other species as an ethical issue is very much a prerogative of a middle class person from an industrialized nation. Does anybody think that the billions of people on this planet without access to clean water or decent food care about the ethics of killing other species? Should we, as middle-class + people look at caring for other species, at the expense of people, as being ethically or morally viable?

    All conservation is for human benefit. No other species “enjoys” biodiversity, per se. American robins, living in the middle of Chicago, don’t wish that they could still peck for insects around mastodons, and prairie dogs don’t sit around and talk about the days when there were multiple species of bison. The real reason that people like Dr Sharman (and me) conserve biodiversity is because we have developed a set of ethics that says that all species have intrinsic importance. However, we must realize that this ethical concept is limited in its followers, and has no real existence outside of our minds. Most importantly, we must recognize that we are conserving biodiversity to satisfy a need which emerges from this ethical concept, meaning, essentially, that we are conserving biodiversity to fulfill our very human need, for our benefits as humans.

    Ecosystem services, as a concept, are important because they demonstrate that basic human physical well-being is dependent on the well-being of the environment. It is a fact that, today, there are multiple different ethical frameworks in existence. I am not, in my ideology, a cultural relativist (which is a great scholarly tool, but an awful moral world view). However I am not so naive as to believe that the morals and ethics that I espouse, and which I wish to spread, including conservation for the sake of conservation, will take hold just because I explained their wonders. In the meantime, ecosystems are being eroded and species are being driven to extinction. Ecosystem services are a concept that crosses almost all cultural frameworks as a theoretical and conceptual basis for biological conservation.

    The most important point I wanted to make is: what Dr Sharman is writing, essentially, “we should not argue for conservation based on benefits that the great majority of people can perceive, but instead, we should argue for conservation based on my personal set of beliefs, shared by a small set of people on earth”.

  5. Francesca Somma permalink
    July 8, 2013 11:13

    Thank goodness for Martin Sharman!!!! This is the first time I hear somebody identifying humans as one invasive species. Considering the disregard we have for environment and nature, and the way we treat our planet, I have come to view humans as a pest to Mother Earth. Much as many people would, for a hoard of coackroaches teaming out of a manhole in a city center…
    Ethics has been pushed out of our minds when it comes to nature…

    • Mosheh Wolf permalink
      July 8, 2013 21:21

      Ms Somma, referring to humans as an invasive species is about as logical as referring to the Virginia opossum, the vicuña, or the Hawaiian hoary bat as invasive species. Humans reached every point in their dispersal on their own power. I am also surprised that somebody who refers to the rest of the human species as “cockroaches teaming out of a manhole” has the audacity to speak of “ethics”. As a Jew, whose relatives were exterminated by people who were using exactly that type of language when speaking of my relatives, I find your words insulting and so far from anything resembling a civilized discussion, that I cannot treat anything else you write as worthy of rebuttal.
      Only respect for this blog keeps me from responding in a manner more fitting to the tone of your post.

      • yottagoogol permalink
        July 24, 2013 20:36

        So by your definition, a species is only invasive if it got to its new range by external intervention. This is a novel definition, but OK, I can perhaps accept it for a minute or two.

        By your definition, then, sheep, rabbits, rats, malaria, yellow fever, cockroaches, pigeons, wheat, rice, salmon, cotton, sisal, pineapples, cocoa, cocaine, coffee, and cauliflower are invasives. The coterie of species that makes humans possible (and human) are all invasives, sweeping aside ancient ecosystems for the wall to wall refurbishment with golf-green grass, maize, soy beans and oil palms.

        I’m sorry, invasion is invasion. Try telling the Poles, Russians, Greeks or French that Germany did not invade, because the Wehrmacht got there under its own volition.

        You’ve got an uphill struggle indeed to convince anyone that humans are not by far the most invasive species on the planet.

  6. David Le Maitre permalink
    July 9, 2013 13:00

    I agree with some of the comments above. I think this essay takes a far too narrow view and presents an “either-or” argument rather than addressing the nuances and complexities. The core issue is really about finding triggers/levers than can be used to change human behaviour. Conserving a species “because it is there” is something I believe in but many don’t and we are very unlikely to convince those people otherwise.

    This narrow view presented in this essay is evident in the following statement:

    “More than this: the wellbeing of the “resource” is insignificant. It is only by setting concern for the wellbeing of the resource to zero that one can regard it as merely something to satisfy human want. Human benefit is the only good.”

    My understanding (and I am sure this is shared by many others) is that the well-being of the resource is absolutely critical for the delivery of many ecosystem services (and since ecosystem services are intertwined this embraces essentially all of them). “Resource well-being” is anything but insignificant. And even where we have modified the system to deliver more of certain services (e.g. food from croplands) there is growing evidence of how critical it is to manage that agro-ecosystem so that it continues to deliver its full suite of ecosystem services, particularly conserving the biodiversity that sustains the productivity.

  7. July 9, 2013 23:22

    Thanks for the interesting post. There are loads of interesting ethical issues surrounding ecosystem services (ES). In theory, there’s no conflict between ES and other arguments for conservation (see Armsworth et al. 2007 in Conservation Biology, In practice, ES might change the way that we think about our relationship with nature (see

    Other ethical issues have been explored in two recent papers, one about ES applications (Luck et al. 2012 in BioScience,, and one more theoretical (Jax et al. 2013 in Ecoloical Economics,

  8. Kathryn Papp permalink
    July 10, 2013 08:30

    With the so-called “quantification” of ecosystem services we begin a slippery slope to creating a new capital asset class that could be added to an already dysfunctional global financial market. It can only contribute to income disparity and stress the perjoratively named “bottom of the pyramid”, who live in various conditions of relying on water, trees, food sources etc for a vitually money-free benefit. With their small money incomes this priviledged solution to conserving and creating healthy natural systems will be a tremendous burden.
    I’ve just come from a meeting of global corporate environmental officers and there was broad general agreement that the numerous metric systems do not inform the kinds of decisions we need to make for a resilient planet.
    My own presentation featured several google trends charts showing that “biodiversity” remains a largely unknown concept – most people sought it for a definition or explanation of its importance, along with a strong search for how it relates to food.
    As I argued in this talk, we are in the Age of Biology – it is persistent, creative, and irrational, ie there is no lab process or neocortex to make a plan, roadmap, logic flow etc. Biology is opportunisitc, exquisitely responsive to external conditions, and highly adaptive. And there are two kinds of extinction: civilizations and organisms. Eventhough the curves for human population growth and species extinctions track perfectly, the dynamic between climate (drought) and the positive feedback loop between food/population (more people, more innovation on irrigation/cropping, leads to more people … ) are what brought down Old Egypt and the Classic Maya. Well documented, actually, especially the Maya.
    I likened biological diversity to the biggest algorithm in the universe. It is operating system of the planet – the catalyst that makes in inanimate go. It is the Fourth Great system, after land-water-atmosphere. Without it we are flatlined. To make another computer analogy, species are like chips – we lose enough and the planet doesn’t move anymore.
    As for the aesthetics argument. Is there anything more riveting or stunning that nature’s creations? It is literally, at times, impossible to stop staring at the intricate, nuanced, fragile coloration of an orchid or the body of a snake or fish.
    It’s good to have Martin Sharman remind us that the aesthetics of natural creations, ie things we humans could not, and did not devise and “manufacture”, are an essential “value metric” that defies an ultimate monetary stamp of approval.
    We are living in a non-performing paradigm. We need to begin to seriously re-create based on our very new understanding of the interdependancies of all living things. Truly, biology needs to be the platform we stand on – as in reality it is what keeps us alive.
    And just a final note on a common misperception – humans never coexisted with mammoths and saber tooth tigers – they were long gone by the time we arrived on the grasslands of Europe and Asia. If anything there may be a few rare survivors that humans gleefully ate after drifting up from Africa after the glacier receded. It was the glaciation, changing plant composition of the grasslands, and reduced available land areas that caused a big shift in fauna types.

  9. July 12, 2013 12:38

    Thanks all for these interesting perspective. Following on from David’s point on whether Martin’s essay presents too much of an ‘either-or” argument I tried a little experiment during my doctoral research. Part of this involved researching the social movement origins of conservation and I identified a set of 6 value arguments that could be sub-grouped into moral-aesthetic and utilitarian value arguments. At the time I was doing a lot of consultancy work on protected areas in Indonesia for various international agencies. The dominant discourse was all instrumental – poverty and livelihoods, but I decided to start every meeting with local government officials talking moral aesthetic value arguments with the knowledge that the instrumental value arguments were well rehearsed and could be brought in as needed.

    My memories of this informal unstructured experiment are altogether positive – I am sure the officials gave me longer and the meetings were more fun for all. One comment and one incident stick in my mind. The comment was from an Indonesian conservation official who looked at me askance and said “I didn’t know Westerners could talk philosophy – I thought you were only interested in money!” The incident was the one time a provincial government official dissed what I was saying. After the meeting his staff took me to their office and apologized for their boss’s coarse outlook!

    What I took from all this is a view the ethical, aesthetic and utility arguments for conservation interplay with each other and together produce an agency for conservation that is greater than the sum of the individual value-arguments. I also wonder whether conservation advocacy might be more powerful if we talk moral-aesthetic first and instrumental second. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this proposition.

  10. Uri Roll permalink
    July 15, 2013 10:35

    After reading this interesting blog and the responses I thought of adding some comments.

    Regarding Mosheh Wolf’s comments – I do think that the Holocaust and the general breakdown of civilization in the Second World War should serve as moral reminder and extreme point for ethical discussions. Nevertheless, I think Mr. Wolf’s comments were irrelevant to the point, out of place and frankly a bit vulgar. I don’t think linkage to the Holocaust should be immediate in every moral discussion and frankly “using” its memory out of place just diminishes its horror. Nevertheless, I agree with him that likening humans to invasive species is unwise. I don’t think this has anything to do with the fact that I am a Jew, or with what happened to the Jews in the Second World War.

    I studied and researched for several years invasive species and see them as an unfortunate and harmful outcome of human activities that we should aim to minimize. They are no different in my mind from habitat destruction and fragmentation or pollution. This is not only my viewpoint but the very clear definitions of the IUCN which identifies them as animals or plants that are translocated to new environments by either direct or indirect aid of humans and once arrived establish themselves and harm local species. However, many people use the people = worst invasive species idiom all too often to actually criticize actions against invasive species, because if we are also invasives we should first take care of ourselves… This is especially true when discussing the harmful effects of feral cats!

    Just as I don’t think that humans are pollution, but cause pollution and have a utilitarian and moral obligation to minimize it, I don’t think humans are invasive species, but cause invasive species and have a utilitarian and moral obligation to minimize them and their effects!

    • Mosheh Wolf permalink
      July 15, 2013 18:21

      My comparison to WWII was triggered specifically by the comparison of human being to cockroaches that need to be eradicated. There is really no other appropriate cultural comparison. Most genocides are based on a “we don’t want these other people in our land/the land we want to take, so let us get rid of them”. There is often a philosophical ideology which states that the other people are inferior and therefore less deserving of the land or resource. In some cases, the people being killed off were considered as a separate species below human (humans meaning the people committing the genocide, of course). The Nazi philosophy was almost unique in that it presented the people slotted for genocide (Jews, Gypsies, etc) as vermin that needed to be eradicated from the world because their very presence endangered the planet. Any such sentiment is therefore directly comparable to Nazi philosophy. While the comparison of this that or the other thing to Nazis is overdone and overused (Goddard’s Law), it does not mean that it is not appropriate in some cases. This is one of these cases.

      Yes, it is also personal because many of my family members were treated like cockroaches
      I would not have responded in this manner if somebody had defined humans as an invasive species, even though I disagree with this, on technical grounds. I would not have responded in this manner to claims that humans are destroying the earth or that our actions toward other species are unconscionable, even though I don’t exactly agree with this. I would not have responded this way to a claim that humans are ravenous monsters, leaving destruction in their paths. It is the description of people as vermin which brought on this response.

      As an aside, WWII was not a breakdown of civilization as you claim. All atrocities were planned and sanctioned by central governments, all territories under conquest were administrated and policed by the occupying forces. The Nazi empire was a civilization, with genocide and slave populations,being part of that civilization. The Roman empire was not a breakdown of civilization even though blood sport and the worst type of slavery were integral parts of that civilization, and the empire was involved in wars of conquest and control throughout most of its history. Civilization doesn’t stop being civilization because it has rules which you do not like.

      • Francesca permalink
        July 16, 2013 15:49

        Easy there, I meant rabbits in Australia…

      • August 23, 2013 21:28

        Mosheh – you have introduced eradication into this debate, not Francesca. There are other ways of dealing with pest problems than eradication.

        More generally.

        There is a difficulty here, economic arguments appeal to values linked with power and security while intrinsic and aesthetic arguments appeal to benevolent and universalism values. Using both arguments at the same time can, rather than reinforcing values, create ‘dissonance’ that actually discourages engagement.

        This is explored in the latest Common Cause documents – the practitioners guide is well worth a flick through – here is the link

        This dissonance is why Martin and Mosheh and many others get upset by this debate. Different people do have different motivations for conserving nature and struggle to hold both motivations simultaneously. One set views economic arguments as at best a necessary evil and the other set views existence rights arguments as at best mistaken.

        The solution is not obvious or simple, but if trying to achieve change and produce a healthy ecosystem rich in wildlife and resources for people it is probably wise to know your audience.

        Personally I do not think we can achieve a wildlife rich healthy planet on the basis of economic valuations and reductionist science alone. The unknowns and hence inaccuracy of the valuation are too great to produce a dependable model that will correctly limit human impacts. Hence there is an absolute need to support and propagate the ethical belief that other species have a right to exist and humans have no right to exterminate them.


  1. Special Feature: Freshwater Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services | The BioFresh blog
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