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.