My photographic practice evolved under the influence of critical theories of ecological economics, emphasized by thinkers as Hermann Daly, who was one of the first to offer an integrated economy-environment model (Daly, 1968) and wrote extensively on the subject of the differences of sustainability from pure economic growth and the dangers that the latter brings manifested in environmental pollution, resource depletion and the destruction of biodiversity.

Other ecological economists of note that would be relevant include Robert Ayres, who famously wrote about the traditional economists understanding of substitution of factors of production in economic system and I extend this analogy to the ecosystems too, the latter being even more complex and non-linear. Important here are the works by Joan Martinez-Alier et al (1998), who postulated in 1998 that incommensurability of values is an important foundation of ecological economics, a premise that I shared entirely.
In the influential ‘Valuing nature’ volume, published in 1999 a plethora of ecological economists argued that cost-benefit analysis was not the appropriate measuring rod for assessing the value of nature and hey, it is 2018 and we are still having the same debated as 20 years ago.

Richard Norgaard has emphasized that what initially has been a promising metaphor, ecosystem services, turned into an opportunity to apply economic valuation approaches to something that ecological economists think should not be assessed in money alone (Norgaard, 2010). According to Norgaard, ‘ecosystem service metaphor now blinds us to the complexity of natural systems’ (Ibid), the fact that he attributes to the use of the ‘stock-flow’ framework in thinking about the processes happening in ecosystems that are affecting us. Norgaard criticizes the ‘partial equilibrium’ approaches that allow monetary valuation of specific ecosystem services on a case-by-case basis. Another significant point of criticism is that institutional framework for reducing the impact on ecosystems is currently lacking: ‘The flurry of enthusiasm for optimizing the economy by including ecosystem services has blinded us to the more important question of how we are going to make the substantial institutional changes to significantly reduce human pressure on ecosystems’ (Ibid).

Erik Gomez-Baggethun shared the concern that ecosystem services, acting as a ‘pedagogical concept designed to raise public interest for biodiversity conservation, towards increased emphasis on how to cash ecosystem services as commodities on potential markets’ (Gomez-Baggethun et al, 2010). Gomez-Baggethun emphasized the principle of strong sustainability and limits to substitutability of man-made and natural capital. He also refers to the work of Martinez-Alier and colleagues (Martinez-Alier et al, 1998) on incommensurability of values as a foundation of ecological economics and that “ environmental decision-making is faced with conflicting valuation languages that may not be commensurable in monetary terms”. He supports the idea expressed in Shmelev (2012) that “environmental decision making tools reducing ecosystem-service values to a single measuring rod – e.g., extended cost-benefit analysis” need to be “critically appraised” and that “deliberative and multi-criteria based decision processes” have much stronger explanatory power than monetary tools.

Spangenberg and Settle (2010) criticize Payments for Ecosystem Services approaches for the fact that they are ‘based on a ‘beneficiary pays’ rather than the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The authors assert that “ecosystem functions are not distinct but mutually defining and interdependent— while services are so by definition” (Ibid). Spangenberg and Settle underline that ‘The political argumentation (ecosystem functions as a basis for survival and development) has not been extremely successful in the communication to decision makers’ (Ibid). The authors point out that ‘Pavan Sukhdev, coordinator of the TEEB report, the international study assessing the value of biodiversity, consider valuation a key means for conserving biodiversity. In the introduction to the interim report he claims that the ‘‘lack of valuation is, we are discovering, an underlying cause for the observed degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity’’’. Considering the basis of economic valuation, the authors point out that ‘for almost every good and service there is a functionally equivalent substitute, by definition (if not yet, rising prices will certainly stimulate technological development to provide one: economics is based on optimism as much as religion is based on belief)’ and highlight this as a major problem in transferring the economic logic to ecosystems operating on an entirely different basis. Discounting issues are mentioned as another potential problem with economic valuation. The authors share the concern that ‘The risk of valuation is to get the figures wrong, and it is unavoidable. More serious, however, is the risk from valuation— that the application of economic instruments becomes an end in itself and gains primacy over the initial purpose, protecting ecosystems and their services’ (Ibid).

Arild Vatn discusses the limits of using artificial markets to save ecosystems. He shares the figure of USD 23.5 billion, reflecting the magnitude of Payment for Ecosystem Services projects with intermediaries in 2009. Vatn emphasizes that 99.9% of USD 14 bnl payments for watershed projects have been raised by public authorities, the same applied to 70% of funding in the case of USD 7.3 bln for landscape beauty and recreation. In relation to biodiversity protection, according to Vatn, 99% of USD 1.465 bln funding has come from public funds. Only carbon sequestration projects largely focused on forests and land use have attracted 92% of USD 170mln from private sources. This clearly illustrates a problematic nature of the newly created market.

Peter Soderbaum argued that assessing nature in money was wrong for reasons of “strategy of pointing to many kinds of difficulties of monetary valuation (with intrinsic value, irreversibility, uncertainty etc.), while still insisting on CBA, amounts to a kind of double-talk”. (Soderbaum, 2013). The author highlights the fact that ‘Objections are down-played or neglected. It is perfectly reasonable to argue, for instance, that a biodiversity loss represents an infinite value implying that the trade-off philosophy in monetary terms is no longer meaningful. Many of us ecological economists have for conceptual and ideological reasons rejected “weak sustainability”. Why should we now advocate this trade-off philosophy in monetary terms? In the TEEB study neoclassical economics is the norm and the ideology built into neoclassical theory cannot be seriously questioned or discussed”. Peter Soderbaum’s observation that ‘In the TEEB-study neither ‘ideology’ nor ‘democracy’ appears in the subject index at the end of the book’ is very telling. He clearly points out to the lack of concern or transparency in relation to the framework or the decision making paradigm that is proposed for correcting market failures in relation to ecosystems and biodiversity. The author adds that ‘Identifying a “mainstream” and eliminating everything that departs from it is then not a very good idea. As I see it, this is what the persons responsible for the TEEB-project are trying to do’.

In this context, the photobook on Ecosysems that I am currently working on is becoming ever more topical.
Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 13.38.38
Source: Shmelev, S.E. (2018) ECOSYSTEMS (work in progress).

The most recent set of images, ‘The Sacred Sand’ made in Dubai, UAE after my exhibition at INDEX 2018 is a good case in point. THE SACRED SAND. What appeared to be an undisturbed desert ecosystems where lonely camels are crossing the dunes leaving effective shadows on the sand, turned out to be a massive tourist attraction with over 200 4x4s roaming the desert not leaving any chance for any wildlife to survive. The plastic bottles found in abundance have aggravated the situation even further. And this is supposed to be the landscape that the local residents deem sacred and that defines their cultural identity. This trip indeed has raised even more questions than were answered.

The images made in Dubai will be incorporated into a new book I am designing with the help of University of Reading MA students. To bring this project to fruition, we will need to raise around £5000. You are most welcome to contribute anything from £100 (which will entitle you to a copy of a book the moment it is available) to £1000 (which will get you a stunning limited edition print on aluminium under acrylic glass, 60×40 cm, that will delight you and your guests for years to come). If you would like to support this project, please click the ‘donate’ button on our website: DONATE


Daly, H. (1968) On Economics as a Life Science, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 76, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1968), pp. 392-406

Gomez-Baggethun, E., de Groot, R., Lomas, P. L., Montes C. (2010) The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early
notions to markets and payment schemes, Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 1209–1218

Martinez-Alier J., Munda, G., O’Neil, J. (1988) Weak comparability of values as a foundation for ecological economics, Ecological Economics 26 (1998) 277–286

Norgaard, R. (2010) Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder, Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 1219–1227

Soderbaum, P. (2013) Ecological economics in relation to democracy, ideology and politics, Ecological Economics 95 (2013) 221–225.

Spangenberg, J.H, Settle, J. (2010) Precisely incorrect? Monetising the value of ecosystem services, Ecological Complexity 7 (2010) 327–337

Spash, C., Vatn, A. (2006) Transferring environmental value estimates: Issues and alternatives, Ecological Economics, 60 (2006), 379–388.

Vatn, A. (2015) Markets in environmental governance. From theory to practice, Ecological Economics 117 (2015) 225–233


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