by Jan TenBruggencate
The voyagers who first arrived in the Islands had no problems about food. The ecosystem gave it to them.
There’s a modern term for what they found here: Ecosystem services—the good stuff that a healthy environment provides.
They found fat flightless birds wandering in the undergrowth, clear fresh streams and springs, lobsters crawling on the reef surface.
Ecosystem services include certainly, drinkable water, but also fresh air to breathe, the regulation of our climate, the pollination of the flowers of plants that help feed us, and lots more.
And these ecosystem services are fragile, argues Allen Hershkowitz, senior research scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He vacationed on Kaua`i recently, and gave a couple of talks to interested residents.
If you think along the scale of solar systems and galaxies, life is a tiny, delicate, precious thing. The only place in the universe where we absolutely know it exists: a thin sphere that extends 5 miles above to surface and five miles down to the deepest ocean.
“Life,” Hershkowitz said, “is the rarest thing in the universe.”
To paraphrase a 1976 Electric Light Orchestra song: It’s a living thing; It’s a terrible thing to lose.
Some argue that to protect ecosystem services, we should put a price on them. Hershkowitz argues that, for example, when the U.S. Forest Service gives away the right to log national woodlands, and also uses taxpayer money to maintain logging roads, it is sending exactly the wrong message—that the ecosystem services have no value.
When we casually allow South American forests to be destroyed to make wood pulp for toilet paper, we throw away two things: the ecosystem services of the forest, and an unrecyclable product that is used for a few seconds and then discarded.
Hershkowitz asks: Of all the things that ought to be made of recyclable materials, shouldn’t toilet paper be one?
At some point, we need to ask the additional question, just how much are we willing to lose?
Aldo Leopold, back in 1953, wrote: “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” (Many years later, in 1971, Paul Ehrlich would paraphrase this line: “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”)
Harvard’s E.O. Wilson says we’re now in the midst of the fastest species extinction rate since the death of the dinosaurs. Our planet is losing biodiversity at an appalling rate: somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 species a year.
Hawai`i has been called the extinction capital of the nation, with not dozens but hundreds of species on the endangered species list.
The list of already extinct species from Hawai`i is depressing. Twenty-eight unique birds, 97 plant species, 72 snails and 74 insects, according to Bishop Museum.
We’re trashing the ecosystem that has been giving us ecosystem services all these centuries.
Jan TenBruggencate is a beekeeper, an author and the former science writer for The Honolulu Advertiser. He operates a communications company, Island Strategy LLC. He serves on the board of the Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative and on the County Charter Review Commission.