Wrestling with vocabulary

During my PhD I am aiming to develop a method that can analyse the trade-offs in ecosystem services for the Welland Catchment under different scenarios of landscape change. It’s great to finally be under way! I’ve got a lot to get on with including brushing up on my ‘R’ skills and learning Python (eeek!).

Alongside these technical issues I’ve also resumed my tussle with the literature.  I’d made a good start on this when preparing the proposal for the project but I’ve recently focused on some new areas to explore.

An important debate around my project centres on the confusion amongst policy makers regarding what exactly is meant by natural capital, ecosystem functions and ecosystem services as well as how these terms are connected. Turner et al. (2016) deals with this well. A current obstacle to achieving human well-being in a sustainable way has been a lack of understanding of these terms (by the well intentioned) combined with a reluctance to accept and adpot them (by the less well intentioned (my opinion!)).

The MEA helped redress this, making the concepts mainstream; but there is still a great deal of confusion. Here is a neat little diagram effectively explaining the relationship between these tricky concepts, taken from Turner et al. (2016).

Microsoft Word - ManusECOLMOD2

First it will be useful to define these terms, which Turner et al. (2016) can help us with again:

Natural Capital – the natural world and its ecosystems. Anything that does not require human agency to produce or maintain

Social Capital – the societal networks and norms that facilitate co-operative action i.e. cultures, institutions and the economic system

Human Capital – individual peoples, including knowledge and information stored in our brains, our physical health and are ability to perform labour

Built Capital – manufactured goods, such as tools, as well as infrastructure such as roads and buildings

With these definitions in mind the connection between the different forms of capital and humanity’s well-being become clearer. Natural capital produces everything that humanity relies upon. This is why all other forms of capital are shown within the green circle. Ecosystem functions are the processes and mechanisms that keep natural capital ticking i.e. pollination, predation, decomposition, the carbon and nutrient cycles…

The benefits to humanity that natural capital and ecosystem functions produce are seen on the diagram as a capital flow and are termed ecosystem services. These interact with all other forms of capital flow to produce the benefits that natural capital provides us. Sustainability comes into the equation when you understand that the boundary around natural capital is a hard limit. Natural capital’s stock is finite and social capital cannot expand beyond these limits. Although natural capital has some ability to repair and regenerate itself, the ecosystem functions underpinning this ability are often fragile and not fully understood. When social capital functions within these bounds sustainability is a realistic objective.

Methods to assess how changes to policy and the landscape influence the capital flow of ecosystem services (such as the toolkit I am developing) will hopefully provide policy makers with better information in order to achieve more sustainable decisions.



Turner, K.G., Anderson, S., Gonzales-Chang, M., Costanza, R., Courville, S., Dalgaard, T., Dominati, E., Kubiszewski, I., Ogilvy, S., Porfirio, L., Ratna, N., Sandhu, H., Sutton, P.C., Svenning, J., Turner, G.M., Varennes, Y., Voinov, A. and Wratten, S. (eds.) (2016) A review of methods, data, and models to assess changes in the value of ecosystem services from land degradation and restoration. Ecological Modelling, 319, p. 190-207


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