Everywhere in the world, people want to make a living without destroying their environment. Its up to science, technology and corporate leadership to find a way to make a living without destroying their environment.
"The Future of Life," 2003
As a child, I never dreamed that someday I would buy a bottle of water in an airport. What commodities will be marketed next? Fresh air? Aerated soil?
Natural products obtained without monetary costs from healthy ecosystems are part of a bountiful harvest called natural capital or ecosystem services. It includes resources (air, water, fish, oil, minerals, etc) as well as living systems (coral reefs, wetlands, rain forests, etc).
An amazing feature of ecosystem services is that they function while we sleep: Streams purify water by flowing over rocky surfaces; earthworms aerate our soils without the use of fossil fuels and heavy machinery; forests produce oxygen, medicines and energy from sunlight. Even more amazing is the fact that these ecosystem services are free but only if we leave portions of the landscape alone to function naturally.
A good example of natural capital is the water supply of New York City, where construction of filtration plants was estimated at $8 billion several decades ago, but clean water was obtained for a mere $1.5 billion when forests in the Catskill Mountains were purchased outright to function as natural watersheds.
Learning from Biosphere 2
Earth, also referred to as Biosphere One, has evolved ideal conditions for life over billions of years. Biosphere 2 is an enormous glass structure in Arizona that replicated conditions on Earth under artificially controlled glass domes.
Constructed as a giant experiment, Biosphere 2 asked a scientific question: Could human beings, in a closed environment, produce enough food, oxygen, and essentials for survival?
Eight crew members lived in Biosphere 2 for two adventurous years. They struggled to harvest food and create a healthy atmosphere: The complexity of replicating planet Earth had been vastly oversimplified.
To keep eight human beings alive under glass for two years cost approximately $200 million.
Extrapolating from Biosphere 2s budget, it would cost approximately $81,250,000,000,000,000 to artificially support 6.5 billion people (the population of Earth when Biosphere 2 was launched) for just one year obviously a preposterous notion.
Biosphere 2 taught the world about natural capital and helped to put a value on the ecosystem services that nature provides for all of us each day.
Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Find her online here.