Over time, humans have altered the ecosystems we live in to establish communities and livelihoods. These changes, however, have come at the cost of diminishing the services those ecosystems provide. The world as we know it today would not exist without ecosystem services. The world we live in tomorrow is determined by our ability to restore the ecosystem services that have been lost.
What are ecosystem services?
Ecosystem services are any benefit ecosystems provide to people. These benefits can take many different forms. They can be tangible or intangible. They can be delivered to us directly or appear indirectly through a chain of events. Some are easy to spot while others are noticed only after they disappear.
Ecosystem services are categorized into four groups:
Provisioning services are products that are extracted from nature. In early civilization, these were primarily food that was gathered, animals that were hunted, and plants that were used to make tools and structures. Today, provisioning services include crops, timber, drinking water, fish, precious metals, stone, fibers, and non-renewable energy sources like natural gas and coal.
Regulating services are processes that maintain environmental conditions that support life. Plants clean the air, microorganisms decompose dead matter, insects pollinate plants, healthy soil stores carbon and cleans water. These processes happen simultaneously, working together to regulate the ecosystem so it continues to function well.
Cultural services are the non-material benefits people receive from nature. Cultural services are wide-ranging influences on the human mind, social systems, and spirituality. They include recreation, cultural identity, aesthetic experience, art and engineering inspiration, and religious or spiritual enhancement. Cultural services are strongly determined by place and represent a diverse realm of influence.
Supporting services are the fundamental processes that allow Earth to sustain both basic life forms and complex ecosystems. They include nutrient cycling, water cycling, the creation of soil, the creation of the atmosphere, and photosynthesis. No other ecosystem service could exist without supporting services.
Conservation actions restore ecosystem services.
You may not realize it, but many of the actions you take to support a healthy environment are actions that encompass ecosystem services. Learning how to identify and restore ecosystem services in our communities can help us regenerate the natural world we are wholly dependent on.
For instance, woodland owners can enhance their forests by thinning trees and planting a diversity of native shrubs. These practices improve the overall health of the woodland by strengthening its ability to provide services such as pest control, wildfire resiliency, and carbon sequestration.
The graphic above provides more examples of how simple actions produce multiple benefits to people.
Serving ecosystems serves ourselves.
Viewing our yards, farms, and parks as ecosystems is the first step to unlocking the services they can provide for us. Treating our communities as ecosystems by adopting conservation practices improves the health and safety for both people and wildlife.