[Paleopsych] NYT: Report Tallies Hidden Costs of Human Assault on Nature
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Tue Apr 5 17:59:14 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Science > Environment > Report Tallies Hidden
Costs of Human Assault on Nature
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
For decades, scientists have been warning that human activities were
extinguishing species, altering the climate and degrading landscapes.
Now a group of experts has reframed the issue, releasing a sweeping
report that measures damage not to nature itself, but to the things
nature does for people.
In the report, part of a continuing project called the Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment, more than 1,300 ecologists and other researchers
from 95 countries focus on the capacity of ecosystems to perform
valuable functions like filtering water, providing food and
Their conclusion is bleak: over all, 60 percent of those functions are
being degraded by human activities, both through direct actions like
overfishing and through indirect ones, like the tendency of
deforestation to raise the risk of floods.
The report - which was released last week and online at
www.millenniumassessment.org - lists some instances in which
destructive practices have changed and damage has been prevented, but
says far more action is needed in the next several decades.
"We must learn to recognize the true value of nature - both in an
economic sense and in the richness it provides to our lives," said an
accompanying statement by the board of scientists who led the project.
"Above all," it continued, "protection of these assets can no longer
be seen as an optional extra, to be considered once more pressing
concerns such as wealth creation or national security have been dealt
Under the current method of measuring progress, the report said, "a
country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries and this would
show only as a positive gain." And in too many instances, it said,
that is exactly what is occurring.
The study considered various kinds of "ecosystem services": simple
provisioning, like supplying water and protein; regulatory functions,
including a forest's ability to store and filter water and to cool and
humidify the air; cultural services, like providing a place for
recreation; and life-support services, including photosynthesis and
Many of the regions where such natural assets are being most rapidly
degraded are also the world's poorest, the scientists said. And as a
result, deteriorating environments are likely to hamper efforts to
stem poverty, disease and hunger in developing countries.
But the study also said wealthy countries were contributing greatly to
some problems - for example, in soaring increases in agricultural
runoff containing nitrogen, a fertilizer that can create
oxygen-starved "dead zones" in coastal waters.
The assessment, which cost $24 million, was commissioned five years
ago by the United Nations and by countries adhering to global
environmental treaties on preserving wetlands and migratory species,
preventing the spread of deserts and conserving the diversity of
species on earth.
Some ecologists not involved with the project credited the authors for
avoiding old arguments that tended to set people against nature.
"We have to start thinking about nature as a design issue," said Dr.
Daniel B. Botkin, an ecologist and author of several books charting
ways to mesh human activities and life on earth. "For too long we've
been seeing everything people do as a negative. This is a break from
that. They're trying to bring people and nature together."
The study said the degradation of potentially renewable natural
resources was being fueled in part by destructive subsidies,
uncoordinated policies of government agencies dealing with overlapping
activities like forestry, farming and land tenure, lawlessness in
frontier regions and the persistent treatment of nature's bounty as
free for the taking.
Subsidies and other artificial incentives to overharvest resources are
especially vexing problems, said Dr. Harold A. Mooney, a biologist at
Stanford and a lead author of the report.
"A third of the global value of farm production in 2000 was the result
of subsidies," he went on. "In many places we spend more catching fish
than we make selling fish," Dr. Mooney said.
Unlike many earlier environmental assessments that have compiled
trends for losses of forests, reefs and other wild places, this one
focused on how such losses directly affected human welfare, using as
its yardstick trends in "ecosystem services" rather than simply lost
species or acreage.
Besides identifying losses in familiar trouble spots like rain forests
and reefs, it focuses on less known danger zones, like dry-land
ecosystems, where human populations are growing fastest and depend
most heavily on fragile natural systems.
A prime example is the parched band of Africa below the Sahara Desert,
where drought, combined with ever-growing demands for water, has
contributed to recent social upheavals and bloodshed in Sudan.
Around the world, Dr. Mooney said, "the dry-land problem really jumps
out at you."
"You have two billion people there and huge limits on water," he
continued. "Some of the world's highest population growth rates are in
these dry regions and in mountain systems that are the least
productive. That creates conditions for conflict."
He added that global warming, which is expected to disrupt weather
patterns in the same dry regions, will make matters only worse.
Dr. Botkin said an unavoidable weakness in this kind of assessment was
that the complexity of global ecology and economic activity made it
hard to specify causes and effects.
The authors of the report acknowledged huge gaps in data, but pointed
to small successes that helped crystallize the idea that nature is
more than pretty pictures.
Dr. Mooney cited several recent studies that put a monetary value on
natural services. In one study in Costa Rica, Dr. Gretchen C. Daily of
Stanford and other researchers measured the increase in coffee yields
to a plantation from the pollinating efforts of bees living in two
nearby fragments of forest.
From 2000 to 2003, they calculated, the presence of the forest bees
lifted the plantation's income $60,000 a year.
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