Dec 15, 2016 / by Nancy Cruz / In Socio eco-cultural, Vince Deschamps

A day in the life – interacting with natural capital at work and play


Vince Deschamps is an ecologist and Registered Professional Planner with over twenty-five years of professional practice, including living and working in protected areas in rural and remote parts of the globe. Vince is at the forefront of developing Natural Capital and Ecosystem Service Assessment (NCESA) as a scientific discipline, and has applied the approach in support of traditional land use systems and conservation initiatives in Indonesia, Barbados and Ontario’s Far North.

“Act Globally, Drink Locally”(( my favourite pub opines. In the spirit of this sage advice, I think it’s important that we all take some time to reflect on how our daily activities interact with natural capital. To see our parts in the world and how our actions and activities both rely upon, and impact the economic, ecological and socio-cultural values(( we assign to natural capital, both as individuals and in our collective society. I’ll go first.

Woke up, fell out of bed… ((From “A Day in the Life”, J. Lennon & P. McCartney, 1967. ))

…and open the bedroom window for my morning breath of fresh air – made possible by the gas regulation services provided locally by the trees in our yard, our neighbour’s yards and nearby parks in production of oxygen. After passing though the kitchen to turn on the coffee maker, I head down to the bathroom for my morning ablutions. Although water is piped in and out of our hose, it originates from and returns to the Speed River, which provides us with the all-important water supply and waste treatment services. Back to the kitchen for a healthy breakfast (including the afore-mentioned coffee), well-wishes to the family and then gather up my stuff for a day at the office. Hats off to nearby agricultural lands for the food production, provided by local crop, chicken and (if I’m lucky) pork farmers. The coffee also represents food production, but this time originating half a world away on my wife’s native island of Java.

Today is a travel day, and I will make my way from Guelph to Markham. Although the over-worked series of freeways between the two cities passes through the most populated part of Canada, it also provides a glimpse of the many interactions between natural capital and the millions of people in the GTA who derive benefit from it.

Heading east, I pass a road sign announcing that I am entering the Greenbelt. A recent report estimates (( that the value derived from natural capital in the Greenbelt is approximately $3.2 billion annually. A lot of the interactions that provide benefits are hidden, as they are typically provided at a broad scale, but they are critical to the functioning of our towns and cities. They are noticeable if one pays close attention – or if traffic is going very slowly and you have lots of time to think. The mosaic of natural and pseudo-natural areas contained in the Greenbelt is remarkable. In addition to the obvious forested lands and scenic features that form the backbone of the Greenbelt’s, agricultural areas also contribute to the mix. Overgrown meadows and pastures provide pollination services, by providing habitat for honeybees and wild bees to do their thing in the reproduction of plants, while back-of-the-property sugar bushes provide raw materials such as wood that is still used to build and heat some homes.

Despite all the traffic on the morning drive, the air is somehow clean and clear as a result of the climate regulation and gas regulation services provided by local trees and forests, and I can often see the CN Tower in downtown Toronto although it is probably 50 km away. Farm fields transition into more urban development as I pass by the cliffs of the Kelso Conservation Area along the Niagara Escarpment. The cliffs are cultural features – iconic one could say as they provide aesthetic, artistic and possibly even spiritual values – beauty is in the eye of the beholder! The ski hills and reservoir provide year-round recreation opportunities for me and mine when the work week is done (or perhaps during, if nobody is looking for me, but let’s just keep that between us). Biologically, the cliffs are unique, and as a result support sources of unique genetic resources, including hardy assemblages of plants that can somehow sustain themselves in a variety of precarious positions. I often envision botanists hanging on for dear life as they discover a plant that might be a cure for the common cold. As the cliffs age, they weather and wear, but over the millennia this seemingly sad process enabled soil formation, through the transformation of rock, which resulted in the soils that support the development of our agricultural systems, and generally winds up putting food on our dinner plates in one form or another.

The waterways I cross, especially the larger rivers such as the Credit, Humber Don and Rouge, truly are the lifelines in the system as they wind their way from headwaters in the Oak Ridges Moraine through highly urbanized parts of the GTA and into Lake Ontario. Not only do these headwater creeks and rivers transport water from one place to another, but they also provide a number of critical and often under-appreciated services that would make life in the GTA quite difficult, if not downright impossible. This includes, but is definitively not limited to: disturbance regulation through flood control; water regulation through provision of flows for agriculture and industry; and, water supply and waste treatment (as discussed previously). In short: LOVE YOUR CREEKS AND RIVERS, full stop.

As a birder, almost anything that flies catches my attention. In addition to the Turkey Vultures soaring on the swirling updrafts near Keslo, Red-tail Hawks are commonly seen hunting from the trees all along the highway. The presence of these raptors is a good indication of biological control, through the provision of habitats that can support keystone predator species. It’s Autumn, so the small marshes and ponds adjacent to the highway and the on/off-ramps provide refugia in the form of habitat for resident and transient (migrating) wildlife such as ducks, Canada Geese and even Tundra Swans! In concert with the larger wetlands along the creeks and rivers, vegetation in these wetlands also provides erosion control and sediment retention services that help keep our beloved creeks and rivers clean. Nutrient cycling services are provided by these complex systems, through the acquisition and storage of nutrients, that would otherwise clog up and pollute our air and water.

The story repeats several times over as I eventually make my way to the Markham Road off ramp. I am impressed by the vastness of the system, and the ability of the fields, forests, rivers and wetlands to anonymously provide so many services along the way. The system is obviously under stress though, and it sinks in how every action I take can have an effect on the ability of these features to provide the services upon which I (as well as my neighbours and fellow Ontarians), rely. I do feel guilty about the long drive; as an ecologist and natural capitalist I consider my ecological footprint way too big. I’m hopeful that the drive home will give me the time to think about how to fix that.

A footnote to those who have made it this far: For the “purists” out there, you will notice that I’ve related my interactions and understanding of natural capital to the 17 categorizes of ecosystem services described in “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” (Costanza et al, 1997). Although many papers on natural capital have been published since 1997 (and the Costanza team updated their original work in 2014), I still find that the definitions of ecosystem services described in the original paper still does the trick for me. Consequently, you’ll also notice that the ecosystem services consider only renewable ecosystem services, and exclude non-renewable fuels, minerals and the atmosphere as these resources represent ecosystem “infrastructure”, and should therefore be maintained in order to allow for the ongoing provision of ecosystem services (Costanza et al, 1997).

To see a full reference list of the ecosystems services definitions mentioned in this blog, click here.

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