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Researchers Quantify Nature’s Role in Human Well-Being


A team of researchers from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences are advancing new modeling technology to quantify human dependence on nature, human well-being and relationships between the two. The latest step is published in this week’s Ecosystem Health and Sustainability journal.

The paper notes that people who depended on multiple types of ecosystem services – such as agricultural products, non-timber forest products, ecotourism – fared better than those who had all their earning eggs in one natural resource basket.

“Quantifying the complex human-nature relationships will open the doors to respond to environmental changes and guide policies that support both people and the environment across human and natural systems,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

Wu Yang, who received his doctoral degree while at CSIS, led an effort to scrutinize the impacts of China’s devastating 2008 earthquake to show that amidst the devastation, not everyone suffered equally and, while ecosystems played an important role in disaster impacts, not every ecosystem service carried the same weight in terms of delivering benefits to people.

“We created new ways to quantify human dependence on ecosystem services, measure human well-being and understand to what extent the dependence on nature affected the well-being of people,” said Yang. “Now we’re showing the quantitative linkages between nature and human well-being.”

The methods outlined in the paper can be applied across the globe, using either new data from surveys or existing sources such as statistical yearbooks and censuses. The new approach uses this information to measure multiple dimensions of human well-being such as basic material, security, health, social relationships, and freedom of choice and action, Yang said.

In addition to Yang and Liu, other authors of “An integrated approach to understand the linkages between ecosystem services and human well-being” are CSIS member Thomas Dietz, MSU professor of environmental science and policy, sociology, and animal studies; Daniel Kramer, MSU associate professor in fisheries and wildlife and James Madison College; and Zhiyun Ouyang of the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The work by the MSU team was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and MSU AgBioResearch and the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program.

- Sue Nichols via MSU Today

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