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This has led to hundreds of opportunities to speak to various audiences of all sorts from Britain’s Royal Society, to elementary school children, to many universities and to the presidents of several countries. As well, the films are helping inform many about the potential of restoration. Gradually, a shift in perception is emerging all over the world; the principles outlined in this essay are being taken up by various institutions, organizations and individuals. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has begun to see the importance of restoration, as has the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD). The United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) has adopted the idea of restoration, as has the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration.
“As long as our global economy continues to value production and consumption higher than the functioning ecosystem the results will remain the same and the outcome for humanity and the planet is bleak.”
In the beginning of February 2011 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York the Rwanda Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative was formally launched. In August 2011 the Society for Ecological Restoration held its global meeting in Merida, Yucatan in Mexico where nearly one thousand scholars and restoration engineers convened to discuss the potential worldwide. In the beginning of September 2011 the Bonn Initiative, led by the German Government, set a target of restoring 150 million hectares or about 7% of the estimated 2 billion hectares of degraded lands around the world. As I have been studying, documenting and communicating about the potential of restoration, it has gone from being virtually ignored to being considered by many as the most viable option humanity has to combat human induced climate changes, biodiversity loss, desertification and more.
Gradually, as I have become aware of the enormous implications of what I have been studying, I began to consider why civilizations separated by large distances and in various times all end up destroying their ecosystems. My conclusions from observing natural systems in every continent suggest that it is not at all inevitable that ecosystems must degrade. They are degraded because human beings don’t understand or value their function. These thoughts have led me to examine human economics in relationship to the earth’s ecology and what I have found is perhaps of equal importance to the biophysical understandings, and the potential of restoration that has been detailed in this essay.
What the Chinese came to realize on the Loess Plateau that allowed them to take the crucial step toward restoration was the theoretical understanding that “Ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.” This statement changes everything. Over historical time, human beings have valued the production and consumption of products and services higher than they have valued ecosystem function. Actually the situation is even worse because ecosystem function was not valued at all, but was considered as a free good. This is just simply wrong and has created a perverse incentive to degrade the ecosystem. As long as our global economy continues to value production and consumption higher than the functioning ecosystem, the results will remain the same and the outcome for humanity and the planet is bleak. It seems that humanity has made a gigantic error through our ignorance and has compounded this error over historical time. Some clichés such as ‘money is the root of all evil’ perhaps should not be dismissed without consideration.
Money is now derived from the production and consumption of goods and services. This is the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. This thinking says that the total of the economy is what we produce and consume. But there is the rub. All the products and services we produce and consume come from functional ecosystems. If the ecosystems collapse then we actually have no productivity. This suggests the same finding that the Chinese had, that “Ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.” Recently there have been many attempts to envision ‘Green Economics’ but the problem with many of these efforts is that they leave the fundamentals the same. They continue to assume that the basis of money is production and consumption.
This line of thinking made me ask: What would happen if money were not derived from production and consumption but the basis of money was functional ecosystems? The answer seems to be that everything would change. Society would be completely changed by this understanding; instead of working to produce and consume more and more, humanity would work to ensure that ecosystems functioned well. If ecosystem function was the basis of money the development trajectory would be accumulative and ecosystem function would be protected and improved. This replaces scarcity with abundance. This shows where and how the economy can grow larger than it is now, but it doesn’t require endless and mindless growth in order to have wealth.
When we study the consequences of human impact on biodiversity, desertification and climate changes, we realize that we are facing enormous problems and that the solutions must be equal to the size and difficulty of the problems. Redefining the basis of money and wealth certainly fits these criteria. Many of the problems we are facing were created long ago and have been institutionalized and legalized over generations. This makes it difficult to act because we must return and address fundamental mistakes of the past. These mistakes are not our fault and we tend to simply accept them because they were envisioned and created long before we came onto the scene. Yet in order for us to ensure a sustainable future we must address these legacy issues.
Fall | Winter 2017