Where community and environmental literacy come together:
Relax. Sit down. Enjoy. Connect.

April 21, 2014

What Does The Environment Do For Us?

A lot of people that I've talked to or overheard in conversation when talking about why the environment should be saved in a "wilderness" state often give the beauty of nature or the transcendental experience of being in a wilder setting as reasons.  Many find peace of mind, artistic inspiration and a sense of connectedness with the universe wandering in the great out-of-doors.  Some also note that you need to save wilderness areas to provide habitat for the animals and plants that call those places home.  If you lose those places you'll lose the animals and plants as well.


All of these reasons are good reasons to preserve our natural inheritance, but for people who are more business oriented or who don't enjoy nature that much might not be convinced that these reasons are sufficient to override the necessity for development and resource harvesting.

I was reading an interesting paper from BioScience journal called, "Linking Ecology and Economics for Ecosystem Management" that tried to take a more quantitative approach to valuing ecosystem services for the purpose of taking into account what monetary value is being lost by developing natural ecosystems.  

A satellite image of deforestation
At the most fundamental level humans and most other organisms (perhaps some bacteria are exceptions) could not survive long without the complex networks of services that we provide for one another.  All lifeforms are totally interdependent and are players in complex cycles where everything gets used and recycled.

Ecosystem services are all the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems and the biosphere.  These services come in many forms and we'll go through many examples so that the next time someone, who maybe doesn't appreciate the beauty of nature, asks you why the environment should be preserved you'll be able to give some other, more utilitarian/anthropocentric, reasons.

Beyond beauty and the artistic/spiritual value of nature, and beyond the fact that many plants and animals call these wild places home, many people value nature for the purpose of all kinds of recreation from camping, hiking, canoeing, biking and other outdoor sports to photography, birdwatching, site-seeing, etc.  


At a more utilitarian level, we receive all of the necessities of life from the environment.  Everything we see in our homes and our communities came from the environment.  Perhaps it was metal ore from deep in the ground that was used to make railroad tracks, skyscrapers, bridges, machines, tools, parts in our cellphones and computers.  Perhaps it was coal, oil, or natural gas that now is being combusted to move our cars, trains, planes or to produce electricity.  Maybe it was wood cut down in the Pacific Northwest or the Amazonian Rainforest that is now our tables, desks, cupboards, bookshelves, doors or house-frames.  Maybe it was some plant harvested for food, drink, chemicals, lotion, medicine or fuel.  Maybe it was a medicinal herb that helps soothe a cold or a compound produced by a bacteria with anti-cancer properties.  Maybe it was some animal that was slaughtered for food, clothing, or apparel.  Everything comes from the environment whether near or far.  It can be fun to look at something like a computer and to try to deconstruct it down to its components and trying to guess where it all came from, how it was made, and who made it.

The provisioning of raw resources are more commonplace services that the environment provides, that many of us are aware of, though we may often forget them and take their complexity for granted (for instance, we might eat a cow, but what was necessary for that cow to survive?  It needed to eat grass, the grass needs sunlight, air, water, and good soil which requires bacteria and fungi which make nutrients accessible as well as worms that help nutrients cycle underground, and these worms, fungi and bacteria need things, etc.  It can get complex fast.), but there are other ecosystem services that many of us are not aware of though they are just as important, if not even more important.  

Nutrient cycling is one such extremely important, but ofter overlooked, ecosystem service that bacteria, fungi, protozoans, nematodes, and various other microorganisms as well as worms, and burrowing animals, etc., provide.  Nutrient cycling helps keep the soil fertile and often helps the soil retain moisture.  This is important for our crops as well as all plants which are the base of many food webs.  If nutrients didn't cycle, as a plant would grow its roots would deplete the soil in its vicinity.  The roots could grow longer to reach nutrients further and further away, but there is a limit to how long roots can grow.  The roots could also divide into a finer network to extract nutrients in the in-between places, but there is a limit to how finely divided a root system can become.  Thus, rather than the plant depleting its local area and eternally growing to reach nutrients further-and-further away, the nutrients come to the plant.  Bacteria and fungi make nutrients from atmospheric gases and transport those nutrients to plants in exchange for photosynthetically made sugars from the plant; worms and burrowing animals move nutrients from deeper levels to higher levels; decomposers breakdown dead organic matter into nutrients that the plant can use.  All of these processes make nutrients available to plants without the plant having to move or invest energy in growth.

Pollination and seed dispersal are another important, but often overlooked ecosystem service.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council approximately 30% of the world's crops are pollinated by bees alone.  Many plants require pollinators from bats and birds, to bees and butterflies to sexually reproduce.  Without this pollinator service many plants would soon die off and this would effect many other things like soil quality, climate, the gas composition of the atmosphere, and the number and kind of organisms that live off of plant matter in some way just to name a few.

Seed dispersion is necessary for many plants to increase their range size, to maintain genetic diversity, to increase the odds of rooting in fertile ground, to reduce local competition for resources, etc. and can be performed by insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals including humans.

Climate Control, atmospheric regulation and the regulation of the hydrological cycle are yet another often overlooked ecosystem services provided by many organisms.  These services are perhaps provided more subtly and seem more abstract, but in the absence of a favorable climate, atmosphere and water cycle much of life on Earth would perish.  We all contribute to atmospheric regulation.  All organisms respire and produce CO2 or a CO2 equivalent (even plants produce some CO2).  Other organisms, like plants, algae and some bacteria make atmospheric oxygen out of CO2, while other bacteria make methane and nitrogen gas.  Just how the chemical composition of the atmosphere is maintained is still somewhat of a mystery, but we all contribute in some way and benefit too.

Organisms effect their climate.  Let's take a forest as an example.  A forest tends to be cooler and more humid than a city.  There is even some evidence that forests, because they are cooler and more humid, might generate some of their own rain in a way similar to "lake effect" precipitation.  Additionally, because forests retain moisture, they tend to help water percolate deep and recharge underground aquifers.  This process also helps purify water.  For all of these reasons when forests like the rain forests are clear-cut the land tends to become much drier and hotter, prone to desertification and fires.  Thus, many of the climates we enjoy on Earth might, in part, be created by the organisms around us and we would be wise to maintain them so that all of Earth doesn't become a harsh, hot, barren desert. 

Organisms who provide biological waste regulation services just like your local garbage collector tend to be under-acknowledged for their efforts.  Decomposers and nutrient recyclers are constantly at work.  Could you imagine living on an Earth where nothing dead ever broke down?  The Earth would be a heap of all the bodies of the plants, animals and microorganisms that ever lived with no room to live and with all the nutrients tied up.  Luckily, there are decomposers and recycling-minded organisms (like fungi and bacteria) who break down dead things into their elemental parts so that the nutrients can be re-used to make the bodies of organisms living, growing and still yet to be born.

Other organisms get rid of, detoxify or store our waste and pollution.  Wetlands are very good at removing pollutants, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals from rivers and lakes.  Other organisms help purify the air by removing pollutants and storing them in their bodies.  Many bacteria in the soil break down many human-made chemicals and remove molecules from water, in a purifying process, as it percolates to underground aquifers that we then can use as drinking water or irrigation water.

Other ecosystem services also go unnoticed like the disturbance mitigation wetlands and mangrove forests provide against flooding and tidal waves, or wind breaking by trees, or the prevention of landslides and erosion by the roots of plants. 

Biological regulation like pest control by predators is an important ecosystem service that we receive.  If there were no checks and balances on organisms like mosquitoes, termites, mice, bacteria, pathogens, etc., Earth would be a very different place (probably a very miserable one).  Biodiversity is one of the best protections against disease-causing organisms because it controls their populations and limits the extent of their range as well as provides competition for their niche.

The biological world also provides genetic resources which are important for resilience.  Diversity is necessary for life to survive a dynamic and sometimes harsh environment.  In agriculture, crosses are often made in the lab between ancestral corn plants and modern versions of corn when varieties need to be selected that can survive droughts better or that can survive the attacks of certain pests better, for example.  Lately, scientists have exploited the genetic diversity of bacterial toxins for crop production by putting those bacterial genes in corn and other crops as an insecticide.

Science and society also benefit from the intellectual ecosystem services of education and imagination.  Would we ever have thought of the possibility of flying had we not seen birds and insects flying?  Would we ever have developed anti-biotics had Alexander Flemming not noticed that a fungus was creating compounds that were keeping bacterial colonies at bay?  Will we develop renewable energy sources in the future mimicking the processes of photosynthesis?

For all of the ecosystem services that organisms on Earth provide for us how many more are provided that we're unaware of?  Is it possible that there are many other services provided that we're not aware of?  Is this reason enough to try and protect the biodiversity that exists on Earth?

The Earth and its organisms do so many things for us, to keep us alive, that we don't have to work or pay for.  These ecosystem services range from artistic inspiration and peace of mind, to water filtration, climate control, atmospheric chemistry regulation and the provisioning of food.  It can truly be said that we humans are totally dependent upon the organisms of this Earth for survival.  It's probably wise for us to keep that in mind as we go forward in this modern age.

-Seth Commichaux

No comments: