Leon and Michael are sitting by the campfire at their camp. Isn’t this great, Michael? We’ve got berries, some wood for the fire, all this fresh air, and a beautiful sunset! And all of it is completely free! Nature is amazing!
Every day humans experience nature and use what nature produces. Different elements of nature — living organisms, energy, chemical compounds — all work together and provide goods and services that humans depend on, which bring value to our lives. We call these elements ecosystem services. We can divide ecosystem services into four groups. The first group includes food, materials and energy — everything that we get directly from nature.
This can be anything that nature provides, such as: plants, animals, fruit, vegetables, water, clean air, wood, cotton, or clay... But it also includes renewable energy, for example solar energy or wind power. This first category is provisioning services. The second category includes various processes going on in nature that make ecosystems function well and keep them clean. For instance, trees in the forest clean the air, and help regulate climate.
Plants and algae in wetlands absorb dangerous substances from water and purify it. Wetlands play an important role in minimising the risk of flood, too. The different processes in this group also ensure there is a balance of needs and resources within the ecosystem, for example that there is enough oxygen for organisms to breathe. Or that population sizes of different species are under control — or regulated, so there is enough food to sustain them all. This second category is regulating services.
The third group of ecosystem services is related to how humans experience nature and how this affects us. Nature is a large part of human development, lifestyle, and well-being, and also plays a part in many religions. For thousands of years, nature has inspired people to create art, to learn and come up with new inventions. It has also provided opportunities for recreation, tourism and outdoor activities. All these are examples of services that belong to the third category — cultural services.
Last but not least, there is a fourth group of ecosystem services that help all the other processes in nature work as they should. For instance, photosynthesis allows plants to grow, so that they can provide nutrition to other organisms; organic matter decomposes and returns these nutrients back to the soil. This category is the supporting services. Without them, no other ecosystem services could exist. Nature provides us with all these services for free, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any value.
Just the opposite! Humans are completely dependent on the services that nature provides. Many ecosystem services would be very difficult and costly if we were to perform them ourselves. And some are simply impossible to replace with technology. Virtual reality can’t make you feel the way Leon and Michael feel when they are sitting at a campfire after a long hike, eating wild berries they picked, and gazing at the night sky full of stars.