My wife, Kelli, worked for Hilton for roughly a decade, beginning her career at Manhattan’s Waldorf=Astoria—Hilton’s flagship property—before transferring to a pair of properties in Denver. For those years she worked in what’s commonly known as the service industry—think hotels, restaurants, travel, tourism, consulting, health care, entertainment. But there’s another, lesser-known sector of the service industry: ecosystem services, where Mother Nature is the service provider.
With ecosystem services, the environment performs certain (often essential) functions that support our society: wetland filtration and water quality protection, stormwater runoff buffering, generating oxygen for the air we breathe, carbon sequestration.
The field of ecological economics seeks to place hard dollar figures on these typically hard-to-estimate services. How do you put a price on clean water, or on life-giving oxygen? Yet, the difficulty of the questions hasn’t stopped economists, environmentalists, and others from trying to answer them. And some of the best answers to date come to us from the realm of agriculture.
The classic and most studied example is the pollination services provided by honeybee and native bee populations for fruits, vegetables, and other crops, such as almonds. For example, researchers from a University of California, Berkeley study published in 2011 estimated that wild, free-living bee species had an economic value between $937 million and $2.4 billion per year for California alone, solely on the basis of their crop pollination services for farmers. (Another excellent example is the history of New York City’s water supply and its Catskill watershed protection efforts.)
Humans have depended on these ecosystem services since before we lit our first fires. Early hunter-gatherers had nuts and seeds and fruit to gather because native pollinators made it possible … and provided that free service.
Ecosystem services’ benefits typically accrue to society as a whole rather than to specific individuals, though they can be deliberately tapped for individual or social gain. And it turns out that renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, share much in common with ecosystem services. Both are ubiquitous, abundant, and frequently taken for granted. Further, their absence—whether through actual loss or, in the case of renewables, simply our failure to capitalize on them—creates numerous problems, and incurs costly alternatives, if in fact such alternative solutions exist.
For example, well-designed, energy-efficient, passive solar houses cost little to heat by taking advantage of Mother Nature’s free ecosystem services. Moreover, that same service—home heating—comes at an economic and environmental cost when we replace passive solar heating with an alternative technology, such as a gas-fired forced air furnace.
Pure ecosystem services are one thing, but what if we blur their definition? What if we envision a hybrid scenario in which we use intelligently deployed technology to bridge the gap between ecosystem service and societal benefit? Consider this: when early farmers and ranchers on the Great Plains built small windmills to pump water from below-ground aquifers, they essentially used a technological crutch (the windmill) to tap into an ecosystem service: the Plains’ ever-blowing winds did the work of pumping water for irrigation.
There’s no shortage of precedent for this idea of using technology and/or economic enterprise to tap further into ecosystem services. For example, in what newspapers today often call “rent-a-hive” scenarios, beekeepers hire out colonies of their honeybees to help farmers pollinate their fields.
It began in 1909, when a New Jersey apple farmer hired a beekeeper to bring honeybees to his farm to enhance pollination, resulting in better crop yields and higher crop quality. By 1998, American farmers rented 2.5 million honeybee colonies for crop pollination, thus purchasing ecosystem services valued at $14.6 billion, according to Cornell University researchers.
What the early pioneers learned, what farmers today know, and what researchers continue to emphasize, is that tapping into ecosystem services offers enormous potential for enhancing quality of life, environmental quality, and economic vitality, and that we disregard ecosystem services at our own peril. The loss of ecosystem services—such as the decimation of honeybee and native bee populations—comes with enormous consequence.
We have a vested interest in investing in ecosystem services. It is far cheaper and more profitable in the long term than the alternative. The same is true for renewable energy. Wind and solar—once harnessed with smart design and modern technology—offer tremendous opportunity. Meanwhile, we ignore them (in favor of business-as-usual fossil fuels) at great economic and environmental costs.
While ecosystem service pioneers once began by protecting the habitat of native pollinators and renting hives of bees to their farming neighbors, today’s ecosystem services pioneers are the ones tapping into renewable energy resources. The service industry is as strong as ever, even when Mother Nature is the one providing those services, maybe with a technological helping hand in the case of wind and solar. I’d happily place such renewable energy resources alongside pollination, water quality protection, and—yes—hotels and restaurants, as central components of the service industry.
Some images courtesy of Shutterstock.