The economic valuation of nature: A question of justice?

For our first RAD.GE session of 2017 we read Brett Matulis The economic valuation of nature: A question of justice? To complement this, we also included Esteve Corbera’s  (2015) Valuing nature, paying for ecosystem services and realizing social justice: A response to Matulis alongside Matulis’ (2015) Valuing nature: A reply to Esteve Corbera. All three are short commentaries initially published in the journal Ecological Economics.

Why did we pick these readings?

– Payment for ecosystem services (PES) and the monetary valuation of nature has emerged as a dominant neoliberal paradigm in conservation discourse and practice over the last decade. Matulis’ critique allowed us to engage with the theoretical and ideological concerns raised by such a turn, and the inherent contradictions embedded within it.

– As an issue that unites the ‘human’ and ‘physical’ aspects of Geography, these readings had obvious appeal across the Institute and the wider School of Geosciences within which we are based.

– Brett Matulis (now based at Leicester University) wrote these commentaries whilst completing his doctoral thesis here at Edinburgh. As an old-time member of RAD.GE, we thought it would be suitable to kick off by reading something from a former colleague.

Key points discussed

It is obvious that Corbera is taking a pragmatic approach to PES, while Matulis is questioning it on theoretical/philosophical grounds. But given the crises of conservation and biodiversity loss, how can these two opposing narratives talk to each other in order to solve the problem?

Given that we are operating within mostly a capitalist economic framework, why not try and find economic solutions to stop ecosystem degradation? Irrespective of what we do, we still remain framed within a capitalist system.

In response to these points it was argued:

– By accepting and normalising the monetary valuation of the human and non-human world, we enable capitalist approaches to become more pervasive.
‘Capitalism’ is never complete, but rather relies on continuous (uneven) extension and expansion. The parameters of what is and what is not commodified are consistently contested.

– One member brought forward an example to explain this. A student had actually filed a complaint, asking for a refund of £67 from the University based on his overall tuition fee, as a lecturer had missed an hour of class time as he was unwell.

– This highlighted how the economic construction of a student as a ‘customer’ can produce different pathologies.

– Matulis (2014) talks about the need to explore alternatives to monetary valuation of nature, such as degrowth, re-commonisation and social economy which can be engaged with as an alternative.

– It is important that we should remember to ask/decide what should and should not be valorised in these terms.

– What is the role of state in PES? There was a discussion around this, as within this debate, state-based approaches to conservation are seen to fall outside neoliberal conservation. In fact, PES is seen as an alternate to state-led conservation, which is deemed to have not worked well (which Corbera also refers to). But some members felt that neoliberalism is a larger construct within which state approaches are also framed. Just because it’s a government approach, doesn’t mean it’s by default not driven by capitalist agendas.

– We discussed the possibility of subverting the PES framework–using the language of neoliberal economics to gain resources/influence, whilst retaining a focus on social justice. Whilst there was some belief this could work on a small-scale, we also discussed the symbolic power inherent in the language of commodification.

– Given that we are witnessing monetisation of almost every aspect of human life and practices, are there examples of successful push back against capitalist modes of organising society? To this question by a member debates the following:

– The squatting movement in Spain.
– Re-municipalization of water services in several cities in Europe.
– The potential of communal land trusts in Scotland (though it is doubtful if this ‘remove’ land from circulation as capital, it constitutes a different form of capital).

Questions for authors

– The way both authors have framed the word ‘market’ is problematic. Markets pre-date capitalism (and it remains an enduring myth of mainstream Economics to subsume the latter into the former as an act of discursive naturalisation).  By conflating markets with capitalism repeatedly–whether through ‘market-based instruments’ in Corbera or ‘market-based approaches’ in Matulis–both authors seem to be naturalising capitalism as organic to social evolution. Given that it’s clear from all the readings that both authors clearly do not support such naturalisation, they should have foregrounded their meanings of these foundational terms.

– Members raised the point that both authors have not dealt with the issue of knowledge and power in the context of PES, which deserved a fair bit of attention. The process by which ‘nature’ is made ‘legible’ through quantification and measurement, and how ‘ecosystem services’ get gleaned out from being local ecology (soil) into a parcelled global commodity (carbon) through the enrollment of Western scientific expertise (through consultants, researchers, scientists), has underlying issues of unevenness of knowledge exchange between the Global North & South, and is also a social justice issue. But this doesn’t seem to find space within this debate. PES changes not only the way land is treated but how it is known.

– A member pointed at Matulis’ (2014:155) problematic articulation of indigenous communities and ‘methods of resource management’. In indigenous contexts, the relationship between humans and non-humans is not necessarily one of ‘management’. Also, it was stressed that in several cases, resistance to neoliberal approaches to nature conservation do come from the ‘intrinsic’ valuation of nature based on culture (aesthetics, nationalist politics, etc.)

– We felt that, given the piece appeared in Ecological Economics, that it did not do enough to explain what Neil Smith’s thesis on uneven development means in relation to this debate, something several members were unclear on. In short, Matulis could (should?) have made it clearer that isolated examples of ‘success’ in certain places is par the course of a broader uneven development in which capitalism relies on the accumulation of both wealth and poverty. The great virtue of Smith’s thesis is to see beyond the isolation of certain case studies, but to consider them within a more systemic whole. As a stylistic observation, we felt that radical interventions (particularly outwith their ‘comfort zone’ in terms of publication) should take care to explain rather than presume knowledge of such key ideas.


Corbera, E. 2015. ‘Valuing nature, paying for ecosystem services and realising social justice: A response to Matulis’, Ecological Economics, 110:154-157

Matulis, B.S. 2015. ‘Valuing nature: A reply to Esteve Corbera’, Ecological Economics, 110:158-160

Matulis, B.S. 2014. ‘The economic valuation of nature: a question of justice?’, Ecological Economics, 104:155-157


5 thoughts on “The economic valuation of nature: A question of justice?

  1. Dear RAD members,

    thanks for dedicating a discussion space to my conversation with Brett Matulis, who I have not the pleasure to meet but that I respect strongly. My reaction to his paper was not a result of fundamentally “disagreeing” with his views, but to demand some precision in the way he/many of us articulated discourses for or against PES, and the economic valuation of ecosystem services more broadly. In spite of such desire, I should acknowledge that my response was also imprecise, since the issues you raise about a) the need to be more explicit about the linkage between markets and capitalism -in a historical perspective- and b) how PES features in a broader process of uneven development between rich and poor, across and within countries, are fair points and deserved further reflection.

    My piece, in any case, had no intention to go beyond the issues raised by Matulis himself. For my own reflection on issues related to PES and the production or prioritisation of certain knowledge over others, see Kosoy and Corbera (2010), Corbera and Brown (2009), Corbera and Martin (2015), in which I do highlight the perverse role of scientific knowledge in legitimising carbon forestry and side-lining particular valuations of such forests.

    Thanks once again, and hope to be crossing paths soon with some of you!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear RADGE,

    Thanks for this! Great to see such thoughtful engagement. You identify some important points, particularly with regard to uneven development and knowledges of nature. As for intrinsic values, you’re right, they do underpin some of the resistance to the neoliberalisation of nature. But I’m still of the mind that it’s the wrong battle to fight. I recently made the case for a form of “social instrumentalism” in conservation debates that moves beyond intrinsic values and (capitalist) economic instrumentalism:

    I hope to catch up with you all soon, meet new members, and hopefully you too at some point Esteve.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear RAD.GE,

    Looks like it was interesting meeting and discussion. Agree with the observation that state approaches are increasingly framed by the use of monetary valuation. Look no further than the Scots. Govt agenda on Natural Capital. You might also be aware or perhaps let those interested know, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Forum on Natural Capital are organising the 3rd World Forum on Natural Capital to be held in Edinburgh during the autumn. It’s a high profile event and attracts many conservation and business advocates of Nat Cap from around the world. The reason I mention this, is that there may be scope to get involved in the event and create a platform which discusses some of the challenges and critiques your group has highlighted.

    I’ve been to many panel discussions on this over the last few years, and one finds that each party, be it the geographers, economists or ‘pragmatic ecologist’ who get wheeled out simply talk to each other in their own language. There is no meaningful conversation. So, there may be opportunity to help shape this session.

    One may choose simply not to get involved in this endeavour; simply engaging may promote another ‘discursive naturalisation’. However, I suspected many of the people attending the last event, were generally good people, seeking guidance rather than opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

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