Lackey, R.T. 2001. Values, policy and ecosystem health. BioScience 51(6)437-443.
Ecosystem health is advocated widely as a useful, perhaps essential, concept in ecological policy. The concept enjoys an extensive following, especially in the popular media and with advocacy groups. Part of its appeal is that it appears to be a simple, straightforward, intuitive metaphor. Applying the notion of human health to ecosystems provides a paradigm for viewing ecological policy questions. By implication, adopting the metaphor also defines what types of scientific information are necessary to help decision makers. Adopting ecosystem health as a public policy goal, however, could have major, although usually unclear, ramifications. Ecosystem health, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was defined in nebulous terms — definitely not as a clearly articulated policy-making construct. It was typically depicted as a broad societal aspiration rather than a precise policy goal or management target. Lacking precise definition, it was difficult to consider the concept as a practical public policy goal. As the concept emerged from semantic ambiguity with more precise definition and description, it became a serious topic for discussion and, predictably, a lightning rod for conflict. At the core of the debate over ecosystem health are a number of implicit, but highly contested, value-based assumptions that masquerade as science. Such value-based assumptions imply a policy preference. Such "science" is often dubbed normative science. Science becomes normative when results are interpreted through the filter of an assumption that defines an inherent policy preference. Many examples of normative science are obvious: others are subtle. The ecological policy concerns that engender widespread debate over ecosystem health and other normative constructs will not disappear. These concerns need to be addressed because of the increasing demand on limited ecological resources. The resolution of ecological policy is likely to become increasingly challenging because interactions among the planet, the non-human occupants, and the large, yet expanding, human population, constitute a dynamic system of rapidly increasingly complexity. Whether or not one finds intellectual sustenance in the notion of ecosystem health, the policy concerns its proponents attempt to confront are genuine.