The nature of wellbeing: how nature’s ecosystem services contribute to the wellbeing of New Zealand and New Zealanders’

The nature of wellbeing: how nature’s ecosystem se…
01 Jan 2015

No matter who we are or where we live, our well-being depends on the way ecosystems work

                                                                                                                    (Haines-Young & Potschin 2010: 110)

What do we need for a ‘good life’? At one level, the answer to this question will differ for each person. Yet at a deeper level, we all share a common set of fundamental needs that must be met for us to experience wellbeing. Understanding those needs and the crucial contribution of nature’s services in enabling us to meet them is the subject of this report.

The report brings together research on wellbeing and research on ecosystem services, focusing principally on the services that come from indigenous ecosystems in New Zealand. There has been a massive upsurge in research on ecosystem services in the last 20 years, including much detailed research and discussion about how to classify and categorise the types of ecosystem services that contribute to wellbeing, and numerous studies attempting to determine the monetary value of various ecosystem services.

However, the question of how to categorise and understand the types or aspects of wellbeing that ecosystem services may contribute to has not been explored to anywhere near the same extent. This may be a reflection of the fact that much of the impetus for studying ecosystem services has come from ecologists and economists, rather than from social scientists who are more familiar with the rapidly expanding wellbeing literature. To date, much of the work of ecologists has focused on the supply of ecosystem services, while that of economists has focused on the demands for ecosystem services, both marketed and non-marketed. However, there has been little focus on what is driving our demand for ecosystem services—a desire for enhanced wellbeing.


New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity and natural landscapes provide a wide range of ecosystem services that contribute to the wellbeing of New Zealanders. These include the supporting, provisioning and regulating services that underpin New Zealand’s natural resource based economy and also the cultural, aesthetic, spiritual and recreational benefits that are derived from the natural environment. In spite of this, the desire to improve wellbeing is the driver of many of the negative impacts that humans have on ecosystems and ecosystem services. With New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity in decline and natural ecosystems continuing to degrade, it cannot be assumed that these services will continue indefinitely. Furthermore there is a risk that New Zealanders may not come to realise the full consequences to their wellbeing of environmental degradation and biodiversity decline until the situation has become irreversible, or at least very costly and difficult to overturn.

This report reviews the concept of wellbeing and illustrates the ways in which the natural environment is linked to wellbeing in New Zealanders’ day to day lives.


The report examines nature's contributions to 9 fundamental human needs identified by Max-Neef 1991. These are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. Material wealth is also considered. The contribution of a wide of range of supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services to wellbeing is then described using information from market and non-market valuation studies and other sources.


Key Results

The evidence assembled in this report demonstrates that ecosystem services delivered by New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity and natural landscapes contribute in a very wide variety of ways to the wellbeing of New Zealand and New Zealanders. These services not only provide for basic needs and enhance safety, they also represent the fundamental essence of what it means to be a New Zealander. The concept of ecosystem services has allowed various individuals and agencies around the country to communicate the importance of nature to a wide variety of different audiences in a language that they can relate to, because it links directly to their wellbeing. There are some excellent examples of how the contributions of ecosystem services to different aspects of wellbeing have been assessed and measured and, in some cases, that knowledge has fed into elegant and effective changes in policy and practice.


Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018