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Just how much does help does nature give us, anyway?

We as humans like to think that our technology and civilization have allowed us to transcend reliance on other forms of life in the natural world. Sure, once upon a time we needed to hunt wild animals and construct shelter from natural materials to make it through the winter, but we’re fine now, thank you very much. The perception is that any plants and animals we need are already part of our agricultural system, and that everything else is just sort of out there, a nice setting for a postcard. This could not be further from the truth.

In the last decade and a half, scientists have been quantifying exactly how much natural ecosystems help us. Each biome provides us with a number of benefits that would be extremely costly to artificially replace. For example, coral reefs (one of the most valuable ecosystems to humans on a per-acre basis) protect coastlines against storms and soften the impact of waves, dramatically reducing soil erosion. Without them, we’d be forced to build expensive seawalls and levees to compensate for the loss of their protection, and pour millions into maintaining defenses that had previously been naturally occurring. A team of scientists has recently published updated calculations on the dollar benefit of “ecosystem services” provided by each biome, and summarized the averages in the graph below. 

            X-axis: US$/hectare/year. (R. de Groot et al., 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212041612000101)

They estimated that the ecosystems they analyzed produce a whopping 142.7 trillion US dollars of ecosystem services every year, roughly twice the GNP of every nation on earth combined. Unfortunately, we have been steadily destroying many of the biomes that contribute to this figure, costing ourselves almost unimaginably in the future via pollution and deforestation. Now that the values of ecosystems are being quantified, the question becomes: do we change our policies in light of the vast financial ramifications? Or will the new dollar sign attached to each ecosystem give us an excuse to stop protecting less “valuable” areas?

~Andrew Wilson, Summer Research Intern

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/science/earth/putting-a-price-tag-on-natures-defenses.html?ref=science&_r=1, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212041612000101, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378014000685

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