Ecosystem Disservices Revisited

Some months ago, I wrote a post here about the concept of ecosystem disservices. My conclusion was the following:

Ecosystem services are of tremendous importance and benefit to humanity. But, seen from the human perspective, these same ecosystems also generate disservices. This is something that is not accounted for in economic valuation efforts going by the name of “ecosystem services valuation”. However, it should be. If we count all the positive services Nature provides us with, we should be realistic and honest enough to count the numerous disservices against them.

Recently, however, I engaged in a discussion of this concept (under this blog post by Joern Fischer), which made clear to me that the matter is much more complicated than I initially thought. I would like to reflect on that point a bit today.

Fact is that the term ecosystem disservices is rather rare in discussions of the value that ecosystems have for us. A quick Google Scholar search returns some 60-70 papers. When I remove the “dis-“, however, the result is 31.900 publications. It is a difference in orders of magnitude. So, the question is: why is the disservices concept so much less popular? In the end, its “mother concept” of ecosystem services has the aim to identify the net benefits that people can draw from different land-use options. And it is clear that every option has both pros and cons. Mostly, though, the cons are expressed only in terms of management costs or opportunity costs. For instance, if we preserve ecosystem X, we have to pay for its monitoring and management. Also, we cannot benefit from a road that might have been built there. However, ecosystems do not only do good to us. They affect us in both positive and negative ways. For example, wetlands are breeding grounds of malaria-vectors carrying mosquitos. Agricultural pests come mostly from natural systems, they are not man-made. Or a more specific example: in a study in Canada it was found that higher levels of aquatic species diversity (actually a nice thing, we think) makes food chains longer, which leads to higher concentrations of mercury in top predators – which happen to be the fish we like eating. This should be accounted for when we compare benefits and costs of various land-use options. Thus, ecosystem disservices seems to be a useful concept.

The matter is not, however, as simple. As pointed out to me by Dave Abson, regarding my mercury and pests examples:

the crucial question is about what is to be valued, in your example the final services is stil food and, economically, it is this final service that should be valued (as this is the instrumentally valued service where the utility and preferences ultimately lie). The length of the food chain can be considered as a factor of production, but to it value it seperately leads to double counting and any number of other technical and conceptual issues. Moreover, it seems to me that the notion of dis-services reinforces the misaprehension (in my opinion) that ecosystems are something humans passively receive from ecosystems when in practice ecosystems services are the result of human capital applied to appropriate flows of services from particular ecosystem structures and processes.

Thus, at least in this context, the ecosystem services concept is sufficient, if it is holistic and consistent enough, i.e., if it does not consider every single contribution of an ecosystem to human well-being in isolation, but rather more broadly, focusing on “end-products”, as seen from the human perspective. On the other hand, this does not resolve the problem of disease vectors – unless we view “contribution to human health” as the relevant end-product of the ecosystem’s workings, which seems too general and imprecise to me. Rather, the disease carried by the vectors is the end-product to be accounted for.

Another important point Dave made in the quotation above is about the static, passive view of the interactions between human and ecosystems that is implicitly behind the disservices concept in its common form. This critique has also been expressed in a very recent commentary by Ferdinando Villa and others:

many disservices are caused or aggravated by an expanding human footprint (i.e., encroachment on ecosystems, which places people at risk of natural ecosystem processes) or human disturbance of ecosystem processes. […] Framing clashes between nature and society with a term such as “disservices” presents an overly simplistic balance sheet that impedes the evolution of a fuller discourse on the sustainability of complex human–natural systems.

In other words, that some ecosystem processes produce “disservices” is our own responsibility, because we disturb these systems/processes. Whether this means that the concept of ecosystem disservices is useless or even harmful, as the cited authors claim, is, however, not entirely clear. It might be harmful in terms of communicating complex issues to the public, because the very term has a clearly negative sound, a situation similar to the “invasive alien species”. But for analytic purposes it might still be helpful, provided that we keep in mind that extinguishing ecosystems or some of their parts is not the only alternative to accepting their disservices, as they are embedded in a larger human-natural systems, and the human side can be manipulated and adapted as well.

Whether the arguments presented here suffice to put the ecosystem disservices concept ad acta – I don’t know. I rather doubt it. It might well be that its name is not properly chosen, a property it shares with its mother concept of ecosystem services. Still, I think that it is an important part of the ecosystem services concept in that it helps us to be honest – if we adopt an essentially anthropocentric perspective on nature, we should acknowledge that it affects us both positively and negatively. Natural is not always good.

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2 thoughts on “Ecosystem Disservices Revisited

  1. Could we say that whatever qualifies as a human “good” (or any single species) ain’t necessarily an overall good. Short and long term ‘good’ are also distinct and not to casually confused.

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