A post that might be about scales, or levels, but certainly includes ecosystem services and leverage points

This post was originally intended to be about my frustration with the ecosystem services concept. In trying to articulate and understand this frustration, I’ve gone through a range of thoughts, which I will explain here. I am getting a bit paranoid that I always seem to come back to issues of scale in my research, and I seem to have done it here again. But I hope it makes some sense, and is more than just an incoherent rambling.

I will start with why I like the ecosystem service concept. I am an interdisciplinary researcher studying natural resource management. The ecosystem service concept is a clear framework for connecting the social world to the physical world. It makes explicit the links between a component of an ecosystem and the various things that it is valued for by people. It seems simple; pollinators are valued because they pollinate crops and other plants, and we like this because we eat, we like pretty meadows, etc. We can then follow this on to further services supported by the pretty meadows, such as recreation and the existence values humans ascribe to such meadows. Being able to follow these chains is useful in understanding the socio-ecological system in any given location. It is also useful for explaining to people how environmental change might directly affect them by impacting on the things they value.

I do share frustrations with other researchers over the grouping together of services and benefits, and the different stages of service (and benefit) in the ecosystem service concept. For this reason, I try to use the idea of intermediary services, final services and benefits. Whereby pollinators pollinating is an intermediary service, the crop is the final service, and the profit from that crop is the benefit to the producer. The consumer may also experience benefit through having food to eat, and preferably at a lower price than they would have been willing to pay. These groupings get long, and interconnect with each other. So the pollinators could lead to multiple benefits, but also could be created through multiple earlier services. Then we are more within a cascade model (e.g. Haines-Young and Potschin, 2010), whereby there is structure (e.g. habitat), process, function, service and benefit.

I find that my main frustrations are introduced when we start to use the concept for practical management. We start to think about how we can increase the number of pollinators. But then we need to recognise that such actions have a trade-off; for example increasing wildflower meadows to support bees may decrease the crop production space, or the habitat for another animal, which then negatively impacts upon another ecosystem service, or multiple ecosystem services in a complex web whereby we need to trade-off goals and priorities (see e.g. Bennet et al., 2009; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010 and others). Some researchers have started to ‘bundle’ ecosystem services to simplify understandings of such trade-offs. Bundles comprise of services that usually appear together and are influenced similarly, such that actions that are beneficial to one service in the group will be beneficial to others, but possibly act negatively on another group. Indeed, a benefit of the ecosystem services concept is that we have a framework for thinking about trade-offs. However, for management purposes, we really lack the knowledge of what actions done in what quantity have which impacts (positive and negative) over which ecosystem services.

While thinking about various actions that could manage ecosystem services, I started to think about ecosystem services within a systems thinking framework. I borrowed the figure below from Donella Meadows’ essay ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’. The idea being that where there is a discrepancy between how we want a system to look, and how it really looks, we can target either the inflows or the outflows from that system in order to remove the discrepancy. Meadows outlines leverage points as being points to intervene in a system, with changing parameters as shallower (and less effective) points, and changing goals as deeper (and more effective). If we use the ecosystem service concept within this framework, we could put pollinators in the central box. Then we can define the goal (e.g. to produce a given amount of oil seed rape). Then we find leverage points to target either the inflow (births, in-migration) or outflow (death through habitat loss, disease) of pollinators in the landscape such that the discrepancy reduction becomes the practical problem.


Currently, according to the way the ecosystem services concept is being operationalized, we are seeking to understand how to target inflow and/or outflow. Most systems are complex, such that this individual component is connected with many others. And often, relationships between components work differently across space. Thus if we are to manage by ecosystem services, we need to model relationships for all locations where there may be variation. And this is being done; we are characterising benefits, understanding how changes in the system affect them. In doing so, I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits. Great – it is interesting, and should be pursued in the interests of knowledge. But in the end, we are left with very prescriptive sets of measures that can be applied in very specific circumstances locations, depending on what goals we want to achieve.

And to me, it is this questions of ‘what goals?’ and ‘who decides?’ that are my fundamental concerns with the ecosystem services concept. The way the ecosystem service concept is currently being enacted encourages us to work backwards. We are picking a small number of services, and defining goals for each, or for small groups by making decisions on trade-offs. But we aren’t looking at the overall collective system. We are defining the interventions for small components of the system before defining the overall goals. In doing so, we aren’t allowing ourselves to target the deepest, most effective leverage points. We should be asking questions around what we want to manage the system for. Do we want to optimise certain services? Or balance all services? Do we have a particular goal for a resilient system? If we had a goal, we could start to really think about what the discrepancy is, and how to intervene; knowledge could be targeted towards it.

I wonder if we need to start by considering scales of a nested system. If we have started out at the most detailed scale with individual ecosystem services, the next scale up might be biodiversity as the system that incorporates the individual services. This way, the services included within the biodiversity system and their goals influence the working definition of biodiversity. Alternatively, or at same time, by setting goals around biodiversity, we could follow these back to figure out what goals to set for individual ecosystem services. I’m not sure biodiversity is the right grouping concept at this scale – perhaps others have thoughts?! We also get to consider the larger scale system that ‘biodiversity’ (or whatever we settle on) is a part of. Perhaps that system is one of sustainable development (or perhaps I’ve skipped some scales), in which biodiversity might be a sub-system, alongside public health, economic growth, education, etc. Again, we get to define goals for this system, but also see that the sub-systems provide operational definitions for the system goals through their own goals.

So in short, I think I have ended up with my frustration with ecosystem services being that they isolate components of an ecosystem from its broader, interlinked, multi-scale ecosystems. And I have yet to be able to use it to manage anything.

About Julia Leventon

Research on governance and systems change for sustainability. Head of Department of Human Dimensions of Global Change at the Institute of Global Change Research of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

9 thoughts on “A post that might be about scales, or levels, but certainly includes ecosystem services and leverage points

  1. I think you raise some really interesting points here and I’d like to pick up on one of the things you say, that you:

    “feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”

    This I completely agree with and it’s one of the weaknesses of the ecosystem services concept as a research agenda. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!

    But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone) and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible. And we’ve known that for a long time, even before ecosystem services was coined as a term, yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this. See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared:


    I think that the concept of ecosystem services is valuable to focus attention on the importance of the natural world. But it does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that you describe. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public.

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  3. After reading papers on ecosystem services and all the related informations and concepts about what is needed to assure their sustainability, I realized one fact, about myself: from the perspective of the real world, all this is too complicated, or, I am too stupid for all this. That is why, I use these concepts in my lectures, and I can talk passionately about them, as indeed, all this topic with all the pros and cons, and flaws and everything, its just seductively sexy!:)) and somehow stimulates, excites the brain/intellect to talk about it. I dont know, you felt this sometimes? 😀

    But when it is about fitting the theoretical complexities around the ecosystem service sustainability with the social-ecological complexities of the real world, I failed and continues to fail. Again, because of my mental weakness to form a coherent and workable mental model about these two (theoretical possibilities and real world possibilities) and to make things working.

    So that I decided to do much simpler things…for which you dont even need academic knowledge! One is, tree hunting and initiatives to popularize the value of the old and special trees. And the other is to discuss at higher level policy about solutions to formally recognize the value of these tees, and protect them whenever they are. These also may fail, but who cares?:)) There are indeed several tens or hundreds of elements of the real world which are sharply dclining while we try to work at higher order intellectual complexities (with all frustrations etc.) so I invite people to channel the very same effort and energy also into these symple things in the real world. They dont promise impact factors papers but there are other types of rewards after it.

    We need indeed theories, dont misundrstand me. We need reflections, they are indeed wonderful, and helpful in assessing and re-assessing the main drivers of our behaviour. So I respect these, no offense. I like to read them but simply I dont know what to do with them when it comes about the real world urgencies. That is why I like to teach about them and speak about them, and hope that some smart people sometimes will do something useful with it, as many already do in parts of the world.

  4. Thanks both for your comments. I agree and tend to think that the ecosystem services framework (and the way it is used) can often serve to highlight the difference between academic thinking and practical application. I do think though that one of the things we do need to (continue to) think critically about is what we are trying to achieve and why – i.e. the goals of the system. And for this, I think we need to be thinking about how systems and system components fit together. Hopefully this will also enable us to think about the drivers of behaviour and to target the most effective points in a system for change. Though I entirely agree that this needs to be done in a practically-minded way, and sometimes more detail is not necessarily better.

    • Hola Julia – after these comments and your post I was thinking about these complexities (mental models, real world). I think that the essence of building complex mental models lies exactly in their further siplification. So that they become operational in real world. Most of us make this step to create complex models from simple ones but then we usually, maybe fueled by frustrations or enthusiasm, tend to even further complicate them while our baseline is shifting (so we depart from the reality, but we dont notice this). The big challenge is therefore to to find out from which level of complexity we should curve down the complex mental models to simpler ones. These ‘secondarily simplified’ mental models will definitely be of better quality than the initial, simple mental models.

      The problem is somehow analogous with the understanding of the cultural landscapes: we should understand how societies and nature works, and this usually implies a certain kind of ‘separation’ of the social ecological systems. However, this separation should be made and have sense, only when it is followed by a furher mergence (unification). If we remain trapped in addressing these landscapes from disciplinary perspective, we will fail to generate useful understanding.

      So in both cases the same fundamental thing:
      – start from an initial stage, split, complicate, dissect, but then re-unite and ‘re simplify’ to have a higher order (yet ‘simple’) and applicable understanding.

      To me in this way, all makes sense in fact:))

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  6. Dear Jörn,
    thank you very much for your great post, which I especially enjoy as it touches different aspects, which I could observe during my own research activites.
    First of all, I really like the fact that you are pointing out the difficulties of the Ecosystem Service (ESS)-concept with regards to the beneficiary and the kind of service, which is actually delivered to those. Although the MEA has provided a great framework for ESS accounting and promoted the approach to be implemented into decision making and (planning) practice, still, the double-accounting which is related to include supporting services into the overall challenges its overall suitability. From my perspective, this is partly related to the fact that the MEA and related publications have being developed mostly from a Biodiversiy-perspective. On this background, I am happy to see the emergence of the mentioned cascade-models, although these still remain insufficiently included into decision making processes.
    From my work, I could identify that including the ESS-concept under the social-ecological system (SES) perspective in order to guide the resilience discussion is a very fruitful approach. ESS themselfs can be utilized to identify coupling mechanisms of the sub-systems, which directly channels the perspective on the services, which are benefitting the users directly. Beyond this, it allows to incorporate aspects from (environmental) justice discourses based on participatory approachs designed to assess social-ecological systems from a resource management perspective.
    Therefore I conclude that the ESS concept can indeed provide a useful perspective and contribute to a more holistic management scheme, but only if included into a broader SES-resilience framework.

  7. Dear Hannes
    Thank you for your comment. I really like the idea of “ESS themselfs can be utilized to identify coupling mechanisms of the sub-systems”. And I think I would say that a broader appreciation of scales of the system helps to think about the key things you mention, such as the incorporation of environmental justice and participatory approaches. Or at least, this is how I would intend it. Thank you, you have given me some things to think about.
    Best wishes

    • Dear Julia,
      glad to hear that my post was well received. As a geographer, I am particularly interested into scales and the panarchy concept, which is rooted in the broader resilience theory gives a great background for the inclusion of such discourses. If ESS are considered to link the two spheres as suggested, I also vote for looking on how the different levels of environmental management institutions on the one hand and the different ecosystem levels on the other side are being interlinked regarding spatial and temporal scales. If found that the more one thinks about ESS management and (just) governance of such ESS-units, the higher becomes the importance of taking the resilience theory into account, both to increase the long term sustainability of such units and to specify the ESS accounting.
      Do you have a specific focus, where you would like to apply such ideas?

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