A brief history of ecosystem services

When did the notion of ‘ecosystem services’ take on real meaning? In one sense, it stretches back to the beginning of history with Plato noting the connection between deforestation, soil erosion and the drying of springs. However, attempting to frame the benefits of nature in a way that enabled us to make decisions around the manner in which we managed natural resources didn’t really happen till the Twentieth Century.

Some suggest it arose after the Second World War with eco philosophers like Aldo Leopold promoting a recognition of human dependence on the environment. Others claim it was the 1970s when the term ‘nature’s services’ and then ‘environmental services’ began to be used (along with the idea of ‘natural capital’). The term ‘ecosystem services’ was first used by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in their book Extinction in 1981. Through the 80s and 90s a number of efforts were made to put a variety of values on the benefits of these services.

However, it was probably the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 that put the idea on centre stage for the world to play with. This monumental work, involving over 1300 scientists, included a framework for how it might be assessed. It found that 15 of the 24 ecosystem services it investigated around the world are in a state of decline and this is likely to have a large and negative impact on future human welfare.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined ecosystem services as ‘the benefits people obtain from ecosystems’; and since the release of the Assessment the number of studies addressing ecosystems services has risen exponentially, so clearly the idea has had enormous traction. For all that, ecosystem services has yet to fundamentally change land-use decision-making (see Decision Point #94), however there is growing body of evidence linking decisions to impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services. In this special issue we showcase some of CEED’s work in this area.

As always, I’d like to thank the CEED researchers who helped with the preparation of stories in this issue but special mention goes to Maria Martinez-Harms who provided much appreciated assistance in planning and organising the line up we have for you here.

Is ecosystem services an idea whose time has come? Consider the stories in this special issue of Decision Point and see what you think.

Leave a Reply