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This week's theme is TEACHING! Ecology is a fascinating and complicated science. But if you mix it with the fascinating and complicated science of economics, you end up giving value to the things our world does for us.

Those things, in ecological lingo, are "ecosystem services" and you can actually put price tags on them. That's what I want to teach John about today.


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A Bunny
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Good morning, John. I'm skiing. I'm not doing the kind of skiing that a lot of people do with like the 45 degree downhill slopes and the death waiting behind every tree branch. You know, the kind of skiing that killed both a Kennedy and Sonny Bono the year I turned 17. I'm doing the kind of skiing that's mostly just looking at stuff. Which is good 'cause I really like to look at stuff. Weeee. Also, I have to admit it's fun. I'm not much for adventure. This is just enough adventure for me. But this adventure reminds me of a theme since before we had themes. And that theme is teaching.

John, you and I come from very different educational backgrounds. If I wanted to write my name out as formally as possible, it would end in Master of Science. I am a master of science! You, on the other hand, have some froofy Bachelor of Arts degree. I don't even know what it's in. So, I assume that we have lots of stuff to teach each other. I, for example, can teach you about concrete ways of explaining our world in a scientific way. And you can teach me that the big billboard in The Great Gatsby was, like, God or something.

So, John, today I want to teach you about something, and this place reminds me of an ecological concept that I think is really fascinating. And it's somewhat complex and kind of impossible to understand without a really good background in ecology. But on a surface level, it's totally easy to understand. So, I am going to teach you today about ecosystem services.

The concept is basically based on the idea that all of the life on Earth does useful stuff for people. Whether it's providing pharmaceuticals, regulating the weather, filtering the water, cleaning the air. All of these are services that ecosystems provide. Now, a while back, ecologists actually kind of figured out that they could take their very esoteric, confusing science and mix it with the somewhat less esoteric science of economics. And actually put dollar values on the services that are provided by our ecosystem.

And, now, one really concrete example of this is that at one point the water in New York City became undrinkable. And a lot of people thought they knew how to fix that. They said, "Oh, we'll just build an $8 billion water filtration plant." But then some very smart people realized that if they just restored the near-by ecosystem, the Catskill watershed, to a fraction of its former glory... (My lips are numb. It's hard to talk.) That that watershed would provide the exact same filtration power as an $8 billion purification plant. And it worked, and it cost like ten times less than building the purification plant would have. And not only did it work for them then, it has continued to work now. New York City has some of the best water of any city in America. And the Catskill ecosystem has managed to keep up providing its services for New York despite the fact that water uses has continued to grow very, very quickly.

I hope you don't mind if I sit down for a while because skiing and taking video is very difficult, it turns out.

So, obviously that's pretty cut-and-dry example of an ecosystem service. But the thing is, it's not always that simple. So, it takes a lot of economists and a lot of ecologists to figure out exactly what an ecosystem's services are worth. In 1997, oddly enough, the same year that both that Kennedy and Sonny Bono died while skiing, a group of scientists and economists got together, and they decided to figure out the ecosystem services provided by the entire world. Turns out that in 1997, their closest guess was about $33 trillion. Which, it's worth noting which is about two times the entire value of the entire world economy.

The creation of the topsoil that we grow all of our crops in alone is worth about the same amount of money as exists in the current global economy today. So, if we wanted to create all that topsoil ourselves, we would have to spend every single dollar that is spent in our entire economy, from tequila in Tijuana to Bentleys in Berkeley.

Additionally, they put in a category for the ecosystem service of beauty. Which is what I am enjoying today, and what I have spent some money to enjoy. Everything from the boots I'm wearing to the gas it took to drive out here. It turns out that there's often a battle between capitalism and the environment that the environment is actually very, very good for our economy. Ecosystems provide services for free. They convert dead things into living things. They filter our water. They control floods. They're beautiful. And often we think that we destroy ecosystems for our own economic gain, but it turns out we're costing ourselves in the long-term. Which is one reason why ecology is fascinating and important, and everyone should know more about it.

John, I expect you to teach me something on Wednesday.