While it is certainly welcome that so much attention has been devoted over recent years to the challenges posed by climate change, it seems to me that this particular focus has somewhat overshadowed what could prove to be an even greater threat to our well-being—namely the unprecedented degradation of the Earth’s living fabric of species and ecosystems.
Deforestation, collapsing fish stocks, the decline of pollinators, a rash of animal and plant extinctions and the loss of soils are among a whole host of worrying trends that confirm how we are overwhelming Nature’s capacity to supply our ever-increasing demands and to sustain human civilization in the long term.
I have found it increasingly breathtaking that even though so much scientific evidence now abounds on the decline of so many natural systems, it still seems possible to write off these symptoms as simply the inevitable consequences of development, in the belief that we can somehow balance the destruction against the benefits of carrying on with “business-as-usual”. We may have convinced ourselves in the past that we could think this way, but not now. The idea that we can endlessly exploit natural systems in order to sustain economic growth has run its course and is no longer a viable option. We cannot go on as we have done; we have to turn the tide.
For a system to be “sustainable” it must be, by definition, capable of enduring without failure. So, it is a simple test. Does the way we treat Nature guarantee its endurance without failure? From all the evidence we have, the answer is fast becoming a resounding “no”. In so many realms, by definition, Nature’s life-support systems will plainly not endure indefinitely. Whether it be the air we breathe, the water that feeds our farming, the forests that absorb carbon, or the reefs that protect our coasts, natural systems in all their diverse forms are suffering corrosive destruction, and this will inevitably have a damaging effect on our economic wellbeing, let alone our health, wherever we are in the world. This is the clear message that has come through from a number of recent expert studies, and yet it remains a notion that is evidently still not taking root in the collective view of our place in the world.
This is why for so long I have been at pains to explain how this rather fundamental predicament arises. In large measure it is due to what I would call a “crisis of perception”. It is not so much clever policies nor innovative technologies that we lack; it is more a question of us forgetting the simple fact that we and our economies are a much a part of Nature as the trees and the birds. Just as they are, we are also Nature. It is a mistake, therefore, to put any distance between us and the rest of Nature’s systems. By degrading natural systems, we effectively reduce our own prospects for continued development and long term security.
As the shifts in climatic conditions begin to bite and as critical resources become scarce, the reason why we must attempt to reverse Nature’s decline can be summed up in one word: resilience. Time and again experience from around the world confirms that Nature provides us with what are often the cheapest and most effective ways of coping with the challenges we face, from water scarcity to the impact of extreme weather events. The more healthy Nature is, the more likely we will be able to cope with the testing circumstances that lie ahead. This is why things like preserving forests and putting the health of the soil at the very heart of our approach are absolutely critical.
All this leads me to conclude that we have to see ecology and economy as two sides of the same coin, and urgently so. The world desperately needs a more integrated view of Nature and how her needs are incorporated into our thinking about development and economics. By properly valuing Nature’s “capital”, it should surely not be beyond the wit of man (and economists!) to establish an innovative market for the “public utilities” provided by ecosystem services? It is a fact that we can no longer ignore: a secure and prosperous future for humanity can only be guaranteed by a much more harmonious coexistence with the rest of Nature’s complex and miraculous system.
Source: Dimensions magazine, International Human Dimensions on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), January 14, 2013.