Tradeoffs in Managing the Flows of Ecosystem Services

Biophysical constraints on human activities, such as limited supplies of energy, land, and water, typically manifest themselves as tradeoffs between different uses. Thus, managing ecosystem services involves difficult ethical and political decisions about which services to develop and how to do so. At local scales, allocation of limited resources to alternative activities typically involves a zero-sum game, illustrated by the widespread redirection of water from agriculture to urban and industrial purposes. At global scales, different groups of people compete for use of Earth's open-access resources and waste sinks, such as the atmosphere's capacity to absorb CO2 and other greenhouse gases without inducing climate change.

Making informed decisions about how to use ecosystem goods and services hinges on understanding these tradeoffs: knowing the joint products - the suite and level of services - that ecosystems can provide. For example, an ecosystem managed exclusively for agriculture may yield a greater return on agricultural products than one managed for multiple services, but understanding that diversified management may produce greater overall returns could influence management decisions (Figure 1).

Provision of biodiversity is one supporting service that has historically been discounted when managing for other ecosystem services. Biodiversity, however, can provide irreplaceable benefits. Genetic diversity, for example, allows for both the survival and evolution of the ecosystems we depend on for myriad benefits. Recent research indicates that diverse systems are more resilient, and therefore provide ecosystem services more reliably in the long term, than monocultures. While under optimal conditions managing for a single species may provide superior timber supplies or nutrient sequestration, given natural and human-caused variability in temperature, rainfall, and other environmental factors, managing for a diverse system will more consistently provide services in an uncertain world.

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