Ecosystem Services – a concept to bring together practitioners and researchers?

We live in a complex world, which can be described as social-ecological system. Different knowledge and perspectives help to understand how this highly interlinked system works. For the last twenty years, the concept of ecosystem services, the benefits people obtain from nature has gained popularity. One of the reasons is the claim that it helps to link environmental sciences and the non-academic world. However, a recently published article by a US team led by Cara Steger critically examines on this.

Ecosystem services are an academic success story. Born in the 1980’s, ecosystem services took off due to two publications in 1997: Robert Costanza’s Nature article “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” and Gretchen Daily’s book “Nature’s services: societal dependence on natural ecosystems”. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, has established ecosystem services as a concept that not only bridges different research disciplines but also reaches the “real” world outside academia to explore and improve the human-nature relationship in urban and also rural areas.

In the beginning, not only ecologists but also economists were using the term “ecosystem services”. Nowadays, researchers publishing on ecosystem services have various backgrounds: from environmental sciences, modeling and landscape planning to economics, political science and sociology. They often work in interdisciplinary teams crossing between the natural and social sciences, and between different schools of thought.

The different scientific disciplines and but also groups outside of the research environment build knowledge based on their own points of view and experiences. The different knowledge types help to understand the complexity of the world as interrelated social-ecological systems (SES). The ecosystem services concept can function to link all these different knowledge types together as a so-called boundary object.

The paper “Ecosystem Services as Boundary Objects for Transdisciplinary Collaboration” by Steger et al., enters the discussion at this point. The authors first elaborate on the theoretical ideas of boundary objects: an “interpretive flexibility” is a crucial characteristic for a boundary object. This means that there is not one definition, rather different users of the boundary object (the ecosystem services concept) adapt it to their use and needs. In addition according to the authors, the boundary object must require further information for (further) development and cannot be in a static position.

The authors illustrate in their article how the ecosystem services concept has experienced standardization over time. Taking off in the late 1990’s with definitions that researchers with various backgrounds discussed and further developed leading to a situation in the late 2000’s, in which a plentitude of understandings, definitions, methods and uses existed in parallel. Over time certain understandings gained power and are nowadays more mainstream than others, for example the definition of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (ecosystem services as nature’s benefits for people) is probably the most used. The latest global (and probably biggest) step in the direction of unifying the understandings of the ecosystem services concept was the adaptation of a conceptual framework of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). However, a remarkable feature of the IPBES framework is that it acknowledges different understandings of the nature-human-relationships by giving different terms for the same ideas. For example, “ecosystem goods and services” are classified as terminology of Western science, “nature’s gifts” as “other knowledge system” and “nature’s benefits to people” as inclusive language. This kind of openness for different names and different foci when talking about social-ecological systems, make the ecosystem services concept a boundary object.

For the assessment of regulating and provisioning services, certain methodological approaches have been applied in various circumstances, like the InVEST tool promoted by the Natural Capital Project. Especially since ecosystem services have to be assessed for decisions in U.S. federal agencies and also the international debate around reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation as possible climate change mitigation contributed to a mainstreaming. Nevertheless, there is still flexibility in the assessment of ecosystem services, especially for cultural ecosystem services that are highly depended on the place and people’s perceptions, where researchers have used various methods from analyzing flickr pictures to ranking exercises.

The authors conclude that transdisciplinarity is pivotal to keeping ecosystem services as a boundary object. They highlight in particular the importance of collaboration to identify needs and goals of society. For the future use of ecosystem services, the authors stress that researchers and practitioners should keep in mind the trade-offs between standardization and a too vague understanding of ecosystem services.

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Klara Winkler

I am a PhD student at Carl-von-Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Germany and Lund University, Sweden. My research focuses on human-nature relationships using the ecosystem services concept in rural areas. For my PhD I research governance aspects of ecosystem services. I'm a passionate European and train-traveller.

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