Keith Rozendal, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Natural environments provide enormously valuable, but largely unappreciated, services that aid humans and other earthlings. Civilizations rely on these intangible life-supports just as much as they rely on the resources and produce extracted from wild and cultivated land and seascapes. Agriculture—the cornerstone of large, complex human societies—would collapse but for the reservoirs of clean freshwater, soil laced with essential nutrients and microbes, and stable climates generated by natural systems. It’s becoming clear that those life-support systems are faltering and failing worldwide due to human actions that disrupt nature’s ability to do its beneficial work.
Ecosystem services scientists work to document the direct and indirect links between humanity’s well-being and the many benefits provided by the natural systems we occupy. The knowledge they produce can structure the way humanity, now surging past seven billion individuals, provides for its exploding needs. It can shape decisions on land use, resource extraction, manufacturing, and trade so that the widespread declines in the ecosystem-rooted life-support systems can be arrested or reversed.
It seems that Spaceship Earth faces an “all hands on deck” emergency. A boatswain’s distress call has been issued by the organizers of the 2011 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Conference on Ecosystem Services. A broad community of academic researchers, industrial and agricultural professionals, and policy experts responded. In 14 Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) Teams, biologists and earth scientists collaborated with physicians, engineers, economists and a wide range of
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Conference Summary Keith Rozendal, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar University of British Columbia, Vancouver Natural environments provide enormously valuable, but largely unappreciated, services that aid humans and other earthlings. Civiliza- tions rely on these intangible life-supports just as much as they rely on the resources and produce extracted from wild and cultivated land and sea- scapes. Agriculture—the cornerstone of large, complex human societies— would collapse but for the reservoirs of clean freshwater, soil laced with essential nutrients and microbes, and stable climates generated by natural systems. It’s becoming clear that those life-support systems are faltering and failing worldwide due to human actions that disrupt nature’s ability to do its beneficial work. Ecosystem services scientists work to document the direct and indirect links between humanity’s well-being and the many benefits provided by the natural systems we occupy. The knowledge they produce can structure the way humanity, now surging past seven billion individuals, provides for its exploding needs. It can shape decisions on land use, resource extraction, manufacturing, and trade so that the widespread declines in the ecosystem- rooted life-support systems can be arrested or reversed. It seems that Spaceship Earth faces an “all hands on deck” emergency. A boatswain’s distress call has been issued by the organizers of the 2011 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Conference on Ecosystem Services. A broad community of academic researchers, indus- trial and agricultural professionals, and policy experts responded. In 14 Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) Teams, biologists and earth scientists collaborated with physicians, engineers, economists and a wide range of 1
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2 ECOSYSTEM SERVICES social scientists—all were needed. As the chair of the conference steering committee put it, “The only prerequisite was brilliance.” IDR Team 1 explored the many ways in which human health requires healthy ecosystems and the services they provide. In response to their challenge, “How do ecosystem services affect infectious and chronic dis- eases?,” the team boldly stated that all diseases have links to the health of ecosystems. Though in general, infectious diseases have stronger links than chronic diseases. Seeking the physical and biological processes that connect ecosystem changes to health-related outcomes would be the critical first task, once any relationship is uncovered. Team 1 was one of many to recog- nize the huge numbers of interconnections between human and ecological systems, coining the phrase “webs of causation” to best reflect their dazzling complexity. The team observed that some diseases, like malaria, had already been well-mapped by other interdisciplinary scientists, who may not realize that their research fits into an ecosystem services framework. This led the team to devise a “call to arms” bringing together researchers from specific fields, such as epidemiology, urban planning, and atmospheric sciences to work on this challenge under a common framework of health-supportive ecosystem services. Three teams under the IDR 6 banner explored ways to estimate the overall value of the inventory of human dependencies on natural capital. These teams recognized that the price currently paid for products, such as food, does not include the values to society of the services provided by nature. A “shadow price” would incorporate a full accounting of the social costs and benefits of products and policies, and would most likely inflate prices. However, this would require that economists grapple with a funda- mentally different framework for pricing, one that can precisely reflect the worth of hard-to-pin-down social, cultural, and ecological values. One team memorably called the difficult-to-value end of the spectrum, “squishy.” Economists do have well-developed methods to value things that don’t fit into a traditional market framework. Two teams recommended applying revealed preference analysis measurements to the task of comprehensively valuing ecosystem services. Another said interactive social games could expose the way any person values intangible ecosystem services by tracking their choices among actions that create tradeoffs between different compet- ing values. Food demand will double this century, and agriculture already has the biggest impact on the environment, by far. Three IDR 4 Teams t ackled this problem. One team set out several achievements that
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3 CONFERENCE SUMMARY together could meet future food demand without further depleting soils, water, nutrients, or biodiversity—but only if all these goals can be met simultaneously. They include putting a halt to deforestation, help- ing farmers achieve the full potential yields of their lands, abandoning meat-centered diets, and reducing food waste. Another team proposed a few further goals for an ecosystem-maintaining food system and sug- gested a design competition to identify key experiments to undertake. The third of these teams extensively developed one such project, mass-scale urban-based agriculture. IDR Team 5 was challenged to imagine how humanity might aim even higher than simply meeting future food demand. The lofty state of food security isn’t merely concerned with food quantity. Food secure families eat food of adequate quality to support an active life that promotes peak devel- opment and healthy aging. This requires a shift in global farming priorities, according to this team. Currently, food producers receive incentives and supports to grow staple crops such as rice, maize, and potatoes. Such foods can meet basic caloric needs, but true food security is built on diverse diets of non-staple crops like fruits and vegetables. Oil and natural gas, once extracted and burned, can never be replaced. The Earth’s supply of phosphorous, an element critical to agriculture, is also being mined to exhaustion. IDR Team 2 confronted the challenge of developing new means of recovering such nonrenewable resources currently going to waste. The team created a general purpose analytical tool called an eco-interactome map, using it to track phosphorous from its birth in mines to its end fate deposited in watersheds, soil, landfills, and human and animal feces. Putting numbers to the map showed where the greatest losses occurred with the biggest opportunities to recover phosphorous. The team evaluated a long list of potential technologies to do the job and suggested a pilot project: Using anaerobic digestion to treat animal manure produced in concentrated animal feeding operations. Phosphorous could be recovered from the treated waste with several add-on benefits. Two IDR 7 Teams sought ways to consolidate and expand approaches to ecosystem services so every federal decision might one day weigh these concerns. One team said an interagency training center would harmonize and improve the ecosystem services work already being done across the federal system. Extending these practices into new decision-making areas could start by modifying policies already in place. For instance, one team recommended recruiting the Securities and Exchange Commission to re- quire ecosystem services accounting within publicly traded businesses. One
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4 ECOSYSTEM SERVICES team began to write a potentially historic bill, the Valuing Natural Capital Act—a short and simple, but far-reaching law. But even this idealistic team suggested practical first steps—starting with a measure that values natural capital at the city or state level to build momentum for broader regulations on its success. In an age of globalization, national policies will never be enough to fully account for the values humanity derives from nature. IDR Team 8 imagined ways in which the global trade system could begin to monitor and reduce its impacts on ecosystems. The team used the term ‘policy’ elastically. Certainly, the actions of governments and international bodies matter, but actions by private parties and market-based mechanisms targeting corpora- tions, producers and consumers can also dramatically shape international trade. Take, for example, private sector roundtables, voluntary changes in producer practices, certification schemes, and shareholder activism. Existing import risk assessment policies could easily incorporate the value of ecosys- tems. In such decisions, a given commodity might be banned for import or levied with additional taxes on the basis of social, environmental, and economic criteria. IDR Team 3 looked at how human societies adapt to the abrupt changes in ecosystem services following natural or technological disasters. The team observed that proactive adaptation plans have only developed where an urgent and widespread perception of vulnerability exists. Thus, the team made a specific call for research psychologists to join the work on this challenge. They identified factors that encourage or discourage societal preparation and resiliency: Is the crisis caused by human actions, and over what time scale and spatial extent does the event occur? Finally, the team recommended developing a case study library and a game-based tool to help people explore the range of options available for adapting large populations to abrupt change. For many of the proposals emerging from this year’s NAKFI to suc- ceed, it seems essential that broad audiences understand the full value of ecosystem services to human well-being. IDR Team 9 began to develop the call for a National Academy of Sciences “PlanetWorks” conference. They aim to bring government figures from the federal down to municipal levels together with leaders of high-tech companies (especially the top Internet firms), other big businesses, foundations, and the news and entertainment industries. The conference would plant the seeds for a massive social net- work dedicated to communicating worldwide the importance of incorpo- rating ecosystem services and natural capital concerns into the way business,
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5 CONFERENCE SUMMARY government, and our daily lives operate. The team imagined interactive instructional games based on solid science and projects that engage big crowds to gather data on ecosystem functioning. Because an ecosystem services framework highlights nature’s impact on human health, values, and wealth, there are natural “hooks” for engaging the common concerns of a huge audience. A theme threaded through the entire NAKFI Conference on Ecosystem Services. Taking ecosystems services seriously reveals how fragmented and self-defeating policies emerge from fragmented and competitive decision- making bodies entrusted with social and economic planning. Perhaps, just as the melded efforts of scientists speaking across wide disciplinary boundaries can best meet the challenges posed at this conference, new com- prehensive political bodies might better put ecosystem services goals into practice locally and globally. Incorporating the value of ecosystem services in planning for the future will foster fully informed, and one hopes, wiser choices. This approach can make explicit the ecological sacrifices human- ity has been making without knowing. It can lead the globe to account for previously hidden benefits and losses, to think on geologic time scales, and to respect the true complexity of the planet’s massively interdependent natural systems.
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