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?
© Manu Saunders 2018