The Critical Zone

Do Ecosystem Processes Have Value and Financial Worth?


Much of humanity tends to be oblivious to the role of nature in their lives. In North America, water comes from a faucet, food is gathered from stores, and toilets remove our waste. In less industrialized nations, much of the populace is too poor to concern themselves with natural ecological processes (though such processes may benefit their lives) as they deal more directly with poverty, hunger, and disease. But as the effect of humanity on nature has begun to deteriorate our lives and increase the need for engineering responses to our degradations, more scientists, planners, and citizens have begun to realize the value of a healthy, operational Critical Zone—various groups have gone as far as to estimate the financial value of such processes while others argue that such a move denigrates the natural world and attitudes toward it. You will read about this debate in the following activity.



  1. To learn about the debate regarding estimating the financial value of natural processes, read and discuss two important papers, one by Costanza et al. published in Global Environmental Change, and one by Gatto and De Leo published in BioScience.
    • Costanza et al., 2014, Changes in the global value of ecosystem services, Global Environmental Change, v. 26, 152-158.
    • Gatto, M., and G. De Leo. (2000). Pricing Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: The Never-Ending Story. BioScience, 50(4), 347–355. [Located in Library Reserves.]

Submitting your work

Upon completion of the reading, you are to engage in a discussion of the readings with the rest of the class. The class discussion will take place during the week of this lesson in a discussion forum in Canvas titled "Lesson 10 - Ecosystem Value Discussion."

  1. Enter the special discussion forum created; in Canvas (e.g., "Lesson 10 - Ecosystem Value Discussion").
  2. Use the following questions to guide your comments to the discussion noting that you do not need to address every question.
    • Regarding the Costanza et al. paper . . .
      • What are the merits of placing financial value on ecosystem services?
      • Is the biome approach detailed enough to include all important Critical Zone processes? Have the authors missed any important processes?
      • Is it reasonable to include cultural, specifically aesthetic and spiritual value in this assessment?
      • Is it reasonable for less-developed nations with high global ecosystem value to expect a transfer of wealth from those of us who have wealth but low global ecosystem value?
      • Use the map and table to estimate and describe the ecosystem value of your study site. Do you envision that this value is increasing or decreasing? What effect might global warming have on ecosystem value of your site? Should individual landowners be compensated for the value of an undeveloped site that provides high ecosystem service value?
    • Regarding the Gatto and DeLeo paper . . .
      • According to this paper, what are some of the problems associated with placing financial value on ecosystem services? Does their presentation have merit?
      • Is it realistic or advisable to separate specific ecosystem services and value them, when in fact ecosystem services are an interrelated aggregate of services?
      • Can a method be developed to ensure that organisms with a fundamental ecological function but low aesthetic appeal or recognition are properly valued?
      • How can global interests be transferred to the local level?
  3. Return to the discussion periodically to read your teammates postings and to respond by asking for clarification, asking a follow-up question, expanding on what has already been said, etc.

Grading criteria

You will be graded on the quality of your participation. See the grading rubric for specifics on how this assignment will be graded.

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To learn more about valuing ecosystem services, read the original Costanza et al. paper published in the elite journal Nature:

Costanza, R., d'Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., et al. (1997).The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387(6630), 253–260. doi: 10.1038/387253a0.

You may also find this Nature Comment by Costanza and Kubiszewski equally provocative and interesting.

Most of humanity forgets that pollinators and trees and the sun work for free, providing some of the many ecosystem services that benefit us. Listen to Paul Sutton, a geography professor at University of Denver who has calculated a dollar price of these services, explain how he made the calculations on this June 2014 edition of Living on Earth.

Nature's Dividend: ”Pricing Global Ecosystem Services"

Living on Earth
To learn about the concept of Critical Zone services, read the paper by Field et al. (2015).