The beginnings of the ecosystem approach

“Our concern is for all life and not just those species that attract our eye through their size or their peculiar scientific interest,” said IUCN’s Senior Ecologist Raymond Dasmann at the Second World Congress on National Parks in 1972.

Etna volcano covered in snow Photo: Shutterstock / ollirg

“Our concern is for all life and not just those species that attract our eye through their size or their peculiar scientific interest,” said IUCN’s Senior Ecologist Raymond Dasmann at the Second World Congress on National Parks, held at Yellowstone National Park in 1972.

It was an important moment in the conservation journey.

Dasmann began advocating for the conservation of individual species through the protection of whole ecosystems. Over the following years, the ecosystem became an umbrella concept, tying together IUCN’s different approaches to conservation. It has enabled IUCN’s cooperation with other agencies in the environment and development sector ever since.

Ecosystem ecology had become known in the 1930s and 40s through the work of the British botanist Arthur Tansley on the interactions between organisms and their environment. Tansley defined the ecosystem as “a particular category [of] physical systems”, containing both organisms and inorganic components in a “relatively stable equilibrium” and existing in “various kinds and sizes”.

Although there was no agreement in the scientific community on whether ecosystems presented stable entities in nature or more of an intellectual tool to study the environment, they soon became seen as a useful tool to examine and describe natural processes.

In the following decades, ecosystem ecologists studied nature as consisting of closed cycles of energy flows, the dynamics of which could be described and predicted to a certain degree if enough components were known. Many believed that the stability and health of ecosystems was biologically determined by the intactness of these flows and cycles.

In the 1960s, many IUCN conservationists became involved in the International Biological Programme, a large research programme on ecosystem ecology, and the idea was taken up in IUCN’s work. In 1969, at IUCN’s 10th General Assembly, ecosystem conservation was named one of the main aims of conservation.

In the early 1970s, the study and conservation of ecosystems became key to the work of IUCN. Ecosystems provided the unit that needed protection. While this allowed argument for protection beyond immediately threatened wildlife, it was also quickly linked to traditional conservation interests such as national parks, or the protection of landscapes, species and habitats.

In the following years, ecosystem ecology fostered new collaborations among IUCN and other organisations concerned with the global environment. The ambition to protect the world’s natural as well as modified ecosystems from overexploitation brought IUCN experts in contact with development specialists in the years leading up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

The ecological research by IUCN experts such as Dasmann and Miklos Udvardy on biogeographical provinces and the different ecosystem types these contained, was paramount for IUCN’s cooperation in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme and related work on a global network of biosphere reserves.

In the 1970s, IUCN ran several projects on endangered ecosystems such as wetlands, coastal and marine ecosystems, tropical rainforests and arid zones. IUCN experts also contributed to several important international conferences, projects and conventions related to  types of ecosystems, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971), the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (1973) and the UN Conference on Desertification (1977).

In 1975 IUCN became part of the Ecosystem Conservation group, together with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This institutional cluster aimed to unite international organisations concerned with the conservation of ecosystems and the genetic material they contained.

The 1980 World Conservation Strategy, which emerged from this joint venture, proclaimed the protection of ecosystems and their biological diversity as preconditions for environmental health, human well-being, and sustainable development. In the 1990s, ecosystem conservation was at the core of two other international conservation strategies: Caring for the Earth and the Global Biodiversity Strategy.

The ecosystem approach for both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development has remained quintessential to IUCN’s work and policy advice ever since. The study and protection of ecosystem services was added to IUCN’s work on biodiversity after the 3rd World Conservation Congress in 2005. At the 4th World Conservation Congress in 2008, IUCN added a Red List of Ecosystems to supplement the work of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Most recently, in IUCN’s contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of September 2015, IUCN experts promoted the protection of healthy ecosystems as a major tool in the fight against poverty, climate change and resource depletion.


Simone Schleper

Maastricht University, History Department

Read more: Nature’s diplomats: Ecological experts and the conservation policy of international organizations (1920-2000)

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