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Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems

The Ecological Society of America (ESA), the nation's leading professional society of ecological scientists, is an essential source of information for those addressing the many complex tasks associated with watershed management. An occasional publication series, Issues in Ecology, is an especially useful resource for citizens, resource managers, policymakers, and others designing and implementing watershed approaches to environmental management. Each Issues in Ecology paper is designed to report, in language understandable by non-scientists, the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues relevant to the environment. Issues in Ecology reports are available on the ESA websiteExit

Number 2 (Spring 1997): Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems

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  • Abstract

    Ecosystem Services: Benefits Supplied to Human Societies by Natural Ecosystems

    by Gretchen C. Daily, Susan Alexander, Paul R. Ehrlich, Larry Goulder, Jane Lubchenco, Pamela A. Matson, Harold A. Mooney, Sandra Postel, Stephen H. Schneider, David Tilman, George M. Woodwell


    Human societies derive many essential goods from natural ecosystems, including seafood, game animals, fodder, fuelwood, timber, and pharmaceutical products. These goods represent important and familiar parts of the economy. What has been less appreciated until recently is that natural ecosystems also perform fundamental life-support services without which human civilizations would cease to thrive. These include the purification of air and water, detoxification and decomposition of wastes, regulation of climate, regeneration of soil fertility, and production and maintenance of biodiversity, from which key ingredients of our agricultural, pharmaceutical, and industrial enterprises are derived. This array of services is generated by a complex interplay of natural cycles powered by solar energy and operating across a wide range of space and time scales. The process of waste disposal, for example, involves the life cycles of bacteria as well as the planet-wide cycles of major chemical elements such as carbon and nitrogen. Such processes are worth many trillions of dollars annually. Yet because most of these benefits are not traded in economic markets, they carry no price tags that could alert society to changes in their supply or deterioration of underlying ecological systems that generate them. Because threats to these systems are increasing, there is a critical need for identification and monitoring of ecosystem services both locally and globally, and for the incorporation of their value into decision-making processes.

    Historically, the nature and value of Earth's life support systems have largely been ignored until their disruption or loss highlighted their importance. For example, deforestation has belatedly revealed the critical role forests serve in regulating the water cycle -- in particular, in mitigating floods, droughts, the erosive forces of wind and rain, and silting of dams and irrigation canals. Today, escalating impacts of human activities on forests, wetlands, and other natural ecosystems imperil the delivery of such services. The primary threats are land use changes that cause losses in biodiversity as well as disruption of carbon, nitrogen, and other biogeochemical cycles; human-caused invasions of exotic species; releases of toxic substances; possible rapid climate change; and depletion of stratospheric ozone.

    Based on available scientific evidence, we are certain that:

    • Ecosystem services are essential to civilization. - Ecosystem services operate on such a grand scale and in such intricate and little-explored ways that most could not be replaced by technology. - Human activities are already impairing the flow of ecosystem services on a large scale. - If current trends continue, humanity will dramatically alter virtually all of Earth's remaining natural ecosystems within a few decades.

    In addition, based on current scientific evidence, we are confident that:

    • Many of the human activities that modify or destroy natural ecosystems may cause deterioration of ecological services whose value, in the long term, dwarfs the short-term economic benefits society gains from those activities. - Considered globally, very large numbers of species and populations are required to sustain ecosystem services. - The functioning of many ecosystems could be restored if appropriate actions were taken in time.

    We believe that land use and development policies should strive to achieve a balance between sustaining vital ecosystem services and pursuing the worthy short-term goals of economic development.

This module is one of the Watershed Academy Web Certificate Program's required modules. After you have finished it, return to this page and take the self-test.