An Astrobiology Perspective on Ecosystem Services

“Biota control the basic chemical conditions on the surface of the Earth. With an atmosphere containing 21% oxygen, the chemical environment on Earth stands in start contrast to that on our sterile planetary neighbors–Mars and Venus. The metabolic activities of organisms, which link oxidation and reduction reactions, produce the relatively stable conditions on Earth that are conductive to the persistence of life.”

– William Schlesinger, Biogeochemistry 2nd Ed.

Venus, Earth and Mars

Venus, Earth and Mars

Imagine You are a Space Traveler…

Sometimes it can be helpful when framing an issue to get some perspective. When it comes to classifying the values that the vital functions that Earth’s ecosystems provide us, this perspective can be gained by zooming way way waaay out from the bird’s eye view of life on Earth to that of a space traveler who can not only see Earth, but other planets too. This interplanetary perspective falls into the academic domain of astrobiology.

As commented on by Schlesinger in the introductory quote, Earth stands in marked contrast to its sister planets, Mars and Venus. The latter two planets are both inhospitable to life as we know it, but in different ways. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect and is too hot, and Mars has a runaway refrigerator effect and is too cold. (This is a ripe setting for an interplanetary Goldilocks tale don’t you think?)

The Critical Function of Regulating Ecosystem Services

Photosynthesis and Respiration

Photosynthesis and Respiration

One of the key factors that makes life on Earth possible is life itself. It does this by maintaining a  system of chemical metabolic  pathways. (If you want to blow your mind with the complexity of these biological pathways, download the chart from this Sigma site.) The largest source of energy driving these pathways is the sun, which provides us with an endless stream of solar radiation. The most well know, and arguably most important biological chemical processes, are respiration and photosynthesis, which–as we all learn in grade school–are essential to the functions of regulating oxygen (O2)and carbon dioxide (CO2). Life also helps to regulate other important biogeochemical pathways as well such as nitrogen, sulphur, water and phosphorus.

The simplified diagram below breaks down the central role that biota on Earth play in regulating Earth’s chemistry in such a way that it maintains relative homeostasis (similar to how our own bodies maintain our blood chemistry) over time, compared to Venus and Mars. The figure highlights the important role of CO2 in the atmosphere as well.

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison, Nick Strobel

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison (Image from Nick Strobel's Astronomy Notes.)

Plants and other organisms that photosynthesize create the matter (biomass) which forms the base of the food chain on Earth. Over time green plants/organisms sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into their living tissues, and this is called net primary production (NPP). This photosynthetic process, along with respiration, in turn, also helps in regulating  oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles which are critical to life on Earth as we know it. Hence, the amount of food available on Earth, as well as the composition of the atmosphere is significantly regulated by the balancing act of the actions of photosynthetic organisms (autotrophs) and respiring ones (heterotrophs). Maintaining biodiversity is also important to maintaining this balance.

Humans control about 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial primary production.

How much these life processes help protect the Earth from turning into a dead planet like Mars or Venus is debatable, but what we DO know is that humans on Earth control about 40% of the total terrestrial net primary production from plants, as well as about 8% from the oceans. 40%!! This is an astounding number! And, these numbers were calculated based on data from a couple of decades ago, so the actual numbers are likely higher today.

What this means is that humans are significantly commandeering and influencing some of the vital life processes on Earth of net primary production and influencing their related chemical pathways. In some ways, we really are space travelers, and Earth is our spaceship. As our population rises on this vessel of ours, we are likely to push these numbers higher and higher over the next couple of decades.

warning lightThis brings up some key questions relating to how we are impacting the regulatory functioning of Earth’s natural systems:

  • If we think of putting a virtual green light, yellow light and red light warning system for risk to spaceship Earth’s critical life regulatory functioning, what level of human impact is acceptable (within the green range), risky (within the yellow range) and dire red alert?
  • How can we reduce the human impact on ecosystem regulatory functions that impact life support on Earth to levels that in the safe green zone?
  • Considering that we have already failed in our attempts to secure biodiversity, such as achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 targets, how will we achieve the next set of targets effectively in the face of concurrent growing human needs?

Ground Control to Major Tom, what do you think of that?

The Giving Trees: Part 2 The Vanishing Forests

This blog post follows Part 1, is followed by Part 3, and is part of the background information of my participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th.

As mentioned in Part 1, this series of posts on nature’s forest services covers the following topics:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Part 1 of this series of posts covered Point 1 above, discussing a bit about how forests themselves came to be, and how life as we know it would not be the same if life had taken a different twist and turn and trees had never been. This post will address Point 2, presenting an overview the threats that our actions are placing on the forests of the world, that are, in turn, threatening us.

The Vanishing Forests


The Giving Tree

Images from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The inspiration for the title of this series of posts is the book The Giving Tree, pictured above, by Shel Silverstein. In it, the author tells a tale that is an allegory of parenthood–the parent giving, the child taking.  It starts out with a boy who is hungry, and the tree provides him apples. As the boy grows older, he goes off and leaves the tree, but he comes back to take from the tree again and again, up to the point where the tree gives up its own trunk for the child to build a boat with which to sail away.  In the end, when the child finally comes back as a tired old man, all that is left of the tree is a stump with “nothing left to give”. This ending leaves the reader feeling hollow, in spite of the book saying how the man and the tree are happy to be reunited. Not the kind of allegory of parenthood that is mutually beneficial. Not the kind I would want with my own children. Not the kind I would want with my own parents. Not the kind I would want with nature either.

World Population

World population from 1800 to 2100, based on UN 2004 projections (red, orange, green) and US Census Bureau historical estimates (black).

With Mother’s Day tomorrow, however; The Giving Tree is a fitting allegory for the depletion of our forests worldwide–and the mother we are taking from is, literally, Mother Nature. (The Bolivians would definitely agree on this one as they are passing ‘The Law of Mother Earth‘ to enshrine Pachamama with the same rights as humans.)

Well, there are about 6.92 billion of us ‘children’ on Earth, and our numbers are slated to increase to 7.5-10.5 billion by 2050. As shown in the graph at left, by 2100 we’ll likely be up to 14 billion, or we’ll get a serious handle on lowering our growth rate, or something will happen and  and we’ll have crashed back down to 5.5 billion.

Anyway you look at it, in the next 10-30 years just the population growth alone on Earth is going to account for a massive increase in demand for many more apples, much more wood, much more development on forested land. What does that mean for the future health of global forests? Will we have any wild spaces left, apart from a few scattered parks? How will this impact forest creatures? How will this impact the complex biogeochemical cycles that forests are part of? How will this impact regional climate and weather patterns? How will this impact water flow and supply? How will this, in turn, impact us?

How Much Have We Depleted Forests So Far?

Frontier Forests

Legend

Frontier Forests of the World (WRI Image, click to view)



Although the extent of forest cover has fluctuated over time naturally, the extent to which humans have cleared forests is unmatched in geological history. The image above shows the observed change in frontier forests over the last 8000 years. A frontier forest is a “large, ecologically intact, and relatively undisturbed forest that supports the natural range of species and forest functions.” (WRI) As can be seen, the current extent of these pristine forests, in dark green on the map above, is now considerably less than the total coloured original area. The changes in Europe, Asia and Africa–the cradles of civilization–are particularly pronounced. We have, literally, lost our original garden of Eden long ago in the veils of history.

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

Gold Mine in Amazon, Rhett Butler photo

When looking at forests overall, not just frontier forests, globally we have lost an estimated 1.5 billion hectares to deforestation. It should be pointed out that “deforestation” does not mean logging. Logging practices can be sustainable when the forest is not cleared in a way that will prevent it from growing back to its original condition or a reasonable near state, while deforestation involves not only the forest being cut down, but land use changes to agriculture or other use.

The highest recent rates of deforestation are in the tropics. This is worrisome from a biodiversity perspective considering that the most recent glacial cycles left tracts of rainforest and temperate refugia in these areas that humans are now clearing. It is also very worrisome from a climate change perspective. For instance, the Amazonian rainforest recycles around 50% of it’s own rainwater, meaning that if the forest is lost to a certain extent, this would mean significant loss of fresh water as well to the area. In addition, the Amazonian rainforest has farther reaching impacts on climatic patterns that influence rainfall patterns in the eastern United States.

Factors contributing to this unprecedented rate of deforestation include clearing land for agricultural activities (such as soy and cattle ranching), mining (such as in the picture at left), urban sprawl, industrial expansion, clearing land for fuel wood, timber harvesting, road building and new demands for forest products.

Some Deforestation Facts and Figures

So what are the facts? The truth is that deforestation statistics varies widely from country to country, and sometimes, from year to year. Rainforests once covered 14% of the world’s surface, but they now only cover about 6%.  Some of the largest causes of current deforestation are for palm oil plantations, soybean production, cattle ranching, as well as growing pressure from the planting of biofuel crops such as corn and sugarcane. Some more information on deforestation from palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Amazonian deforestation are covered in some more detail below.

Palm Oil

Palm oil fruit

Palm oil fruit, Greenpeace Image

Palm oil is used for food (check those chocolate bar and processed food labels before you buy), consumer products, and more recently, for biofuel (with Europe being the largest importer of palm oil for biodiesel. It is also a very seductive crop in South East Asia as “once planted, the tropical tree can produce fruit for more than 30 years, providing much-needed employment for poor rural communities. And its oil is highly lucrative, due largely to the fact that the plant yields more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop.” (WorldWatch)

The Mongabay image below shows the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia showing how production has gone from around 0 to 16 million metric tonnes per year of palm oil production for both Indonesia and Malaysia in just 42 years. This production is correlated to deforestation in the two countries, as first forested land is cleared, then burned before palm crops can be planted on the land.

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, Mongabay

Indonesia has since surpassed Malaysia in palm oil production, and has had some of the fastest deforestation rates in the world in the last decade, even making the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 for the fastest deforestation rate in the world. This achievement is not much to be proud of as it has led to some severe negative community effects and some of the greatest species losses in the world.  For instance, in 1997-98 a fire related to deforestation killed almost 8,000 orangutans in Borneo alone. “Orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in the next 20 years if the palm oil industry, deforestation and burning of peat forest do not change.” (Source) Many other species are threatened by palm oil plantations, some of which are in the images below. Click on an image for more information on each.

Sumatran Tiger  Probiscus Monkey Pigmy Elephant
Sumatran Tiger, Probiscus Monkey and Pigmy Elephant


Amazonian Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation, Mongabay

Most people are familiar with the issues of  cattle ranching, small and large scale agriculture and logging in the Amazon leading to tropical deforestation. As can be seen in the graph above, deforestation rates have recently slowed down in Brazil; however, the damage is done, and more forest is being lost yearly due to activities such as illegal logging.

Now, industrial soy plantations are adding to the land grab, speeding up rates of deforestation. As indicated in the graph below, much of this soy is slated for export to the United States, and production is projected to rise significantly in the next few years. Some of this soy is planted on grasslands, rather than from deforested lands, but one has to be careful when looking at stats on soy plantations, as “grassland” may be land that was previously forest cleared for cattle plantations, rather than natural grassland.


Soybean Exports to US from Brazil

Soybean Exports to US from Brazil, Mongabay


Other Forest Loss Around the World

“Europeans had lived in the midst of vast forests throughout the earlier medieval centuries. After 1250 they became so skilled at deforestation that by 1500 they were running short of wood for heating and cooking. They were faced with a nutritional decline because of the elimination of the generous supply of wild game that had inhabited the now-disappearing forests, which throughout medieval times had provided the staple of their carnivorous high-protein diet. By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize.” -Norman F. Cantor1

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

Area of Forest in the US (lower 48)

If you live in a western or developed nation, that doesn’t mean that the problem is out of your backyard. Developed countries are also at risk from forest loss in spite of their better forest management than developing nations. Furthermore, as highlighted in the above quote, deforestation has been going one for a very long time, and has led to major resource depletion issues in the past. After Europeans ran out of their own resources, they managed to get by on colonialism to tap into the resources of other countries, but as history shows, resources, in particular forests, can and do run out.

The image to the left shows the extent of forest cover in the United States in 1620, 1850 and 1920. The reduction in the amount of green forest land is dramatic.

Deforestation has taken place in all developed countries, even Canada (my country) which still has about 91% of its forest cover. (Recall that ‘forest cover’ does NOT mean the same thing as pristine forest or frontier forest though.) Canada alone accounts for 10% of global forest cover, and some of the largest tracts of the World’s boreal forest are in Canada.

In spite of its high remaining area of forest, Canada is still experiencing deforestation due to agricultural expansion, industrial activities (such as the growth of the tar sands), and housing development. Looking at forested land just in terms of timber, Statistics Canada has come up with a Timber Index to contribute to measuring the Natural Capital Index of Canada which would give an indication of the health of our natural ecosystems and resources. In 2006 the Timber Index showed an 11% decline between 1980 and 2005, a significant decline for a country that reportedly manages its forests sustainably.

If you are interested in learning more about deforestation for a particular country, Mongabay has a great repository with figures for selected countries.

An Uncertain Future

Showing the Birds

Look, children,here is the shy,
flightless dodo: the many-colored
pigeon named the passenger, the
great auk, the Eskimo curlew, the
woodpecker called the Lord God Bird,
the…

Come, children, hurry–there are so many more
wonderful things to show you in
the museum’s dark drawers.

– Mary Oliver


Fledgling Spotted Owls
Fledgling Spotted Owls, Torsten Kjellstrand/The Oregonian

Although there are many great law, regulations, programs and initiatives to protect the world’s forests, this blog post has given a quick run down of how the global net effect of these programs has not been enough to halt deforestation globally.

The loss of forests is closely tied to the loss of biodiversity world wide. The poem above from Mary Oliver highlights the potential loss of forest habitat on the animals (such as the endangered spotted owl, pictured below) that depend on these ecosystems for their homes.  Indeed, in the word “ecosystem”, eco- comes from the Greek word for “home”. And the forests are home to many, including humans. Around the world forests are home to over 300 million people. Some of these people, more so than others, such as the uncontacted tribes of Peru and Brazil. Their lives and cultural heritage (that they want to keep to themselves thank-you very much) are severely threatened. To them, the loss of their forest homes, is the equivalent of the loss of life as their lives are both in and of the forest, and they would not want it any other way. The movie Avatar only begins to touch on the kinds of real world atrocities that these tribes have faced historically, and are still facing today.

“Every one of us, all 7 billion people on Earth, has our physical, economic and spiritual health tied to the health of our forest ecosystems.”Jan McAlpine, director of the U.N. Forum on Forests Secretariat

But what about the rest of us? Is the loss of forests really such a big deal? It’s easy to think, “Oh, it can’t be that bad.” But the loss of forests is more than just the loss of habitat, and a few species that will end up on museum shelves. A whole lot more. From the vital life support systems such as the air we breathe and the water we drink, to the resources they provide like food and timber, to contributing to our joie de vivre, forests give countless ecosystem services to humans.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series of posts to learn more about these forest services, and what can be done to protect them. After all, we do not want to end up like the image at the start of this post of Silverstein’s tired old man sitting on Mother Nature’s tired depleted stump at the end of The Giving Tree, now do we?

1 Norman F. Cantor: In closing The Civilization of the Middle Ages: The Life and Death of a Civilization (1993) pp 564f.

The Looking Glass World of PES

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Through the Looking Glass

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Land on Earth is finite. The homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth’s systems have functional limits. We’ve come to the point in our population and industrial systems where companies and governments are carving up the last of Earth’s wild spaces. We’ve also come to the point where we are overwhelming some of the Earth’s biogeochemical systems. Long term global government initiatives to mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and conserve water are not meeting their targets. So what’s a girl to do?

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

International organizations and governments are usually well intentioned, but they move slowly. They need to take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with utmost scientific and ethical process. If they do not they would be taken to the wringer. In comparison, market forces are very efficient at growth and development. Furthermore, lobby groups (often funded by market actors) can stall government initiatives, and politics can become mired in national and international debate.  But in this case that debate is stalling taking action on a process that is going on regardless. Market forces will carve up the remainder of the resources on this planet as efficiently as they can. They have money behind them, and money makes things happen. But what if those market forces could be turned in a new direction?

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES, refer to the payments to land owners or users for preserving the ecosystem function/integrity of their land rather than engaging in other forms of ecologically degrading economic activity. The brilliance of putting a price on nature, as well a cost on its degradation, is that those efficient market forces mentioned above are then turned up on their head towards protective, rather than exploitative behaviours on natural systems.

So, for example, if there is more profit in protecting a forest for carbon, then market forces will tend to protect more forests.  If there is a competitive edge in restoring mangroves, then mangroves will be restored.

The issue arises in that business men are not ecologists. Sometimes, the rush for the economic incentive overrides the initial intent of ES protection. There have been cases where virgin forests are clear cut in order to plant “carbon forests”, or situations where land users say they will not cut down a forest in one place–thereby obtaining carbon offsets for them–only to go and cut down forest elsewhere. This is termed “leakage” in the industry.  For these, and other reasons, ecologists and conservation managers often mistrust those from business and industry, but these barriers can be overcome through transparent dialogue and setting up of robust standards. The work being done on REDD and REDD+ is a prime example.

In the last several years people from public, private and NGO circles are starting to realize they have shared goals in the ES arena, forge partnerships and engage in collaborative projects. Although their backgrounds, perspectives and language may be different, I firmly believe that through such multidisciplinary efforts the theory behind ecosystems services can effectively be translated into action.  Putting a value on ecosystem services that are attached to these resources, is a way in which market forces can still happen, research budgets can be met, profits can still be shared, quarterly reports to shareholders still look good, AND Earth systems can be protected, and even replenished, in the process.

Integrating Ecosystem Services

Moscow

Industrial Moscow, by Alexander Petrenko

School of Art, Media & Design, Singapore

Integrating the Right Things

“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
-Mark Twain

Ecosystem Services (ES) are the flows of benefits that we obtain from natural systems. The world’s ecosystems provide services with which we are interconnected and upon which we are dependent. For instance, ecosystems help regulate our clean water supply, sequester greenhouse gases, provide materials such as trees that we harvest as natural resources, and provide the environments that we come to know and love as individuals and societies.

Biologists, ecologists, natural resource managers, philosophers and poets have been talking about similar flows within and from ecosystems to human systems for decades. So what’s the big deal with ecosystem services now?

The new part is that the knowledge of the limits of these systems—and how vulnerable they are to human impact—has not been incorporated into classical economic valuation systems. When we talk about ES in economic terms, we often refer to natural capital. This natural capital has been externalized from market systems, and as a result the provisioning, supporting and regulating functions of ecosystems have been significantly degraded.

This is a blog about the mindful re-integration of nature. Making the externalized internal. Not only to our monetary systems, but to our social systems, our cities and homes, and in the end, ourselves.

An Economy of Mind (Image by Ben Goossens)