Ecological, Conservation & Ecosystem Services Terminology:  a short glossary of words and terms to understand

We asked our readers what questions they had about biodiversity conservation and most of the questions related to the terminology used in ecological, conservation and ecosystem services. We put together a short glossary of words and phrases that will be helpful as you explore areas and ideas of biodiversity conservation as well as spending time on our website and blog.

9 Important Definitions

Ecosystem function is a subset of the interactions between ecosystem structure and the processes that underpin the capacity of an ecosystem to provide goods and services.

Ecosystem process is any change or reaction occurring within ecosystems, physical, chemical, or biological. These processes include things like decomposition, production, nutrient cycling, and fluxes of nutrients and energy.

Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect (intrinsic) contribution of ecosystems to human wellbeing.

Ecosystem structure is the biophysical aspects of an ecosystem; the composition of the species making up the ecosystem will vary.

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‘Environmental’ and ‘ecosystem’ services are often used interchangeably in the literature. However, I will only use ecosystem services, which are services that deal exclusively with the human benefits derived from natural ecosystems. Environmental services also comprise benefits associated with different types of actively managed ecosystems, such as sustainable agricultural practices and rural landscapes that are generally not included when part of a payments for ecosystem services (PES) market scheme.

Governance broadly describes the processes by which society’s resources are deployed to achieve collective goals (Folke et al., 2005). Acknowledging that these goals are sometimes difficult to define and achieve, adaptive governance refers to the systematic adjustment of governance processes using lessons learned from prior policy outcomes (Gregory et al., 2006). It relies on the creation of structures that facilitate policy experimentation and the acquisition of qualitative and quantitative information about the systems being governed.

Institutions are the prescriptions that societies use to shape all forms of repetitive and structured interactions, including those within neighbourhoods, markets, businesses, and governments at all scales (Ostrom, 1995.) In relation to ecosystem services, institutions are the arrangements that people design to regulate their interactions with ecosystems and they may include organizations as well as rule systems (Bennett et al., 2015)

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Neoliberal Ideology / Neoliberalism is broadly defined as the extension of competitive markets into all areas of life, including the economy, politics and society (The Handbook of Neoliberalism, MacLeavy et al., 2016). This ideology has also extended into environmental policy; it is a term used to describe the implicit beliefs that nature can be commodified, privatized, and monetized, the right to pollute can be purchased (through payment of fines), and (for instance) the right to determine tropical land-use can be transferred from local actors to foreign bidders (Matulis, 2013).

Likewise, Neo-environmentalists promote the use of markets and the pricing of the services provided by nature which critics point out greatly diminishes the true value of nature while undermining moralistic and ethical arguments in its defense. (Note: I do not support neo-environmentalist ideas, but I do understand that “commoditizing nature” is a slippery slope into neo-environmentalism, and it is understandable that ES and PES could get swept up and into this ideology).

Payment for ecosystem service (PES) is a transaction within or outside of a marketplace where a well-defined, ecosystem service is bought by a buyer from a service provider if and only if the provider secures its provision, called conditionality (Engel et al., 2008, pp. 664).

Social Ecological Systems (SES) are systems that involve both natural/ecological and human/social components that interact to affect system dynamics (Adaptive institutions in social-ecological systems governance: A synthesis framework (Koontz et al., 2015)

We’ll expand this list in weeks to come so check back for new entries.