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Ecosystem health

Ecosystem health is a metaphor used to describe the condition of an ecosystem. Ecosystem condition can vary as a result of fire, flooding, drought, extinctions, invasive species, climate change, mining, overexploitation in fishing, farming or logging, chemical spills, and a host of other reasons. There is no universally accepted benchmark for a healthy ecosystem, rather the apparent health status of an ecosystem can vary depending upon which health metrics are employed in judging it and which societal aspirations are driving the assessment. Advocates of the health metaphor argue for its simplicity as a communication tool. “Policy-makers and the public need simple, understandable concepts like health.” Critics worry that ecosystem health, a “value-laden construct,” is often “passed off as science to unsuspecting policy makers and the public.”

The health metaphor applied to the environment has been in use at least since the early 1800s and the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) spoke metaphorically of land health, land sickness, mutilation, and violence when describing land use practices. The term “ecosystem management” has been in use at least since the 1950s. The term “ecosystem health” has become widespread in the ecological literature, as a general metaphor meaning something good, and as an environmental quality goal in field assessments of rivers, lakes, seas, and forests.

The term ecosystem health has been employed to embrace some suite of environmental goals deemed desirable. Edward Grumbine’s highly cited paper “What is ecosystem management?” surveyed ecosystem management and ecosystem health literature and summarized frequently encountered goal statements:

Grumbine describes each of these goals as a “value statement” and stresses the role of human values in setting ecosystem management goals.

It is the last goal mentioned in the survey, accommodating humans, that is most contentious. “We have observed that when groups of stakeholders work to define … visions, this leads to debate over whether to emphasize ecosystem health or human well-being … Whether the priority is ecosystems or people greatly influences stakeholders’ assessment of desirable ecological and social states.” and, for example, “For some, wolves are critical to ecosystem health and an essential part of nature, for others they are a symbol of government overreach threatening their livelihoods and cultural values.”

  • Conserving viable populations of native species
  • Conserving ecosystem diversity
  • Maintaining evolutionary and ecological processes
  • Managing over long time frames to maintain evolutionary potential
  • Accommodating human use and occupancy within these constraints
  • Ecosystem health is in the eye of the beholder. It is an economic, political or ethical judgement rather than a scientific measure of environmental quality. Health ratings are shaped by the goals and preferences of environmental stakeholders. "At the core of debates over the utility of ecosystem health is a struggle over which societal preferences will take precedence."
  • Health is a metaphor, not a property of an ecosystem. Health is an abstraction. It implies “good,” an optimum condition, but in nature ecosystems are ever-changing transitory assemblages with no identifiable optimum.
  • Use of human health and well-being as a criterion of ecosystem health introduces an arrogance and a conflict of interest into environmental assessment, as human population growth has caused much environmental damage.
  • Ecosystem health masquerades as an operational goal because environmental managers "may be reluctant to define their goals clearly.”
  • It is a vague concept. “Currently there are many, often contradictory, definitions of ecosystem health,” that “are open to so much abuse and misuse that they represent a threat to the environment.”
  • “There are in general no clear definitions of what proponents of the concept mean by ‘ecosystem’.”
  • The public can be deceived by the term ecosystem health which may camouflage the ramifications of a policy goal and be employed to pejoratively rank policy choices. "The most pervasive misuse of ecosystem health and similar normative notions is insertion of personal values under the guise of 'scientific' impartiality."


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