Ecosystem services: it’s not all about the dollars

Ecosystem services: it’s not all about the dollars

Nature is essential to our wellbeing. There are multiple layers of complexity and nuance to that statement. But they all boil down to the fact that our lives depend on the natural systems around us. Trees, insects, birds, mammals, earthworms, springtails, bacteria, fungi, plants… Soil, water, air… Ecosystems are structured by complex and dynamic interactions between all of these components, all of which ultimately affect our survival.

This fundamental fact is the basis of the ecosystem services concept. Contrary to some popular opinions, working with ecosystem services is not all about ‘putting a price on nature’. In fact, the concept has much greater potential for improving human wellbeing and promoting nature conservation than it is often given credit for.

People often call ‘ecosystem services’ a new concept. It’s not. For centuries, human communities have known that nature provides a multitude of benefits that keep us alive and happy, from food and natural fibres to the clean air we breathe. Almost every ancient text contains some reference to the ways that nature supported human lives and communities, or provides clues to how our ancestors worked within that space to reap the greatest benefits in the long-term.

Photo by Emmie Smith / Unsplash

Current use of ‘ecosystem services’ was initiated by researchers in the 1970s and 80s, as a way to gain urgent attention for the increasing costs of pollution and environmental damage caused by expanding industrial development.

In 1977, Walter Westman wrote in Science: ‘In order for citizens to communicate to their representatives their true desires about the maintenance of the natural environment and the pace of development, it is essential for the public to have a clear idea of the benefits they obtain from nature in its undeveloped state. An enumeration of the relationship between the effects of development and physical damage to ecosystems is a helpful first step.’

A few years later, in 1982, Horst Siebert wrote in Journal of Economics: ‘Natural resources and environmental disruption are analyzed as two distinct problems in the mainstream of the economic literature. In this paper, both problems are linked to each other. Nature is here conceived as providing a flow of goods such as the world’s oxygen, the ozone layer as a protective shield for the earth, water supplies at given locations through the meteorological and ground water systems as well as the fish populations in the ocean … regeneration is not only influenced by the stock of the resource but also by … the stock of pollutants’.

The ecosystem services concept has developed and expanded since then. ‘Ecosystem services’ is now recognised as a powerful way to address a multitude of global challenges, including pollution, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. But using this framework to its full potential requires acknowledgement of the complexity underlying ‘ecosystem services’. It is both a term and a concept, a theory and an application, a valuation tool and a philosophy to approach life (and business) with.

The term itself is a metaphor for human-nature interactions. It refers to all the ecological functions and processes that we recognise as benefits. Some are tangible things, like crop yields, wild game, firewood, clean water. Others are less obvious to us as individuals, but equally important, like the capacity for forests to regulate climate patterns, or the formation of healthy soil. And, most importantly, behind those processes are species and ecological communities that provide these services directly and indirectly – population changes or losses of individual species and communities could also mean a loss of these essential services.

Even species that some of us don’t like can indirectly contribute to our wellbeing. Spiders eat mosquitoes; flies of all shapes and sizes pollinate flowers that produce fruits we love to eat; predators that we fear, like dingoes and snakes, control population outbreaks of animals that annoy us, like rodents.

So where does valuation come in? Good economics (i.e. planning for the future) are essential for running sustainable governments and corporations. Calculating a value for natural processes and interactions acknowledges that we benefit from protecting, not removing or suppressing, functional natural systems.

But dollar values, although easy to calculate, aren’t the only way to value nature. In many cases, dollars are actually the least useful way to approach the problem. Nature supports human wellbeing in many ways that can’t be bought and sold. There is the educational power of leaving nature intact for others to experience; the health benefits of exercising outside and being among trees; the spiritual connection we feel with particular places, species and scenes. These things can’t be priced, but they are just as valuable (sometimes more so) than the tangible resources we can extract and produce from ecosystems.

Horseshoe Crab. Photo by Perry Bill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Horseshoe crabs are an amazing living fossil that are harvested for their unique blue blood, which is used in medical testing. Does the economic or medical value of horseshoe crabs outweigh the ecological value the crabs have as part of their food web? Subsistence agriculture is the main source of livelihood for millions of people in many parts of the world, but it’s also a key driver of deforestation. How can these two issues be resolved? A forest that holds a cherished spiritual memory for me, might be a nice place to walk for you, and a potential new housing site for local government. Whose valuation system is most valid?

This is why any attempt to value and manage ecosystem services needs a healthy dose of philosophy. Numbers help, but nature can’t be reduced to black and white, dollars and cents, services and disservices. We live in a complex world of ecological interactions that give us tangible resources and intangible connections. How we value these interactions is up to us.

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