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Destroying one ecosystem and constructing another: biodiversity offsetting and particular value

Suppose that the government is proposing a new policy regarding buildings of historical significance. Rather than simply banning the destruction of ‘listed’ buildings, the new policy would allow their destruction, provided that whoever destroys the building agrees to construct, somewhere nearby, a new building of a similar size, in a similar style, exhibiting a similar range of architectural innovations, and of a similar level of beauty. Blenheim Palace could be flattened and built over with a shopping mall and carpark, provided that mall developers agreed to construct a replica of the palace somewhere nearby.

Most would be disturbed by such a policy. Part of the reason that they would be disturbed, I presume, is that it seems to manifest a failure to recognise the true value of historical buildings. Not all of the value of historical buildings consists in their possession of generic properties like ‘being beautiful’, ‘being in the baroque style’ or ‘using space to dramatic effect’. Some of their value is value that they have as particular objects, and that could thus not be realised in any other object. Part of the value of Blenheim Palace derives from it’s being the birthplace of Winston Churchill. This value could not be realised in a replica of the palace built 5 miles down the road.

Of course, no-one is proposing a policy of sort I’ve just outlined. I bring it up because I think reflecting on this kind of case may throw some light on recent discussion regarding biodiversity offsetting (see, for example, here, here  and here).Under a policy of biodiversity offsetting, projects that would destroy natural ecosystems could be approved on the condition that the developer funds the creation of a similar ecosystem elsewhere. Some countries have already adopted the approach, and a number of others are considering it. The UK is coming to the end of a pilot scheme and the government supports pressing ahead with the policy. But many environmentalists object. One of the most vocal critics has been Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who criticises the policy on a number of grounds. Part of his concern appears to be of a ‘slippery slope’ variety. He is worried that adopting a policy of biodiversity offsetting now will make it easy for future regulators to lower the threshold for approving environmentally destructive projects. However, Monbiot also has more fundamental worries about the policy. He argues that offsetting

“… makes nature as fungible as everything else. No place is valued as a place: it is broken down into a list of habitats and animals and plants, which could, in theory, be shifted somewhere else. It subjects our landscape and wildlife to the same process of commodification that has blighted everything else the corporate economy touches. . .

Accept the principle of biodiversity offsetting and you accept the idea that place means nothing. That nowhere is to be valued in its own right any more, that everything is exchangeable for everything else, and nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of the graders and degraders. That is not an idea I find easy to swallow.”

One way of making sense of this concern would be to see it as a analogous to the concern I raised above regarding my imagined policy on listed buildings. Biodiversity offsetting may seem to involve failing to recognise the true value of ecosystems. Part of that value, it might be said, is a kind of value that each ecosystem has in virtue of the particular ecosystem that it is, and not in virtue of the generic properties that it possesses. The thought would then be that, even if one replaces an ecosystem with another ecosystem containing exactly the same range of species in the same kind of ecological balance, something of value will have been lost.

But how can we tell whether a natural ecosystem has significant ‘particular value’ of this sort? I think the comparison with historical buildings might be helpful here. In that case, the ‘particular value’ seems to derive from the significance of, well, the building’s history. Historical buildings may have particular value because their history is especially long, because it involved significant events or persons, or perhaps simply because few other buildings have the same sort of history (for example, a building might have particular value because it is the sole surviving building from a certain period). This may suggest that, to determine the particular value of an ecosystem, we will also need to look not just at it’s current features, but at it’s past. We will need to ask whether there is anything significant about the history of that ecosystem.

It seems that some ecosystems do have a significant history. Consider: in my home country, New Zealand, there are many ecosystems that are essentially ‘untouched’. They have never been the object of substantial, direct human interference. Of course they have been indirectly influenced by humans in a number of ways – for example, they’ve been affected by human-caused climate change and human-introduced predators. Still, they have not been directly tampered with, and they thus have a history that is both long and unusual. It seems plausible that part of the value of these ecosystems derives from their untouched nature. But clearly this value could not survive the kind of replacement involved in biodiversity offsetting. Were the forests of Fiordland burned down, and similar forests planted elsewhere, something would have been lost.

Other ecosystems may, however, have little particular value, because their history ihas been relatively short and uneventful, and is not unusual. And this may be true even if the ecosystem has great generic value, say, because it is beautiful and, from a biological point of view, thriving. In such cases, there may be little to be said against biodiversity offsetting, leaving aside concerns about how well the policy will be implemented.

Thinking about biodiversity offsetting through the lens of particular value also suggests that we should consider whether biodiversity offsetting could be done in such a way as to preserve that kind of value. If I burn down a forest and plant another one, clearly I have destroyed any particular value that the first forest might have had. But suppose the ecosystem in question is not a forest, but a bird colony. And suppose the biodiversity offset involves transplanting the existing members of that colony from one location to another. In this kind of case, it might seem that the post-transplantation colony is still the same colony as the pre-transplantation colony, and it might seem to retain any particular value that the initial colony possessed.


For further recent discussion of biodiversity offsetting in the UK, see here and here.

For the late G.A. Cohen’s influential discussion of particular value, see here.

For a discussion of Cohen’s views in relation to human enhancement, see this paper by some of my colleagues.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. The analogy between ecosystems and listed buildings isn’t entirely viable for the following two reasons:
    Ecosystems are dynamic – ever-changing, they adapt to changes in the environment over long periods of time. Buildings may age and that may add value to them, but ecosystems change their composition-nature’s cycles are always at play. This means we cannot predict what a particular ecosystem will bring in the future, so we are removing potential discoveries from future generations.
    Ecosystems are all integrated – borders are simply a human invention for making our lives easier. As with any biological definition, the lines are blurry as to what is considered part of an ecosystem and what isn’t. Whereas buildings have clear edges and walls, the natural world works by linking together what we see and separate as ecosystems.
    Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t think of a better analogy, and in the context of biodiversity offering it’s entirely appropriate, but as a biologist I wanted to mention a few points to remember when considering biological systems (mainly that they are always more complex than it seems).

  2. Thanks Konrad,

    Yes, I agree that there are several disanalogies between historical buildings and ecosystems, and the two that you mention are interesting. They certainly make it much harder to identify and individuate ecosystems.

    I guess it would in principle be possible to create a new ecosystem that has just the same potential for interesting kinds of self-transformation as the initial ecosystem, so I’m not sure that biodiversity offsetting would necessarily involve “removing potential discoveries from future generations”. But practically this might be very difficult.

  3. I get the idea that untouched places have one sort of value, overgrown ruins have another, managed landscapes a third and so on, but I don’t know if there’s a case for an ordinal ranking between these. Does anyone know of an argument for why we should place higher value on the things people haven’t touched, compared with those we have touched? If you want a portfolio of these systems then there may be a case for preserving the untouched, but if you want to maximise the number of untouched ecosystems, don’t you have to establish something like a justification for the ordinal ranking of value of these different systems?

    More generally I never know what to make of the idea of valuing “ecosystems”. What kind of value is it? (Appeals to aesthetic value seem to be part of it; but many writers on environmental ethics take a sniffy attitude to human-made stuff (the usual realm of the aesthetic)). Sometimes people invoke appeals to potential use value, but that’s often a pretty vague appeal. And what is it about ecosystems that’s of value? The mix of species? But that changes all the time. The particular species in the ecosystem? But then those are components, not the ecosystem. The system as a sort of attractor? Maybe, but it’s pretty abstract – personally I’m good with valuing these things as a bunch of equations, but that might not work for some people. As for place – I can see how geology shapes some spaces to be beautiful (e.g. Wakatipu Basin, Lake District) and others to be fairly plain (the Manawatu, the Midlands), but that’s rocks, by and large, not species.

  4. Eventually we will only have listed buildings as they gradually survive and those unlisted get replaced by those that become listed. Of course, as in the falling down listed former Mill in Rotherham that sits in the middle of the new flood plain, many will be a mess as it will be unaffordable to maintain them. At least ecosystems are mainly self-sustaining.

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