Integrating the concept of “Ecosystem Services” into an ethical framework

Project Team

Anna Deplazes Zemp

Peter Schaber

Norman Backhaus

Owen Petchey

Pascal Niklaus

Benedikt Korf


This project aims at integrating the concept of Ecosystem Services (ES) into an ethical framework of environmental responsibilities. With this approach we want to mediate between proponents of ES, who emphasize the practical advantages of this model and opponents of the ES concept who criticize its utilitarian foundation and the bias towards human needs. A particular emphasis will be set on the concept of cultural ES because of its focus on the relation between humans and nature, which seems to include an understanding of environmental responsibilities although they are usually not explicitly mentioned.


The ES concept is becoming increasingly influential not only in the socio-economic discussion of environmental changes but also in environmental policy and science. However, the concept also receives criticism, for instance, (but not exclusively) from environmental ethicists. It has been criticized for its utilitarian anthropocentrism, the fact that it is only concerned with benefits for humans and is based on an understanding of nature as a commodity.[1] This critique is somewhat in tension with the original pedagogic rational behind the ES concept, which was to explain how nature and biodiversity in particular contribute to human well-being.[2]

This project connects the ES concept to another understanding of the human-nature relationship, namely that humans have responsibilities for the environment. In doing so, it addresses the criticism of a biased view of the human-nature relationship behind the ES concept. Moreover, we think such an approach will support the original pedagogic rationale for the introduction of the concept. 

Based on evidence in the literature and interactions with our URPP GCB colleagues the project will also explore two empirical working hypothesis. The first hypothesis suggests that environmental responsibilities already play an implicit role in cultural ES. The second hypothesis is that humans also contribute to important ES for other species, such a role could be considered in the discussion of environmental responsibilities.

Research on this project will take place in three chronologically overlapping phases. 1) A theoretical framework integrating the ES concept into a wider concept of environmental responsibilities; 2) A particular focus on cultural ES; and 3) An analysis of a potential role of humans in ES which are relevant for other species.

  1. Integration of the ES concept into a wider framework of environmental responsibilities

The idea of environmental responsibilities is not as clearly defined and elaborated as the ES concept. It is often not explicitly defined but lies behind our commitment to protect nature and prevent further environmental degradation, global change and loss of biodiversity. The most straightforward connection between the ES concepts and environmental responsibilities is to argue that we have a responsibility towards future generations to make sure that they will also be able to profit from ES. However, drawing from different ethical approaches we will try to establish a wider framework of environmental responsibilities that integrates but is not limited to the idea of ES. Such approaches can include virtue ethical models in environmental ethics[3] or models that refer to a particular human-nature relationship.[4] Moreover ethical interpretations of the concept of sustainability could be an interesting starting point.[5]

  1. Cultural ecosystem services

Cultural ecosystem services have been defined as: “Ecosystems’ contributions to the non-material benefits (e.g. capabilities and experiences) that arise from human-ecosystem relationships”.[6] This definition is particularly interesting because it focuses on relationships. From the point of view of ecosystem services humans are perceived as beneficiaries of this relationship. Our working hypothesis suggests that the idea of environmental responsibilities would convey another perspective on these human-ecosystem relationships, which focuses on a human role to protect ecosystems.

3. Human contribution to ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are defined as services provided by the ecosystems to humans. However, as members of certain types of ecosystems humans also contribute to important ecosystem services for other species. We will explore the potential of such an inversed conceptualization of ecosystem services for the idea of environmental responsibilities.

[1] A. Vatn (2000): The Enviornment as a Commodity, in: Environmental Values 9 493-509; D.J. McCauley (2006): Selling out on nature, in: nature 443 (7) 27-18; S. Jackson, L.R. Palmer (2015): Reconceptualizing ecosystem services: Possibilities for cultivating and valuing the ethics and practices of care, in: Progress in Human Geography 39 (2) 122.145

[2] M.J. Peterson, D.M.Hall, A.M. Feldpausch-Parker, T.R.Peterson (2009): Obscuring Ecosystem Function with Application oft he Ecosystem Services Concept, in: Conservation Biology 24 (1) 113-119; E. Goméz-Baggathun, R. de Groot, P.L. Lomas, C. Montes (2010): The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to marktes and payment schemes, in: Ecological Economics 69 1209-1218

[3] e.g: R. Sandler (2007): Character and environment, a virtue-oriented approach to environmental ethics, Columbia University Press

[4] e.g. J. O’Neill, A. Holland, A. Light (2008): Environmental Values, Routledge

[5] e.g. B. Norton (1992): Sustainability, Human Welfare, and Ecosystem Health, in: Environmental Values 1 (2) 97-111

[6] K.M.A. Chan, T. Satterfield, J. Goldstein (2012): Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values, in: Ecological Economics 74 8-18