News and ResourcesDevelopment and Our Environments Worth - August 30, 2015
As Americans living in a capitalist economy, it seems natural to put a price tag on everything. However, when it comes to our environment and natural resources, it is not easy finding its worth. We often attempt to commodify the physical aspect of our environment such as lumber and fossil fuels but there is much more that the great outdoors has to offer us.
Some may say that the most valuable aspect of our environment is the ecosystem services that it provides for us. Ecosystem services are benefits that ecosystems provide for humans. These are often put into four categories; supporting, provision, regulating, and cultural. While some ecosystem services are obvious, some are a few less tangible than others.
The four categories of ecosystem services vary greatly. Supporting services are what is necessary for all the other services to take place and are crucial to healthy ecosystems. Some examples of supporting services are nutrient recycling, soil formation, and primary production. Provisioning services are the products obtained from an ecosystem including, food, water, raw materials, minerals, etc. These services tend to be the easiest to quantify because of the many job fields that rely on these resources. Regulating services are the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes. These regulating services include water and air purification, carbon sequestration and climate regulation, waste decomposition and detoxification, and pest and disease control. Cultural services are the benefits that humans receive personally through the ecosystem whether it is spiritual or aesthetics. This includes how nature is perceived in culture through books, songs, science, education, recreation, art, etc.
Just like different companies provide different goods, different ecosystems provide different services. Here on the Eastern Shore, wetlands are a prominent ecosystem with many tangible and intangible benefits. Many of the fish and shellfish we harvest spend some time in wetlands during their lifecycles. Wetlands are also a great reservoir for migratory animals and biodiversity.
Wetlands also offer us many services that are difficult to put a price on. These services include protection from storm surges and flooding. Without this our neighborhoods, businesses, and homes would be at a much higher risk of storm damage. Other services provided by wetlands are nutrient absorption and water filtration. Without this we would be spending a lot more money in cleaning the water we use and drink. The plants and soil in wetlands also store carbon dioxide, decreasing contribution to climate change, and help to stabilize sediments, reducing turbidity in local waterways.
According to the EPA, Maryland has lost 73% of its pre-colonial wetlands, with only 590,800 acres remaining. We spend a lot of money to develop infrastructure and in order to develop, we first need to find suitable land and then build on it which often means sacrificing our ecosystems. Development is good for our economy and provides housing and jobs, however it also has some negative consequences considering the ecosystem services lost.
When looking at our environment and development from an economic point-of-view, there is a theory known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) which correlates environmental degradation to income per capita. This theory shows an upside down U-shaped curve with Stages of Economic Development (or income per capita) on the x-axis and environmental degradation (or inequality in the distribution of income) on the y-axis. This means that when a population has low development, the economic activity is low and few resources are used to create any environmental damage. As a population begins to industrialize and the over-all income is increased, there is much more economic activity and resources are depleting faster than being replenished. Also, there tends to be an excess amount of waste in these populations. As development further increases in a population, education increases as well. With a higher education, the population is also more environmentally aware and environmental damages in the population begin to decrease as more and more people take actions to help local ecosystems. This hypothesis was named after economist Simon Kuznet, who had hypothesized an upside down U-shape curve for the relationship between a measure of inequality in the distribution of income and the level of income.
Though this is only a theory, it provides hope that with time, proper smart growth development, and global policy change, we will be living in a more sustainable world. It is hard to commodify our environment, especially with all of the great ecosystem services it provides, but there is optimism that we can restore and conserve our natural resources. This will ultimately save us money by having to do less of the services like water filtration that ecosystems do for free and ensure that future generations will get to enjoy our natural spaces and wonderful ecosystems.
Joanna Trojanowski is the Education Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
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