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Origins of ecosystem services: From Plato to MERP

Published: 15 October 2015
Plato. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Confusion regarding ecosystem service (ES) terminology is broadly acknowledged, both within the MERP community and beyond. Given its infancy and interdisciplinary nature this is not surprising, but it is problematic when working in this field. To overcome this confusion it is worth taking a few minutes to consider the history of ES.

The roots of the ES concept are found much further back in time than is generally realised. In 400BC Plato documented the link between deforestation and the loss of ecosystem services, such as soil stability and spring water provision (although I suspect he would have rightly balked at the term ecosystem service), and indigenous communities across the world have ancient practices based entirely around the concept of understanding, valuing and respecting nature’s benefits.

Returning to academia and delving into pre-classical economics we find between 1650 and 1750 that land, and implicitly nature’s “free” benefits, were recognised as a primary source of wealth, and were central in economic theory (Petty 1667). This inclusion of nature continued through economics’ classical period with both Malthus (1853) and Marx (1891) demonstrating a clear understanding of the importance of nature’s services. Don’t forget that ecology did not exist as a discipline until the late 1800’s, and the ‘ecosystem’ concept only came into use in 1935, so economic theory was actually doing a pretty good job of understanding the natural world at this time. It was only in the neo-classical economic period (1900 – present), and in line with the industrial revolution, that the environment slipped from the development of economic theory.

The estrangement of nature from economics, and indeed Western Society as a whole, intensified through the 20th century. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) played a key role in reminding society of the intrinsic coupling between human development and the environment, with the coining of the term ecosystem services shortly after (e.g. Westman 1977). Back to economics and Pearce (1989) and others were pioneering a ‘new’ sub-field, namely environmental economics, which aimed to return the environment to the core of economic theory (as compared to ecological economics whose theories are based around putting economics into a core of environment).

In 1997 Costanza et al. combined environmental economics with the ecosystem service approach, and valued the world’s ecosystem services at US$33 trillion per year. The Costanza study was theoretically flawed but shifted the ES paradigm into the mainstream. The number of ecosystem service classifications, papers and projects has risen dramatically each year since, and the concept is now ingrained in policy across the world. However this rapid, unstructured, unbounded, cross-disciplinary growth has unsurprisingly resulted in a mycelium-esque entanglement of terminology.

In MERP we are following the National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) approach of a three pillar classification, sitting within the broader ecosystem service paradigm:

  • Pillar 1. Processes/ Functions/Intermediate ecosystem services, which are fundamental processes which occur in the natural environment and would continue to exist regardless of human intervention.

  • Pillar 2. Final ecosystem services which are the specific results of ecosystem processes. These services are a human construct and are exploitable, but at this stage are not exploited.

  • Pillar 3. Ecosystem benefits / goods result when an ecosystem service is exploited, directly or indirectly. The realisation of an ecosystem benefit requires human intervention.


The irony that we now need such complex classifications to understand something that previously was implicit in human behaviour is not lost. However, as human society continues to shift away from direct contact with the natural world it can be argued that constructs such as ES theory are increasingly essential. MERP has a key role to play in ensuring this next step in history is one towards safeguarding the natural environment whilst enabling societal development – a tricky but exciting task ahead!

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