Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder

What started as a humble metaphor to help us think about our relation to nature has become integral to how we are addressing the future of humanity and the management of ecosystems. The metaphor of nature as a stock that provides a flow of services is insufficient for the task ahead. Indeed, the simplicity of the stock-flow framework blinds us to the complexity of the human predicament. The complex practice of understanding ecosystems is being skewed and simplified to inform markets. My first question is: Should we be concerned about long-term effects of this shift?

There was a strong sense that the markets metaphor, however revolting to those who intrinsically value nature, was necessary to awaken the public to the importance of nature and its destruction. The metaphor rose to become the central framework for assessing ecosystem change and the dominant model for policy and management. Meanwhile, the delusion that current levels of consumption by the rich can be sustained is not being challenged.

Next, the dominance of the metaphor is distorting how we understand ecosystems, shifting us from complex and evolutionary systems thinking toward simple stock-flow analysis. It suggests we can manage, even optimize, our interaction with nature in very simple terms. This cannot be good.

Sustainability is ultimately a distributional question.  For example, it is justice and ethics at landscape-to-global scales, not science, that have stalled climate negotiations for over a decade.  Furthermore, project-scale “ecosystem services” analysis that assumes ecological and economic equilibrium and local fine-tuning are not sufficient: the problems we face are far more complex than this. 

My second and third questions, then, are related: Don’t we need to shift our focus to national and global politics and institutions to address the broader issues?  And how do we design ethical reasoning into environmental governance?

* this article is based on the 2010 paper, “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder” published in Ecological Economics 69 p. 1219-1227.

Author bio: 
Richard B. Norgaard is Professor of Energy and Resources at U.C. Berkley. Among the founders of the field of ecological economics, his recent research addresses how environmental problems challenge scientific understanding and the policy process, how ecologists and economists understand systems differently, and how globalization affects environmental governance. Dr. Norgaard currently chairs the Delta Independent Science Board of the State of California, is a lead author in the 5th assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and serves on the Board of EcoEquity.


George Howard

What do you propose, Richard?

What do you propose, Richard?  Or are the problems and subject too "complex" for answers? 

For instance, the government proposes to build a highway through  several acrres of wetlands. I would say buying some form of mitigation is the best answer to difficult problem -- even if the mitigation and is only good, and not perfect.  What would you propose be done in this instance?

As for your questions:

Don’t we need to shift our focus to national and global politics and institutions to address the broader issues? 

No, national and global instututions are notoriously insenstive to local conditions, inevitiably provide one size fits all -- or nothing -- politicized solutions in the name of "equity." These tend to be costly, ineffective and too frequently counter-productive. Action locally will not be directed globally.  

And how do we design ethical reasoning into environmental governance? 

If you have any examples of any one "designing" ethical reasoning as effective as a tool of gvoernance please share them.   

Tim Gieseke

I am not concerned about the

I am not concerned about the long-term effects of this current phase in which economic minds are figuring out ecological attributes and ecological minds are served economic concepts.  It is awkward, and as you say, simplified, but that simplification is occurring for each of these oikos dimensions.  Ecological economics is more than interdisciplinary; it is the integration of the earth's life support system and the means by which humans will value it.  And since we just began this journey during our lifetimes, we are children in understanding how to go about it.

I don't think the answer will emerge from national and global policies and existing institutions - these were necessary to carry solutions forward in the past.  I believe ecological economics will be solved by the practitioners, those individuals and entities that interact within the ecological and economic realms and now have access to the world's information in a fashion that even the most robust institutions did not even have a decade ago.  Ecological economics, in part, albeit a small part, is about the road and the wetland that George mentions.  But the greater portion of ecological economics is not how we replace, displaced ecosystem services, but how we manage the natural capital that delivers the abundance of goods and services that our economic and human health depends on.

As a practitioner (one that manages natural capital to produce provisional and regulating ecoservcies) I need a viable market signal for all.  In Adam Smith's terms, there is an absolute demand (the sum of what everyone wants) and an effectual demand (the sum of the value that people can put forward for what they want).  We have yet to figure out how to transition people from an absolute demand mentality to the action of generating an effectual demand for the ecoservices they need.  Developing the solution from this perspective, the ethics and governance must arise from the economic transactions.

Adam Davis

I simply couldn't disagree

I simply couldn't disagree more.  The problem is not that sustainability or ecosystem services are being presented in simplistic terms, it's that they have consistently been presented in terms that are far too convoluted for policy makers, business people or the general public to understand or care.

The fact that something is 'complicated' doesn't mean that it can't be addressed by incentives or valued.  We see this in the functioning of ordinary markets that value and trade items, concepts and companies of enormous complexity. 

In fact, the alternative to providing incentives and valuation is, obviously, not providing incentives or valuation, which leaves us relying entirely on moral suasion and the farsighted good will of humanity to achieve our goals. 

While the answer to the questions posed at the end of this essay - should we "shift our focus" to address issues like sustainability and ecosystem health, and, basically, shouldn't we be ethical in the way we manage nature - is clearly 'yes', it's also irrelevant.

The impacts caused to the natural systems that keep us alive are the result of the production of goods and services, and we're simply not going to stop.  We humans can - and increasingly are - focusing on efficiency and minimizing waste, but ecosystem markets are the only possible tool we have that can internalize the externalities of commerce that will inevitably remain.


Venkatasamy Ramakrishna • We

Venkatasamy Ramakrishna We are back to sifting through the intricacies of an old reality that even primitive tribes knew about. True, we are devising new ways of making the dumb present day civilisation understand that ecosystems services are more important than bellies and wallets. But are we succeeding?


Caroline McParland • Perhaps

Caroline McParland Perhaps we need to emphasise that ecosystems provide essential services to fill our bellies and wallets! This doesn't just include provisioning services - it includes regulation of floodwaters to reduce the massive costs of flood damage, mental health and wellbeing benefits for societies leading to reduced healthcare costs, and much more...The essential point that we need to keep making is that sustainable use of ecosystem services is the only economically sensible option for all in the long term.


Venkatasamy Ramakrishna •

Venkatasamy Ramakrishna The present mentality of people is that services are either free, if provided by the state, or paid for, and people are willing to pay for services no matter where they come from, or who are supplying them. They are too used to human-made services and most find it difficult to understand that there is such a thing as ecosystem services, which is not inexhaustible if our demands are unreasonably high.

Richard Norgaard

Let me try to respond

Let me try to respond collectively to those of you who have commented thus far: 1) things can be too complex and prohibiting actions and socially discouraging excess consumption may be better than trying to fine-tune ecosystem service use through pricing ecosystem services, 2) global problems need at least a global vision for local practitioners to get to the "right" answer, 3) Pinchot's conservation institutions and Muir's preservation institutions were ethically driven, i.e. future generations deserve resources and wildness, and our environmental laws have been about the rights of people to not be subjected to pollutants emitted by others, ethical statements all, and 4) the invisible hand of the market needs to have its playing field to be defined, and one of the things I am arguing is that if you go the valuation and market route, the ethics are still there, so let's be aware of them. 

Lastly, Mr. Davis' final paragraph:

The impacts caused to the natural systems that keep us alive are the result of the production of goods and services, and we're simply not going to stop.  We humans can - and increasingly are - focusing on efficiency and minimizing waste, but ecosystem markets are the only possible tool we have that can internalize the externalities of commerce that will inevitably remain.

Is exactly the sort of declaration of beliefs, including absolutes, that blinder people from thinking.


Lastly, one can internalize all externalities and still consume all of the resources and degrade all ecosystems, and do so perfectly efficiently, if future generations do not have rights, if their rights are not somehow represented in today's markets. This is the challenge, and a challenge that will not necessarily be met by siply thinking in market terms.




Adam Davis

I appreciate these additional

I appreciate these additional comments, and can certainly admit that the reaction I had was more 'absolute' than was really constructive.  This isn't, after all, completely an 'either/or' proposition.  As Richard points out here, and as other comments state also, ethics, vision and rules are all absolutely necessary elements of any sustainable human relationship to natural systems.  The main point I was trying to make with my initial disagreement is that we haven't gone too far in using market incentives to guide human behavior towards the environment; in fact we've hardly used them at all!  Real incentives that reward meaningful protection or restoration actions, allow investment of private capital in public goods, and utilize scientific metrics as the basis of payment are some of the most powerful tools we have to change the way people behave.  We should use them more, and not let the fact that ecosystems are enormously complex be an excuse for not trying and learning. 

Of course we won't always 'get it right' as we utilize incentives and market mechanisms, especially in early stages where some experimentation is essential.  But we certainly don't always 'get it right' with government grants, philanthropy or regulation...  As a nation we've spent billions on environmental programs that have fallen far short of their goals (I think of the Cal Fed efforts here in the California Bay Delta or the spending over the past fifteen or so years on the Chesapeake Bay) and I can't help but think that some of the discipline required for a transactional approach (buying real units of the things the science tells us can fix the problem, rather than buying 'programs') would be better.

Of course Richard is right, that absent ethics and vision, environmental markets won't solve problems.  What I see, however, is that the many folks who are working on environmental market mechanisms are deeply motivated by ethics and have a powerful vision - they just believe that the power of incentives and markets must be brought to bear on these 'real world' problems.


Andrew Derksen • I would

Andrew Derksen I would suggest that the best way to capture an individual's attention to these issues are to hit them directly in the wallet. As noted both on this board (and on Dr. Norgaard's site), "common goods" like clean air or water are notoriously difficult to place an exact price on. We do not understand the full implications or value of a wetland, and only learned additional aspects of their economic importance to humanity when they were gone - and our runoff into the ocean polluted fisheries, and hurricanes slapped our shore with additional force. These kinds of surprises are hard to put a value on, and even then - they are still shared community costs, and do not have a direct impact upon an individual. You can try to transfer some of these costs by placing an intermediary, such as regulations demanding mitigation if a corporation wishes to change the local ecosystem to harvest a particular set of resources, or by charging a broad tax on the community or the product produced by changing that ecosystem... but the individual does not associate the relationship between the cost incurred and the ecosystem service that has been moderated. This relationship only becomes further dislocated when regulatory entities charge a tax or moderate the resource harvest - and then do not use the monies gained as a direct part of a program designed to stabilize that ecosystem.

The programs where this process seems to have worked include some fisheries, and many of the logging operations within some state forests. In both cases, the industry participant was indisputably aware that their actions could change the long-term profitability of their industry, and begrudgingly sought out regulatory assistance to better manage the harvest of resources from those ecosystems. In these cases, government was invited in to act as a referee between individual corporations competing for access to those resources, providing a level playing field for all the participants. This prevents any one corporation from maximizing their profitability in a given harvest season at the expense of their competitors and the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem's ability to replenish itself. Government is no friend to any individual corporation, but they are a friend to industry as a whole. Or rather, industries: as industry referees, government science may be best positioned to decide how to maximize the economic value of a particular resource, but this will inevitably decline into a battle between competing economic interests for a particular parcel. Is it going to be tourism, logging, mining, ranching, orchards, or cropland? Where and how do you assign "value", and which sacrifices do you make? Are we ready for this sort of centrally planned economy - and what happens when we make mistakes? How does one build robusticity into a system?

All of this merely scratches the surface of what resources "ecosystem services" may actually provide. As a following example: did we need spotted owls? The logging industry might once have argued otherwise, but protections put in place to protect those owls inadvertantly preserved parts of that ecosystem that allowed industry to rebuild and learn how to better manage the land so as to support their own industry - and that of the tourist industry.

To return to the central question: how do you place value on a service that you were not aware existed or had any value until after you have lost it?

Linwood Pendleton

It is not that complexity is

It is not that complexity is a "reason for inaction," but it is the case that complexity limits our ability to predict the outcome of our actions and interventions.  This has two direct implications for the ways in which we currently apply ecosystem services "thinking" to environmental management and markets.  First, we need to continue to design ways of monitoring the impact of interventions (on ecological and human conditions) and be careful to constantly adjust our approach as we learn more.  This is simply adaptive management as applied to ecosystem services policy.  It is already happening, but could be better.  Second, the complexity of these systems seriously limits the ability of "ecosystem service models" to predict how non-marginal changes in ecological condition affect use, values, and other characteristics of ecosystems (where I include humans in ecosystems).  

Our experience with traditional (non-environmental) markets has shown that large-scale market interventions frequently yield unanticipated results - many of which are contrary to the goals we intended to achieve (think mortgage interest rate tax deductions).  We should not expect environmental markets or ecosystem service interventions to be any different.  Best to take complexity to heart and continue to press on.  LP

John Darling

  I hesitate to follow Adam


I hesitate to follow Adam Davis in discarding "moral suasion and the farsighted good will of humanity." Many complex social problems have been addressed in large part by reliance on such tools; in fact, they are often the most effective tools available.This may be part of the problem with over-reliance on the ecosystem services metaphor. Environmental problems are wicked problems, and they cannot be tamed simply by internalizing externalities. They will only be "solved" by complex deliberative processes that consider both economic approaches to valuing AND approaches like moral suasion, among other things. If the metaphor of ecosystem services is allowed to concretize to the exclusion of other useful metaphors, we run the risk of constraining the dialogue in a way that could be very damaging. The very fact that "moral suasion and farsighted good will" can be marginalized in the discussion suggests that the fear of the original poster may be well-founded. For example: moral (or other philosophical) considerations lead some stakeholders to object enthusiastically to ecosystem services approaches--to the point that their preferences cannot even be registered in willingness to pay studies as they refuse to put prices on certain goods. This is a sure sign that ecoservices approaches cannot stand alone.  Adam Davis argues that "in fact, the alternative to providing incentives and valuation is, obviously, not providing incentives or valuation, which leaves us relying entirely on moral suasion and the farsighted good will of humanity to achieve our goals." Certainly we should not rely entirely on moral suasion; nor should we rely entirely on incentives and valuation. But the alternative to all of this is to provide incentives and valuation for some things--those things that can readily be valued economically and incentivized--and to utilize those approaches as one tool among many others to address complex environmental problems. I agree with the original poster that we ought to guard against pursuing the metaphor of ecosystem services so vigorously that we become blind to those other tools. 


Tim Gieseke

Perhaps the ecomarketers'

Perhaps the ecomarketers' attempt to isolate each ecosystem service as a unique attribute of natural capital adds complications and inefficiencies to the process, rather than simplifying the transactions.   Maintaining capital, whether physical or natural, requires strategies that are implemented on multiple scales; from nuts and bolts to roofing; from soil to canopy.  In the case of natural capital, it spontaneously generates ecosystem services in direct proportion to how it is managed.  If multiple entities (government, food processors, corporations) benefit simultaneously from a high level of management due to the production of multiple ecosystem services, then each entity can be a willing-payer for a certain land management metric rather than dicing up ecosystem services - as eluded to in Andrew's the spotted owl scenario.  This would create a "symbiotic demand" scenario in that the price per ecosystem service unit is reduced per stakeholder as additional stakeholders become willing payers.  Free-ridership, in a business sense, would be eliminated, in that the sustainability values (and goals) claimed by any entity would be embedded within the land management metrics (privy only to payers) related to natural capital management.  We could reserve ecosystem services and their transactions to those isolated attributes related to ecoystem servcie mitigation credits and PES.

Ron McCormick

  Ecology is not a complex


Ecology is not a complex practice, it is just practiced on complex systems. Practiced using a unified approach (ala Allen and Hoekstra 1992), ecology can serve to logically reduce apparently overwhelming complexity of social – ecological systems to an hierarchically-ordered system with understandable, if not predictable, behaviours. As an ecologist I don’t find markets revolting, I find them fascinating! The herds of grazers moving to ever greener pastures (however short-lived) … the wolf packs roaming the landscape, taking down, devouring and casting off pieces of the slow movers … the smart, quiet cats selecting their single, prime piece of choice. [That’s how an ecologist would describe your markets]

Markets are essentially ecological, comprised of individual organisms and communities, subject to population processes, and readily tracked via ecosystem considerations (the flow rate and volume of dollars). The fallacy of ecosystem services analysis is that it uses economics as the primary consideration. Actually, ecology is the primary organizational approach, and always has been, even if economists do not recognize this in their perfect, stable, fully-informed yet moribund models. We should supplant environmental/ecological economics with the more accurate term ‘economic ecology’ (O’Neill 1996, and others).

Using supply-side sustainability approaches (Allen, Tainter, Hoekstra 2003) instead of supply-side economics, our ordering of the stocks (organisms, landscapes, communities) and flows (populations, ecosystems) of the social – ecological biome we as a society have created would present a clearer model of important interactions and point out the more powerful places to intervene (Meadows 1997, 1999) with management actions. Models are merely simplifications of the complex material system they represent. A system for which we have no model is, by definition, complex. A system for which we have a model is, again by definition, simple. Yet, simple models can represent complex behaviours (e.g., the Mandelbrot set). This is why systems ecology and hierarchy theory is such a powerful modeling approach!

In systems ecology (NOTE: this is not the same things as ecosystem ecology!) we use hierarchically-ordered models that are very clear about ecological type and specific about the scale of each element in the hierarchy. [FYI – landscapes do not have a scale, my backyard  and Montana are both landscapes, but vastly different in scale. (landscape scale is an oxymoron;-) ] We can describe any system (markets, professional societies, my backyard) with a minimum of five levels of ecological types (organism, population, landscape, community, biome, ecosystem), each with a specific scale (grain and extent). Find the right metrics to go with each level and we can do some interesting scenario modeling with a small amount of information.

Describing the system hierarchically is relatively straightforward … setting the metrics is where the art and soul of economic ecology comes to the fore. That is where we should be looking with respect to ecosystem management, not at the shiny object in front of us (ecological goods and services) but at the upper and lower levels (context/constraints) of the system that offers us those goods and services at a rate beyond our control. Neo-classical economics is deaf and blind (autistic?) to what the ecological system is saying about its resilience … economic ecology is listening attentively.

See “The Ecosystem Approach” by Waltner-Toevs and Kay 2008, or “Resilience Thinking” by Walter & Salt 2006 … make the change, become one of us!

Sustainability is, and always will be, a present values (societal, personal, corporate) question – in the here and now … we cannot knowingly, and should not attempt to, make decisions for future generations, we should make them for us … ethically, equitably, economically as needed, but always ecologically (for a refinement on this idea of now/future integration, see “Presence” by Senge et al 2004).

Thanks for the great discussion!