When is an Ecosystem Service Not an Ecosystem Service?

Photo: Mark Godfrey/TNC

Photo: Mark Godfrey/TNC

Mark Spalding is a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

This little philosophical conundrum hinges on whether you think of sound as something brought into existence by a perceptive human mind, or simply recognise it as a physical property of the universe.

Meanwhile a similar but more practical matter is bothering me.  If an ecosystem produces something useful, but nobody uses it, is still it an ecosystem service?

To me the answer is surely “no”, but not everyone follows this viewpoint.

Costanza’s big paper of 1997, with its eye-watering values for natural services, and indeed the rather less publicised update of this by Dolf de Groot and colleagues, both used techniques that effectively count unused services.

In the latter study, coral reefs and coastal wetlands almost break the scales in terms of value. Coral reefs come out as being 66 times more valuable than tropical forests and over 220 times more valuable than woodlands!

This number is massively driven, by a single, 15-year old, unpublished, study on erosion reduction by a reef in Jamaica.

Now erosion reduction is a critical service for millions of people, but not every reef serves this function; some reefs have no coast to protect, or no people to benefit from their protective service.

If we become more honest and robust in our valuation, however, we will very soon find ourselves saying that some ecosystems in some places aren’t worth very much at all. Really? Well yes, but only if we insist on traditional accounting practices.

To get around this some people have tried to create values around “non-use”, “existence” and even “bequest” values to future generations. Rightly or wrongly such terms have had little influence on decisions where immediate jobs, food security or money are alternatives.

Actually I think this is all wrong.

Ecosystem services will only provide a compelling case in some places. Elsewhere, they will provide useful fuel for a debate. But in a few places we would be more honest and sensible to turn away from such efforts all together.

We should take heed from a little survey that TNC funded a few years ago. Questioning US citizens from across the political spectrum they found, as might be expected, an overwhelming support for protecting ecosystems that are providing critical services. (Anything else would be just dumb, right?).

A more interesting twist, however, was that nearly half of those polled thought that we shouldn’t bother with all these clever, or contrived, arguments.

We should care about nature for its own sake. I read this as reassuring: that some people, like me, believe that the trees falling in the forest do make a sound, even if we can’t hear them.

That the racing, pulsing beat of nature in the wilderness is something to be cherished even if we can’t get near it. Don’t try and put a dollar tag on everything; that’s not the point.


Costanza, R., et al., 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253-260.

de Groot, R., et. al., 2012. Global estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services in monetary units. Ecosystem Services 1, 50-61.

Metz, D., Weigel, L., 2010. Key Findings from Recent National Opinion Research on “Ecosystem Services”. Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, and Public Opinion Strategies for The Nature Conservancy. https://www.conservationgateway.org/Files/Pages/key-findings-recent-natio.aspx

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


Posted In: Ecosystem Services

Mark Spalding is a senior scientist with the Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. He is based in the Conservation Science Group at the University of Cambridge. It’s a wonderful and sometimes awe-inspiring place to work—in the same block where Newton and Darwin worked, where the first computer was built and the double-helix discovered. He’s worked on big global studies of coral reefs and mangrove forests, but inspiration for all this work has come from the sheer thrill of being close to nature—be it an exotic coral reef or the pond in his garden.

Comments: When is an Ecosystem Service Not an Ecosystem Service?

  •  Comment from Ted Harris

    Glad to see that someone at TNC still says, “We should care about nature for its own sake.” Thanks.

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