The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
In the 2014 wilderness adventure film Wild, protagonist Cheryl sets out to solo-hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail in a journey of self-discovery following a tumultuous period of loss in her life. Whether she realizes it or not (1,100 miles later), the healing experience Cheryl enjoys in nature is an example of an ecosystem service.
Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect benefits humans receive from the environment, made possible by healthy ecosystems. Around the world, people of different genders value, comprehend, and benefit from ecosystem services differently, owing, in part, to gender roles and responsibilities. These disparities are best observed by considering the four categories used to describe ecosystem services.
First, provisioning services are products physically obtained from the environment, ranging from food, water, and wood to genetic resources. In Wild, Cheryl relies on provisioning services when replenishing her supply of drinking water from streams and rivers. In real life, men have been shown to value provisioning services due to their relationship with various industries.
Then there are regulating services, processes that moderate or balance aspects of nature. Think about how ecosystems purify air, decompose waste, or control pests, all of which protect human health. Pollination and preventing erosion are vital to food security, while carbon storage and climate regulation are top-of-mind given the climate crisis. Both women and men have been shown to value regulating services.
The third category explains the emotional and mental rejuvenation Cheryl experiences during her outdoor adventure. Cultural services are the non-material benefits humans receive from interactions with nature, including those that are spiritual, recreational, or educational. In fact, since the film’s debut, thousands of people (especially women) have been inspired to seek the Pacific Crest Trail’s cultural ecosystem services in what has been dubbed “The Wild Effect.”
But these cultural, regulating, and provisioning services would scarcely be possible without the fourth and final category: supporting services. As the names suggests, these services support or sustain the ecosystems themselves and include processes such as photosynthesis, soil creation, and nutrient cycling. Women tend to have a greater appreciation for and understanding of the services that fall within this category.
The type of services offered depends on the ecosystem at hand. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail, extending from the Canadian border in Washington to the Mexican border in California, passes through desert, grassland, wetland, and forest ecosystems, just to name a few. The services they provide naturally (pun intended) differ from those associated with marine ecosystems.
While ecosystem services are clearly essential, they are not guaranteed. Benefits come from healthy ecosystems, necessitating a healthy dynamic between all the micro- and macro-organisms comprised within. When ecosystems are endangered by climate change, unsustainable practices, or other threats, disproportionate impacts are felt by women and girls, as their livelihoods often depend on natural resources. Ecosystem service loss also affects women and girls’ abilities to procure food, water, and firewood for the household. Including women and girls in decision-making ensures effective and long-lasting solutions that safeguard these services.
Despite their importance, the value of ecosystem services tends to be underestimated or, like the air we breathe, considered free. Some services can be quantified, like the expense needed to treat the water supply if wetlands are destroyed, or the cost of property damage if mangroves are removed from coastlines. But calculating the value of a tree, for instance, which provides shade, oxygen, soil stability, water purification, recreation, and cultural values, is far more challenging. Even so, systems attempting to pay individuals for ecosystem services (or, rather, services provided by ecosystems protected or restored by those individuals) have been developed, but they historically suffer from minimal women’s participation. This is often the result of leadership and land ownership barriers, which must be considered when developing ecosystem service payment programs so women can benefit equally.
Ecosystem services underlie various priorities of the U.S. Government. At the State Department and beyond, initiatives and engagements recognize the global interconnectedness between humans and ecosystems, as well as the role of nature-based solutions in tackling the climate crisis. Efforts are ongoing to conduct mapping , develop economic models, and analyze social impact of ecosystem services for individuals and communities. Some U.S. Government agencies are developing tools to help characterize, quantify, and make decisions related to ecosystem services, while others are integrating gender equality into public-private partnerships that will compensate individuals for safeguarding those services.
You don’t need to take on the Pacific Crest Trail to understand the many provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services offered by ecosystems. How have you benefited from ecosystem services today?
Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), which is actively developing policy strategies and outreach opportunities to ensure the leadership of women and girls in developing solutions to climate change. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.