Sunday, January 27, 2013

Intro Post - What Are Ecosystem Services?

This blog is going to discuss a number of current environmental issues. I want the concept of ecosystem services to be the foundation of this discussion. Since I think this is a critical concept - both for further writing in the blog and environmental/economic decision-making - I'm going to use the intro post to explain what the concept of ecosystem services means and why it has become the focus of many environmentalists. Other posts aren't going to be so basic and focused on definitions and will instead focus on current events and issues.

What are ecosystem services?
Although there are a number of writers who have brought up the idea of ecosystem services (this article provides a good history), the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) is the seminal work that really popularized the concept. Their definition of an ecosystem is:

"An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit. Humans are an integral part of ecosystems. Ecosystems provide a variety of benefits to people, including provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services."

Ecosystem services are the multiple ways in which the natural world benefits humans. These benefits are sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle, but we could not exist without them.

The MEA categorizes ecosystems services into four types: supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural. These services support security, basic material, health, and good social relations:

This is a hugely important diagram, but all the arrows make it a little more confusing than it needs to be.

Moving left to right, what the diagram is saying is that supporting services underpin the basic functioning of ecosystems. Nutrient cycling, soil formation, and more allow ecosystems to thrive. For instance, without pedogenesis - the conversion of organic material into soil - terrestrial ecosystems couldn't function. Soil and the nutrients it holds allow plants to grow. Supporting services don't directly provide benefits, but they enable the next set of services - provisioning, regulating, and cultural. This is where this concept becomes more tangible and easy to link to human well-being.

Provisioning is the easiest to explain. Agriculture, timber, fresh water, fisheries, etc. provide humans with the building blocks of life. These services are easiest to measure: e.g. 83.13 million metric tons of soybean were produced in 2011.

Regulating services are a little more abstract, but also hugely important. A couple examples: first, trees and other organic material sequester carbon dioxide; the concentration of carbon dioxide plays a large part in the determining the temperature of the earth's atmosphere. Second, vegetation also plays a critical role in reducing erosion and accompanying landslides and floods. In places like Rio de Janeiro, landslides are the direct result of deforestation.  Mangroves and other coastal wetlands play an important role in reducing the impact of devastating storms. There are numerous other examples of regulating services, but I'll share just one more example. Vultures in India and elsewhere (see here and here) play an important role in decomposing dead animal carcases. Farmers administer a pain killer, diclofenac, to reduce the pain of dying animals, that is coincidentally deadly to vultures. Without this natural removal of carcasses, it is easier for disease to spread and the feral dog population has exploded.

Cultural services cover the remaining ecosystem services. Some, like recreational services, are easy to ascribe value to. Tourism that is dependent on nature (beaches, hiking, etc.) is obviously connected to beautiful ecosystems; eco-tourism has a obvious economic benefit. On the other hand, 'spiritual' ecosystem services are impossible to measure.

The next set of arrows is overly complicated, but the essential idea is that these services underpin human well-being.

Why has this idea become so popular?
I think that so many environmentalists have started using the ecosystem services framework for basically two related reasons.

1) The focus on 'biodiversity' and high profile species (see WWF's tiger and panda campaigns) has failed to stop widespread degradation of important ecosystems. While these animals do pull the heartstrings, direct human interest ultimately prevails. By changing the focus to ecosystem services, environmentalists are shifting the argument to how the environment affects humans rather than its inherent value. Once benefits are defined, they can be given economic value: a popular study has valued global ecosystem services at an annual US$16–54 trillion. I'll write some more posts about the benefits and problems of such analysis, but, setting criticisms aside, it is an eye-catching number.

2) Defining ecosystem services and their economic value should allow the environment to be incorporated into mainstream economic decision. Through ascribing values to ecosystem services and modeling different scenarios, defining ecosystem services should impact decision-making. I'm working on issues such as this and I'll be writing more about this in the future.

I welcome any feedback or suggestions. And I promise that future posts will be less definitional and deal more with contemporary issues. 


  1. I am extremely pleased you not only posted this but are making it the defining analytic framework of your blog. As a liberal person with an economic oriented perspective I often find myself caught between environmental idealists and the pragmatics economic progress and growth. While I appreciate nature on its own (a kind of intrinsic value) I ultimately think environmental policy needs to be governed by its utility to humans (instrumental value). While I'd like to avoid cutting down the rain forests, if doing so pulls people out of poverty then my values are in conflict. This kind of perspective helps resolve that: the environment has an economic value to us and we can start making cost benefit analyses on that basis. For example, cutting down some trees for industry, growth and provisions can possibly be justifiable depending on the amount it benefits society and the cost to the environment (such as whether its being done at a sustainable rate).

    It also resolves another reluctance I have about some environmental idealism, namely that nature is some how "right" or "good" and that it is always that way. In fact, nature is just what it is, some good, some bad, as the result of evolution of both organisms and inorganic environment, which doesn't necessarily always have humans best interests in mind. For example, the planet had no problem going through an ice age naturally all on its own and that is likely something that would be as bad for humans as global warming. But this kind of framework is not so rigid or facile. It says "its not just about preserving nature as it happens to be right now, but rather about preserving (and possibly even creating) an environment that is beneficial for humanity." Of course, given that humans have prospered over the last couple hundred years, that is more often a matter of preserving that favorable environment, but nonetheless this perspective resolves potential fallacies of that variety of environmentalism.

    Long story short, just wanted to say as someone interested in environmental policy, but has difficulty finding space in the poverty of political discourse on the subject, I am extremely pleased you are writing this blog.

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