Rethinking the Connections of Ecosystem Services to Sustainability

Participating in the global dialogue toward sustainability, I often see disillusionment.  For the most part the frustration appears to stem from thinking too narrowly.  I am also convinced that too few of us are intimately connected to our surrounding ecological systems.

Societies rely on predictable flows of goods and services.  Living apart from a complex ecological system is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it is not the sole reasons that societies fail.  The litany of lost civilizations is long (Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter; 1491 Mann].

We hear a lot about saving the planet.  Even George Carlin knew that was the wrong focus – the planet will do just fine; it is our way of life that is in jeopardy.  The dialogue needs to move beyond carbon credits, habitat equivalents, and threatened species.  Recasting the advice of Donella Meadows (Leverage Points: Places to Intervene), we need to break through to new ways of thinking.

“How do we shift from our commodities-driven, short-term accounting approaches to address the long-term aspirations of different peoples near and far from our place of residence?”

“How do we shift from the engineering mentality (see the problem, fix the problem) to the more humble and challenging realities of wicked problems where fixes are elusive, temporary at best, not easily replicated in different localities, and defined by tradeoffs that stakeholders are willing to negotiate?”

Our ability to develop responsible answers must reconnect societies to the controlling forces of ecological systems.  Engaging in this process should be an invigorating venture.

Author bio: 
Dr. Larry Kapustka, has over 35 years of experience in environmental and ecological risk assessment. He is based in Calgary, Alberta where he provides strategic risk assessment consulting services. His career has included periods in academic, government and industry sectors. His current focus on holistic risk assessment invokes a landscape perspective that draws the connections between the flows of ecosystem services within ecological-socio-economic systems that lead toward sustainability. He has published books, chapters, and articles and led workshops on these topics and other topics including



I would argue that along with

  1. I would argue that along with broader interpretations of the problem and long-term thinking (I love that you included George Carlin as the expert...because he was right!) we have to think about VERY uncomfortable problems such as worldwide over population.  This discussion board would probably not be in existance if the world had half the current population.  It is not only non-trivial, it is paramount! I do not pretend to suggest easy solutions and the fix to such a problem rapidly becomes societal and social rather than classically ecological.  Still, as soon as you start thinking of sustainability and the "big picture" if we don't dive into immediate and effective ZPG policies it does not bode well for the success of our other efforts at sustainability (no matter how noble and well thought out).
Larry Kapustka

You are absolutely correct

You are absolutely correct that the increasing size of the human population diminishes our capacity to maintain a robust flow of ecolgoical goods and services.  However, in any controversial dialogue, if one leads with a hot button issue, the chances of reaching mutually desireable resolutions plummet.  Searching for common ground to build a foundation of trust can lead to expanded dialogue to express concerns about the more crititical connections.  There are viceral responses that defy our logic suggesting that we need to find new strategies to broach the population conundrum.


I strongly agree that we need

I strongly agree that we need to shift away from short-term accounting to perspectives that at least include estimates of the long-term impacts of environmental degradation and unsustainable practices in general.  However, I don't think that combatting the "engineering mentality" is a fight worth undertaking.  Why spend time and effort refuting a mentality that has solved so many problems, and that is ingrained in so many peoples' self-identities?  Rather, we should focus the power of an engineering mentality on the single most pressing challenge of our time: becoming a sustainable global ecosystem.  Of course any problem in global ecological-socio-economic systems contributing to unsustainability is going to be complex—if it wasn't complex it wouldn't be a problem in the first place—but in the search for solutions there are some instances where compromise is not appropriate and where a lasting fix, regardless of how elusive, is the only acceptable outcome.  I write this only to warn against a mentality that I encounter all too commonly in conservation work: we environmentalists still see ourselves as outsiders, as underdogs fighting against the greed of corrupt corporations or the indifference of stagnant governments.  This mentality causes us to treat even the smallest victories as successes, to accept compromise too readily.  But our "outsider" status has changed.  We are already strong, we are growing stronger.  Now is not the time for compromise, because the stakes are so high.  


@ebyron: We'd better hope the world's population problem stays in the societal and social realm because becoming "classically ecological" on a global scale simply means surpassing the planet's carrying capacity, and then there's only one way to equilibrate....


Jan Tessel 杨特松 • I read

Jan Tessel 杨特松 I read somewhere in the comments that Human Population should be lowered; here I fully agree and hope this will get more attention and courage among international policy makers. Was there before not a UN Summit Human Population? (Cairo ICPD 1994 and what happened then .....)


Lawrence Jones-Walters •

Lawrence Jones-Walters Larry raises a number of questions of which this isa good one: "How do we shift from the engineering mentality (see the problem, fix the problem) to the more humble and challenging realities of wicked problems where fixes are elusive, temporary at best, not easily replicated in different localities, and defined by tradeoffs that stakeholders are willing to negotiate".

The answer is not so straightforward particularly when the media (press, tv) feed on high profile solutions based on the engineering mentality - and "we" like them too because it saves us worrying if the technologists always have the answer. Such high profile solutions also appeal to the politician because they can be seen to be linked to success/ popularity/ effective targeting of public funds/ etc.

How to make the shift then? I am not sure that "wicked problems" with no clear solutions and multiple stakeholders are so humble (they are certainly challenging though). They need a high level of organisational commitment, stakeholder engagement (which doesn't always need tradeoff if process is managed effectively) and a whole new set of skills in order to manage the process itself.

Of course, we are slowly building a pretty good set of practice examples (best and worst!) where these new approaches are being applied. They are not suitable for every situation but they can be very powerful when they work and can encompass the technological (but as part of a broader based solution) - even the politicians sign up to them when they see how well they work (although they are often well out of their comfort zones!).

Tim Gieseke

I agree that we are missing

I agree that we are missing the links to make the fundamental connections to sustainability.  I believe if these links are going to be substantial enough, they must originate from our innate ability to recognize our needs and how our behaviors secure the resources to meet these needs.  This is a ubiquitous, constant force that cannot not be ignored or deflected;  it has to be on "our" side.  And as Larry stated, too few of us are intimately connected to our ecological surroundings.  We need to economically weave ecological value into our transactions.   Attempts have been made and some are evolving, but much of the focus is on ecosystem service credits that are attached, not woven.  These are probably necessary components in the long-term sustainability picture, but I estimate that logistically, this process could only carry a tiny fraction of existing positive externalities that will need to be brought into the economy.  I also believe will we not be able to reweave the entire economic cloth, we must pick a corner; start somewhere - ag, forestry, fisheries or another industry.  I believe we must try to value the positive externalities rather than attempt to beat back the negative externalities.  We can try to invest in those that are providing what we want rather than direct our energies at those that are not.  With these people, communities, corporations and organizations, we need to bring new economic concepts such as symbiotic demand, strategic doing, shared governance and geo-intelligence.  These are not concepts of our fathers' economy, but of our children's economy.  We don't have core ecological problems - those systems work well, we have a core economic problems that are causing subsequent failures in both.

Larry Kapustka

Tim's suggestion of picking

Tim's suggestion of picking one corner of the tapistry to work on is very useful becasue it allows us to see some success rather than become disillusioned by apparent failure if we try to redirect the entire entrenched way of thinking.

Sam questioned the wisdom of trying to combat the engineering mentality -- there is no doubt that it can be an uphill challenge.  Nevertheless, I believe we have an obligation to point to the limitations of the engineering approach, especially as that approach generally isolates on single issues.  We know from studies of systems, including ecological systems, that one gets "counter-intuitive" results sometimes referred to as "unintended consequences," or borrowing from a former presidential candiate an "Oops," when interconnectedness of systems are ignored.  In the past several years, the awareness of and benefits from taking a systems approach to address environmental issues has gained traction with increasing numbers of companies adopting enterprise risk management practices.  Like picking a corner of the fabric to begin working on, we needn't redirect all efforts from engineering, but rather do a better job of identifying the need for considering the systems dynamics as a way of identifying and addressing likely unintended consequences.


Recently I read an article

Recently I read an article from Solutions entitled: “Talking to the Enemy: An Alternative Approach to Ending Intractable Conflicts.“

Hopefully, we don't view those whose environmental positions are opposed to ours as enemies. It is still important to find ways to speak with them in order to try working through differences.

The article got me to wonder what, if any, ecosystem issues could be characterized as “intractable.”

Any suggestions?


Larry Kapustka

Depending on how one views

Depending on how one views "intractable," the answer could be that most issues pertaining to human use of eclogical goods and services are intractable.  Considering the definition of wicked problems (Rittel H., Webber M.  1973.  Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.  Policy Sci 4:155.169), anytime there is need for compromise on how we decide to use the goods and services, there is need for trade-off agreement.  Here are Rittel's and Webber's list of attributes for wicked problems:

  • Those that cannot be defined so all agree on the problem to solve
  • Require complex judgment about the level of abstraction at which to define the problem
  • Have no clear stopping rules
  • Have no right/wrong answer; just better/worse conditions
  • Have no objective measure of success
  • Require iteration – every trial counts
  • Have no given alternative solutions – these must be discovered
  • Often have strong moral, political or professional dimensions

In this context, I would argue that all issues involving access to ecological goods and services are wicked and hence do not yield to the beauty of solvable mathematic constructs -- thus they are intractable!


On one hand, the list of

On one hand, the list of attributes is quite helpful. On the other, your conclusion that all problems you refer to are "intractable" suggests that it doesn't really matter where to start. I suppose that's OK because it allows one the freedom of choice.

It appears that I need to learn a lot more about what people are doing about promoting the importance of ecosystem services.


While I agree with those who

While I agree with those who point to population as a serious issue, I would argue that it’s more complex than just a body count: per capita consumption is an equally provocative but serious issue, and the two have to be considered together. Industrial societies generally have lower rates of population growth than “less developed” cultures but more than make up for it in pollution footprints that affect both distant and local ecosystems.

I certainly agree that we need to reconnect people with place; after all, we tend to pay more attention to our own backyards, though it’s obviously not an absolute.  The problem is likely to be thornier where the disconnection to ecosystems is more pronounced (read: urban and exurban areas) than in rural areas where economies are often dependent on ecosystems for primary production. Rural communities are certainly not off the hook. There are plenty of examples of commodity production thinking which do not account for ecosystem services in natural resource dependent settings. 

As long as we continue to cling to institutions and policies that favor treating natural resources as short-term inputs and ecosystems as pollution sinks, ecological damage will continue.  It is unlikely we’re going to see any significant new regulatory protections in the current political climate. What, then, are the networks of institutions and policies that can provide the right mix of incentives for developing sustainable communities and disincentives for adhering to outdated natural resource management and economic development activities? As one illustration, there are increasing examples of genuine corporate sustainability and creative entrepreneurial efforts with sustainability as a key operating principle. The private sector is catching on to the linkages among healthy ecosystems, risk management and the bottom line.  They collectively represent an institutional trend in the marketplace that is not likely to reverse or slow down. How can this be further encouraged, and how can we increase civic will—perhaps through increasing sense of place and awareness of the value of local ecosystem services--which can drive political will for the sorts of broader and deeper institutional changes needed?

Is all of this too late? Who knows? This may be where a bit of faith needs to supplement the academic view – faith that, through the growing number of sustainably based enterprises and efforts coupled with increasing knowledge about how to repair what we’ve broken, we may be able to respond to George Carlin’s admonition.