Every Day Is Earth Day

by Andrew Grandahl

Our Sustaining Planet

There are many terms for the natural phenomena that sustain life on the planet, but the most common term is “ecosystem services.” These are climatological and biological activities that provide essential resources for human activity on the planet, and form the foundation of the economy upon which our livelihoods all depend.

Some obvious examples? It doesn’t get much more fundamental than carbon and oxygen regulation. The oceans, dense tropical rainforests, and boreal forests of the global north provide the most basic function for sustaining life on our planet: absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon, and giving back oxygen upon which all aerobic life forms depend. Distressingly, the magnificent rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia are being decimated rapidly to make way for cattle ranching, cash crops such as soybeans and palm oil, fossil fuel extraction and mining, and timber. Not only are we removing the “lungs” of the planet by destroying the jungle canopy, but the crops and animals replacing them often come with massive carbon and methane emissions. In addition, the oceans are warming and are absorbing less carbon than in previous decades. This is all less than welcomed news of course, but important to highlight, as these foundational systems have been taken for granted for far too long.

Brazilian rainforest, clear-cut to create space for planting staple crops. Rainforests sequester carbon and release oxygen, purifying the air. Image:  Joel Sartore for National Geographic

Brazilian rainforest, clear-cut to create space for planting staple crops. Rainforests sequester carbon and release oxygen, purifying the air. Image: Joel Sartore for National Geographic

The oceans provide yet another invaluable service to us all: the treatment of organic waste and the regulation of potentially harmful diseases. As waste enters the ocean, it is cycled across thousands of miles of ocean expanse, where microbial life goes to work breaking down toxic materials into a safer molecular state. This hydro-bacterial system is foundational to a safe living environment in the ocean and up here on land, and without it, our planet would be significantly less hospitable to life.

What’s All The Buzz About?

What about pollination? Over the last few decades, the planet has experienced a significant drop-off in pollinators, from bees to bats, to birds and butterflies. Pollinators contribute the most fundamental reproductive service for over one third of all global food production, and the rapidly declining population of bees and other pollinators should be at the top of everyone’s list of concerns. Honeybees in our backyard may seem cute (and they are), but they perform one of the most vital roles in sustaining our human population on this planet.

The decline of bees/pollinators has forced farmers in some areas to manually pollinate their crops! Image: Kevin Frayer via Getty Images 

A Planet That Provides

Planet Earth hosts a stunning array of deeply complex biological, geological, and climatological phenomena, all of which work to sustain our existence. There are too many services the planet performs to detail here, from medicinal resources to limitless clean energy, to spiritual, recreational and therapeutic benefits reaped by those who spend time in nature regularly. The simple reality is, we’ve grown accustomed to the generosity of our home planet.

In traditional western economics, environmental impacts and benefits have never been accounted for, too massive and too inconvenient to factor in. A study commissioned by the UN a few years back concluded that none of the world’s major industries would be profitable if they were to pay for the natural capital they consumed. The study states that the unpriced capital consumed by industry annually comes in at at least 7.3 trillion USD, or around 10% of global GDP.

It’s time to stop taking this remarkable planet we call home for granted. It’s time to advocate for corporations and individuals alike to begin to pay for the natural capital we consume, and the harmful emissions we create through our consumption-based economy. And above all, it’s time to include the importance of ecosystem services into our discussions about climate change and conservation. Rather than focusing on what nature might do to us, let’s remember to also champion all of the things nature does for us.