Humanity is facing historic and truly unprecedented challenges from climate change and the rapid decline of ecosystems that sustain life.
The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) found that 83 percent of the planet's natural systems are in serious decline or on the brink. Adding to this already dire situation are the twin pressures of population growth and increasingly consumptive lifestyles.
Global population is expected to soar from today's 6.6 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Even though we crossed the point of sustainable use of natural resources in the mid-1980s, many of the 2.4 billion people living in China and India are striving mightily right now to approach the materialistic lifestyle of the average North American.
So how can we find our way around the global calamity the human race seems to be hurtling towards?
"Humanity needs a fundamentally new approach to managing the assets upon which we all depend," said Janet Ranganathan, director of the People and Ecosystems program at the World Resources Institute, an environmental group based in Washington.
"We need new ways of making decisions at all levels that fully value ecosystems and the services they provide us," she said.
Farming and forestry in nearly all countries is only about maximizing food or lumber production, but that has to start including maximising the ecological goods and service those ecosystems also offer. And since they are extremely important services, the stewards of these lands to ought to compensated so these services will be preserved and enhanced.
"Healthy ecosystems are our best insurance to buffer us from the impacts of climate change," Ranganathan told IPS.
Funds to pay for such services should come from taxes on polluters, including a carbon tax, cap and trade or other financial mechanisms, she said.
In Ecuador, a Water Conservation Fund (FONAG) collects user fees from those who benefit from the water in the Condor Bioreserves -- a 5.4-million-acre network of public protected areas, farms, ranches and indigenous territories. It uses these funds to support watershed management projects, according to a new report called "Restoring Nature's Capital: An Action Agenda to Sustain Ecosystem Services", co-authored by Ranganathan.
In Brazil, states allocate some revenues from taxes on goods, services, energy and communications to municipalities to help them support protected areas for forests and other resources. With massive deforestation threatening the viability of the Panama Canal, insurance and shipping companies are helping finance a major reforestation effort.
"At the very least we should stop subsidizing economic activities that degrade ecosystems," Ranganathan said.
Since humanity is facing unprecedented challenges in a markedly changed world from 50 years ago, there is a vital need to create new institutions. One idea is the creation of Ecosystem Service Districts to protect and maintain natural capital at the local level in ways that support human need.
Local protection won't be enough, so on a larger scale the report recommends Biome Stewardship Councils. Biomes are large ecosystems with similar climate, soils, plants, and animals -- like woods, deserts, mountains, grasslands and tundra. The MA identifies 15 biomes and a stewardship council for each would maximize ecosystem protection and human welfare within a biome.
Since ecosystems are vital to poverty reduction and achieving other U.N. Millennium Development Goals by 2015, there is also a need to create a Commission on Macroeconomics and Ecosystem Services for Poverty Reduction. This commission would broadly communicate the fact that healthy ecosystem services are fundamental to reducing poverty and achieving economic development and provide guidance on development projects so that they would protect and enhance ecosystem services.
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At the highest level, something more inclusive than the current G8 is also needed. The G8 is a group of leaders from industrialized democracies that meets to discuss economic and trade issues primarily, although the environment is getting more attention.
However, a new forum has been recommended by the U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. This "Leader's Forum" would include heads of state from countries at different levels of economic development and also different cultures and deal with cross-cutting environmental and social as well as economic issues.
What these proposed institutions have in common is that they integrate knowledge about ecosystem services into daily decision making rather than the current silos of information trapped in separate government departments such as agriculture, environment, economic development and so on, says Ranganathan.
And they also emphasize local rights to resources and local rights to decision making that must be part of the new way forward.
"Big change is coming, the era of cheap oil is ending and people are unhappy in their lives and with the state of the environment," said Fran Korten, executive director of the Positive Futures Network, a U.S. group with a focus on "active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, and compassionate world".
"Most people aren't sure what they can do or how things could be different," Korten told IPS.
The lack of general public awareness of these issues is one reason why the Network started publishing its magazine "YES! A Journal of Positive Futures" to profile the many and highly varied creations of viable, sustainable and healthy communities.
Green entrepreneur and social activist Paul Hawken estimates in his new book "Blessed Unrest" there are likely one to two million grassroots organizations around the world working toward ecological sustainability and social justice. Hawken calls this "the largest coming together of citizens in history".
Still, "it's unknown if [most] people will rise to this enormous challenge," said Steve Chase, director of the Environmental Advocacy Program at Antioch University in New Hampshire.
"We do know that people have done so in the past," Chase told IPS.
Ghandi's independence movement in India, the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the U.S. Civil Rights movement are examples, and have many parallels with the renewed environmental movement, he said -- including the very powerful and wealthy interests opposed to any changes perceived as threatening to the status quo.
Despite the enormous pressure and propaganda to keep people passive and make them believe they can't make a difference, the only way forward is for the public to become educated, mobilized and organized, he argued.
"People will have to roll up their sleeves and work hard to be active citizens," Chase said.
Voting and choosing environmentally-friendly products is good but not nearly enough, he noted. Only collective action will produce the substantial changes that are needed. "You can't choose to use public transit if there isn't one available," Chase said.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.