MA: Putting a Price Tag on the Planet

Putting a Price Tag on the Planet is a long article by Lila Guterman on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the April 7, 2006 The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article describes the history, funding, and operation of the MA as well as its findings.

As the 20th century drew to a close, leaders in the field of ecology decided they were failing at one of their primary goals. They had presented sign after sign that people were harming the environment — killing off species, destroying rain forests, polluting the air and water — but the warnings had little effect. So, to encourage conservation, they decided to appeal to humanity’s baser instincts.

Called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the enormous project looks at whether those benefits, dubbed ecosystem services, have strengthened or weakened in the past 50 years. And the report peers into the future, forecasting whether the services will continue to sustain human life. In another 50 years, will the planet provide enough food, wood, water for its inhabitants?

“Making that link between ecosystems and humans was really crucial. It’s an anthropocentric viewpoint,” says Harold A. Mooney, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and co-chair of the panel that ran the study. “It has much more meaning to many more people.”

The assessment found a major incongruity: While ecosystems have suffered more damage in the past 50 years than in any other 50 years in history, people are now healthier, more secure, and freer than ever before. But because those gains in well-being have come at increasing costs to the environment, the ecologists predict that the natural world will one day be incapable of providing the resources people need. Already, people suffer in pockets of the globe as the desert encroaches, droughts strike, and floods overwhelm.

“If you look at the total picture, it gives you a sense of real warning,” says Mr. Mooney. “We can’t go on like this.”

Robert J. Scholes, a scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government organization in Pretoria, South Africa, who led one of the project’s major efforts, agrees but adds that the assessment “isn’t a ‘the end of the world is nigh’ kind of message. It’s saying there’s a whole bunch of serious problems, but we think it’s within the world’s technical and political capacity to actually do something about this.”

The article quotes two Resilience Science contributors

Those consequences are not certain, but using various data and computer programs that simulate environmental trends, scientists on the assessment team came up with four scenarios, or stories about possible directions for the next 50 years. The scenarios illustrate what several global-scale trends and policies would do to the environment, and each comes with its own pluses and minuses.

“We very deliberately did not have a business-as-usual scenario,” says Stephen R. Carpenter, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who led the scenarios working group with Prabhu L. Pingali, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in Rome.

One scenario envisions a world dominated by national-security concerns in which leaders solve ecological problems only after they cause a crisis. Another depicts widespread cooperation among nations to create and use technology to keep ecosystems healthy.

Mr. Carpenter argues that no one scenario is the best. “The scenarios should be viewed as a menu of options,” he says. One might work well in some circumstances — for instance, the security-related scenario could be strongest for protecting countries from bird flu — while others might protect ecosystems better in different circumstances, and countries could even pursue different strategies in turn.
“I’ll be curious in 50 years looking back,” says Elena M. Bennett, an assistant professor in the department of natural-resource sciences at McGill University who participated in the assessment, “to see, Did we as a society heed the warning and start to take some big actions?”

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