Cajun Prairie Gardens. A view from the gazebo on June 21, 2015–a sea of Hibiscus moscheutos var. lasiocarpus.
By M. F. Vidrine
Why am I so interested in relating to you the value of nature? And why are we as a community so ignorant of the value of nature? How can we begin to solve most of our problems in this world?
These questions are obviously linked and serve as the topic of this essay. We immediately value most everything we comprehend in terms of dollars—a economic approach. The most common evaluation comes in the form of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period (usually a year) and includes consumer spending, government spending, business spending and the total net exports.
(http://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gdp.asp#ixzz3i3G6tdPI ). For example, the U. S. GDP is reported as nearly 18 trillion dollars (about the same as our current national debt). I don’t want to discuss the economics of this; rather, I want to relate these numbers to our ecological services. Our ecological services in the U. S. are currently estimated at 18 trillion dollars—there are a number of ways to come up with this estimate, but these methods are too tedious for this discussion, and in fact, I want to challenge you to think about the values of the ecological services and come up with a number that you think they may be worth. It should not escape your attention that the estimated GDP, national debt and value of ecological services are all the same number—18 trillion. I certainly would double their estimate of the value of ecological services, because many of nature’s resources require decades to come to fruition (note one could just as easily double the estimated GDP and the national debt). Unfortunately, a rather large percent of the U. S. GDP is spent destroying the ecological services’ potential GDP, but we will only mention this occasionally as this too would require an entire book.
What are ecological services? What value would you place on each of these services? Itemization of ecological services (my extended list—you may add more):
- 1. Photosynthesis
a. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms consume carbon dioxide. b. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms release oxygen.
c. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms produce carbohydrates.
d. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms produce water (transpiration).
e. Plants and other photosynthetic organisms evapotranspire and produce rain and humidity.
f. Plants sequester carbon (aka carbon sequestration).
- 2. Fossil and other fuels
a. Plants and animals were/are largely the ultimate source of coal, natural gas and oil.
b. Animals and plants (and algae) produce additional substances like resins, turpentine, and diesel.
c. Plant and animal products are common sources of fuel, e. g., wood and buffalo chips.
d. Ethanol production (by yeasts) from corn, bagasse, switchgrass, carbon pellets, prairie grasses, algae, and other organic forms of life.
- 3. Fermentation
a. Yeasts form beer, whiskey, and other forms of ethanol and methanol.
b. Yeasts form cheese.
c. Yeasts and bacteria form yogurt.
- 4. Pollination (one of every three bites of our food is from a pollinated plant)
a. Bees, butterflies, moths, flies (including male mosquitoes) are primary pollinators (note neonicotinoids (similar to nicotine—a tobacco plant product) are noted for killing these pollinators).
b. Bats, birds and other vertebrates are essential in pollination of some plants.
- 5. Antibiotics, medicinal organisms, and therapeutic uses
a. Fungi produce penicillin and cyclosporine and more.
b. Bacteria produce streptomycin and more.
c. Chrysanthemums produce pyrethroids (insecticides).
d. Pacific Yew trees produce taxol (many trees and plants produce cancer fighting drugs).
e. Willow trees produce aspirin (the list of medicinal plants is very long and the foundation for a multi-billion dollar industry).
f. Many mint plants produce essential oils with powerful antibiotic and therapeutic functions.
g. Therapy, e. g., equine therapy, canine therapy, and pet therapy in general, are growing areas of medicine.
h. Use of animals in clinical testing of drugs.
- 6. Ornamental value and aesthetics
a. Trees add tremendous value to real estate appraisals.
b. Flower gardening is another multi-billion dollar business.
c. Soil has a tremendous value in real estate and gardening, e. g., manure and compost production and use.
d. Using special woods, rocks, sand and water as decorative features is not a minor add-on value to home and yard decorating.
e. Animals and plants (and fungi) are pets in one form or another, e. g., tropical fish, reptiles, large animals, and more.
f. Coral reefs, ancient forests, living rivers and lakes, living deserts, rain forests and numerous other beautiful habitats.
g. Products, e. g., pearls, silk, amber, and much more.
- 7. Recreational
a. Gardening is the number one pastime in the United States.
b. Fishing and hunting are a close second.
c. Visiting natural areas, including our beaches, are a third.
e. Pastimes and professions including ornithology, herpetology, ichthyology, malacology, dendrology, etc. accounts for multi-billion dollar activities including natural tourism.
- 8. Remediation and waste treatment
a. Waste treatment—bacteria literally digest human and animal wastes.
b. Compost production—bacteria and fungi breakdown plant wastes.
c. Soil production and remediation by earthworms, bacteria, fungi, and insects.
d. Fungi known to eliminate radioactive wastes.
e. Water filtration by freshwater mussels and other organisms.
f. Water purification by percolation in rhizosphere and soil strata.
g. Cattails remove heavy metals from contaminated water.
h. Bacteria digest oil spill pollution.
i. Collectively, biodiverse communities remediate polluted water and soil—numerous examples exist.
j. Gallery forests stabilize river banks and prevent sedimentation and follow-up channelization and desnagging operations and downstream flooding and damage.
- 9. Pest control
a. Spiders reduce pest insect populations.
b. Parasitic wasps also reduce pest insect populations.
c. Preying mantids, walking sticks, lacewings, ladybugs, frogs, bats, purple martins, dragonflies and numerous other predators reduce pest insect populations.
d. Integrated pest management, although basically replaced by the use of genetically modified crops with insecticides and neonicotinoid insecticides integrated in the seed—powerful enough to make the entire plant an insecticide, employed an array of predators to control insect pest populations.
- 10. Production of materials
a. Nitrogen fixation by bacteria is essential for plants.
b. Phosphate mobilization by fungi is essential for plants.
c. Animals produce:
1. Fur and leather
2. Meat (including fish and fowl)
3. Blubber and oils
d. Plants produce:
2. Fiber (cotton)
3. Seeds, fruits and vegetables (food and sugar and gelatin)
4. Spices: cinnamon, saphron, vanilla, pepper, file, etc.
7. Solvents and essential oils.
- 11. Source of genes (with the new genetically modified organisms, a new industry involving patenting genes and using them in industrial production is growing in leaps and bounds)
a. Round-Up Ready (resistance to the insecticide glyphosate).
b. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)(production of endotoxin).
c. Agent orange Ready (2,4 D) (resistance to the insecticide).
d. Carotene production (production of carotenes—vitamins).
- 12. Knowledge, including evidence of evolution and ecology
a. Fossils provide evidence of evolution—essential to understanding our planet and our history. They also provide clues to our ecology.
b. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as an example of modern evolution resulting from human misuse of antibiotics.
c. Humans are actually a system of more than 1000 organisms—each of us has a bacterial and fungal flora including hundreds of species of these symbionts—99% are beneficial as long as they stay in their select habitat and are not treated with too many chemicals that alter their basic nature. We also harbor numerous protists and several animals, including Demodex—a group of several species of follicular mites that in part prevent the accumulation of waste materials in our pores and resultant acne.
d. As an ecologist, the study of ecosystems (those left after these years of abuse and destruction by humans, e. g., 99% of the Cajun Prairie is plowed) provides for the observation of literally thousands of interactions among organisms still evident and central in developing the science of ecology and all of its compartments, including economics, evolution, sociology, biochemistry, etc. This knowledge is opportunity—the opportunity to make trillions of dollars and create a sustainable world.
- 13. Ecosystem functions
a. Organisms provide structure, literally a matrix, for other life:
2. Reefs (coral and bacterial, e.g., stromatolites)
3. Freshwater mussel beds
4. Algal mats
6. Fungal hyphae form underground matrix
7. Deep ocean vent communities.
b. Forests and prairies purify water and evapotranspire rain and humidity.
c. Forests reduce the impact of high wind.
d. Forests reduce the chances of landslides and avalanches.
e. Forests and grasslands absorb water and prevent river and lake sedimentation and flooding downstream.
f. Forests and prairies build soils and sequester carbon and provide for wildlife.
g. Barrier reefs protect inland areas from hurricanes and wave destruction.
h. Ecosystems provide fish, coral, timber, and numerous other products—many are currently suffering from overharvesting or insult with broad spectrum biocides or wholesale activities like deforestation, fracking, open-ocean deep water fishing with habitat destroying netting, and many other abuses.
i. Ecosystems provide basic shade and shelter, clean water and air, and habitat moderation for human comfort.
Which plants and animals can we spare? Since it is apparent that we are losing one species every 10 minutes by some estimates in this massive ‘sixth extinction,’ we need to make decisions as to which plants and animals that we really want to protect and keep as sojourners with us on this planetary voyage. It is easiest to begin this process at home and with a natural wildscaping effort. It is also more logical. Think global, act local.
I want to leave you with 2 points, which will be central in my discussions regarding the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The first is that at minimum our ecological services have an equal value to our U. S. GDP, and it should not be a stretch of our imagination to admit that the bulk of that GDP is actually a product of these services and not our human constructs. The second message is simple—biodiversity in our natural systems provides for obvious enhancement of the services—literally the more species that we permit to survive with us, the more value-added opportunities exist (not only in dollar terms—since the lawn (not mentioned above in my list) is not natural but often considered as an ecological service worth in the order of hundreds of billions if not a trillion dollars as a seemingly vital industry).
We begin to solve the problems by recognizing what is truly of value in this country and on this planet. It is the life that shares the planet with us. Once we recognize the value of these ecological services, we can begin to budget our time and focus our effort so as to sustain our lifestyles and improve them for others, both our species and other species. We are currently entangled in hundreds of discussions regarding morals, politics, economics, and education that are literally focused away from the source of value on our planet. This literally begins in your yard—it did in my yard.