Ecosystem Services, Context and the Social Basis for Conservation: The Case of Insect Pollination Benefits to Lowbush Blueberry
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The conservation of ecosystems is increasingly justified on the basis of the human welfare they generate. Since many of the “services” supplied by ecosystems are not currently captured in markets, advocates of ecosystem service value (ESV) assert that the social basis for conservation can be revealed through estimating the hidden welfare benefits. But, despite a number of ESV-inspired initiatives, global ecological degradation continues to accelerate, suggesting that the social basis for conservation remains elusive. I locate the possibility for conservation in the present through a critique of ESV. I begin by focusing on methodological problems associated with a well-defined ecosystem service: insect pollination of agricultural crops. My review of global scale pollinator valuations indicates that current efforts fail to: 1) decouple contributions of wild pollinator species (i.e., the focus of conservation) from those of managed species, 2) adequately assess pollinator yield benefits relative to the dynamic and heterogeneous character of agricultural production, and 3) consider the complex character of agricultural commodity markets leading to an exaggeration of the impact of pollinator declines on agricultural prices. Next, I tested the assumption that yield in highly pollinator-dependent crops is strictly pollen limited through an empirical study of lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). Experimentally I demonstrate that although berry set is related to pollinator abundance, this is only the case if pests and diseases are controlled. Moreover, a two-year multivariate study of berry set and yield in commercial fields demonstrates that variation in pollinator visitation rate has an inconsistent effect on berry set and is clearly governed by other agronomic factors. My initial focus on the methodological shortcomings of ESV implies that conservation would advance if only the technical deficiencies of current ESV calculations were addressed. Yet it is precisely this focus on the technical dimensions of ESV methodology that disconnects the practice of valuation from the various ways it is presently taken up in society. After reviewing various criticisms of ESV, I develop a critical theory approach that stipulates that the possibility for conservation cannot be separated from the social context that presently gives rise to ESV.