If the deepening climate crisis teaches us anything, it’s that we are embedded in the natural world and ignore this reality at our peril. At last month’s Leaders Summit on Climate, U.S. President Joe Biden pressed the world’s major economies to slash greenhouse gas emissions and unveiled America’s own plans to do so. The U.S. commitment was impressive, if necessarily tentative. It remains to be seen whether a politically divided United States can deliver on the administration’s pledge to cut emissions 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Still, the scale of ambition suggested a dawning ecological realism—an overdue recognition that the fate and wealth of nations and indeed human survival are inextricably linked to the health of the biosphere.
Climate change, of course, is only one facet of the planet’s poor environmental health. The other major ecological emergency is collapsing biodiversity, which threatens the innumerable benefits humans obtain from nature. We often take these for granted and, because they are underpriced or not priced at all, are tempted to degrade and exploit them to exhaustion—the plight of many fisheries, for example. In the wake of Earth Day, it’s worth stepping back to consider the financial value of these ecosystem services, the cost of degrading and failing to account for the planet’s natural capital assets, and whether adjusting our traditional economic and governance models might help place the world on a more sustainable course.
Scientists classify nature’s contributions to people into three categories. Regulatory benefits are the functions organisms and ecosystems play in creating conditions conducive to human life, including by regulating air quality, pollinating crops, enriching soil, filtering pollutants, ensuring fresh water, controlling pests and disease, and buffering against floods and storms. Provisioning benefits encompass the many ways nature directly sustains human existence, including by providing food, fiber, biofuels, timber, genetic resources and plant-based medicines. Nonmaterial services include the subjective psychological, spiritual and recreational benefits that humans derive from healthy ecosystems.