Learning to Speak Ecosystem Services

By Christian Neumann, Linwood Pendleton, Marianne Kettunen, Tundi Agardy

The value of ecosystems and the associated services they provide is receiving growing attention both in the public and decision-making arena. The language of Ecosystem Services essentially translates the complexity of ecological processes and functions into descriptors that define the socio-economic-ecological link. To overcome the challenge of scientific and non-scientific communities having to find a common language, it is worth keeping a few key aspects in mind.

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Talk about the big picture

The concept of Ecosystem Services has the potential to reconcile growth of the three pillars of sustainability (social, environmental and economic), often considered to be mutually exclusive: the concept recognises functional ecosystems as a foundation for social and economic development. At the same time, it helps us communicate the link between very direct human needs, such as healthy, clean drinking water, and rather indirect management responses such as securing the quality of upstream ecosystems that provide a water purification function.

The recent scientific advancement of the Ecosystem Services concept and its application in planning and decision-making have added substantial credibility to the understanding of the role that healthy, functioning ecosystems play for human well-being as well as social and economic development. Consequentially, Ecosystem Services have received growing attention from policy-makers as well as the public. However, this increased attention reveals the science to a broader, non-scientific audience, which is a challenge for both communities, as they often don’t speak a common language.

Know whom you are talking with

Within the scientific community it is important to maintain the scientific precision essential to advancing scientific understanding. However, in communication with the public, policy- or decision-makers or private sector representatives, it is important to recognise that while people might be familiar with the ecosystem services themselves, they are less so with the related concepts and its specific terminology. Communicating with non-scientific audiences in planning or other decision-making processes, for example through press articles or stakeholder consultation, language used by scientists should reflect the realities and understandings of the interactions of each audience with Ecosystem Services.

Developing such situation-specific language should be a “co-creative” process, through bi-directional observation and listening. Such an effort will not only lead to a shared language, but in itself further add to the knowledge on local Ecosystem Services and their cultural, social and economic context. Working in a multi- and inter- disciplinarily manner with colleagues from natural, social and cultural sciences will help in both understanding and adapting the Ecosystem Service language to local contexts.

The more relevant Ecosystem Service information becomes for the public, the more careful the scientific community needs to become when balancing linguistic flexibility and scientific precision, in order to be able to convey messages clearly and correctly in layman terms, and to avoid terminology ‘wearing off’ (see for example the term ‘sustainable’).

Different kinds of values and metrics serve different audiences
Assessing the Total Economic Value (TEV) of Ecosystem Services, especially in monetary terms, has played an important role in bringing public attention to the value of nature’s non-market elements. TEV can continue to play such a role in relevant circumstances. In the context of more concrete planning and decision-making situations, however, particularly when informing trade-off decisions, focusing on marginal values of Ecosystem Service change rather than assessing the total values may better respond to audiences’ needs.

Values and metrics other than economic ones can also be highly relevant to stakeholders and decision-makers, depending on local contexts and the objectives of the processes information is used in. These include, but are not limited to social values (for example safety, livelihoods, health or social cohesion) and cultural values (such as identity, artistic or spiritual values).

Consequently, it is important to understand the target audience, their association with ecosystem services and their information needs when designing and implementing assessments and valuations. Messages should be thoughtfully crafted and communicated to convey the results of these assessments.

Credibility matters

Ecosystem Services can be used to support arguments for specific, already existing objectives such as the conservation of a certain area, ecosystem or habitat. To avoid undermining scientific credibility, it is important to reveal such objectives when communicating about Ecosystem Services. Similarly, care should be taken to not ‘oversell’ claims about benefits associated with Ecosystem Services (for example coastal protection from extreme weather events), to avoid later disenchantment of stakeholders and policy- and decision-makers. Further, the usefulness of arguments for conservation based on Ecosystem Services might not work equally well in all circumstances (e.g. conservation of coastal vs. marine habitats).

Ecosystem Services as a concept is necessarily a reduction of complexity – a fine balance needs to be struck to communicate complexity without losing relevance and tangibility.

The language of Ecosystem Services creates new connections

When carefully applied in a relatable manner, the concept of Ecosystem Services has the power to bring together decision-makers and scientists from different disciplines. In turn, the resulting exchanges serve to further support the concept itself, as relationships are built and mutual understanding is developed.

By connecting people and ecosystems, the concept of Ecosystem Services can support the reconcilement of environmental protection and sustainable use with social and economic development – if we speak a language everyone can understand.