Ecosystems, economic choices and human well-being

5/18/2005

Montreal � In the past 50 years, human activity has changed the diversity of life on Earth � our biodiversity � more than any other time in history. These changes include biodiversity loss that harms the natural systems, known as ecosystems, which sustain all life on the planet.

The loss of biodiversity is more harmful to some people than others. The rural poor in developing countries are often hit hardest, because they are more directly dependent on the resources and services that ecosystems provide.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), the result of five years� research by 1,360 of the world�s leading scientists, documents how the growing human population is depleting resources and degrading the ecological systems that provide the fundamentals of life � clean water, breathable air, productive soil and a stable climate. The results are being released in a series of �synthesis reports� throughout 2005, including Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis (World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.) published May 19.

In this latest report, the MEA acknowledges that people are integral parts of ecosystems, �with the changing human condition serving to drive, both directly and indirectly, changes in ecosystems.� At the same time, it says that changes in ecosystems �cause changes in human well-being.�

Ecosystems, especially the tropical rainforests that harbor vast biological riches, provide services that clean our air and water, and provide food, medicines, energy, and raw materials. They regenerate soils and pollinate crops, regulate the climate, control floods, and offer recreational opportunities and spiritual renewal.

Ecosystem services are valued at $30 trillion � more than the combined domestic product of all nations. Degrading them causes economic harm, as well as human suffering. For example, the removal and degradation of mangroves and other coastal ecosystems for development meant the loss of natural buffers to the December tsunami in Asia, increasing the devastation.

Communities closest to an ecosystem are most affected by change and biodiversity loss, the MEA notes. Converting or clearing a forest for cash-crop agriculture or timber means the loss of ecosystem services such as wild sources of food, water for drinking and crop irrigation, firewood and building materials, along with the recycling of wastes into nutrients.

�Richer groups � are often less affected by the loss of ecosystem services because of their ability to purchase substitutes or to offset local losses of ecosystem services by shifting production and harvest to other regions,� the report states.

It also makes clear that the benefits that biodiversity provides have not been accurately considered in decision-making and resource management. For example, the costs of lost ecosystem services frequently exceed the benefit of habitat conversion. Such findings, it says, get obscured by economic calculations that fail to properly account for ecosystem services or tend to privilege the gains of one group over the losses of the wider community.

The MEA also cites subsidies for agriculture or extractive industries that distort the relative costs and benefits of ecosystem services. The end result, it says, is that �often the majority of local inhabitants [are] disenfranchised by the changes.�

Protecting biodiversity can be justified by economic rationale, but relying solely on the numbers will fail to halt biodiversity loss, the MEA asserts. �Ultimately, more biodiversity will be conserved if ethical, equitable distribution and spiritual concerns are taken into account than if only the operation of imperfect and incomplete markets is relied on,� it states.

According to the MEA, biodiversity conservation should be part of strategies and programs for meeting the Millennium Development goals. Conservation in the form of protected areas and habitat restoration enhances development efforts and will be strengthened by inclusion in the planning process, the report says.

Meanwhile, people who have a choice must reduce unsustainable consumption at an individual, community, national and global level. If we are serious about slowing, let alone halting, biodiversity loss, we must use less, and use it more efficiently.

For the immediate future, the MEA�s prediction is stark: �The costs and risks associated with biodiversity loss are expected to increase, and to fall disproportionately on the poor.�

Twenty percent of the world�s 6 billion people live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day, and the population is expected to increase by at least 2 billion in the next 50 years. Unless we change how we impact our planet, and how we help developing nations reach their economic goals without destroying their natural heritage, our legacy to future generations will be the loss of much of the biodiversity that sustains life on Earth.

In response to the significance of the MEA�s findings, eight of the world�s leading international conservation organizations � Birdlife International, Conservation International, IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Fauna & Flora International, the Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) � are pledging to work together to conserve ecosystems for the improvement of human well-being. We call on governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals to join us.

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