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What has nature ever done for us?

14 August 2012 | Posted in Environmental Education ,

Author Nigel Flynn

I’ve just taken part in Crawley STEMfest. STEM subjects are Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, and STEM tries to encourage school pupils to think about further study/careers in those areas. My offer was a presentation on Ecosystem Services, a title which would be a real turn-off so I call it “What has nature ever done for us?”.

My talk consist of a bit about what the Sussex Wildlife Trust does, how it’s changed its approach with Living Landscapes, and how they can help create those landscapes. I then ask

"But why does conserving nature matter to anyone, except those who like bird-watching or flower identification?"

The answer, of course, is because we couldn’t survive without nature. I teach them the long phrase because every teenager now knows about “global warming” and in 20 years time I want every child to understand “Ecosystem Services”.

And at this point, to keep their attention, I start playing a game of Jenga set up on the front desk, taking out a piece every few minutes and asking pupils to try to work out why I’m doing it.

I go through what nature does for us for free – oxygen, food, fibre, flood control, climate control, leisure, making life worth living etc. I get the pupils to imagine what life would be like without those services – going round in oxygen masks with tanks on our backs, carrying sun shields as the ozone layer would disappear, suffering +50 deqrees in summer and -50 in winter etc. Where man already has to pay for what nature would do for free, I give the example of a multi-million dollar industry in the USA. This consists of refrigerated lorries taking hives of bees round to crop plantations to pollinate them. The farmers have got rid of all the “pesky wildlife” in many “factory farms” and so have to pay the bee-man, when if they’d left a few hedgerows the wild bees would have pollinated their crops for nothing!

They soon get the idea, and are always really struck by a statistic given to me by Tony Whitbread (along with many of the ideas for the talk.) Scientists some while back calculated the theoretical cost of providing all ecosystem services for the world artificially at $33 trillion dollars. At that time the total world GDP was $31 trillion dollars. So if it wasn’t for nature, then every penny every person in the world ever earns would have to go on paying for the vital things nature does for us – for nothing!

Ecosystem Jenga / Martin Sharman
Ecosystem Jenga / Martin Sharman

Pupils may think they can see how some parts of nature are valuable, but some do nothing for us. That’s where the Jenga comes in: a metaphor for how nature is interconnected, and we cannot know when man-caused extinctions will cause the whole structure to come tumbling down. I tell the story of the North American Pacific kelp forest which was destroyed soon after man hunted the sea otter to extinction, causing a massive clam population expansion. And I say how the trees in this country would be unable to do their job of oxygen production if all the small birds suddenly went, leading to a caterpillar explosion.

The presentation is always well-received with pupils saying things like

“I’d no idea …I’d never thought about it… Why haven’t we heard this before?”

Many quickly pick up the ideas and understand the meaning of the Jenga game. I’ll hope to do many more of these, to show the vital importance of nature and what the Trust does, until eventually it becomes as much a part of the curriculum as climate change is. Then it won’t be needed any more!

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