What an odd juxtaposition of almost giddy anticipation and deep anxiety as we prepare for a U.S. presidential inauguration that will be celebrated worldwide. Hopes for a new year and a new global leader of vision and courage collide with a tremendous angst as people everywhere are engulfed by the global economic crisis.
Alongside the urgent action needed to keep the economy afloat, there is a course that President-elect Barack Obama can chart that will help our global society move into a new era of sustained security. This security is not only for our economies, but also for our health and for present and future generations to thrive.
Another young U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, summed up that course about 100 years ago when he said: "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."
As Mr. Obama becomes the 44th president, one of his toughest challenges is also his greatest opportunity.
ON VIDEO: We all have an opportunity to be part of Team Earth.
The global environment is rapidly reaching a tipping point, much like our global economy. Once it passes that point, it will be all the more difficult to pull it back to stability.
Our Earth is being altered to the point where it cannot sustain much of the life that has thrived for millennia; species extinctions today are estimated to be 1,000 times the norm.
When our landscapes, rivers and coral reefs can no longer sustain robust species populations, humans are also in trouble. People depend on healthy ecosystems for the very fundamentals of survival: clean air, fresh water, soil regeneration, crop pollination and other resources we often take for granted until they are scarce or gone.
Just as the current financial crisis reveals how the world’s economies are interconnected, we must recognize the fundamental links between human well-being and Earth’s ecosystems.
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When we abuse and degrade the natural world, it affects our health, our social stability and our wallets.
How great is the challenge?
Well, today, 25 percent of wild marine fisheries are over-exploited, while another 50 percent are highly degraded. West African fisheries have declined by 80 percent since the 1990s, resulting in thousands of fishermen searching for jobs in Europe. When the Newfoundland cod fisheries collapsed in the early 1990s as a result of overfishing, it meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and cost $2 billion in income support and retraining.
Deforestation and land degradation contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's cars, trucks, planes and trains combined. What is lost in Indonesia or the Amazon affects climate in New York, Paris or Sydney.
More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. In the poorest countries, one in five children dies from by a preventable water-related disease. This is a crisis that is worsening as ecosystems are damaged, increasing droughts and floods.
Mismanagement and corruption tied to natural resource exploitation have fueled violent conflict in many countries including Liberia and the Democratic republic of Congo. Violence linked to natural resource loss and degradation has led to unimaginable human suffering in such places as Darfur. Tensions in the Middle East are fed by conflict over water and oil, as well as religion and politics.
Now climate change exacerbates the threats posed by over-consumption, pollution and habitat destruction. We are already witnessing rising oceans, spreading disease, reduced freshwater sources and myriad other serious threats. Recent studies show half of the world's population could face a climate-induced food crisis by the end of this century.
Yet as overwhelming as the global environmental crisis has become, it offers some of today’s greatest opportunities.
First, we must make conservation of nature a core principle of development; they cannot be separated.
Often the unintended consequence of development projects is the depletion or degradation of natural systems. We must recognize the value of nature and invest to protect it.
Ecosystem destruction costs our global economy at least $2 trillion every year. That is the value forests provide by storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, cleansing fresh water supplies, and preventing soil erosion. It includes the value oceans and coral reefs provide in food security for millions who rely on fisheries as their primary source of protein. Overall, global ecosystems services have been assessed to be worth as much as $33 trillion a year.
Every home owner understands that restoring and replacing a plumbing system, or a heating unit, is far more expensive than taking care of the system properly.
Well, the same is true for nature's ecosystems.
Restoring a forest costs 10 times as much as maintaining what we have. Building a reservoir and filtration system is far more expensive than preserving the intact forest systems that naturally filter and cleanse our drinking water.
Traditional measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not reflect changes in the quality and quantity of a nation's natural assets. Imagine measuring your personal financial condition without factoring in a dramatic and ongoing decline in your assets.
The world needs U.S. leadership to begin honestly accounting for the state our natural assets.
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The Obama Administration can bring these issues into the mainstream during this critical time of reorienting the United States’ national priorities.
Initiatives to advance natural resource conservation in other countries have typically lacked strong political support and received only a small fraction of total resources dedicated to international engagement. Mr. Obama and his team should fully integrate and fund ecosystem conservation priorities within U.S. national security considerations, as well as foreign policy and development assistance.
By helping restore and protect developing nations’ natural heritage throughout the world, the United States will strengthen the bonds of friendship and trust through sustainable collaborations.
The stakes are high and the benefits of bringing ecosystem conservation to the forefront of our foreign policy will be enormous.
As 2009 begins, we face a new era of unprecedented global economic, health and security challenges. Confronting these challenges requires a bold new commitment to protect our most valuable joint asset – planet Earth.
Peter Seligmann is the Chairman and CEO of Conservation International. This article originally appeared on the BBC News website's Green Room page (www.bbc.co.uk/greenroom).