The goal of this paper is to illuminate the debate concerning the economics of ecosystem services. The sustainability debate focuses on whether or not ecosystem services are essential for human welfare and the existence of ecological thresholds. If ecosystem services are essential, then marginal analysis and monetary valuation are inappropriate tools in the vicinity of thresholds. The justice debate focuses on who is entitled to ecosystem services and the ecosystem structure that generates them. Answers to these questions have profound implications for the choice of suitable economic institutions. The efficiency debate concerns both the goals of economic activity and the mechanisms best suited to achieve those goals. Conventional economists pursue Pareto efficiency and the maximization of monetary value, achieved by integrating ecosystem services into the market framework. Ecological economists and many others pursue the less rigorously defined goal of achieving the highest possible quality of life compatible with the conservation of resilient, healthy ecosystems, achieved by adapting economic institutions to the physical characteristics of ecosystem services. The concept of ecosystem services is a valuable tool for economic analysis, and should not be discarded because of disagreements with particular economists' assumptions regarding sustainability, justice and efficiency. © 2012 Elsevier B.V.
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Farley J. Ecosystem services: The economics debate. Ecosystem services. 2012 Jul 1;1(1):40-9.