Science and Medicine

Should we start paying for what nature gives us for free?

By Janet Basu

How do you build a world? Noah had it easy ­ just load the animals on board and weigh anchor. But think about it. Better yet, imagine that the moon has just magically acquired an Earth-like atmosphere and you have been invited by NASA to build a self-sustaining new home for humanity there. What do you pack besides your underwear and a toothbrush? Some of Noah’s cargo, for sure: Crops for your table, cows for milk and a few species that go beyond the strictly practical. “You’d want the basic ingredients for the landscapes that sustain the human soul,” suggests Stanford ecologist Gretchen Daily.

But there’s more, Daily says: Your arkful of creatures will perish, and so will you, without some basic life-support systems. You need the plants, animals, fungi and microbes that work together in an extraordinary and wondrous balance to purify air and water; to decompose wastes and neutralize their poisons; to build soil and renew its fertility; to pollinate crops, control pests and disperse seeds; to stabilize climate and moderate extremes in temperature, winds and waves; to mitigate floods and droughts.

Back here on Earth, scientists call these benefits “ecosystem services.” For millennia, we have taken them for granted. Now we can no longer be so blasé. To replace these natural utilities would cost trillions ­ more than the gross national product of the world’s nations combined, Daily says. Most cannot be replaced at any cost. “The human enterprise is degrading and beginning to destroy the life-support systems that sustain our prosperity and our very lives,” she warned at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this February.

Daily joins an impressive list of scientists, economists and policy experts who are alarmed by the loss of Earth’s vital systems.

Ecological Economy (Plain text)
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