Ecosystem Services Explained

Guest post by Emma Dawson

Have you ever wondered how much a total ecosystem is worth? How much value do trees give us in timber and food? What about air purification and carbon sequestration? How about flood protection, erosion control, or even natural beauty? It’s hard to imagine all the benefits that nature provides humans. These questions are tricky, but the concept of ecosystem services was created to try and answer them. While this idea has some flaws, it can be a useful way to think about our relationship with the natural world. Let’s take a closer look at ecosystem services to try to better understand what they are.

What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are the positive benefits that nature provides to people. These benefits can be big or small. They may be recognized or fly under the radar. Think about a river. It can provide fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and food (by way of fish and other freshwater life). It also may be a fun place to swim or canoe.

Most people can recognize these benefits coming from a river, but there are many others, too. A river can also be important for controlling floods, cycling nutrients, and filtering water. After all, rivers provide a home not only to fish but tons of other critters in aquatic food webs, some of which are so small we can’t even see them. Who knew a river had so many important roles to play?!

Types of Ecosystem Services

The benefits nature provides to people tend to be sorted into four main groups:

Provisioning services are the raw materials that nature provides us. These are pretty easy to recognize. They include food, water, timber, fibers, and even medicine.

Regulating services control other natural processes and materials. Bees, butterflies, and birds all help control the growth of plants through pollination. Wetlands help control floods because they act like sponges that soak up extra water. Trees control how much carbon is in the air by storing it. They can also improve air quality by acting like filters.

Supporting services are the most basic natural cycles that nature needs to function. These include the water cycle, photosynthesis, and the cycling of nutrients between organisms and the soil. None of the other services would be possible without supporting services.

Cultural services are the non-material benefits that nature provides people. They are a part of cultures, activities, and the development of who we are. This can include tourism and recreation. It also includes music, art, and stories inspired by nature. Many of the world’s cultures and religions use nature to find meaning for life’s experiences.

What are ecosystem services worth?

Ecosystem services are vital for our wellbeing. However, those making important decisions often ignore or forget about these services. Most ecosystem services are not bought and sold. After all, you don’t go to a forest to buy clean air and water! This can make it hard for services to be taken into account since they don’t have a price. Climate change, deforestation, and other threats are also depleting these services. Without a way to communicate the value of ecosystem services, they may be harmed beyond repair. This is a scary thought because these services are vital for our existence.

there is no planet b protest sign - ecosystem services

To make sure that ecosystem services are recognized, decision-makers and scientists work together to assign them value. This is expressed in dollars. How can we figure out a price for things that we don’t usually pay for? There are several ways:

Avoided cost is the amount of money that people avoid paying because of the ecosystem service. For example, wetlands help to reduce the impact of flooding by soaking up water. This helps avoid millions of dollars of damage that major storms can cause.

Replacement cost is the cost that people would pay if the service did not naturally exist. If wetlands didn’t exist along coastlines, reservoirs and flood control systems would be required to control floods. These are very expensive to build. It costs a lot of money to replace natural systems.

Travel cost is the amount of money people willingly pay in order to travel to use an ecosystem service. This is usually applied to areas such as parks and recreational activities.

Contingent values are a way to understand how much we’re willing to pay to maintain a service. People are presented with hypothetical scenarios where they express how much they would pay to keep or increase a service. This helps determine how much these ecosystem services are valued.

ecosystem services - money growing on a tree

These methods help scientists estimate the value of ecosystem services. Valuations fall across a wide range and are frequently updated. Some scientists say that the value of global ecosystem services is between 16 and 54 trillion US dollars per year! Compare that to the global gross national product, the total value of all of the world’s goods and services, of 18 trillion dollars per year. There is a lot of value in our natural environment, and it is important that we not take it for granted.

What are some drawbacks to using the ecosystem services approach?

While this method is useful for valuing important services, it isn’t perfect. There are many criticisms of the concept that are important to take into account when thinking about ecosystem services.

This method has been criticized as anthropocentric. This means that humans, rather than nature, are at the center. Ecosystem services can be seen as ignoring nature’s intrinsic value. Some argue that nature should be valued for its own sake rather than because humans value it. The ecosystem services concept is utilitarian, defined for practical purposes to be used by people. But some believe that nature should be the central focus and that human use is less important.

Others think that the ecosystem services concept can lead to overexploitation. They think that this allows people to become consumers of nature rather than protectors and stewards. Putting a price on nature’s goods and services means that they can be bought and consumed. This could lead to overconsumption by people who have enough money and resources. This argument holds that we should not put a price on nature because it’s priceless and vital to our survival.

planet over profit - ecosystem services explained

What About Cultural Impacts?

Cultural ecosystem services can be difficult to assign value to. There has been lots of research focused on tourism and recreation because they are easier to price. Cultural services, especially in non-Western contexts, have been neglected in studies. This is especially true of the cultural value of nature in traditional and Indigenous communities.

Different cultures have different relationships with the environment. Many cultures use nature as a central part of identity. Ignoring this diversity does a disservice to these different cultures, especially marginalized and underrepresented groups. I’s very important to understand cultural contexts when using ecosystem services valuation.

Another criticism is that this method ignores important power relationships. Individuals, institutions, and power structures all play a part in determining how ecosystem services are distributed and managed. Simply assigning a dollar value to these services can be seen as an oversimplification.  Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities often lack equitable access to ecosystem services. This is typically not reflected in valuations.

Assigning monetary value to nature can also be viewed as imposing Western values on spaces with Indigenous origins. This has been noted as a continuation of Western exploitation of indigenous land and resources without respect for their views. Valuation in itself is an expression of power. It’s important to consider who is benefitting from services, how we can remove barriers that block access, and the historical context behind our valuation of nature.

Want to learn more?

The idea of ecosystem services is complicated but also interesting. There are many different ways it can be used and lots of points to consider.

Check out Dogwood’s report, Treasures of the South, to learn about ecosystem services in wetlands.


emma dawsonEmma Dawson is a rising third year at the University of Virginia and summer intern at Dogwood Alliance. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science, which she hopes to apply to research opportunities in graduate school and beyond. Emma loves watching and playing soccer, cooking, and spending time outdoors with friends and family.

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