URBAN ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
I ascribe to the core tenets of conservation biology, including recognising the intrinsic value of biodiversity. To me, all lifeforms have the fundamental right to exist and this is a good enough reason to protect other species. And in extending this concept to entire systems, e.g., ecosystems, including their non-living components, my environmental worldview can be classified as ecocentrism – a belief system that may best serve the goals of sustainability.
But I realise that my worldviews place me in the minority. Most people who value biodiversity (and not everyone does) do so for its instrumental value. Therefore, the dominant worldviews, especially in the Western Hemisphere, are anthropocentric, placing humans as superior or even transcendent to Nature. Even the Brundtland Report, which defined sustainable development, is inherently anthropocentric, by emphasising the concept of “natural capital” – the natural world consists of resources for human use.
And while I reject this idea, I’m not a misanthrope. Human dignity and social justice matter greatly to me. Besides, the best solutions to the environmental crisis are always ones people support – actually, without this support, conservation is impossible. A great way to raise it is to show what Nature does for us. In fact, it does everything for us, and all the tangible and intangible benefits we get from biodiversity are ecosystem services.
If urbanisation exacerbates human disconnect from Nature, then it stands to reason that urbanites might need a little extra convincing. Perhaps that’s one reason why urban ecologists have been calling for studies to document, quantify and valuate ecosystem services. That’s where I come in. And in this way, this overarching research question fits into the third paradigm in urban ecology – ECOLOGY FOR CITIES. It builds on the other two paradigms, includes diverse stakeholders and tends toward research to advance sustainable and liveable cities.
Thus far, two of my students have taken on projects in this area. The first asked how the occurrence of potential seed dispersers changes in urban habitat fragments at different levels of succession. The second investigated the diets of fruit bats along an urbanisation gradient – an exercise that revealed their potential for seed dispersal – by examining their droppings using morphological and molecular methods.
Indeed, bat droppings (partially eaten foods, guano and ejecta, i.e., stuff they spit out) is a valuable resource in this regard. Because it provides clues to bats’ diets. And so we can ask if they’re consuming insects that transmit diseases to humans or damage valuable plants and if they’re pollinating or dispersing seeds of important plants. And once we demonstrate that they are doing these things, we can quantify those services (show the extent to which they’re doing them) and valuate them (put a monetary price on the service). And this is what I aim to do moving forward, hopefully by including exclusion experiments, which are challenging to set up, but highly rewarding – like this one that demonstrated the value of bats to corn production in the US.