The story of ‘ecosystem services’

mangroves-105646_640Research phase 1: 2016-2017

In this initial phase of the project we are preparing a “biography” of the ecosystem services concept. This allows us to gain an overview of the development of the idea of ecosystem services, its ‘web of related meanings’, its relationship to concepts like ‘natural capital’, and its early links with environmental policy at national, international, and transnational scales. This phase covers the earliest efforts to apply economic valuation tools to the natural environment, through to the first utterances of ‘ecosystem services’, and to the 2000s when the international community prepared two significant reports: the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).


Working papers with initial findings will be posted here in mid-2017.

Key terms

  • Ecosystem: The landmark 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined an ecosystem as ‘a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit’. An ecosystem is composed of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) elements: e.g., organisms, animals, soil, sunlight, air, humidity, temperature, etc. An ecosystem can be as small as a tidal pool or as large as the Earth’s biosphere.
  • Ecosystem services: This concept captures the contribution that ecosystems make to human welfare. One of the most influential books in popularising the concept of ecosystem services was Natures Services (Daily 1997). Gretchin Daily defined ecosystem services as ‘the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life. They maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods, such as seafood, forage, timber, biomass fuels, natural fibre, and many pharmaceuticals, industrial products, and their precursors… In addition to the production of goods, ecosystem services are the actual life-support functions, such as cleansing, recycling, and renewal, and they confer many intangible aesthetic and cultural benefits as well’ (Daily 1997: 3).