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Ecosystem Services: The Value of Nature

Living through modern times our societies, at their cores, are run by money. We have assigned some sort of monetary value to almost every single facet of our lives and our planet. However, this becomes rather difficult when it comes to the natural world and its many ecosystems as there are some benefits we gain from them that can be difficult to put a dollar value on. While the people of the world certainly value nature, we can take for granted many benefits that it provides for us. These range from the food we eat to sustaining a livable planet. These benefits are called “ecosystem services”, which The National Wildlife Federation defines simply as any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people whether by direct or indirect means. We categorize an ecosystem service between four different types of services: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting.

Graphic credit: TEEB Europe

Provisioning Services

Provisioning ecosystem services may be one of the most directly noticeable services to us. Almost every aspect of our modern lives is due to this kind of service. Provisioning services are essentially any type of benefit to people that we are able to extract from nature. This includes all the essentials to life that sustain life as we know it. The first and most important of those is water. Without water there would be no life. Secondly, ecosystems provide us with the capability to grow and harvest the food we eat.The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that in California alone we produce most of the nation's fruits, vegetables, nuts and produces the most food in the country. Nature also provides all the raw materials that make up our modern lives. We use them to create a place to call home and create every other item, possession, and technology we have. These could range from sand to form glass, oils for fuel and plastics, metals for electronics and buildings, wood and cement for our buildings, and so much more. Even all the many amazing medical advances we have made are due to the environment with many of our medicines being derived from the natural properties of plants. In some way, we owe every part of our lives to nature. Yet it is hardly something that we ever stop to think about and appreciate.

Cultural Services

In contrast the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment defines cultural ecosystem services as the non-material benefits that we derive from nature. Many of these benefits are rather intangible and explore many different types of human experiences. Natural spaces provide ample and diverse areas for us to enjoy and explore various recreational activities, provide a place to relax or exercise in, and ultimately benefits our mental and physical health. Ecotourism is an incredibly important cultural service, especially when it comes to protected habitat areas and wildlife, as it produces a vast number of jobs all over the world and adds to many countries' economies. According to Allied Market Research, the ecotourism industry was worth a total of 181.1 billion dollars in 2019 and expected to grow to 333.8 billion by 2027. All throughout our history, nature has been a major source of inspiration and is intimately connected to culture, languages, art and religion. You can trace this back to early mankind with various cave paintings, with the Romantics and their landscape paintings, or by how intertwined nature is with our indigenous communities. Natural spaces also contribute to a sense of place and belonging. We build memories and associate aspects of our lives to these natural spaces. There is even the simple idea of enjoying nature just because of aesthetic reasons, meaning the appreciation of its natural beauty. For as long as we have existed we have interacted and shaped nature while nature in turn has shaped us. These cultural services that ecosystems provide take all manner of shape in our lives.

Pollination, as done by bees, is a regulating service. Credit: Kris Mikael Krister

Regulating Services

Regulating ecosystem services provide many of the services that make our lives possible or as the NWF defines it, “a regulating service is the benefit provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena”. Examples of regulating services include climate regulation, carbon storage, waste-water treatment, erosion prevention and soil fertility, pollination, and biological control. Carbon storage is incredibly important, especially as we move forward with climate change. The planet is naturally able to absorb a large amount of carbon out of the air as part of its natural cycles. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the ocean and plants have taken in about 55 percent of the excess carbon we have released. While normally the ocean has a way to cycle and balance the amount of absorption, it is now taking in too much, increasing its acidity. Pollination is another incredibly important regulating service, as without pollination a large majority of our plants would no longer exist along with the species, including us, that depend upon them for the food and regulating services they provide. The U.S. Forest Service explains that 80% of the 1,400 crop plants we grow require pollination and that these crops are estimated to be worth $10 billion a year. Flowering plants provide us with oxygen and carbon removal, their root systems hold the earth together preventing soil erosion and protecting us from flooding, and according to the Pollinator Partnership, without pollinators we would not have 75%-95% of all the world's plants. Without the many different regulating services all our ecosystems provide, life as we know it would not be possible.

Healthy soil is a supporting service. Credit: Gabriel Jimenez.

Supporting Services

Now we come to perhaps the most important section of ecosystem services which are the supporting services. The Institute for Natural Resource Conservation defines supporting services as those necessary for the production or the maintenance of all other ecosystem services. Some examples include biomass production, production of atmospheric oxygen, soil formation and retention, nutrient cycling, water cycling, and provisioning of habitat. Supporting services are those that occur over an incredibly long period of time. For example, according to Jennifer Chu of MIT, oxygen did not start to fill the air until 2.3 billion years ago. Plants, fish, and animals, as we know them, did not even exist until 500 million years ago. Without all that time to develop all the diversity of plants and animals we wouldn’t have had anything to eat as our species evolved and survived through the ages. The formation of healthy and rich soil that we have depended upon for thousands of years to grow our food takes an incredibly long time to form. According to Farm Progress it takes anywhere from 100-400 years to create just one inch of topsoil. Without all of these long term processes, there would be no air to breathe, no plants or animals for food and all the unique forms of life, including us, on our planet could not exist.

While we go about our lives it can be easy for us to discount nature, especially so on an economic scale. There are many corporations, people, and politicians that follow an anthropocentric view on life and the world. Anthropocentrism, according to Britannica, is the idea that human beings are the central and most important part of the world. Those with this view regard humans as being separate and superior to nature. Anthropocentrism believes that humans are the only things with intrinsic value and plants, animals, resources, and nature itself are to be exploited for our profit. Those that follow this philosophical line of thinking take for granted just how much intrinsic value and importance that our natural ecosystems have. You can see these views reflected in companies' drive for profit at all cost, or in the policies politicians create and the protections they remove. Yet the very lives we live, everything we have created, everything we have accomplished, and every breath we take can be traced back to nature in some way. This is why it is important we do our best to preserve and protect our ecosystems. In doing so we do not just protect nature but we also protect and enrich ourselves. There are many ways we can help: lowering our plastic consumption, changing our lifestyle habits, or volunteering our time for a worthy cause. Here at OC Habitats we have ample resources for ways you can make those changes and opportunities to get involved through our restoration events.

Next time you find yourself taking a deep breath, enjoying a good meal, or are exploring nature, just remind yourself how it all came to be.

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