“Thanksgiving comes to us out of the prehistoric dimness, universal to all ages and all faiths. At whatever straws we must grasp, there is always a time for gratitude and new beginnings.” ~J. Robert Moskin
Like Halloween[i], the roots of our modern Thanksgiving holiday go much further back than perhaps most of us realize. According to The History Channel, “Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.” Further back, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest.[ii]
Another name for these “fruits of the harvest” for which we are pausing and giving thanks is ecological goods and services. Did you ever stop to think of the tremendous value of all the things that nature provides free-of-charge? How much would you be willing to pay for breathable air and drinkable water, if none were otherwise available? The Ecological Society of America has an excellent short introduction to ecosystem services (PDF), services that detoxify and decompose wastes, mitigate drought and floods, and pollinate crops and natural vegetation.
The concept of free ecological goods and services is foreign to most of us who purchase packaged foods and bottled drinks off neatly arranged store shelves. However, a famous 1997 scientific estimate valued global ecosystem services at $33 trillion![iii] (This compares to a global GNP at the time of $18 trillion.) It is clear that nature’s free economy far exceeds all human economies. However, this $33 trillion figure is not only undoubtedly low; it is very misleading, for without these free services none of us can survive.
After millennia of scientific and technical advancements, we’re only beginning to figure all this out—how utterly dependent we still are upon nature. In this sense, all economies are virtual economies, like those that spring up in online games. We forget that price is irrelevant if nature cannot produce, and there is no substitute for ecosystem services. By disrupting nature, we are pulling the plug on our own game. We may suddenly find our imagined wealth gone with the wind, under water, or burned away by the tornadoes, floods, and wildfires of climate chaos. Or we may simply find that we cannot eat paper or metal, no matter what value is printed on it, when nature no longer can provide.
There is a famous paradox that plagued early economists: The Diamond-Water Paradox. Early economists could not explain why water, which is vital to life, has almost no economic value, yet diamonds, which were not at all necessary to life, are highly valued. Although later economists “solved” this problem (and I encourage you to check the link if you are curious as to the answer), the solution has only made it easier for economists (and the rest of us) to ignore nature and forget that we are utterly dependent upon it.
So this Thanksgiving, while you are pausing to give thanks, remember that you are giving thanks for nature’s bounty, not Grocery-Mart’s. Next up in this blog series: What you can do with this information!
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” ~John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.