A sustainability framework for assessing trade-offs in ecosystem services

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Stephen Polasky, Elizabeth King, Patricia Balvanera

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Achieving sustainability, i.e., meeting the needs of current populations without compromising the needs of future generations, is the major challenge facing global society in the 21st century. Navigating the inherent trade-offs between provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting ecosystem services, and doing so in a way that does not compromise natural capital needed to provide services in the future, is critical for sustainable resource management. Here we build upon existing literature, primarily from economics and ecology, to present an analytical framework that integrates (1) the ecological mechanisms that underpin ecosystem services, (2) biophysical trade-offs and inherent limits that constrain management options, (3) preferences and values of stakeholders, and (4) explicit analysis of how systems evolve through time to ensure the goal of meeting the needs of future generations. Well-known ecological models define the relationships and trade-offs among services that represents an "efficiency frontier." Well-known methods in economics that combine preferences that define the willingness of stakeholders to trade off ecosystem services on the efficiency frontiers illuminate desirable outcomes that meet human needs. System dynamics show how the system will evolve with consequent impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being and the effects this has on achieving sustainability. Heterogeneity in biophysical constraints, uncertainty, technological advances, and obstacles imposed by societal factors and governance regimes influence potential and realized ecosystem services. Using a set of contrasting scenarios, we illustrate how progress can be made toward sustainability and the important obstacles that must be addressed in doing so. Our framework for analyzing sustainability drawn from economics and ecology is intended to make an integration of concepts from both disciplines accessible to a wider audience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number17
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 by the author(s).


  • Dynamics
  • Ecosystem services
  • Efficiency frontier
  • Management constraints
  • Preferences
  • Stakeholders
  • Time lags
  • Trade-offs


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