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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

sun setting in a wetland
A wetland in Wisconsin. Wetlands provide many ecosystem services including flood mitigation and water quality maintenance. Credit: John Westrock

The natural world provides humans with critical goods and services, such as clean air, water, and healthy soils. Called ecosystem services, these activities are important to our survival and wellbeing, but their value can be hard to measure.

In 1997, an NCEAS working group published a seminal paper in the journal Nature that, for the first time, calculated the total monetary value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. By economically accounting for ecosystem services, their study opened the door for giving these natural benefits more weight in policy decisions.

The working group found that, every year, the world’s diverse ecosystems combined produce an average of $33 trillion USD worth of ecosystem services. For context, worldwide gross national product in 1997 was around $18 trillion USD.

“[The Costanza et al. paper] jump-started a great deal of economics research to develop and refine more robust methodologies for valuing ecosystem services,” said James Salzman, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and leading researcher in the realm of payments for ecosystem services.

The working group’s findings strongly challenged then-prevailing approaches and attitudes about the value of the environment within the field of economics, which had traditionally assigned value to natural resources in an extractive context. The paper remains among the most top-cited publications in ecology to date.