Paying for the Air

Every single day you take advantage of products and services that are provided to you absolutely free. Its happening right now as you read this. It happens all the time, every day and I bet you don't even realize it.

For instance, when it rains and your home isn't flooded, thats a service you received for free. The low price you pay for fruits is due to the fact that farmers receive free pollination services from bees. The constant decomposition of our garbage that sits in the city dump happens at no cost to you. The cycle of seasons that brings the right amount of rain, snow and new growth is free. And of course, the air you are breathing as you read this boring blog post is free too.

All of these different services, both tangible and intangible, are provided naturally and are called "ecosystem services." Its easy to forget that we rely on all of this stuff in order to survive. But just imagine how much it would cost if you had to pay a person to engineer a way to provide these services.

Ecosystems Services can be divided into five different categories...

  • provisioning: production of food and water
  • regulating: control of climate and disease
  • supporting: nutrient cycles and crop pollination
  • cultural: spiritual and recreational benefits
  • preserving: guarding against uncertainty through the maintenance of diversity
Several well-respected scientists and environmental experts have spent their lives trying to put a price on ecosystems services by trying to calculate the cost of businesses providing these same services to all of us.

Although its not a perfect science, the guesstimated current value of our biosphere and the services it provides is approximately $33 trillion per year. Thats a lot of cheddar.

So what is the point of all this? Most city, state and federal government planning decisions incorporate an economic value into them. So when Best Buy is given a permit to build a new store on a specific piece of property, the city and state analyzed the economic impact that store will have on the community. Its almost always a win-win situation for Best Buy. Its often a win-lose situation for the community.

The forest area on that land where people once hiked or hunted will be gone. The dirt that absorbed rain water for our drinking water will be covered by asphalt. The trees that provided habitat for birds who spread seeds and ate disease carrying bugs or rodents will be gone. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The value of all those services destroyed by the development aren't taken into account when cities and states do their economic analysis. The argument had been that there was no economic value placed on those services, so how could they be analyzed? Hence the development of ecosystem services.

To me, what is most important is to appreciate these services and to try to ensure they will continue to be free. Nature is very sensitive to change and if we don't protect it, we may have to spend all our beer money on air.

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