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.

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Counting bees…which bees?

The concept of citizen science is as old as the hills, but large-scale coordinated projects are growing in popularity, especially those with digital engagement tools. It’s always great to see new projects that fill an important knowledge gap and engage the public with the natural world.

Recording biodiversity sightings is an easy and rewarding way to get involved. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to coordinated data collections, such as iNaturalist or Atlas of Living Australia. Other projects have more standardised scientific goals, such as the UK’s Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, the USA’s Great Sunflower Project, and our own Australian Wild Pollinator Count (disclaimer: this is my own project).

So what about new projects that overlap existing projects and don’t provide clear information about how the data will be used? Continue reading

System Solutions: sustainable agriculture is about ecological interactions

The latest IPCC report was released last week, with very similar findings to the IPBES report released earlier this year. Both reports analyse published research and provide evidence-based recommendations to guide policy-making. They corroborate what ecologists and environmental scientists have been showing for the last few decades via hundreds of thousands of studies across multiple disciplines.

In a nutshell, we need to change how we, as a species, interact with our environment. Most importantly, we need to change the way we manage and use land and natural resources. And there are many ways we can do this. Continue reading

Don’t, don’t…believe the hype!

We are suckers for hype. The recent media sequel of the mythical Insect Armageddon and the coverage of the latest WWF report on wildlife declines are a reminder of this.

Global declines in insect populations are a huge concern. Insects contribute to myriad ecosystem services through a multitude of ecological processes and functions. If we lose insects, we WILL suffer. But the two studies media have hyped on this issue are not actually evidence that this happening. They are concerning; they are a wake-up call; they are worrying. But, in and of themselves, they are not evidence of apocalyptic declines in the number of all 1+ million species of insect on Earth.

Similarly, the recent WWF report does not show any evidence that humans have ‘wiped out’ 60% of all animals on Earth in the last 30/40 years, as many media outlets are claiming. The truth: the report considered around 4000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians…i.e. vertebrates. There are at least ~400,000 more species of vertebrate on Earth (depending who you talk to), probably more. And huge caveat!… Invertebrates are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, so any claim about ‘all animals’ that doesn’t include invertebrates is automatically dubious. Continue reading

Evidence-based Half Earth

The argument that half our planet should be set aside for Nature has been in the news lately. A few years’ ago, E.O. Wilson wrote Half-Earth, his plan to save the biosphere by dedicating half the planet’s surface to nature. Other scientists have published supporting arguments, for example here and here.

The idea is commendable and inspiring. Modern human civilisation is having huge, sometimes irreversible, effects on natural processes and ecosystem function. In return, the outcomes of these effects are having terrible impacts on human wellbeing, e.g. climate change, loss of natural vegetation, plastic and agrichemical pollution etc.

To sustain life, we (all of us) really need to change the way we use our local and global environments.

So is the ‘half earth’ proposal realistic and effective for achieving this goal? Continue reading

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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Your garden is an ecosystem!

Birds, bees and bugs: your garden is an ecosystem, and it needs looking after.

This piece is part of a great series on The Conversation about the science behind gardening. My article focuses on gardens as wildlife-friendly habitat, particularly for pollinators. Also check out the other articles in the series!

Read the rest of my article here.

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© Manu Saunders 2016

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

Mistletoe Magic

Mistletoe has fascinated me since I was a child. At first, its charm was purely mythological – I spent many years obsessing over the European Christmas traditions I was missing out on by having a midsummer yuletide in subtropical Australia. Mistletoe, holly wreaths, snow angels, and warm eggnog – these things didn’t exist in my sweaty Queensland Christmases. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned what a remarkable plant mistletoe is, and found out that it grew in Australia (as does holly, albeit as a weed!). I was beside myself. I still remember my excitement the first time I saw a mistletoe plant, flowing serenely off a eucalypt branch in the Bunya Mountains, like a leafy green waterfall suspended in mid-air. Continue reading