Ecosystem Contributions to Human Wellbeing

The idea of “ecosystem services” has become a common rationalization for environmental sustainability propositions. It presumes fundamentally that human well-being is the supreme reason for all of our actions. An alternative view is that global ecosystem processes are more important than contributions delivered to humans. The processes that maintain the functioning of the global ecosystem during its adaptation to each of our impacts are essential to ecosystem sustainability. If ecosystem processes do not continue to function during recovery from and adaptation to our continuing impacts, the global ecosystem that supports us and all other living things will change unpredictably.

Commonly, we assume that we have the technological capability to devise and operate substitutes for all vital ecosystem processes. But there is little evidence that we can do so for major processes. Consider: acidification of the oceans, disruption of the oceanic upwelling and circulation patterns, disruption of carbon balance and resultant shifts in energy balance and let’s not forget the loss of biodiversity and its distortion of faunal and floral community structures.

A recent paper by Ringold et al.* attempts to reduce the complexities of ecosystems into simple inputs for policy generation. To gain that reduction in complexity it is recommended that only goods and services that are direct should be considered. This would mean that fish caught by humans would be considered but the ecological processes necessary to produce those fish would be indirect and would not be considered. This is incomplete accounting rather than full-cost accounting. It is comparable to “externalizing” costs to exclude them from accounting costs of a business. Restricting attention to only direct benefits and ignoring all indirect or supporting benefits would simplify the accounting. Such dangerous oversimplification could be used mistakenly as the foundation for policy to rationalize our actions in terms of those benefits.

It is equally clear that such simplification runs counter to the well-established principal that management interventions should be applied as close to the source or base of a process as possible i.e. as far “upstream” as possible. The classic example is that the most effective and cheapest flood control is applied near the source of the stream, not near its mouth.

It is erroneous to assume that focusing policy and management on the fish caught will cause appropriate attention to the variables responsible for the production of those fish. Overfished fish stocks in most of the world’s oceans exemplify results to be gained by too much emphasis on direct benefits. Similarly our repeated attempts to substitute fish stocking in place of fish ecological management has clearly shown that assumption to be false.

Regardless of political and economic pressures and narrow training of policy production staff, policy must consider the primary driving variables in ecological systems. Analysts capable of addressing complex ecological systems must question the assumption that ecological policy can be analogous to policy for economic development or can be dictated by legislative needs.

Policy that will affect global ecosystems should not be based on the arrogant assumption that humans and their favoured amenities are the wisest sources of guidance.



* Ringold, Paul, James Boyd, Dixon Landers and Matt Weber. 2013.      What data should we collect? A framework for identifying indicators of ecosystem contributions to human well-being. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment. 11(2):98-105.

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