Natural services (or ecosystem services) are the benefits that nature provides to people. These benefits include food, water purification, flood control, carbon sequestration, soil stabilisation, recreation, cultural value, and many others (listed below). The value of such benefits has become more apparent as human populations grow and average consumption per person increases. The multiplication of these two factors means that the demand for resources is also growing which puts enormous pressure on the natural environment.
Ecosystem services connect people and nature together. The health of the ecosystems around us links directly to human welfare and well-being. We are dependent on ecosystems for our very survival. However, there is a conflict because whilst people need to use natural resources for their welfare, ecosystems need to maintain their integrity to remain healthy and productive. People stand to lose as much as all the other species in our ecosystems if degradation and depletion continues.
If we look after them properly, ecosystems can provide for human needs now and into the future, but as Mahatma Gandhi said ‘the earth can provide for every persons’ needs but not every persons’ greed.’
The world’s ecosystems are often called ‘natural capital’ or ‘natural assets’ because they provide services to people. If you know even a little about business you will know that if you spend capital as if it was income you will eventually bankrupt yourself. In the case of natural capital, if we use it up or degrade it, we will have lost your way to produce resources we need. This is a case of killing the goose that lays golden eggs (read our parable on sustainability here). The economist E.F. Schumacher, a hero of sustainability, coined the term ‘natural capital’. Schumacher, who worked for the British Coal Board, called fossil fuel energy, ‘capital energy’, and he called renewable energy, ‘income energy’. The difference is crucial to understanding sustainability. Anything renewable, and therefor sustainable, can be considered to be income because it derives from the stock of capital and does not deplete it. To further the business analogy: it is like a return on capital, or like interest from a term deposit.
Humanity is using approximately 1.7 times the amount of resources that are renewable. The only way this can happen is if we use natural capital to make up the shortfall between what humans demand and what the earth can supply. We are heading towards the bankruptcy of nature.
The benefits we get from a healthy and flourishing natural environment are enormous. We must reduce consumption to renewable levels to ensure that these benefits are sustained indefinitely. We must stop using natural capital as if it is income and learn to live within the sustainable means of our shared planet.
The definition of natural services
There are a wide variety of natural services and the following is a classification of ecosystem services from the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) which are broadly categorised under the following four headings:
Provisioning services are those things that can be extracted from ecosystems to support human needs including such tangible assets as:
- Fresh water
- Food (e.g. crops, fruit, fish, etc.)
- Fibre and fuel (e.g. timber, wool, etc.)
- Genetic resources (used for crop/stock breeding and biotechnology)
- Biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals
- Ornamental resources (e.g. shells, flowers, etc.)
Regulatory services include those processes that regulate the natural environment such as
- Air quality regulation
- Climate regulation (local temperature/precipitation, greenhouse gas
- sequestration, etc.)
- Water regulation (timing and scale of run-off, flooding, etc.)
- Natural hazard regulation (i.e. storm protection)
- Pest regulation
- Disease regulation
- Erosion regulation
- Water purification and waste treatment
Cultural services include diverse aspects of aesthetic, spiritual, recreational and other cultural values, including:
- Cultural heritage
- Recreation and tourism
- Aesthetic value
- Spiritual and religious value
- Inspiration of art, folklore, architecture, etc.
- Social relations (e.g. fishing, grazing or cropping communities)
Supporting services do not necessarily have direct use by people but they include processes essential for the maintenance of the integrity, resilience and functioning of ecosystems and are therefore crucial for the delivery of all other services. Supporting services include:
- Soil formation
- Primary production
- Nutrient cycling
- Water recycling
- Photosynthesis (production of atmospheric oxygen)
- Provision of habitat