New Paper: Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability

BY DAVE ABSON

The ecosystem services concept has evolved considerably over its 30 odd year history. Its earliest incarnation was as an eye opening heuristic for thinking about sustainability and the interdependence of human well-being and conservation of the environment (see for example, the wonderful “Rivet Poppers” metaphor by Paul and Anne Ehrlich). This initial discursive phase was followed by a relatively manic phase of classifications, typologies, mapping, modelling and the development of valuation methods. Now there are increased calls for the ecosystem service concept to be used as an explicit decision making tool (e.g. Bateman et al. 2013). In many ways this is a positive trajectory. If we are serious about the ecosystem services concept as part of “solution oriented” sustainability science we need to move beyond metaphors and towards practical tools for addressing unsustainability. However, with regard to ecosystem services research we are in danger of losing something vital along the way.

Once the notion of ecosystems moves beyond a concept and becomes a tool there is a danger that it becomes an indiscriminate end in its own right without regard to the reason we wanted such a tool in the first place (“if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail”). For example, does it really make sense to conceptualize non-renewable peat extraction (e.g. the UK NEA) or industrialized crop production as ‘valued’ ecosystem services to be conserved in the pursuit of sustainability?

In a new paper we attempt to realign the ecosystem services with the normative goal of sustainability from which it originally arose. We identify seven key sustainability strategies (see Figure) for linking ecosystem services and sustainability outcomes and discuss how these strategies can be pursued when operationalizing the ecosystem service concept.

ES and Sus figure

The seven strategies are:

1. Equitable intergenerational distribution: Ecosystem services assessments should account for the potential liquidation of natural capital, for example, by differentiating between food provision that maintains or erodes so soil fertility. Assessments should also consider how ecosystem service appropriation can maintain and support the long-term capacity of valued social-ecological systems, including the maintenance of the less tangible benefits related to the direct interaction of humans with nature.
2. Equitable intragenerational distribution: Aggregate valuations can gloss over gross inequalities in who has access to, and can benefit from, the appropriation of ecosystem services. Here more focus is required on who benefits from the multiple services that flow from specific ecosystems, rather than on maximizing the provision of individual, often market oriented, ecosystem services. For example, plantations maximize timber production may conflict with conserving diverse forests from which people can collect wild foods, or enjoy cultural ecosystem services.
3. Equitable interspecies distribution: Here we need to acknowledge that humans are not the only species that appropriate energy and material flows from ecosystems. In almost all cases a ‘just’ appropriation (in relation to the needs of other species) is likely to be less that the capacity of an ecosystem to sustainably provide those flows.
4. Fair procedures, recognition and participation: Ecosystem service assessments and management should move beyond simply assessing ecosystem services benefits and study the procedures by which ecosystem services are appropriated and the extent to which such procedures are inclusive, just and address issues of political, social or economic power.
5. Sufficiency: ecosystem services research need to start asking “how much ecosystem service appropriation is enough?” rather than ‘‘how do we maximize ecosystem service provision?” A focus on sufficiency requires a greater focus on our normative goals, for example, by considering what an ideal social-ecological system might look like, rather than on how many services can we squeeze out of a given ecosystem.
6. Efficiency: The efficient use of ecosystems should be explicitly considered only as an instrumental means to a clearly defined normative goal, not as an intrinsic ends in its own right.
7. Persistence: ecosystem services research should acknowledge that ecosystems are dynamic and consider temporal ecosystem dynamics, potential regime shifts and long term degradation of ecosystem properties. Research should also identify to what extent the appropriation of benefits from ecosystems are dependent on non-renewable inputs and how this influences the long term persistence of the flows of ecosystem services.

We hope that highlighting strategies, in some small way, can help reorient ecosystem services research towards a more sustainability focused solutions based science.

The full paper can be found here.

Schröter, M., Stumpf, K.H., Loos, J., van Oudenhoven, A.P.E., Böhnke-Henrichs, A. and Abson, D.J. (2017) Refocusing ecosystem services towards sustainability, Ecosystem Services, 25, 35-43, doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.03.019.

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