Friday, September 30, 2005

Ecosystems at the Millenium

The latest issue of The Nature Conservancy's quarterly magazine has an article discussing the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, which looks at "what the environment has done for us lately, and how well it will be able to support us by midcentury." According to the magazine (and website), the MEA was "a five-year research effort by 1,360 of the world’s leading scientists, gives compelling evidence of our dependence on healthy and diverse ecosystems for clean water, food, a stable climate, and much more."

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment shows that unsustainable human actions
are degrading ecosystems throughout the world. The short-term economic and other
benefits that may be derived from exploitation of our forests, wetlands and
oceans are significantly outweighed by the far greater long-term damage to human
livelihoods and health.

For example:

1) The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment notes that wetlands provide services
to humanity valued as high as $15 trillion annually, including the water supply
on which an estimated 1.5 -3 billion people depend. Yet current human practices
are degrading and destroying these wetlands at a faster rate than any other type
of ecosystem.

2) Over-fishing off eastern Canada depleted cod stocks to the point that an
entire industry collapsed in the 1990s, putting tens of thousands of people out
of work.

3) In the aftermath of the recent tsunami, we are learning that areas where
development had not damaged natural barriers such as sand dunes, reefs and
mangroves experienced less damage.

And the lessons continue to come. Hurricane Katrina was another example of how development can damage the natural barriers provided by our ecosystems. It's not discussed here, but scientists are learning about the benefits of forest fires as a natural force that enables certain species to be sustained (and, almost counterintuitively, helps control wildfires).

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and the ecosystems have evolved over the course of its history. The defenses contained within these ecosystems, to put it simply, are "tried and true." Species (both plant and animal) and surfaces, for the most part, are where they are because they are what has come to fit the geographical and meteorological forces inherant in their particular region. When humans come along and change the landscape to satisfy their own desires, whether they pertain to having a nice view (real estate) or having a lot of money (procuring natural resources), we are changing the ecosystems that surround us, perhaps to our detriment.

To be clear, I am not faulting individuals who have chosen to live on the waterfront (for example). Water is powerful and beautiful, and most of us would love to have an oceanfront home if we could afford it. And the truth is that when humans started building on the ocean (or rivers, etc.), we didn't know what kind of impact we were making on the ecosystems. Similarly, I am not faulting humans for using the natural resources that this planet has to offer. It is human ingenuity in finding uses for the resources that the planet offers that has led to this fairly cushy way of life that everybody reading this enjoys.

What I am saying is that we know a lot more today than we did 100, 50, even 25 years ago. I am also saying that we don't know what we don't know. America has grown by leaps and bounds, growth which has been fed by the gluttonous consumption of land and natural resources. We now know that this type of gluttony is unsustainable, and in fact imperils our own long-term existence. We need to be more thoughtful about how we use what we use, as well as the impact of that use (e.g. mercury emissions, which endanger the public's health, from burning coal to produce electricity).

So while environmentalists are labeled as "Tree Huggers" (I've heard this one quite a bit over the last couple of weeks), written off as people who care more about some silly little insect than humans, the opposite in fact appears to be true. Saving a spotted owl or a canadian lynx or even a cave-dwelling cricket may seem like a waste of time to some people ("survival of the fittest!"), but in doing so we may be preserving natural ecosystems that turn out to be critical to our own survival. This is why we must think about the repercussions of all of our actions, and consider the environmental cost in our every endeavor.


Blogger Joe said...

Apologies for the effed up formatting on my box quote. I've never quite figured that one out just yet.

1:24 PM  

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