In my Commentary “Selling out on nature” (Nature 443, 27–28; 2006) I argue that ecosystem services can and should be cautiously applied in certain contexts to advance nature conservation. To characterize this discussion as a polarized face-off between proponents of ecosystem services and advocates for nature's inherent values is to have misunderstood my viewpoint. I offer below some responses to specific points raised in criticism of my position.
I concede to anyone wishing to argue that the cultural, historical and aesthetic values of nature can in fact be considered “ecosystem services”. This difference seems largely semantic. Call them what you wish, so long as they are made important in conservation.
I cannot agree that the citizens of developing nations are unable to recognize the inherent worth of nature or act to protect it. Many so-called 'poor' cultures have intense legacies of respect for and stewardship of nature. Furthermore, this viewpoint ignores centuries of sacrifice made by severely impoverished people to morally inspired causes such as religion, politics and social movements that did not make them money or directly improve their livelihoods. I simply do not believe that nature is a luxury of the rich.
Although I agree that there is no harm in emphasizing the usefulness of nature, I reassert that there may be harm in overemphasizing this utilitarian worth. The roof of the Sistine Chapel is stunningly beautiful and has much intrinsic value. It also serves to keep the rain out of the church. Pointing out the practical benefits that nature confers will assist conservation so long as these are properly contextualized with and do not harmfully obscure the importance of nature's immense aesthetic worth. Using a diverse approach in conservation will be useful in some circumstances, but in my opinion would not be as necessary if we worked sufficiently hard in the first instance to educate people about nature's intrinsic value.
My point in writing the Commentary was twofold: first, to encourage a critical review of the strengths and weaknesses of ecosystem services; and second, to more properly articulate an appropriate role for ecosystem services in conservation. I thank the authors of these Correspondence letters for assisting with both tasks.