Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Monetizing Nature"

Neera Singh

I think it is critical that we pay attention to what monetization of nature and a certain way of valuing nature does to human ways of relating to nature and to each other (and to our humanity). What is the ontology of human beings (and the possibilities of human becomings) that underpin the ecosystem services and especially “payments for ecosystem services” discourse? We know the limitations of the Homo economicus model of human beings. The problem is not that we have gotten who we are as humans (and we can possibly be) wrong, but that this conception produces such beings and “payments for ecosystem services” extends this logic to a very sensitive area, that is, human-nature relations. Instead of a relational, communicative, empathetic being whose sense of the self can include a lot more that lies outside of one’s skin, the myopic visions of self and individual actors is dwarfing humans and distorting human subjectivities. The now-dominant ways of valuing nature molds human-nature relations using economic rationality as the frame. The substitution of affective and communicative ties with market-based exchange and a focus on suffering and sacrifice is really dangerous (conservation entails sacrifice and needs to be compensated with financial incentives).

A central problem in the current ways of valuing nature, as I see it, is about what is being valued in the process—ecosystem services (nature at the service of humans), even more expansively “nature,” or human-nature relationality and communicative possibilities. If we value the communicative relation that humans have (and can have) with nature/non-humans, and what Donna Haraway terms as the “encounter value” of these relations and inter- (and intra-) actions, then I believe that the conception of ecosystem services would transform.

For me, this interdependence is best put by a Dongaria Kondh woman, who as part of their struggle to save the Niyamgiri hill from mining in Odisha in India,
says, “We need the mountain, and the mountain needs us.” This interconnectedness and attention to human labor and care that goes into conservation is missing from the ecosystem services discourse that sees conservation only as a burden—and not as a potentially joyful activity that can bring people together, and can lead us to become better humans.

How can we honor the gift of conservation care labor that goes into the production of ecosystem services in ways that it is seen as a gift rather than as production of a service whose exchange can be sealed with a payment? And can we see these gifts—gifts by nature, by people who live in ecologically sensitive landscapes, gifts emerging from human-nature relations—as invitation for long-term exchanges in sharing the burden and joy of environmental care? For a start, we need ecological humanities (and even possibly posthumanities) in addition to just ecological economics.


Neera Singh
Neera Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto, and founder of Vasundhara, a non-profit organization based in Bhubaneswar, India.

Cite as Neera Singh, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Monetizing Nature," Great Transition Initiative (August 2014),

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