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Should biodiversity and nature have to earn their keep? What it really means to bring environmental goods into the marketplace


Pursuit of economic gain has sponsored much of our planet’s despoliation. Yet conservation increasingly operates as an economic sector that markets biodiversity, ecosystems, and nature as natural capital, service provider, or option value. This essay first elucidates what basic moral theory says about the principle that the goodness of biodiversity and nature is largely economic. It explains why economic valuations may be morally unimportant, inapt for environmental goods, and subversive of more important ideals. It also shows why neither econometric notions of option value nor Daniel Faith’s qualitative one credibly applies. The essay then turns to what an economic conception of goodness implies for conservation practice. It refers to two prominent conservation organizations, whose conservation principles match the market-based ones of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s. The environmental record of the latter organization’s practices according to these principles predicts what their adoption for conservation entails.

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  1. An improbable example may nonetheless vividly illustrate the concept of normative relevance. My aversion to (or strong preference against) orange outerwear is not an important reason for my fellow boaters not to pull on orange flotation vests.

  2. The First Fundamental Theorem specifies idealized conditions under which any competitive market economy at equilibrium achieves Pareto efficiency. The Second Fundamental Theorem specifies conditions under which any given Pareto-efficient state can be achieved at some market equilibrium via redistribution of property and initial endowments.

  3. This fact that has not escaped others—for example, Meinard et al. (2016) and Silvertown (2015).

  4. The story of a youth entranced by bugs and by patterns in nature is the first paragraph of Stanford ecologist Rodolfo Dirzo's Ecological Society of America profile from 2004 ( However, after joining Stanford that year, his publications (for example, recently in Ceballos et al. 2017) express concerns for nature principally (or perhaps entirely) as a service-providing engine. Yet I have observed the Prof. Dirzo of his ESA profile in a Stanford classroom—passionately marveling at patterns of plant–herbivore interaction, punctuating his remarks with exclamations about how beautiful they are, rather than about how proficient they are at providing useful services.

  5. This connection may be partly explained by the facts that the Chief Scientist of the World Bank, an embodiment of economic development, co-chaired the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and that Hal Mooney co-chaired the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Panel, was part of the core writing team for the MA Synthesis, and was centrally involved in the IPBES' establishment (see main text below and Note 6).

  6. Mooney is not alone in promoting natural capitalist ideas through multiple organizational roles. Among others is Heather Tallis, a co-author of the IBES framework papers, a "strategic advisor" of the Natural Capital Project, and the Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy.

  7. The WBCSD's consistent track record of profitability contrasts with, and far surpasses, scattered and recalcitrant experiments (such as Rickett's bees, section “How economic valuations are inapt for environmental goods”) in fulfilling Gretchen Daily's Quest to Make Conservation Profitable.


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The author is grateful to his hosts Nathalie Seddon at Oxford University, and Arne Mooers at Simon Fraser University, and for the spirited engagement of audiences at those universities as well as at the meetings of the International Society for Environmental Ethics for the roles of all these persons in catalyzing the development and presentation of this essay’s ideas. The author would also like to express his great gratitude to two Ambio reviewers whose acute questions and comments were the basis for significant improvements in the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Donald S. Maier.

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Maier, D.S. Should biodiversity and nature have to earn their keep? What it really means to bring environmental goods into the marketplace. Ambio 47, 477–492 (2018).

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  • Biodiversity
  • Economic value
  • Ecosystem services
  • Markets
  • Option value
  • Sustainable development