Before you scroll down, the take home message is to remind ourselves that ecosystems provide us with many important things. Many of them are overlooked, taken for granted, and assumed to be "givens." They are not givens, and as we degrade ecosystems we decrease these services to future generations and other organisms. In the long run, this will have a huge cost.
Once I was discussing survival as a skill with one of my teams that I was leading in the Himalayas. I asked them, “What do humans need to survive?”.
All of us started putting our thoughts in the circle with hot chai in our hands. After a healthy half an hour of discussion, we summarized it and made a list of the needs to survive which I have enlisted here :
-Food and Shelter
-Solar Energy for warmth
-Waste detoxification and decomposition
You must be wondering why I have put forward the list here. You will get to know later in this story. Before that, I want you to think about the goods and services provided by our nature. Have you thought about it? I think you did. Let's revisit this thought again.
The goods and services we benefit from are a result of the ecological processes and properties of ecosystems all around the world. Ecosystems possess pools of elements (carbon, organic matter, nitrogen, etc.), and ecological processes (photosynthesis, respiration, organic matter decay, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, etc.) that combine to produce goods and services we need to survive. Most of us are aware of the material goods we receive from ecosystems that are bought and sold, but we tend to forget about the benefits we derive from ecosystems that are free.
Ecosystem Goods - Those resources we obtain from ecosystems that have a direct market value (food, medicines, tourism, recreation, genes for biotech, construction materials).
Ecosystem Services - Properties of the ecosystem that either directly or indirectly benefit human endeavors (such as climate regulation, clean air & water, soil formation, pollination). These are assigned no value because they are essentially free as long as they exist.
Yet without any value, many services suffer from the "Tragedy of the Commons."
We currently have no way of assigning economic value to these services even though we must have them to survive. We make attempts with things like pollution credits, carbon credits, etc and have failed to devise any association. Ecosystem degradation in the long run costs money as the goods we can obtain, decrease, and we also spend money to clean up messes that are health risks or problematic for humans.
Now let's go back to the comprehensive list and determine which of these are assigned economic value and which are not. This defines the difference between ecosystem goods and ecosystem services. It was difficult to assign economic value to these services provided by nature. So, I took help from Google, and some of my friends who are passionate about the environment - to find out the worth of the ecosystem services. Below are a few examples:
80% of the world's population relies on medicine. Most are derived from plants and animals.
Over 100,000 species of bats, moths, bees, flies, beetle, birds, and butterflies help pollinate crops with a value estimated at $6 billion annually.
Approximately 50,000 non-native species in the United States cause major environmental damage and losses totaling approximately $ 137 Billion per year.
After knowing these mind-boggling facts, it's time for us to brainstorm the previous list and fill in ones we missed out.
- Pollution of land, air, and water resources.
- Introduction of nonnative species.
- Over-harvesting of fishes.
- Destruction of wetlands.
- Erosion of soils.
- Deforestation and urban spreading.
I know, all this must be making you think about the word - Degradation. Decreased biodiversity is one of the root causes of the degradation of ecosystems. While biodiversity is incredibly complex and it is problematic to link specific decreases in biodiversity to specific ecosystem processes that provide goods and services, there is a clear relationship between decreases in biodiversity and overall ecosystem functioning.
That brings me to leave you all with one question-
“Why are humans impacting ecosystem services and goods?”
Fuel your thoughts to answer the above question with these two ideas
Growth in the scale of human enterprise that damages many of these services (population, per-capita consumption, technology ability to produce goods for consumption).
A mismatch between short-term needs and long-term societal well-being.
Lastly, the takeaway of this story is that all things are connected. The choices we make today impact many places and processes on Earth. The results of these impacts ultimately determine the sustainability of Earth ecosystems and the services they provide to us now and for future generations.
A focus for action is to prevent biodiversity loss, or even better, regenerate biodiversity.
Himanshu Singla is an outdoor leader, an engineer from IIT- BHU with 3 years of high growth start-up OYO. A person who found his passion for the outdoors and since then he has been working in the outdoors since 2017. He is a certified mountaineer with extensive experience on slopes and peaks throughout the Himalayas. He does storytelling through his photographs and his experiential learning. Currently, he is a co-founder at Little Green World.