The current model of measuring the value of the environment focuses almost entirely on growth potential, ignoring the long-term sustainability and stewardship of the capital, or resources. This system does not recognize that humans are enmeshed in the earth’s living ecosystems. However, each action we take has an effect on the health and quality of our environment, and the state of our environment is reflected back in our own health and wellness.
Some groups and forward thinkers are envisioning an entirely new framework in which to view and measure the value of natural systems. The term “ecosystem services,” for example, describes any benefit that nature provides through healthy ecosystems and is divided into four measurable parts: supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural.
Those groups use the term “ecosystem services” to encompass all those benefits that our natural environment provides, placing them into four categories: “Supporting services” such as providing habitat, producing oxygen, and forming and retaining soil; “provisioning services” or products such as food, fiber, fresh water, and medicine; “regulating services” which involve the control or mitigation of climate, water, and some human diseases; and “cultural services” or those non-material benefits we receive from nature, such as recreation, spiritual enrichment, learning, and general well-being.
By using this framework to assign economic value to these benefits, these groups are bringing important balance to the historic approach of valuing natural resources primarily for short-term or immediate gain.
Here are two examples of how the ecosystem services approach measures the economic value of natural resources.
- Honey bees pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops in the United States each year (Watanabe, 1994). However, of the hundred or so crops that make up most of the world’s food supply, only 15 percent are pollinated by domesticated bee colonies, while at least 80 percent are pollinated by wild (feral) bees and other wildlife (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1990; Ingram et al., 1996a; Buchmann and Nabhan, 1996).
- In New York City, where the quality of drinking water had fallen below standards required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, authorities opted to restore the polluted Catskill Watershed that had previously provided the city with the ecosystem service of water purification. Once the input of sewage and pesticides to the watershed area was reduced, natural abiotic processes such as soil absorption and filtration of chemicals, together with biotic recycling via root systems and soil microorganisms, water quality improved to levels that met government standards. The cost of this investment in natural capital was estimated at $1-1.5 billion, which contrasted dramatically with the estimated $6-8 billion cost of constructing a water filtration plant plus the $300 million annual running costs.
If you are interested in learning more about the different ways of placing value on natural systems, be sure to read the article “Regenerative Land Management for Safe Food Production: Ecological vs. Environmental Economics” by CHFS President Daniel Nuckols.
Valuing and measuring the true economic benefit of ecology involves nurturing and protecting viable, life-sustaining ecosystems. These models offer hope for the future, as they require of us to make choices that are sustainable and are transferable to the generations to come.
Read about one scientist’s suggestions for going beyond “crop yield” as an indicator of a food system’s value in this June 5, 2018, article at nature.com.