Ecosystem services: Do you know what it is yet?

As environmental issues increasingly dominate global policy is the concept of ecosystem services the business of tomorrow or just another fad?

Is it all blown out of proportion?

The 21st century has born witness to the birth of new ideas, concepts and theories along with the new lexicon and jargon that accompany them. The presence and instantaneous access to information has resulted in the wider public having access to this emerging professional language to a degree no society has had before. Words which were the realm of the academic and the professional have entered wider society, but often with the associated unfamiliarity of the untrained exposed to the expression of the moment.

One of these terms could be considered to be that of ecosystem services (ES). This is a term whose utility has exploded since its introduction by Ehrlich and Ehrlich in 19811, becoming the dominant model for environmental policy with an accompanying industry of professionals2. The term was originally intended to be a metaphor for the ‘delusion of economic growth’ and to illustrate man’s ties with his environment2. Since it has evolved into the ‘dominant model’ for our institutional valuation of the environment2, but confusion over its definition is not limited to the untrained.

The term “ecosystem services” has a longer history than its origins in 1981 and an essence of “things that people receive from the environment” can be seen in Leopold’s land ethic3 and further back to 1864 in Marsh’s Man and Nature1. This has transferred forward to the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) and the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) of the UK where ES have become commoditised and priced.

But was ES ever intended to be this big and how can we use it in a meaningful manner? Many ecologists accept  that we do ‘not have the predictive capacity to identify the sustainable use of any particular ecosystem’2, but we continue to attempt to wrestle this uncertain world into a Neo-Classical ideal that does not work so well at our over-extended limits4.

So why it’s importance and what is it?

The seminal work of the MEA defines ES as the ‘benefits people obtain from ecosystems’5,which are in turn split into a framework of four different categories (Supporting, Provisioning, Regulating and Cultural). This is an evolution from the existential definition offered by Daily which defines ES as ‘the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life’6. The shift from the existential to the material can be seen in 1997 where the first valuation of global ES took place, estimating a global value of ‘US$16-54 trillion (1012)per year’7. ES now had a price and could now be comprehended beyond the complexities and intricacies of scientific uncertainty, the first attempt at correcting the environmental market failure.

Despite this there are multiple factors within the ES concept that are contested between disciplines. The function of an ecosystem can be taken to mean its “capability”8 although it could also mean the processes inherent to an ecosystem (e.g. predation). This ambiguity leads Wallace to claim that all structures and functions are the same9 while Fisher advocates a differentiation between “final” and “intermediate” services1. This is in part to remove the errors of “double-counting” in order to ascertain a services’ true value by accounting for processes and structures that lead to its availability. This is complicated as many “intermediate” services may be involved in the delivery of more than one “final” service. Would it be correct to count these intermediates twice, or to account for the market value of a “final” by valuing each “intermediate” that enables it? These are logistical problems that can in part be overcome by clarified definitions and common approaches to valuation techniques.

Boyd and Banzhaf identify that ecology and economics have ‘failed to standardise’ an ES definition10. They therefore propose that services are the components directly consumed by people, separating services from benefits10. This raises an important distinction and highlights an even more entrenched view of the anthropocentric nature of ES. The most common break down of ES are as advocated by the MEA, this is contested by Boyd and Banzhaf who ascertain that only Provisioning services are true services at all as they result in products available for direct human consumption. The others are regarded to be merely benefits.

To further this complication there is ambiguity between the environmental concept of a service and the economic term “goods”. The NEA manages this issue by  treating them as synonymous issues11, whereas Brown et al prefer to name tangible benefits as goods and intangibles as services12. A vital task is therefore identified by Potschin and Haines-Young where we must understand the mechanisms that link environmental systems and human well-being. The new challenge is therefore to consider all things together in an inter and transdisciplinary manner11.

And the problem?

One prominent issue with the ES concept, apart from conflicting definitions, is the uncertainty of the science that underpins our valuation. Controversy over the Costanza valuation of the Earth’s ES was in part the perceived crudeness of calculating ES for a biome and then multiplying over the area the biome covered on the planets surface7. This left large holes in the produced valuation map where some values were assessed to be 0-100 US$ ha-1 yr-1 7, which can be extrapolated to the possibility that each of these hectares have no value. This is problematic when it appears that the entirety of the Sahara has no ES value at all7.

The above concerns are further compounded by research identifying the difficulties in translating one ecosystem to another, even if they are biologically similar and simply geographically seperated2. This implied an inherent contextualtiy to the assessment of ES, necessitating in depth and extensive research and analysis. This is not aided by the fact that we are in a period of unparalleled climate change, occurring beyond historical limits and for which we have no analogue to model our future accurately, aptly demonstrated by the Vostok ice core13. This has led to an uncertain future, into which we are approaching with a degraded or absent ES inventory, evident in the canalisation of New Orleans’ water ways, making it especially vulnerable to the already destructive effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Where to go from here?

“Humanity’s reliance on nature for welfare and survival is complete”1. This assertion makes it plain that we must understand how much we rely on nature and the explosion of interest in the ES concept would bear testament that this is on the international agenda1,11. But does this ES approach have a future with so much uncertainty and controversy.

Fortunately, the MEA5 specifies that it is not to be a static document, promoting the notion of ES as an ‘evolving concept’1. This encapsulates the evolving and tentative nature of ecological “knowledge”. The concept of ES is intended to change as our knowledge of our environment improves and as economic theory and practice changes with time and itself ‘changes times’2.

Therefore the definitions and the concepts of the past, while important, are not essential. We can redefine and work progressively forward with evidence that ES has outgrown its origins as an ‘eye-opening metaphor’11. The issue now and for the future is not fine tuning but societal reassessment so as to move on the path we want to be on ‘had we known earlier what we know now’2. Historically ecologists have not thought of sociological concerns and sociological research did not incorporate stock-flow models of economics2. This is increasingly less so as ES embraces the transdisciplinary approach.

What we have learnt is the complexity of the ES concept, but to close we should bear in mind much contemporary ES discussion is based on the developing world2. This does not mean that the mismanagement of ES will not affect those in developed nations, us. Looking out of your front window, without ES you would not have the green grass on your lawn, the clean water in your taps or the air you breathe.

The debate over ES has reinvigorated the world into considering the natural world as the sustaining foundation of life on earth, the Gaia concept reinvented in economic terms. The important contributions the environment makes to human life beyond basic survival must be valued, be they intermediate service, functions or structures. A concept has been established that ‘goes beyond the science community’11 and has stimulated interest amongst those in influential positions and instilled the thought that perhaps its ‘time to deliver’14.


1.           Fisher, B., Turner, R. K. & Morling, P. Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making. Ecological Economics 68, 643–653 (2009).

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

3.           Leopold, A. Sand County Almanac. 1–295 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1949).

4.           Daly, H. E. The economic growth debate: What some economists have learned but many have not. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 14, 323–336 (1987).

5.           Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. (2005).

6.           Daily, G. C. Nature’s Services. (Island Press: 1997).

7.           Costanza, R. et al. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253–260 (1997).

8.           Jax, K. Function and functioning in ecology : what does it mean? Oikos2 111, 641–648 (5AD).

9.           Wallace, K. J. Classification of ecosystem services: Problems and solutions. Biological Conservation 139, 235–246 (2007).

10.         Boyd, J. & Banzhaf, S. What are ecosystem services? The need for standardized environmental accounting units. Ecological Economics 63, 616–626 (2007).

11.         Potschin, M. B. & Haines-Young, R. H. Ecosystem services: Exploring a geographical perspective. Progress in Physical Geography 35, 575–594 (2011).

12.         Brown, T. C., Bergstrom, J. C. & Loomis, J. B. Defining, valuing and providing ecosystem goods and services. Natural Resources Journal 47, 329–376 (2007).

13.         Petit, J. R. et al. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420 , 000 years from the Vostok ice core , Antarctica. Nature 399, 429–436 (1999).

14.         Daily, G. C. et al. Ecosystem services in decision making: time to deliver. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7, 21–28 (2009).


2 responses to “Ecosystem services: Do you know what it is yet?

  1. Pingback: Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 1 |·

  2. Pingback: Terreform: Growing homes from biological components | Tim·

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