Photo by Mark Ordonez from Schaumburg, IL, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This is the second post from my Appalachian Biodiversity series. Read or listen to the first post, Episode 36 Appalachian Biodiversity.
The economic or concrete value of nature is a question that ecologists don’t address as often as they probably should, and that, though good efforts have been made in recent decades, has never been fully quantified, from what I can tell. That is to say, we hear stories about how bad it is that we’re cutting down the rainforests or filling the oceans with plastic waste. But what exactly will be the costs? If we lose biodiversity but humans can still survive the radically altered world we’re creating, what will it cost us? Nature lovers like myself tend to fall back on the passionate and reflexive reasons that move us: because it’s beautiful, because it feels right, because we love it. But the steely-eyed pragmatic value of nature is a question that needs to be answered too, especially when you’re asking your friends and family to change how they’re managing their land, or when you’re asking government to allocate funds. Clear, coherent and practical reasons help a lot when you’re making that ask.
Furthermore, people in love with nature make great stewards, but their efforts can’t prevent future generations from walking back protections made by those who came before, as recent trends make clear. Former President Trump’s scaling back of environmental protections reflects an attitude shared by many. He was playing to his base after all. As but one example, the wolf was removed from the endagered species list in impulsive fits and starts many times during the years after it was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and established a foothold. The return of the ecosystem’s top predator had done an extraordinary job of quickly restoring Yellowstone’s biodiversity. But that progress was shattered when it became legal again to kill wolves. Ranchers quickly siezed the opportunity, killing pack leaders, and sending the packs into chaos. The fragile harmony that observers and researchers were watching with hope has not recovered.
So, I hope that a clear and coherent set of well-founded arguments can help to make protections more enduring, though I hold no illusions that the truly selfish or shortsighted among us will be swayed. But if I can help that large part of the community who are largely uncommitted on the subject to step up on the side of nature when it counts, then my efforts will be worth it.
As Enric Sala, who told the story of Yellowstone’s wolves in his book, The Nature of Nature, asserts, we so often don’t know the value of a thing until it’s gone, especially when it comes to functional ecosystems. This is especially tricky when those losses happen slowly, as they do when you’re working with something so vast and abundant as the North American continent. By the time a generation inherts a degraded ecosystem, those who lived while it still thrived are long dead, and even memories of it have faded like a fantasy dream. Worse yet, our own modern culture is so dissociated from nature that many people never interact with it except to walk from the house to the car or maybe to jog through a neighborhood park. There are lots of people who live in the country or who like to spend time outdoors, but are either so terrified or so disghusted by bees and snakes and spiders that they’ll kill first without ever considering that a garter snake, a carpenter bee, and a green garden spider pose absolutely no threat to them and are actually wonderful contributors to the environment. I’ve heard Joe Rogan go on at length about how “horrible” and “vicious” wolves are to justify killing them or to justify killing elk to prevent the elk’s far worse death at the hands of wolves. Which from the perspective of any ecologist or wildlife biologist is absolute drivel. Wolves are top predators and we would never want to get on the wrong side of a meal from them, nor should we make the mistake of trying to turn them into pets. But to place such a human value judgment on an animal fulfilling its evolutionary purpose is beyond ludicrous. And also, how can anyone with a spark of perception in their heart look into a wolf’s eyes and fail to recognize something profoundly familiar? How can they be unmoved by its beauty? We should not romanticize the wolf, but it did give us humanity’s best friend, after all.
Despite all these obstacles, I think it is important to try to lay out some practical arguments. As I continue to clash in small ways every day with traditional perspectives on land management, I appreciate more and more the arguments that can penetrate those worldviews. This is what I’ve found so far, pulling on many sources. It is a paltry and thin list by my estimation but, as I said, this work hasn’t been done extensively and well, probably because we’ve never lived through a total ecosystem collapse and we’ve never experienced the joys of poison rain or toxic soil or an environment so devoid of beauty we would want to jump into the machine to escape the nightmare we’ve created outdoors. These benefits focus on Appalachia but should apply to many ecosystems.
Benefits of Healthy Ecosystems
Photo by Kanenori, via Pixabay
Most of us in Appalachia enjoy access to clean water thanks in no small part to our extensive forested mountains, which both generate rain and capture and filter it across the region. However, in West Virginia, coal mining has depleted the water table in places causing wells to run dry, while chemical spills have polluted it in other places. It is a terrible irony that a place blessed with abundant rainfall has a water crisis that has left millions of people without access to clean drinking water. (NBC News, wvpublic.org, personal communication) In Hawaii, population growth, reduced rainfall due to climate change, and invasive plant species have caused water shortages in recent years. (Earth.org, Honolulu Civil Beat)
Photo by Katy Morikawa
“Trees and other vegetation absorb pollutants such as excessive nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter, through their leaves and needles and thereby help to improve air quality,” says the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. I think that the benefits can go beyond cleaning pollution to health-positive organic compounds that you breathe in. The Japanese national health program of forest bathing builds upon this concept, but anyone who has ever stood in an old growth forest and taken a deep breath knows this to be true. Again, we have our forests to thank.
Photo by terski via Pixabay
Many studies confirm that widespread deforestation reduces rainfall, raises surface temperatures, and produces greater fluctuations in temperature and weather. (eg., U.S. Forest Service, ecos). We have the large tree canopy of our forests to thank for our mild weather, together with mountain topography, weather patterns and other climate factors. Given the role Appalachia has played in sheltering multitudes of species during Ice Age fluctuations over millions of years, we can expect this to endure if we preserve our forests and ecosystem.
According to Enric Sala (author The Nature of Nature), children growing up near protected areas were statistically taller than their peers! From forest bathing to nature retreats, people around the world are recognizing the many health benefits of nature.
On the negative side, degraded ecosystems spawn diseases (HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, H1N1) via stresses on wildlife and unhealthy human interactions (Sala). If we want to prevent the next pandemic, we need to protect and restore our ecosystems. Evidence shows that the prevalence of Lyme disease in the Eastern U.S. can be traced to the extirpation of the wolf, this ecosystem’s top predator and keystone species.
Mental Health Benefits
Mental Health Benefits
Although more study is needed, there are strong correlations between proximity to protected mature ecosystems and reduced rates of anxiety, depression, insomnia, domestic violence, substance abuse, and other mental health problems. (NIMH) Vacationers to national parks can certainly attest to the relaxation and other mental health benefits they experience. In urban environments, dramatic reductions in depression and domestic violence have been observed in neighborhoods where vacant city lots have been “greened,” a move in the right direction along that gradient. (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)
Photo CC0 by Pixabay
In 2021, the U.S. National Park system generated $20.5 billion in visitor spending, $14.6B in labor income, 323,000 jobs, and $24.3 billion in value added, for a total of $42.5 billion in national economic output in 2021, with an operating budget of $4.1 billion. For every $1 spent, the National Park Service generates $10 in economic benefit.
In 2020, the Blue Ridge Parkway generated $1.3 billion to local economies. Source: National Park Service
Photo by Katy Morikawa
According to the USGS, “Forests, which occupy about half the land in the East, accounted for more than 80 percent of the region’s estimated carbon sequestered annually.” However, it’s not just forests!
Mature forests, as well as deep-soil native grasslands, healthy wetlands, mangrove swamps, and peat bogs sequester carbon at far greater rates than agricultural land, suburban lawns, and cities. In short, mature native ecosystems mitigate climate change.
38 people died in flooding in Eastern Kentucky in July 2022, during an historic rain event attributed to climate change, but made devastating by strip mining of adjacent mountains. Coal mining companies have been criticized “for failing to return the land to its natural state after decades of mining caused the loss of the natural ridge lines and vegetation.” (Wikipedia) This is yet another example of the exploitation that happens in communities of poverty in which people don’t have the wherewithall to protect themselves.
Degraded streambanks are unstable, dangerous, unattractive, muddy the water, and cost a lot to maintain. An ecologically restored streambank provides erosion control, bank stabilization, cleaner water and natural beauty with minimal maintenance.
An ecologically restored streambank…
Photo by U.S. Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons
Although we in Appalachia are protected by distance and topography from coastal storms, we can learn from the lessons low-lying communities are discovering about the benefits of restoring coastal ecosystems for buffering against storms. Ecosystem restoration costs far less than conventional engineering solutions and delivers many other benefits. (Science Daily).
It is widely believed that the catastrophic damage experienced from Hurricane Katrina would have been dramatically mitigated had New Orleans not drained and developed its wetlands.
Photo by Didier Descouens, CC4.0 by Wikimedia Commons.
The Treehugger podcast sums up this emerging field beautifully: “Biomimicry looks to nature and natural systems for inspiration, using nature-inspired strategies for improving design. Through adaptation and evolution, nature spends millions of years tinkering its way out of problems, ending up with some mind-boggling innovations. Inefficiency doesn’t last long in nature, and human engineers and designers often look there for solutions to modern problems.” Innovations include advanced materials for wetsuits, velcro, architectural designs, display screens, water harvesting and storage, and more. We will not be able to learn from nature’s laboratory and its millions of years of innovation if we kill off biodiversity. Our solutions might lie out there in the forest or the kelp beds. Do we dare destroy it before we’ve properly begun to learn? Do we dare destroy it ever when we can’t possibly know what we will need in some unknown future? Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Treehugger.
Now to correct a few popular misconceptions…
Pollination & Pollinators Feed the World
Photo by Katy Morikawa
Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators (who in turn depend on native flowering plants). (Our World in Data) Here, honeybees (domesticated, non-native) from Spikenard Farms right around the corner from where this photo was taken, join our native carpenter bees in foraging on wingstem (aka stickweed, Verbesina alternifolia), a reliable fall-blooming wildflower favored by many native pollinators.
Additionally, pollinator larvae (caterpillars) provide an enormous amount of food for birds and mammals representing a critical trophic level responsible for converting the sun’s energy into protein. Pollinators are both key players and indicators in biodiverse ecosystems. We have never experienced a world without them, so we must rely on our imaginations. But the loss of our pollinators would certainly involve major ecosystem collapse. (Source: Tallamy, Milman)
but humans not so much…
But humans not so much…
However, the importance of pollinators to human food supplies are not as critical as some advocates warn.
“Most of our staple crops – cereals such as maize, wheat and rice; roots and tubers such as cassava; and legumes such as peas and lentils – do not rely on bees and butterflies at all.
A lot of our fruits and vegetables, oil crops, coffee, nuts and avocados are partially dependent. [75% of crops, 35% by weight. Current estimates are that crop production worldwide would be reduced by 5-10% without pollinators.]
There are only a few crops that are fully dependent: brazil nuts, fruits such as kiwi and melons, and cocoa beans. A world without pollinators would mean a world without chocolate.”Our World in Data
A world without pollinators would mean a world without chocolate…
Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay
Oxygen doesn’t exactly come from the oceans
Contrary to popular belief, the ocean’s phytoplankton do not create 50% of the oxygen we breathe (their oxygen output is used up by marine life). Nor do our forests generate the other 50% for similar reasons. In fact, if we were to wipe out all life on Earth, oxygen would remain in the atmosphere for quite a long time. However, in the broad expanses of time, the ocean has provided a large fraction of the oxygen we breathe through the burial of organic matter. Exactly why this is so requires a bigger brain than mine to understand. Still, phytoplankton die-off due to deoxygenation, rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification is threatening the marine life webs upon which we depend for food and which represent 80% of all life on Earth. (Source: The Conversation)
So, we might be able to raise crops and still have oxygen to breathe without rich highly functional ecosystems. But do we want to live in a world without…
Not to mention all those other unimagined consequences?