Stalking Two- What’s it Worth?

Collectively, people of the Western world like to know how much things are worth. We use terms like ‘getting our money’s worth’ and ‘bang for the buck’ on a daily basis, and brand names and price tags are everywhere we look! Advertisements are always telling us we will pay less for something that is worth more, and expensive clothes, watches, and cars are considered symbols of status in our consumer-focused world. Dollar signs are a form of communication that expresses our collective agreement on the worth of things- what someone is willing to pay for a good or service is tangible and uniform in this way. When we view the environment, most of the time we value it based on what it can do for us; provide us with resources or a vacation spot, or even childhood memories. However, you can’t pay for anything with childhood memories. By assigning economic value to ecosystem services, we are able to better advocate for responsible management and conservation of our environment and its resources, but we risk promoting an artificial concept of wildness and naturalness.

Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans receive from ecosystems. Provisioning services, the products we gain, such as food, timber, and natural medicines are the most obvious category. However, ecosystems also provide us with regulating services such as pollination and climate and disease regulation, supporting services that are necessary for the production of all other services, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling, and, cultural services. This last category may seem rather abstract, but ecosystems provide the people who are part of them with cultural heritage, sense of place, recreation and specific education, which are all very important in why we value our environment (Alcamo, 2003).

Now, if we consider a favorite camping spot from our childhood, we understand that the aspects we enjoyed about it- easy to find firewood, lots of squirrels to look at, a beautiful view, many great memories- all fall under one or more of the categories of ecosystem services. If the owner of that campground or spot were to consider selling it to be developed, it wouldn’t be enough to list those things we value about it as reasons why the owner shouldn’t sell. We would have to explain the economic worth of the site; that is what economic valuation is: “Valuation of ecosystem services can provide evidence of the importance of sustaining and enhancing those resources and the ecosystems that provide them” (Gabrowski, 2012, pg 900).

While the concept of pricing the exact worth of ecosystems like oyster reefs or places we love like our favorite camping spot may seem artificial or even impossible, it is an important tool for putting difficult concepts into uniform units of worth that can help us advocate for conservation of our environment (Gabrowski). For example, politicians probably aren’t going to be interested in contributing to conservation efforts for oyster reef habitat if you just tell them that oysters “help counteract anthropogenic nitrogen loading” (Gabrowski, 2012, pg 901). But, if you can calculate how many kilograms of nitrogen a square meter of oyster reef removes from the water every year and multiply that times the cost of an annual nitrogen removal rate, then you can present the amount of money that would avoid being spent if oyster reefs were conserved, which is much more relatable (Gabrowski).

So, economic valuation of ecosystem services is a very useful tool in managing and conserving our environment and resources, but we can’t take it too seriously. If we actually let ourselves see the world solely through dollar signs and instrumental worth, something that can be bought, or a collection of bills to be paid, we view ourselves as above our environment; in control of it like a cashier is in control of a register. This concept of the natural world, of wildness, is artificial. Ecosystems do not exist to serve us; the environment couldn’t care less about what we gain from it, except that in our taking we negatively affect it. We are a part of the system, caretaker is just one of our many roles-not the only one. In Preserving Wildness, Wendell Berry explains that while we are not completely the same as nature, there is also not a concrete division between nature and humanity either. We depend on wildness, but also “we exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance” (Berry, 1987, pg 517). We should remember this in our efforts to preserve and conserve our environment and its resources, especially through economic valuation of ecosystem services, in order to avoid promoting an artificial concept of how we fit into nature and wildness.

Work Cited:

Alcamo, Joseph et Al. (2003).Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment.

Berry, Wendell. (1987). Preserving Wildness. Collection of Essays.

Gabrowski, Jonathan et Al. (2012). Economic Valuation of Ecosystem Services Provided by Oyster Reefs.

When is Good, Bad?

Nutrients, which are essential to the health and growth of organisms, enter the Bay in many different ways, both naturally and artificially. When there are too many nutrients in our ecosystems and waterways though, the result is eutrophication, or nutrient pollution. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the predominant nutrients of concern in the Chesapeake Bay as large amounts of them enter the waterways through runoff from agricultural fields, wastewater treatment plants, and groundwater. When this happens algae blooms explode due to the all-you-can-eat nutrient buffet, and eventually die and float to the bottom. Bacteria that decompose the dead algae consume the oxygen in the water which creates hypoxic and anoxic conditions called dead zones that are not conducive to the life of many organisms. (Hardesty)

A metaphor can be found in the process of eutrophication: too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Using fertilizer on our crops encourages a better yield; too much fertilizer on the other hand contributes to eutrophication through runoff of high levels of nutrients, especially if the field is close to a waterway. Human involvement in engineering answers for natural problems can also be considered good to an extent but the same rule applies; there are instances when our intervention and problem solving techniques go too far and result in harm, directly or indirectly.

Aquaculture in the form of oyster farming is an example of  a good application of human involvement in coming up with a solution for a natural problem. (Even though the low oyster population in the Bay is due to anthropogenic causes such as overharvesting and introduction of the diseases Dermo and MSX.) By farming tripoloids, a sterile version of oyster that grows more quickly and has proven to be less susceptible to catching disease, pressure is reduced for the demand of wild oysters. This gives the population more of a chance to rebound.  It also provides more filtering power that removes nitrogen from the Bay and firm structure for other critters like barnacles and sea cucumbers. (Livie)

In contrast, the Conowingo Dam may have more negative effects than positive and therefore crossed the line,  becoming too much of a good thing. While hydroelectric power is a great source of green energy, the dam prevents the annual migration of fish such as American Shad and eel. It alters the environment by increasing the speed of waterflow and catches sediment from the upper Susquehana river. This sediment is periodically scoured during heavy rains and strorms, washing downstream into the Bay and taking a lot of nutrients like Nitrogen with it.

This precarious balance between helpfulness and harmfulness of human involvement brings into question the inseparability of humans from the wild, as I considered in my last post. I think the answer is finding solutions that are sustainable.

Seeing is Caring

In preparation for our upcoming Journey in which we will explore the environmental changes from mountains to ocean within the Bay watershed, I began thinking about the immense amount of change the Chesapeake Bay has seen in its time. Earlier I wrote about how changes in the built environment, such as in architecture, indicated a cultural shift in the tidewater. However, the built environment also causes changes in the natural environment. Some of these changes have observable aspects, which are important in alerting us of much deeper, more complex issues, but also create a more emotional reaction to the decline in the Bay’s health.

Murky, brown water after a heavy rain is a visible effect of large amounts of sediment being washed into the estuary, for example. Seeing this change in the environment leads us to examine what the effects of large amounts of sediment entering our tributaries are, and why it is happening. One of the top three pollutants of the Bay, sediment runoff increases turbidity, which limits the amount of light that can reach the bottom of tributaries and prevents subaquatic vegetation from growing. It can also kill oysters by clogging their filtration systems. Just these two effects alone can result in a decrease in water quality. What are the sources of sediment runoff? Aside from natural erosion, barren crop fields, construction sites, and dirt roads are the biggest components. (Dr. Fox’s lecture)

We must use these visual cues from the natural environment to inspect our built environment and see where we can improve. Best management practices like planting cover crops after growing seasons are over and investing in controlled drainage structures, and personal practices like upgrading old septic systems and using less lawn fertilizer are all helpful ways to lessen the negative effects of our built environment. As Wendell Berry proposes in Preserving Wildness, we cannot separate ourselves from our environment in order to preserve it, instead we must create a loving economy that “rewards and enforces good use” and “place[s] a proper value on all the materials of the world…from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods” (Berry 523). By paying or cutting costs with farmers to implement these practices, the government is trying to reward them for helping to reduce negative effects of our built environment. Unfortunately, this does not help people place value on the soil or water, and that is the vital component in restoring the Bay’s health. Seeing dead fish due to low oxygen levels is much more likely to get people to care about eutrophication than reading articles about it in the Bay Journal.