SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  11 April 2013
Volume 14 Issue 4

Return to the Globe

IEAM Spotlight—Ecosystem Services and Environmental Decision Making: Seeking Order in Complexity

Brian Church, Windward Environmental LLC

Sabine Apitz’s new paper Ecosystem services and environmental decision making: seeking order in complexity (IEAM 9(2):214-230) reminds us of the environmental externalities that occur in traditional markets, asserts the potential for the ecosystem services paradigm (EsSP) to help quantify those externalities so that they can be internalized, and sets up the philosophical debate about whether it is right to treat ecosystems like industries, manufacturing services for consumers to buy and sell, coming down on the side of pragmatism, arguing that EsSP, “If used properly, provides insights into the true costs and benefits of management choices, and allows us to address management, habitat and service cross linkages to make informed decisions that cross industries, regulatory frameworks, habitats and scales.”

There it dives into issues of scale, complexity, communication and what it takes to build a paradigm that withstands the test of time. That’s when it got really interesting, and got me thinking.

I was reminded of my favorite recurring moment from television police dramas: “Zoom out,” the officer drones into a microphone protruding from a brilliantly flashing terminal, “…and enhance.” After a few beeps, a grainy photograph on the computer screen clarifies, bit-by-bit. “Now zoom in,” the screen quickly shifts, zooming in and out, “…and rotate 30 degrees. Stop.” Inexplicably, our perspective freely rotates around a wall into an adjoined room. And, there it is; our vigilant enforcer arrives at the clue, a telling image well beyond the original resolution of the photograph.

Using ecosystem services to make environmental management decisions sometimes seems to me to be elusive in the same way. We wander about not clear on where we’re headed, but then we find the right way to frame the problem and things suddenly snap into focus in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

EsSP has the potential to provide for holistic assessments that are heavily biased by stakeholder values, and unbiased by the development of managerial decision scenarios and the collection of data by assessors. It has the potential to provide incentives to protect the environment and services flowing from it. It has the potential to reduce transaction costs by providing more direct metrics of the effectiveness of risk management alternatives, and holds the promise of facilitating restoration, not just remediation. “Zoom out…”

Historically, undue focus on single resources (e.g., agricultural output and pest control, flood control and diversions for irrigation) has resulted in embarrassingly poor ecosystem management when viewed from a holistic standpoint. For example, the application of pesticides and the construction of dams without proper investigation of downstream ecological impacts have resulted in widespread and long-lasting degradation of freshwater habitats. Imagine that you hold a picture, taken with a soft-focus lens, of a field of healthy, golden grain, blowing in the wind and stretching into the indiscernible distance; then, later you find out that somewhere at the fuzzed out fringe of the photo, an intersex toad was having a difficult time with love. Something is needed to provide clarity. EsSP can remove the soft focus by placing valued endpoints into view. They may not be in perfect focus, but they are assessed, regardless.

An ecosystem approach, as is taken during ecosystem services assessment (EsSA), should include at least three levels of scale: landscape or region, site or service, and a single individual, mechanism or process. Simply put, many individuals make a population and many populations make a species. Along the same line, many processes affect one or a bundle of services, and a landscape provides copious bundles of services. If we consider a viable population to provide a valued ecosystem service, then we should also consider what affects an individual and how the population interacts with other populations and the greater community and ecosystem. Appropriately outlining scale and scope can greatly facilitate what Apitz referred to as the “decision cascade,” an iterative process that allows stakeholders, managers and assessors to interact in order to continually reassess uncertainties and refine assessment and management decisions over time.

Although accounting for multiple scales and resources can be made into an incredibly difficult analytical exercise, it doesn’t have to be. We have tools available―Bayesian belief networks, for example―that have been used previously to account for multiple scales and resources. Uncertainty and data gaps must be carefully weighed when choosing a model approach to EsSA. A qualitative approach may be the most cost-effective for EsSA if data for service endpoints (e.g., fisheries) or functions (i.e., erosion control) are highly uncertain. Clarity of the model can be achieved through a stepwise, iterative process of stating and testing hypotheses and assumptions, that adapts to new information; this is true of Bayesian belief networks for example. “…and enhance…”

Zooming out to put a problem into its broader context might help recognize it, but it doesn’t necessarily help solve it. The best example given is that of sediment transport in a watershed. Sediment transport can be mapped, measured and managed on multiple scales and in many ways. It’s satisfying to see sediment transport processes at work in remote images. Seeing it manifest on a watershed scale, from headwater to delta, gives us a unique appreciation for how it works. It might also help us spot some of the services and costs that sediment transport processes provide. In upper reaches, sedimentation can result in degraded spawning habitat for fish, whereas, in lower reaches and estuaries, species might depend on depositional environments such as wetlands. Zooming out even further to look at multiple watersheds might provide different insights. For example, by comparing watersheds one might come to realize that wetlands provide water purification and protection against coastal erosion.

Basically, the provisioning of services is location specific, and one process may be linked to both losses and gains within a single watershed; ecosystem services valuation (EsSV) is likely to differ between upstream communities and coastal communities. “Now zoom in…”

So now it’s time to zoom in. Subdividing a landscape prior to addressing multiple value sets or multiple jurisdictions will provide for appropriate analyses and ultimately management decisions at the higher level. Subdivisions should take into account the scale at which processes provide (or deplete) valued services. Here we could dive back into the philosophical debate about intrinsic versus anthropocentric value, but instead let’s just stake out the pragmatic position and say that human values might be important to deciding on the scale at which to address a problem. Political jurisdiction, social norms and values, market scales, etc., ought to be considered. This introduces some really interesting dynamics, for example, creating opportunities to use adaptive management techniques by studying how different human choices affect the provision of ecosystem services in ecologically similar but socioeconomically different locations.

As with everything else, socioeconomic differences create both opportunities and challenges. There is the opportunity to learn about what works, by comparing how different socioeconomic choices affect ecosystem services. There is also the challenge of developing unified policies to create economies of scale, unified societies, etc. One issue that arises immediately when scaling up is that multiple regulating agencies and stakeholder groups may have jurisdiction or interest at the higher scale. Apitz discusses European frameworks where this is beginning to be addressed in an integrated way. “…and rotate 30 degrees. Stop.”

Apitz concludes that the most reasonable approach to ecosystem services is biophysically realistic, includes cost-benefit analysis (monetary or not) at the local scale, addresses impacts or benefits of management at multiple scales, and includes a “comprehensive but critical” interaction with stakeholders. She argues that to achieve consistently relevant assessments on a broad scale, a singular vocabulary and “taxonomy” for the EsSP, which at present doesn’t exist, must be developed. She expects cross-sector discussion and development of policies that integrate EsSP using one set of terminology to result in better understanding and communicability of EsSA outputs.

The first step must be toward clarity, transparency and focus. And, as the resolution of the picture is enhanced over time, our vigilant investigators will find those telling clues to managing real-world environmental issues.

Authors’ contact information:

Return to the Globe

SETAC mission statement Contact SETAC Globe
Contact the SETAC North America office
Contact the SETAC Europe office