Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ecosystem Services and NCP: There’s Room for Both in a Bigger Tent

Part of a series of posts about IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and an inside look at its processes.
[The following is an edited synopsis of part of our longer official response on March 12 in Science about nature's contributions to people (NCP). Re: the original article, see this IPBES news item.]
Given that the Inuit have over 50 words for snow, how does an Inuit person translate a white skier’s question, “How’s the snow?” Without a precise mapping of terms, the translation is likely to include other dimensions of meaning, including the ‘positionality’ of the questioner (a white outsider) and the underlying purpose (recreating on Inuit territory). There is no way for any outsider’s language and concepts--e.g., about ecosystem services--not to suffer the same fate: they will both lose meaning that is crucial to locals, while also accruing conceptual baggage that may alienate them. A key point of the NCP approach is to explicitly recognize the legitimacy of a context-specific understanding, which defies the predetermined categorization that is so central to the ecosystem-services approach. And thus NCP is not merely political compromise but rather a broadening of epistemologies.
The snow allegory illustrates elements of the statement that “ecosystem services are NCP”: yes, ‘ecosystem services’ represents an important subset of ways of understanding nature’s diverse contributions to people. For some—including many social scientists and humanities scholars—there is hesitation or resistance to engage with ‘ecosystem services’, since the term comes with a conceptual baggage regarding the implicit assumptions and intended purpose. Not only is there the troubling connotation in the analogy of ecosystems as service-providers like factories (Norgaard 2010), but ‘ecosystem services’ has become associated at least partly with the notion of pricing nature so as to save it (Spash 2008; Dempsey & Robertson 2012; Crouzat 2018; Castree 2017). NCP represents a response, to broaden the tent by broadening the term.
Our promotion of NCP is no battle for territory: ecosystem services researchers should keep using that term, and we will too—in appropriate contexts. It remains in IPBES’ name, our job titles, and our explanations of who we are and what we do. It is perfectly functional for some audiences, and preferable for others—but not all (Fairbank 2010). In some other contexts, we will use NCP in order to intentionally signal an approach that explicitly invites and embraces diverse conceptions of nature and our relationships with it. This conceptual broadening is especially important when stakeholders do not accept the stock-flow metaphor associated with narrowing down nature to natural capital and all of its contributions as services (Chan et al. 2016; Pollini 2016; Pascual et al. 2017).
The issue is not whether the social sciences and humanities are represented in the field, but how visible and comfortable they are, whether there could be more, and if it would be productive. There are important social-science and humanities contributions in ecosystem services, and we have all intentionally strived to make more space for these (Chan et al. 2012; Martín-López et al. 2014; Pascual et al., 2014; Díaz et al. 2015; Berbés-Blázquez et al., 2016; Stenseke & Larigauderie 2017). But many review papers have found a narrow engagement of ecosystem services research with the social sciences (Liquete et al. 2013; Haase et al. 2014; Nieto-Romero et al. 2014; Chaudhary et al. 2015; Luederitz et al. 2015; Fagerholm et al. 2016). We know of many excellent social scholars who have been turned off by the term, and some who have engaged and have contributed importantly report a persistent queasiness (Satterfield et al. 2013; Satz et al. 2013).
We favour a big tent for this party that is research on nature’s contributions, and terms aren’t one-size-fit-all. Since many scholars report continued chafing with ‘ecosystem services’, despite our efforts to stretch it, we simply intend to provide a new term to invite a broader range of scholars and knowledge holders.


Berbés-Blázquez, M., J. A. González and U. Pascual (2016). "Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 19: 134-143.
Castree, N. (2017). "Speaking for the ‘people disciplines’: Global change science and its human dimensions." The Anthropocene Review 4(3): 160-182.
Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). "Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values." Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.
Chan, K. M. A., P. Balvanera, K. Benessaiah, et al. (2016). "Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment." PNAS 113(6): 1462–1465.
Chaudhary, S., A. McGregor, D. Houston and N. Chettri (2015). "The evolution of ecosystem services: A time series and discourse-centered analysis." Environmental Science & Policy 54: 25-34.
Crouzat, E., I. Arpin, L. Brunet, M. J. Colloff, F. Turkelboom and S. Lavorel (2018). "Researchers must be aware of their roles at the interface of ecosystem services science and policy." Ambio 47(1): 97-105.
Dempsey, J. and M. M. Robertson (2012). "Ecosystem services: Tensions, impurities, and points of engagement within neoliberalism." Progress in Human Geography.
Díaz, S., S. Demissew, C. Joly, et al. (2015). "The IPBES Conceptual Framework - connecting nature and people." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14(June): 1-16.
Fagerholm, N., M. Torralba, P. J. Burgess and T. Plieninger (2016). "A systematic map of ecosystem services assessments around European agroforestry." Ecological Indicators 62: 47-65.
Fairbank, M., Maullin, Metz and Associates, and Public Opinion Strategies (2010). National public opinion research project, The Nature Conservancy.
Haase, D., N. Larondelle, E. Andersson, et al. (2014). "A quantitative review of urban ecosystem service assessments: Concepts, models, and implementation." AMBIO 43(4): 413-433.
Liquete, C., C. Piroddi, E. G. Drakou, L. Gurney, S. Katsanevakis, A. Charef and B. Egoh (2013). "Current status and future prospects for the assessment of marine and coastal ecosystem services: A systematic review." PLoS ONE 8(7): e67737.
Luederitz, C., E. Brink, F. Gralla, et al. (2015). "A review of urban ecosystem services: six key challenges for future research." Ecosystem Services 14: 98-112.
Martín-López, B., E. Gómez-Baggethun, M. García-Llorente and C. Montes (2014). "Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment." Ecological Indicators 37, Part A(0): 220-228.
Nieto-Romero, M, Oteros-Rozas, E., González, J.A. and B Martín-López (2014) Exploring the knowledge landscape of ecosystem services assessments in Mediterranean agroecosystems: insights for future research. Environmental Science & Policy 37: 121-133
Norgaard, R. B. (2010). "Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder." Ecological Economics 69(6): 1219-1227.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., Gomez-Baggethun, E., Muradian, R. (2014). Social Equity matters in Payments for Ecosystem Services. Bioscience 64(11): 1027-1036 doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu146
Pascual, U., P. Balvanera, S. Díaz, et al. (2017). "Valuing nature’s contributions to people: the IPBES approach." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 26–27: 7-16.
Pollini, J. (2016). Construction of nature. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. D. Richardson, N. Castree, M. F. Goodchild et al, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 1-7.
Satterfield, T., R. Gregory, S. Klain, M. Roberts and K. M. Chan (2013). "Culture, intangibles and metrics in environmental management." Journal of Environmental Management 117: 103-114.
Satz, D., R. K. Gould, K. M. A. Chan, et al. (2013). "The challenges of incorporating cultural ecosystem services into environmental assessment." Ambio 42(6): 675-684.
Spash, C. L. (2008). "How much is that ecosystem in the window? The one with the bio-diverse trail." Environmental Values 17(2): 259-284.
Stenseke, M. and A. Larigauderie (2017). "The role, importance and challenges of social sciences and humanities in the work of the intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES)." Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research: 1-5.


  1. The debate continues, by email! Following this blog post, collaborators on a multi-institution grant pointed to a new piece in response to Díaz et al., and expressed concerns re: word-buzziness. My response follows:

    Thanks so much for your responses! To be honest, I agree with both of you, both about debate about concepts and also about concerns with buzzwords. I was reluctant to engage in the NCP paper for these reasons, but I eventually came around based on the logic of the blog post (above).

    A key point here is that the Díaz et al. article is not really critical of the ecosystem services literature so much as the term (in some contexts). Many of us have contributed to the ES literature and intend to continue doing so. I for one am not in favour of using NCP instead of ES in ‘generalizing’ contexts; the ES term has done well there.

    For this reason, I agree completely that the ES literature has seen tremendous advance in the past 10-15 years, but we were not primarily critiquing the literature. Certainly not the cutting-edge stuff. We were in part critiquing the continued obsession with certain simplified views (stock-and-flow), including monetary valuation using benefit transfer. You all may not read those articles, but I have done a quantitative review, and the preponderance of ‘ES’ research is still simplistic in those ways.

    For these reasons, I think we’re on the same page, and I cannot reconcile some of the claims in the One Ecosystem piece with Díaz et al. Maes et al. say, “Díaz et al. 2018 present ES as a "narrow economic approach" built on a market-based value framework.” But I don’t think we do any such thing. Rather, we write, “[This NCP approach] should also be less likely to be subsumed within a narrow economic (such as market-based) approach as the mediating factor between people and nature.”

    See, we’re expressing concern about the ES term being coopted, not critiquing the ES literature. Make sense?


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