01 February 2013 a post by Bruce Stanley

Ecosystem Services and Giving Thanks

Years ago I heard a throw away line during a radio documentary that captured my imagination. The interviewer and a naturalist were exploring a particular stretch of coastline and the interviewer asked about a rocky outcrop with a bit of grass on top, not knowing whether to refer to it as an island or not. The naturalist said that the definition for an island used to be if it could keep a sheep alive for a year.

two islands and land reflected in calm water

This prompted the idea for a, yet unwritten, children’s book in my imagination: Two rather proud coast-bound landowners are boasting about which of them has the more impressive farm and one refers to his island, the other scoffs saying that’s no island, just a lump of rock. Rather unceremoniously an otherwise contented sheep is pulled from the comfort of her flock and deposited on the island/lump of rock in question to settle the matter. I saw this as a way to explore the trivial, uncaring attitude some big business has towards nature and the frustration of being one of the small and powerless at the whim of power. Grass aside, not to mention the fact that to make life worth living, perhaps our sheep has other needs. There would also be a cute cast of sea birds and seals and views of this little bit of land through the seasons of a year. Somewhere in there is the exploration of the value of nature.

Does nature have a value?
If so, how do you measure the value of nature?
If there are different ways to measure its value, how do they compare?

One dominant measure of nature’s value, now widely questioned, is purely as a material resources for humans to exploit. One counter to this, beginning in the 19th century, led to the protection of natural environments and the establishment of national parks – recognising the value of just letting nature do its thing – which leads to another value being our enjoyment of these unspoiled preserves. Contemporary research is recognising the value of nature in terms of our wellbeing – nature prescriptions, to counter nature deficit disorder are growing in popularity. One measure, that I think has a place somewhere in many hearts and minds is the incalculable value of nature as a place that has an equal right to be.

The value of land can be measured in how productive it is (in terms of how it can produce resources, sustainably or otherwise, for humans).
An organic and/or permaculture approach might recognise the value in preserving natures ability to regulate itself without the need for artificial input. Permaculture even recommends putting aside part of the land in a design to just be wild. Another measure of value might be an ecosystem’s biodiversity, a higher biodiversity being a higher value.

A book I read recently (Do We Need Pandas, the uncomfortable truth about biodiversity by Ken Thompson) introduced me to a new measure that I hadn’t come across before of Ecosystem Services. (Tony Juniper’s new book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us focusses even more on this.) Ecosystem Services are the functions that nature carries out, that benefit us humans, that we don’t have to pay for – if we did have to pay for them, the cost might be many billions of pounds. The pollination services of bees add so many billions to the economy etc etc.

These ‘services’ are coming under more scientific scrutiny so that the values arrived at by the research have some rigour. All in all I think this way of measuring nature’s value has some real benefits. This doesn’t push against a materialistic, anthropocentric world-view, it goes with it saying, ‘Wake up – join the dots, if money is important to you, recognise what nature is already doing’. ‘Save the forests. Don’t pollute. Preserve as large an area of virgin ecosystem as possible.’

I see this thinking (and both books) as really interesting. I’ve added ‘ecosystem services’ to the landscape reading workshops I lead but it has left me uneasy in its quantitative rather than qualitative measure – which got me thinking. How can you use the fascinating observations from ecosystem services and nature capital as a spiritual exercise and one idea that sprang to mind is as inspiration for giving thanks. Take humble soil for example, dirt. Has thanking God for the soil ever taken a prominent place in your prayers? What if you consider what soil does, as a kind of meditation:

  •   Organic matter in the soil holds up to 20 times its own weight in water so organic soils are more resistant to drought.
  • By storing water, soils rich in organic matter can reduce the risk of flooding.
  • Soils purify water. A hectare of soil can filter enough water for 1000 people.
  • The organic matter in soils fuel the living component, billions of bacteria in each tablespoon.
  • The soil also provides a home to many larger creatures such as worms and centipedes.
  • These living elements undertake a number of services such as decomposition which frees the nutrition held in decaying matter that plants need to grow.
  • Plants growing in soil, directly (or indirectly to feed animals), provide 90% of the food for humans.
  • Healthy soils play host to the mycorrhizal parts of fungi which many plants depend on for resources.
  • The vast majority of living organisms in the soil, bacteria, microbes, nematodes, worms etc don’t even have a scientific name.
  • This complex system of hidden creatures and processes are fundamentally responsible for the veg you eat.
  • In fact soil functions with such complexity that scientists barely understand it.
  • Some research shows that exposure to soil has antioxidant effects, raising subjects immune systems.
  • Soil is a long lasting, beautiful building material. Cob structures can efficiently regulate and store heat. (You can buy outdoor, wood fired pizza ovens for £2000 and upwards – or build one from resources found in your back garden for next to nothing.)
  • Terra is a company now making furniture from compressed soil.
  • More carbon is stored in the soils of the UK than is stored in all the trees in Europe.
  • More carbon is stored in the soils of the world than is stored in the atmosphere and all the plants put together.
  • If worldwide farming practices could store 12% more carbon in the soil than they currently do, carbon levels in our atmosphere would go down to pre-industrial levels.

This barely scratches the surface of only one element of the natural world. Apply the same thinking to trees and forests, ecosystems such as prairie or bogs, rivers and seas, living things such as bees or vultures or plankton. For me nature is God’s creation, full of grace and thinking in this way brings science and spirituality together in an illuminating way.

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Your comments:

Fascinating idea for a children’s book. There’s an ancient tradition of sheep parables as a way to point out injustice to those in power. The prophet Nathan confronted King David’s royal overreach with a story about sheep (2 Samuel 12). So there’s a certain poetic symetry in using a story about sheep to confront corporations. After all, they are the heirs to royalty’s excess and domination.

This isn’t a coincidence. It was kings who set up the first corporations as Douglas Rushkoff points out in the first Chapter of his book, “Life, Inc”: “By issuing corporate charters, kings could empower those most loyal to them with permanent control over their colonial regions or industries.” First chapter here: http://boingboing.net/2009/05/11/life-inc-chapter-one.html

#1. By Tim Nafziger on March 07, 2013

It’s so sad that all religions don’t put more awareness into this subject. One day our grandchildren are going to wake up in a toxic waste land.

For me, not only is nature’s God’s creation, but it is a part of us that we are slowly killing.

#2. By Joshua Tilghman on March 12, 2013

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