Washington Post
March 30, 2005


Earth's sustainability is not guaranteed unless action is taken to
protect resources, experts say

By Shankar Vedantam

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.

The new report collates research from many specific locales to create
the first global snapshot of ecosystems. More than 1,300 authors from
95 countries participated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,
whose results are being made public today by the United Nations and by
several private and public organizations.

"Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we make
the necessary decisions to protect it," said U.N. Secretary General
Kofi Annan in a statement marking the report's release. "Only by
valuing all our precious natural and human resources, can we hope to
build a sustainable future."

The effort brought together governments, civil society groups,
industry and indigenous people over a four-year period to examine the
social, economic and environmental aspects of ecosystems.

The report was assembled by the U.N. Environment Program and included
scientists from many universities and organizations, including the
World Bank. Jonathan Lash, president of the nonprofit World Resources
Institute, which helped put together the report, said it "created for
the first time a set of leading ecosystem indicators."

Although food production is up, the report said, many other benefits
that humans obtain from ecosystems are threatened, and some
environmental changes can produce sudden, unexpected deteriorations in
water quality, climate and health.

"Human actions are depleting Earth's natural capital, putting such
strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems
to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted," the
authors said.

The report cites widespread and growing problems such as the collapse
of fisheries in some parts of the world because of over-exploitation,
the creation of "dead zones" around the mouths of some rivers because
of nitrogen runoff from farms, and environmental degradation in some
dry-land ecosystems.

Within countries, said Harold Mooney, a professor of environmental
biology at Stanford University, separate government agencies were
often assigned to protect forests, regulate water pollution and
oversee economic development -- even though changes in any one of
those systems affected the others.

"When you enhance one service, like food production, you can detract
from another," said Mooney, who co-chaired the panel that examined
scientific data.

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."

Environmental advocates such as Nadia Martinez, a research fellow at
the Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit think tank, applauded
the report's findings but said she is concerned that governments could
implement its market-based recommendations while ignoring its caveats.
For example, she said, imposing a cost on clean water would
disproportionately affect the poor.

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