Free stuff is great. Who doesn’t love a free month’s worth of cable TV, free Wi-Fi, or a free sundae at the local ice cream shop? It’s the kind of thing that makes your whole day, if not your entire week.
Nature has been quietly making our days for millennia. It supplies and purifies our water. It pollinates our food crops. It stores atmospheric carbon, so we have clean air to breathe. Nature provides these and countless other services completely free of charge.
But most of us don’t even notice these ecosystem services. Nor do we consider what they’re worth or how we can keep them in balance.
Ecosystem services include the natural products and processes we generally can’t create for ourselves. Water, breathable air, and pollination, for example. The few services that our advanced technology could manufacture, such as wetland buffers along coastlines, have astronomically high price tags.
To help us understand, appreciate, and conserve nature’s services, economists and ecologists got together to identify and appraise the many benefits that nature generously provides.
First, we have to understand the concept of gross domestic product or GDP. Many countries, no matter the size or standing, have economies that produce goods and services. The monetary value of all of these combined is a country’s GDP. For instance, according to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, America’s national GDP in 2013 was $17.1 trillion. As the world’s largest economy, we currently make up about a quarter of the global GDP, which economists put at $71.83 trillion in 2013.
True Costs of Doing Business
Economists have long calculated the cost of doing business without considering the built-in benefits nature provides. They consider such factors as materials, labor, and marketing but not the natural services that support industry. What if there were no bees, butterflies, birds, and bats to pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops? Or no natural water filtration in the forests, soils, aquifers, and wetlands of the Mississippi River watershed?
Together, economists and ecologists estimate that the cost of all the goods and services nature provides to us humans across the planet is $46 trillion — more than half the global GDP! Imagine building that cost into the price of our food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and energy.
Their message is clear: we cannot afford to live without nature.
Four Groups of Services
How many kinds of services does nature provide? Our understanding of them can be broken down into four main groups.
- Support. This includes such essential services as the building and renewal of soil, the production of atmospheric (breathable) oxygen, pollination, and nutrient cycling.
- Provisions. This means the basic necessities of life, such as food for livestock, wildlife, and people. Fibers from wood and other sources make our houses and clothes. And the energy that powers our lives comes from the tapping of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas or from renewable sources such as hydropower from flowing rivers, wind capture, and solar power.
- Moderation. This includes the processes of waste decomposition, water and air purification, flood control, and climate regulation.
- Lastly, and the most difficult to quantify, are Cultural Services. These include benefits we can feel but not necessarily touch — recreation, aesthetics, and spiritual inspiration.
What do we gain by living in a world with the greater prairie chicken, Niangua darter, and American burying beetle? Or, more importantly, what do we stand to lose if they disappear? We all feel a sense of loss when we see paintings and photos of animals, such as the brilliant green Carolina parakeet, that became extinct in the last hundred years. Sadly, species extinctions continue to accelerate worldwide.
Services Flow From Natural Diversity
In theory, we can live without the Carolina parakeet and other declining species such as the prairie chicken, the Niangua darter, and American burying beetle. But they contribute to our planet’s natural diversity. This is the variety and abundance of species and habitat types that contribute to an ecosystem. It turns out natural diversity is essential to the ecosystem services people depend on.
Ecosystems rich in native biodiversity are much more resilient and better equipped to handle change. For example, if a wetland loses one species — a crayfish, say — there may be other kinds of crayfish that could possibly perform the same functions of nutrient cycling, water purification, and soil building, thereby preserving the wetland’s ecosystem services. However, widespread, nearly constant impacts like development, soil erosion, water pollution, invasive species, and the over-harvest of fish and wildlife can weaken ecosystems like wetlands until they are unable to perform their services efficiently — or at all.
We may not notice if a bird, fish, or beetle disappears from Missouri’s landscape, but our grandchildren or their children will.
That’s because it can take as long as a generation for the full effects of lost biodiversity to register in our communities. By then the problems — erosion, drought, flooding, loss of native plants and animals, crop failure, catastrophic wildfire — may be very expensive — or impossible — to correct.
This past January we saw historic flooding of the Meramec and Mississippi rivers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and insurance industry experts estimated that this would be the costliest wintertime flooding event in American history, with the price tag at more than $1 billion. We are seeing damage partly related to development in and losses of Missouri’s natural floodplains. Naturally vegetated floodplains reduce the impacts of floods, another of nature’s vital services. Without healthy floodplains, we can expect more historic flooding and more expensive clean-up costs.
Safeguarding the System
Here in Missouri, we benefit from a very low ecological cost of living. Our forests, grasslands, and wetlands naturally filter our water supply. So far, we have enough pollinators to produce our crops without needing to truck in bees from other regions. Our beautiful deciduous forests absorb and store atmospheric carbon, preventing smog days, and they provide untold outdoor recreation. In our state we benefit from every major ecosystem service.
We can keep nature’s free goods and services flowing by recognizing and taking care of them. Love butterflies and other pollinators? Plant some native flowers in your yard or garden. If you’re grateful for clean water, try conserving more of it in your home, and join a Stream Team. Implement stewardship practices on your farm to reduce erosion, aid soil formation, and produce sustainable forage, timber, and wildlife. Every little thing we do to conserve soil and water, absorb atmospheric carbon, and restore wildlife safeguards the vital ecosystem services we can’t live without — and can’t afford to replace.
Top 10 Services and Tips for Tending Them
Natural ecosystems provide more than 20 major ecosystem services. Here are 10 that benefit Missourians and what you can do to sustain them.
Storage and provision of clean water in rivers, lakes, and aquifers for drinking, bathing, and agricultural and industrial uses
- What We’re Doing: Providing technical help and cost-share on stream/watershed conservation projects, stream health assessments
- What You Can Do: Conserve water at home.
Creation and revitalizing healthy, productive soils
- What We’re Doing: Maintaining native prairies and planting cover crops on Department crop fields
- What You Can Do: Use conservation farming, forestry, and construction practices.
Production of fish, game, nuts, and fruits (wild and cultivated)
- What We’re Doing: Managing fish and wildlife populations for sustainable harvest
- What You Can Do: Support and practice conservation: maintain or enhance habitat, keep streams clean to maximize fish production.
Provision of timber, fuel, and forage
- What We’re Doing: Providing timber production on Department areas and consultation on private lands
- What You Can Do: Learn and practice sustainable forestry and grazing.
Provision of unique biological materials to produce medicines and natural resistance to crop pests
- What We’re Doing: Providing research and management to conserve rare species and biological diversity
- What You Can Do: Support public lands, which often serve as reserves for biological diversity.
Breakdown and recycling of excess nutrients and toxins, cleansing of water by wetlands
- What We’re Doing: Providing consultation on stream discharge permits, managing public and private wetlands
- What You Can Do: Support and practice wetland conservation. Recycle and dispose of waste chemicals at proper facilities.
Retention of fertile soils by native grasses and streamside forests
- What We’re Doing: Providing assistance and cost-share to landowners on stream-bank stabilization, livestock fencing, and watering
- What You Can Do: Maintain forested streamside buffers and grassed waterways. Use silt fences on construction projects.
Production of pollinators for the reproduction of agricultural and natural plants
- What We’re Doing: Managing for understory pollinators on Department prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands
- What You Can Do: Plant native milkweeds and other native flowers that support pollinators throughout their life cycle.
Reduction of flood damage via vegetated floodplains and wetlands
- What We’re Doing: Conserving naturally vegetated floodplains on Department areas for flood prevention
- What You Can Do: Don’t farm or build in floodplains. Plant and protect forested streamside buffers.
Healthy lands and waters for fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing, and wildlife viewing
- What We’re Doing: Providing recreation opportunities on conservation areas statewide
- What You Can Do: Practice and support conservation efforts on private and public land.
Plenty of Help for Habitat Work
Want to reward nature for free services on your land? Identify and conserve your native habitats. If you own rural property, call your county’s private land conservationist or resource forester for a consultation. They can help you implement practices that benefit wildlife and achieve your production goals.