Is there such a thing as a ‘healthy’ ecosystem?

We often hear the people refer to degraded ecosystems as ‘unhealthy,’ but is that the best choice of words? Could an ecosystem be considered simply as either “healthy” or “unhealthy?” While some scientists think so, others disagree.

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Ecosystem Health by Guerilla Haiku Movement (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Is this a healthy debate?

We often use ‘health’ to describe how something affects our own (human) bodies and well-being. If an ecosystem doesn’t provide anything to support our health and well-being, does that mean it’s unhealthy? Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but ecosystems weren’t always designed to revolve around humans.

A group of researchers recently set out to critically review what ‘ecosystem health’ means. Many scientists debate that we shouldn’t call an ecosystem healthy or unhealthy because these words can easily be based on our own judgement, which doesn’t necessarily fit well with objective science. Our own judgement and perspective varies between people and it also changes as our understanding of the natural world changes. What we might consider a healthy ecosystem today might not be considered healthy 10 years from now even if it hasn’t changed, so it might not be the best choice of labelling from a scientific standpoint. Calling an ecosystem healthy or unhealthy also implies either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ state, which many scientists feel is an unrepresentative oversimplification to the public.

Another big issue some scientists have is that an ecosystem isn’t technically a living thing, so how could we call one healthy if it’s not alive? This is often referred to as the ‘Organism Theory;’ they are structured and function like an organism without being one. Because of this, many scientists think we shouldn’t be defining ecosystems by properties of living things.

When looking at the other side of the coin, one scientist has argued that “ecosystem health is a ‘normative’ concept that implies specific societal goals rather than an ‘objective’ scientific concept.” Although ecosystems aren’t alive, he still thinks it’s a useful concept because we often institutionalise normative terms in national and international policies. So even if its scientifically incorrect, labelling ecosystems that we put a lot of stress on as unhealthy might help us take better care of protecting them? Essentially it’s a simple term used as a communication tool.

So what is a ‘healthy’ ecosystem?

Is it one untouched by man? There are actually quite a few definitions used to clear the air. One group of scientists suggested a healthy ecosystem is one that can remain sustainable over time in the face of stress from floods, droughts, invasive species, mining, overexploitation etc. Another group suggested a healthy ecosystem is one that is free of disease. It still brings about the question though of how you could objectively define what an ecosystem disease is if an ecosystem isn’t alive?

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Perspective – Is a sustainable farm healthy because it provides food to meet our needs, or is it unhealthy because its altering an ecosystem and removing the plants and animals that were meant to be there? Agriculture by StateofIsrael (CC BY 2.0)

What’s the verdict?

It’s clear that many of our activities are harming communities of plants and animals around us because of the stress we place on them to sustain our lives, activities and (you guessed it) bank accounts. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell what changes to ecosystems are natural, influenced by us or both. Whether resorting to using either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ to describe ecosystems should be a universally accepted concept, this may always be an open-ended debate. But what are your thoughts? Is an over-simplified term a good way to encourage conservation, or should we be more scientifically correct to the public? I’d love to hear your healthy opinions!


10 Responses to “Is there such a thing as a ‘healthy’ ecosystem?”

  1. Joshua Munro says:

    Thanks for reading lzhong1! One group defined an ecosystem disease as when an ecosystem fails to function within acceptable limits and therefore can no longer repair properly (Schaeffer et al, 1988).

  2. Joshua Munro says:

    Great thoughts Jennifer! You’ve laid out some great examples of how to potentially approach restoring different ecosystems! That also sounds like a really fascinating subject, thanks for providing a link in the comment section!

  3. Jennifer Robertson says:

    Thanks for the post Josh.

    I did a subject last year called ecological restoration, an intensive in creswick, which talked about this idea and using reference (pristine) ecosystems as a benchmark for restoration goals.
    There are ways to define healthy ecosystems like species diversity and abundance and comparison to reference ecosystems. I don’t think we should throw our hands up in the air and say it’s too hard and subjective to define ecosystem health.

    There are ways. Some are more achievable than others, for example if you have e.g. a small grassland ecosystem surrounded by farmland there will be edge effects from escapee crops, herbicide drift etc, so very ambitious to restore it and maintain to a benchmark, perhaps better invested in a restoration area that is degraded but connected to larger reserve. (but not always, it’s all site specific). Also the idea of ‘novel’ vegetation communities, that include exotic species but the exotic species provide ecosystem service without becoming invasive and support the local ecology.
    Anyway, I recommend the subject if you have space in your electives and want to know more https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/view/2016/FRST90034?output=PDF

  4. lzhong1 says:

    It’s an interesting article, but I’m curious about the definition of ecosystem disease. Great Post!

  5. Joshua Munro says:

    Thanks so much for reading btadgell!

  6. Joshua Munro says:

    Great thoughts Khorloo! You’ve provided even more depth to my thoughts on this topic by breaking down your own similar thoughts (especially point b)! How you’ve described that you’ve never associated ecosystem health with the literal health of humans is also a great example of how people perceive this term differently. Thanks for reading!

  7. Joshua Munro says:

    Thanks Sakib! That’s a fantastic term – fluid! I very much agree with your thoughts. I think the best approach is to ensure that we minimise human impacts on ecosystems to prevent further anthropogenic stress and the associated effects.

  8. btadgell says:

    The way we use language to describe things with humanisms is always really interesting – great article!

  9. Khorloo says:

    Hi Josh,

    Nice article! I must admit though that personally I have never associated ecoysystem health with the literal health of humans. Of course a healthy ecosystem indirectly impacts human health, or some cases directly if it has to do with diseases. I think there are 2 things happening here.
    a. Defining a “healthy” ecosystem in an interdisciplinary term (ecologists would define a healthy ecosystem comparing it to its original state, whilst epidemiologists would associate it with the lack of harmful disease)
    b. The healthy term does lack some objectivity. Things like, is there a scale, how healthy is healthy, is there any compromise or does every single component of the ecosystem has to be in pitch perfect condition for it to be healthy (which would be a rarity). When do we have to start doing something before it turns unhealthy or bad and how do we measure that etc etc.

    Sorry for the essay!

  10. Sakib says:

    Great post Josh – it’s super complicated simply trying to understand what an ecosystem is, let alone whether or not it’s healthy. At the end of the day, maybe we just have to assume that ecosystem health is literally impossible to define – what we associate as being a healthy ecosystem might be really preferable for a lot of species, but not for others. Is an ecosystem’s health tied to particular species? Is that really scientifically objective? Perhaps we have to assume that ecosystems are fluid, rather than being in fixed states, and that they will always be preferable for some species and not for others – and maybe it isn’t our role to say what species should be catered to, and which ones should be left out in the cold.