Earth: Utilities Included


by Shahid Naeem, Professor of Ecology, Columbia University

Photo credit: Carmen Alex

The day all utilities and service providers stop sending us bills would be a day of unparalleled celebration, with ticker-tape parades for the executives of utilities companies, and the naming of national heroes.

Until that day comes, we have Earth Day. Our most vital utilities and services — such as the provisioning of breathable air, potable water, fertile soils, productive fisheries, equitable climate, environmental security, and much more — are all provided for us by millions of species that work around the clock. For millions of years, and over our brief history, Earth's been a terrific home thanks to all those plants, animals, and microorganisms, conveniently referred to as biodiversity.

And the plants, animals, and microorganisms that provide these services have never sent us a bill.

But recent findings have increasingly shown that Earth hasn't always been a rock steady abode — at times it's been covered with ice, it's had an orange atmosphere of methane, it's lost its icy poles, it's been hit by asteroids — but that's all the more reason to remind ourselves that what we see today could change.

What if biodiversity were to disappear and we counted on the conventional utilities and services providers to take over? Sure, with electricity or gas we can keep our homes at just the right temperature, but just beyond our planet is a dark vacuum that could flash freeze our homes to -455 degrees Fahrenheit.

There's no way to answer that question, though ecological economists try. Nine years ago, I took part in a study that estimated nature's services as worth in the neighborhood of 33 trillion dollars a year. Translate that into modern currency, divide by the 6.5 billion people estimated to currently inhabit the Earth, and every man, woman, and child would get a bill for about $500 each month.

If we adjust payments so that the biggest users, say the wealthiest nations, pay the most, then the typical bill for a family of 4 in the United States would be more like $13,000 per month.

Such back-of-the-envelope calculations are wacky, to be sure, but they do drive home the message — biodiversity does a lot for us and asks for nothing in return.

Recent reports emerging from the 4 year effort by the United Nations Millennium Assessment suggest that if we continue down our current path, by 2050 half our species will be gone.

Given that 188 countries have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity — whose premise, which predates the Millennium Assessment by over a decade, is that a secure future requires preserving Earth's biodiversity — it's nice to see long term global agreement on the issue. There are, of course, a few holdouts, these being Andorra, Brunei Darussalam, The Holy See, Iraq, Somalia, Timor-Leste, and — yes, you guessed it — the United States.

So we could stay the course, let biodiversity steadily vanish in spite of global agreement that this would be a terrible thing, keep looking for more and more technological ways for coping with an increasingly environmentally insecure world, and keep Earth warm and safe in an otherwise unforgiving universe.

But then, we will all have to pay the bills, and at least right now, we lack both the will and the capability to do so.

So next year, let's truly celebrate Earth Day. I'm not suggesting that we have a parade down 5th Avenue that is filled with giant balloons of mushrooms, beneficial bacteria, phytoplankton, seaweed, mosses, ferns, legumes, asters, prairie grasses, giant redwoods, palm trees, orchids, foraminifera, tardigrades, priapulids, rotifers, crustaceans, mollusks, worms, insects, spiders, fish, birds, frogs, lizards, mammals, and of course the obligatory blue whale, snow leopard, sea otter, and panda. Though you have to admit; it would be a pretty cool parade, and it would really be a celebration of Earth Day.

But maybe we could finally sign the Convention on Biological Diversity. Andorra, Brunei Darussalam, The Holy See, Somalia, Timor-Leste, and probably even Iraq would understand.

Shahid Naeem is Chair and Professor of Ecology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) at Columbia University