As the debate about how to revive our economy while sustaining our environment heats up, it's important to remember that the economic driver truly "too big to fail" is Mother Nature herself.
It's been calculated that nature's "Ecosystem Services" are worth over $33 trillion dollars a year – nearly double the size of the global economy. And while that figure is important for putting a value on Nature's contributions to the economy, it belies the fact that without nature we could not survive at all.
So the true value of natural services? Priceless.
In their seminal work "Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on BioDiversity," Harvard M.D.'s teamed up with Oxford University Press, the U.N. Environment Program, and famed biologist E.O. Wilson to compile a comprehensive picture of how diverse species and ecosystems provide "materials, conditions, and processes that sustain all life on this planet, including human life."
Here's a look at the Top 10 things Mother Nature does for us for free, year after year, that we couldn't even begin to do ourselves without her:
1. Net Primary Production (NPP)
While economists fret over the GDP, many are unaware of the NPP, which is the total amount of plant material produced during a year through photosynthesis. This organic matter is not only the base of the entire food chain, but also the foundation for all other ecosystem services.
So how big is the NPP? Land ecosystems on the planet produce an estimated 132 billion tons, and the NPP of the oceans is similar.
The problem? Humans are consuming and degrading nearly 40% of terrestrial NPP, and the oceans aren’t faring much better.
The real problem? When ecosystems collapse, there is no way to bail them out.
2. Plant and Animal Products
For thousands of years people have relied on nature to provide our food, clothing, shelter, tools, fuel and medicine.
The annual catch from the world's fisheries alone is valued at $100 billion a year, besides being the primary source of protein for millions of people in Africa and Asia. The world's grasslands support the animals that give us meat, milk, wool, and leather, while forests give us timber for shelter, furniture, and paper.
Organic material from plants and trees also supply 15% of the world's fuel – 40% in the developing world. In addition, the world's medicines are all derived from the work of nature's invisible bio-chemists; as are hundreds of other industrial products including resins, dyes, and insecticides.
We're talking trillions of dollars here, folks.
We know we need plants to survive, but we often forget that plants need pollinators to reproduce. Bees alone pollinate a third of the nation's food supply, and are vital to major economic drivers like California's billion dollar agriculture business.
The onset of Colony Collapse Disorder among the nation’s overworked, pesticide-laden bees has brought attention to this issue.
Less known is the economic impact of having forests and the wild pollinators they support near to our fields and farms.
In Costa Rica, WWF researchers found that preserving forest fragments near coffee plantations nearly doubled pollination rates which increased yields by 20%, raising average incomes $62,000 a year.
On the flipside, places in China that have killed off their bees, are having to pollinate apples and pears by hand. Women and children are climbing through the trees dusting each flower with tiny brushes. Can you imagine how expensive food would be if we had to do that with all our crops?
Now how valuable is that patch of forest?
4. Cleaning the Air
Plants, especially forest canopies, clean the air we need to breathe. By filtering out the particulate matter from our fossil fuel combustion, cement production, waste incineration, and crop burning, plants can greatly reduce the toxins we spew into the air.
Trees along roadsides, freeways, and in congested urban areas absorb nitrous oxide with their leaves, not to mention soaking up carbon dioxide and giving off fresh oxygen in return.
5. Purifying the Water
Nature's forests, soils and wetlands are so effective at removing toxins, heavy metals, and organic matter from water that engineers are now building "living machines" – constructed wetlands to treat wastewater. Sand and gravel filter particulates from water, while microbes and bacteria feed on organic matter. Mussels and oysters are being cultivated by NASA as a natural solution for treating wastewater during long-range space missions.
Fresh water is our most precious resource, and it is nature's clouds, snowbanks and watersheds that cleanse, store and transport that water for us.
6. Mitigating Floods
The earliest civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and India sprouted on the fertile flood plains of the world's great rivers. These floodplains are nature’s safety valves, allowing the river’s natural cycles to overflow its banks and deposit fresh soil on the land.
But as urban development and farmland have encroached on the rivers, we have drained the wetlands, and put ourselves in harm's way. In 1993, the flooding Mississippi River swept through tens of thousands of homes in nine states, killing 50 people and damaging millions of acres of farmland worth $12 billion dollars.
7. Controlling Erosion
Plant canopies intercept and soften rainfall. Their roots bind the soil in place, while root channels and animal burrows act like natural drainage networks, helping water soak deep into the ground.
By clearing plants, we expose dry, unbinded soils to pounding rains which simply wash it away. The U.N. Food & Ag Organization estimates that erosion ruins over 10 million acres a year of cropland. By 1978, China had abandoned one-third of its arable land due to erosion.
Lands cleared for agriculture have increasingly suffered devastating mudslides in winter storms and hurricanes. The devastating tsunami that struck Thailand and Indonesia in 2004 was significantly less damaging in places with intact coral reefs, vegetated dunes and healthy mangrove forests.
8. Detoxifying Pollutants
As we burn and churn chemicals from the earth into the atmosphere, we are depositing toxins, heavy metals, and radioactive materials all over the place. We have also created tens of thousands of chemical pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds which we’re now finding in alarming concentrations in our drinking water – and our own tissues.
But many common plants can absorb these chemicals. Mustard plants can absorb lead, nickel, copper and a host of other metals. Aquatic hyacinth has been used to remove arsenic from drinking water, while the common sunflower was used to soak up radioactive substances in ponds after Chernobyl. Both mustard and sunflower were used to soak up lead at a DaimlerChrysler site in Detroit at half the cost of carting the toxic soil to a hazardous waste dump.
The increasing use of "bioremediation" shows promise in cleaning up vinyl chloride – found in one-third of all Superfund sites – as well as DDT, and other toxins.
9. Controlling Pests and Disease
We have learned the hard way that nature works in complex, interdependent cycles, and that targeting one particular "pest" often creates unintended consequences. But in many cases we still don't know what species are necessary for ecosystems to properly function, or in what proportions they must be present.
What we have found is that maintaining natural places, with their complex webs intact, is often a safer, more reliable way to deal with pests than simply killing them off.
In Germany for instance, hedgerows, small stands of trees, are used to separate fields. By harboring insects and attracting birds, Germany is one of the few places farmers don't need to spray for aphids – because Nature does that work for them.
10. Regulating Climate
Lastly, nature is what makes our planet habitable. It was microorganisms that created our oxygen atmosphere, and plants that sustain it.
The rainforests of South America play a large role in transpiring moisture into the air that falls as rain on our crops. Forests and soils are also the world's largest storehouses of carbon. Nature cycles the hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur – which together with carbon and oxygen comprise 95% of the biosphere.
It is the beautiful places of the world, and the wonderful weather we find there that make tourism the world's largest industry.
Nature is what soothes us, heals us, inspires and invigorates us. A few urban trees, a park or a small patch of forest can improve health, increase worker productivity and reduce crime. Preserving wild places – Nature's Corporate Headquarters – not only helps sustain our basic life-support systems; it's also the kind of common sense economic policy we so sorely need right now.