The 'ecosystem service' debate has taken on many features of a classic Kuhnian paradigm. It challenges conventional wisdoms about conservation and the value of nature, and is driven as much by political agendas as scientific ones. In this paper we review some current and emerging issues arising in relation to the analysis and assessment of ecosystem services, and in particular emphasize the need for physical geographers to find new ways of characterizing the structure and dynamics of service providing units. If robust and relevant valuations are to be made of the contribution that natural capital makes to human well-being, then we need a deeper understanding of the way in which the drivers of change impact on the marginal outputs of ecosystem services. A better understanding of the trade-offs that need to be considered when dealing with multifunctional ecosystems is also required. Future developments must include methods for describing and tracking the stocks and flows that characterize natural capital. This will support valuation of the benefits estimation of the level of reinvestment that society must make in this natural capital base if it is to be sustained. We argue that if the ecosystem service concept is to be used seriously as a framework for policy and management then the biophysical sciences generally, and physical geography in particular, must go beyond the uncritical 'puzzle solving' that characterizes recent work. A geographical perspective can provide important new, critical insights into the place-based approaches to ecosystem assessment that are now emerging.
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