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Linking Nature to Human Wellbeing

After 6-plus years of working to incorporate nature's values into decisions that impact the environment and human wellbeing, NatCap has learned a few things from our field tests about what works (and what doesn't), when it comes to changing decisions and improving outcomes on the ground. Compiling our work with partners in over 20 sites around the world, we summarize the lessons we learned in a new paper in Ecological Economics.

Lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions



NatCap was formed in 2006 under the premise that ecosystem service information can be used to inform decisions and improve the wellbeing of both people and nature. There have been rapid advances and uptake of accounting for ecosystem services in decisions, but one of the major challenges remains how to move from scientific knowledge to real-world decision making. 


Perhaps the most significant lessons we have learned in our 20+ engagements in decisions around the world are the importance of building trust with decision makers, the need to co-produce results with partners who will use them, and the necessity of training locals to take ownership of the science as the science-policy processes continue. The central lessons we learned in incorporating biodiversity and ecosystem service (BES) science into real-world decision making include:


Include biodiversity and ecosystem service information as part of an iterative science-policy process

An interactive science-policy process involving scientists, local experts, stakeholders, and decision makers to produce results enhances the credibility, salience, and legitimacy of biodiversity and ecosystem service information used in real-world decisions that impact the environment and human wellbeing. 


Keep it simple (for now)

Decision makers typically ask for simple, easy-to-use models and understandable decision support tools that can be readily incorporated in the science-policy process. Even the simplest models we originally conceived did not go far enough in being accessible and understandable to our partners.


Empower local experts with the tools and knowledge to run the process 

Generating assessments with more participation and leadership by local governments and universities, particularly early on in the analysis, can create more buy-in and ownership of the results so that policy change is more likely. Local scientists ultimately are best equipped to make adjustments and improvements and to carry the work forward, often in more interesting and promising directions than outsiders.   


It's not always about the money 

Often what decision makers want is to understand how alternative decisions might affect where ecosystem service benefits are supplied and to whom they are delivered. In many cases, stakeholders have expressly asked that we not attach monetary values to key benefits, particularly ones they consider 'priceless,' such as existence values of endangered species or sacred places.


Relate ecosystem services to human wellbeing

In nearly all of our applications, partners request that we trace the consequences of ecosystem service change through to human wellbeing outcomes, particularly as it relates to livelihoods, poverty alleviation and human health. This is not easy, but it is critical.  More work in this area-by NatCap and others--is sorely needed to help guide policy and management interventions that address livelihoods and human health and wellbeing.


Clearly and honestly report the degree of uncertainty

Communicating uncertainty in results in ways that are useful and transparent remains challenging. The application of ecosystem service models requires many assumptions, and outputs typically have considerable variation associated with them. We have learned to be as clear as possible about this uncertainty, and to openly discuss the usefulness and limitations of ecosystem service models and the implications of using them to inform decisions. 

In our work to-date, we have already seen that significant strides can be made in informing decisions using an ecosystem services approach and simple, quantitative spatial tools. We see great potential for more widely incorporating ecosystem service information into a host of decision contexts, from spatial planning to permitting impact assessment and to payment for ecosystem service (PES) schemes. Decisions around climate adaptation planning and corporate risk management also offer exciting new opportunities to influence investments and development planning across the globe. Thanks to influential leaders in public and private institutions, the demand for ecosystem service science to inform policy processes continues to grow.


For more on lessons learned from incorporating biodiversity and ecosystem service science into real-world decisions, read the paper in Ecological Economics, or visit our website. 


Investing in Nature
NatCap recently gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on harnessing the power of software and science to help people make smart investments in nature. A big thank you to everyone who could make it--we were thrilled to have your support and hear your interesting questions. If you couldn't make it, you can still hear NatCap's Director Mary Ruckelshaus, Heather Tallis, former NatCapper and now lead scientist at TNC, and Rich Sharp, NatCap's lead software engineer, share stories about NCAR, hurricanes, and why the future hopes for using nature to improve our well being depends on innovative software-science collaborations by listening to the program online or downloading the podcast on itunes.
Recent  Press and Publications


Notes from the field: Lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions

Mary Ruckelhaus, Emily McKenzie, Anne Guerry, Gretchen Daily, Peter Kareiva, Stephen Polasky, Taylor Ricketts, Nirmal Bhagabati, Spencer A. Wood, Joanna Bernhardt

Ecological Economics, in press


Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being

Roly Russell, Anne D. Guerry, Patricia Balvanera, Rachelle K. Gould, Xavier Basurto, Kai M.A. Chan,Sarah Klain, Jordan Levine, Jordan Tam

Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Review in Advance first posted online on August 2, 2013.


Ecosystem Services: Recognizing the Inseparability of People and Nature
in: Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia 2nd Edition, Extinction

Anne Guerry

N. MacLeod, J.D. Archibald, and P.S Levin, eds.

Gale Cengage, 2013


Benefits, costs, and livelihood implications of a regional payment for ecosystem service program

Hua Zheng, Brian E. Robinson, Yi-Cheng Liang, Stephen Polasky, Dong-Chun Ma, Feng-Chun Wang, Mary Ruckelshaus, Zhi-Yun Ouyang, and Gretchen C. Daily

PNAS Article first published online: 27 AUG 2013


Forest bolsters bird abundance, pest control and coffee yield

Daniel S. Karp, Chase D. Mendenhall, Randi Figueroa Sandí, Nicolas Chaumont, Paul R. Ehrlich, Elizabeth A. Hadly, Gretchen C. Daily

Ecology Letters Published online before print September 3, 2013


Nutrient enrichment, biodiversity loss, and consequent declines in ecosystem productivity

Forest IsbellPeter B. ReichDavid TilmanSarah E. HobbieStephen Polasky, and Seth Binder 

PNAS | July 16, 2013 | vol. 110 | no. 29 | 11913

How to sell ecosystem services: a guide for designing new markets

Simanti Banerjee, Silvia Secchi, Joseph Fargione, Stephen Polasky, and Steven Kraft
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 297-304

Securing ocean benefits for society in the face of climate change 

M. Ruckelshaus, S.C. Doney, H.M. Galindo, J.P. BarryF. Chan, J.E. Duffy, C.A. English, S.D. GainesJ.M. Grebmeier, A.B. HollowedN. Knowlton, J. Polovina, N.N. RabalaisW.J. SydemanL.D. Talley
Marine Policy, Volume 40, July 2013, Pages 154-159


Nature May Protect Coast From Nature

PBS | Marisa Wong | August 28, 2013


A full list of news stories and publications available on our website. Access to full articles may require library access. 


Thank you for your continued interested in the Natural Capital Project. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at