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The staggeringly large benefits of conserving nature

A bird flies over the sensitive ecological landscape of the Everglades National Park home to many endangered and rare plants on March 16, 2015 in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This is the latest installment of a weekly column on energy and the environment — “Planetary.” This column will draw together major trends in this sphere and provide analysis and perspective that extend beyond our daily reporting. We welcome ideas from readers about major topics I should write about — click on my byline to e-mail me, or tweet @chriscmooney.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve written about research showing that living near trees has demonstrable benefits to your health, and that nature walks might help battle depression, I’ve noticed a recurrent reaction from readers.

The top response seems to be some variant of, “duh, we knew that already.” In other words, a lot of people think it’s obvious that nature experiences are healthy and fulfilling.

[New research suggests nature walks are good for your brain]

And yet at the same time, these articles are being shared pretty widely. It seems the beneficial effect of nature is both something that we feel we already recognize — and yet also something we think others still need to know.

In a way, that’s not so surprising. The human connection to nature is ancient and, probably, part of the wiring of our brains. So in this sense, yes, it is obvious that greenery is good for us.

But it’s also indisputable that we don’t always act like we realize this. Across the globe, forests are burning or crashing down, species are vanishing, and the globe’s human population is more and more concentrated in urban areas and megacities. However much we appreciate nature, it isn’t enough to make us rein in other tendencies, especially economic imperatives, that ultimately fuel environmental and ecosystem destruction, as well as a disconnection from the natural world.

That’s a longstanding tension — but if there’s anything new to this dynamic of late, it’s a wave of science that is finally pinning down the true cost of damaging our natural surroundings — and the true benefits of preserving or expanding them. After all, it’s one thing to say you like the outdoors — who doesn’t? — and quite another to learn about findings like one reported last week: An increase of 11 trees on a city block is comparable, in terms of improved cardio-metabolic health, to raising people’s income by $20,000 or making them 1.4 years younger.

[Scientists have discovered that living near trees is good for your health]

That’s pretty striking — and it’s just one data point about the value of nature, expressed at least partly in economic terms.

Other research has focused on the value of national parks and natural protected areas. For instance, a study earlier this year found that the world population’s 8 billion visits per year to natural protected areas translates into $600 billion in revenue. “Substantially increased investments in protected area maintenance and expansion would yield substantial return,” the authors noted — arguing that we don’t spend nearly enough to protect these areas, in light of their value.

[Natural protected areas get 8 billion visits per year. That’s higher than world’s population]

The Obama administration has also sought to underscore the value of the nation’s parks, releasing a study on Earth Day this year suggesting that, as the White House put it:

…every $1 invested by American taxpayers in the National Park Service returns $10 to the U.S. economy.  In 2014, a record 293 million National Park visitors spent $15.7 billion in communities around National Parks, providing a $29.7 billion benefit to the U.S. economy and supporting 277,000 jobs.

No wonder that Obama has now “established or expanded 19 national monuments for a total of more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters, more than any previous president,” reports The Post’s Juliet Eilperin.

Other research by the National Parks Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, has shown that national parks in the United States play a critical role in pulling carbon out of the air — so-called “carbon sequestration” — and that annually, this storage is worth over $580 million.

[In massive expansion of lands legacy, Obama creates three new national monuments]

Such results pull us firmly into the body of literature on the global value of so-called “ecosystem services” — all of the things that landscapes and the organisms that live in them do for us, from providing us with food and water, to sequestering carbon and filtering the air. Research in this field has been growing rapidly over the past decade or more, and one recent study suggests that these combined services, of all kinds and across the globe, could be worth well over $100 trillion per year. The same study found that changes in land use — due to tropical deforestation, loss of wetlands, and more — had a cost of between $ 4.3 and 20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011.

That’s mind-boggling — but are findings like these enough to finally tip the balance, once and for all, in favor of conservation?

Possibly. I suspect that some of them are likely to be persuasive than others.

The figures for the total value of “ecosystem services” are staggering, but the term itself is a bit wonky and off putting – blending concepts from ecology and economics (“goods and services”) — and furthermore, numbers this large are hard to wrap our minds around. In contrast, and even though the numbers may be smaller, I think the findings about how nature improves our health and psychological well-being may have the potential to catch more attention.

It’s not just that people are highly attentive to information about how to improve their physical and mental well-being. It’s also easy to use plain language to describe the health and well-being data. Plain language like this — it is increasingly apparent that greenery and trees help make people healthy and sane.

That’s no small matter at a time when the world is growing more and more urban and the percentage of the population projected to live in cities by 2050 is 66, up from 54 percent at present.

As for ecosystem services, we in effect learn and relearn their value every time damaging nature — and thus, undermining the “services” it can perform for us — ends up redounding upon our own heads. Thus, Amazon deforestation is implicated in the devastating Sao Paolo drought. Choking off water flow to the Everglades threatens drinking water supplies. And so on and so on.

[Why Obama’s trip to the Florida Everglades is a shrewd move in the climate debate]

All of that said, there’s still something odd about treating nature solely in monetary terms. “Many eco-services are best considered public goods or common pool resources, so conventional markets are often not the best institutional frameworks to manage them,” notes a recent paper in the field. Still, it does seem fair to say that at least part of what the natural world does for us can be expressed in economic terms.

At minimum, the new research — perhaps most of all on health and psychological benefits — is giving us new tools to value nature, and at the same time, realize just how costly and damaging it has been. And the new data further underscore an old bit of wisdom: To preserve the natural world is also to preserve ourselves.