In 1973 the Oxford-based economist and statistician E.F. Schumacher introduced the concept of ‘natural capital’, arguing that natural resources should be viewed as capital rather than expendable income merely to be consumed. It evolved along with the US version of ‘environmental services’ into ‘ecosystem services’ – acknowledging that nature provides valuable goods and services to society.
The concept gained wider recognition with the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched in 2001. It was divided into provisioning services (such as food or freshwater), regulatory services (such as flood reduction and water purification), cultural services (such as leisure and inspiration) and supporting services (such as soil formation and nutrient cycling). The assessment concluded that most ecosystem services declined in the last half of the 20th century, while only four services improved: crops, livestock, aquaculture and carbon removal.
Over the last decade researchers have promoted the concept of ecosystem services and studied how it could improve environmental management, raising policymakers’ awareness of the value of ecosystem services. One of the major initiatives, the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) research programme which is part-funded by the ESRC, is exploring the services ecosystems provide and how they relate to sustainable growth and the political economy.