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Unpacking Pandora’s Box: Understanding and Categorising Ecosystem Disservices for Environmental Management and Human Wellbeing

Abstract

Research into the benefits that ecosystems contribute to human wellbeing has multiplied over the last few years following from the seminal contributions of the international Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. In comparison, the fact that some ecosystem goods and services undermine or harm human wellbeing has been seriously overlooked. These negative impacts have become known as ecosystem disservices. The neglect of ecosystem disservices is problematic because investments into the management or reduction of ecosystem disservices may yield better outcomes for human wellbeing, or at a lower investment, than management of ecosystem services. Additionally, management to optimise specific ecosystem services may simultaneously exacerbate associated disservices. We posit that one reason for the neglect of ecosystem disservices from the discourse and policy debates around ecosystems and human wellbeing is because there is no widely accepted definition or typology of ecosystem disservices. Here, we briefly examine current understandings of the term ecosystem disservices and offer a definition and a working typology to help generate debate, policy and management options around ecosystem disservices. We differentiate ecosystem disservices from natural hazards and social hazards, consider some of their inherent properties and then classify them into six categories. A variety of examples are used to illustrate the different types of, and management strategies to, ecosystem disservices.

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Acknowledgements

This work was sponsored by the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Dept of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Any opinion, finding, conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the authors and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard. We are grateful for comments on an earlier draft of this paper by Patrick O’Farrell and two very probing anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to C. M. Shackleton.

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CMS conceived of the paper and led the discussions and writing of the paper; all others attended the discussion workshop and co-wrote the paper.

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Shackleton, C.M., Ruwanza, S., Sinasson Sanni, G.K. et al. Unpacking Pandora’s Box: Understanding and Categorising Ecosystem Disservices for Environmental Management and Human Wellbeing. Ecosystems 19, 587–600 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9952-z

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Keywords

  • definition
  • ecosystems disservices
  • management
  • typology