May 12, 2015

People: The Missing Link in Monitoring and Managing Ecosystem Services

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
People: The Missing Link in Monitoring and Managing Ecosystem Services

Linwood Pendleton, a senior scholar at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and International Chair of Excellence at the University of Brest, has explored the notion that conservation is good for people, suggesting that failure to make that case with hard evidence has led to a lack of confidence in environmental management and great uncertainty about its benefits to human well-being.

How do you feel about past ecosystem services valuation efforts?

The 1990s saw a groundswell in valuation studies and the result was that we no longer had to think of people and economics as the enemy of conservation. But there’s little evidence that actual decisions have been made using valuation estimates. I think I know why: we have valued things that really shouldn’t be valued and things that people understand better without values. Additionally, we have taken the basic premise of ecosystem services, “people benefit from healthy ecosystems,” and made it unduly complicated.

Mostly though, the problem is that conservationists have misrepresented our role in producing the value of nature. Take oceans and coasts. When we value Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), 99 times out of 100 we value the area and not the protection. When we value better coastal management, we are left talking about what’s at risk rather than our contribution to reducing risk.

You say that people have been left out of the way we monitor conservation success. What does that mean for policy making?

Estimating the impacts of future management options is made difficult by our failure to measure the impacts of past management actions on people. Conservationists and environmental managers don’t monitor people. They know more about bacteria in beach water than about beach goers. On those rare occasions when they do collect data on people, that data is on people where they work—MPAs, for instance. We also need data on people outside of MPAs and on places that don’t benefit from good management.

Often there are simply too many factors at work for the impact of management on people to be detected. To understand the effect of our work, we’d have to collect data on factors beyond our control—data on the local and regional economy, population change and demographics, and external environmental stressors.

Finally, we have to be honest and admit that maybe management actions haven’t had discernible effects on the benefits people derive from ecosystems. And why should they? Historically, we haven’t designed marine protection and coastal management with the intent of improving human well-being—at least not economic well-being the way we understand it now.

What’s at the root of our management and research failures?

We have rarely taken actions explicitly to protect the economic value of healthy marine and other ecosystems. Where are the coastal carbon reserves and shoreline protection parks? We talk about the spillover benefits of marine reserves, but how often do we design these reserves to maximize the value of these benefits?

We continue to manage the biology of nature—which works pretty well on its own—rather than human behavior. We haven’t done enough to give people the confidence that their behavior matters or that our management of their behavior is really going to make them better off. Too many people still think the choice is between ecological well-being and economic well-being.

One way to give people confidence that our actions benefit them as well as nature is to collect better data. Better yet, we can involve local people—stakeholders—in data collection. Involving stakeholders in collecting data about human uses of the sea and shore creates better data and provides firsthand experience of the benefits of conservation.

So we have failed to collect enough data linking human actions to changes in ecosystem health and back to human well-being?  

At best, we’ve captured bits of data on the ways that management and ecosystem change affect people and have used it in models to generate hypothetical outcomes about the benefits of better marine management. We’ve focused on largely unknown, rarely measured, future impacts on people rather than on providing proof that environmental management has mattered to the well-being of people and not just to ecosystems.

One reason is that, in government, managers must always justify next year’s budget, so they focus on the future and not on documenting the past.

And then there is a fear that although our environmental management actions might have been good for nature, maybe they weren’t so good for people or were not good enough to be detectable. That fear is justified: if we didn’t design our restoration, marine protection, or other environmental policies expressly to benefit people, why would we believe they did?

What’s the answer?

The question is, What are we going to do differently to manage people to ensure that ecosystems live up to their potential as economic assets, as society’s natural endowment?

The ecosystem services approach is about changing the economy to reflect the value of nature and our role in managing the wealth and value of natural ecosystems. To do that, we must do three things. First, we have to better monitor and understand the links between nature and people. That means collecting more data on people and doing more science to empirically demonstrate the links.

Second, we have to involve more social scientists in ecosystem management to better reflect the role of nature in the lives of people and the role of people in the lives of nature.

Third, we need to involve more natural scientists in economic management. You cannot manage an ecosystem without understanding people, and you cannot manage a successful economy without understanding the natural systems on which people depend.


Pendleton dived deeper into these issues in his opening keynote address at the conference “Valuing and Protecting Our Shared Seas.” A transcript of that speech is available online. He is is available for comment by contacting Erin McKenzie, or 919.613.3652.