Ecosystem services or Nature’s contributions to people?


IPBES has released media summaries of their reports on global land degradation and restoration, and regional biodiversity and ecosystem services assessments. The results of these reports are really important.

Anyone who has been working in this area for the last couple of decades might have noticed that the reports refer to ‘nature’s contributions to people’ (NCP). Where did this term come from and what does it mean?

In a nutshell, it’s a new term for ‘ecosystem services’.

But do we need a new term? The term ‘ecosystem services’ was only established about 20-odd years ago (the concept is centuries’ older). I’ve been working on ecosystem services research for just over 10 years, and NCP came out of the blue for me. I heard about it a few months ago (just before the IPBES reports had been finalised), when a paper was published in Science by a group of well-respected scientists in the ecosystem services field who were involved in the IPBES assessments. Some related papers were published (here and here) in another journal, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

When I first saw this new term, my heart sank. I’d recently heard of several commercial organisations and industry bodies who were wanting to move away from using the term ‘ecosystem services’, simply because they felt that customers/clients/members didn’t understand it. These new papers were suggesting that researchers should do this too.

To be fair, the Current Opinion papers did acknowledge the pluralism involved in the concept. But the Science paper didn’t – the message from this paper was very obviously ‘we need to start using NCP instead of ecosystem services, stat’. And we all know how much more attention Science papers get, compared to other journal articles.

But the Current Opinion papers also focused on a big misconception – i.e. that ecological processes (e.g. evolutionary processes, species diversity-habitat relationships), ecosystem goods (e.g. food, habitat), and ecological experiences (e.g. mental health benefits) are all separate things of different origin. They aren’t. They are all various types of ecosystem services.

We shouldn’t stop using ‘ecosystem services’. Yes, it’s a notoriously difficult term. But the issue so far has mostly been with the way it’s been used and interpreted, not with the term itself. Think of statistics. Do we need to invent a new term for ANOVA just because some people don’t know how to use it accurately?

The foundation texts for the ecosystem services concept are unambiguous in their scope. But since then, public discourse on the concept has simply confused more than enlightened. Ecosystem services research has been dominated by economics. Yet the concept is ecological in foundation and interdisciplinary in practice. Ecological studies of ecosystem services have focused mostly on agriculture, particularly pollination and biological pest control. Yet there are myriad other services we know very little about. Ecosystem services is a complex social-ecological concept. Yet most existing empirical research attempts to quantify services from one isolated angle. (This is changing, albeit slowly).

From my own experience, I know a lot of people totally get the concept of ecosystem services, even if they don’t use the term themselves. So, why do we need to introduce NCP? You can read some excellent published critiques of the term here and here. I wholeheartedly agree.

My main issue with NCP comes from a communication perspective. There are a few good reasons to keep using ‘ecosystem services’ instead of ‘nature’s contributions to people’:

  • It’s shorter and more succinct.
  • It’s more meaningful. ‘Ecosystem services’ connotes a reciprocal relationship – services are available to be benefitted from, but the beneficiaries (i.e. us) need to invest in conserving the source of those services (nature) in order to reap the benefits (not necessarily monetary benefits). On the other hand, ‘nature’s contributions to people’ connotes a one-way delivery, where nature is just producing bulk contributions without us having to lift a finger to support it.
  • It covers both convenient and inconvenient ecological truths (the latter have been termed ‘ecosystem disservices’, a term that also has its flaws). NCP focuses on gifts and benefits, or ‘contributions’, which are subsidiary to services and connote only positive effects.
  • It’s easier to build engagement beyond research. Engagement comes with time spent on repetition of messages. In scientific terms, we’re only just getting started with communicating how ‘ecosystem services’ relates to people. It might seem easier to give up on a term an audience isn’t ‘getting’ and replace it with a new one, than it is to invest more time, money and effort into building knowledge. But introducing a new term to suit a particular audience can have serious ripple effects. How do you reconcile the decades of previous research published under the ‘old’ terminology? What are the trade-offs in investing more time and money in establishing engagement with a new term, versus investing in building engagement with an existing term?

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© Manu Saunders 2018

4 thoughts on “Ecosystem services or Nature’s contributions to people?

  1. Martin Brummell April 4, 2018 / 1:17 AM

    “Ecological studies of ecosystem services have focused mostly on agriculture, particularly pollination and biological pest control.”

    In my experience, discussion of Ecosystem Services has focused as much on issues of water, such as flood prevention, drought resilience, and water-quality concerns as on issues of arthropods, though of course there is a great deal of overlap.

    I currently work in wetlands, mainly ecological restoration of disturbed peatlands in Canada. The discussions about Ecosystem Services I’ve had with colleagues have often made a point of distinguishing between two related terms: Ecosystem Services and Ecosystem Functions. Several of my current and recent projects have been primarily concerned with a few Ecosystem Functions as opposed to Services: a given wetland might be sequestering X tonnes of C per year in the form of peat accumulation, and the amount of water in that wetland might fluctuate between Y and Z bajillion litres over a series of years. Those Functions then translate into Services if there is a person that benefits from them. For C sequestration, the argument could be made that everyone in the world benefits from that net removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. For water storage and contaminant removal, a wetland close to a population centre that gets some of their drinking water from that wetland provides a clear Service, but a wetland in the remote wilderness, far from any human populations or one that lies immediately upstream of a much larger drainage system that receives water from many systems, does not have that same clear relationship with economic activities.

    Calculating the Services provided by such an ecosystem is extremely difficult, and well beyond my research interests and skills; those calculations do not appear in my papers where I quantify fluxes of matter and energy but not money. Adding those other, equally important factors you describe – “ecological processes (e.g. evolutionary processes, species diversity-habitat relationships), ecosystem goods (e.g. food, habitat), and ecological experiences (e.g. mental health benefits)” – would add another level of complexity. I plan to include one of those, a look at species diversity as it relates to other functions such as C fluxes, to some new projects I’ll be starting soon, but I’m sure I don’t need to explain here the level of complexity already inherent in a study that includes biodiversity.

    Getting back to your central point regarding terminology, I think the distinction between Ecosystem Services and Functions is fairly straightforward and I have not seen calls to abolish either term from my closest group of colleagues. And I agree with you: NCP seems unnecessary and pointlessly confusing. It smells faintly of newness for the sake of newness, or difference for the sake of being different rather than better. That’s not a pleasant smell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 4, 2018 / 8:39 AM

      Thanks Martin, yes ecosystem services are the outcomes of ecosystem function we can quantify or identify as beneficial to humans, hence why the terms are often used in concert. And you are right, considering multiple aspects of systems adds further levels of complexity, but this is the goal of ES research – it is about dealing with complex systems, not isolated components.

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  2. Bartosz Bartkowski April 7, 2018 / 5:54 AM

    I agree with your scepticism towards NCP. However, I also discussed this with a colleague who happens to be one of the authors of the Diaz et al paper – according to him, NCP is not supposed to supplant ES; rather, it is supposed to be a broader, more encompassing concept, where ES is one of the variants/subconcepts (apparently, some of this went lost in the process of extensive formatting and shortening of the paper by Science, but it is somewhat clarified in the e-letter discussion). For instance, they stress the importance of indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) – and ES has been criticised for being inherently “Northern” or “Western”, so for communication purposes, in some contexts, NCP might actually be helpful… On the other hand, Diaz et al did downplay a lot of diverse research within ES which addresses the issues they claim NCP is an answer to… And the scientific merit of the concept, beyond communication in IPBES context, remains a puzzle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 7, 2018 / 9:00 AM

      Thanks for the insight. Yes, the Science paper didn’t fully explain the detail from the previous papers I linked to above. I agree with some of the authors’ arguments, in the more detailed papers but I do think it’s important to consider the confusion caused by new terms, especially for people who are new to the concept generally. I have spoken to colleagues from other disciplines who have only recently started working on ES and who did think that NCP is the new term we should be using now

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