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Ecological Goods and Services

We depend on ecological goods and services everyday for our health, social, cultural, and economic needs. Ecological functions are the base resources that sustain our lives. The sustainability of communities and economies depends upon our ability to maintain or restore the ecological functions of both urban and rural landscapes.


Ecology is the study of the interactions among organisms and their natural environments. The study of ecology applies a systems approach – focusing on the individual and all the interdependent parts that make up an ecosystem. This systems approach is necessary to understanding how one part of the environment may have significant effects on other parts. Ecological studies can help determine the impact of human activities on the landscape before detrimental changes in the environment, such as changes to energy flow, water and chemical balances, are detected.

Ecological Debt

The past two centuries of economic growth and prosperity with little regard for the environment have carried an incredibly high cost in terms of water and air pollution, loss of natural areas and biodiversity. Is this a cost that will be expressed by future generations as an “ecological debt”? Can it be repaid as we strive to become more environmentally sustainable?

Ecological Goods

Ecological goods are the products of the processes and interactions (described above) of natural systems. For example, plants capturing energy from the sun, combined with water and nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, are able to manufacture food for use by all other organisms. The food is considered a good.

The decomposition of plant material (an ecological service), results in soil production (an ecological good). This ecological good allows us to grow food agriculturally or with human assistance. The processes of seed dispersal and pollination of plants by birds and insects (an ecological service), produce plants (an ecological good). The nutrients we derive from plants we consume are ecological goods resulting from many ecological services.

Ecological goods are not only valuable, they are essential to our survival. Our physical, cultural, social and economic lives are dependent upon these ecological goods that include:

  • Clean air
  • Fresh water
  • Food (and the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) derived from plants and animals)
  • Fiber
  • Timber
  • Other raw building materials
  • Genetic resources
  • Medicines

Ecological Services

The natural world provides us with the essential services we require for life. These services are called ecological services – the interactions among organisms and their natural environments, including the cycling of water and basic nutrients that humans are able to use and capitalize on. Ecological services include:

  • Purification of air and water
  • Mitigation of floods and droughts
  • Detoxification and decomposition of wastes
  • Generation and renewal of soil and natural vegetation
  • Pollination of crops and natural vegetation
  • Control of the vast majority of potential agricultural pests
  • Dispersal of seeds and translocation of nutrients
  • Maintenance of biodiversity
  • Protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
  • Partial stabilization of climate
  • Moderation of temperature extremes and the force of winds and waves
  • Support of diverse human culture
  • Providing aesthetic beauty and intellectual stimulation that lift the human spirit.

Threats to Ecological Goods and Services

Because of their importance, it is extremely important to reduce the threat of irreversible damage to our ecological systems caused by:

  • Land-use change and irreversible conversion of landscapes and their ecological functions.
  • Disruption of bio-geochemical cycles i.e. nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycles.
  • Disruption of the water cycle and ground water recharge.
  • Invasion by or introduction of exotic (non-native) organisms.
  • Toxins, pollutants and human wastes.
  • Changes in chemical composition of the atmosphere and ozone depletion.
  • Climate change.

Get Involved

The choices we make can often have a impact on the quality of food, water and the natural environment. Here are some ways we can become part of the solution to maintaining or restoring the ecological functions that produce the goods and services we depend upon:

  1. Learn how and where products are made. Choose products produced with methods that conserve resources, minimize waste and reduce or eliminate environmental damage.
  2. Buy locally produced products. This can help to reduce the amount of energy (natural resources) required to transport and store goods and supports local communities and economies.
  3. Choose products made with methods that reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
  4. Become a volunteer steward.
  5. Reduce personal consumption and waste production i.e. conserve water and use gray water (recycled water), reduce energy consumption and support renewable energy alternatives, compost, recycle, and reduce the use of disposable goods.
  6. Use public transit, cycle or walk to conserve natural resources, reduce pollution and enjoy the health benefits.
  7. Support smart growth and join or start a community garden.
  8. Reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, use native plants in your garden and lawn and provide habitat for wildlife.
  9. Make consumer choices that recognized and pay producers and processors for being good stewards.

Natures Services-Habitat as Infrastructure. A review of Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, edited by Gretchen Daily. Island Press, 1997.

Photo credit Alan Stewart.





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