Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Understanding Ecosystem Services, Natural Capital and Sustainable Development

Past blogs have touched on the concept of ecosystem services, which is defined as the multiple resources and process that are supplied by natural systems: good air, clean water, abundant wildlife, etc.  Many people who work to protect and conserve natural resources are frustrated because the wealth of these natural systems is in decline in many parts of the world including the United States and it is hard to make progress reversing the losses.  The concern is that current practices are unsustainable.  Fossil fuels are polluting the atmosphere. Farmland fertility is declining with the loss of topsoil replaced by the constant addition of chemical fertilizers. Wildlife populations are endangered and water supply for people and wildlife are imperiled. Part of the problem is that there are often competing views about how important it is to make sure these systems remain healthy and viable.

There is no doubt that we all need ecosystem services.

For example, if you had the choice of air to breath or winning the $320 million lottery this week,  which would you choose?

Air —obviously because without air a person would be dead and unable to enjoy the benefits of winning the lottery.

The problem is that usually it isn’t nearly that cut and dry.  We all know we need healthy natural resources, but how much?  Who is responsible for maintaining them?  Which actions actually endanger them?

A couple weeks ago I attended the ESP Conference 2012: Ecosystem Services Coming of Age: Linking Science, Policy, and Participation for Sustainable Human Well-Being hosted by Portland University. There were over 400 participants representing 49 countries.   It was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of Ecosystem Services.

Ecosystem Services are organized into different categories of services: 1)  provisioning services such as food water and energy 2) regulating services such as carbon sequestration, waste decomposition, and crop pollination, 3) supporting services such as seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal and primary production and 4) cultural services such as recreation, and cultural, intellectual and spiritual inspiration.  Different practitioners may organize services differently by the are generally sorted by these or similar categories.

Another term that got used a lot was Natural Capital which puts the concept of ecosystem services into an economic framework. A lot of work has been done in recent years to document the monetary value of natural capital and ecosystem services.  A study completed in 1997 concluded that the natural capital supporting human welfare had a value of $33 trillion/year while the global gross national product totaled  $18 trillion per year. (The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital     It was also acknowledged that most  of this natural capital was not included in market estimates.  This is a problem.  It doesn’t work to have money without good air or clean water or safe food supply.

Valuing and including ecosystem services into our understanding and decision-making is only a beginning.  There are other kinds of capital that must be included in our calculations to move from an unsustainable to a sustainable world.  Historically measurement of  ‘produced capital’ defined as land, labor and capital was the basis of evaluating economic growth.  The flaw is that this approach is based on the assumption that natural resources are inexhaustible.  This is not true.  A healthy environment is becoming an increasingly scarce resource.

A “sustainable approach” is to change from valuing three to valuing five kinds of capital:

  • Financial Capital (money)
  • Natural Capital (ecosystem services)
  • Produced Capital (manufactured goods, roads, houses, etc.)
  • Human Capital (education and knowledge of individuals)
  • Social Capital (trust, mutual understanding, shared values)

Some of these forms of capital are not easy to measure, but they are also essential. A democracy cannot exist without social capital. A skilled labor force is necessary to manufacture goods, build roads and so on.  To make progress towards a sustainable future all five forms of capital need to be integrated into measuring benefits and costs (For more on this topic see: Five kinds of capital: Useful Concepts for Sustainable Development

It would be very interesting to quantify these five kinds of value for a community and measure how they changed over time as well as how investment in one impacted the values of another.  In reality, it is already is happening locally and globally whether we chose to measure it or not.

A good slide show describing the four categories of ecosystem services can be found:

Types of Ecosystem Services

Natural Capital Research Policy Brief

People, Partnerships and Human Progress: Building Community Capital:

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