Good One! Communicating Ecosystem Services

I still have a hard time telling my grandma what I do. It's just hard to communicate what 'ecosystem services' are and what wonky aspect you work on. So I'm standing on the soapbox today in search of great examples of communicating ecosystem services nature's benefits.

To get the conversation going, here are a couple tidbits on communicating ecosystem services.

1)      Call it anything… call it an aardvark! Just don't call it ecosystem services. In 2010, the Nature Conservancy commissioned a public-opinion survey on ecosystem services and found that people respond better to the terms nature's value, nature's benefits, earth's benefits, environmental value, and other terms.

2)      Restore America's Estuaries got the memo. This report on "Jobs and Dollars: Big Returns from Coastal Habitat Restoration" is chock-full of great graphics and text in plain language.


3)      Buzz buzz. Häagan Dazs launched a "Help the Honey Bee" educational campaign to highlight the importance of pollination services.


4)      Nature Inc. series on the BBC World. Great videos, great messaging.


5)      What's your example? Use the comments section below to write in your favorite communication examples, or perhaps a particularly vexing concept to communicate. What do you say?


Author bio: 
Becca Madsen, Principal at Madsen Environmental, is an independent environmental consultant specializing non-carbon environmental markets and corporate sustainability. She has over a decade experience working on issues at the intersection of economics and nature.


chris corbin

Big Sky Brewing

Big Sky Brewing Example 

Thanks Becca. I'll go ahead and add my mom and wife to my list of loved ones that have no idea what I really do. 

I enjoyed the examples above.  Effectivley communicating these efforts is obviously a challenge. Not only are ecosystems complex, the means to measure and navigate regulatory frameworks further the confusion associated with these emerging markets.  

Using  an example close to home, I think Big Sky Brewing Company did a good job communicating their  purchase of Water Restoration Certificates.  The  complexity of this transaction is endless: water right source switching, change applications, lease agreements, credit registry, monitoring, etc. Rather than getting bogged down in the details, Big Sky Brewing told a simple story: water makes Montana... Montana and we're putting water back where it matters most. 

Thanks again for starting this discussion. I believe "marketing communications" is overlooked and vital for the success fo these markets. 

Becca Madsen

Thanks Chris! Good example.

Thanks Chris! Good example. BEF and their water restoration credits seem to be associated with a lot of good communication examples. The NHL's Gallons for Goals is another - And I love BEF's graphics that go along with the restoration credits system & water footprinting calculator -

Paul Manson

I've had the opportunity to

I've had the opportunity to work with communities in the Western US on ecosystem service planning projects. Its amazing how varied the community-specific responses can be. In developing the open space and natural resource plan for Washoe County, Nevada the idea of ecosystem services was powerful. Stakeholders and the public all immediately appreciated the term, its meaning and the value in their community. They embraced the idea so thoroughly as to adopt a county policy of "no net loss of ecosystem services." 

In the Pacific Northwest the term is more loaded. It can take the wind out of some community meetings. I am not sure if it is a concern about how ecosystem services fits into the conservation ethic, or a fear of market implications. But the experience at a community level is greatly different. When reframed as a conversation about benefits from natural systems it can suddenly work. But the "ecosystem services" label is loaded.

Another aspect too is that we are talking about inherently public goods. Its still a communication challenge to speak about public goods. (Watch education funding to see a non-environmental parallel!) How we use ecosystem services to reconnect communities with the public goods they all share and enjoy is a huge opportunity to maybe save ecosystem services and public-ness at once!

Tim Gieseke

Is it an economical or

Is it an economical or ecological pursuit?  I agree that the term "ecosystem services" needs some help, especially for those from a generation that were slighted an ecological education.  I believe it was just in the 1970s that the food-web concept replaced the food-chain concept.   "Nature's benefits" and the like probably resonate with those that appreciate ecological value, but probably do little or even alienate those traditional business-types as you might be infringing on their model.  I favor "ecocommerce" as the ice-breaker as I have found most everyone (surprisingly) understands the concept - something environmental with some type of business value - or whatever is going through their mind.  It is not complete, but it is a good starting point.  I usually loose them when I explain how the value is determined, but that is another story...


Not an ecosystem example--but

Not an ecosystem example--but one of my favorite messaging books

Made to Stick:

Why do some ideas thrive while others die?

susie b

Dear Becca and

Dear Becca and others

Perhaps, like the word 'biodiversity', the term 'ecosystem services' simply needs time to  become embedded in our vocab and South Africa many people still don't 'get' biodiversity and would certainly relate more to terms such as 'nature's goods and services' rather than 'ecosystem services'.   The graphics in the examples you provided are wonderful...perhaps one should go to a social marketing/ communications expert to ask their views? 


Adam Davis

Nice topic, Becca!  I like

Nice topic, Becca!  I like Paul's comment above - that the term 'ecosystem services' does in fact resonate with some audiences...  but that doesn't take anything away from your great examples of communicating how restoration creates jobs, why we need bees, etc.  These examples are less about the 'grand concept' of the financial value of natural systems, however, and more about specific examples of how the concept becomes real: "applied ecosystem services theory" if you will.

I guess, like Susie B, I think the term "ecosystem services" has real meaning, and that it's less a question of coming up with a new term than it is one of getting people to see that it's immediate and relevant.  Like the term 'sustainability'...  there's been so much written about how ordinary folks don't relate...  But as we've all gotten more familiar with it, it begins to seem less like a totally abstract notion and more like the real challege of our times. 

Because the wetland restoration business of mitigation banking is so well developed in comparison to other forms of 'applied ecosystem services theory, I like to look to it for examples and clues.  I've started talking about America's new "restoration industry", and the fact that a million acres have been restored with private capital because we got the incentives right in the Clean Water Act.  i'm trying to move away from the "mitigation banking" term altogether, which many folks don't understand either; when people ask me what EIP sells, I say "outsourced compliance with the Clean Water Act".




I very much like Adam's

I very much like Adam's "restoration industry" and suggest the small refinement, "natural resources restoration industry". Using Becca's grandma-test, which I think is a valuable gauge of linguistic clarity, most people have a pretty good picture when they hear "natural resources", so including that may help get any conversation off on the right footing.

As with any specialty, we need to have two types of language: that used for the 2 minute summaries and which won't lead to the glazed look people get when discussing carbon offsetts, RECS and wetlands credits, and the wonk-speak we use to communicate amongst ourselves. I suspect the lack of support for climate change mitigation and the use of markets as a tool for natural resource improvement  isn't always a lack of support for the concepts as it is difficulty in understanding what the hell some of us are talking about.



Thanks for posting such an

Thanks for posting such an intriguing question, Becca.

I agree that those in the business need to have their own vocabulary, one that is not for public consumption.

When I asked my wife what she thought ecosystem services referred to, she wasn't quite sure she knew what to say. I could see the concern in her face because she knew that ecosystem services was of interest to me. I explained ecosystem services in a way that I thought she'd understand. Another blank look.

So when I read that someone used “Earth's life support system” as a substitute for ecosystem services, I asked my wife if that resonated. Her eyes lit up with understanding.

It would seem evident that almost everyone would know what life support is. (Hopefully not because they had been on it.) The term is personal. People can relate to life support.

Explaining that the Earth's life support system provides what life, including us needs: air, water and soil in which to grow our food...among other things. We can argue that protecting the Earth's life support system is important because it keeps the air and water clean and maintains soil fertility.

However it is decided how to refer to ecosystem services, the next step seems to be determining the various ways that might be used to reach out to the public and to others in positions to help promote the importance of ecosystem services.

Becca Madsen

Baby vs bathwater Love the

Baby vs bathwater

Love the discussion here. I should clarify that I kinda like the term 'ecosystem services' but I always assumed it only resonated in the inner circle.

I noticed that most of the discussion has been about how each of us addresses the challenge of talking about ecosystem services in a one-on-one discussion. What about communicating at a broader scale? Any examples or ideas for communicating to consumers or voters or investors?

Keep 'em coming!



Great topic, Becca - one that

Great topic, Becca - one that clearly resonates because I suspect that most of us have had that blank look coming back at us, and don't really know what to do next when we've given our best attempt at describing ecosystem services that first time. And we want to describe the value of ecosystem services to us personally and their meaning in our work, as well as learn how to define it in terms that are meaningful to others as the ads you posted do. A tall order for a conversation, especially when we're not communications professionals.

There is also a lot of interest in the question you raise of communicating to a broader audience; indeed it was a topic among the panelists and audience Q&A after ACES 2010 - someone suggested bringing in someone like Bill Nye to shed light on communicating science. 

On another part of the Commons, Nicole Maness asked about interest in having a session on communications at ACES/Ecosystems Markets 2012. Could the two of you put something together? It could include examples like the ones above of communication about ecosystem services at broader scale, maybe some communciations professionals for short presentations on context, language and tools and to handle Q&A from the audience, perhaps some successful communicator of science issues for inspiration? Or something completely different, like a dedicated workshop. But I think it's an issue that need to be addressed, so encourage you to submit a proposal. 

Becca Madsen

Mary - on it! -b

Mary - on it!



Ecosystem services just needs

Ecosystem services just needs time.  When Gretchen Daily led a group of us who wrote "Nature's Services" back in 1996, that is what we called it.  More recently there was a COMPASS (Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea) workshop on the problem of communicating the concept of ecosystem services, and while I remember us deciding it might be better to use other descriptors for a while, the actual deliberations were much more interesting and nuanced than this.  So we definitely need a more coherent approach to explaining the concept.

What I have little patience for are those who categorically state that there is no such thing as ecosystem services or ecosystem-based management, that there is a lot of talk but no science, or that ES is just a way to place human well-being before the destruction of nature in order to slyly effect the latter.  That is just beer talking.  Many people around the world are working very hard to formalize the study of human-in-nature ecology, for which there is also a buzz term:  coupled human and natural systems (CHANS).  There are formal frameworks for approaching this: My team happens to work with MIMES, there is the Natural Capital Project's "InVEST", there are ATLANTIS and In Vitro from Beth Fulton and her colleagues in Australia, there is ARIES, and there is a cluster of emerging, very clever approaches being developed by NCEAS at UC Santa Barbara.  The MIMES-InVEST-ARIES-NCEAS folks are closing ranks, submitting proposals to create a hybrid ecosystem service flow and trade-off modeling environment.  This field will grow and evolve as support becomes more available.  Meanwhile, the more systems we try to understand, the clearer become our hypotheses, and the closer we get to the study of lawful behavior in human and natural coupled systems.  Ecosystem services comprise but one key concept underlying this science; ecosystem based and adaptive management are two others, and the models themselves will ultimately draw from ecology, game theory, theory of social organization, dynamic programming, artificial intelligence, social psychology (these are somewhat overlapping), and many other intellectual tools for coping with and comprehending complex, hierarchical living systems  permeated by people.  We are witnesses to the birth of a new, or at least a newly revitalized science.  It is an exciting time.  There is lots to do that is more interesting than arguing over terms, let's focus on articulating and communicating the promise and excitement of this new area any way that reaches people and helps them to understand deeply what it's all about.

Genevieve Bennett

Great topic, Becca! I still

Great topic, Becca! I still struggle with my ecoystem services 'elevator speech'.

I like Chris' point about telling stories. I've found that people are much more receptive when you start with concrete examples - forests filtering water, riparian vegetation providing shade - especially if you can contrast these with engineered alternatives like a treatment plant. I'd be interested to hear what everyone here thinks of the term 'green infrastructure'.

Here in Montana, you hear a lot about a new 'restoration economy' in the state, with a big emphasis on jobs and especially reaching out to the construction industry:

And for a non-US example, I think Rare Conservation is an interesting example. They've developed a model for social marketing campaigns to build community support for "reciprocal agreements" (e.g. payments for watershed services projects) in the Andes which have been very effective:



Linwood Pendleton

So many juicy issues here

So many juicy issues here Becca!

1) Of course, it's not all about us (American exceptionalism aside).  Much of the rest of the world seems to "get" ecosystem services and it has become enshrined in government and academic literature and policy.  Like "kilometer, gram, and milliliter" we can't run away from the term if we hope to communicate with these important parts of society.  (That doesn't mean we can't have euphemisms for ES, though.)

2)  Ecosystem services, as a concept, encompasses so many types of goods and services provided by nature.  So, I often start with the more tangible, and market-based, ecosystem services.  Even the mayors of coastal North Carolina were able to respond in the affirmative when I asked "how many of you have ecosystem-dependent economies."  Perhaps there are more eloquent terms of art, but they knew that the beaches and estuaries of the Carolina coast were ecosystem engines that fueled their local economies.

3) Like so many technical terms, understanding and experience are the keys to acceptance.  How many people understood the terms "bandwidth and gigabyte" just 15 years ago? Now, who doesn't understand these terms.




@Genevieve, Unfortunately,

@Genevieve, Unfortunately, EPA has poached the term "green infrastructure" to refer to vegetated engineered systems, like green roofs. I don't entirely disagree, but it is inconvenient. It WAS an awfully nice approximate synonym for ecosystem services...