These are shocking words. We would do well to listen to them: "Human actions are depleting Earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."
Thus the conclusion of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the United Nations' four-year analysis, the broadest ever of the environment, with some 1,300 public and private contributors from 95 countries.
There has been a mini-trend of sorts lately to pooh-pooh environmental concerns as falling somewhere between overwrought and hysterical. Environmentalism is dismissed as yesterday's fad, a relic of the counterculture '60s finally put in its place by the magisterial market economy.
And it is true that environmentalism has an unfortunate affinity for alarmism. Some of its gurus mimic the magazine-cartoon cliche of the bearded, berobed crank with his "The End Is Near!" placard.
The apparently eternal Malthusian shortfall on predictions that population would outstrip food is a caution, and in fact the United Nations' paper reports good news on food production. It's up. And ever-cannier cultivation promises still more.
But much of what we consume, and much of what the very concept of life itself depends upon, cannot be cranked up to meet the demands of endless population growth and heedless exploitation. We cannot produce more oceans in our labs if we poison the ones we have. We can't manufacture a new atmosphere if we degrade today's irreparably. There's no fairy dust for bringing back dead species.
If not panic, care at least is called for.
The indicators are plain enough. The polar ice caps are melting, rain forests are being felled. We have seen fisheries fail. The ozone layer has thinned and is fraying. The mouths of major rivers have become dead zones.
We don't know the carrying capacity of the biosphere. Somewhere out there, down the road, there's a tipping point that will tilt it irretrievably toward collapse. And collapse can come suddenly and utterly. The future is not a sure bet.
The United Nations' report provides, as one contributor put it, the first world-wide set of "leading ecosystem indicators." We've now got a pretty good idea of where we stand.
That will be important only if we pay prudent attention, acknowledge the realities — denial is not a workable option — set sound goals for sustainability and cooperate internationally to secure them.
This living Earth appears to be an extraordinarily rare place in the universe, which ought to engage our vanity if nothing else. And so far the planet has been remarkably forgiving. It has absorbed and survived our impositions and insults. But the biosphere is finally a delicate filigree of interdependencies. It may take nothing more malevolent than simple negligence to create the big "Whoops."
But perhaps that wouldn't matter. After all, there'd be no one to notice.
© 2005 Daily Camera