[Though not specifically mentioned in the New York Times article that
follows, the human penchant for meat is one of the greatest
contributors to the loss of "ecosystem services." NOTE: This article
is not posted outside of the newspaper's Web site, which requires
registration. However, because of the great importance of the
information it contains, I'm risking bending the rules of copyright a
bit and posting the story in full. Please run out a copy for
yourself, carry it with you, and talk about its issues to anyone who
will listen. And, while you're at it, why not register w/The NY
Times... - Pamela R., VivaVegie Soc.]
NOTE: Links to other articles that report this story follow at end.
This article is posted to:
Report Tallies Hidden Costs of Human Assault on Nature
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
The New York Times
April 5, 2005
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
- 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.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
=> Other links to articles covering this story:
The State of the World? It Is on the Brink of Disaster
The Independent UK
Wednesday 30 March 2005
Planet Earth stands on the cusp of disaster and people should no
longer take it for granted that their children and grandchildren will
survive in the environmentally degraded world of the 21st century.
Two-thirds of world's resources 'used up'
Tim Radford, science editor
Wednesday March 30, 2005
The human race is living beyond its means. A report backed by 1,360
scientists from 95 countries - some of them world leaders in their
fields - today warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural
machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human
pressure....The study contains what its authors call "a stark
warning" for the entire world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs,
estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air,
water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably
damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10
million or so on the planet, and to itself.
Report on Global Ecosystems Calls for Radical Changes: Earth's
Sustainability Is Not Guaranteed Unless Action Is Taken to Protect
Resources, Experts Say
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page A02
The Washington Post
Many of the world's ecosystems are in danger and might not support
future generations unless radical measures are implemented to protect
and revive them, according to the most comprehensive analysis ever
conducted of how the world's oceans, dry lands, forests and species
interact and depend on one another. One way to address such problems,
Mooney said, is to assign economic value to environmental benefits
that many people take for granted. ... "We consider services free --
like clean water and pest regulation -- but they are not free," he
said. "A number of services have a potential to get into the economic
system that will help in making wise decisions."
U.N. Study: Earth's Health Deteriorating
- By CATHERINE McALOON, Associated Press Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005
LONDON, United Kingdom (AP) -- Growing populations and expanding
economic activity have strained the planet's ecosystems over the past
half century, a trend that threatens international efforts to combat
poverty and disease, a U.N.-sponsored study of the Earth's health
warned on Wednesday. ...The four-year, $24 million Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment found humans have caused heavy damage or
depleted portions of the world's farmlands, forests and watercourses.
FOLLOWING, A RELATED STORY FROM 2001
Modern Agriculture a Threat to Biodiversity
April 21, 2001
Source: Fred Pearce-New Scientist
Modern agriculture is set to become as bad for the planet's health as
global warming, a team of leading environmental scientists has
warned. They list rainforest destruction, nitrogen pollution and the
spread of diseases such as foot and mouth and BSE among the growing
threats from agriculture. ..."The environmental effects of
agriculture are on a trajectory soon to rival those of climate
change, "says David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of