As a conservation professor I believe people need to understand why protecting nature matters to them personally. Appealing to human self-interest has generated support for conservation in Switzerland, for example, where the government protects forests partly because they help prevent landslides and avalanches, or among communities in Botswana which conserve wildlife partly because of the value of trophy hunting. But this understanding risks being obscured by unhelpful arguments over terminology.
The story starts in 2005, when the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published. This document, the result of five years work by more than 1,300 scientists around the world, demonstrated beyond doubt that global ecosystems were in decline and that this really mattered. Perhaps its most significant legacy was a diagram which presented the ways human wellbeing is influenced by different categories of what it termed “ecosystem services”. For example, maintaining healthy seas is important because of the “provisioning services” provided to fishing communities, while mangrove forests may provide “regulating services” protecting people from coastal storm surges.
The ecosystem services idea has since been hugely influential in mainstream politics and there are now degree courses, textbooks and whole journals framed around the concept.
Jump forward 13 years and another global scientific effort has produced another conceptual framework. This time it’s IPBES: the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. In a high-profile article senior scientists representing its consortium of 129 countries have replaced the term ecosystem services with what they argue is a new concept: “Nature’s Contributions to People”.
IPBES was one of the global initiatives set up in response to the success of the ecosystem services concept, so for scientists there to reject the term has caused quite a debate. There are two questions to answer: Is the concept of Nature’s Contributions to People substantially new? And, secondly, is it helpful?
Same thing, different language
First, is it new? Proponents of the Nature’s Contributions to People concept argue that while the ecosystem services idea was readily taken up by ecologists and economists, it has failed to engage a range of perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.
For them, there is too much emphasis on services which are easy to quantify, such as the value that insects contribute to agriculture through pollination and pest control (US$57 billion each year in the US alone, apparently). This has resulted in some world views being sidelined in policy debates. It is certainly true that a number of South American governments strongly dislike the concept of ecosystem services which they consider commodifies what are better seen as gifts from “mother earth”.
My sister Katherine Jones works in communications for RSPB Scotland. She agrees that while the term “ecosystem services” can be useful in discussions with British policy makers, it has never resonated with the general public. “When talking to ordinary people”, she told me “it is much more effective to appeal to their innate passion for nature than suggesting that nature provides a service, like a utility company or a bank”.
However, the editor of the journal Ecosystem Services responded to the IPBES publication with a scathing editorial in which he argues convincingly that far from being new, Nature’s Contributions to People is simply a non-technical explanation of the same thing. He, and others, suggest that in trying to mark clear water between the two, the authors of the latest paper are wilfully ignoring both the large body of work which addresses issues such as commodification, and the success of ecosystem services in generating political interest in the environment.
Just a fad?
The second question concerns whether it is helpful. Prominent conservation scientist Kent Redford, and colleagues, pre-empted the recent debate when they pointed out some years ago that conservation suffers repeatedly from fads. Concepts or approaches are enthusiastically promoted for a few years then dropped only for a new concept to be introduced – which looks substantially like the old one but with a snappy new name. The risk they highlight is that by regularly rejecting, reinventing and repackaging approaches, the conservation community fails to learn the lessons from the failures of previous approaches as they view the new concept as so completely new that old issues don’t apply.
If Nature’s Contributions to People can help bring more actors to the table and address some of the limitations of ecosystem services, this will be helpful. However, problems and challenges will remain. Take the feeling of wellbeing many people get when they connect with nature, for example. “Cultural services” such as these have often been given less prominence because they are difficult to value – but it is not clear whether framing the issue around Nature’s Contributions will help solve this.
If you have read this far, then you may be wondering why this rather semantic argument should interest you. However, I would suggest that there are few issues more important than communicating to society at large why nature matters. If we need a new concept to keep this point fresh and alive in the minds of politicians and the general public then so be it. But let’s not argue. To paraphrase the classic number sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: you say “Ecosystem Services” and I say “Nature’s Contributions to People”. The point made by both is that destroying nature ultimately harms us all.