The worth of ‘ecosystem services’ has recently been priced at $33 trillion total per year (Nature 1997, vol. 387, p.253). But can money truly buy our lifelines? Or are they priceless entities not to be taken for granted?
A team lead by Robert Costanza, the director of the Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Maryland have determined the cost of services we receive in nature. Among the countless processes associated with the miraculous sustenance of life on earth, such as provision of water, air, nutrition from the soil and animals, maintenance of atmospheric composition at the optimal proportions and concentrations of oxygen, nitrogen and carbondioxide gas, the following are indispensable to our existence:
• The hitherto undiscovered remedies to fatal diseases locked up in the leaves, petals or the bark of unrecognized plant species in the tropical forests.
• The continual succession of day and night whereby, during daylight, mass production of oxygen through plants provides the gas needed for respiration by animals.
• The apparent life-giving effect of rain, where once drought and famine stricken landscapes are transformed to magnificently lush greenery in a few days.
• Above all, the magnitude and rate of energy emanating from the sun cannot be priced since it is next to impossible to attain, if ever, a fraction of it on Earth.
If we stop and ponder for a moment about the services provided through the manifestation of life, we will realize that even our own bodily systems are a service at our disposal. Our bodies function, literally, without our voluntary intervention at any point from conception until our last breath. This is surely a marvel for those who see, but a miracle for those who understand. Certainly this obvious and aweinspiring fact of our state could not be ignored or even priced in monetary terms. A more crucial question we must address, however, is this: in the light of such priceless service for the maintenance of our lives what will be the repercussions for the abuse of such a valuable trust?
As stated by one marine biologist at Oregon State University: ‘This calculation is sufficiently startling that it should make us wake up and pay closer attention.’ (New Scientist, No. 2082, 17 May 1997).
Additionally, we must also ask why such gracious and extraordinary services are put at the disposal and under the dominion of mankind? If we consider ourselves to be the ‘most evolutionarily advanced species’, then the processes which we call ‘nature’ should have absolute power, knowledge and intelligence that is beyond our comprehension in order for them to be able to understand our needs, let alone provide for us. Can we claim that the trees we are able to cut down with such ease, have knowledge comparable to ours that they bear fruits which are not only a pleasure for our sight and taste, but also a dietary need? Or can we claim that the environment which is so vulnerable to human tampering is the direct source of life?
Hence, the so-called ‘natural phenomena’ are incapable of knowing how to support human life with its ultimate biological, social and psychological complexity. Therefore, these inanimate processes must be pre-programmed to exist and are reproducibly sustained with impeccable accuracy. Their existence is certainly out of our control.
The existence of man must therefore be for a very definite and special purpose. Man thrives and develops throughout his life through the means provided to him. These means, on which he is absolutely dependent, are also the means over whose function and disposal he has limited power. How should he then value these riches, and use them in the way they are intended to be used, for the purpose they have been created for?
Endowed with lofty faculties like the mind and the intellect, his essential duty entails his conscious obligation to take on the immense responsibility to recognise and understand the subservient world around him. Through disciplining and training himself he must express due respect and gratitude in direct response to the generous bounty representing his life, given to him by the One other than those processes. His responsibility is immense, but in which lies a huge recompense. He has been created in a way that he may deserve the benefits, but will he make himself deserving of it?