Save Our Ecosystem Service Provider

… formerly known as “EARTH” … The good folks at the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project took the extremely utilitarian definition of the Earth’s relationship to the human race as a “Provider of Ecosystem Services” and analyzed this relationship painstakingly in their report, which is presented on

2.1 Ecosystem services are the multiple benefits provided by ecosystems to humans.
2.2 Human use of all ecosystem services is increasing:

  • The use of resources such as food, water, and timber has increased rapidly, and continues to grow, sometimes unsustainably.
  • Human interventions have led to changes in the regulation of climate, disease, and other ecosystem processes.
  • The use of ecosystems for recreation, spiritual enrichment, and other cultural purposes is growing. However, the capacity of ecosystems to provide these services has declined significantly.

For us treehuggers, this report is a goldmine of well-presented scientific evidence that our beautiful planet is going to hell. The focus on the human dependence on “Ecosystem Services” gives me pause, though. It sounds very much like college kids arguing that maintaining a good relationship with their “Parenting Service Providers” is essential to clean clothes and adequate cash for keg parties.

I am not much of a spiritual type, but taking care of our pretty little planet goes beyond the strictly utilitarian point of view for me. It’s more like a “family honor” type thing. It’s something we owe our children and our forebears.

The BBC has some startling images documenting global climate change.

Still, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides excellent ammunition for discussions with our contemporaries, whose view of environmental protection does not much extend beyond the state of their front lawn, the trash on their sidewalk and the size of their steak. The report goes to great lengths pointing out to the strict utilitarians among us that the utility of the earth is diminished beyond repair, and that its value as a capital asset is diminished:

3.2 Ecosystem services, particularly food production, timber and fisheries, are important for employment and economic activity. Intensive use of ecosystems often produces the greatest short-term advantage, but excessive and unsustainable use can lead to losses in the long term. A country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries, and this would show only as a positive gain to GDP, despite the loss of capital assets. If the full economic value of ecosystems were taken into account in decision-making, their degradation could be significantly slowed down or even reversed

This argument point out the main problem with strict economic utilitarianism: the decision makers don’t give a damn about the long-term consequences of their actions. Industry bosses have their “compensation packages” tied to quarterly reports, not to the number of reef fish their grand-children will be able to find. Politicians just want to be re-elected in four/six/eight years. It is very difficult to hold these people accountable for the long-term effects of their actions.

More from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment :

10. Conclusion: main findings

Four main findings on the links between ecosystems and human well-being:

10.1 Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems faster and more extensively than in any period in human history. This has been due largely to rapidly growing demands for food, freshwater, timber, fiber, and fuel. The result has been a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

10.2 The changes made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs. These costs include the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of abrupt changes, and increased poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially reduce the benefits that future generations get from ecosystems.

10.3 This degradation of ecosystem services could get significantly worse during the next 50 years. It is a barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

10.4 Reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services is a challenge. This challenge can be partially met in the future under scenarios involving significant changes to policies, institutions, and practices. However, these required actions will have to be substantial when compared to the actions currently taken.

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