The top 17 ecosystem services are worth more each year than the entire global economy. These services include all those natural processes that benefit people and the rest of life on the planet, providing everything we need - healthy soils, pollinating insects, trees that provide us with oxygen, rivers and oceans that feed us, all for free. Interestingly, biodiversity - which represents the diversity of life on the planet and is often measured by species richness - is a concept often ignored in these valuations, along with most other ecosystem services. Consider the loss of crop pollinators, currently valued at over $100 billion worldwide. This work is currently done for free. However, wide-scale use of pesticides is thought to have resulted in the collapse of colonies - particularly in North America - requiring farmers to hire companies to bring in hives. This is just one species that we depend upon. Think of all the other species out there that provide services. At least 10 million species exist, and yet scientists have hardly begun to understand their contribution to ecosystems or what benefit they might have for people.
Herein lies the problem. We know these species, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole are valuable. And yet, we still have not developed a global wide solution to protecting life on the planet, which inevitably protects us as a species. In fact, many politicians in the U.S. are currently attempting to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Park Service, and the Endangered Species Act. The proponents of such attacks argue that these agencies and protections are limiting growth and that states should have full control of these lands to benefit the economy and add jobs. Others have somehow eluded to the notion that protection of oceans and forests is inherently incompatible with economic growth - as though somehow we can't have a healthy planet and provide jobs and grow the economy. The most short-sighted argument is that the EPA should take into account the true costs of implementing regulations such as job impedance, meanwhile ignoring the costs associated with human health from respiratory illnesses, brown sites due to corporate negligence, pollution of rivers, lakes, and oceans, job loss due to oil spills, and all the costs associated with climate change.
In fact though, our continued economic growth and prosperity as a people is entirely dependent on a healthy, thriving, intact planet. The difference is that we are talking about short-term gain at the expense of long-term prosperity. For example, when oil companies demand pipelines to move petroleum from oil tar sands in Canada, they will benefit financially from increased production. However, every single person on this planet pays the price of this action, as well as future generations. Use of fossil fuels will accelerate climate change, resulting in loss of real estate along coasts, increased droughts and wildfires, the spread of infectious diseases and health-related costs, loss of biodiversity due to changing climate patterns, higher energy demands and costs associated with warmer temperatures, and increased hurricane risks. This also overlooks the inevitable oil spill which will also cost the public dearly. With 300 oil spills each year in the U.S. and 8700 accidents since 1986, the cost is astronomical. The BP Deep Horizon oil spill alone cost $61.6 billion in lost wages, environmental damage, and clean-up.
In the case of the EPA, the governmental organization is in place to protect the people and those ecosystems that they depend upon. Far too often throughout the world, a few individuals will benefit at the expense of everyone else. In economic theory, this is referred to as the tragedy of the commons - resources available to all are exploited by a few individuals to the detriment of the whole. A few corporations may benefit from large scale extraction of oil and may even contribute to job growth. However, the majority of the world does not benefit and in many cases suffers due to the direct and indirect impacts of increased oil exploration.
What hope is there then to preserve our environment and incorporate the true value of nature and its services into a market economy? First, part of the solution is that people need to take into account the true cost of whatever they consume whether it be energy, transportation, housing, food and clothing. Combined, this is often referred to as an ecological footprint. The true cost of consumables would automatically be passed onto the consumer if rules and regulations enforced sustainable quotas and policies. First instance, by demanding that companies meet universally accepted human rights and environmental standards, we would essentially be pricing the true cost of being sustainable into the fair market price. Companies wouldn't be able to avert these costs by moving to environmentally sensitive areas, sourcing materials from some of the most fragile areas of the planet, and paying slave-labor wages. If a world-wide universal standard was enforced, then there would be little incentive to move jobs to areas where people and the environment can be exploited. Secondly, we still need protected areas in which communities, organizations, and governments work to protect their biodiversity. One way to do this is to pay developing countries for the ecosystem services that they provide. For example, The Amazon rainforest is a trillion dollar treasure and developed countries need to pay their fair sure if we all want to benefit from its long-term existence. Certainly you cannot expect developing countries who are having trouble feeding their people to ignore the pot of gold in their backyard. Plus, those countries that often benefit the most from retaining rainforests and other high productivity ecosystems are developed countries who have already destroyed most of their original ecologically important areas. Lastly, in order to truly understand the value of all species on this planet, we need to know what actually exists. As of today, a little more than 1.5 million species have been described by scientists. At the very least, there remain several million more. There is little chance in protecting what we have yet to describe and understand, and a major shift in thinking is needed with considerably more resources devoted to tackling this undertaking. All of this needs to happen now. There is no second chance, there is no back-up planet. If we act now, there's still hope for a healthy planet and a prosperous economy, but we need to make gigantic strides now and make the same substantial investments in our planet that we make in every other part of our society.