[Paleopsych] NYT: Report Tallies Hidden Costs of Human Assault on Nature

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The New York Times > Science > Environment > Report Tallies Hidden
Costs of Human Assault on Nature


    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
    pollinating crops.

    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
    [2]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
    soil formation.

    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.


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=ANDREW%20C.%20REVKIN&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=ANDREW%20C.%20REVKIN&inline=nyt-per
    2. http://www.millenniumassessment.org/

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