What do the blue jeans you wear, the hamburger you have for lunch, and the sheet you make your bed with have in common? They all take copious amounts of water to produce.
When you drink a glass of fresh water, do you think about how it may have been cleaned by a watershed upstream?
When you eat fresh fruit or grains, do you think about the thousands of species – like bats, bees, birds and butterflies – that pollinated your food? If you do, you’re a minority.
Most of us don’t think about, or don’t even realise, the vast array of services nature provides us everyday. We call this myriad of nature’s benefits on which we fundamentally depend eco-system services.
Human kind benefits from a multitude of resources and processes that are supplied by eco-systems. Collectively, these benefits are known as ecosystem services and include products like clean drinking water and processes such as the decomposition of wastes.
No matter who we are, or where we live, our well-being depends on the way eco-systems work. Most obviously, eco-systems can provide us with material things that are essential for our daily lives, such as food, wood, wool and medicines.
Although the other types of benefit we get from ecosystems are easily overlooked, they also play an important role in regulating the environments in which we live. They can help ensure the flow of clean water and protect us from flooding or other hazards like soil erosion, land-slips and tsunamis.
They can contribute to our spiritual well-being, through their cultural or religious significance or the opportunities they provide for recreation and the enjoyment of nature.
Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.
Examples of ecosystem services include products such as food and water, regulation of floods, soil erosion and disease outbreaks, gas regulation (e.g. maintaining a balanced chemical composition in the tmosphere), and climate regulation (e.g. control of global temperature, precipitation, greenhouse gas regulation, cloud formation).
Others are spiritual benefits in natural areas, and non-material benefits such as recreational (e.g. opportunities for tourism, sport and other outdoor pastimes), cultural (e.g. opportunities for aesthetic, artistic, educational and spiritual activities).
The term ‘services’ is usually used to encompass the tangible and intangible benefits that humans obtain from eco-systems, which are sometimes separated into ‘goods’ and ‘services’.
Some eco-system services involve the direct provision of material and non-material goods to people and depend on the presence of particular species of plants and animals, for example, food, timber, and medicines.
Other eco-system services arise directly or indirectly from the functioning of eco-system processes.
For example, the service of formation of soils and soil fertility that sustains crop and livestock production depends on the eco-system processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling by soil micro-organisms.
Some scientists have advocated a stricter definition of eco-system services as only the components of nature that are directly enjoyed, consumed, or used in order to maintain or enhance human well-being.
Such an approach can be useful when it comes to eco-system service accounting and economic valuation. Other services, for example, those that support and regulate the production levels of crops and other harvested goods are more difficult to quantify.
As human populations grow, so do the resource demands imposed on ecosystems and the impacts of our global footprint. Natural resources are not invulnerable and infinitely available.
The environmental impacts caused by human actions are becoming more apparent – air and water quality are increasingly compromised, oceans are being overfished, pests and diseases are extending beyond their historical boundaries, and deforestation is exacerbating flooding downstream.
The need to better consider long-term eco-system health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity is urgent.
Eco-system services, since they are the benefits from nature, are often discussed in the context of conservation, but in our daily lives we make choices that depend on and affect flows of services from nature, since all goods and products we use today originate from nature and its services.
Each choice we make – drive or ride a bus, buy organic or regular vegetables, turn on the heat or put on an extra sweatshirt – has trade-offs.
Conserving nature or converting nature does too, but tradeoffs associated with nature’s values are often harder to assess.
Not understanding nature’s role in the products we use means we won’t conserve nature sufficiently.
This in turn will compromise our ability to access products we need, or we will have to find sometimes costly alternatives for what nature could otherwise provide to us.
Incorporating the full suite of costs and benefits into decision-making means evaluating all costs and benefits associated with nature, too.
Share with us your experiences, comments and recommendations.
Date: 21 September 2013