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Is It Fair to Use Earth’s Resources for Free?

December 16, 2011

After watching Pavan Sukhdev’s (click here) TED Talk, I couldn’t help but think that we have to do more to integrate these concepts into curriculum in K-12 schools.  While the economics he explains require higher-order thinking, the biology, earth science and environmental science that underpins the economics can be taught at every level of school.

Mr. Sukhdev is a fellow at Yale University, leading the TEEB@YALE graduate seminar and chairing the Global Agenda Council on Biodiversity and Ecosystems for the World Economic Forum. Check out the work of the TEEB Project.  If you are interested in sustainability and conservation, his ideas are compelling.

He makes the case for assigning a value to our natural resources in ways that societies haven’t thought of before.  For example:

  • What is the economic value of the rain that falls (or doesn’t fall) over Texas in the summer?
  • What is the economic value of the bees that pollinate all the crops and foliage that we depend upon?
  • What is the economic value of Ohio river that serves as a lifeline for millions of people over thousands of miles?

In his talk, Mr. Sukhdev suggests that we take for granted the earthly resources that we have come to rely on.  We lack awareness of our actions as we extract all the goodness from our planet without giving back or paying for the resources.  He wants us to ask the question, what is the real value of the timber we harvest?  The real value involves making some fairly complex calculations of what it would take to restore the lands to their original form.  He talks about:

The economic invisibility of nature?

Mr. Sukhdev tells the story of the Amazon rainforest.  As the train winds flow over the rainforest they gather lots of precipitation that become the rain for agricultural fields in other countries at great distances.  But do the countries that receive the rain “pay” for the resource they rely on to grow crops?  The answer is no!

Therefore, Sukhdev asks the question:

What is the economic value of nature to our species?

What is the value of biodiversity to our planet (click here)?  The answer is simple, it means everything to the sustenance of planet Earth.  The viability of an ecosystem is dependent upon the biodiversity that comprises the system and helps maintain the system’s equilibrium.  Do we understand the economic value of our planet’s biodiversity?  Mr. Sukhdev suggests that we have little idea what value these resources are; however, our future depends upon us figuring it out.  We need to understand the value, especially as it relates to environmental sustainability and conservation.

In his talk, he gives many interesting examples.  From his calculations, insect pollination of fruits represents roughly 190 billion dollars worth of capital or about 8% of total agricultural output.  Here is a quote from Global Research in 2008:

Commercial beehives pollinate over a third of [North}America’s crops and that web of nourishment encompasses everything from fruits like peaches, apples, cherries, strawberries and more, to nuts like California almonds, 90 percent of which are helped along by the honeybees. Without this pollination, you could kiss those crops goodbye, to say nothing of the honey bees produce or the flowers they also fertilize.

In this article, they suggest that the death of bee populations is coming about because of our use of genetically modified organisms.

At genetic level, Sukhdev explains that 60% of medicines we discover start out as molecules that come from rainforests.  Here is a quote concerning environmental issues from

Tropical rainforests, which account for only seven percent of the world’s total land mass, harbor as much as half of all known varieties of plants. Experts say that just a four-square-mile area of rainforest may contain as many as 1,500 different types of flowering plants and 750 species of trees, all which have evolved specialized survival mechanisms over the millennia that mankind is just starting to learn how to appropriate for its own purposes.

The article points out that about 120 medicines that are used worldwide to treat human disease, especially cancer, come from planets in rainforests.  What is the true cost of harvesting these plants to make the medicines?  Sukhdev points out that people from the countries where these plants are harvested are generally poor and that the more advanced countries producing and using the medicines don’t pay the “true cost” of using the natural resources they harvest.

The gradual depletion of ocean fisheries is a huge challenge for our planet.  Over 1 billion people depend on fish for their animal protein; however, the rate at which we are losing fish populations around the globe is startling and a tremendous burden on our society.  An article in Science Magazine, Loss of Harvested Fish Species Disrupts Carbon Flow, illustrates how an ecosystem is adversely altered by over harvesting the fish population. The BBC ran a report (click here) on research being done that shows at current trends of harvesting ocean fish, we may deplete supplies by the middle of this century.  What will be the effect on the ocean’s ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, if we recklessly over harvest fish?

We tend to think that resources flow to humanity for free.  But they are not free–free from consequences of overuse.  Also, many of these resources come from countries that are poor and yet we (rich countries) pay very little to them for using or harvesting these resources.

Sukhdev points out that consuming global biomass at the rate we are using them is not sustainable.  He suggests that we must learn to:

see the difference between between public benefits and private profits

We need to:

recognize and place a value on natural capital.

In closing, he makes the case for why we need to address issues around coral reefs, which provide food and livelihood for over 500 million people.  High levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affect the functioning of these reefs.  Scientific research says that 350 ppm of carbon dioxide is the upper limit for what the planet can manage and what is safe for the survival of coral reefs.  However, the Kyoto Protocol has selected targets of around 450 ppm as a level the planet can tolerate.  So Sukhdev comments that we have made an ethical choice to not have coral reefs based on how high we have set the limits.  Countries like the US, India and China are not meeting their responsibility to adopt worldwide levels that would assure the future survivability of our planet’s coral reefs.  Since 1/5 of the world’s fish populations live and depend upon the rich food sources around coral reefs, we might be risking human lives with this decision.

We have a responsibility to learn how to better manage our natural resources and managing them effectively will require global cooperation.  Do we have the will to manage these resources responsibly?  It may be that Mother Nature doesn’t have the capability to recover from all the challenges we throw at her.  But as Sukhdev points out, we don’t have a chance is we fail to place the true value of the resources to our planet.

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