Critical services like water purification, biodiversity maintenance, and climate stabilization are spontaneously generated by healthy ecosystems. Because these services are chronically under-valued in the marketplace, they are highly vulnerable to degradation.
This mist-shrouded forest is providing a range of ecosystem services, including water and air purification, climate stabilization, flood control, and recreation.
Ecosystem services are those valuable, ongoing streams of benefits provided by thriving ecosystems. Just as economic capital provides steady financial returns, Nature provides steady environmental returns in the form of ecosystem services. These services are inherently renewable, but require that the physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.
Some of the most significant ecosystem services include: — purification of air and water — mitigation of floods and droughts — detoxification and decomposition of wastes — generation and renewal of soil and soil fertility — pollination of crops and natural vegetation — control of agricultural pests — dispersal of seeds and nutrients — maintenance of biodiversity — protection from ultraviolet rays — stabilization of climate — moderation of temperature extremes and the force of winds and waves — support of diverse human cultures — beauty and spiritual sustenance.
A recent study in the journal Science estimated the value of replicating just the most readily quantifiable of these services at $30-$40 trillion per year, which is roughly equivalent to the total Gross Planetary Product. Of course, ecosystem services are also beyond price, providing a source of cultural identity, of kinship with life, of learning, of evolutionary processes, and of Soil Services, air, Watershed Services, and Biodiversity which as yet have no engineering substitutes.
Ecosystem services are ultimately dependent on a system of Ecological Land-Use that maintains the integrity of the entire landscape. They also require freedom from systematic contamination, which can be achieved through better Materials Cycles.
Ecosystem services can provide an important new source of economic incentives for land conservation. In the case of the New York City water supply, water purification services provided by the Catskills watershed over the last century have been the basis for the municipal water supply. When the municipal system began to deteriorate in the 1990s, the City faced a choice between investing up to $8 billion in a state-of-the-art treatment system or about $1.5 billion to protect and restore the Catskills watershed. In this case, the choice to protect the watershed was made essentially because of the economic benefits provided by the watershed's stream of ecosystem services.
Protect the health of ecosystems in order to maintain their flow of ecosystem services. Identify and value streams of ecosystem services as a way to provide incentives for conservation.