Morning at the Westensee near Kiel
Ecosystem Health Student Pages

Ecosystem Health

Ecosystem Health is an integrative concept. It includes social, biological and health science as well as conceptual, historical, ethical and phiolosophical dimensions.

One of the many definitions of Ecosystem Health is, that Ecosystem Health “is oriented toward preserving the functions of ecosystems, even though the system may be considerably altered as a result of human domination”. Ecosystem Integrity compared to this is oriented toward the preservation of imfettered nature (David J. Rapport, 2003).

L. Westra gives another very simple definition saying that integrity includes ecosystem health but health does not include integrity.

After Karr and Chu (1999) Ecosystem Health is “the preferred state of ecosystems modified by human activity”.

What Ecosystem Health is about...
... A state of a community of organisms that interact with their environment
... Human health
... Sustainability
... The health of urban systems and their interrelations with other ecosystems (e.g. forests, grasslands etc.)
... The relationship between health of ecosystems and their integrity

The Concept of Health

The concept of health refers to the capacity of a system, which can be biological, social or mechanical, to perform normal functions. There exist a number of problems concerning the term “health” because it already implies value judgement. Meaning that somebody has to value whether we are talking about a healthy or an (already) unhealthy ecosystem. Certain things will therefore be valued on the expense of other things.

Applying the ‘health’-term to the ecosystem results in many criticism but to make the broader public understand one has to put human values as a basis for Ecosystem Health. The Human Society of the United States (HSUS) noticed for example that after applying human values like care, compassion, acknowledgement of the value of life etc. to their concept of animal protection and conservation programs, more than five-times more people became memebers than before.

Ecosystem Health and Political Power

In the 1970‘s and 1980‘s Ecosystem Health was defined in nebulous terms. Since the 1990‘s more precise definitions appeared. The concept became a serious topic of discussion also in political debates.

“Ecosystem health has the same emotional and intuitive appeal as words like justice, equality and freedom.” (J. Freemuth, 2003)

On the one hand, if the Ecosystem Health concept is used in an appropriate way it might link up democratic institutions and processes with economic and environmental quality. On the other hand, there exists the problem about defining it, which can be seen clearly at the beginning with three more or less different definitions. Not taking all definitions into account that do exist.

Example of a case study

The Prairie Ecosystem Study (PECOS)

Tarleton PrairieThe PECOS is an interdisciplinary study about the sustainability of the Canadian semiarid prairie ecosystem. It includes the health of the land and the well-being of the people.

During 1900 people used farm equipment and techniques that were not suitable for semiarid landscapes. They plowed too deep, so that in the end the soil was heavily eroded by wind and rainfall. At the beginning of the 20th century the people first noticed that the prairie ecosystem could not concidered to be healthy anymore. They started to include a summer fallow every 2-3 years, meaning letting a field lye fallow and tilling the weeds. This made soil erosion even worse.

Many of the farmers today use conservation tillage. Conservation tillage are all farming methods that protect the soil by maintaining a protective cover of crop residues or stubble from previous crops and use little or no tilling. Those methods maintain or enhance soil and ecosystem health.

by Sarah Gräber – 2006
Ecology Centre Kiel – Master’s Programme Environmental Management