Ecosystems must be viewed as huge capital assets, affected by nearly all development and investment decisions, according to a report released this week.
This finding isn't exactly new. Researchers have long been saying that we risk our economic future as we plunder and degrade our forests, coasts, wetlands, aquifers, topsoil, coral reefs, and other natural systems upon which business and commerce depend. As I've written in the past (see here here, and here), all companies ultimately depend on the availability of healthy ecosystems -- whether they use raw materials directly or rely on the availability of products manufactured from those materials.
The United Nations Millennium Assessment in 2005 reported the extent to which economies depend on the capital lying within nature's lands, waters, forests, and reefs. The new report, Restoring Nature's Capital (download - PDF) presents the results of the earliest concerted thinking about how to address both the stark realities and the enormous potential uncovered by the UN report.
The authors contend that nature's benefits -- both economic and social -- could sustain many more generations if businesses, governments, and civil society pursue the UN's action agenda, which calls for an increase in the availability of information on ecosystem services and a redressing of the balance in favor of local rights to resources and local voices in decision making. It also calls for managing decisions across levels -- local, regional, national, and international -- and increasing the use of accountability mechanisms and economic and financial incentives.
The solutions are all before us, says WRI.
The challenges, while enormous, are not insurmountable. We believe that the seeds of change needed to put us on a path to sustaining ecosystem services are already emerging, assembled from existing pockets of best practice around the globe. What might the world of decision-making look like in 2030 if these seeds germinate and transform the way we see and value our ecosystem services? Will it become second nature for people to safeguard the capacity of ecosystems to provide the mosaic of services necessary for human wellbeing? Will ecosystem health and development aspirations be viewed as mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin, instead of a zero sum game?
Imagine for a moment that the movement to ensure the sustainability of our natural assets and long-term wellbeing that is already underway in parts of the world grows across economic sectors and political boundaries. Led by participants in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, global business leaders with progressive ecosystem policies such as members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, coalitions of governments such as the Poverty Environment Partnership, and multidisciplinary applied scientific groups such as the Resilience Alliance, the movement unleashes a new generation of information and governance approaches.
In this eco-idealistic world, everybody has a role to play:
- Business views ecosystem stewardship as a source of new markets and competitive advantage. Companies adopt policies on ecosystem services and routinely report to the public on how they are implementing them.
- Local communities have clear rights to resources in their communities and a significant voice in decisions about how they will be used and how the resulting costs and benefits will be distributed.
- Research communities embrace ecosystem services as a major research theme. Information from monitoring systems for ecosystem condition and trends is analyzed and broadly disseminated, informing economic and development policies and election priorities.
- Civil society performs the role of watchdog, solution provider, and trailblazer, making information available and enabling the public to hold business and government accountable.
- National governments monitor the health of ecosystem services and include indicators in national accounts, enabling the public to track progress and hold decision-makers accountable.
- International organizations play a lead role in establishing the conditions for institutional cooperation on ecosystem stewardship across political levels and geographic scales.
WRI goes beyond the ideal to offer an "action agenda" that involves strengthening each of these groups' ability to play their part effectively -- and suggests new institutions that might be needed to stimulate change.
What's most helpful about the WRI report is that it goes beyond the blame game of who has caused the destruction of ecosystems. Instead, it offers a plan and charts a course for change. These are exactly the kinds of tools we need these days: ones that give all players a script from which to read, pushing and prodding them to play their respective roles in the hopes that, in the end, we'll have a consistent, coherent story to tell.