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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

March/April 2008

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Depending on Nature: Ecosystem Services for Human Livelihoods

A new paradigm is emerging in the world of environmental conservation. Conservationists have traditionally spoken of conserving the building blocks of nature—genes, species, and ecosystems, along with the air, water, and land with which these interact. But this approach has not captured the interest of those who influence the activities that degrade these building blocks. The drivers of degradation—including habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution, and climate change—continue their march, and the results have been documented regularly in updates of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and other reports on the status of the environment: continuing loss of biodiversity and accelerating threats to nature. Although the effects of climate change and the emerging challenge of how to address it are now making front-page headlines, the underlying role of biodiversity, both as victim and potential solution, has yet to receive adequate attention.

Conservationists have been seeking language that will make the importance of a healthy environment more obvious and relevant to the politicians, economists, business people, and development specialists who make decisions upon which nature’s future depends. One such concept is embodied in the idea of ecosystem services as the benefits that nature provides to people. Ecosystem services incorporate the language of economics and business, through their valuation, and the language of development, through their support for human well-being. Efforts to support the long-term sustainable supply of those services are as important to human well-being and survival as they are for nature itself.

Although the building blocks and processes that sustain human life are nearly as old as our planet, regarding them as “ecosystem services” is a more recent concept. With the book Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, Stanford University conservation biologist Gretchen Daily and coauthors popularized the concept a decade ago, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, completed in 2005, brought it into the political mainstream.1 The latter adopted a framework that described these services, analyzed the current state of their delivery, and assessed the drivers that affected their delivery.

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