We usually welcome gifts with gratitude, even if it is yet another pair of socks. Gratitude has been shown to contribute to our physical health and wellbeing, and strengthens social bonds. We get many gifts from nature every day; ecologists and social scientists call these “ecosystem services” or “nature’s contributions to people”.
One argument for protecting and restoring biodiversity is its utilitarian value: what nature contributes to our survival and wellbeing. It is relatively easy to value some of the material contributions of nature such as the value of pollination to food crops like cranberries. American cranberry growers hire hives of honey bees, and to a lesser extent bumblebees, to ensure that their crops are adequately pollinated.
Honeybees are shipped in and out and do not have to depend on the resources in the cropping area year round. While cranberries are pollinated by native pollinators, native insect abundances are much reduced in cranberry cropland compared with natural cranberry populations within landscapes with more resources for native pollinators.
The massive market in Christmas paraphernalia would not exist without reindeer, mistletoe, robins, holly and ivy
The contributions of nature to people can be to material things such as the food we eat or timber that we use for buildings and furniture. Nature’s contributions can be regulating, such as the recycling of critical nutrients through cycles of fixation, storage and decomposition.
The interactions of plants, microbes and animals control the climate and pollination of crops and wild products. There are also non-material contributions of nature to our wellbeing through rich social, cultural, spiritual and religious significance.
The valuation of non-material values of nature is tricky. A seasonally timely exception is the cultural value of holly and mistletoe, particularly at Christmas. Prof Jeff Ollerton and colleagues compiled the auction prices of holly and mistletoe at the largest UK Christmas auction. They showed that the price of holly doubled if it had berries and the price of mistletoe tripled with berries. As berries in both species can only be produced through insect pollination, this price differential allowed a direct monetary valuation of the contribution of pollinating insects to people’s appreciation of holly and mistletoe at Christmas.
Culture modifies the relationship between people and nature, the value or appreciation of a particular product or service from nature depends on the cultural lens we look through. For people in cultures where Christmas is celebrated, certain elements of nature become highly valued for their association with the holiday.
The dark green splashes of holly and ivy in our winter hedgerows and cheeky robins in our gardens make their way on to cards and decorations as a critical part of the Christmas aesthetic. The massive market in Christmas paraphernalia would not exist without reindeer, mistletoe, robins, holly and ivy.
Mid winter, because it is a time of scarcity in nature, is the perfect time to recognise nature’s contributions
In addition to native European species that have been part of Christmas traditions for millennia or certainly centuries, we have more recently incorporated nature from all over the world into European Christmas culture. Turkeys from America, Christmas cactuses from Brazil and poinsettias from Mexico all occur in the wild but have been domesticated and bred to bring colour, joy and sustenance into our mid-winter lives.
Monetary values of nature’s contributions to people are of course not the only values that matter. Most cultural values are not expressed in euro and dollars, but because we get these gifts for free we run the risk of undervaluing them.
By identifying and analysing the many and varied contributions that nature makes to people, researchers provide a more complete valuation (monetary and non-monetary) of nature in our lives. Different elements and kinds of management of nature can then be analysed for their impact on the full value of nature’s contributions, not just those that are obvious to us, or bought and sold in markets.
Mid winter, because it is a time of scarcity in nature, is the perfect time to recognise nature’s contributions. As you tuck into your Christmas dinner and enjoy your post-prandial walk, do yourself and nature a favour by expressing gratitude for nature’s many gifts.
Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist, Irish Research Council laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin