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“Ecosystem Services” – Hype or opportunity?

As a social scientist working mostly literature-based, my research life is taking place largely indoors. It is not very exciting to look at from the outside, and does not produce any of the nice pictures from fieldwork that many of my colleagues are able to create. After all, nobody wants to see a photo of a guy staring at his screen… boring! This is why this blog post is long overdue – and why this will not be a report on my research progress (again: boring!) but rather a short essay on a topic that fascinates me for quite some time now, although it will in all likelihood not appear center stage in one of my publications.

“Ecosystem services” – anybody who deals with environmental questions on a professional basis will know that this concept is now ubiquitous. You will hear it at conferences as well as in public debates, used by representatives of private enterprises, government institutions and NGOs alike. Equally, as soon as you start reading almost any paper written by environmental researchers, there it is: “Ecosystem services”. In the context of forest research, no matter whether a paper talks about timber production, climate mitigation, the protection of habitats or the general restoration of complex forest ecosystems, the issue will almost certainly be framed also by reference to their importance as ecosystem services. Now, where is the problem? Is there a problem? Why the need to even point this out?

To put the concept in its historical context: As young researchers working on environmental issues, we have already been educated in a scientific world centered around this concept. But: Its success is a relatively recent development. Coined in the context of debates during the 1980s, the concept of ecosystem services became widely used only around the year 2000, as it was being taken up on a large scale by political institutions, culminating in the publishing of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in 2005 – meaning that the seeming ‘naturalness’ of viewing nature and forests through this particular ‘lens’ only dates back about 20 years.

Now to the ‘lens’ itself: What does the framework of “ecosystem services” essentially do? The concept links back natural elements and dynamics to the “goods and services” (sometimes also: “values”) that they produce and provide, and in turn links those to the necessity of functioning ecosystems to allow for their provision. This certainly makes for a valid perspective on forests: Forests have been in use for millennia, and do in fact serve humanity in a number of crucial ways, many of which are still largely underappreciated. Additionally, it points out the importance of rather ‘arcane’ ecosystem dynamics for the basic functioning of society: From the wood we need for our kitchen table or the paper we (at least some of us) still use to take notes on, to the availability of clean drinking water. Importantly, it links these processes to the hard facts of a global economy in which things are valued if (and often: only if) there is a price tag on them. As the title of a paper by Robertson (2006) aptly describes it: “Ecosystem Services” as a framework produces the “Nature that Capital can see”.

In sociological terms, what the framework does is to “commodify” nature: It turns forests and the elements and processes they contain into something that can be, at least in theory, bought and sold on their respective markets. And this can produce very desirable outcomes: Suddenly, there is not only a price on a cubic meter of timber, but also a price on the clean water which an intensively managed timber plantation which is subsequently clear-cut with large machines might not be able to provide any more. Thinking of “services” in these terms allows for many issues to become “valued” which used to be forgotten. But what does it mean if forests get more and more exclusively understood as a system of interlinked commodities? Should this be our primary understanding of what forests are?

First, “ecosystem services” is a thoroughly “anthropocentric”, and “utilitarian” framework. “Anthropocentric” in the sense that it focuses only to that which can be shown to have direct or indirect importance to humanity (or, more often than not, to those relevant sectors of society who have the ability to pay for it, or to influence decision-making in their favor). “Utilitarian”, in that it puts a value only on that which can be demonstrated to be useful in some sense. This puts it at odds with another of the meta-frameworks central to ConFoBi: Biodiversity. “Biodiversity” started out as a strongly normative concept, in the sense that it was promoted by researchers and activists who became alarmed by the rapid species decline that became more and more obvious over the decades. Now, one can of course try and show (as many researchers do) the usefulness of biodiversity for society, in that biological diversity can be shown to assist the stability of an ecosystem providing services. One could also simply point out the many ways in which (sometimes threatened) species can contribute to our collective well-being.

But there is something in the idea of biodiversity which entirely evades being captured by a narrow utilitarian understanding of nature. The initial impulse behind biodiversity was, I would argue, a strong moral judgement that rapid species decline is simply and fundamentally bad, and that complex natural ecosystems with a thriving and diverse flora and fauna (and funga?) are inherently desirable. While this is of course also a value put on nature by us, ‘the humans’, it still makes biodiversity a much more “eco-centric” approach to appreciating nature than ecosystem services. And trying to argue for the very general goal of biodiversity conservation in “anthropocentric” terms will lead to some rather convoluted and questionable justifications. As an example, the attempt to justify large-scale conservation efforts by claiming that useful innovations, like the next antibiotic, might be lying dormant somewhere in the realm of biological diversity, might be a plausible pointer in and of itself. Yet this line of argumentation still makes for a rather feeble attempt of trying to smuggle a call for global biodiversity conservation into a system which appreciates almost exclusively that which can be priced and sold.

Second, “ecosystem services” is in fact a hype, as for example shown in a paper co-written by one of our Mercator Fellows Taru Peltola (Brunet et al. 2019). In this paper, a relatively large number (51) of researchers working in ecology, conservation biology or geography were interviewed in-depth, showing that many of them were very conscious of the pressure to use the framework in order to appeal to funding agencies or important journals they would like to be published in – even though their research would not have necessarily warranted it. This can lead to researchers bending over backwards to try and make their object of interest (like some rare beetle species, or a rather abstract functional trait) appear relevant to society as a whole. But, as discussed before, “ecosystem services” is not simply a new ‘label’ to be put on what remains essentially the same research as before. It is also a very specific perspective on nature and forests, on why they are important and valuable and what exactly is valuable about them. And while from my practical experience, many researchers, even when using the label, will not completely buy into this perspective, the ubiquitousness of the framework will still slowly creep in and alter anyone’s perspective on nature who is confronted with it on a daily basis.

So, was the invention of the framework “ecosystem services” a mistake? That is not the point here. What I do think, though, is that it should be treated and used with extreme care. Because once a certain way of thinking becomes “hegemonic” (here’s another fancy sociological term for you), it becomes more and more difficult to think in alternative ways at all – especially for us as a generation which has been brought up (scientifically) in a world in which “ecosystem services” has, in effect, already become a hegemonic framework. And thinking of forests only as providers of ecosystem services does exclude many other ways of conceptualizing and valuing them. If you ask me (and I know you didn’t): “Ecosystem services” is one valid perspective on nature, but it should never become the only one.

Photo © Sebastian Schwegmann

by Manuel John (D1)