Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase.

My article recently published online in Conservation Biology, co-authored with Gary Luck,  argues that adopting this ‘services vs. disservices’ dichotomy isn’t a useful solution. It just perpetuates the reductionist view of nature that has dominated the ecosystem services discussion.

Instead, the ecosystem services paradigm needs a new direction that takes a more holistic approach, one that focuses on ecosystem function, on social-ecological complexity, and on interactions (not dichotomies) that change across time and space.

This argument builds on our previous paper on ecological trade-offs in crop systems, which I blogged about here. Simplistic labels like ‘services’ and ‘disservices’ are just too ambiguous and only lead to misunderstanding and confusion.

How do we account for ‘good’ species (service-providers) that also provide disservices, like when bees rob nectar without pollinating?

What if vulnerable species provide disservices, like African elephants plundering crops and damaging rural livelihoods?

What about disservices that might also produce services, like the case of the invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Lake Ontario?

What about transient disservices, like when wood-boring beetles make holes in wood, an apparent ‘disservice’ for humans, which subsequently provide homes for native bees?

Clearly, black-and-white approaches to ecosystem services don’t account for ecological complexity at all. It would be more useful to focus on overall function of the system and identify how perceived benefits change over time and under different environmental contexts.

This isn’t a new idea. Understanding trade-offs between changing contexts is the foundation of ecological science. For decades, ecologists have been studying biological trade-offs among species’ traits, life history strategies, positive and negative species interactions, and their environmental contexts.

But this ecological foundation has been mostly lost from the ecosystem services debate. Trade-offs have been discussed, but mostly in terms of balancing the accounts of different services in particular locations.

So instead of simplistic ‘good’ or ‘bad’ labelling, why don’t we focus on changes in function across the whole social-ecological system? This is more realistic than reverting to standard economic cost-benefit analyses. Yes, it’s beyond the scope of the individual. But with greater collaboration and foresight, and as a global community, we think there are three key ideological shifts that can help:

  1. Globally, governments and institutions currently focus on marketed commodities and material values. This needs to shift dramatically to acknowledge non-material values that are inherent to social-ecological systems.
  2.  Similarly, current natural resource management models are built on steady-state exploitation of single resources. Yet, sustainable land management requires a transition to an ecosystem stewardship model. Stewardship focuses on sustaining linkages between human well-being and ecosystem services under changing environmental conditions, rather than on maximum resource extraction or production.
  3. Most importantly, the ecosystem services concept is not just a policy, accounting and decision-making tool. It’s a scientific paradigm that connects humans with nature. It’s a metaphor for communicating the importance of ecosystem function beyond scientists. As a conceptual basis for biodiversity conservation and sustainability, ‘ecosystem services’ has huge potential. But to fulfill that potential, any research or management decision made under the ‘ecosystem services’ banner requires a strong philosophical foundation, one that considers ethical, cultural and environmental benefits on the same level as economic ones.


N.B. Since we submitted our article over 12 months ago, a few excellent papers have been published that argue for a similar approach:

Shackleton et al. (2016) Unpacking Pandora’s box: understanding and categorising ecosystem disservices for environmental management and human wellbeing. Ecosystems

This paper defines what disservices (EDS) are and what they are not. It also serves as a call for more attention to understand the dynamics of EDS. “The ‘supply’ of many EDS is more erratic than the supply of ES. Many are present at low background levels, which are not considered as problematic, perhaps as a minor nuisance. But when they build up or have a large impact, then they are viewed as problematic even though they were always there.”


Oliver et al. (2015) Biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem functions. TREE

This paper identifies key mechanisms driving resilience of ecosystem functions at the levels of species, communities and landscapes. This paper is an important argument for getting the biology and ecology of organisms back into the ecosystem services debate. “We hope that a focus on resilience rather than short-term delivery of ecosystem functions and services, and the consideration of specific underpinning mechanisms, will help to join the research areas of biodiversity–ecosystem function and ecological resilience and ultimately aid the development of evidence-based yet flexible ecosystem management.”


Rasmussen et al. (2016) From food to pest: Conversion factors determine switches between ecosystem services and disservices. AMBIO

This paper proposes the idea of ‘conversion factors’ to address the changes in context that shift an individual taxon along the spectrum of ecosystem services to disservices. They use the agrarian regions of northern Laos as a case study to identify four key conversion factors (although they stress these are not the only applicable factors in all ecosystems): institutional context that promotes cash crop production; the economy and market development; the culture and identity of farmers; and spatial location relative to the source of the service/disservice. “Our findings suggest that changes are required to make ecosystem service frameworks more apt and meaningful, not only for shifting cultivation systems but in all areas where diverse landscapes provide multiple outputs to their inhabitants.”

© Manu Saunders 2016



11 thoughts on “Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

  1. Joern September 9, 2016 / 9:58 PM

    Thanks for this interesting post. I agree with most of your “so-what” (not just reducing the world to black and white, and costs and benefits, and material outcomes). However, in a very different context, we recently found that the simplification of thinking of benefits vs costs made a lot of sense to local people. This was in Ethiopia, where people need the forest for benefits, but also have to put up with a lot of wildlife damage if they live near the forest. That damage, in turn, can even make them food insecure, so it’s a pretty big deal. Ine — a postdoc with me — worked on services vs disservices from the forest in this context, and it seemed to make a lot of sense to local people. FYI, some preliminary findings of her are available via a recent conference presentation, namely here:
    (journal article will soon be submitted)
    So, to my mind, like with most concepts, this might be less about services vs disservices being “bad”, but more that like all concepts, it has limitations. In some contexts, this might be a useful way to think about problems — in other contexts, it might oversimplify things. That, incidentally, is probably true for most concepts. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, and good to be pondering these things! — J

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders September 10, 2016 / 8:41 AM

      Hi Joern, thanks for the comment! I completely agree – the benefits vs costs idea makes sense to people, especially in subsistence ag communities, e.g. African communities that suffer crop-raiding, as well as health/social issues, from elephants & primates plundering their crops, but are unable to deal with them because external organisations have listed those animals as protected. We cover some of those issues in our previous AMBIO paper too. And yes, the ES/EDS concept has limitations – we’re not calling for it to be dropped completely, just that more consideration be given to those limitations & complexities, rather than falling back on to the ‘easy’ way of isolating material ‘goods’ vs ‘bads’ in one context and then applying it more broadly. Thanks for the link to the presentation, it’s great to see lots of new research taking this approach! I look forward to seeing the paper!


  2. standingoutinmyfield September 10, 2016 / 6:22 AM

    I think about this all the time when I’m in the field. For example, soldier beetles are considered to be friends, but they consume a lot of pollen…and where is the line drawn between pollen consumer and pollinator?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders September 10, 2016 / 8:46 AM

      So do I! 🙂 And spiders that eat pests, but also eat bees & hoverflies. Also, not sure if your soldier beetles are of the same family as ours?? But I think I read somewhere that they leave a compound on flowers that deters other pollinators from visiting?? Maybe I imagined that… But yes, many complexities to keep us busy for years! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • standingoutinmyfield September 11, 2016 / 1:26 AM

        Our soldier beetles are Cantharids…I hadn’t heard about the compound but I believe it; they do immediately release a nasty compound if you pick them up. Indeed! Lawrence Harder had some interesting papers about pollen predation and limitation with regards to bees, I think. He did something clever with trout lilies…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Manu Saunders September 11, 2016 / 8:01 PM

          Yes, same family here. I can’t find where I read that about them .deterring pollinators now! I think it was the plague soldier beetles (Chauliognathus lugubris) and I think it was only when they were plaguing, not just as indiviudals….but don’t quote me on it!

          Liked by 1 person

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