Chris Maser

The inherent services performed free by Nature constitute the invisible foundation that is the wealth of every human community, as well as their economic basis of support. In this sense, Nature's services are also the wealth of everyone involved in any way with the world's agriculture. From a cab driver in New York City to the actor in Los Angeles, to the farmer in Kansas, and the logger in Oregon, we humans rely on oceans to supply fish; forests to supply water, wood, and new medicines; streams and rivers to transport water from its source to a point where we can access it; soil to grow food; grasslands for grazing livestock, and the list go on and on.

Although we base our livelihoods on the expectation that Nature will provide these services indefinitely, despite what we do to the environment, the economic system to which we are committing our unquestioning loyalty either undervalues, discounts, or ignores these services altogether. This is but saying that Nature's services are measured poorly or not at all—despite the fact that we rely on them for everything concerning the quality of our lives.

Perhaps the most important of Nature's services is that rendered by the uncharismatic world of the soil under our feet, a world that in many ways seems as alien as a distant planet. Although the ecological processes occurring in the top few inches of the Earth's surface are the foundation of all terrestrial life, the hidden nature of this underworld upon which we all trod makes it exceedingly difficult to understand how it functions. As upright creatures of the sunlit world, we have an incredibly distorted view of soil—the nurturing, placental nexus between the nonliving-inorganic and the living-organic components of our world, the quality of which we continually take for granted.

The ecological processes are writ small in the geography of the soil. The ecological processes occurring within a few cubic inches (cubic centimeters) of soil are equal in Nature's intrinsic stature and complexity to those we view in two to three acres (O.8 to 1.2 hectares) of forest or coral reef. Despite the importance of soil, humanity degrades it:

Physical degradation occurs through the erosive agents of wind and water, both of which are due to the abusive practices in forestry and agriculture. With respect to soil erosion, there were three major epochs. The first arose in concert with the expansion of early river-basin civilizations, as measured by the Christian calendar, in the second millennium BCE in such river basins as the Yellow, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and so on. The second epoch occurred in the sixteen to nineteenth centuries, when stronger and sharper plowshares allowed the disruption of the sod in the steppes of Eurasia, prairies of North America, and pampas of South America, as well as other places. The third epoch commenced after the end of World War II in 1945, when an expanding human population infiltrated place heretofore untouched by mechanized agriculture.

Chemical degradation occurs in three ways:  (1) soils are depleted of their available nutrients when poor farmers are forced to use every scrap of organic matter just to survive and thereby continually rob the soil of organic replenishment, (2) poor irrigation practices that saturate the land, thus increasing its salinity, and (3) dumping petrochemical into the soil through which the soil's living web is largely destroyed, a condition that "addicts" the soil to petrochemicals if the desired plants are to grow.

Desertification takes place when land is abused to the point its protective cover of vegetation is so depleted that it becomes the playground of the winds. Poor farmers are often the architects of the wind's playground by pass their suffering onto the soil and, through abuse of the soil, to every generation that follows them. When I say poor farmers, I mean those who, by force of society, till marginal lands with little means and so reap meager yields, which guarantees the perpetration of the farmers' poverty and their abuse of the soil in a continual, negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop through the generations.

Unfortunately, most people fail to understand that soil is the most ecologically diverse and critical ecosystem on Planet Earth. Myriad, parallel, synergistic processes are constantly taking place in the soils of the world, processes that sustain life in all its dynamic complexity.1


A variety of soils with different vegetative composition and structure are depicted in the of the Great Basin of the western United States, as well as a close-up of buckwheat and the soil that nurtures it.

Just as soil is far more than simply "dirt" underfoot, so forests are far more than merely suppliers of wood fiber. They are a major source of the oxygen we breathe. In addition, young trees absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and the old trees sequester tremendous amounts of carbon within their wooden bodies, both of which help to stabilize the global climate. "Carbon sequestration" implies that atmospheric carbon dioxide is transferred into long-lived "pools" or "sinks," where it is securely stored and thus not immediately available to be reemitted into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, such sequestration of carbon by forests, or terrestrial carbon sinks in general, may well be of short-term benefit because emissions from the burning of fossil fuel far out-weigh the amount of carbon that can be absorbed and stored over time by forests and other plant communities. Emissions from the burning of fossil fuel are currently being augmented by melting of the permafrost in northern latitudes, which is not only killing forests but also adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide.2

Forests are also the main source of water for most of the people of the world, and the value of the water they produce, purify, and store over time greatly exceeds the value of whatever wood fiber humans may glean from them. Forests supply habitat for insects, birds, and bats that pollinate crops and for birds and bats that eat insects considered to be harmful to people's economic interests, such as the forest trees themselves. In addition, forests provide wild animals and plants that can be sustainably harvested. Bluntly put, habitats, both forested and non-forested, are worth much more in terms of dollars when left intact to function as healthy ecosystems over time than when converted to a one-time, short-lived product, such as timber, through the medium of clear-cutting and conversion to economically driven plantations—"fiber farms."

Consider that a worldwide network of nature reserves—terrestrial, freshwater aquatic, and marine—would cost about $45 billion a year to maintain, but the loss of Nature's goods and services would be somewhere between $4,400 billion and $5,200 billion if these habitats are lost. To arrive at such figures, values were placed on the goods and services provided by Nature, just as businesses place values on the goods and services they provide consumers. In addition, the analysis was based on five real-life examples:  (1) logging of the Malaysian tropical forest; (2) small-scale agriculture that is chewing up the forests of Cameroon, West Africa; (3) destruction of mangrove swamps in Thailand, with the subsequent loss of shrimp farming; (4) drainage of Canadian marshes for agriculture; and (5) demolition of coral reefs in the Philippines by fishing with dynamite. The economic returns of exploitation, such as the sale of timber or fish, was estimated for each one, as well as the jobs that particular industry would provide. These values were then compared with the value of the long-term goods and services from a relatively pristine neighboring ecosystem.

The real worth of Nature's services and sustainable goods is either undervalued or altogether neglected because they are provided to the public as a whole. As such, Nature's services and sustainable goods are part of the global commons—the birthright of each human being. Economics, on the other hand, deals with private interests and, generally speaking, only with conventional market-place stocks, shares, and services to which clear monetary values can be affixed. A prime example of the dynamic is sugarcane in Florida.

Sugarcane farmers in Florida are supported by government subsidies in order to make them economically "competitive" with sugarcane farmers in neighboring Cuba. As a result, growing sugarcane is generally unprofitable and continues to damage the unique wetlands of the Florida Everglades. In fact, environmentally flawed subsidies, such as that paid to artificially support the unprofitable growing of sugarcane in Florida, cost governments worldwide around $950 billion annually—enough to pay for an international network of nature reserves 20 times over.3 This scenario raises a question:  Is supporting the unprofitable growing of sugarcane in Florida—at the expense of both the public through tax dollars and the global commons, of which the Everglades is a part—either a wise or responsible choice on the part of our government?

Because of the importance of Nature's inherent services, usually thought of as ecosystem functions, it is worthwhile to examine one worldwide service in greater detail—pollination. Wild and semi-wild pollinators service eighty percent of all cultivated crops—1,330 varieties, including fruits, vegetables, coffee, and tea. Between 120,000 and 200,000 species of animals perform this service.

Bees are enormously valuable to the functioning of virtually all terrestrial ecosystems and such worldwide industries as agriculture. Pollination by naturalized European honeybees is 60 to 100 times more valuable economically than is the honey they produce. In fact, the value of wild blueberry bees is so great that farmers who raise blueberries refer to them as "flying $50 bills."4

While more than half of the honeybee colonies in the United States have been lost within the last fifty years, 25 percent have been lost more recently. Widespread threats to honeybees (other than viruses and mites) and other pollinators are fragmentation and outright destruction of their habitat (hollow trees for colonies in the case of "wild" honeybees), intense exposure to pesticides, a generalized loss of nectar plants to herbicides, as well as the gradual deterioration of "nectar corridors," such as uncultivated fencerows, that provide sources of food to migrating pollinators.

In Germany, for instance, the people are so efficient at weeding their gardens that the nation's free-flying population of honeybees is rapidly declining, according to Werner Muehlen of the Westphalia-Lippe Agricultural Office. Bee populations have shrunk by 23 percent across Germany over the past decade, and wild honeybees are all but extinct in Central Europe. To save the bees says Muehlen, "gardeners and farmers should leave at least a strip of weeds and wildflowers along the perimeter of their fields and properties to give bees a fighting chance in our increasingly pruned and … [sterile] world."5

Besides a growing lack of food, one fifth of all the losses of honeybees in the United States are due to exposure to pesticides. Wild pollinators, such as flower flies and bumblebees, are even more vulnerable to pesticides than honeybees because, unlike hives of domestic honeybees that can be picked up and moved prior to the application of a chemical spray, colonies of wild pollinators cannot be purposefully relocated. Since wild pollinators service at least eighty percent of the world's major crops, whereas domesticated honeybees pollinate only fifteen percent of those same crops, it is unreasonable to expect the latter to fill the gap if wild pollinators are lost.

Ironically, economic valuation of products, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product, only credits—never debits, thereby fostering many of the practices employed in modern intensive agriculture and exploitive forestry that actually curtail the productivity of crops by reducing pollination. An example is the high level of pesticide used on cotton crops to kill bees and other insects, which reduces the annual yield in the United States by an estimated twenty percent or $400 million.6 In addition, herbicides often kill the very plants the pollinators need to for sustenance when not pollinating crops. Finally, squeezing every last penny out of a piece of ground by killing as much unwanted vegetation as possible in the practice of exploitive forestry or by plowing the edges of fields to maximize the agricultural planting area can reduce yields by disturbing and/or removing nearby nesting, rearing, and feeding habitat for pollinators.

Unfortunately, too many people are fueled by their unquestioning acceptance of current economic theory—a theory that actively designs, condones, and encourages the above-mentioned destructive practices. Such people simply assume that the greatest value one can derive from an ecosystem, such as a forest or an agricultural field, is that of maximizing its productive capacity for a single commodity in the present, for the present—to the exclusion of all else.

Single-commodity production, however, is usually the least profitable and least sustainable way to use a forest because single-commodity production cannot compete with the enormous value of non-timber services, such as the production of oxygen, capture and storage of water, holding soils in place, and maintaining habitat for organisms that are beneficial to the economic interests of people and the quality of life they seek. These are all foregone when the drive is to maximize a chosen commodity in the name of a desired short-term monetary profit. Ironically, the undervalued and/or discounted and/or ignored non-timber products and amenities of the forest are not only more valuable than the production of wood fiber in the short term but also more sustainable in the long term and benefit a far greater number of people.

One study, illustrative of alternative strategies for managing the mangrove forests of Bintuni Bay, in Indonesia, found that leaving the forests intact would be more productive than cutting them. When the non-timber uses of the mangrove forests, such as fisheries, locally used products, and the control of soil erosion, were included in the calculation, the most economically profitable strategy was to retain the forests. Maintaining healthy mangrove forests yielded $4,800 per 2.5 acres (1 hectare) annually over time, whereas cutting the forests would yield a one-time value of $3,600 per 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Maintaining the forests would ensure continued local uses of the area worth $10 million per year and provide seventy percent of the local income, while protecting a fisheries worth $25 million a year.7

We humans can no longer assume that the services Nature inherently performs are always going to be there because the consequences of our frequently unconscious actions often affect Nature negatively in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. Yet we can be sure that the loss of individual species and their habitats through the degradation and simplification of ecosystems can, and will, impair the ability of Nature to provide the services we need to survive with any semblance of human dignity and well-being. Losses are just that—irreversible and irreplaceable.

With respect the ecological integrity of Nature's services, such as the fertility of soil, they are the principle of the biological trust that accrues in value and cannot be discounted because soil is part of the commons held in trust for all generations—and we, the adults of the world, are the trustees. The future, including the health and fertility of our nation's soil, is a birthright of every American. Moreover, linear-minded economists and product-oriented farmers and foresters calculate interest rates based on discounting that birthright. To discount individual products, is out of context with the long-term, cumulative effects of Nature's self-reinforcing feedback loops and thus is not in the best use of the trust's capital.

It is precisely because the inherent services provided by Nature are irreplaceable that we must erase the concept of obsolescence from our attitudes, our thinking, and our vocabulary. "Not only does this attitude [that obsolescence is acceptable, even desirable] undermine the conservation of vanishing species," writes ecologist David Ehrenfeld, "but it distorts our perception of our own place in nature." Ehrenfeld goes on to say that we deem ourselves to be exempt from having to play by Nature's ecological rules, that we are somehow above and apart from the game of life in the grand scheme of things. While we can pretend this works for a while, we have not, contends Ehrenfeld, been given either the permission or the power to remove ourselves from the parade of life.

"To call something obsolete," quips Ehrenfeld, "boasts an omniscience we do not possess, a reckless disregard for the deep currents of history and biology, and a supremely dangerous refusal to look at the lasting scars our technology is gashing across our planet and our souls."8 Hence, to keep such things of value as Nature's inherent services, we must shift our thinking to a paradigm of social-environmental harmony, which equates to sustainability, and we must calculate the full costs of what we do in the patterns we are creating across our collective landscapes—both above ground and below ground—in every ecosystem we manipulate to satisfy our material desires (including every farm field), lest we pass forward a legacy of progressive impoverish to every generation of the future, thereby robbing them of their birthright—the global commons.


  1. The preceding discussion of soil is based on:  (1) Andrew Sugden, Richard Stone, and Caroline Ash. 2004. Ecology in the Underworld. Science 304:1613; (2) Jocelyn Kaiser. 2004. Wounding Earth's Fragile Skin. Science 304:1616-1618; (3) Elizabeth Pennisi. 2004. The Secret Life of Fungi. Science 304:1620-1622; (4) J.R. McNeill and Verena Winiwarter. 2004. Breaking the Sod:  Humankind, History, and Soil. Science 304:1627-1629; (5) David A. Wardle, Richard D. Bardgett, John N. Klironomos, and others. 2004. Ecological Linkages Between Aboveground and Belowground Biota. Science 304:1629-1633; (6) I.M. Young and J.W. Crawford.2004. Interactions and Self-Organization in the Soil-Microbe Complex. Science 304:1634-1637; and (7) R Lal. 2004. Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security. Science 304:1623-1626.

  2. The preceding discussion of carbon sequestration is based on:  (1) David Adam. 2001. Royal Society disputes value of carbon sinks. Nature 412:108, (2) Erik Stokstad. 2004. Defrosting the Carbon Freezer of the North. Science 304:1618-1620, and (3) R Lal. 2004. Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security. Science 304:1623-1626.

  3. The preceding three paragraphs are based on:  (1) Andrew Balmford, and others. 2002. Economic reasons for conserving wild nature. Science 297:950-953; (2) Robert Costanza. 1997. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387:253-260; (3) Tomas Love, Eric Jones, and Leon Liegel. 1998. Valuing the Temperate Rainforest:  Wild Mushrooming on the Olympic Peninsula Biosphere Reserve. Ambio Special Report No. 9:16-25; (4) Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. 1979. Prospect theory:  an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 74:263-291; (5) Peter H. Pearse. 1990. Introduction to Forest Economics. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 1990. 226 pp; and (6) William A. Duerr. 1993.Introduction to Forest Resource Economics. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY. 1993. 485 pp.

  4. Janet N. Abramovitz. 1977. Learning To Value Nature's Free Services. The Futurist 31:39-42.

  5. Steve Newman. 1999. Earthweek:  A Diary of the Planet. Albany (OR) Democrat-Herald, Corvallis (OR) Gazette-Times. June 6.

  6. Janet N. Abramovitz. 1977. Learning To Value Nature's Free Services. The Futurist 31:39-42.

  7. Ibid

  8. David Ehrenfeld. 1999. Obsolescence. Resurgence 193:28-29.

Sunrise is a magnificent symbol of the commons and a promise for tomorrow.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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