Ask not what nature can do for you

In our recent paper, we ponder whether the increasingly prevalent trend for framing nature in terms of ecosystem services is actually helping to build public engagement in conservation.

The concept of ‘ecosystem services’ is used to describe the essential and useful things that nature provides humans, including such things as fresh food and water, climate regulation, pest control, pollination and opportunities for recreational and cultural pursuits (just to name only a very few).

Framing nature in this way began in the 1970s, largely as a way to attract public interest in biodiversity conservation. It was thought that highlighting humanity’s dependence on the services provided by nature would be a good way of telling stories that link biodiversity to the things that matter to people.

Since then, the ‘ecosystem services’ concept has achieved global prominence. It is a prominent element of global environmental policy. Key to this success is its focus on the instrumental values of nature and biodiversity, which allows individual services to be identified, objectively quantified and ultimately valued. This information can then be considered in decision making, including trading against other benefits. Proponents of the ecosystem services concept argue that this better facilitates the consideration of nature in environmental decision making.

However, despite the ecosystem service concept having the capacity to encompass numerous types of services and values, it is chiefly anthropocentric services, and often their corresponding economic valuation, that tend to be promoted through the use of this frame.

While the goal of securing ecosystem services is absolutely legitimate, we argue that it has had limited success as a vehicle for securing public interest and support for nature, which is crucial to securing long-term social mandates for protection.

Some evidence for this lack of effectiveness is that while academic publication on ‘ecosystem services’ has grown exponentially in recent years, interest in biodiversity conservation by the media has plateaued over the same time period. In contrast, the topic of climate change has up to eight times the level of media coverage compared to biodiversity, a discrepancy that cannot be explained by different scientific output between the two issues.

Of course this does not prove that the increased focus on ecosystem services is responsible for the plateau in media interest in biodiversity conservation, but these trends do suggest that the focus on ecosystem services is not achieving the aim of increasing public interest in nature conservation.

Sadly, over a similar period, almost every indicator of the status of the world’s biodiversity has trended negatively.

And there are numerous reasons why we could expect that ecosystem services may not be effective at engaging the public about conservation.

For one, people are generally more motivated to change behaviour by antecedent values, attitudes and social and personal norms than by logical arguments. So supplying technically correct, logical information about the value of a tree to the economy is unlikely to effectively communicate to the public why it shouldn’t be cut down.

And by focussing only on instrumental values, those emotional, cultural and spiritual values that are connected with appreciating the ‘awe and wonder’ of nature are not mobilised in its defence.

Worse still, focus on instrumental values can displace intrinsic values through the process of motivational crowding-out. The classic example of this is the child who is paid by her parents to complete a household chore – once the child expects to receive money for the task, they are willing to do it again only if they receive a similar monetary reward. Similarly, if the public are consistently compelled to support the conservation of those aspects of nature that provide valuable ecosystem services, their intrinsic value for nature may be crowded-out such that they come to care less for those other places that do not offer sufficiently identifiable or ‘valuable’ services.

However we do not suggest that ecosystem services framing is necessarily always be counter-productive, instead we argue that there are better and more strategic ways to frame biodiversity conservation messages.

For further information, contact Alex Kusmanoff via

Recommended Citation:

Bekessy, S.A., Runge, M.C., Kusmanoff, A.M., Keith, D.A. and Wintle, B.A., 2018. Ask not what nature can do for you: A critique of ecosystem services as a communication strategy. Biological Conservation, 224, pp.71-74.

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