Imagine you’re walking through Hoonah Trading trying to pick out dinner for you and your family. You’re scanning the aisles like you’ve done a hundred times before, and just as you begin to justify buying a frozen pizza, your phone rings— it’s your boss. They say something about budget cuts and how they’re sorry to have to do this to you, but all you heard was they have to let you go. This job has been a central part of your life, you’ve worked for them for years! Your life has just been thrown out of balance, so how do you recover? You probably buy the pizza and start looking for jobs as soon as you get home. Your ability to overcome this highly disruptive challenge- or your resiliency- matters, assuming you want to continue providing food, shelter, and other basic necessities to your family and yourself. Resiliency matters because harmful experiences that throw our lives out of balance are inevitable. If you want to reach your fullest potential and apply yourself to the best of your ability, you need to be able to bounce back from disturbances.
Ecosystem resiliency isn’t much different than your personal resiliency. Just like ourselves, if we want ecosystems to function properly, it is critical they are able to withstand shock and harmful disturbances. We need ecosystems to function properly because they provide free services we utilize, called ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services are the benefits we freely gain from properly functioning ecosystems. There are limitless examples of this, but some include clean air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and timber for the houses we live in. Since the products and services the ecosystems create directly and indirectly impact us, it is important we maintain their resiliency. There are several types of ecosystem services including regulation services, cultural services, supporting services, and provisioning services.
The goods produced by functioning ecosystems that supply us humans with the building blocks from which we survive are called provisioning services. As raw materials, these products are tangible and are directly consumed by humans. The food, fuel, water, oxygen, and medicine we use daily are all examples of the goods provided to us from healthy ecosystems. The economic production of the world is entirely dependent on them, too. Take these for example:
- If a food system is not resilient to change food scarcity may grow and cause prices to skyrocket. Many people cannot afford expensive food and people could starve.
- If a forest collapses air quality deteriorates and worsens preexisting lung issues or causes new ones in others. Most people can’t afford lung issues, financially or physically.
- Water quality deteriorates if there are no wetlands to filter it naturally, which endangers living things and necessitates expensive treatment.
If an ecosystem collapses, we are directly impacted by the loss of these goods. Maintaining an ecosystem’s resiliency is essential if we want to continue having the provisionary services we need to survive.
Along with provisioning services, we also rely on the regulation of ecological processes that happen all around us. Regulation services are the direct benefits from the natural management of ecological processes. One example is erosion control. The roots of trees and other plants naturally hold soil in place, allowing us to build homes, schools, roads, and everything else. When those trees and plants are removed, the soil is loosened, and combined with water are much more prone to erosion. This can cost communities substantial amounts of money. The Dust Bowl in the 1930s illustrates the importance of erosion control well: without deep-rooted grasses to hold the soil in place, it began to blow away, causing massive dust storms and economic devastation in the region for a decade. The biological control of pests is another regulation service that helps humans. Wet weather supports a fungus that kills larval sawflies, limiting their population and the damage they do to forests we use. As drought affects SE more there will be a reduction in the fungus population and an increase in the damage that sawflies do to our forests. Even bats save corn farmers roughly one billion dollars a year on reduced crop loss and chemical pesticides by eating pests that otherwise would have eaten their crops (Maine & Boyles, 2015). Other examples of regulation services include regulation of natural hazards (fires, floods, etc.), pollination, water and air purification, and waste recycling including decomposition and sequestration. We all depend on regulation services, and their elimination would mean economic collapse and societal chaos. Having resilient ecosystems is important if we intend on maintaining the regulatory services our economy and ourselves depend on.
We also depend on cultural services from ecosystems. Ecosystems give us nonmaterial services like ideas and experiences called cultural services. Cultural services play a huge part in our lives— they help shape who we are. Our cultural heritage is greatly shaped by the environment around us – of course a perfect example of that is the Tlingit culture that is shaped and defined by the cultural services of Glacier Bay. Many of our spiritualities or religions are cultivated from our experiences with nature, and they contribute to a sense of place we appreciate. Even the aesthetics of the natural environment and making a profit off it through recreation or tourism are cultural services we receive. Other ideas and experiences we have from nature can benefit education and technology. Students learn better when surrounded by natural settings, and there’s an entire field of technological designs based on natural elements called biomimicry (Tanner, 2009; Ma, 2015). Experiencing nature positively impacts our mental and physical health, too. Without healthy and functioning ecosystems to provide these cultural services, our lives would be quite monotonous. Having resilient ecosystems matters in order to continue enjoying the many benefits from our experiences with and ideas of nature.
None of the services discussed above would be possible without supporting services. These services don’t directly support humans, however they act as the foundation for other services we need. Nutrient cycling is one example: humans don’t directly benefit from nutrients being broken down and released into the environment, however we do directly benefit from the plants that were able to grow because of those free nutrients. Nutrient cycling provides the foundation for agriculture, which yields goods (food) we directly rely on. Photosynthesis, the production of biomass that supports food webs and ecosystems, doesn’t directly support us, but we rely on what it allows. The three billion annual global wild salmon industry is a result of riparian habitat formation, a supporting service allowing salmon to thrive. Water cycling, soil formation, and biodiversity are other supporting services that maintain goods and services we depend on. The importance of supporting services might be overlooked because humans don’t directly rely on them, but they are crucial in maintaining the goods and services we need. We need ecosystems to be resilient to continue providing the supporting services that allow the production of all other services we live on.
Ecosystems provide services necessary for our survival, just like how you provide resources you and your family rely on. Both need to be resilient in an unpredictable and challenging world if we want to continue having these services. People in Hoonah have proven their resiliency: the disastrous fire in 1944 burned down much of the town and priceless objects of Tlingit culture, but the town was rebuilt, Tlingit artifacts have been recreated, and other forms of Tlingit culture has been preserved and disseminated through organizations like the Huna Heritage Foundation. Humans are an indelible part of nature, and a part of our resiliency includes being able to grow and adapt to our changing world. We would have to restructure our entire society and economy if we lost the services we’ve grown accustomed to, therefore it is smart to invest in the resiliency of our ecosystems— just one way we can adapt to a world that is becoming more unpredictable. Investing in the resiliency of the natural environment is ultimately investing in the resiliency of ourselves, considering everything we live on is a product of diverse, functioning ecosystems.
- Ma, M. (2015, May 4). Puget Sound’s clingfish could inspire better medical devices, whale tags. Retrieved December 4, 2019, from https://www.washington.edu/news/2015/05/04/puget-sounds-clingfish-could-inspire-better-medical-devices-whale-tags/.
- Maine and Boyles, 2015, “Bats initiate vital agroecological interactions in corn.”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
- Tanner, C. (2009), “Effects of school design on student outcomes”, Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 47 No. 3, pp. 381-399. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578230910955809
Written by Arianna Lapke