Uncertain Ground Research on Soil "Ecosystem" Services and Natural Capital: A Critical Review


John Gowdy*

The concept of “ecosystem” services of soils has received a lot of attention in the scientific literature and the media in recent years. The monetary valuation of these services is frequently depicted as a fundamental condition for the preservation of the natural capital that soils represent, as required by many countries and international organizations. This emphasis on soil services is set in the context of a broader interest in ecosystem services that began in 1997 and accelerated after 2005. The detailed review of the literature offered in this article reveals that interest in soil multifunctionality dates back to the mid 1960’s, Hundreds of experts around the world were trying, and mostly failing, to figure out how to place real price tags on “nature’s services.” Since then, soil scientists have worked to better understand the numerous activities and services of soils, as well as their possible links to critical soil properties such as biodiversity. They’ve also attempted to make progress on the difficult quantitative issues. However, researchers have shown little interest in monetary valuation, undoubtedly because it is unclear what economic and financial markets would do with prices for soil functions/services, even if we could come up with such numbers, and because there is no guarantee that markets would manage soil resources optimally, based on neoclassical economic theory. Instead of monetary value, the research has focused on decision making processes that do not require the systematic monetization of soil functions/services, among other things. Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) methods easily incorporate deliberative procedures involving a range of stakeholders, whilst Bayesian Belief Networks (BBNs) provide the extra benefit of allowing the effect of parameter uncertainty to be accounted for Participants must be extremely aware of the extreme relevance of soils to many parts of their everyday lives in order to progress in such public debates. We believe that, as long as this criterion is met, the combination of deliberative decision making procedures and a rigorous scientific methodology to quantifying soil functions/services (including uncertainties) is a highly powerful combination.


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