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A sustainability framework for assessing trade-offs in ecosystem services

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota; Institute on Environment, University of Minnesota
Stephen Polasky, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota; Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota; Institute on Environment, University of Minnesota
Elizabeth King, Biological Sciences, Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia; Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia
Patricia Balvanera, Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


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Achieving sustainability, i.e., meeting the needs of current populations without compromising the needs of future generations, is the major challenge facing global society in the 21st century. Navigating the inherent trade-offs between provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting ecosystem services, and doing so in a way that does not compromise natural capital needed to provide services in the future, is critical for sustainable resource management. Here we build upon existing literature, primarily from economics and ecology, to present an analytical framework that integrates (1) the ecological mechanisms that underpin ecosystem services, (2) biophysical trade-offs and inherent limits that constrain management options, (3) preferences and values of stakeholders, and (4) explicit analysis of how systems evolve through time to ensure the goal of meeting the needs of future generations. Well-known ecological models define the relationships and trade-offs among services that represents an "efficiency frontier." Well-known methods in economics that combine preferences that define the willingness of stakeholders to trade off ecosystem services on the efficiency frontiers illuminate desirable outcomes that meet human needs. System dynamics show how the system will evolve with consequent impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being and the effects this has on achieving sustainability. Heterogeneity in biophysical constraints, uncertainty, technological advances, and obstacles imposed by societal factors and governance regimes influence potential and realized ecosystem services. Using a set of contrasting scenarios, we illustrate how progress can be made toward sustainability and the important obstacles that must be addressed in doing so. Our framework for analyzing sustainability drawn from economics and ecology is intended to make an integration of concepts from both disciplines accessible to a wider audience.

Key words

dynamics; ecosystem services; efficiency frontier; management constraints; preferences; stakeholders; time lags; trade-offs

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087