March 12, 2014

Envisioning Ways Forward for the Ecosystem Services Debate

After decades of clearing mangroves to facilitate intensive shrimp farming in Java, Indonesia, many communities have gone back to their traditional ‘mangrove-roots’. They plant mangroves in their shrimp ponds to promote natural shrimp harvests and along riverbanks and coastal areas to reduce impacts from storm surges and protect their livelihoods. Photo: Alexander van Oudenhoven

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.

Environmental ethics: Many people attach value to the pure existence of wilderness-like areas such as depicted here in Northern Telemark, Norway. Photo: Matthias Schröter

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.



  • Odirilwe
    March 21, 2014 at 5:54am

    Your synthesis paper is a useful contribution at a time when critique of the concept is scattered about in various articles. As you have all said here, within the sciences, the ‘problem’ comes because ecosystem services as a concept blurs some boundaries. It is the kid who doesn’t fit-in. For this reason, I am not particularly surprised about this ongoing good-press-bad-press discussion as this can only improve our understanding.
    My concern however is the practice or ‘policy’ aspects of it. Because of this lack of clarity from the science, anybody can run with it however they see fit – which while of course not necessarily a problem in itself, may further amplify the confusion. For the reason that the early science focused on quantifying monetary aspects also meant that this became the ‘sigma’ associated with ecosystem services. I am confident though that as environmental and developmental goals increasingly draw closer (even if just in concepts and frameworks for now- e.g. the ongoing Sustainable Development Goals as follow-ups to MDGs), ecosystem services framing will provide useful leaps and space in which to frame these ‘common goals’.This framing (regardless of whether or not its acknowledged as ecosystem services per se), will serve the ‘original’ intention of ecosystem services where environmental contribution to human wellbeing is not only acknowledged but is also actively improved through protection, restoration and maintenance of ecosystems!

    • Matthias Schröter (@MatthiasSchr)
      March 25, 2014 at 3:54am

      I agree on the practical aspects of use and mis-use of the concept. In the paper we shortly argue that ecosystem services should be used for the contributions of ecosystems to the benefits that people derive. The concept is mis-used, according to us, when it is applied to maximisation of single services from intensive agriculture, for instance. On the sustainability roots of ecosystem services, I recommend the editorial of Jacobs, Dendoncker & Keune (2013) in their book Ecosystem Services—Global Issues, Local Practices.

  • Camilla Z
    March 13, 2014 at 7:43am

    Another common misconception when it comes to ecosystem services, is I find that many non-academic audiences use the term interchangeably with Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes or carbon credit schemes, which have their fair share of negative (although some positive) press.

    I wonder how much the concept of ecosystem services has actually contributed to improving conservation efforts beyond the PES model. Does anyone have any good references?

    I am also curious what will come out of the new TEEB for Food and Agriculture. Both in terms of seeing how agriculture benefits from ecosystem services and vice versa. (See

    • Matthias Schröter (@MatthiasSchr)
      March 13, 2014 at 4:38pm

      Dear Camilla, I agree with your observation. This is a common misunderstanding which we also shortly address in the article. I often hear from people that they think ecosystem services have something to do with markets and commodification. This is not necessarily the case, and a lot of knowledge that we first and foremost need to create about ecosystem services has nothing to do with PES, but with ecological relationships, and human preferences. Milder et al., for instance, point out, that the majority of PES schemes could be subsidies for public goods that benefit the poor:

      On your question about ES and conservation: I think Goldman et al. in PNAS is a paper you could read:; Egoh et al. in Ecol Econ is worth reading as well: Egoh et al. 2010 in Cons Biol study the effect of protecting ES and biodiversity at the same time: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01442.x

  • tmgieseke
    March 12, 2014 at 12:37pm

    Thanks for the blog – I particularly appreciated the comment, “.. incorrectly assumed that ecosystem service assessments involve economic valuation… monetary valuation more often serves as a supplement rather than replacement of non-monetary aspects.

    I have found that to be a formidable mental block. This perhaps occurs due to the basis of your other comment, “…criticized due, in part, to its interdisciplinary nature”. If it fits within one nice box, it probably does not fit within another as nicely and the silos prevail.

    It is for this reason I took an “EcoCommerce” approach. In the book’s foreword, Jerry Hatfield, USDA ARS, writes, “EcoCommerce is more significant than a compilation or organization of ecoservice markets as it provides the framework to build an ecological intelligence system that allows the public arena of commerce to define sustainability”.

    Valuation is broad, inclusive, dynamic and social. It incorporates society’s economic system within the ecosystems. It internalizes not just negative externalities, but takes the steps to internalize the economy as well.

    • Matthias Schröter (@MatthiasSchr)
      March 13, 2014 at 4:48pm

      An important observation is that ecosystem services are in between disciplines. Many different views seem to clash and people from different disciplines may mean different things when talking about ecosystem services. I would argue that it is at the boundary between disciplines where critique is probably most harsh, because every field might claim “definitional sovereignty”
      I agree with your comment on on integration of the economy (as part of society) into ecosystems. This definition of sustainability has been prevailing in Ecological Economics, while unfortunately, in public the faulty “people, planet, profit” triad notion of sustainability has gained too much of attention. Embedding the economy into nature instead of putting “profit” next to planet is the way to go I think.

  • Linked from Envisioning Ways Forward for the Ecosystem Serv...   March 13 5:49am

    […] 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.  […]