When Owen Paterson was the Secretary of State for the Environment, he reportedly banned DEFRA civil servants from using the term ‘ecosystem services’. I wouldn’t blame him if he had, it’s a pretty horrible piece of jargon. And yet it does refer to something of immense importance.

The natural world provides humanity with all kinds of benefits. Some of them are resources that are located in specific areas and can be owned and managed by specific individuals and organisations. Others, however, are the product of vast and complex natural processes that defy any meaningful attempt at formal ownership – the water cycle, for instance.

Such phenomena are so big, so all-encompassing, so essential to human existence, that, perversely, we simply take them for granted as if they had zero economic value. It’s not until we lose them that we realise just how valuable they are.

It’s a lesson that the inhabitants of São Paulo are learning the hard way. According to Brad Plumer’s report for Vox, South America’s biggest city is in the grip of a terrifying drought:

“São Paulo’s reservoirs have dwindled to less than 5 percent of their original capacity, 13 million people are facing water outages, and officials are warning that the area could face ‘collapse’ if it doesn’t rain soon — with businesses and households struggling to find fresh water…”

“The Wall Street Journal reports that coffee and sugarcane harvests are withering, while manufacturers are struggling to find cooling water and one major meat-packing plant has had to shut down temporarily. (Indeed, the drought in southeastern Brazil is one big reason why global coffee prices are expected to rise in the future.)”

Why is this happening?

According to Jan Rocha in the Guardian, some scientists are putting the blame on the failure of Brazil’s ‘flying rivers’. This is the name given to the  “massive volumes of vapour that rise from the rainforest, travel west, and then − blocked by the Andes − turn south”:

“Satellite images from the Centre for Weather Forecasts and Climate Research of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) clearly show that, during January and February this year, the flying rivers failed to arrive, unlike the previous five years.”

You may have a noticed a recent spate of books, pamphlets and articles seeking to convince us that the world is getting better. Contrary to the doomsters of the environmental movement, we’re told that nasties like pollution, deforestation, disease and violence are all in decline.

There’s no harm in delivering good news when it’s there to be had. However, there is a danger here of ‘eco-whiggery’ – a narrative of inevitable human progress, in which we’re certain to make good any self-inflicted harm. In this regard, 2014 is a wake-up call, a year of disastrous developments that reminds us that we can go backwards as well as forwards:

“Latest figures from Deter, the real time deforestation detection system based on high frequency satellite images used by INPE, show that, after falling for two years, Amazon deforestation rose again by 10% between August 2013 and July 2014. The forest is being cleared for logging and farming.”

Sometimes, the doomsters get it right:

“As long ago as 2009, Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned that, without the ‘flying rivers’, the area that produces 70% of South America’s GNP would be desert.

In an interview with the journal Valor Economica, he said: ‘Destroying the Amazon to advance the agricultural frontier is like shooting yourself in the foot. The Amazon is a gigantic hydrological pump that brings the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean into the continent and guarantees the irrigation of the region.’”

Perhaps we should put a bit more value on what nature gives us for free.