Spotlight on Environmental Buzzwords: Ecosystem Services

Rice production in Eastern Uruguay. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT.
Aug 2013

When it comes to global sustainability, one of the biggest challenges is finding a common language. This week, Max McClure puts "Ecosystem Services" in the spotlight.

Third installment in our series on environmental buzzwords

The idea of "ecosystem services" – defined as the benefits that functioning ecosystems provide to humanity – works the same economic territory as "green growth," which I've looked at before. But its approach is very different, typically emphasizing the economic value of land in its natural state.

While the term "environmental services" first appears in a 1970 report from the Study of Critical Environmental Problems, the leading proponent of the concept is, as is often the case in these columns, Gretchen Daily. Her "Ecosystem Services" entry for the Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology provides a brief but thorough look at historical ideas about human benefits provided by nature.

From an everyday language perspective, the phrase "ecosystem services" is a counterpart to the idea of natural "goods" (as in "goods and services"). Natural resources as they're traditionally understood are mostly goods – objects that can be removed from the environment and sold. Services, on the other hand, aren't harvested. They require a service provider – one that can continue providing that service again and again. Lumber is a good, and one that can be harvested. A forest's ability to continually provide lumber is a service, and one that needs to be preserved.

This way of looking at natural resources gets particularly interesting when you look at payments for ecosystem services. (Recognizing ecosystem services doesn't always involve payment, but the approach is of growing importance particularly in the developing world.) Who is the actual service provider?

"Nature" is the obvious answer, but not a particularly helpful one when it comes to actually writing the check. The payments are made by beneficiaries (often governments) to people who are preserving a given ecosystem, rather than destroying it or letting it be destroyed. Ecosystem service provider is therefore a job in and of itself – which is to say, the ecosystem services outlook explicitly and concretely recasts humans as stewards of the environment. A neat trick.

Next week, we'll have a look at "Biodiversity Hotspots."

Max McClure is a science writer based in California.