The science of sustainability expands on this premise, by studying how Earth’s ecosystems provide “services” that enable life. The meadow scene’s natural attributes provide all of our necessities: food, water, fuel and fiber. Throughout time, settlements have followed reliable water sources, thriving near rivers, lakes or sources of accessible groundwater where plant and animal life also congregate. Human survival will always be dependent on the environment. Ecosystems also provide regulating services. Natural earth systems control floods, disease, and the climate itself. Think of wetlands that filter and purify water that trickles into underground aquifers. On mountainous slopes, undergrowth prevents erosion and disastrous flooding. Naturally occurring forest fires prevent cataclysmic infernos. The fine balance of predator and prey is guaranteed by natural selection, keeping animal populations healthy.
As humans exert our influence around the globe, many of these regulatory systems are stressed. Waves of people focused on personal or short-term gain may upset balances that have been refined over centuries. We are only beginning to grasp the complexity of the regulatory ecosystems. As the levels of carbon in our atmosphere rise, glaciers melt, and sea levels creep up, we face the consequences of tinkering with something we don’t fully understand.
Cultural ecosystem services are easy to recognize and difficult to manage. We go into the wild for recreation and rely on the natural world as a superlative classroom. We find spirituality, creativity and a pure definition of beauty in Nature. The sense of place that is integral to a person comes directly from a deep familiarity with an ecosystem. Artists, writers, architects and musicians gain inspiration from Nature. Early on in this country’s history we established a system of national parks, and still today we grapple with conflicting demands on natural environments.
Perhaps the least understood and most miraculous supporting ecosystem services are the biogeochemical cycles. These are the biological and physical processes such as soil formation, nutrient cycling, and photosynthesis. Scientists are discovering that plants placed in sterile soil provide the genesis for microbial life around their own roots.
Micro-farmers are using nutrient cycling in closed-loop food systems that provide fresh food for their families. Vegetables and fruits are fertilized with waste products of fish and poultry that feed on insects from the same garden. It is the ability of plants to transform energy from the sun into sugar that feeds every living thing on the planet. The miracle of photosynthesis and the importance of plants have been buried in textbooks for too long.
We face many challenges in curbing our material cravings and learning to live in harmony with Earth systems. I find hope in the science of sustainability. Perhaps soon lessons about earth services will be taught in primary school, right along with reading, writing and arithmetic.