Global Ecological Collapse?

The UN exaggerates problems, but gets solutions right


Most ecosystem services that support life and human society are being degraded and used unsustainably, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) just released by the United Nations. According to the report, efforts to achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which include halving the number of people living on less than $1 per day, reducing child and maternal mortality, and establishing universal primary education by 2015, will be significantly impeded if these ecosystem services are allowed to deteriorate further.

Consider the bounty of nature in terms of human services. Ecosystems provide humanity with provisioning services such food, water, timber, and fiber; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water supply; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling. The MA, compiled by more than 1300 experts from 95 countries, looked at 24 different ecosystem services and found that 15 of them (see page 41 of the report for a list of some of them) are being degraded or used unsustainably.

One of the chief findings is that "over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history." And why not? After all, as the report notes, since 1960 human population doubled while the world's economic output increased six-fold. The report alarmingly asserts that "more land was converted to cropland since 1945 than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combined." This claim evidently depends on the selection of the baseline. If the UN authors had chosen 1961 as the baseline, as U.S. Department of Interior analyst Indur Goklany points out, between 1961 and 1995 cropland increased by only 10 percent (from 1.34 billion hectares to 1.48 billion hectares) and total land area devoted to agriculture also increased only 10 percent (from 4.5 billion hectares to 4.9 billion hectares). That sounds a lot less alarming. In fact, deeper in the report, the UN authors acknowledge, "Most of the increase in food demand of the past 50 years has been met by intensification of crop, livestock, and aquaculture systems rather than expansion of production area." Land area devoted to cropland is falling in developed countries like the United States and members of the European Union.

The report also points to continued deforestation in poor countries, but notes that tree plantations comprising just 5 percent of global forest cover provide 35 percent of the world's industrial round wood supplies. Assuming no improvements in plantation forestry management, this implies that plantation forests could supply all the world's industrial wood needs from just 15 percent of the world's forested area, conceivably leaving 85 percent for nature. Furthermore, take a look at Figure 2 on page 42 of the report, which shows high rates of land change. Note the areas where forest cover is increasing.

Disease regulation is another ecosystem service analyzed by the UN report. Changes in ecosystems influence the abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and cholera according to the authors. The MA asserts that sub-Saharan Africa's annual total economic output would be $100 billion higher if malaria had been eliminated from the continent 35 years ago. (Distressing thought—the U.S. banned DDT 33 years ago.) Cholera and malaria, once endemic to most of the United States, were extirpated by means of public health measures such as water chlorination and spraying DDT to eliminate malarial mosquitoes. Similarly, rather than clumsily trying to manage ecosystems to control the diseases that still afflict the world's poor, surely it is much more promising to focus resources on developing a combination of new vaccines, better medicines, and improved sanitation to control them.

The MA also worries about declining biodiversity. In all of the scenarios considered by the report, "biodiversity continues to be lost and thus the long-term sustainability of actions to mitigate degradation of ecosystem services is uncertain." For example, the authors estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the world's plant species will go extinct by 2050. But putting the effects of even a large number of extinctions into perspective, a November 2003 Science article "Prospects for Biodiversity" pointed out that such extinctions "will not, in themselves, threaten the survival of humans as a species." The Science article further notes, "In truth, ecologists and conservationists have struggled to demonstrate the increased material benefits to humans of 'intact' wild systems over largely anthropogenic ones [like farms]… Where increased benefits of natural systems have been shown, they are usually marginal and local." The new UN report is another such failed attempt. All other things being equal, extinctions are unfortunate, but they are not likely to impede the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Although in many ways this new report is another recitation of the standard litany of ecological doom that we've all been hearing from the past 50 years, there are some surprising and even helpful aspects to it. For example, instead of pushing population doom as so many others have, the UN authors reckon that there will be "a likely three- to six-fold increase in global GDP by 2050 even while population growth is expected to slow and level off in mid-century."

Of course, there are global ecological problems. And one of the starkest facts highlighted in the report is that nearly all of the ecosystem services identified as deteriorating are common-pool resources. Common-pool resources are owned by no one; therefore no one has any incentive to protect them, and everyone has an incentive to take as much as they can because they know that if they don't get it, the next guy will. For example, the report cites the well-known fact that the catch from capture fisheries have stagnated for the past decade and that many of them are being badly overharvested. The same situation explains excessive freshwater withdrawals from rivers and aquifers and the emissions of various pollutants. The report recognizes that historically, as natural resources become overharvested, assigning property rights to specific owners has been the traditional and effective way to prevent their total destruction.

And although the report can't resist earnest recommendations such as "raising public awareness" and eco-labeling mandates, the UN authors do see property rights and markets as essential to protecting and improving the natural environment. They advocate the removal of all crop and irrigation subsidies, investment in new agricultural technologies including genetically enhanced crops to expand food supplies, adoption of property rights in fisheries in the form of individually tradable quotas, allocation of water rights, and establishment of water markets, among other things.

In one of the more astonishing passages, the UN authors declare their fealty to globalization: "Actions that focus on improving the lives of the poor by reducing barriers to international flows of goods, services, and capital tend to lead to the most improvement in health and social relations for the currently most disadvantaged people. But human vulnerability to ecological surprises is high. Globally integrated approaches that focus on technology and property rights for ecosystem services generally improve human well-being in terms of health, security, social relations, and material needs."

Although the report exaggerates the dangers of some ecological problems, the good news is that its authors are rejecting no-growth, anti-globalist, neo-luddite ideological environmentalism and are on the right track toward solving the problems that do exist.