Fusing ecology and economics- what are the next steps?

Our society is facing significant challenges in the 21st century including increasing levels of resource use, environmental impacts, threats to food, water and energy security and various social and economic issues (e.g. conflicts, migration and unequal distribution of wealth).  Ecological Economics has made a significant contribution to our understanding of ecological, social and economic systems for the mutual well-being of nature and people. In 2015- what have we have learnt and where do we need to focus our interdisciplinary efforts?

What is Ecological Economics? 

Ecological economics is the study of the relationship between human housekeeping (economics) and nature’s housekeeping. Put in another way, it is about the interactions between economic and ecological systems.  Ecological Economics explores the value of nature (ecosystem services and natural capital), natural resource management, environmental quality, human health and wellbeing and how we can achieve change.  Ecological economics acknowledges that a healthy economy can only exist in symbiosis with a healthy ecology.

Why is it an important emerging field?

An understanding of ecological economics is vital to tackling the challenges of the 21st century.  Many of these challenges are highly complex and we need a correspondingly complex and diverse range of tools and insights from a variety of disciplines.  Ecological economics aims to achieve this by bringing together insights and tools from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities and therefore seeks to promote a truly transdisciplinary approach.  The study of ecological economics will help to shine a light on the interdependency between economic activity and our natural environment and will aid in the development of policies and options that prioritise our environment, societal health and wellbeing.

A fusion of economics and ecology is required to properly measure and capture the value of biodiversity” (Barry Gardiner MP, 2012). 

On 30th June- 3rd July, the University of Leeds hosted the 11th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE). The theme of the conference was ‘Transformations’ and explored how we can use ecological economics to achieve global sustainability. The conference brought together academics and practitioners from across the globe in order to disseminate best practice, foster research collaborations and to provide training for early-career researchers.

What have we learnt so far and what are the gaps?

Here we present key reflections and research gaps from the ESEE conference, with particular focus on natural capital and ecosystem services (one of the BES’s policy priorities).

(1) Monetary values are not the be all and end all

It is common to focus on the monetary values provided by our environment, for example the provision of food and the value of tourism. Economic approaches have significant traction and have been very popular with policy-makers.

However, it was a clear message at the ESEE conference that monetary valuations are not the be all and end all. They have significant limitations and on their own they cannot fully reflect the value of ecosystem services.    

(2) A Mixed method approach is the way forward

As illustrated previously by the UK NEA follow-on phase, we need to increasingly combine monetary and non-monetary, deliberative and interpretive methods.

This will:

– Provide a more comprehensive valuation of ecosystem services

– Illustrate complexities of the socio-ecological system and focus management.



(3) Cultural ecosystem services are gaining momentum…. but they are still frequently overlooked in decision making

Cultural ecosystem services (CES)

“The contributions ecosystems make to human well-being in terms of identities they help frame, the experiences they help enable and the capabilities they help equip” (Dr Rob Fish). 

The ESEE 2015 hosted a special session on Cultural Ecosystem Services (‘Cultural Ecosystem Services: Frontiers in theory and practice).   This session highlighted the range of methods that have been used to capture cultural value and also the diversity of case studies to date.

David Edwards: Beautiful images and quotes from arts-science collaboration on cultural ES @ForestryCommEng #ESEE2015 pic.twitter.com/Hp7zcXGrDS

Vineyard landscapes


However they are still frequently overlooked in decision making, potentially due to existing barriers and challenges:



(4) But Environment agencies ARE taking account of ecosystem services

Environment agencies are engaging with the ecosystem approach and the identification of ecosystem services across the devolved administrations. They are even taking account of the less visible and more challenging values-  for example cultural ecosystem services (CES).

Representatives from Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and the Forestry Commission presented the two approaches they have adopted to take account of cultural ecosystem services (CES)

(a) By incorporating and translating CES into existing management and planning processes and practices.

The Forestry Commission and Natural England are primarily taken this approach and presented a range of examples.

Forestry Commission:

– A team has been focusing on CES, in the context of the use and enjoyment of woodlands, green infrastructure and cultural heritage and landscape.

– Land management projects such as Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme (LPS) bring together stakeholders (e.g. Blackdown Hills in South West England) and have provided a successful approach to understanding CES.

Natural England

– Natural England created ‘upland ecosystem service pilots’ in order to test the Ecosystem approach on the ground and have developed a methodology for implementing it.

– The project used a range of national and local data to identify CES and demonstrated that investment in the natural environment can result in multiple benefits for wildlife, people and society in a cost effective way (see report for more information).

– Overall the work helped to make the link between changes in land management and service provision, and involved local people in decision making.

(b) By Developing and trialling new methods based on the Ecosystem Approach.

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) have primarily taken this approach and have adopted a new Natural Resource Management Planning based on an Ecosystem Approach.

– Natural resource management trials have been set up in three catchments (Dyfi, Rhondda and Tawe) and will test all aspects of the Ecosystem Approach (including the integration of CES into delivery).

– The trials will draw on previous work on CES (g. NEA follow on projects) and will work out how to fully take the ‘theory into practice’.

However, future work is still required to ensure that the concept of cultural ecosystem services is resonating with ministers. Do we need to tackle the issue of scale?

(5) We need to advance our understanding of the importance and value of the environment to human health and wellbeing

Progress in the UK has long been measured by GDP and other economic metrics such as employment rate. However to get a fuller picture of the health of society and its pathway to sustainable development, we need more attempts to measure and quantify the well-being of citizens. Many sustainable development indicators are particularly relevant to well-being, highlighting how integral it is already to sustainable development.

Dr Jasper Kenter presented his recent study which captured environmental effects on subjective well-being. The study found a correlation between subjective wellbeing and the number of species of conservation concern in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Scotland.

However, all in all, there is a marked lack of evidence. Future research is needed to significantly advance our understanding of the importance and value of the environment for human health and wellbeing. This will help to make steps towards turning this understanding into metrics that policy-makers can use to ensure the benefits are available for current and future generations to enjoy. Overall, this will help to inform policy, planning and the management of our environment.

BES and Natural Capital

‘Natural Capital’ is one of the BES’s six policy areas, complementing the overarching priorities of promoting scientific evidence in policy-making and fostering interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange. The BES is part of the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI), a partnership between the British Ecological Society, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute. The NCI aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science. The NCI aim to do this by: (1) initiating and facilitating dialogue between people from academia, policy, business and civil society and (2) communicating independent, authoritative synthesis and evaluation of the scientific evidence base.

Click here for further information about the NCI, upcoming events and how to get involved.