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Revisiting Ecosystem Services: Assessment and Valuation as Starting Points for Environmental Politics

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The paradigm of ecosystem services (ES) and the methods of monetary valuation have become boundary objects, spanning disciplines and earning particular purchase in policy circles. However, the notion of ES and ES valuation have also been subjected to multiple critiques, ranging from their varying precision to the potential for neoliberalization of nature. This paper does not attempt to refute such critiques but rather revisits the potentials of the ES paradigm and the specific method of benefit transfer valuation for their utility as a form of environmental politics and sustainability practice. We find they have particular relevance in contexts where “data” are not readily available or are not legible to policy makers as well as where the imperative of “development” remains ideological. We argue for ES assessment and, specifically, rapid ES valuation as a first-pass tactic to inform evaluation of potentially environmentally degrading projects or environmental management. We demonstrate this using a simple benefit transfer analysis to offer an initial evaluation of (wet) landscape ES in a lightly touched estuary in Karnataka, India, where a state-backed proposal to develop an industrial shipping port is gathering steam. While we recognize and do not categorically reject critiques of the ES paradigm, we nonetheless argue for valuation as a starting point for politics that highlight and make visible ES benefits and users implicated by “development” and other kinds of environmental change.

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