The concept of ecosystem services (ES) has taken the environmental science and policy literature by storm, and has become almost the approach to thinking about and assessing the nature-society relationship. In this review, we ask whether and in what way the ES concept is a useful way of organising research on the nature-society relationship. We trace the evolution of the different versions of the concept and identify key points of convergence and divergence. The essence of the concept nevertheless is that the contribution of biotic nature to human well-being is unrecognised and undervalued, which results in destruction of ecosystems. We discuss why this formulation has attracted ecologists and summarise the resultant contributions to research, particularly to the understanding of indirect or regulating services. We then outline three sets of weaknesses in the ES framework: confusion over ecosystem functions and biodiversity, omission of dis-services, trade-offs and abiotic nature, and the use of an economic valuation framework to measure and aggregate human well-being. Underlying these weaknesses is a narrow problem frame that is unidimensional in its environmental concern and techno-economic in its explanation of environmental degradation. We argue that an alternative framing that embraces broader concerns and incorporates multiple explanations would be more useful, and outline how this approach to understanding the nature-society relationship may be implemented.
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