Ecosystem services: myth or reality?

Ever wondered how you get sucked into clicking on topical headlines (here are some great tips for creating those headlines)? Do you question how you know so much about Miley’s personal life, when you don’t even like her music? This is how journalists and entertainment media work – whether classy or tabloid, they know how to tap into human psyche and emotional values to get their story out.

This is a useful tool rarely taught in traditional science education: the key to effective public engagement and communication of research and evidence is in understanding what the public values and how they interpret things. (This can also help when doing research.)

It all boils down to the fact that humans still communicate through signs and symbols. Like all animals, we recognise patterns and processes in the world around us and associate meaning with them. Red means ‘stop’, green means ‘go’, and a threatening grey cloud mass moving in off the horizon means ‘find shelter’. We can recognise a river in a flat landscape by a meandering line of trees, and we know how to find a public toilet by looking for a stick-figure symbol.

Advertising and popular culture follow this principle, by presenting images and sounds via myths, signifiers and symbols that we all recognise and connote meaning from. This is the language that convinces young men that smothering themselves with Lynx will make them desirable to impossibly hot women. In general, most of these meanings are interpreted fairly similarly across people and place, but cultural, demographic and personal influences can create contextual variations. For example, 1D connotes ‘OMG!!!!!’ to teenage girls and ‘Bleh’ to older generations, while this symbol… 2000px-Zoso_Robert_Plant_feather_symbol.svg

… will mean nothing to you unless you think Robert Plant was the greatest vocalist of the 20th century.

Science straddles the border between this world of mass communication and a world of exactness, precision and detail that often doesn’t allow for generalist or cultural connotations. Communicators want snappy stories with interesting narratives, appealing characters and intriguing metaphors. Scientists want to make sure that their research is presented within the precise limits of their study system, without allowing for ambiguity or misrepresentation. Sometimes these two goals can’t be achieved simultaneously and compromises have to be made.

To throw another spanner in the works, society’s values and connotations can change over time. So the public’s understanding of a concept may diverge from the path it once shared with science. Take ‘ecosystem services’ (ES). Much has been made in recent years, both in the scientific literature and popular media, over the negative connotations arising from placing an economic value on nature. Also, some think the word ‘service’ connotes an image of an enslaved nature, existing only to sweep the path for industrialism and feed our gluttonous mouths with hand-peeled grapes. This is definitely not the ideal outcome for ES proponents.

But the main goal of the ES concept was to simply help people (particularly policy-makers) understand that the natural world is vital to supporting human society and well-being. Money talks, after all…so quantifying ecosystems and their parts as a value, especially dollars, is something that everyone, from any demographic or interest group, can understand and relate to. It’s simply a useful ranking tool – if keeping ecosystems happy and healthy is worth an average of US$33 trillion/year (however rough the estimate), we know that Nature is therefore more valuable than the Bieber (US$200 million) and a Gucci bamboo leather backpack (US$2590).

In 1977, ecologist Walter Westman published a piece in Science highlighting the difficulties involved in accounting nature’s services. He prefaces his article with a line from Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality to show how many ‘unanswerable’ questions arise from such attempts: how do we place a value on the cultural, intellectual and emotional heritage that evolved from Wordsworth’s simple interaction with a flower more than 200 years ago? Yet, he continues, this approach is necessary because policy-makers from Western societies are increasingly trying to identify a monetary value for things normally considered priceless (clean air and water, wilderness) in an “inexorable quest to rationalise the activities of the civilisation”.

So if the scientists who supported and developed the ES concept recognised this ecological quantification as a metaphor, not a market index, what’s changed? Are today’s scientists more capitalist than previous ones? Is it the media’s fault for not translating clearly? Or maybe society’s connotation of the word ‘service’ has changed over time?

Once upon a time, a service was more akin to a charitable act. Service organisations were often state-run and provided assistance, benefits or support to individuals or society as needed, either for free or a small fee. You joined the armed services to protect King and Country, the postal service delivered mail to your loved ones for you, the emergency services were there to save your life. Utilities (gas, water and electricity) necessary for living were delivered to your house for a reasonable fee. Services were associated with basic needs and survival, just like nature. They differed from goods, which were mostly purchased by choice.

Since then, many ‘services’ have been privatised and commercialised. Services have become businesses, and their focus has shifted from serving a guaranteed client base, to making profits at the expense of human compassion and client needs. No wonder people take ES the wrong way.

Healthy debates over the differences between the instrumental and intrinsic values of nature are necessary – they remind us that representing ecosystems with dollar values is just marriage counselling, not divorce papers, for our relationship with Nature.

But looking at history also reminds us that currency is not the only way to ‘value’ – people valued Nature as essential long before ES became a ‘thing’. Once upon a time, we lived in Nature – we had to respect her or we wouldn’t survive. David Starr Jordan, Stanford University’s founding president,  published this rambling piece in Science in 1896, explaining how crucial ‘nature study’ in education courses was to developing moral culture. And this wonderful piece (from 1880) on Homer Dodge Martin’s beautiful landscape paintings sums up how we appreciate nature through art: ‘Nature, dear friends, is charming and perfect. But Art is not Nature. Nor is it her slave. It is her ally, if you please, in stirring man’s soul with the sense of beauty.’ Sounds so much better than ‘cultural ecosystem services’, doesn’t it?

Metaphors, myths and analogies are not frivolous poetics for the ‘arty’ crowd, and nor do they compromise the accuracy of science communication. If used pragmatically, they can be extremely useful for teaching science and nature’s ‘value’ (both physical and emotional).


© Manu Saunders 2014

31 thoughts on “Ecosystem services: myth or reality?

  1. zielonygrzyb November 9, 2014 / 7:08 AM

    Nice piece. It is comprehensible, I think, why the ecosystem services debate is so controversial, as the term is not very well-chosen (although your explanation that the connotation has changed over time is very interesting and new to me). Still, as a proponent of the concept (and a “bad” anthropocentrist at the same time;-) I find it sad how undifferentiated and shallow the critique sometimes is, as exemplified by George Monbiot’s rant you provide a link to in your text (my response to it can be read here).

    It would be great if I could say that we don’t need the ecosystem services concept, that we can use less “economistic” arguments to convince people that nature is important and show them without economic valuation tools how important it is. But I am afraid that other arguments don’t really work (OK, I am not sure whether my own economic arguments do, either, but I still have some hope in them).


    • manuelinor November 9, 2014 / 8:30 AM

      Thanks! Yes, with hindsight it’s easy to say the term can be taken the wrong way…but hindsight has 20/20 vision, as the saying goes! Every concept and term has positive & negative connotations, that is unavoidable, so I don’t think getting bogged down in either side really makes progress. I agree it would be great if we didn’t need ES to make people care about nature! But that is not so much an issue with ES, as the fact that our modern lives are taking us further and further from nature, so it is increasingly difficult to reconnect people with nature and really understand why they need her….but that is a story for another day! 🙂 I think we can have nature and economy, we don’t have to choose one or the other, it just requires some long-term thinking and compromises.


  2. Chris Krajewski November 9, 2014 / 12:17 PM

    Don’t need to be an anthropocentrist. Morals rate ahead of the consequences of our actions.


    • manuelinor November 10, 2014 / 9:23 AM

      Thanks Chris. I think understanding consequences is important for environmental conservation/management of any kind, although everyone’s ideas of morals will be slightly different. I guess that’s what makes it such a difficult situation!


  3. jeffollerton November 10, 2014 / 5:43 PM

    PS – Robert Plant – I disagree – he’s still a great vocalist in the 21st century 🙂


  4. Brianne November 11, 2014 / 1:10 AM

    Wow. This has given me so much to think about! I have an ES-focused economist and an anti-ES ecologist on my advisory committee, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my own views on ES as I prepare for my comprehensive exams in January. I’m still not entirely sure what I think yet, but this round up of ideas will definitely me out in that department. Thanks for such a great post!


    • manuelinor November 11, 2014 / 6:45 AM

      Thanks Brianne! It’s interesting how it’s such a divisive concept – all those arguments over a simple idea of just giving nature a little bit more respect. Good luck with your exams!


  5. shapeofthingstoni November 12, 2014 / 5:28 AM

    Excellent article Manu. ES is a tricky thing. Here in Peru they’re trying to get the concept working in order to provide a value context for the environment where rapid development and a majority-urban population has caused much dilsocation from and devaluation of nature and the essential functions ecosystems perform. In a culture where short-term economics dominates, being able to place a financial value on clean water is essential to even get the consideration on the table. HOW you to that, and do it well, is another discussion though!


    • manuelinor November 12, 2014 / 8:20 AM

      Thanks Toni. Yes, it is very complex – increased disconnection from the natural world & short-sighted politics, which is the norm these days, make it hard to find suitable solutions to many of our environmental conundrums! I agree, water is a classic example – I think it’s a lot easier to take water for granted, than things like forests or wildlife. Tools like ES are really useful to show how valuable that water is, but I think they need to be used in conjunction with nature reconnection/education projects, rather than on their own.


  6. Michel December 8, 2014 / 1:04 AM

    I think building the most accurate myth (world representations) is the most important work in ecology.

    I do not believe at all in ecosystem. I see it as a incorrect myth. It is only story-telling to green-wash the word “system”. Hence, for me, in “ecosystem services”, ecosystem is misleading as much as services is. These two words only try to belittle the existence of non-human living beings (that’s a very old western tradition maybe). They invite us to see the world as one entity when I feel it is actually two entities opposing each-other.
    I prefer to “imagine” my context as the following model : “biodiversity against environment” where ecology appears more like scientific history of living civilisations (including non humans) trying to develop further, deeper, stronger and higher against the environment (newtonian laws).
    I think our ecological crisis comes from this mis-representation of a united-world.


    • manuelinor December 8, 2014 / 6:36 PM

      Thanks for the comment Michel. I don’t see the word ecosystem as misleading, per se. Considering many English words are derivatives of Latin & Greek, I think ecosystem could be one of our most appropriate transliterations! Ecos, of course, means ‘house’, i.e. the natural environment we live within, and systema is from an Ancient Greek word referring to things that make up an organised whole. I think the modern industrial/political connotations of the word ‘system’ simply arise from unbalanced overexposure of the term in those contexts. I agree that using word representations (myths) is important in developing ecological understanding, but I suppose personal definitions of accuracy will change amongst different demographics – a challenge for science communicators!


      • Michel December 8, 2014 / 7:30 PM

        Thanks for your reply. I may have not explained myself well. I was wishing to explain that to see nature or the ecosystem as one whole is exactly, already, an axiom and not a “reality”. Two wholes is another ecological axiom possible. Hence the question “myth” or “reality” applies to the term ecosystem itself. This remark applies to the general definition we all know of ecosystem and as well, very much, to the definition of ecosystemic ecology drawn by Odum.
        I would suggest then to stay open about other axiom like seeing (imagining, interpreting) our planet as two wholes. This would allow one to use/test this other representation when needed. This one will then judge the validity of this axiom a posteriori (after confronting it to the ground reality) and not a priori (without trying it and only confronting it to books’ definitions). Who knows? Following Greek books blindly is maybe another form of scholastic behavior which contributes to our ecological crisis?


        • Michel December 16, 2014 / 7:21 PM

          Dear Manuelinor,

          In order to explain myself further, I drafted few differences between seeing our house (eco) as an organized whole (system) and seeing our house as disorganized (two diverging wholes).

          Best wishes


          • manuelinor December 17, 2014 / 2:58 PM

            Thanks Michel. I agree with you that there is confusion over the meanings of terms like environment, ecosystem & biodiversity. However, biodiversity (plants, animals, living things), including us humans, are not separate from the geochemical/physical environs around them. Living things cannot live without suitable abiotic conditions and variation in these conditions affects the distribution and dispersal of living things. Hence, words and concepts like ‘ecosystem’ are extremely helpful, because they illustrate how everything in the natural world is interrelated…a plant cannot be separated from the soil it is rooted in and the animal that eats it.


            • Michel December 18, 2014 / 6:46 AM

              Thanks a ton for pursuing the discussion. It is nice that you recognize the confusion between environment, ecosystem and biodiversity. Those words are nowadays name-dropped without carrying their “reality” anymore. Very often, they mean only “context”, which does not bring a lot of “reality” to the discussion..

              I strongly bring a nuance to the thought “Living things cannot live without suitable abiotic conditions”. Such ecosystemic way of viewing our biodiversity misleads our public. Firstly, in reality, “suitable abiotic conditions” are almost inexistent. They are a very very small exceptions in the universe and on earth as well. It would be preferable to follow a myth which does not make an exception a rule. Secondly, living beings able to live in “suitable abiotic conditions” are once again very very small exceptions or maybe inexistent. They are not the rule at all around us. Our biodiversity lives in biotic conditions (conditions produced by life such as atmospheric O2, regulated climate, mitigated wind or waves or heat or cold, suitable soil, etc). It is in fact the force of the life to protect and expand life by mitigating abiotic conditions. This hard work of life for itself should be recognized. Hence our world would be more easily understood. For sure.

              Regarding your last point: I, without any incidence, agree with you on the fact that all entities within a same context are interrelated. This also can be easily seen in the same way we see the sun rising up on our east, climbing the sky everyday and going down on our west every evening. This can be seen, even studied and modelized. Eventually, when we realized such a geocentric vision was based on a kind of illusion, a better and simpler model was offered to the public. Hence, mankind started thinking about the sun in another way than the one seen. This allowed our predecessors to expand our civilisation culturally (modern humanism) and concretely (modern time). Our context being one whole because interrelated is another kind of illusion.

              I use “biodiversity vs environment” since few years now. Seeing our context not as one organized whole but two differently organized and developing wholes, of course in interrelation, is a much easier and simpler model to handle. As I presented in the table sent yesterday, it allows scientists to expand their outlook from the “suitable abiotic condition” to question the “unsuitable abiotic condition” as well. This is very much needed in our current ecological crisis which is almost nothing else than increasing unsuitable abiotic conditions. This also provides a scientific model understood by anybody who can discern living entities from non living : i.e. everybody (literate and illiterate, kid or layman). This myth is much more powerful than the ecosystem one which needs years of study to be used to be finally name-dropped as a jargon synonym of context.

              Best wishes

              Liked by 1 person

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