torstai 26. kesäkuuta 2014

Under the skin: Ecosystem services, habits and human health

The Finnish Cultural Foundation has an Argumenta funding mechanism. The purpose of it is to stimulate dialogue between scientific communities on those matters that might have high scientific and societal potential but whose scientific and societal significance has not yet been thoroughly understood.

Ecosystem services and human health” is one of the most recent Argumenta projects. The project aims to (i) identify the linkages between ecosystem services and human health, (ii) create new multidisciplinary approaches to study ecosystem services and human health and well-being, and (iii) to help implement scientific results and insights into the practices of urban planning and decision making in natural resource management.

Some twenty years ago ecosystem heath was a proposed metaphor for environmental management and biodiversity policy. A healthy ecosystem is resistant, resilient and adaptable. The idea was then, and still is now, that biodiversity and its healthy functioning support human wellbeing and health. Perhaps because of its anthropogenic flavor, the metaphor was swiftly replaced by that of ecosystem resilience.

But the important message was, and still is, that the functional consequences of biodiversity matter. These functional consequences have been conceptualized in many ways. They have been called supporting and regulating ecosystem services and primary ecological values.

Function is the causal antecedent to the end (Deacon 2012, 38-39). Therefore, equally importantly, the functional consequences of biodiversity extend to people and their wellbeing and health. Human communities and societies built their livelihoods and wellbeing on ecosystem functioning. The ends are co-constitutive. This is exactly why the conception social-ecological is used in ecological economics.

The human significance of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning extends beyond cultural and provisioning ecosystem services. Of course recreational opportunities, beautiful landscapes, medical plants and the edible goods from ecosystems are important in creating and sustaining human wellbeing.

But biodiversity has functional consequences that contribute even more thoroughly to the human social-ecological capacity for resistance, resilience and adaptability in the face of environmental changes. The argument of the Argumenta Project Ecosystem services and human health is to communicate to a wider scientific community, policy-makers and the public the idea of human health as an ecosystem service.

A co-leader of the Argumenta project, Professor Liisa Tyrväinen, suggests that even short-term - 20 minute - visits to nature areas have positive effects on perceived stress relief compared to the built-up environment. Tyrväinen et al (2014, 8) conclude their study:

“… the managed urban parks with old trees and natural views and the urban woodland were perceived as more coherent and were better environments for restoration and for having feelings of vitality and creativity. The results of our experiment suggest that the large urban parks (more than 5 ha) and large urban woodlands have positive well-being effects on urban inhabitants, and in particular for healthy middle-aged women. The results suggest that spending time in urban green areas after work has stress-reducing effects. This means that urban parks and woodlands should be easily accessible for residents.”

It is important that citizens have an access to nature. The urban planning of cities and the planning of everyday life on the individual level should, according to the most recent findings (see references in Tyrväinen et al 2014) provide a diverse set of entry points into nature.

But besides this “possibility to visit nature” -aspect there is another and even more crucial aspect to the health effects of biodiversity. According to recent research conducted on both the Finnish and Russian side of Karelia, people should not only have entry points to visit nature, but should in a habitual manner transact with biodiversity as part of their everyday life.

Professor Ilkka Hanski and his colleagues (2012) found out that in the Karelia area, northeastern Finland, biodiversity, human skin microbiome, and atopic allergy are interrelated. One of the authors, Professor Tari Haahtela, (2014, 21) explains the meaning of the results:

“More and more people around the world are living in cities and experiencing little contact with nature. Environmental microorganisms, especially commensals, previously ubiquitous and abundantly present, for example, in drinking water and milk, are key players for the induction and maintenance of immunoregulatory circuits and tolerance. Adaptation to modern urban life is a challenge to immune development and mismatched immunologic mechanisms lead to symptoms and disease. Contact with natural environments rich in species seems to be strongly related to immunotolerance via the presence of beneficial protective microbes of the skin, gut, and airways. These microbes create a living interface between human body and the environment and extend deeper in the tissue than known before.”

He (2014, 22) continues:

“Humans have evolved with microorganisms, which may not only comprise bacteria and fungi, but also viruses and microscopic protozoans, although hardly any data on the latter are available. Human commensals are no longer considered as passive bystanders or transient passengers, but increasingly as active and essential participants in the development and maintenance of barrier function and immunologic tolerance.”

“Inflammation is a cardinal feature of asthma and allergic diseases, autoimmune diseases, and many forms of cancer, but more recently, less tangible associations have been linked to these trends such as an increased incidence of obesity and depression with inflammatory markers... Also autism and Alzheimer disease have been associated with microbial deprivation.”

And (2014, 23) concludes:

“Population growth (urbanization) leads to loss of biodiversity (poor macrobiota/microbiota), poor human microbiota (dysbiosis), immune dysfunction (poor tolerance), inappropriate inflammatory responses, and finally symptoms and clinical disease… The interplay of environmental genome (macrobiome), human microbial genome (microbiome), and human genome determines health and diseases. It is time to revisit the allergy paradigm and consider new kind of actions to combat the burden.”

Seen from this perspective, ecosystem services are not benefits that flow from the environment to humans. Ecosystems and their services are part of human life, i.e. human life is constituted and sustained by the functional consequences of biodiversity. Ecosystem services happen inside and outside the human body. According to the findings of Hanski and Haahtela, ecosystem services happen in the human microbial genome, in the microbiome, on the skin and in mucous membranes.

Healthy human life is constituted by transactions with biodiversity and nature. This is a true extension to the meaning of the concept of ecosystem services.

The question is how to modify habits and living environments in such a way that human contact with nature becomes constant and diverse. Indeed, this is a matter of individual reflection and self-creation but equally importantly it is a matter of land use planning and environmental policy. The question is then how to bring agricultural action-oriented countryside into the everyday life of urban city dwellers, and how to nudge the habits of feeling and mind of urban city dwellers to consider that kind of living is worthwhile to test and experiment with.

To produce multidisciplinary knowledge, support transdisciplinary experiments and provide real-life political advice on ecosystem services and human health is one of the key tasks of ecological economics in the decades to come.

Juha Hiedanpää, ESEE (European Society for Ecological Economics), Newsletter, Hot Topic, Summer 2014.


Deacon. T. 2012. Incomplete nature: How mind emerged from matter. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.

Haahtela T. What is needed for allergic children? Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2014: 25: 21–24.

Hanski I., von Hertzen L., Fyhrquistc N. et al. (2012) Environmental biodiversity, human microbiota, and allergy are interrelated. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012: 109: 8334–9.

Tyrväinen, L., Ojala, A., Korpela, K., Lanki, T., Tsunetsugud, Y., Kagawa, T. (2014) The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology 38: 1–9.