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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  June 2004

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE June 2004

Subject:

Designer Ecosystems

From:

Wren Osborn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 16 Jun 2004 10:55:15 -0700

Content-Type:

multipart/alternative

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text/plain (93 lines) , text/enriched (114 lines)

This is an interesting take on helping our environment help us.  I 
found it on truthout.org

Wren Osborn

 Designer Ecosystems are Now in Vogue
    By David Suzuki
    Environmental News Network

    Tuesday 08 June 2004

    We have designer clothes and designer perfumes. Now we need 
designer ecosystems - at least according to a group of scientists 
writing a report in the journal Science.

    The authors argue that humans have so monumentally interfered with 
the planet's natural systems that we have to stop focusing on the fewer 
and fewer remaining undisturbed ecosystems on Earth. Instead, they say, 
we need to focus a lot more on the services nature provides and how to 
modify ecosystems to make sure they can continue to provide these 
services in a human-dominated world.

    It's an interesting idea. Natural services are essential for human 
survival. Even with all our ingenuity, we cannot artificially recreate 
the systems that have evolved over 4 billion years on this planet to 
build the very conditions necessary for life to exist.

    As far as we know, ours is the only planet in the entire universe 
to have accomplished this monumental task. From water filtration to 
climate stability and soil fertility, there is an intelligence embedded 
in these natural systems that we are only just beginning to fathom.

    At the same time, human activities are pushing the capacity of 
these systems to their limits. And with a projected population of 9 
billion by 2050, we cannot afford to continue with business as usual.

    With this in mind, the authors bring up two very important points. 
First, the knowledge that we do have about ecosystem services is not 
widely disseminated, and it is certainly not being acted upon.

    For example, we have known for some time about the importance of 
city green spaces for water filtration. Plants and soil are essential 
in helping remove impurities from our water. Yet, rarely is this 
knowledge incorporated into urban design. Instead, we funnel rainwater 
from our roads and rooftops into concrete drainage systems that empty 
directly into our lakes and rivers - causing tremendous pollution.

    Second, as the authors point out, all the scientific knowledge in 
the world won't protect natural services unless the public understands 
that they are vital to our health and well being. Without the public 
bringing sufficient pressure to bear on our political and business 
leaders, those leaders are unlikely to make the policy changes needed 
to ensure the protection of ecosystem services.

    But for all its value, the report does miss some key points. First, 
the analysis provides barely any sense of how little we actually know. 
We are only just beginning to understand how our complicated natural 
systems work.

    We don't even have an adequate grasp of how many species there are 
on the planet or what they do.

    Also missing is the crucial point that there are still intact 
ecosystems providing important services to humanity. Large parts of the 
Amazon basin and Canada's boreal forest are still fairly pristine. 
These forests are extremely important resources for life diversity and 
climate stability.

    Removal of their forest cover would have profound repercussions in 
terms of global weather patterns and climate change. Even small patches 
of relatively undisturbed ecosystems in or near our cities are 
extremely valuable in terms of providing refuge for wildlife.

    Extreme caution is also necessary around the very idea of designing 
ecosystems. Generally, minimal interference has proven to be the best 
policy. In fact, whenever humans have tried to design or modify 
ecosystems in the past, it has usually resulted in disaster. Ecosystems 
are incredibly complicated. We barely know how parts of these systems 
function, let alone the whole. For example, when we have introduced 
alien species, we have inadvertently caused a host of other unexpected 
problems.

    Still, any discussion of natural services is very important. The 
value of these services is largely ignored in our current economic and 
political systems. We treat them as though they are free and limitless, 
when in fact they are invaluable and irreplaceable.

    And although designer ecosystems may be necessary one day, more 
important are thoughtfully designed human systems, from our cities to 
our energy sources and our agriculture. It's much easier to learn to 
live within the natural systems we have now than to try to desperately 
redesign the ones we have left later. 

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