Nature’s Services

Nature services itself. All the living organism have evolved in concert with each other to accommodate their needs from each other and the abiotic resources around them. That humans (as part of the ecosystem) have found many of their needs attended to by nature (the ecosystem) is no surprise. However, as humans evolved their technologies and numbers, their appetite for resources increased rapidly, and in some cases outpaced the ability of the natural system to provide for humans. Part of the new technology involved restructuring nature to increase output to humans. As part of that changing relationship, we may have forgotten about some of the “services” that nature provided all along. The concept of “ecosystem services” re-emphasizes these services so that we can again come to value them more dearly. In order to do this, we need to understand what ecosystems do, and then think about how that impacts us. The exercise below is to help with that understanding.

Think of yourself as an ecosystem. What inputs do you need? Diagram your water budget (inputs, outputs, intrasystem cycling (if any). Send me your diagram and I’ll post it on the blog page. Are we in some way analogous to a forested ecosystem in its use of water? How is the forest’s use of water not a cycle? Why do we talk about a water cycle? Now think about calcium. Assuming that you do not have osteoporosis, compare your use of calcium to that of the forested ecosystem described above. Would a diagram help you think about this?


Monika’s water system:



Ian’s water system:



Matt’s water system:


4 Responses to “Nature’s Services”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    With myself as an example of an ecosystem my inputs are oxygenated air, water and food. To stay healthy the quality of those inputs is important. Pollutants and poor nutritional content in my intakes can severely compromise both my longevity and the overall quality of my life.

    We are analogous to a forested ecosystem in the use of our water, because the forest sucks in water as we do and processes it internally through sap in the same way our blood supply works. Trees also respire water through their leaves in a way similar to our breathing. The only thing that trees do not really do is the mass excrement that we do, although when branches, leaves or fruit falls off the tree those items can be full of water. This lack of excrement is what makes the forest water use non-cyclic, because the water does not obviously return to the system in the same usable form.

    We talk about a water cycle, so that we understand that whatever we do to the water is going to come back to haunt us.

    It seems as though my use of calcium, in my normally healthy body, is more like the forest’s use of water and the forest’s use of calcium is more like my use of water. The two systems look similar, but are inverse for each of us. I hate diagrams, so, no the diagram is not going to help with the calcium question.

  2. Matt Sayre says:

    Can human activities actually be ecosystem services? If we consider human beings part of the ecosystem that sustains us, then what services might we provide as part of the system? In other words, if we produce something or process something that is beneficial to another living thing than are we in service to them and therefore providing an ecosystem service? An example might be people providing backyard bird feeders. This service makes it easier for birds to find food. Are these necessary or sustainable? Maybe due to loss of habitat. And, maybe if we can produce food for birds sustainably and consistently provide for the birds. Another example might be farming through which farmers complete farming as a way to produce food in service to other people. This has nothing to do with calcium, but I think is worth thinking about. And, I think Ian’s post above compares human calcium to the forest quite well. Let me just say, I like cheese. Rocks can’t consume cheese, so I enjoy my calcium intake more than them. My point is that a key difference between the calcium cycle involving rocks and humans is choice. Humans can actively seek the calcium we require, whereas forests are much more passive. Well, maybe. One might argue that plants and animals within a forest are very aggressive in seeking out the nutrients they need and these living things are what brings shape to the forest ecosystem. These aggressive plants may help rapidly break down rocks to release calcium for their uptake. This process can’t happen very quickly though, yet humans can “harvest” and consume calcium much more quickly. So, back to my original point… could humans help speed up the “calcium cycle” and if so would that be an ecosystem service we perform?

  3. Ian Raphael says:

    I think human water cycling is very similar to a forest. We both get water through the global water cycle that doesn’t necessarily originate within each of the systems. If we look internally, each of our organs are very efficient with its water use. The cycle of water is essential to the proper functioning of our body. I believe as forests and humans reach it mature size, there is a fundamental stock of water that is needed to maintain the system. The inputs and out puts regulate and manages waste.

    We start to differ from forests when you start thinking about waste/nutrient cycling. Humans do store materials, fat, mineral and water in our organs that will be released if needed in the short term. In that respect we are similar in our resiliency to forests. However, when we actually emit waste we cannot cycle it back into ourselves like a forest ecosystems can. I think of leaves turning into soil. Waste is recycled very efficiently in forests. Human waste on the other hand gets emitted and needs help from another ecosystem to process the waste. We could use our waste as fertilizer for foods we grow and ingest but that is stepping outside the realm of our internal ecosystem.

    I guess the forest’s use of water is not a cycle because if set apart from the larger global system, a forest would be unable to maintain itself. The cycle would take too long and is insufficient. I think we talk about the water cycle because it governs the majority of ecosystems out there. It transcends any one ecosystem and really shows how everything and all ecosystems are linked together. You can’t talk exclusively about a particular ecosystem without eventually leading to the water cycle which happens at the global scale.

    Calcium is used in similar ways. I think of rocks as the backbone of the forest. It adds support and is the foundation of the forest. Bones are the foundation of humans. They give us structure and our muscles attach to them. Our bone density however increases at a much faster rate than rocks. Also rocks were present before the growth of the forest ecosystem whereas our bones grow at a rate consistent with the growth of other parts of our body. Our use of calcium is also more dynamic.

  4. Monika says:

    We are, in some ways, analogous to a forested ecosystem, in that we have ways to filter our “used” water and recycle it back into the system. Where we differ from forested ecosystems is in the waste created by the cycle and how we treat it. Forests reuse their waste, while sewage treatment plants create waste that has to be “managed” rather than re-used. Also, we require external inputs to make the cycle continue: electricity, pumps, chemicals, huge amounts of infrastructure. While the forested ecosystem has inputs and infrastructure, they are “part” of the system, rather than an added piece existing solely to make the cycle possible. The forest’s use of water is not a completely contained cycle, since the water that leaves the system is not necessarily the water that will re-enter it. Depending on meteorology, the water may come from another area.

    Humans use calcium in a similar way to the forested ecosystem – except our calcium sequestration exists in our bones, while a forest’s calcium stores are in its rock minerals. The cycle is very slow; calcium is taken up into rock and bone very slowly, and is released over long periods of time. The bones will release calcium to the blood in order to maintain the desired level of calcium in the blood. Like the forested ecosystem, all of the inputs of calcium into human bodies are not immediately sequestered into storage; some is lost to other parts of the system.

    In the lifecycle of a human, bone building largely occurs in the early years, up to age 25 or so. Is there a similar sort of front-loading of calcium sequestration in forests? Or does it happen continuously as calcium is present?

    Human systems have a lot to learn from ecosystem services. It is useful to think of human water cycling (which may not be sustainable, especially in some parts of the world) as it compares to other, natural systems’ water cycling, which we know can stand the test of time. I think the big missing piece is the issue of waste, and how systems can find a place for it in the cycle. A lot of good ecological design is doing this.

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