Viewpoint: ecosystem services and an ecosystems approach

The following article by Robert Fish, University of Exeter, is reproduced from the first edition of Ecosystem News. Download PDF

Viewpoint: Ecosystem services and an ecosystems approach.

As one of the Network’s co-ordinating team, I am often asked, “What is an ecosystems approach and why is it important?” My immediate answer to this question is very simple. “An ecosystems approach”, I say, “is a framework for managing the natural environment in a holistic and integrated way”, to which it is not unusual to be met by the response, “why, isn’t that what sustainable resource management has always been about? What’s new?!” There’s some truth to this reaction, of course. Holistic and integrated decision making is hardly a novel aspiration for those involved in environmental policy development or managing environmental projects; at least it shouldn’t be! But it seems to me that an ecosystems approach distinguishes itself in a number of important ways.

First, it is no coincidence that the idea of an ecosystems approach is often used in conjunction with the concept of ecosystem services. Through this concept an ecosystems approach is provided with its own, very special, vocabulary, and indeed, it is quite common for this area of policy innovation to be described as the ecosystem services approach. Importantly, by putting the concept of ecosystem services to work, an ecosystems approach is not simply employing a new label to describe an enduring and pre-occupying concern; it is actually changing the way we make the case for nature in decision making. For me, the focus on ecosystem services is less about thinking of the natural environment as a thing (a strip of hedgerow here; a river running its course over there) but rather as a system providing different flows of social and economic benefit. The focus, in other words, is to make more explicit the many and diverse ways in which nature underpins human well-being.

Second, it is the breadth and range of the services considered in decision making that marks out the particular challenges of taking an ecosystems approach. The reasoning is that the natural environment is  not  only  generative  of  fundamental  benefits  to  human  welfare  –  such  as  providing sustenance, securing livelihoods and supporting mental and physical heath – but also underpins more qualitatively complex aspects of society and culture, from the spiritual and mystical functions of landscape to the building of cohesive communities. As such, a fundamental attraction of an ecosystems approach is that, through the concept of ecosystem services, it conveys human dependency on nature without being purely  about  managing  natural  resources.  It  is  about  understanding  human  prosperity  in the wider sense of the term. And it is precisely because the framework of ecosystem services combines this idea of human prosperity with practical utility that an ecosystems approach is such a powerful starting point for environmental decision making; the framework’s promise lies in the way it allows decision makers to explore these diverse benefits of nature in a standardised and systematic way.

If an ecosystems approach cannot be easily separated from the concept of ecosystem services it remains the case that many use the concept of ecosystem services without doing an ecosystems approach at all. This is because an ecosystems approach is all about the methods and mindsets decision makers and project managers adopt to incorporate ecosystem services into their work. This, then, is my third observation: an ecosystems approach is distinguished by its principles. Many have sought to define these principles, though I would emphasise three that appear particularly salient.

The first principle is understanding and revealing the different (sometimes conflicting), values people hold  about  these  services  within  decision  making.  That  is  to  say,  an  ecosystems  approach  is  about grounding  our  understanding  of  ecosystem  services  in  societal  perspectives  and  preferences.  The second is a concern to cultivate multiple and synergistic patterns of service delivery. An ecosystems approach is about exploring ways in which the natural environment can be harnessed and adapted for diverse, rather than singular, ends. The third and final principle is about ensuring decisions maintain nature’s functions and a resilient natural environment. An ecosystems approach is, for instance, about exploring the limits and thresholds within which our choices and preferences for ecosystem services reside. Respecting these sorts of principles in decision making, and using them in concert, is what turns the mere concept of ‘ecosystems services’ into the altogether more complex ‘ecosystems approach’. Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that all of these principles raise as many questions as they answer! But that, of course, is what this Ecosystems Knowledge Network is all about; exploring, and doing so, in practical and meaningful ways. I therefore look forward to meeting you all and learning about your experiences and insights in this area.   Robert Fish (c) Robert Fish

Rob Fish is a social scientist in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on understanding the emerging contours of land use policy, including applications of an ecosystems approach in rural environments.