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Approaches to Conservation: Ecosystem Services

Updated on August 2, 2019
Jemma Hulbert profile image

I have a particular interest in how humans live within the natural world and took many related courses at university. This was my favourite.

From forestry to farmland, nature provides all
From forestry to farmland, nature provides all


In the words of Daily (1997, p.9) “Human societies have now attained the status of ecological superpowers.” Since man took control over their natural resources and no longer existed as hunter gatherers, nature has suffered as a result. Our reliance and impact on the ecosystem was not properly realised until 1865 by George Marsh in his Man and Nature which helped to popularize the concept of conservation and sustainability. However, it would not be until the late 20th century that world leaders would become enthusiastic in utilising ecosystem services (ES) and fully understand their economic, social, and ecological benefits. The Industrial and Agricultural revolutions are a prime example of the way nature was viewed in the past, as they exploited our natural resources as a means to provide for the fast growing world population. These revolutions had such profound effects on the global ecosystem due to the general interpretation of nature was that it was priceless and unlimited, and was solely there to be used, or rather abused, by man. As the natural world has degraded as a result, and man has perhaps too late come to realise its importance, new ES approaches have been put in place which work to reap the benefits of ecosystems while simultaneously ensuring its existence for future generations. ES are defined by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment as “the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.” This new system helps to balance the destruction of ecosystems with its restoration, funded by initiatives such as recreation. The following is an assessment of these new ES approaches in comparison with the traditional methods in promoting conservation and sustainability of the natural resources utilised.

The Approach

Although the importance of conservation has been known for hundreds of years, it is only recently that it has gained public enthusiasm. As our scientific knowledge increased we came to realise how much we depend on the natural services we are currently destroying. David Lowenthal summarised Marsh’s view in his introduction that “In tampering with nature, the author warned a century ago … man might destroy himself” (Marsh, 1965). The pillage of our natural resources throughout the past couple of centuries has left them scarce and if they run out there is no alternative to turn to. One reason for this delay in support may have been that governments viewed conservation and sustainability practices as unnecessary and expensive as there had not yet been a reciprocal system developed and nature had not been regarded in monetary terms. As Marsh felt compelled to say that “all I can hope is to excite an interest in a topic of much economical importance” (Marsh, 1965 p.15) one could also argue that society hadn’t developed enough to truly value the benefits of nature as part of their integral economy. Traditional approaches to conservation included gaining funding solely from charities, relying only on the donations from the public which without the necessary environmental education would have been minor in comparison to the sizeable chunks governmental organisations pay today. Furthermore, the introduction of protected areas such as National Parks and conservation designations like Scottish Natural Heritage aimed to conserve and protect specific areas is another example of a traditional approach. The aims of the National Parks (Scotland) Act of 2000 include “to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area, and to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area.” This shows that by 2000 sustainable practices were being put into government legislation, however the payment for this was to come mostly from tourism. Although this approach appears to be similar to the ES approaches style it still remains too localised and small scale. Moreover, even though it is trying to boost conservation in Scotland, it is only helping the conservation of the specific protected areas and the money that is produced from it is used to fund the sustainability initiatives, and does not contribute to the wider economy. This method is also notorious for leaving stakeholders unsatisfied as it does not include them effectively in the planning of new initiatives, and they are not fairly reimbursed for any environmental effects they might have on their land.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) outlines 4 main ecosystem services, namely provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting (MEA p.5 Living Beyond our Means). All of these services play a crucial role and exist as a result of and relying on each other. The ecosystem provides us with food and fuel while also regulating the climate and purifying the water and air. The non material services include supporting the ecosystem through processes such as soil formation and nutrient cycling, along with cultural benefits through recreational activities, the aesthetics of an unadulterated landscape, and education of the formation processes. Education of our role and effect on the ecosystem is necessary to making conservation much more mainstream, as stated by the MEA “One of the key barriers to more effective behaviour to protect natural assets is ignorance about the services they deliver.” Having ecosystem services as an intrinsic part of the economy and governmental planning would popularize its necessity and result in a greater amount of the public learning of it. This would be more effective than the current and past environmental education, which is only accessed through schools when chosen, and received from protected areas in small doses, such as on information boards. Therefore, ES approaches make environmental concerns integral to the national economy and as a result draw more attention to them.

Ecosystem Services

Portman claims in her Ecosystem Services in Practice that “Expertise from three disciplines is usually required for ESA (ecosystem services assessment): ecology, economics, and sociology” (Portman, 2013). This expresses the multidisciplinary nature of ES, and one cannot doubt the benefit that a diverse array of backgrounds and viewpoints has in problem solving and making ES more accessible to more people. However, there would be some difficulty in combining all the different terminologies and systems that the disciplines use together so that they are all in understanding. For example, Portman claims that “most ES papers are published in ecology journals and therefore fail to reach wide exposure to professionals reading planning … or economics literature” (Portman, 2013). This means that many ecological concerns in need of addressing would struggle to translate into economical terms and greatly delay and hinder any progress that could be made. A new discipline to help bridge the gap between ecology and economics has sprouted over the past decade and is now known as ‘ecological economics.’ This new field “explicitly integrates ethical concerns in determining desirable ends, laws of physics and ecology in understanding scarce resources, and political, social, and market solutions to the allocation problem” (Farley, 2010). If ES approaches were successful in making environmental concerns mainstream and became an integral function of economical and governmental structures then ecological economics would be of greater importance, and as a result further the education and popularization of conservation practices.

Ethics of Ecosystem Services

There is also the doubt as to how ethical it is to put a price on nature. The idea that we could further our dominance over nature by valuing it like one would a house only enhances our arrogance. Our destructive presence has already had such an impact on the planet that this era has now been named the ‘Anthropocene.’ This arrogance was much more exaggerated during the industrial and agricultural revolutions, where the “detaching from nature has its roots” and when “natural resources were abundant and labour was the limiting factor of production” (José et al 2013). Now we find that the problem is too many people with too few natural resources. Robert Riddell in his Eco-development describes ES as “a ‘best fit’ attempt to optimise the balance between population numbers, locally available resources, and culturally desired lifestyles” (Riddell, 1981). Even though we are helping nature as a result of this ‘eco-development’ we are doing it to maintain our current lifestyle so we do not have to suffer like countless other species already have. Additionally, Marsh expressed the 1864 general view people had of the natural world, that “though living in physical nature, he is not of her, that he is of more exalted parentage” (Marsh 1965, p.37) Although this arrogance has had a minor decline over the past decade, as more and more people are recycling and getting involved in environmental initiatives, the notion of assuming nature has a price is prolonging this old fashioned concept. Furthermore, as value is measured in economics by “the contribution of something to human welfare, the economic value of ES is its contribution to human welfare” (José et al 2013). Therefore, the motives for the monetisation of ES are not in fact for the future wellbeing of the environment, but for human welfare. However, even though incorporating ES into economics is carried out for an undeniably anthropocentric purpose, the outcome is still beneficial to the environment and does help to ensure its sustainability.

Payment for Ecosystem Services

There is then the question of how this payment for ES would effectively operate. Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1949 Land Ethic that “A system of conservation based solely on economic self interest is hopelessly lopsided” (Leopold, 1949) he expresses his worry that the ES approach “assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.” What he means by this is that those members of the ecosystem which hold no apparent economic value, an example of which he gives as songbirds and wildflowers, may be ignored altogether. This is an old fashioned outlook of ES, as his ‘uneconomic parts’ would today be included in the cultural, non material and supporting areas of ES, as the image of a landscape lush with wildflowers and the tweeting of songbirds is aesthetically pleasing and holds spiritual and mental value. The MEA exemplifies this as “the only market value of a forest is often in the price that can be obtained for its wood, even though the standing forest may be worth much more for its contribution to water control, climate regulation, and tourism.” This highlights a further problem, however, of having to accept the entire ecosystem as a whole full of sub-services rather than only utilizing a small part of it. For example, one could not start profiting from forestry in an upland region without first considering the loss of habitat, soil stability, and other effects it would have on the surrounding ecosystem and compensating for that. Daily in her Nature’s Services puts this more simply as “one way to appreciate the nature and value of ecosystem services is to imagine trying to set up a happy, day to day life on the moon” (Daily, 1997p.3). Therefore, incorporating ES would be a huge undertaking that whole nations would have to fully commit to, otherwise the full benefits would not be gained and the ‘uneconomic’ parts would further degrade and continue to affect the whole ecosystem.

Monetary Incentives

There are some additional benefits of implementing ES into economics that have not been aforementioned. This reciprocal system involves local communities and stakeholders and ensures that the gains from it are allocated fairly with no bias given to bigger corporations over smaller players. The MEA states that this creates a monetary incentive where “people are less likely to turn to wildlife poaching or to farming methods that destroy the natural fabric of the area” (MEA p.23). Payment for ES helps to make it economically viable for farmers and others working with the land to use more sustainable methods and as a result further its popularity. Furthermore, payment for ES aims to change the current state of modifying natural processes to fit economic demand into the exact opposite, where in each case the economic system is suited to each uninfluenced natural process. In this case, although aspects of ES have been commoditized, at least they have been unaffected in the process of doing so.


It is clear from the current meagre state of the planets ecosystem that these traditional approaches have not been effective, however it would be extreme to suggest that they have ‘failed’ altogether. The traditional approaches would only be deemed to have failed if they had plunged the ecosystem into such an irreversible condition that the contributing cycles had ceased to operate. These new ES approaches offer a new way of viewing and valuing nature, and although slightly clouded with ethical concerns over the commoditisation of it, appears to have been effective in its operation so far. Their contribution to our day to day life is rightfully recognised through ES approaches, with their regulating, supporting, cultural, and provisioning services compared to the traditional approaches of having small areas of protected nature out of sight and mind. Assuming that nature is not priceless helps to decrease or even eliminate the wasteful overuse of our scarce natural resources and integrates it into governmental policy so that its sustainability and wellbeing is upheld as an important concern.


Daily, G. (1997) Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems. 1st ed. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Farley, J. (2010) ‘Conservation Through the Economics Lens’, Environmental Management, 45, pp. 26–38

Leopold, A. (1949) The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsh, G.P. (1965) Man and Nature. Edited by David Lowenthal. 1st ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Wellbeing.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Wellbeing: General Synthesis. Washington D.C, Island Press.

National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 asp 10. Available at: Accessed: 26 October 2016

Portman, M.E. (2013) Ecosystem services in practice: challenges to real world implementation of ecosystem services across multiple landscapes. A critical review, Applied Geography, 45, pp. 185–192.

Riddell, R. (1981) Ecodevelopment : economics, ecology, and development, an alternative to growth imperative models. 1st ed. England: Gower

UK National Ecosystem Assessment Available at: (Accessed: 26 October 2016)

Villagómez-Cortés, J.A. and del-Ángel-Pérez, A.L. (2013) ‘The Ethics of Payment for Ecosystem Services’, Research Journal of Environmental and Earth Sciences, 5, pp. 278–286.


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