Why 'Ecosystem Services' Is a Depressingly Limited Term

We need to be strategic about the terms we use depending on our audience and the results we want to achieve.

Hummingbird Surrounded by Red Flowers
Cheuk Hin Sherman Sham / Getty Images

I am a provider of parental services. 

When my children feel sad, I hug them. When they are hungry, I either fix them a meal, or I teach them how to fix one themselves. And when they are in need of entertainment, I can always be relied on to deliver an utterly hilarious Dad joke. Along the way, I also earn money to provide them with a place to live. I read and learn in part so I can impart whatever meager wisdom I can muster to them. And I try to make sure that they are learning how to behave in a fair and ethical manner. 

Yes, I am indeed a provider of parental services. 

Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? And that’s because the relationship I have with my children is (I hope!) about so much more than the services I provide or even the many blessings I receive in return. I got to thinking about this analogy when Twitter user @MJHaugen posed a question about an equally odd term: 

The replies were eye-opening. Some, for example, pointed to the idea of being in relationship with nature: 

Others pointed to terms that emphasize our utter reliance on these "services": 

Yet others chose to highlight the fact that—in a healthy society—we’d also be giving back: 

And some just got a little weird: 

Ultimately, though, it was a good discussion about how what we call things really matters. And it was also a reminder that we ought to be strategic about the terms we use depending on the audience we are speaking to, and the results we want to achieve.

We should be cautious and intentional about when to retire or curtail those terms. In the short term, for example, using terms like "ecosystem services" or "natural capital" can have some beneficial impacts. After all, there are real and significant monetary costs to environmental destruction, and if we can encourage policymakers and other influential entities to take those costs seriously, our task becomes a little easier.

The trouble, however, is that when you place a specific value on something, then that something can now more easily be bought and sold. The idea of reducing the magic of our relationship with nature to something as transactional as a "service" runs the risk of degrading how we treat the world around us. While it’s possible to place a dollar value on specific aspects of what nature can do for us—by comparing the cost of water treatment to the natural water purifying ‘services’ of a forest, for example—we cannot lose sight of the fact that a forest is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. 

Last week, I sat alone in a forest watching a hummingbird feed on a cardinal flower. You could say that the forest provided me with a service. You could say I watched a show. You could also say that I was in a relationship with the forest, the flower, and the bird. 

Or, come to think of it, you could also say nothing at all.