Nature's Value Adds up to more than Its Beauty
Catalina Island Conservancy
We've all stopped at some point to gaze at a beautiful view, glimpse a majestic wild animal or admire the complex architecture of a tree. In these moments, we value nature for its ability to make us feel good. But have you ever considered the economic value of nature?
Natural, functional ecosystems deliver goods and services that are essential to human welfare. Collectively, these vital functions are known as ecosystem services. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines ecosystem services as “the many life-sustaining benefits we receive from nature.” These crucial benefits are often undervalued because they usually accrue without our awareness of them.
Nature gives us clean air and water and products like fish, lumber, livestock forage, wildlife habitat and fuel. Nature creates soil, processes waste, regulates climate and pollinates crops. Natural chemicals are the basis for modern medicines and everyday products like paint, textiles and lubricants. Altered ecosystems can lose their ability to provide these life-supporting benefits.
The Catalina Island Conservancy is dedicated to protecting Island ecosystems that provide us with these essential natural services, knowing that beauty is but one of those services. Avalon and Island natural landscapes offer refuge from modern urban life. Catalina’s coast and wild interior go further with opportunities for hiking, camping and fishing as well as educational, spiritual and artistic retreat. We trace these valuable local commodities back to nature and ecosystem services.
Can we put a price tag on these services? A 1997 study assigned the world’s ecosystem services an annual value of $33 trillion. Researchers surveyed citizens’ willingness to pay for these non-marketed – yet necessary – amenities, taking into account ecosystems across the planet. University of Maryland scientist Robert Costanza and fellow researchers from around the world concluded that this figure is nearly double what we actually pay for marketable goods and services.
Put another way, nature gives us $33 trillion worth of life-sustaining services, and we’re paying half price. Our end of that bargain is keeping natural systems intact, and we can find inspiration to do that job by remembering that we live on the only habitable planet in our solar system, possibly in the entire galaxy.
Intact ecosystems play an important role in maintaining Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere that sustains life. Without any effort on our part, individual plants take in carbon dioxide and give back oxygen, while giant forests keep water cycling through the atmosphere and maintain long-standing global rainfall patterns. Life in the oceans is dependent on atmospheric chemistry. If we mess up this planet to the point of no return, finding a new home for all of us could be challenging, not to mention expensive.
Looking at the health of the human spirit, the demand for recreation in natural areas is only going to increase, as the world becomes more populated and wild areas scarcer. Here in our backyard, the value of Catalina’s natural landscapes, productive ocean waters and smog-free air only increases as time goes by.
During this holiday season, the Catalina Island Conservancy asks you to think about the valuable gifts we receive from nature and how to give back. If you’re looking for ideas about how to preserve natural ecosystems and their interconnected services, we’re here to help. Our children and grandchildren will be grateful.
By Alexa Johnson
Alexa Johnson is the Catalina Island Conservancy’s Outreach and Naturalist Training Specialist. For more information, please visit catalinaconservancy.org.