Ecosystem Services and Field of Dreams Paradox

Fans of the movie know the line: “If you build it they will come.” Replace “they” with “ecosystem services” and it sums up the key paradox of the ecosystem services paradigm.

Add people (and their associated development) to remote, unspoiled nature and most measures of ecosystem service value will indicate that we’ve just created a net benefit for society, that we’re better off.  Why? Because now there are people in close proximity to nature who can directly benefit from nature’s services, like flood control, water filtration, waste assimilation, etc. Before, this remote piece of land might have been sequestering carbon and hosting a few eco-tourists—but now it’s doing oh, so much more.

If we religiously follow relied-upon metrics and logic of ecosystem service value we might end up drawing this perverse conclusion, even though we know intuitively that there is great value in pristine nature. The problem is a fundamental asymmetry in the tools and methods used for assessing, characterizing and valuing different types of ecosystem services.

On one hand is a classic utilitarian service like fresh water supply for New York City from forests in the Catskills watershed, or storm surge protection in the Gulf Coast wetlands. For these, methods like replacement cost and avoided cost accounting satisfy us with (some say) a fairly accurate measure of actual money we’d have to lay down if we fail to protect them.

Remote lands, on the other hand, are inconvenient to value. Although some use-values may apply, their core value lies in much more intangible qualities—option, existence, bequest, spiritual values—all of which our quantification methods are inept at capturing.

By recognizing that it’s much harder to deal with remoteness and its intangibles within the ecosystem services framework, we’ll at least be on guard about avoiding perverse conclusions that come from these asymmetries.

Author bio: 
Austin Troy, is Associate Professor at the University of Vermont, a fellow of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, Director of UVM's Transportation Research Center, and Principal/Co-Founder of Spatial Informatics Group, LLC. Check out his recently published book The Very Hungry City: Urban Energy Efficiency and the Economic Fate of Cities.


Tim Gieseke

I guess it would somewhat

I guess it would somewhat fall in the lines as if a tree fell in a forest - sound, much like economic value can only occur within the mind while percussion waves and ecological values occur regardless if we are present.  Since the human species is "in charge"  and we are immersed in our economic system, then I think the dilemma you describe is more apt to happen than not.  The dilemma also surfaces when ecological valuations are determined relative to a certain condition.  For example:  should agricultural land management and the potential ecoservices be compared to pristine prairie or forest (from which it came), or to an urban parking lot (to which it could become); to 20 years ago or at the present.  In the case of the NYC water supply, I think it was based on the moment.  When land management was changed to improve water quality, the negative externalities of farming were reduced, but positive externalities were generated.  This occurred since the land management projects of the NYC water supply also generated ecoservices other than water quality for others not paying for them.  As we align the human and natural economic systems we, the humans, will have to decide when ecosystem valuation within our economic system began and under what scenarios.  Your point is well taken.


Steve Ormerod • Is there

Steve Ormerod Is there really a paradox? The ecosystem services paradigm provides a major opportunity for ecologists to reveal the full importance of the assets in which we have direct interest, and even responsibility. We're moving from an era where species richness is not seen merely as a count of organisms, but as an expression of the cultural, economic and insurance value of ecosystems, such as rivers, that we must hand down to future generations with their functions intact. But this approach should be seen as extending and strengthening measures for biodiversity conservation rather than replacing them.


Martin Kaonga • I agree with

Martin Kaonga I agree with Steve Ormerod that the ecosystems services should be seen as extending and strengthening measures for biodiversity rather than replacing. However, this approach does not fully capture the full importance of natural capital because some components cannot be valued using conventional economic tools. For example, there are some species which are currently perceived to be detrimental to human welfare, but they have specific roles in ecosystems. The questions is 'Can we capture the intrinsic values of and habitats? Do me have tools that can quantify the non-finacial/economic value of our natural capital? I think we need a multifaceted approach to valuing natural capital, but the ecosystems approach is still progress in the right direction.


Steve Ormerod • I complete

Steve Ormerod I complete agree with Martin, and I think we need to accept that valuations of organisms and their functions cannot be made on economic criteria alone: they have cultural, aesthetic and insurance values that the ES paradigm must also embrace. A further problem - exposed by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment - is that we currently have insufficient insight into the aggregate functions and processes created by organisms as part of the services that ecosystems provide. This is another reason why the ES paradigm is an adjunct to existing biodiversity conservation rather than a replacement for it.

Tim Gieseke

I think Steve's & Martin's

I think Steve's & Martin's comments add a dimension to the ES valuation issue in that, ecosystems, when optiminally functioning should not only be recognized by stacked values, but also stacked valuation types; economic, cultural, aesthetic, and insurance.


Zakir Md. Hossain •

Zakir Md. Hossain "Ecosystem Services" discourse is nothing but a new way of doing business (& Busyness) by the rich (economically) countries, companies, corporations and their associates (excluding poor) in ecologically rich so called developing countries.


Shawn McCourt • I despise

Shawn McCourt I despise the term 'ecosystem services' because it removes all emotional connection with the natural world, and like the term 'biodiversity', it reduces the complexity of our vanishing natural heritage to a simple, overused term that belongs more to the arena of the marketplace. As Mr. Hossain says above, the " ecosystem services discourse is nothing more than a new way of doing business." Such terms hurt, rather than help, the ecological and environmental causes and allow the market-driven economy to put a price on things that are, or should be, priceless..


Steve Ormerod • Zakir's

Steve Ormerod Zakir's perspective is important, but I disagree with it fundamentally. First, the ecosystem services paradigm is essentially about recognising public benefits and values from public, common resources: this is not about private enterprise. Second, many globally vital ecosystem services are under the stewardship of the world’s rural peoples – often the poorest. We need to find ways of ensuring that the world’s rich pay appropriately for the benefits these rural ecosystems provide so that they can be valued and protected rather than converted and lost to other inappropriate uses. Third, significant poverty alleviation could well result if funding flowed from rich to poor for these 'paid' services: there are now major research initiatives aimed at finding ways to allow this to happen. See, for example: In the end, the concept of ecosystem services has been grown mostly by ecologists and economist who care about global resource distributions rather than by profiteers.


Shawn McCourt • Steve, that

Shawn McCourt Steve, that may be the case, but again it is about finding value, whether for the public or private good in all natural resources rather than recognising that not everything can be reduced to the immediate human good. What we need is not another value concept devised by economists, but an entirely new paradigm shift and one that recognises that humans are a part of the world's ecosystems, not the divinely-appointed 'stewards' that we, in our hubris, think we are. We have a greater duty to manage our own populations and our resource and land-use, than we do in managing the ecosystems themselves. Natural ecosystems have existed for millennia without our intervention and tend to find their own balance, given enough time. It is human overpopulation, exploitation and mismanagement that is causing the current extinction crisis, and these are the issues that need addressing. I dislike the focus on Third World nations, even though they currently harbour most of the world's biologically-rich ecosystems, since it allows wealthy countries to continue to destroy their own remaining resources while penalising poor nations for doing the same. The richest nations ( especially the US, Britain, and Australia) continue to lose biodiversity at an alarming rate, while their growth-centred economies have stalled, a clear indication that the conservation policies of the last 4 decades have failed in these countries. Who are they to dictate terms in the so-called 'developing countries' when their own practices have failed? I think instead, sustainable development and conservation practices that benefit developing economies need to be established, while rich nations need to curb their excessive consumption and find sustainable outcomes at the local level. Wealthy nations need to be penalised for their own reckless mismanagement, their market-driven approaches to land use, their wasteful practices, and their human and natural resource exploitation in the home countries as well as abroad. In short, we need to move away from the cancerous, profit-driven, global market economy in favour of a homeostatic, sustainable economy which seeks to equalise input with output, while maximising benefit to local populations.


Steve Ormerod • Shawn: Much

Steve Ormerod Shawn: Much of my own career has been spent providing and implementing evidence to support nature conservation, and I work closely with organisations like RSPB who are clear than we must protect nature for aesthetic, ethical and cultural reasons: biodiversity enriches our lives. These are important motivations for environmental protection, but on their own are insufficient. This is because biodiversity protection is a very small part of the national and global political agenda, and the evidence is clear that aesthetic arguments alone aren't halting biodiversity loss. The ecosystem services paradigm is a major additional incentive for ecosystem conservation. We should be clear, however, that it augments existing approaches to nature conservation but does not replace them.


Shawn McCourt • I understand

Shawn McCourt I understand and appreciate that, Steve. My own career is also about providing evidence to support nature conservation (I am an Ecologist), but I find the current paradigm deeply unsatisfying and insufficient in protecting the natural world from human-caused changes and exploitation; and like Mr. Hossain, I feel that by quantifying and qualifying 'ecosystem services' we will only facilitate their economic exploitation with greater efficiency. We need to move away from looking at how ecosystems provide value to humans (whether economically, aesthetically, or culturally) and realise that we are part of those same ecosystems in such a way that whatever we do to the ecosystems, we do to ourselves, in the same way that whatever we do to society, we do to ourselves. I realise this sounds idealistic, but a new culture of sustainability and ecological responsibility, possibly arising out of laws that punish ecological damages to the same degree that they punish social damages (eg, murder, theft, litter, etc). may be the only way forward. Adding a price tag to individual 'services' for either public or private gain is not, in my humble opinion, going to help us halt or reverse the current trend of biodiversity loss.


Nick Underhill-Day • I have

Nick Underhill-Day I have been trying to understand a little more about Ecosystem Services for a while and it is true that some projects are skewed in favour of provisioning services on which financial values can be placed, for example fish in the case of fresh water ES. That said I find the ES paradigm an extremely exciting prospect for the future. Ask yourselves this, how many conservation projects are centred on protection and enhancement of micro-organism assemblages compared to, say, a bird or butterfly (beautiful as they are). Conservation is mostly focussed on the things we find attractive or rare. The Ecosystem services paradigm, if developed properly, could change this allowing us to value ecological functions rather than assemblages of higher taxonomical groups which are often indicators, and as such, outcomes of what lies beneath. Of course we still need to direct efforts at keystone species or umbrella species as it these that galvanise the public (and dare I say politicians) but I agree with Steve in that the ES paradigm can act as an additional weapon, sorry tool, for ecologists in the protection of the natural just comes at a different angle than traditional conservation practices. The ES paradigm, as a conceptual framework, has been around a fairly long time but in its application is still in its infancy and as such is often misapplied. We need to focus efforts in developing transparent, non-biased and robust methods with which to apply this paradigm in order to reap its full benefits. This requires developing particularly non-use evaluation methods. The difficulty is linking ecological processes and functions with downstream services in a quantitative way that can be valued.


Steve Ormerod • Nick: an

Steve Ormerod Nick: an excellent synthesis. Your view also touches on the tension felt by many conservationists about the cumulative functional importance of small organisms (algae, bacteria, micro and macro-invertebrates...) relative to the charisma of the larger ones that are often the focus of conservation policy and legislation. The indicator value of these larger taxa is well supported by evidence, and I suspect also that many have overlooked top-down effects that are also functionally important in mediating key processes.


Nick Underhill-Day • Yes, I

Nick Underhill-Day Yes, I would like to see functional diversity play a greater role in the evaluation of habitats and ecosystems (and their services). Species richness/diversity is only one form of evaluation.


Steve Ormerod • Another

Steve Ormerod Another major advantage of the ecosystem services paradigm is that it encourages us to think at larger spatio-temporal extents than has sometimes been possible with classical species- or habitat-led biodiversity conservation. In the UK, the Wildlife Trusts' 'Living landscapes' or the RSPB's 'Futurscapes' increasingly envision large areas where landscapes work productively for a range of environmentally sustainable purposes while also containing key conservation features or organisms. There are other opportunities for this also, for example, through agri-environment, national parks and the UK forest estate, though we need to do more across the UK to twin the ES paradigm with biodiversity protection and restoration.

Linwood Pendleton

It is true that remote places

It is true that remote places can sometimes be more difficult to value than places that are nearby, but the problem is more complicated than that.  I see at least three key issues that contribute to confusion and consternation when thinking about "the low value of remote places": 

1) Total value really isn't an important concept from a policy perspective - what we really want to know is "what are the net values of our actions or inactions."  Often protecting remote places or limiting damaging behavior there is of relatively low cost compared to the benefit of doing so.  (Likewise, costly efforts to restore or protect urban areas often yield big benefits).

2) Some natural places and ecosystems are less valuable and less important to society than others.  I often find that people support the use of ecosystem services when they believe  it supports their preconceptions about what is important and reject it when it shows otherwise.  That's when people move farther down the sliding scale of values, hoping that option or existence values will save the day.  In fact, when budget constraints are applied (meaning you make people pay for all of the things they say are important), few places have significant existence value.  Ditto for option values.

3) Estimates of the economic value of ecosystem services (or changes in ecosystem services) has never been used as the sole criterion for making a decision about conservation or development.  In fact, that statement is true about economic values writ large.  Saying something has an economic ecosystem value does not diminish the role that politics, culture, equity, and other social and biophysical factors play in determining how we use, steward, neglect or protect an ecosystem.  It's just one more source of information to use in decisionmaking; one that reminds us of who benefits from ecosystems, how they benefit, and how those benefits are likely to change because of the actions we take.


Austin Troy

Glad this piece provoked some

Glad this piece provoked some excellent discussion! One point that seemed to come up several times is that ecosystem services is only one value framework out of many and should not necessarily be used to the exclusion of others-- to quote Steve, "The ecosystem services paradigm is a major additional incentive for ecosystem conservation. We should be clear, however, that it augments existing approaches to nature conservation but does not replace them." Or as Linwood wrote, "Saying something has an economic ecosystem value does not diminish the role that politics, culture, equity, and other social and biophysical factors play in determining how we use, steward, neglect or protect an ecosystem.  It's just one more source of information to use in decisionmaking."

I agree completely. But this brings up a couple of thorny problems. First, is the fact that as the ecosystem services framework gains traction, many have missed the memo on the point made above. There are an increasing number of practitioners out there who have been led to believe that an ecosystem service valuation-based approach to environmental management problems is the silver bullet that can give a complete and comprehensive answer for how to manage, in exclusion of other value frameworks ( and that the only thing standing in the way of this outcome are some needed improvements to technical modeling tools and data). In this respect the ES community needs to step up its communication efforts to better articulate that the ES framework is one component of many, albeit a very important one,  for addressing complex problems related to humans and the environment.

This then brings up the second problem, which is determining when and how to use the ES framework and when not to--or maybe, more precisely, how to use this value framework in configuration with other frameworks. Currently, I feel like there is essentially no guidance out there for managers and policy makers in this respect. Maybe a checklist is needed of what framework(s) is appropriate to apply for a given context or management problem. I don't have the answer, but I think this is a ripe area for some future discussion and coordination.


The concept of a checklist of

The concept of a checklist of frameworks is interesting; since there are clearly many frameworks out there. A group of us have been working with the Transportation Research Board to develop a framework to integrate infrastucture planning with conservation planning called the IEF or the Integrated Ecological Framework, and the ES framework has been included in the IEF. Clearly, thinking about providing guidance to policy makers related to conservation and restoration priorities and actions, is somewhat different from the information you'd need in developing a local or regional land-use plan or a watershed restoration plan. As part of our and other transportation funded research, list of "planning" frameworks have been put together. However, I am not sure if anyone has figured out how they could be integrated, or how you might use a checklist as Austin is suggesting. I also think this is a ripe area for future discussion and coordination. 


This discussion reminds me of

This discussion reminds me of an article appearing this week in Science on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).  Not only do we need to integrate a fully contextual approach into ecosystem services (so everyone "gets the memo"), but we also should integrate ES with other integrated approaches--with integrated watershed management being one of the longest running to which we have aspired...

Science 8 June 2012:
Vol. 336 no. 6086 pp. 1234-1235
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218230

Water Resources Management: What Should Be Integrated?

  1. Janet G. Hering1,2,3,*,
  2. Karin M. Ingold1,4

2x Science articles on

2x Science articles on ecosystem services and biodiversity:

And even better and appropo', two Science articles this week discussing the relation between biodiversity, ecosystem function and services.  Makes excellent cases of how bio-diversity is embedded within and essential to ecosystem function and in turn to the creation of ecosystem services, essentialy saying that utilitarian value is dependent on maintaining the whole instrinsic system with it's complexities (and humans as just one part) rather than solely justifying preservation based on utilitarian value or preserving just the utilitarian pieces.


Science 15 June 2012:
Vol. 336 no. 6087 pp. 1393-1394
DOI: 10.1126/science.1223250
The Heartbeat of Ecosystems

Margaret A. Palmer1,2,3,
Catherine M. Febria1,2


Science 15 June 2012:
Vol. 336 no. 6087 pp. 1401-1406
DOI: 10.1126/science.1215855
The Functions of Biological Diversity in an Age of Extinction

Shahid Naeem1,*,
J. Emmett Duffy2,
Erika Zavaleta3