There is no question that Earth has been a giving planet. Everything humans have needed to survive, and thrive, was provided by the natural world around us: food, water, medicine, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients.
Yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world that it is easy—and often convenient—to forget that nature remains as giving as ever, even as it vanishes bit-by-bit. The rise of technology and industry may have distanced us superficially from nature, but it has not changed our reliance on the natural world: most of what we use and consume on a daily basis remains the product of multitudes of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled.
Beyond such physical goods, the natural world provides less tangible, but just as important, gifts in terms of beauty, art, and spirituality.
Here then is a selective sampling of nature’s importance to our lives:
Fresh water: There is no physical substance humans require more than freshwater. While pollution and overuse has menaced many of the world’s drinking water sources, nature has an old-fashiosned solution to pollution. Healthy freshwater ecosystems-watersheds, wetlands, and forests- naturally clean pollution and toxins from water. Soils, microorganisms, and plant roots all play a role in filtering and recycling out pollutants with a price far cheaper than building a water filtration plant. The more biodiverse the ecosystem, the faster and more efficient water is purified.
Climate regulation: The natural world helps regulate the Earth’s climate. Ecosystems such as rainforests, peatlands, and mangroves store significant amounts of carbon, while the ocean captures massive amounts of carbon through phytoplankton. While regulating greenhouse gases are imperative in the age of climate change, new research is showing that the world’s ecosystems may also play a role in weather. A recent study found that the Amazon rainforest acted as its own ‘bioreactor’, producing clouds and precipitation through the abundance of plant materials in the forest.
Pest control: A recent study found that bats save US agriculture billions of dollars a year simply by doing what they do naturally: eating insects, many of which are potentially harmful to US crops.
Almost all agricultural pests have natural enemies, along with bats, these include birds, spiders, parasitic wasps and flies, fungi, and viral diseases. The loss, or even decline, of such pest-eating predators can have massive impacts on agriculture and ecosystems.
For instance, habitat shrinkage and uncontrolled use of chemical poisons are the main causes of locust population proliferation. This is because they lead to the extinction of their natural predators. Pesticides kill not only crop weeds or pests but also beneficial insects. At the same time, the destruction of natural ecosystems (forests, wetlands, etc.) has removed from many areas many valuable insectivorous species such as birds, frogs, flies, laconia, etc.
Medicine: Nature is our greatest medicine cabinet: to date it has provided humankind with a multitude of life-saving medicines from quinine to aspirin, and from morphine to numerous cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. There is no question that additionally important medications—perhaps even miracle cures—lie untapped in the world’s ecosystems. In fact, researchers estimate that less than 1% of the world’s known species have been fully examined for their medicinal value. However the ecosystems that have yielded some of the world’s most important and promising drugs—such as rainforests, peat swamps, and coral reefs—are also among the most endangered. Preserving ecosystems and species today may benefit, or even save, millions of lives tomorrow.
Pollination: Imagine trying to pollinate every apple blossom in an orchard: this is what nature does for us. Insects, birds, and even some mammals, pollinate the world’s plants, including much of human agriculture. Around 80% of the world’s plants require a different species to act as pollinator. In agriculture, pollinators are required for everything from tomatoes to cocoa, and almonds to buckwheat, among hundreds of other crops. Globally, agricultural pollination has been estimated to be worth around $216 billion a year. However large such monetary estimates don’t include pollination for crops consumed by livestock, biofuels, ornamental flowers, or the massive importance of wild plant pollination.
Art: Imagine poetry without flowers, painting without landscapes, or film without scenery. Imagine if Shakespeare had no rose to compare Juliet to, or if William Blake had no Tyger to set alight. Imagine if Van Gogh lacked crows to paint or Durer a rhinoceros to cut. What would the Jungle Book be without Baloo or the Wind in the Willows without Mr. Badger? Imagine My Antonia without the red grass of the American prairie or Wuthering Heights without the bleak moors. How would The Lord of the Rings film series appear without the stunning mountain ranges of New Zealand, or Lawrence of Arabia without the desert of North Africa? There is no question that the natural world has provided global arts with some of its greatest subjects. What we lose in nature, we also lose in art.
We need to look at the value of nature in economic and social terms to help us better understand the full implications of the choices we make. Instead of making decisions based on short-term financial interests, we can look at the longer-term benefits for people and the economy – and of course nature itself.
Anna Papaioannou, Theodoros Stomachopoulos