663 words • 3~5 min read

Wait, stop – we have an Avatar tree too!

Remember how that Na'avi needed their tree of souls? Well, it might not be as obvious to us, but we depend on our forests too.

Dependence on natural resources is often relegated to a characteristic of the rural poor, a reason for development aid to swoop in and provide other economic opportunities. However, a recent article by Guo, Zhang, and Li in PLoS ONE has demonstrated that more developed countries actually have a higher dependence on ecosystem services. Basically, we may fire up our stoves with gas from eons ago rather than wood, but we’re even more dependent on that tree in the yard. We all laughed at the “primitive”, romanticized blue natives in Avatar, but their culture really wasn’t that different than ours.

The authors start with an introduction referencing the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, which has placed a large focus on the utility of ecosystem services. In addition, they have established that 60% of ecosystem services examined are being degraded or are managed unsustainably. If industrialized countries are really as dependent on ecosystem services as the conclusions state, then development is not the solution to environmental resource degradation. We will still have desperate people taking too much in order to stay alive.

Let’s unravel the investigation a little, however – the authors tracked roundwood production, hydroelectricity generation, and tourism investment. These measures were meant to represent three of the four types of ecosystem services described in the MEA: provisioning, regulating, and cultural (leaving out supporting). Ecosystem services are notoriously hard to measure and value, so it is necessary for researchers to focus their efforts, but the conclusions of the study should come with the caveat that much more study needs to be completed. Also of note is that the trends for ecosystem services were shared between all types – so it’s not just a switch from extractive use value to non-use value. All types of ecosystem services are important.

To fit the results into the bigger picture, there was also a correlation between human well-being yielded from ecosystem services and GDP growth – that is, the more tightly tied to ecosystem services, the faster the growth. Seems the way out of developing country status is to lean more on natural resources, not less.

Also, this means we’re back to Malthus: more population growth will quickly outstrip the available resources our planet can provide (check out the classic graph to the left). Social scientists go back and forth, but for the century following Malthus’ theory, we’ve been hoping that he’s wrong – that is, that our technology and innovation will be able to get us off the path of crisis by shifting that resource line. Instead, this PLoS article is another in a growing line that says we’re linked to that resource line more than we ever expected and should perhaps be paying more attention to it’s diminishing provisions.

~Bluegrass Blue Crab

Reference:
Guo, Z., Zhang, L., & Li, Y. (2010). Increased Dependence of Humans on Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013113