Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ecosystem Services

We live on a generous planet. Nature provides all sorts of services to us that we don't pay for, and often take for granted.

Some of these ecosystem services are easy to spot. Nature does a great job of cleaning air and water. The water that flows through hydroelectric dams is the same water that evaporated from the oceans and flew through the sky to get back to the watershed. It finds its way back into the rivers, and we can turn it into electricity again. Nobody paid to pump it back up the hill. The water also managed to irrigate the areas on which it fell, for free, without any human infrastructure. It would cost us a lot to water the forests.

Clean water flowing in nature seems free, but if we had to replace it with water we cleaned ourselves it would be far more expensive. For example, when New York was dealing with water quality issues it faced the prospect of a $6-8 billion water filtration plant. They opted instead to spend $1-1.5 billion cleaning up the watershed. This gave them the clean water they needed and saved $4.5 - 7 billion. Plus, they saved the $300 million annually that they would have spent operating the water treatment plant.

Here in Canada, the temperature does a good job of helping to control pests. Cold winters make this part of the world unsuitable for some of the nastier bugs. This protects us from the disease tropical bugs can spread. As global temperature rises, we start to lose this defense.

Imagine how much it would cost to have crops manually pollinated. The bees do it for free. They may seem like pests, but they're an integral part of our food chain. A healthy ecosystem provides these services at no charge.

At least, you don't have to pay for them. You see, nature doesn't care about the money. It's not worried about its quarterly profit and loss statements. It would be satisfied with a little respect and appreciation from us, because for nature, maximizing shareholder value means maintaining the system that cares for every living thing. That includes the people, but not just the people.

It's easy to take for granted how much nature does for us. Ecological services are irreplaceable, and the system provides the basis for continued life on this planet. The bill isn't coming in the mail, but if we don't take care of the system that takes care of us, we'll end up in ecological bankruptcy. That's the sort that can't be fixed by any bailout.


  1. "It would cost us a lot to water the forests. Clean water flowing in nature seems free, but if we had to replace it with water we cleaned ourselves it would be far more expensive."

    SLDI Project Goes Carbon-Negative

    Located in the headwaters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area in Southern Oregon, Ocean Mountain Ranch (OMR) overlooks the newly-designated Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve and the largest remaining old growth forest on the southern coast in Humbug Mountain State Park. OMR is planned to be developed pursuant to a forest stewardship management plan which has been approved by the Oregon Department of Forestry and Northwest Certified Forestry under the high standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). OMR considers clean water to be a forest's most important product. OMR is also serving as a pilot program striving to achieve carbon negative status through the utilization of low impact development practices, energy efficient buildings, renewable/clean energy systems, distributed waste management systems, biochar production, and other practices.

    Sustainable Land Development International -

  2. The quote about watering the forests gets it exactly. How would that impact the price of lumber? How much would it cost if we had to create electricity to shine light on the tree so it would go? We get that now for free too.

    From the SLDI link, Biochar looks like an interesting way to get CO2 out of the cycle. Sounds more plausible than Carbon Capture and Storage. (Then again, most things do.)

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Great post, I own a Calgary eco friendly painting and window cleaning company. I made it a business decision to go green about a year ago due to the changes we need to make in order to preserve our environment.