The recently published government review on the economics of biodiversity was scathing on our interactions with nature and valuation (or lack of) of ecosystems. The Dasgupta review concluded:
"Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature. We have collectively failed to engage with Nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on. Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations. At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure. The solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it."
Here I look over some of the other academic research that studies the complexities of ecosystem services.
Scientific publications provide ample real-world evidence and examples of biodiversity reductions causing changes to a range of ecosystem functions. Examples outlined by Dirzo et al. (2014) illustrate this well and include arthropod pests destroying food supplies potentially more than doubling without biological control; seed production falling in New Zealand due to declines in bird pollinators and lost wildlife as a food source in Madagascar increasing anemia in the local human population by 30%.
The way many ecosystems globally function has been drastically altered by changes in species numbers, both up and down (Wardle 2011). Furthermore, the type and magnitude of ecosystem function in relationship with biodiversity will depend greatly on levels of human interaction and any loss could hamper biodiversity’s potential stabilizing effect on future climate variables. (Eisenhower 2016). More specifically, Dirzo et al. (2014) indicates that globally ecosystems could suffer from declines in insect pollinator diversity such as those seen in Northern Europe in the past 30 years; reduction in pest control, nutrient cycling and even human health (whereby up to 36% of animal species used for food or medicine are now endangered).
Recent meta-analysis of conducted studies suggests the impact of biodiversity losses on ecosystem function is on a similar scale to global changes such as pollution and systematic defaunation threatens to push us toward global wide tipping points (Dirzo et al. 2014). This is reiterated by Hooper et al. (2014) when they summarise, that species loss is a key influence of the main processes involved in the carbon cycle and the provisioning of many ecosystem services.
Relationships and balances between biodiversity and ecosystems are however extremely complex and we still have a relative lack of knowledge about the net consequences of the species gains and losses on terrestrial ecosystems functioning. Our ability to understand the impact of species loss in real ecosystems thus requires further experimental studies to ascertain the response of Earths systems to future changes (Wardle 2011).
Further ecosystem research needs to be of a nature that can be easily understood by and communicated to the public so that all stakeholders can follow how these complex trade-offs between human wellbeing and ecosystem services work in practice (Costanza et al. 2017). These studies should look beyond the standard GDP per capita type measurements of progress and look deeper into the distribution of benefits and relationships. Research should also see which roles are played by technology in either preventing system decline and providing alternative ways to substitute them (Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2010).
A majority of current research has been heavily focused on purely identifying what ecosystem services are provided and somehow measuring them. In the future, the priority must be to enable policy makers to know options and trade-offs between decisions they are making; this is achieved through studies that are more orientated to the decision-making process, incorporating elements such as objectives, performance measures and alternative actions (Martinez-Harms et al., 2015). Data sets used should be a mixture between biological, social and economic so that we can understand how ecosystem services correlate with human well-being over both short and long-term scenarios including a systematic review of existing and historic policy to allow better choices for future decisions (Guerry et al. 2015).
A further priority of any research must be that of speed – changes that could result in ecological tipping points may already be too late to prevent, but we are unable to wait until all the complex symbiotic dynamics are fully understood before we act on the next steps to prevent further irreversible effects (Costanza et al. 2017). Most people of the world live in urban areas and yet there is currently a gap in research on how urban ecosystems can be designed to enhance service provision in these environments (Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2010). As we populations and cities grow improving knowledge in this subject will be vital.
I believe that putting an economic value on ecosystem services is essential to ensure their provision for future generations, but we must be cautious that as it doesn’t always have the desired outcomes one would expect. By putting a market analysis value on the goods and services provided by ecosystems can play a role in creating awareness around their contribution to human wellbeing and visibility to society (Hansjürgens et al. 2015) but we must be very cautious with using this as a blanket approach to ecology preservation and policy decisions. Costanza et al. (1997) put a yearly value of $38 trillion (rough average) on ecosystem services and so this should act as a strong incentive to protect these provisions (Balmford et al. 2002).
In a capitalist structure that makes decisions based on macro-economic criteria, valuing ecosystem services goes some way to ensuring the often ignored public and social goods found in nature are factored into this process and in an ideal situation win-win outcomes between nature and development such as those seen in Costa Rica Coffee Plantations (where retention of forest patches enhanced pest control) can be achieved (Adams 2014).
Despite the potential advantage of engaging capitalist policy makers in their own language we must be careful trying to manage the whole planet for human benefit (Rull 2010). By putting an economic value on nature, we are focusing on the anthropocentric utility and not its intrinsic value to a wider planetary spectrum that would be apparent with more bio-centric approaches (Schröter et al. 2014). We are also essentially selling out on nature but commercialising its value to satisfy policy makers driven by profits when really conservation is a moral issue and must be addressed as such (McCauley 2006). This could easily lead to species that don’t openly provide a service value being expendable and that a certain amount of nature can be sacrificed for human development (Rull 2010).
Furthermore, relationships within ecosystems are intricate and what exact processes provide goods and services are difficult to identify (Adams 2014): As the relationship is also constantly changing over time what could have no ecosystem service value today could be vital in the future, when it may already be too late.
Costanza, R. et al. 2017. Twenty years of ecosystem services: how far have we come and how far do we still need to go? Ecosystem Services 28, 1-16.
Martinez-Harms M. J., et al. 2015. Making decisions for managing ecosystem services. Biological Conservation 184, 229-238.
Raudsepp-Hearne, C. et al. 2010. Untangling the environmentalist’s paradox: why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade? BioScience 60, 576–589.
Guerry, A. D. et al. 2015. Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: from promise to practice. PNAS 112 (24), 7348-7355.
Adams, W.M. 2014. The value of valuing nature. Science 346, 549-551.
Balmford, A. et al. 2002. Economic reasons for conserving wild nature. Science 297, 950-953.
Hansjürgens, B. et al. 2017. Justifying social values of nature: economic reasoning beyond self-interested preferences. Ecosystem Services 23, 9-17.
McCauley, D.J. 2006. Selling out on nature. Nature 443, 27-28. Rull, V. 2010. The candid approach. EMBO Reports 11(1), 14-17.
Schröter, M. et al. 2014. Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter arguments. Conservation Letters 7(6), 514– 523.
Dirzo, R., Young, H. S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B., Collen, B. 2014. Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science, 345 (6195), 401- 406. 10.1126/science.1251817
Eisenhower, N. et al. 2016. Biodiversity-ecosystem function experiments reveal the mechanisms underlying the consequences of biodiversity change in real world ecosystems. Journal of Vegetation Science 27, 1061-1070.
Hooper, D.U. et al. 2012. A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature 486, 105-108.
Wardle, D.A. et al. 2011. Terrestrial ecosystem responses to species gains and losses. Science 332, 1273 – 1277.
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