Ecosystem Services vs. Conservation: a storm in a teacup

Every so often, another opinion piece claims that ecosystem services approaches hinder nature conservation. A couple of recent examples: a Monbiot column rehashing his views against the natural capital approach (which is an economic tool for applying the ecosystem services concept), and this opinion piece in Biological Conservation by Bekessy et al. arguing that ecosystem services is not a useful communication strategy for conservation advocacy.

Two key arguments recur in these opinions, both based on conflated issues:

  • practical applications of the ecosystem services concept (e.g. economic valuation) are conflated with the concept itself
  • ecosystem services are equated with instrumental values, which are conflated with economic values, and portrayed in opposition to intrinsic values (stay with me here)

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Crop pollination depends on wild AND managed pollinators

I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).

It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.

This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

My first podcast!

Thank you to James O’Hanlon for inviting me on to his awesome science podcast In Situ Science. It was my first podcast, but it was just like a good radio interview where you’re given the time to have a conversation, not produce soundbites.

We chat about the Wild Pollinator Count, the challenges of running citizen science projects (data quality, science vs. engagement etc.), how ecosystem services might be one of the most unifying but misunderstood concepts in research, media portrayal of science, James Bond, science community blogging and more!

You can listen to the podcast here (and if you’re new to the site, be sure to subscribe and check out the previous episodes!):

Ep. 41 Pollinators, Bond films, and ecosystem services with Manu Saunders

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Science needs Nature: so why keep them apart?

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Ensia about how popular media tend to separate science and nature stories as if they’re unrelated categories. Most major online news websites have separate pages for ‘Science’ stories (predominantly technology, space and medical research) and ‘Environment’ stories (mostly pieces on nature, wilderness, environmental activism, or cute wildlife, sometimes with a few pieces on climate change thrown in for good measure). Continue reading

On the conservation of single-author papers

The number of authors included on research papers in many disciplines has increased over time. This editorial in Journal of Applied Ecology is the latest analysis of this trend, finding that published single-author research papers in that journal have declined since 1966 (two years after the journal started publishing). N.B. the authors only quantify research papers (i.e. data papers, but they don’t specify if they include reviews/meta-analyses…see below), and applied ecology should be a multidisciplinary field, so this is a good thing.

The editorial is excellent, and you should read it – the discussion of underlying causes of this trend is mostly reasons why we should encourage more multi-author papers.

But…there will always be a place for single-author papers in research, especially for early career researchers. Continue reading

What is sustainable agriculture anyway?

Sustainable agriculture is an ambiguous term. Because ‘sustainable’ simply means ‘maintained at the current level’, sustainable agriculture can be whatever you want it to be. It’s used more than it probably should be in scientific and political documents, because it’s a broad encompassing term that most people have heard. But it needs to be interpreted within the context it’s referring to, not on its own. Sometimes that context isn’t clear.

Modern agriculture is a leading driver of our current environmental problems, already pushing us beyond the safe limits of most planetary boundaries. But not all agriculture is equal. Very few studies, or their associated news  stories, clarify the subtle social and ecological differences between individual farms and landscapes.

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