Two related things have caught my eye this morning that I think deserve a quick blog entry. The first is that Julia Leventon has posted an interesting piece on her frustrations with the ecosystem services concept over on the Ideas for Sustainability blog. Go and read it – Julia raises some important points about the mismatch between our ever-more sophisticated concepts of ecosystem services and what it means to actually manage/support them within our society. One of the things she said really struck me as it chimes with what I feel is a weakness of the current ecosystem services research agenda. Julia says that:
“I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”
This I completely agree with. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!
But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone), and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible (e.g. pesticides and other pollutants). And we’ve known that for many years, long before ecosystem services was coined as a term in the 1980s.
Yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this basic requirement and our natural environment is becoming ever-less diverse and hospitable to the biodiversity that sustains ecosystem services. See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species-rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared: legislation designed to protect these grasslands seems to have had the opposite effect. These are exactly the same kinds of habitats that are considered most important for the pollinators that agriculture relies upon!
The concept of ecosystem services, in my opinion, is a valuable one for focusing attention on the importance of the natural world, though there are others who disagree. But the concept does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that Julia describes in her post. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public*.
*The photograph above was taken a couple of weeks ago at Northampton’s Umbrella Fair, where I presented an over view of the importance of pollinators, and the idea of ecosystem services, to a small, [ahem] “mixed” audience, which included restless kids and incomprehensible drunks, in a marquee which was too light for the laptop projector to work. But if even one of those who attended “got” the idea of ecosystem services I consider my job well done!