The economic benefits provided by nature are myriad and start with photosynthesis. Its economic benefit is, bluntly, life itself. Plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrate fuel. All living things rely on this process, either sharing the ability or eating food derived from it.
Photosynthesis also helped create and now maintains our livable atmosphere, increasing and holding the level of oxygen from under 1% over three billion years ago to our current atmosphere of 21% oxygen. It decreased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to under 1%, sequestering carbon dioxide in plants, algae and organic waste in soil and ocean sediment.
Nature also recycles waste, breaking down organic matter into compounds that can be absorbed as nutrients by plant roots. Insects and other small animals do some of this work, while heavy lifting is performed by a vast army of microorganisms. There are thousands of microorganisms in every drop of ocean water, and millions in every teaspoon of topsoil. Without their services, life as we know it would end.
Many organisms have specialized roles, recycling basic nutrients, including oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon, and filtering water and air. Many benefits require teamwork between organisms, like the synergy that developed between animals and flowering plants. There are over 200,000 flowering plants and 85% depend on animal pollinators. Of the top 113 food crops around the world, 85 require animal pollination. It is estimated that $15 to $20 billion dollars’ worth of American crops are pollinated annually by insects with a full 80% pollinated by bees. Meanwhile bee populations have declined by over two-thirds.
As trees are the main engine of photosynthesis, their welfare is critical to our survival. Experts warn that 10% of existing tree species are endangered. Even more worrisome is that by the 1980s over half of all forested areas in the world had been cleared, including half of all rainforests. Since then, the rate of deforestation has increased in South and Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Rapid global deforestation threatens nature’s capacity to produce adequate food and atmospheric oxygen to sustain life.
As our human population grows and the earth’s non-renewable resources shrink, what is to be done? Should we allow other species to go extinct so that ours can flourish? That is what we are doing now. Biologists estimate that 6% of total species go extinct each year. That high percentage reflects multiple factors but especially habitat loss. As we clear forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other habitats for our needs, we destroy entire ecosystems. Many species that inhabit an ecosystem evolved to fill a niche within that system. Without the habitat, the niche is lost, and the organism faces almost certain death.
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Biologists argue that saving endangered species makes good economic sense. According to Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, “Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource.” Wilson argues that we have so much yet to explore in nature for new “pharmaceuticals, timber, fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products.”
He has called for biological prudence. “We should judge every scrap of biodiversity as priceless,” he writes, “while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity. We should not knowingly allow any species or race to go extinct.” Calling on morally sensitive readers to help “stanch the hemorrhaging of biological wealth,” he warns: “It is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself.”
Biologists have become increasingly concerned as they come to understand the interdependence of species, especially keystone species, species that play a key role in maintaining balance within an ecosystem.
The most celebrated keystone species is the sea otter which once dominated the Pacific coast from Alaska to Southern California. Sea otters were hunted for their fur until close to extinction. Then a series of unexpected results followed. Sea urchins, a favorite prey of sea otters, multiplied exponentially and devoured the vast kelp forests along the Western Pacific Coast. This left the shallow coast barren and eliminated the fish and other species that had inhabited those kelp forests.
Alarmed, scientists carefully began reintroducing sea otters from the few that remained while protecting them from hunters. In time, sea otters multiplied, the sea urchin population was controlled, and kelp forests returned along with those species that made those marine forests home.
As we face an uncertain future, our challenge is clear. In allowing species to go extinct, we have no idea what the unexpected consequences might be, but experience tells us that throwing nature out of balance is always dangerous.