Featured Article

The Metrics of Making Ecosystem Services

Author: Pamela McElwee
Volume 8, Number 1 (2017)

A weir was built on the Humber River (Ontario) to prevent a recurrence of a catastrophic flood. Flood control is an example of a regulating ecosystem service (photograph by Risker via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).


Ecosystem services (ES) are increasingly used as the conceptual driver for conservation and development actions, largely following from the influential Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Scholars skeptical of the neoliberal turn in conservation have critiqued the use of economic values for nature’s services. What has been less well understood and reviewed, however, is how concepts of ES are enacted by technologies of calculation, as well as how calculative practices move through networks and among stakeholders. This review traces how definitions and metrics of ES have evolved and how they are used, such as in biodiversity offsetting and wetland mitigation programs. Using the idea of the creation and deployment of calculative mechanisms, this article discusses how these processes proceed in different ES contexts, assesses what work has to happen ontologically to make ES commensurable and circulatable, and speculates on what the opportunities for future pathways other than commodification are.

PAMELA MCELWEE is Associate Professor of human ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her current research deals with the impacts of policies for payments for environmental services and REDD+. She is the author of Forests Are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam (University of Washington Press, 2016), and is the coeditor, with Maria L. Cruz-Torres, of Gender and Sustainability: Lessons from Asia and Latin America (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

Tags: calculationcarboncommodificationecosystem servicesmeasurementmetrology