Culture, Values & Ecosystem Services

Understanding the social dimensions of ecological change for decision-making

CHAN’s lab Researchers: Kai Chan, Sarah KlainJordan Levine, and Jordan Tam

When human actions and activities cause ecological change, there are frequently indirect impacts and ripple effects throughout ecological and social subsystems. Such impacts receive unpredictable attention in decision-making.

Such ecosystem-mediated impacts on human well-being are beginning to receive attention, though, through the concept of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are processes by which people benefit from ecosystems.  Ecosystem services are gaining traction in circles of research and practice including ecosystem-based management, natural resource management, and environmental protection including conservation biology. Together, they represent a framework for understanding the ways that ecological change may change what matters to people. Within the broader concept, the category of ‘cultural ecosystem services’, which are the non-material benefits associated with ecosystems, has received far less attention.

Photo: Tim Ennis

Our culture and ecosystem services research project seeks to understand the social and cultural changes that are mediated through ecosystems. Together with a group of brilliant collaborators from diverse perspectives, we seek to better understand the ways in which ecological change affects people in non-material ways, and the implications of this for ecosystem-related decision-making and ecosystem services research. We are also investigating how the ecosystem services concept might enable or impede this understanding.

Klain Boat Reflection

Photo: Sarah Klain

We developed pilot sites in Hawai’i and Northern Vancouver Island where we tested a cultural ecosystem services interview protocol. During these interviews, participants were asked to reflect on ways in which ecosystems are connected to their livelihoods as well as various social and cultural values.

Using maps, we asked people to identify locations linked to these values and areas facing environmental threats. Our research outputs catalogue both the income-related and non-monetary ways in which ecosystems are important to people. Our methods excelled at enabling participants to articulate the diverse and in some cases profound ways in which ecosystems contribute to human well-being. We hope such information can help integrate local perspectives on ecosystem services into decision-making.


Chan, K.M.A., Satterfield, T., and Goldstein, J.  Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values.  Ecological Economics 74: 8-18, 2012.

Klain, S.C. and Chan, K.M.A.  Navigating coastal values: Participatory mapping of ecosystem services for spatial planning.  Ecological Economics 82: 104-113, 2012.

Chan, K.M.A. et al.  Where are cultural and social in ecosystem services? A framework for constructive engagement.  BioScience 62(8): 744-756, 2012


This work is funded by a variety of sources, especially the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (with Anne Guerry), the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (with Terre Satterfield, IRES, UBC), the Hampton Fund (with Terre Satterfield), the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).