Nature is essential for human existence and a good quality of life, providing and sustaining the air, freshwater and soils on which we all depend. It also regulates the climate, provides pollination and pest control and reduces the impact of natural hazards.
Our reliance on the environment for these services is important for quality of life. Damaging our natural benefits beyond recovery and repair will mean a diminished quality of life for future generations.
“We are the first generation that has a clear picture of the value of nature and the enormous impact we have on it. We may also be the last that can act to reverse this trend.”
Living Planet report, 2018: Aiming higher
Nature is essential to our lives – from the food on our plates to the clothes we wear, from medicines to mental health benefits.
It provides the basic goods and services that make human life possible: the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicine. The natural world also provides less visible services such as climate regulation, natural flood defences, removal of air pollutants by vegetation, and the pollination of crops by insects. Then there is the inspiration people take from wildlife and the natural environment.
Natural capital is our ‘stock’ of water, land, air, species, minerals and oceans.
The benefits we receive from this natural capital are predominantly hidden or unaccounted for in decision making at all scales. However, by recognising nature as a form of capital and developing financial equivalents for nature's contribution to the economy and our well-being, decision-makers can better include the environment in future policy planning.
The process of valuing natural capital is still emerging, however all methods are based on the principle of taking our stocks of natural capital, matching these up with the benefits they provide and turning these into a financial value.
Biodiversity, our plants and animals, is an essential component of natural capital stocks. It provides benefits directly to people, for example, the pollination of plants to produce seeds. This benefits society primarily through food provision, and has been valued globally at approximately £120 billion and within the UK alone in the region of £690 million each year.
Benefits of nature
Nature provides us benefits, many of which are fundamental to our lives. These are summarised in the image below.
Mental and physical health benefits of green space are increasingly well established. The benefits are numerous and wide-reaching including:
- Reducing stress – Urban residents suffering from stress experience less anxiety when they have a view of trees. Physical signs of stress such as pulse rate are also measurably reduced when moving into green surroundings;
- Aiding recovery – Hospital patients with a view of greenery have been shown to recover more rapidly, and require less pain control medication than those who only have a view of buildings;
- Alleviating depression - Taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety and depression;
- Encouraging physical activity - Green spaces provide space to exercise which improves memory and cognitive function. People who uses parks and other green spaces are three times more likely to reach recommended levels of physical activity and children living in areas with good access to green spaces have been shown to have 11-19% lower prevalence of obesity;
- Bringing people together – Nature can help to bring people together and strengthen communities, reducing loneliness and isolation. They form a core part of our associations with heritage and culture, providing a strong sense of place and identity.
Biodiversity plays a crucial role in human nutrition through its influence on world food production, as it ensures the sustainable productivity of soils and provides the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Access to a sufficiency of a nutritious variety of food is a fundamental determinant of health.
One service nature provides is pollination of plants to produce seeds. This benefits society through food provision, and has a global economic value of approximately £120 billion, and within the UK alone in the region of £690 million each year.
Nature provides the water we drink. Peatlands can filter and store pollutants, keeping them out of our fresh water systems, while trees can slow down flooding reducing the flow of pollutants into the water system.
Many of the medicines we use are derived from nature. Many products and biomedical research relies on plants, animals and microbes to understand human physiology and to understand and treat human diseases. As nature is lost, so too are the potential medicinal treatments not yet discovered.
The medicinal benefits of nature are not reserved to exotic locations like the Amazon rainforest. Over 20 species of British trees and shrubs are known to have medicinal properties. The oil from birch bark, for example, has antiseptic properties.
These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems, and include things like:
- Contributing to sense of place and identity
- Enhancing community cohesion
- Influencing knowledge systems and inspiration
- Enhancing quality of life
- Providing spiritual value and meaning
- Providing recreation and tourism
While difficult to quantify, these all help to influence our cultural norms and societal expectations and explaining why humans have such a connection to green space.
Nature, especially plants, is able to regulate processes that can impede or stop a wide range of things we rely on to survive on Earth. These include: atmospheric chemical composition, the ozone layer, rainfall, air quality, and moderation of temperature and weather patterns. It maintains the environment within the ranges where human life can persist.