Valuation of Biodiversity

The value of biodiversity has been considered from several points of view which can be classified in the following three broad categories: (1) esthetic, (2) ethical, and (3) economic. The esthetic point of view posits the idea that biodiversity includes a wealth of expressions of beauty equivalent to those found in the most esteemed collections of art work. Such an array of beauties ranges from vividly colored beetles and butterflies to whales and ancient forests. Moreover, these expressions of beauty are the result of very long evolutionary processes that exceed by far the age of the most ancient artwork.

The ethical point of view rests on the idea that biodiversity, by itself, has an intrinsic value. This point of view has its roots in philosophical beliefs and considerations that give other forms of life the same rights to exist and meet their needs as humans. This idea is complemented by the notion that Homo sapiens, the species currently monopolizing a large share of the energy and resources that support life on Earth, has the ethical responsibility to secure the preservation of other forms of life.

Economics criteria argue that biodiversity provides humanity with monetary revenues directly and indirectly. A classic example of a direct profit coming from biodiversity is illustrated by the variety of chemical compounds obtained from plants, animals, and microorganisms that function as a base for the active ingredients used in a large proportion of the available prescription drugs (e.g., digitalis, morphine, quinine, and antibiotics). In comparison, the notion of indirect profits of biodiversity rests in the realization that several organisms maintain and regulate processes that impact the quality of human life. For example, organisms inhabiting soil (e.g., earthworms and insects) are crucial for maintaining fertility and henceforth allow the growth of crops and forests. Another example is the case of plant pollinators. An important number of crops depend on the 'service' provided by wild pollinators. Efforts have been focused to estimate the economical cost that the loss of such ecological services might involve. In the case of pollination by native insects in the USA, a study estimated that the ecological service they provide is worth $3.07 billion per year.

Recent interest in biodiversity valuation has increased in response to the threats it is facing. In this regard, the different criteria we presented have more or less potential to play a role in increasing the awareness about the relevance of conserving biodiversity. Esthetic appreciation of biodiversity has the caveat that it is, in some sense, biased toward the small subset of species that are considered 'charismatic' such as whales or birds. Ethic considerations offer the most comprehensive valuation of biodiversity; however, it seems difficult that this type of philosophy will become internalized by a significant proportion of the humanity in the short term. Finally, the economic arguments are compelling and constitute a more tractable argument within the framework of formal markets. However, there are still a reduced number of cases where it has been possible to document with detail the economical value of the services provided by biodiversity. In the end, it is worth keeping in mind that the level of interrelatedness biological systems usually show, determines that the existence of charismatic, economical, or functionally valuable species depends on the maintenance of an unknown number of associated species and ecological processes.

An appealing approach, related to the three arguments referred to above, is that formulated by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA). As a large coalition of international conservation and development organizations, governments, and a significant representation of the scientific international community, the MEA has compiled the most thorough assessment of the state of the planet's ecosystems, emphasizing the goods and services they provide, and the likely effects of potential pathways of human economic development on the provisioning of such goods and services (scenarios) and the interrelations thereof with human well-being. We can summarize the logic of the relationships articulated by the MEA, in brief, as follows: biodiversity, represented by the genes, populations, species communities, and biomes, generates a series of supporting services resulting from ecosystem functioning. Such services, including primary production, nutrient cycling, and soil formation, are the basis for all other ecosystem services. The latter services belong to three major categories: (1) provisioning services, that is, products obtained from ecosystems, including food, fresh water, fuel wood, fiber, biochemical compounds, and a plethora of other genetic resources; (2) regulating services, those that produce benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes (e.g., climatic regulation, disease regulation, water regulation, air purification, pollination services, biological control); and (3) cultural services, the nonmaterial benefits obtained from ecosystems. These include the esthetic, inspirational, religious, and spiritual values offered by nature, recreation and tourism, educational services, and cultural heritages. The provisioning of such services impinges on human well-being in terms of affording basic materials for a dignified life, health, security, and good social relations. It is hoped that the framework of and the information summarized in the MEA, together with the formulation of future scenarios depending on different routes of economic development, will be used to guide policy regionally and globally. From a more ecological point of view, another interesting derivation of the MEA is that it can provide the framework to focus on the relevant research addressing the connections between biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services, and the influence of biodiversity on human well-being and vice versa.

See also: Applied Ecology.

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