The Earth is a fascinating place. I think most people would agree with that, especially those of us lucky enough to be living on it. Part of what makes it so fascinating is that it's able to support life like us. And a facet of that is the work that the Earth constantly does to keep supporting that life. We've discussed a few of these systems that the Earth maintains in the form of biogeochemical cycles, but there is much more to this planet than those cycles. An impossibly large amount more really.
Let's dive in!
In environmental science, we call any of these Earth systems ecosystem services. These are systems that life on this planet more or less freely benefits from. Having fresh water available due to oceans and wind, having soil composition capable of breaking down nitrogen into parts we can interact with, having oxygen be pushed into the atmosphere for breathing. Life does not pay for any of these things. By simply by existing on this planet, we participate in the systems that keep life going.
A number of smart people have tried to value these systems in the past. The range varies widely, but always well above any amount of money this planet's humans currently hold. Some estimates from the late 1990s put the value at around 50 trillion US Dollars, all the way to a formula popularized this decade going so far as to say these systems and the planet itself are worth nearly 5 quadrillion US Dollars. Even on both sides of these spectra, the human population's GDP does not touch this value. Even if it did, it's not really fair to consider these ecosystem services as something humans can replace. Humanity's GDP is used to cycle humanity's own machinations. We, as humans, depend on the value the Earth provides in addition to the imaginary value we generate and track. If we had to foot that bill, knowing how humans are, we'd all perish in days.
These numbers all rely on measuring something tangible about the Earth, however. I would like to challenge that this is not the only value our planet provides to humans. These numbers may be fine when it comes to most other life on Earth, but humans are a bit of an oddity among the living.
We get bored.
This isn't a bad thing, just something that most other life on the planet doesn't get to experience. Or, at least, not experience to the level that we do. One of the ways humans have evolved to the point we're at today is, in large part, thanks to our capability of boredom, of not needing to worry about necessity and instead create, wander, and ponder our place on this planet and within the greater universe. It's due to this privilege we have that we are able to get a fairly unique service from Earth.
By and large, humanity is very good at thinking introspectively about a few things: ourselves, our hopes and fears, and our environment. It is astounding the amount of literature, artwork, music, and invention that are inspired in some way by nature. Without waxing too poetic, we like to look back on where we came from, this world that we're, at both times, an observer and an integral member of. When humans aren't creating with regards to our own humanness and imagination, we tend to ground ourselves in our world.
As a composer, I can assure that when my music is not based on something created by humans or an introspection on my thoughts or the thoughts of others, my themes are inspired by nature. Pieces ranging from the stillness and chaos of an active volcano, the icy chill of a passing winter storm, and following the path of water as it transforms from an ice-capped mountain to a rushing river. I'm not alone in this approach either. Many of my composer friends and colleagues derive their themes from nature, as well. From the songs of a bird to the dancing and perceived battles of fireflies to the many natures of water.
Music is just where I've spent most of my time creating, but writing and artwork are no different. When we tire of looking toward ourselves, or when looking inward doesn't provide the creative spark we need, we turn to nature. Even in engineering, we often look to the planet, plants, and animals for inspiration on how to make things float, fly, and grow. So much of what humanity has and creates depends on being able to look to our planet for ideas.
It is in this regard that I find the Earth quite priceless. If valuating the mechanical ecosystem services that the Earth provides didn't already make it clear how much this planet has done for humanity, I'd like for everyone to think about how they've personally been inspired by nature. To think on all of the luxuries we have and benefit from that wouldn't be around if we didn't have nature as a creative catalyst or a blueprint to study from. I'd love for everyone to internalize that thankfulness and turn it to advocacy and active participation in keeping our world in a state that supports life.
There's so much boredom left to traverse and, in turn, so much more humanity can create with nature and curiosity by its side, if only we do our part and care for our home as best we can.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
* 1997 Earth Value Estimate
Costanza, Robert; d'Arge, Ralph; de Groot, Rudolf; Farber, Stephen; Grasso, Monica; Hannon, Bruce; Limburg, Karin; Naeem, Shahid; O'Neill, Robert V.; Paruelo, Jose; Raskin, Robert G.; Sutton, Paul; van den Belt, Marjan (1997). "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital". Nature. 387 (6630): 253–260.
* 2010 Earth Value Estimate
"Earth Is Worth £3,000 Trillion, According To Scientist's New Planet Valuing Formula". Mail Online, 2011, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1361145/Earth-worth-3-000-trillion-according-scientists-new-planet-valuing-formula.html?ITO=1490. Accessed 28 June 2020.
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.