By Emma van der Zanden/Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam; Alexander van Oudenhoven/Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University; Matthias Schröter/Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University
Ecosystem services are a contested but useful concept for highlighting the benefits that humans get from healthy ecosystems and landscapes. A relatively new term, “ecosystem services” has become an increasingly popular concept to demonstrate how global biodiversity loss and land degradation have led to decreasing natural provision of critical services, such as fresh water, food and coastal protection.
The origin of the ecosystem service concept can be traced back to the late 1970s – its science is a relatively young and continuously evolving field. Since the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, research on ecosystem services has skyrocketed all around the world, and we are also part of this ‘boom’. We have found that ecosystem services provide an increasingly useful framework, both within and outside of scientific disciplines. However, it remains heavily contested and criticized due, in part, to its interdisciplinary nature. Critical debates are essential for the development of the science and practices around ecosystem services, but critics often fail to contribute to possible answers or alternatives. The quality and outcome of an informed debate depends on inputs from both opponents and proponents of the concept. Therefore, we aimed to structure the debate, by compiling several recurring critiques as well as counter-arguments in a paper that was recently published in the journal Conservation Letters.
We came across three types of critiques against ecosystem services: ethical considerations, concerns about conservation of nature and sustainable use of natural resources and, finally, doubts about the scientific approach.
Ethical objections refer to the concept’s ‘human-centered’ focus and exclusion of the intrinsic value of nature. However, important ethical values are included in the ecosystem services concept, such as satisfaction of basic human needs. Furthermore, people attach values to the pure existence of ecosystems and landscape. This is a human-centered view, but in this case nature would also be seen as valuable in its own right. Another critique addresses the possible promotion of an exploitative human-nature relationship through the concept. Counter-arguments note that the ecosystem services concept can actually help reconnect society with nature by emphasizing sustainable provision of food, protection and biodiversity, as well as spiritual and cultural services.
Several critiques focus on strategies for nature conservation and the sustainable management of ecosystems, which relate to the science-policy interface. Important and often-discussed concerns include the possible negative effect on biodiversity-based conservation and the challenges associated with valuation of ecosystem services. It is often incorrectly assumed that ecosystem service assessments involve economic valuation of nature and the services it provides. However, monetary valuation more often serves as a supplement to decision-making, rather than replacement of non-monetary aspects of decision-making. We argue that the concept has also triggered a lot of research that addresses non-monetary values and measurements of benefits people derive from ecosystems.
Finally, we analyzed the critique of the concept being used as a ‘catch-all’ phrase, because of its many and often vague definitions. Vagueness has, however, shown to promote creativity among stakeholders in transdisciplinary processes – consider sustainability and biodiversity conservation as examples.
Because it is a new and rapidly changing field, it is logical and useful that the ecosystem services concept remains under discussion. One of the ways forward we propose is that the concept can serve as a platform to bring people and their different views and interests together. But, above all, we think that an active, lively debate about the pros and cons of the concept shows that it is still actively being shaped. We invite everybody to participate in this debate, and the comments section on this blog is a welcome opportunity to keep discussing!
Read more: Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter-arguments by Schröter et al.