Study Shows Decline in Earth's Ecosystems

Lisa Bryant

A new U.N. report shows a dramatic decline in the many benefits that mankind reaps from the Earth's forests and oceans. The study by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is unusual because it examines the benefits of nature as if they were services. The study also outlines what politicians and people can do to reverse the decline in these so-called services.

Since the beginning of time, the ecosystems of the Earth, including forests and oceans, have provided humans with the essentials of life. But in addition to supplying us with food and water, these ecosystems also perform other so-called services. Forests for example provide a service by cleaning the air and adding oxygen.

Now a new report from UNESCO indicates that 60 percent of these ecosystem services are being degraded or used in a way that can not be sustained. Most of this decline has taken place over the last 50 years.

Salvatore Arico, an ecosystem and biodiversity expert at UNESCO, and one of the authors of the new study, notes there have been improvements in some areas - like food production.

"However those services have gone up at the expense of other services," he said. "For example, clearly we have lost the diversity of forest ecosystems. Forest ecosystems host fewer species than before, less genetic diversity. That makes forest ecosystems much more vulnerable. At the same time, climate is changing. So things are being degraded."

Mr. Arico says humans have overused these and other natural services. Wetlands are being drained, seas are overfished and the introduction of foreign species has hurt natural habitats. Global warming, which most scientists believe has accelerated because of human activity, is also a chief culprit in the decline in the services provided by our ecosystems.

"We've been drawing on nature's capital. Its like having money in the bank but not living on the interest, but rather on the money itself: At a certain stage it will disappear," he said.

But the study notes ways to improve ecosytem services - such as restoring wetlands or offering economic incentives to protect the environment. Mr. Arico says politicians must also adopt more holistic approaches toward issues like transportation or agricultural policy. The main message of the report, he says, is that the future is in our hands.

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