#bioPGH Blog: What Captain Planet Really Kept Safe!
Dec 01

#bioPGH Blog: What Captain Planet Really Kept Safe!

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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Captain Planet, he's our hero,
Gonna take pollution down to zero,
He's our powers magnified,
And he's fighting on the planet's side

“The power is YOURS!”

For those who may not have been a cartoon connoisseur from 1990–92, Captain Planet was a children’s TV show featuring the titular environmental super hero and five young sidekicks, the Planeteers. Like many a little 90’s kid, I fancied myself a Planeteer — my last name was even Wheeler, the name of one of the characters in the show! These Planeteers, who hailed from all around the world, had elemental Earth powers which together could summon Captain Planet to take on eco-villains set on some sort of pollution or environmental destruction.

As a six-year-old, watching stories of Captain Planet protecting the planet for the sake of the planet itself was enough for me. I loved the idea of clean rivers and vibrant forests, and I wanted him to keep them safe just for their natural beauty, not to mention the animals who lived there. As I became a nature-nerdy teenager and, even worse, an incurable nerd as an adult, I have realized that every time Captain Planet saved an ocean or a jungle, he was indeed protecting green and blue space; but he was also protecting human life. He was protecting human because nature and all of its natural biological and chemical processes are what we depend on every single day.

Sometimes I take for granted that I breathe in air constantly throughout the day and that I need water to drink and that I need pollinators to facilitate the creation of my food, but I have to remember that the Earth’s natural processes help make all of those essentials available to me. So when Captain Planet saved a river from pollution, he was really protecting the children who drink that water, the businesses that rely on that water, and the farms whose livestock depend on that water. Actually, Earth’s natural processes are such a critical part of human existence that they contribute an estimated $145 trillion per year to the global economy. “What are all these processes?” one might ask. They can be categorized into what are called ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the collective, tangible, measurable processes from different systems in nature that ultimately provide us with life-sustaining benefits. Let’s look into these services in a bit more detail! (And note, I am using categories defined by v5.1 of the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services, which streamlines and clarifies a few previous categories.)

Regulation and Maintenance: All the ways in which living organisms can mediate or moderate the ambient environment that affects human health, safety or comfort, together with abiotic equivalents.
This category includes all of the ways that natural processes are regulated on Earth. Examples of regulating services include such processes as water purification through wetlands, flood and erosion control, carbon management, and decomposition of organic materials by animals, plants, fungi, invertebrates, and bacteria. Each of these processes would be impossible for humans to manage completely on their own. Here in Allegheny County, a fascinating example of a regulating service at work is at Wingfield Pines, managed by the Allegheny Land Trust. A large land area formerly contaminated with abandoned mine drainage, Wingfield Pines, utilizes a complex wetland system to purify the water.

This category also includes the constant range of activity from all the underlying biological and chemical processes that keep the Earth functioning like a brilliant machine consisting of seemingly infinite number of cogs. This includes plant pollination, food production via photosynthesis, soil production, nutrient cycling, and the processing of naturally-occurring chemicals. It’s a tall order, but healthy ecosystems can get it done — how amazing is that?!

Provisional services: This category covers all nutritional, non-nutritional material and energetic outputs from living systems as well as abiotic outputs (including water).
Any sort of resource that is extracted from the land can be considered a provisional resource. For example, this includes our drinking water; and considering our bodies are ~70% water, this is certainly a very important resource! A less obvious provisional service is our source of medicines. Over half of modern pharmaceuticals were originally derived from plant materials, and research continues with compounds produced by a wide range of taxa, from orchids to algae to snails!

Cultural Services: All the non-material, and normally non-rival and non-consumptive, outputs of ecosystems (biotic and abiotic) that affect physical and mental states of people.
Any time we go camping, fishing, hiking, snowboarding, trail running, exploring, or sledding, we enjoy the wonder of nature’s cultural services, which encompass our societal and cultural relationships to nature. The earth’s cultural services are a huge part of the global economy, which makes sense when we think about buying skis or fishing poles or kayaks, not to mention the related tourism! However, cultural services also include cultural significance — the relationships that different cultures and heritages share with nature. Many societies, both historic and modern, include elements of nature in spiritual or traditional practices.

We mentioned that the annual value of our Earth’s natural processes are worth at least $145 trillion dollars. When we think about the values of the global food supply, the outdoor recreation industry and recreational lands and the pharmaceutical industry, it’s easy to see how the numbers add up. Combine that with breathable oxygen production, the carbon cycle and the immeasurable tiny, interconnected details of being a living being on Earth, and it’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on nature’s activities. We benefit from all of these ecosystem services every minute of every day, but the trick is to not take them for granted. We really do have an awesome planet, so let’s follow the example of the Planeteers and protect it! And as Captain Planet would say, “The power is ours!”

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: As a fun family activity, make a field journal to document ecosystem services (be sure to decorate that journal, those are the best!), and go for a walk in one of Pittsburgh’s parks. What kind of natural processes can you see happening? Is there any rainwater or perhaps snow on the ground? Where might that water be going, or where will it go when it melts?


Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services, Classification v5.1

NOAA: Ecosystem Services 101

Global Environmental Change: Changes in the global value of ecosystem services 

The Outdoor Recreation Economy

Comparing NOAA’s Recreation and Commercial Fishing Economic Data

Select Photos © Vaido Otsar CC-BY-SA-3.0 and Forest Wander CC-BY-SA-3.0