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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

September-October 2010

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Editorial - Giving Ecosystem Services Their Rightful Place in the World

The relationship between humans and nature requires continual recalibration. All human societies, as far as we know, have marvelled at the order of the cosmos and the nurturing chaos of nature. Some sort of divine force seems to be at work. Nature is just too miraculous to be simply a product of chance.

Of course there are many, notably post–Darwinian scientists, who see in nature some variant of a cosmic watch—a highly ordered assemblage of physical and chemical forces that evolve into ever higher orders of complexity by the randomness of chance, of competition, of clever cooperation, and of the endless drive to reproduce the fittest offspring.

But lurking in most human intelligence, there is a profound recognition that the Earth is special. It harbors life in the most diverse forms imaginable, from the pressurized depths of the lightless but thermally charged vents in the deep ocean, to tenacious microbes on the pinnacle of Everest. Now we are realizing that life is not only marvelous, but it also has extraordinarily important economic and spiritual value, which humanity ignores at its peril.

In this issue of Environment, Rebecca Goldman has provided the reader with a comprehensive picture of the recent efforts by scientists, campaigners, economists, and faith leaders to measure the true values of life on Earth. A report soon to be published by the United Nations, under the heading of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), will amass the more complete assessment of this fresh analysis. Led by a banker, Pavan Sukhdev, it is possibly too biased in favor of the economic benefits of such vital ecosystems as coral reefs and mangroves and soils and estuaries for safeguarding vulnerable coasts, stripping water of pollutants, and nurturing young fish. The threatened pollinating bee is becoming a symbol of this new order. There are many causes of the recent decline of bees, not the least due to toxic contamination, human destruction of food sources, and various forms of predation. Yet to lose the pollinating bee would cause extraordinarily high costs if the alternative were hand pollination by humans. We should be aware that bees pollinate for whole ecosystems, not just for the profitability of commercial fruit production.

The TEEB approach can be dangerous for this very reason. Too much emphasis on the economic payoff, especially for decades ahead, could cause society to concentrate only on the narrow economics and not the ethical connections to biodiversity as an essential element of humanness. It just might be possible that “noneconomic” biodiversity will be downgraded in the pantheon of biosphere protection, while the relatively easy “hits” of coral reefs and mangroves get the limelight.

But much more serious is that TEEB will show that grotesque subsidies, notably for resources extraction and food production, act in direct antagonism to the glories of ecosystem functions. And that “the market,” so much trumpeted by liberals, is substantially unable to absorb the nonmonetary measures and ecosystem-wide property rights and responsibilities that this whole new approach is demanding. In addition, all business and public sector auditing and accountancy firms will have to be retrained to take into account the almost unimaginably difficult process of placing reliable values on ecosystem stewardship. That task will test these professions to the hilt.

Yet even then, the real moral theme of TEEB is the test of our collective humanity. We are companions in the Earth's evolutionary journey, not its masters.

—Tim O'Riordan

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