• community;
  • complexity;
  • ecosystem and ecosystem services;
  • energetics;
  • global change;
  • nutrient cycling and primary production;
  • social–ecological systems;
  • theoretical ecology


I.An organizational concept22
II.An imperfect marriage22
III.A type of complex adaptive system?25
IV.A component of social–ecological systems28
V.Conclusions and future research30


The ecosystem has served as a central organizational concept in ecology for nearly a half century and continues to evolve. As a level in the biotic hierarchy, ecosystems are often viewed as ecological communities integrated with their abiotic environments. This has always been imperfect because of a mismatch of scales between communities and ecosystem processes as they are made operational for field study. Complexity theory has long been forecasted to provide a renewed foundation for ecosystem theory but has been slow to do so. Partly this has arisen from a difficulty in translating theoretical tenets into operational terms for testing in field studies. Ecosystem science has become an important applied science for studying global change and human environmental impacts. Vigorous and important directions in the study of ecosystems today include a growing focus on human-dominated landscapes and development of the concept of ecosystem services for human resource supply and well-being. Today, terrestrial ecosystems are viewed less as well-defined entities or as a level in the biotic hierarchy. Instead, ecosystem processes are being increasingly viewed as the elements in a hierarchy. These occur alongside landscape processes and socioeconomic processes, which combine to form coupled social–ecological systems across a range of scales.