Living Earth

Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration

Poverty: Valuing Production over Ecosystems

Mongolia, vast dry steppe landscape.
Mongolia, vast dry steppe landscape.

Studying and documenting in over 70 countries around the world has allowed me to see many large degraded areas and one common denominator seems to be poverty. Large numbers of poor people are degrading their ecosystems in order to survive. Yet when one looks deeply into the situation one finds that the poverty has been imposed on the region because the people have been told that the natural ecosystem is worthless and only the products extracted and sold to the global production and consumption economy are of value. If ecosystem function were in fact valued, the people often would not be poor at all. It is not simply ironic but terribly cruel that the developed world is providing ‘development assistance’ to many countries and actually telling them that they must restore their ecosystems when simultaneously the values that the developed world have imposed on these societies are causing the degradation.

Mali is a very good example of this. Fourteen million people live in lands measuring over 1 million square kilometers. This is like the population of Los Angeles living in an area almost twice the size of France. In Mali each year the inner Niger Delta floods to over 6 meters. This immense amount of water over evolutionary time was absorbed into giant trees and specialized grasses. Eighty five percent of the vegetation is water, and holding this much water in place helps to regulate the water cycle, the weather and the climate. But historically and also currently the vegetative cover has been consistently decreased. Simultaneously we are worried about biodiversity loss, desertification, the risk of extreme weather events such as flooding and drought and the human activity that is potentially causing massive climate changes including temperature increases. I have not found any biophysical reasons why the vegetation in Mali must be decreased. There doesn’t seem to be anything stopping the vegetation from returning, except that we don’t value it and force the local people to cut it in order to get some money to participate in the global economy. Valuing production higher than ecosystem function in Mali forces virtually the entire population into poverty and destroys the very regulatory functions the world needs to reduce the threats of desertification, biodiversity loss, extreme weather events and climate change. Just think what would happen in Mali if ecosystem function were valued higher than production and consumption. Vegetation would again cover the land because it would be recognized as the basis of wealth.

The example of Mali is only one of numerous countries where the potential for rehabilitation is huge. However, in order to restore these systems, the reasons that they were degraded in the first place must be addressed. And it is not simply in developing countries that valuing ecological function above production would have an impact. In the developed world millions of people are striving to produce and consume as much as they can because they are rewarded to do so. We are told that we must grow the economy and in order to do that we must produce more. The problem is that there are limits to growth. We cannot endlessly produce and consume more and more without catastrophic outcomes. For those with jobs it means working more hours and working harder. For those without jobs it means slipping further away from acceptability, the respect of others and sometimes even losing self-respect. This is the system, the daily grind, the rat race and it is just assumed to be necessary to serve this model. But it is illogical, immoral and impossible to sustain it. It is illogical because all the products and services we produce and consume can be shown to come from functional ecosystems, which we have valued at zero and this creates a perverse incentive to degrade the ecosystem. It is immoral because this system has been imposed on billions of people without their understanding or agreement and many of them have been impoverished by the experience. It is impossible because we cannot infinitely extract finite resources to grow the economy. It is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. If we stay the course we are finished. This is why Sir Nicolas Stern said that the “Business as usual scenario is no longer possible.” So for those trapped in this world of over production and over consumption, what would turn this juggernaut toward a more sustainable path?

The Path to a Sustainable Future and Climate Stability

For both the poor of the world living in largely degraded ecosystems and the so-called wealthy in the developed world, transformational change now seems to be required. Humanity cannot survive without functional ecosystems, and the actions of all people are needed to act together as a species on a planetary scale. From what I have seen, the determining factors for survival and sustainability on the Earth are biodiversity, biomass and accumulation of organic matter, the more the better. The lessons of the Loess Plateau show that it is possible to restore large scale damaged ecosystems and that this mitigates climate impacts, makes the land more resilient and increases productivity. The Loess Plateau also shows that valuing ecosystem function higher than production and consumption allows one to make the choices necessary to make long-term investments and see the results of transgenerational thinking.

It can be daunting to consider the problems we currently face. There is much to distract us from pursuing what we imagine must be a dreadful pursuit. But the decisions we make are going to determine what the future will be for those who come after us. Over the years that I have been studying and documenting functional and dysfunctional ecosystems I have come to a number of realizations. One is that rarely are there biophysical reasons for ecosystems becoming dysfunctional. Ecosystems are mainly disrupted when human beings don’t value the function, but instead value the products and services that are extracted from functional ecosystems.

By valuing ecosystem function above production and consumption and making this the basis of the global monetary system, it becomes possible to restore all degraded land anywhere on the planet. We already have the knowledge necessary to do this and we certainly have the need given the enormous threat of climate change. This seems to be the way to change the paradigm from producing and consuming for the wealthy and also to end the grinding poverty that has been imposed on billions in the developing world. This is also the way to ensure that the great forests, wetlands and grasslands all return to the earth in their splendor and function for future generations to benefit, admire and cherish. This is the development trajectory that leads to a sustainable future.

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