Photo: USFWS/Ryan Hagarty

Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability

A recent paper by Abson et al (2014), reviews the scientific literature on ecosystem services between 1997 and 2011 and assess its relations to sustainability.

Using text analysis the authors find that the literature is quite fragmented into distinct research clusters that use different sets of concepts. This shows that research on ecosystem services is fragmented and does not have a common language. On one hand this diversity could be positive, but on the other hand the authors argue that integrated understanding of complex systems is needed in order to tackle today’s sustainability challenges. Problem-oriented research, such as the clusters focused on management, conservation and water, is better at integrating knowledge from different disciplines.

The authors also find that there is a lack of publications addressing normative and transformative knowledge. The typologies that they used were systems knowledge, normative knowledge and transformative knowledge, which all were seen as relevant for sustainability. While almost all publications used a vocabulary related to systems knowledge, there was a lack of publications addressing e.g. ethics and justice, education, communication, motivation and engagement, which were indicators of normative and transformative knowledge.

Another result that is not highlighted in the paper is that the use of ecosystem services as a buzzword, or in articles where the concept has a secondary focus, has increased a lot in recent years. Finally, Abson and colleagues call for ecosystem services research to engage also in normative and transformative knowledge generation, that is not only describing the systems, but also addressing what are “good” management goals and the transformation processes needed to reach them.

Joern Fischer (who leads the PECS-endorsed Landscape Futures project) is co-author on the paper, and has a great summary on the ideas4sustainability blogexternal link.

The full paper - D.J. Abson, H. von Wehrden, S. Baumgärtner, J. Fischer, J. Hanspach, W. Härdtle, H. Heinrichs, A.M. Klein, D.J. Lang, P. Martens, D. Walmsley, Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability, Ecological Economics, 103, p29-37 - can be found here: link


Ecological Economics 103, Volume 103, pp. 29-37


PECS - Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society

Stockholm Resilience Centre

Stockholm University
SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Visiting address: Kräftriket 2


The Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), is a new initiative jointly sponsored by ICSU and UNESCO. It aims to integrate research on the stewardship of social–ecological system and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.