New paper: Conceptual ambiguity and ecosystem disservices

Just published in Journal of Applied Ecology: Conceptual ambiguity hinders measurement and management of ecosystem disservices.  

Ecosystem services is one of the most misunderstood scientific concepts. Ambiguity and confusion can be a real barrier to establishing a new scientific concept or field of research. Ecosystem services is still a young discipline (formalised in the 1990s based on a much longer heritage) and is often misrepresented as being a purely economic concept that is damaging to biodiversity conservation and ecological science. This couldn’t be further from the truth, yet this misguided opinion consistently gets regular airtime and clouds broader understanding of the relevance of ecosystem services to research, policy, and land management.

The term ecosystem disservices was first used to address an early criticism of the ES concept, i.e. that ES was largely focused on benefits and overlooked the ecological reality that nature sometimes harms us. This is a valid issue that must be addressed in any ES approach. But, as we argued a few years’ ago, creating a false dichotomy around opposing terms is not the most effective way to solve this problem.

Why do disservices matter? We need to understand how and when ecological interactions deliver disservices, such as disease spread or environmental impacts of invasive alien species, to ensure evidence-informed decisions that protect biodiversity and support human wellbeing.

We explored this issue further with wild animals in agricultural systems. Most wild animals in crop systems are labelled as ‘pests’ or ‘beneficials’, usually based on a single interaction. The reality is far more complex, and a single species can be both, in different environmental contexts, or at different times of the year.

Ecosystem disservices is a useful term and the concept of disservices (i.e. measuring and accounting for ecological costs and trade-offs) is already embedded in ecosystem services frameworks. However, it’s not a simple black and white scenario.

Disservices don’t exist in isolation from services. Many are linked to human wellbeing in complex ways via essential ecological processes and ecosystem services. It’s critical that we are defining and measuring disservices accurately, so as not to have damaging effects on biodiversity and human wellbeing in the longer term.

A few papers have called for greater rigour in discussions of ecosystem disservices, but the literature is expanding rapidly with many ambiguous or inaccurate interpretations of disservices, and no established methods for measuring or classifying disservices in social-ecological systems. In particular, many studies continue to endorse the false dichotomy that disservices exist independently of services.

This prompted me to review the literature and identify how studies are misinterpreting disservices, and which knowledge gaps are hindering progress.

The majority of empirical studies measured ecosystem disservices based on subjective opinions or proxy data. There were also many studies that use the term inaccurately, as a catch-all term for nuisances, problems or personal aversions that individuals experience. Things like dog poo or litter in parks, fear of unlit spaces at night, or a tree blocking someone’s view have been classified as ecosystem disservices. In truth, they are not.

Organisms or events that can contribute to disservices are also often mistakenly referred to as disservices themselves. For example, ‘pest’ species (like aggressive hornets in urban areas, or vertebrate predators in livestock country) are not a disservice themselves, but they can contribute to disservices through ecological interactions (they may also contribute to services). A storm itself is not a disservice, even if it causes damage to someone’s house.

This is a critical discussion largely missing from the ecosystem disservices literature: how to balance human values and perceptions with ecological knowledge and inference at different scales and dimensions. Human values are important to ecosystem services approaches, but our perceptions can be flawed or misinformed: what one individual perceives as a nuisance may be a harmony to someone else (e.g. early morning birdsong). And if it can’t be related directly to an ecological interaction, is it really an ecosystem disservice? When does a personal nuisance become a disservice?

These ambiguities dominate the literature: what disservices are, how we should measure them, and how they fit into the ecosystem services framework. There are no rigorous established methods for measuring and classifying disservices, and many studies appear to make up their own classifications. This needs to change.

Disservices are not just everything we don’t like about interacting with nature. They must be outcomes of ecological interactions, just like ecosystem services. And they must impact human well-being and be assessed as damaging under a relevant value system. These are critical points.

When it comes to decision-making for management actions, we need to ensure we have identified an ecological problem accurately, so our ‘solution’ won’t cause unnecessary biodiversity losses, or impact ecological processes and interactions that support human wellbeing.

To do this, we need better ways to compare and acknowledge ecosystem services (or disservices) under different value systems, even when they contradict each other. We are still a long way from that, especially in policy and decision-making contexts.

In the paper, I provide a definition tool to help researchers and practitioners identify what a disservice is, and identify some key knowledge gaps that hinder progress on understanding how ecosystem disservices fit into an ecosystem services framework. Hope you find it useful!

© Manu Saunders 2020

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