“We should save the old-growth forests as a matter of national defense,” asserts the eccentric mycologist Paul Stamets. Delivered in a documentary about the medicinal properties of mushrooms, the case Stamets makes for conservation hinges on the many potentially useful compounds still awaiting discovery in old-growth forests. These forests, he argues, may contain the next penicillin, a fungus-derived antibiotic credited with saving around 200 million lives. 1 1 First discovered in 1928 by physician and microbiologist Alexander Flemming and synthesized in labs by 1940, Penicillin has saved an estimated 200 million lives and is still the most widely prescribed antibiotic to date. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Stamets's proclamation appeals to the concept of ecosystem services, a framework that attempts to place a concrete value on seemingly intangible natural goods. Defined as the ecological characteristics, functions, or processes that directly or indirectly contribute to human well-being, the ecosystem services (ES) framework has come to permeate our thinking about natural resources since its inception.

First appearing in a 1981 book forebodingly titled Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species, ES-thinking acts as the backbone for environmental policy, buoys conservation campaigns, and underpins many contemporary arguments about the value of nature. But, while it aids calculations attempting to put a price on the natural world, it has a fundamental blind spot: it neglects questions of intrinsic value. As technological development transforms, or even dissolves, our dependence on natural ecosystems, instrumental evaluations of nature might become obsolete. ES demonstrates that humanity is economically dependent on the natural world, but it does not tell us the value of nature when it is no longer of use to us. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ES knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

At least for the present, humanity is deeply reliant upon the biosphere. The land on which we build our metropolises, the farms on which we grow our food, and the waterways from which we fish, drink, and transport goods, are enmeshed in complex ecosystems. Even though human beings make up just 0.01%  of the world’s biomass, we currently shape the remaining 99.99% to an astonishing degree. As our technological sophistication continues to accelerate, the ways in which we influence ecosystems will also intensify. Given humanity's enormous need to use land for productive purposes, it is likely that any nature that remains centuries from now will only do so because we have intentionally chosen to protect it. There doesn’t seem to be a neutral option, where nature does its thing and human society moves in parallel. Rather, we will carry on making choices that impact life on this planet, determining which species live or die.

Imagine a far-future world where humans no longer need to rely on the natural resources of Earth. It is likely that, at least to some extent, humans would still want to preserve the natural world regardless of its monetary value or calculable effects on human well-being. Perhaps the justification would be rooted in some abstract notion that biodiversity is valuable as an end in itself, or the Kantian idea that treating animals well is good for our own moral character. 2 2 Kant did not view animals as ends in themselves, but did believe we have a duty to them. For an interesting discussion on our Kantian duty to animals, see Michael Cholbi’s article “A Direct Kantian Duty to Animals.” Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote It may seem that ES is useless in such a future since its rationale is firmly based on the monetary value of the natural world rather than its intrinsic value. Still, before we can be sure, we must look at the history and method of the ecosystem services approach.

For almost the last half-century, the ecosystem services framework has attempted to put a precise number on the monetary value of the natural world. In order to make environmental policy questions tractable, a framework for evaluating the natural world was required. The most famous invocation of ES was a 1997 report by Costanza et. al which estimated the value of the entire biosphere at US$16–54 trillion per year. 3 3 According to the report, the biosphere’s average yearly output was $33 trillion. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Although these estimates were hounded by decades of critiques, the report shows an earnest attempt at placing a value on nature in objective terms. Arguments that appeal to monetary valuations or national defense are more broadly convincing than arguments that only make a moral case. Nature is massively valuable. An updated report from Costanza et al from 2011, estimated the total global ecosystem services were worth a staggering $125 trillion per year. Just as in 1997, the exact figure is contested, but the utility of this figure for environmentalists lies in its persuasive power rather than in its exactitude.

Just as Preistly’s discovery of oxygen in 1774 didn’t suddenly allow us to breathe, ecosystem services was merely a formalization of the obvious fact that humans are dependent on the natural world. Well before this framework had a name, ancient writers understood that non-human animals and ecosystems bestowed numerous benefits on human populations. Plato remarked on how the deforestation of Attica, on the hilly terrain of Greece, brought about drier springs and soil erosion. And even further back, in the Glacial Age, our ancestors recognized the utility and security that lay just beneath the untamed pelt of the wolf, and so brought forth the dog, humanity’s first domesticate. 4 4 Beyond domestication, humans are exceedingly adept at training animals to do their bidding in highly specific ways. For example, Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, is perhaps the world’s most venerated rodent. Trained by the Tanzania-based international charity, APOPO, Magawa sniffed out more than 100 landmines and other explosives in Cambodia during his five-year career. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

It is useful to explore whether domestication should be categorized as an ecosystem service. Costanza et al. defined ecosystem services as, “the ecological characteristics, functions, or processes that directly or indirectly contribute to human wellbeing: that is, the benefits that people derive from functioning ecosystems.” Here, we see that ecosystem services are something that humans derive from ecosystems, something garnered or extracted from a process that is already present. By this definition, domestication may not actually be an example of an ecosystem service. While it provides benefits to human society, domestication involves modifying natural organisms over generations through selective breeding to suit human needs. So while the products and services of domesticated plants and animals are highly valuable to humans, the process of artificial selection is not a service arising naturally from a healthy, well-functioning ecosystem.

Even so, the distinction here is murky, and debates over definitions can quickly spiral into the age-old question about what constitutes “nature.” Broader definitions of ES not only includes domestication, but also agriculture, even though agricultural ecosystems are also created and managed by human beings.

However, the domesticated animals we now breed and control used to be wild animals, and were part of a natural ecosystem from which humans extracted value. The historian Ian Morris writes, “Before 7000 BCE, herders turned the wild aurochs into something like the placid cows we know today and tamed wild boars into pigs. Across the next few thousand years they learned not to kill all animals for meat while they were still young but to preserve some for wool and milk, and then—most useful of all—to harness them for wheeled carts.” Due to the labor or sustenance they provided, certain animals were selected by humans as being particularly valuable. These animals were given special accommodations alongside humans, and bred to maximize their outputs. This millennia-old trajectory change explains the predominance of ungulate mammals and gallinaceous birds today. 5 5 Ungulate mammals are an order of primarily large herbivorous quadruped mammals with hooves which include species commonly raised on farms such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses. Gallinaceous birds are a diverse order of heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds including chickens, turkeys, grouse, pheasants, partridges, quail, and peafowl that humans primarily raise for meat. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Factory farming is an example of how humans took advantage of natural ecosystems and turned them into powerful new processes of food production, at the expense of the animals’ well-being. Animals on factory farms are brought into a life of suffering, only to die. Perhaps being valuable to humans doesn’t always result in conservation—should animals render value, they may themselves be rendered.

Some animals that provide useful services exist in a liminal state between farmed and safeguarded. Every year, 500,000 American horseshoe crabs are collected off the East Coast of the United States to have their blood drained. It turns out that the blood from horseshoe crabs can be used to test for endotoxins in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and water. Horseshoe crab blood is worth a staggering $60,000 a gallon, so companies only drain ⅓ of their blood in order to keep them alive for further harvesting. Unfortunately, this process is not an exact science, with up to a 30% mortality rate and reduced fitness among survivors. 6 6 Ironically, even if this sounds grisly, it is an improvement upon the first way that these animals provided benefits to humans. In colonial times, they were harvested in the millions to be used as “cancerine fertilizer” to enrich fields. This practice died out by the 1970s. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

There are happier instances of animals being spared or protected based on ecosystem services-style thinking. The conservation of bees is one such example: a 2019 report shows that between $235 and $577 billion (U.S.) worth of annual global food production relies on bees and flies. It is no surprise then, that enormous efforts have been made to protect and strengthen bee colonies. Fear over colony collapse has spurred research that has transformed our collective view of these insects, not because bees are inherently interesting, but because they produce enormous value. In his book, The Mind of a Bee, researcher Lars Chittka writes that an early bout of colony collapse prompted the Nazi government to task entomologist Karl von Frisch with finding a cure. While Frisch was ultimately unsuccessful, his work, buoyed by economic incentives, led to many discoveries about bees and their colonies. Clearly, it was not fuzzy feelings that drove the Nazi research on honey bees, but fiscal concerns.

There are other pollinators, such as flies, bats, and wasps, who are equally important but are not valorized by the public. While bees are heralded as ecosystem heroes, other industrious pollinators, which are still awaiting their capitalist makeover, are derided as pests. Seeing how the ES argument succeeded for bees, Seirian Sumner has been making the case that wasps are also valuable pollinators, and are even being used in cutting edge cancer treatments. A recent study shows that the venom of the “Brazilian social wasp Polybia paulista contains the antimicrobial peptide Polybia (MP1), which has been shown to hinder numerous types of malignant cells, for example, prostate disease, bladder malignant growth, and multidrug-safe leukemic cells.”

The use of animals in medicines is not a recent phenomenon—humans have been employing various “zootherapies” since prehistory. In a paper discussing the origins of this practice, historian and biologist Efraim Lev discusses how ancient Egyptian sources mention medicinal substances derived from “cattle milk, bee honey, lizard blood, ox organs, swallow’s liver, bat limbs, ambergris from the sperm whale, and the glands of the musk deer.” Ailments ranging from headaches to insanity all had various animal-derived antidotes. Using modern techniques, we now understand chemical mechanisms more precisely: ground seahorse is not an effective treatment for impotence, while research on the age-defying properties of axolotls seems promising.

ES is a potent framework for environmentalists to use since just about any animal, with enough scrutiny, can appear to be performing a valuable service. And yet, some organisms are profoundly harmful.

Malaria, a deadly parasite transmitted by a handful of mosquito species, kills over 600,000 people a year—mostly children. In 2018 alone, the World Health Organization reported that approximately 2.7 billion dollars was invested globally in malaria control and elimination efforts. There are around 3,000 mosquito species on earth and only a tiny fraction of them (30-40) transmit malaria. That is to say, the harms caused by female Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes are enormously costly both morally and financially. In a case like this, it seems impossible to claim that mosquitoes provide a valuable service. However, in a paper discussing the potential fallout from using gene drives to eliminate Anopheles gambiae, authors India Jane Wise and Pascal Borry write: “Not much is known about the pollination effects of A. gambiae mosquitoes, but studies indicate that A. gambiae do not occupy an essential role in the food cycle. However, losses can sometimes be hard to determine due to complex interactions in the ecosystem.” In other words, despite the massively adverse effects of these mosquitoes, they may still have some yet-undiscovered role in the larger ecosystem—but this strains the principle of precaution. 7 7 Although eradicating malarial mosquitoes may not cause a cascade of negative environmental effects, other cases might not be so clear cut. As science writer Ben Goldfarb remarks, “We introduce exotic species, then stamp them out; we poison California condors and breed them in captivity; we drain the planet’s wetlands and excavate ersatz ones.” We have to be careful in our modifications not to work against nature, making mistakes that we later have to rectify. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

Partisans of ES will find it easy to invoke this framework when the valuation is favorable, and pivot to arguments resting on intrinsic value when it’s not. Intrinsic value is defined as the value something has as an end in itself, and it undergirds questions of how we should behave toward entities that matter morally in their own right. For instance, Wise and Borry also claim that mosquitoes may be “moral patients,” or beings that are worthy of moral consideration. Even if A. gambiae does not contribute to overall ecosystem health, they assert that there may be a moral case to be made on their behalf. If a species is sentient (capable of experiencing pain and pleasure), then perhaps its value lies in it being a subject-of-a-life 8 8 This term comes from animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who argued that all species have intrinsic value because they are subjects-of-a-life. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote rather than in any economic value we can derive from it. However, under a strict ecosystem services evaluation, it’s likely that A. gambiae would warrant eradication—after all, they are a measurable detriment to human well-being on virtually every metric.

Instrumental value is at the core of ecosystem services. This is the notion that non-human animals and ecosystems are valuable because of what they do, not what they are. Instrumental value refers to the worth of something insofar as it provides a means to some desirable end. Monetary prices can reflect instrumental value, serving as a way to compare the value of otherwise incomparable objects. However, we also value things as ends in themselves—many people profess to love nature and non-human animals because of a sense that they are intrinsically valuable. 9 9 To the degree that nature “makes us happy”, then what seems to be an intrinsically valuable aspect of nature may in fact be an instrumental value. In other words, we like nature for the happiness it produces. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote The problem is that it is difficult to quantify this type of value. The strength of ES is due to its focus on quantifiable instrumental value, which is communicated via prices. But it would be a mistake to think that this metric fully encompasses human values.

There is also another kind of value that is worth considering—option value. In a paper about the economics of agrobiodiversity, option value is defined as “the option to use [natural resources] under future uncertain technological, market, or environmental conditions.” Option value protects against downside risk—it is a form of risk insurance. In the event of a large-scale civilizational collapse where humanity loses access to chemical fertilizers, humanity will have to go back to using feces as fertilizer. We may once again rely on guano-covered outcroppings, or on leaching chemicals from burnt wood to make soap. In this respect, precaution might dictate conservation, alongside immediate economic evaluations.

Due to its focus on instrumental value, it seems likely that ES will become obsolete in technologically advanced futures. If humanity ends up synthesizing all medicines in labs, rather than finding them in old-growth forests, the monetary value of these ecosystems will radically plummet. Similarly, if we distribute pollen without the use of bees, will there be any reason to protect them according to ES? The researcher Lauren Holt sums this up nicely when she writes, “much policy on conservation and environmental management rests on the utilitarian argument that degrading the biosphere is bad as it harms present and future human lives, but this tacitly assumes our dependence upon it.” Once we have “solar geoengineering to alter the temperature of our planet; microbe-based agriculture that can enhance photosynthesis to grow food under artificial light underground; and even ‘sea-steading’ to move entire communities offshore,” then appealing to the usefulness of nature might start to sound quaint and outdated. 10 10 Even if these future possibilities are not inevitable, or may happen in very different ways than we imagine, they are illustrative of many real efforts to enlist biotechnology to increase our resilience. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

There are countless examples of how we have engineered our way out of previous environmental challenges. Due to our agricultural technology, Earth’s carrying capacity has proven far larger than previously anticipated,  while human ingenuity has made up for environmental degradation by breeding novel crop varieties and using fossil fuels to produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides. In his book The Wizard and The Prophet, environmental journalist Charles Mann notes that “today, almost half of the crops consumed by humankind depend on nitrogen derived from synthetic fertilizers. Another way to put this is to say that Bosch and Haber enabled our species to extract an additional 3 billion people’s worth of food from the same land.” While there are many who doubt that this kind of innovation can continue, or disparage these kinds of solutions as “techno-salvationism,” these examples illustrate that the perennial fear of “natural limits” may be overblown. However,  skeptics might just be worrying for the future of nature if it becomes economically worthless.

In his book, The Insect Crisis, environmental reporter Oliver Milman reminds us that we actually live in an invertebrate’s world. He writes that, “the globe is not filled with people or sheep or even rats but beetles—350,000 species and counting.” Indeed, the median living organism on this planet has 6 legs. While Milman doesn’t claim that their interests supersede ours, he reminds us that we are outweighed by them, if not overpowered. Even if insects are not moral patients, we share this world with other morally worthy inhabitants, and we have their fate in our hands. But we may not always be the earth's stewards. As you read this, researchers are busy developing superintelligent AIs which they hope to program with our values—and all that entails. In a machine-centric world, one can imagine spirited debates about the worth of human beings. 11 11 In a paper, arguing for the moral consideration of future animals, Heather Browning and Walter Veit agree that, “It is also possible that the future will not be dominated by either humans or nonhuman animals but digital beings - sentient AIs.” Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Should this happen, the question becomes: How would we want AIs to value us when we are no longer of use to them?

About the author

Xander Balwit

Xander Balwit is a writer, and editor at Asimov Press.