Friday, January 31, 2014

Why cities need intact ecosystems

City mouse, meet country mouse.
So, you never leave the city? Here’s why you should care about intact ecosystems. The ecological services ecosystems provide keep your taxes low. They provide services for free that you couldn’t afford, if you had to pay for them.
Take water, for example. Cities can’t get by without it.
In 2007, New York was on the verge of being ordered to build a filtration system costing $10 to $15 Billion Dollars to protect their water supply.
To avoid the massive costs associated with filtering all that water, they, opted instead for a watershed protection plan. They set aside $241 Million to acquire land in the watershed, in order to prevent watershed pollution.
A protected, natural watershed is accomplishing, the same job as $10 to $15 Billion worth of filtering equipment, and it protects forests and recreational opportunities in the Catskills that would otherwise disappear. Even though the cost to protect it is in the hundreds of millions, it’s a bargain compared to the alternative.
Sustainable natural environments provide ecological services that we take for granted, but which would be costly if we had to replace them with mechanical systems.
Water, evaporated from the oceans carries water to the tops of the continents, where it drops the rain and the snow that fill our rivers and streams, irrigating the continent, for free. The cost of desalinating the ocean water and distributing it would be steep.
Cities can’t feed themselves. They rely on food from far and wide, and that needs water on the farmland, just like cities need to drink it. Farmers praying for rain? How do you suppose the rain gets there?
This may sound far hairy fairy, but considering the cost of replacing the free natural services, it’s in our self interest to protect the intact ecosystems. They do things for us that we can’t afford to do for ourselves. That’s right: It’s selfish to protect the environment.
New York would be justified in saying ‘We’re keeping taxes low by protecting the natural environment’. Both the fiscal hawks and the outdoor enthusiasts would rejoice in that sort of decision.

This is only one example of how the economic payoffs of intact ecosystems are subtle and real. The psychological payoffs of being in touch with nature can be profound. Intact ecosystems provide benefits, like clean air and water, that we can’t live without, even if we never leave the city.

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