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Naturally Grateful

posted Nov 21, 2016, 2:06 PM by Jessica Potter-Bowers
As we approach the time of year where many of us pause for reflection, I want to take a moment to draw your attention to nature's gifts to us. In ecology, we call these naturally-derived benefits ecosystem services. These are the ways that nature provides resources and processes that benefit us. There are four main categories of ecosystem services. Provisioning services provide food, clean drinking water, and fuel. Regulating services control climate and disease. Supporting services are all around us, but often go unseen, like nutrient cycling and pollination. Cultural services are the aesthetic and recreational benefits we get from being out in nature.

The trick to really appreciating ecosystem services is two-fold. First, it takes a shift in perspective to think of food, climate, pollination, and wilderness as goods and services provided to us by the natural world. We might be inherently grateful but also uniquely unaware of the energy and materials required to support life on earth. Secondly, valuing these services is a problem. It's as if economics took over for Mother Nature and now we have to pre-order what we need in order to survive. Scientists have been able to put value on some ecosystem services, but just like in the free market agreeing on a standard bearer for value is tough. Of course each type of ecosystem provides services of differing values. Wetlands provide the most value, at $10,000 per acre per year. Upland forests are valued at $1,000 per acre per year. Of course we don't actually pay nature for her services, but it wouldn't hurt us to be naturally grateful for what she provides. Perhaps instead of paying back the value of ecosystem services, we should be paying them forward.

Want to learn more? Check out the 2003 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, a major assessment of human impact on the environment and the first time ecosystem services were divided into their four categories.