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Development and Our Environment's Worth - September 11, 2016

                 As Americans living in a global economy, it seems natural to put a price tag on everything. When it comes to our environment and natural resources however, it is not always easy to place a value on the ecological services provided. We often attempt to monetize the physical resources of our environment, such as lumber and fossil fouls, but there is so much more that the great outdoors has to offer us.   

            It can be argued that the most valuable aspect of our environment is the ecosystem services that are provided. Ecosystem services are benefits that natural systems provide for humans. These are often categorized as supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services. While some ecosystem services are obvious, some are less apparent than others.  

            Supporting services allow other ecosystem services to function and are critical for healthy ecosystems. Examples of supporting services include nutrient recycling, soil formation, and primary production. Provisioning services are the products obtained from an ecosystem such as food, water, raw materials, minerals, etc. These services tend to be the easiest to quantify because they are tangible 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 we receive personally through the passive or active interaction with nature. This includes how nature is perceived in culture through books, songs, science, education, recreation, and art. 

            Just as different manufacturers provide a variety of goods, different ecosystems provide a variety of services and benefits.  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 part of their life cycle in wetlands. Wetlands are also a great reservoir for migratory animals and biodiversity.  

             Wetlands offer us many services that are difficult to put a price on. These services include protection from storm surges and flooding. Without wetlands throughout our local area 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 these benefits, cleaning the water we use and drink would be much more expensive. The plants and soil in wetlands also store carbon dioxide; decreasing contribution to climate change, and helps to stabilize sediments; reducing turbidity in local waterways.

               According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Maryland has lost almost three quarters of its pre-colonial wetlands, with less than 600,000 acres remaining. A significant amount of money is spent in order to develop infrastructure, and unfortunately ecosystems functions are sometimes sacrificed for this development to occur. Development is beneficial 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 relates environmental degradation to income per capita. This theory shows 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 level, 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.   

            Though this is only a theory, it provides hope that with time, better land use planning, proper smart growth development, and global policy change, we will be living in a more sustainable environment. It is hard to put a dollar value on 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 purification or food production  that ecosystems do for free and ensure that future generations will get to enjoy our natural spaces and wonderful ecosystems. 

 

Joanna Trojanowski is the former Education Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 

 



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