"Economic opportunities exist to solve global ecological problems regionally"

By Joseph Siry

"When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we degrade the greatest heritage this planet has to offer and thereby threaten our own existence."

Wilson, p. 39

Currently the world faces unparalleled peril. Yet there are opportunities with new institutions based upon our scientific knowledge, technical virtuosity and emerging economic means to avert costly ecological problems of air pollution and biological diversity loss. We may at least understand --if not fully correct-- the accelerating consumption demands of population growth that are taxing ecological life support systems that sustain our economies. Air pollution, biological fragmentation, climate change, and water quality demise are cross boundary problems that are diminishing the value of ecosystem services on common lands where wildlife and fisheries are threatened with extinction. Are we positioned to turn a precarious transition into an opportunity?

Disturbance, degradation and damage to natural areas due to polluted air; nutrient laden runoff, underground water contamination and acid precipitation are linked to pollution and are threatening the survival of traditionally protected, birds, mammals and fisheries. Each of the impacts is cumulative. Though one or more disturbances may appear insignificant, when viewed in light of poorly designed developments, increasingly mobile sources of air pollution and diversion of surface water runoff, the combined influence of each degrading intrusion across national boundaries and over essential preserves damages fishery and wildlife species.

Isolated actions to protect a species here or a land area there are laudable and in the spirit of an international conservation ethos. Taken separately the protection of many areas may appear effective, but wildlife and fishery populations are not indiscriminate dwellers on our lands and in our waters. Instead animals, vegetation, fungi and the bacterial relations that support our wildlife and fisheries require precise ecological conditions with peculiar water, energy, air and landscape features. Without these requisite circumstances the capacity of a place to sustain life is undermined. Hence our wildlife and fishery species are passing through a narrow survival gap, called a "bottleneck," by E. O. Wilson, because fewer species will survive the passage when compared to the greater current number of species. Global warming, due to excessive fossil fuel combustion, is a form of cross frontier pollution that is destroying the capacity of ecosystem services to function at optimal levels for meeting both human and wildlife needs.In essence, thermal pollution, like acid rain narrows the neck of the bottle, through which future generations must pass to survive.

It is time to expand our incipient ecological ethic to include future generations of fish and wildlife with adequate agricultural and forested land acting as buffers to protect ranges, breeding and feeding terrain so that the recovery of species and not mere protection of landscapes can occur within the next thirty years. Although protection's side effects do benefit the economy directly and measurably, the moral imperative of recovering sufficient land and water resources to renew fishery and wildlife populations is equally important. We must reward a stewardship ethic to avert what Wilson and other ecologists call a "bottleneck" through which wild species are passing due to human damages of the ecological services or, our earth's functional capabilities, that sustain life.

In just sixty years every resident of the US has only half the amount of room per person, as did their grandparents. A paradox is apparent in the fact that half of us live in twice the square footage now as we did when we were children. Many Americans find it hard to see, let alone comprehend, the costs associated with this growth. In places like California, Texas and Florida, where population change is faster than in developing African nations, migration and housing demand are altering water and air quality. Economists call unseen expenditures, externalities, because they are not as financially tangible as are their real, yet unseen, costs.

Take for example, the concept of ghost acres, or the human ecological footprint. Lost in the paradox of wealth, growth, poverty and decay people is the fact that people are unable to see that it takes nine to twelve acres of resources per person to sustain the US living standard. That is the size of the US footprint on the earth. Masked, by economic prosperity, social encouragement to indulge in energy consumptive pastimes, and poor financial accounting practices, are clues to a calamity of undiminished consumption and sizeable demands for space and resources. As Rachel Carson once observed "wild creatures," like people "must have places to live." But "as civilization creates cities, builds highways and drains marshes it takes away...land...suitable for wildlife." (Carson, quoted in Siry (1984), p. 138) As pollution contaminates hectares needed to sustain human consumption, contamination erodes the land's capacity to sustain wildlife, fisheries and human demands.

Effective economies account for the costs that nations collectively pay for cross frontier (or transboundary) pollution. Strict accounting measures must be adopted by neighboring countries because population momentum is an accelerating process that requires accurate estimates of the costs associated with air and water pollution. This is especially important because we are approaching a threshold. Once thermal pollution surpasses this threshold level, response time to correct the problem diminishes to nearly zero. And like a speeding car, policy makers must have a reasonable window to respond effectively, or have ample stopping distance to bring the passengers to safety. Because population momentum takes place over time, it means we are also approaching the crest of an appetite driven boom, the cost of which may be measured in the amount of air pollution or excessive nutrients in streams. Either we increase our efficiency to dampen our demands and avert the approaching thresholds or we limit the growth of per capita demands before natural causes leave us unprepared for the loss of our wild animals and fisheries.The reactions accumulating from ever widening human assaults on the capacity of the air and watersheds to absorb pollution are "natural causes" that have the power to curb human appetites.

We have the means and the wealth to invest now in the protection of the ecological services inherent in forests, landscapes and watersheds. The European Union (EU) has begun, in adopting carbon trading system among member nations. This system of carbon pollution credits has the potential to change a pollutant, or economic externality, into a fungible asset for corporations. Carbon pollution, which alters the thermal capacity of the air to retain infrared radiation, is currently treated as a waste product or an economic externality. This means that current wastes are not assessed in a market situation where pollution reduction can earn companies credit. If such credits for reducing carbon pollution were made into monetary instruments such as a tradable commodity, which companies can convert into money, then a mechanism would exist to encourage energy efficiency, reduce air pollution, restore watersheds and improve water quality.

This urgency to protect natural areas and landscape features, for more than merely their scenic qualities, arises from fact that only forty years ago the Earth had half the people it does today. Growth carries an existing and ongoing momentum --or accelerating rate of change-- that will cause the world's population to double again before 2060. Such unprecedented growth, even in the wealthy United States, creates crowding, undermines health, and degrades surroundings. Degraded natural areas erode a region's ecological services which sustain the human population because the assimilative capacity of water and air to nourish fisheries and wildlife are reduced.

So long as a waste product is not accurately assessed by financial accounting practices,the incentive for reducing pollution, as just another corporate savings, remains an insufficient stimulus to change wasteful behavior. Unless the remainder of the world adopts the EU approach, we risk an even more expensive problem in the coming decades. Creating adaptive means to develop management practices, employ appropriate tools and recover sufficiently adequate space for water recharge, energy conservation, air quality improvement and landscape renewal, or the restoration of fisheries and wildlife may not occur in time to avert a serious loss of biological diversity. Once carbon becomes a commodity we can account a bit more accurately for pollution costs. Placing a value on pollution may allow particularly well capitalized companies to exploit newly emerging waste control equipment to reduce operating costs and receive a recognized negotiable financial means to recover the investment in conservation.


Unless a means of financial rewards is conceived and widely implemented, air pollution threatens water quality and that undermines conservation of landscapes and protection of fish and wildlife. Essentially the loss of water, landscape and wildlife are examples of ecosystem services that flows from the natural capital source, as a nourishing stream into the global economy. Loss of ecological services burdens state and local taxing authorities and generates a revenue loss from diminished opportunities to view nature, fish, and hunt or passively experience the wild outdoors. The gift of a "shimmering physical disequilibria" that is our Earth is vanishing due to our inaction, inadvertence and ignorance.

"The soil, water and atmosphere of its surface have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to their present condition by the activity of the biosphere, a stupendously complex layer of living creatures whose activities are locked together in precise but tenuous global cycles of energy and transformed organic matter,"

Wilson, The Future of Life. p. 39

Industrial societies have already exceeded the capacity of land, air and water to sustain rising demands for energy, resources, security and shelter. Stripped of the capacity to assimilate our mounting wastes, the countryside is exhausted by people's accelerating consumption, growing numbers and unrestrained appetites. In this situation the loss of wildlife and fisheries are only a symptom of a deeper disturbance. Psychologically we are ill equipped to see that the land and water from which we draw our economic sustenance and mental health is dying, because we have learned, incorrectly, that lands and waters are inanimate objects subject only to our disposal or use.

Today disturbance of isolated areas of natural rangeland, water sources or forests is compounded by transboundary pollution, such as thermal air pollution. Because of the warming of the oceans and the quick retreat of glaciers and permafrost, new institutions are now necessary to create incentives for people to reduce thermal pollution. Our conservation ethic must expand to "meet the imperious problems of a new age" of industrial consumption and waste. Since many nation's have yet to clearly act on this apparent paradox of how increasing personal wealth is eroding common natural areas, or undermined ghost acres' capability of sustaining our consumption, we are on the verge of a serious and needless error in judgment. Competent economies accurately account for the common cost of pollution by rewarding companies and municipalities that reduce waste, rather than helping out the polluters. We have the wealth and the means to invest in the lands' and waters' common capacity to nourish human demands. The European Union is charting one such course with carbon trading to reduce the threat of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not join the effort, we shall be undermining an economically reasonable means to avert disaster.

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