How nature contributes to wellbeing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom Department of Conservation, New Zealand

What do we need for a ‘good life’? At one level, the answer to this question will differ for each person. Yet, we all share a common set of needs that must be met for us to experience wellbeing. Understanding those needs and the crucial contribution of nature’s services in enabling us to meet them is the subject of a new report in the (New Zealand) Department of Conservation’s series of Science & Technical publications.

The report brings together research on wellbeing and research on ecosystem services, focusing on the services that come from ecosystems in New Zealand but widely applicable throughout the world and very appropriate as the Channel Islands look to a ‘greener’ future.

Pyrenees 8-2012 HGYoung (200)There has been an upsurge in research on ecosystem services in the last 20 years, including detailed research and discussion about how to classify and categorise the types of ecosystem services that contribute to wellbeing, and numerous studies attempting to determine the monetary value of various ecosystem services. However, the question of how to categorise and understand the types or aspects of wellbeing that ecosystem services may contribute to has not been explored to anywhere near the same extent. This may be because the impetus for studying ecosystem services has come from ecologists and economists, rather than from social scientists. To date, much of the work has focused on the supply of ecosystem services and the demands for these services, both marketed and non-marketed. However, there has been little focus on what is driving our demand for ecosystem services – a desire for enhanced wellbeing.

What are ecosystem services?

‘Ecosystem services’ can most simply be defined as the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. Ecosystems are widely considered to provide four categories of services: supporting (e.g. nutrient cycling, soil formation and primary production); provisioning (e.g. food, fresh water, wood, fibre and fuel); regulating (e.g. climate regulation, flood and disease regulation, and water purification); and cultural (aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational).

What is wellbeing?

IMG_1730Wellbeing can be defined as a good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity. The last 20 years have seen a significant increase in research on wellbeing. Some of this research has focused on happiness, looking at the different contributors to happiness and how its different aspects can be measured. Researchers and governments have been exploring how best to measure whether the wellbeing of a nation is improving.

The conclusion?

The ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity and natural ecosystems contribute in a wide variety of ways to wellbeing. They not only provide many of our basic needs and enhance our safety; they also breathe the fundamental essence into what it means to be a human. Some people appear to be highly aware (either consciously or intuitively) that their own wellbeing is linked to the health of the indigenous biodiversity that delivers so many of these services, and are actively participating in restoration projects around the country. However, many others appear to be unaware of these connections. The ecosystem services concept has proven to be an invaluable tool internationally and in New Zealand for communicating our dependence on ecosystem services, and is leading to improved policy and practice.

We look forward to its increased use, greatly increased research to support its use, and the incorporation of ecosystem services as a key component in engagement across the community and in education at all levels. However, a clearer understanding of the main contributors to wellbeing, and the ways in which our choices can affect both the level of wellbeing and the level of environmental impact, is equally important.

We believe that fostering discussion, research and education on the different components of wellbeing (e.g. what really does make us happy?) will broaden understanding of the many factors that contribute to personal and national wellbeing, including a greater awareness of the irreplaceable contribution of ecosystem services. We will not only improve our own wellbeing and that of supporting ecosystems, but will also enhance the opportunity for our grandchildren and others on the planet to meet their basic needs and enjoy ‘the good life’.

Download the full report The nature of wellbeing: how nature’s ecosystem services contribute to the wellbeing of New Zealand and New Zealanders here