As I’ve listened to the rhetoric of the US and UK elections it’s clear that increasing the growth of the economy is a desirable and sensible policy for any credible party to adopt. The ‘real’ cost of this growth on our ecological economy isn’t given a mention.
This is like the builder you hired to rescue your damp and rotting home suggesting you should put in a nice bathroom and and new heating system to improve your comfort – those things are great until you fill the bath and it falls through the ceiling!
What’s worse about our situation is that we can’t even build a new global home – this is the only one we’ve got!
I’m not sure at what point we decided a great strategy for running our world was a policy of economic growth on a physically finite resource, but may I suggest we have a rethink!
I think every politician should have a basic grasp of ecology and knowledge of ecosystem services. It may seem a bizarre statement, but I’d like to explain why a basic understanding of ecosystem processes is required for any economy, business, or society to succeed long-term.
What is an ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a community of living organisms along with the non-living components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. These biotic and abiotic components are regarded as linked through nutrient cycles and energy flows.
There are no ‘edges’ to an ecosystem so you can study a small section, or look at the whole planet as an ecosystem.
In a healthy global ecosystem, there are certain services that are provided to everyone who lives on planet earth. The air we breathe, the seas our rivers drain into from which we get food, the rain that fills our damns and grows our plants and the carbon held within soils that stops our planet burning up; to name a few. These are shared ecosystem services that we have a collective responsibility to manage so humans – or any other animals – can survive.
Some parts of the world hold resources that have a larger influence on the global ecosystems; such as the rainforest regions. Some parts of the world undertake activities that harm the ecosystem more than others; such as the more ‘civilised’ parts of the world.
Ecosystems influence weather
The amazon, for instance, influences global weather patterns and helps us to know when, and how much, it will rain so we can grow food and drink water. (1)
“Studies have shown that rainfall in southern South America is actually impacted by the Amazon and could decrease significantly if you have additional deforestation,” Symington said. “Maybe even the American Midwest, parts of North America, in terms of the weather pattern, could be affected.”
If we can’t predict rainfall, we can’t grow crops and feed ourselves. It’s not just the US either; global weather patterns will become more erratic as diverse habitats reduce.
Ecosystems manage climate
Carbon’s another issue. Atmospheric CO2 regulates the temperature of our planet and modern humans produce a lot of it. The amazon doesn’t just give us rainfall, it’s the largest land-based global carbon sink for our CO2 emissions currently soaking up about 2 billion tonnes per year. (2)
Collectively, however, our soils hold some of the biggest land-based sinks of Carbon. (3) More Carbon’s held in the soil than in the atmosphere and plant life combined; as much as 2,500 billion tonnes of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tonnes in the atmosphere and 560 billion tonnes in plant and animal life. Considering the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock – through ploughing for crops and other human activities – good management of our soils is critical for allowing our planetary ecosystem to function and provide us with this handy dandy lifesaving service. (4)
But that’s nothing compared to the giant shared resource of the ocean. Of the three places where carbon is stored; the atmosphere, oceans, and land biosphere; approximately 93 percent of the CO2 is found in the oceans. (5) The reason it’s stored in the oceans is that green plants suck it out of the atmosphere and give us back oxygen, for free if we just do them the courtesy of keeping their home healthy.
The ocean with its 38,000 gigatons of Carbon is itself a delicate ecosystem. (6) The strength and resilience of an ecosystem is dependent on the diversity of species within it. The interaction between species is mind boggling; way beyond the scope of this article, but the more complex the diversity, the less likely the house of cards will fall when one card – or species – is removed.
Diversity is resilience
A great example of the importance of diversity is illustrated in the study of predators.
Otters are predators and love to hang around in kelp forests eating fish and sea urchins. Kelp forests are home to thousands of species, each with an important and unique function – not least taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen. For many decades’ otters, have been accused of depleting supplies of fish and have been killed for fur; this should leave more fish us people right?
Sea urchins eat kelp. Without the regulatory feeding of otter’s, sea urchin numbers go bonkers, leading to; NO kelp. The kelp-dwelling fish die; the kelp forest can’t help regulate our atmosphere, and all the other species disappear. No food for us!
Here’s another wonderful example of the counter intuitive effects of ‘Trophic Cascades.’
Hypoxic or ‘dead’ zones are areas in the ocean with reduced oxygen availability where sea life suffocates and dies. One enormous dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico every spring as farmers use increased amounts of fertilisers to prepare for the crop growing season. The rain washes farm chemicals off the land into the rivers where it flows to the sea. (7)
According to a new study in ‘Science’, the rest of the world isn’t any better. There are 405 dead zones worldwide, a huge increase from just 49 in the 1060s. If you aren’t too bothered about the massive reduction in species, of human food, or the reduced ability to sequester carbon; perhaps the cost to the economy will surprise you:
“More than 212,000 metric tons [235,000 tons] of food is lost to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico,” says marine biologist Robert Diaz of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who surveyed the dead zones along with marine ecologist Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “That’s enough to feed 75 percent of the average brown shrimp harvest from the Louisiana gulf. ” (8)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which funded the scientists’ research, estimates that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. The impact could be devastating to the Gulf’s seafood industry, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s seafood. Louisiana is second in seafood production only to Alaska. (9)
This is an example of a single dead zone and a single tangible cost implication; what about the incalculable costs like loss of carbon sequestering potential and reduction in oxygen production? Shouldn’t the polluters be paying for that?
The known dead zones throughout the world’s combined area are the size of New Zealand – this is a big expensive problem that’s getting worse FAST. (10) All human activity contributes to these failing ecosystems, but agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels are particularly implicated.
Our food systems can harm or help ecosystems
I find it ironic that many environmentalists are calling for a reduction in the consumption of meat and instead the adoption of plant-based diets as a way of tackling environmental issues. Modern arable (plant food) farming requires vast quantities of fertilisers and pesticides to grow food in bare depleted soils – which are particularly susceptible to erosion and runoff. These ‘inputs’ require huge quantities of fossil fuels and energy to both produce and apply. Aside from the callosal Carbon footprint of these practices, burning gasoline and diesel results in nitrogen oxide fumes, which clear when rain washes the nitrogen out of the sky, onto land, then into the sea!
Some of this energy intensive plant food harvest is inefficiently fed to animals in intensive operations (which are themselves a huge environmental risk); this type of agriculture is certainly a large part of the problem. But we eat 60% of this plant harvest. (11) If we switched to eating only plant foods we would need to intensify these arable operations further and plough up even more important carbon sequestering habitats. More CO2 will be released; more toxic inputs required; more toxins will run off.
On well-managed pasture-based meat operations, there’s no requirement for any agricultural ‘inputs.’ Healthy pasture – which is itself a complex ecosystem service that turns sunlight into food – takes carbon out of the atmosphere and locks it underground, gives us oxygen, helps filter toxic runoff and turns manure from a potentially hazardous waste into an organic fertiliser that grows more food. On healthy pasture, even the methane produced by cows has been shown to be entirely utilised by this clever soil-based ecosystem through the action of soil microbes called Methanotrophs. (12)
What’s really worrying is that our current global food system is reliant on a handful of species. Arable monoculture is the opposite of a robust complex ecosystem. In a recent report from the FAO (13) 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species making the global food system highly vulnerable.
Modern humans need food and agriculture is the only way of providing this food en masse. Isn’t is better to get our food from agricultural systems mimicking functional ecosystems? This is what the regenerative agriculture movement do, and they’re proving we could feed the world this way.
Cut down rainforests to grow cattle; definitely NOT. But, as an environmentalist, if you asked me to swap a soy burger for a grass fed beef steak I would politely decline!
Scientists estimate we’re losing between 2000 and 100,000 species a year. Why the big range? Well, we just haven’t had the chance to know what species we have on earth yet; the chances are we never will if we continue this current trajectory. (14)
The global house of cards is ready to fall. If you create jobs by opening coal mines, you’ll lose jobs and potential food from our seas. If you encourage consumerism to drive the economy and increase GDP, you’ll eventually destroy every essential ecosystem service our planet provides.
The last time I checked you can’t eat money or drink sewerage, and mass asphyxiation sure is bad for business! Ecosystem services matter to EVERYONE.
I would love your thoughts and feel free to share or link to this article. Thanks Caroline