Food to eat and scenery to enjoy — pleasures brought to you by ‘ecosystem services’. The United Nation’s Millenium Ecosystem Assessment identified four types of service:
- Provisioning Services (food, fresh water, fuel, fiber, medicine and other goods);
- Regulating Services (such as climate, water, disease and erosion control, and pollination);
- Supporting Services (such as soil formation, waste reduction and nutrient cycling);
- Cultural Services (educational, aesthetic, cultural heritage, recreation and tourism).
What are these ecosystem services worth? Hard to say, because we don’t normally put a price on such things as trees cleaning the air, on flood control by wetlands, on soil fertility linked to biodiversity, or on beauty until we have some kind of disaster to try to repair. However, the worldwide value of all ecosystem services has been estimated at roughly $33 trillion per year. The value to US agriculture from natural pollinators alone is upwards of $4 billion a year. Because we generally think of ecosystem services as free, decision-makers rarely consider the true worth of a healthy ecosystem when considering possible actions, and short-term economic value often trumps long-term benefit to society.
Is saving one population of a species or one area of a particular type of habitat good enough? Just like people, other species have genetic variability. Penicillin wasn’t commercially viable until a population of the fungus that contained super-producers of the antibiotic was found. What if that population had been wiped out? Breeding our food plants for size, productivity, and disease resistance has for centuries depended on natural variability within a species. Reducing population and habitat size reduces biodiversity, and weakens the ability of species to adapt to changing conditions, changes often caused by our overuse of natural resources and mismanagement of land.
Do natural areas have to be ‘pristine’ to be valuable? Well, ecosystems all over the world cope with disturbances of one sort or another — fire, flood, droughts, invasive species, human interference — and to a great extent they can tolerate this and bounce back. Some organisms and ecosystems even depend on occasional disturbance, like some pines whose cones only release seeds after fire. Disturbed habitat still provides many services. For example, the many types of native bees in re-grown areas around crops can substitute in part for the thousands of honeybees lost due to the recent epidemic of colony-collapse disorder. At some point of course, the final straw is placed, the system collapses, and ecosystem services disappear.
We are only beginning to appreciate the extent and complexity of ecosystem services, and we have no technology capable of reproducing them even if we understood them. Our future depends in great part on our recognition of the important economic value of these services, and on our willingness to determine how to preserve these in ways that are fair to landowners and to the general public.
Claremont is fortunate in having a number of natural areas and in valuing them — our Sustainable City Plan has as a goal to “maintain, improve and protect natural open space resources throughout Claremont”. Next time you stroll through the Wilderness Park or drive by the spreading grounds, take a minute to think about the services they provide.
You can learn about one of our less well-known suppliers of ecosystem services on April 12 — Stephen Dreher, manager of the BFS, will speak on “The Bernard Field Station: What’s behind the fence?” The talk will begin at 7pm (doors open at 6:30) in the Hahn Building at 420 N. Harvard Ave and a tour will be arranged.
Demystifying Sustainability is an initiative of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).