The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, one of the most ambitious scientific inquiries ever undertaken, concluded in 2005 with sobering news: We can no longer take the survival of our planet's ecosystems for granted.
Thirteen hundred scientists around the globe collaborated on the four-year project. They compiled evidence on many fronts that humankind has become a major biological and geological force challenging the very sustainability of the biosphere -- the thin, habitable zone of land, air and water enveloping Earth upon which all living things, including ourselves, depend.
Our current crises of global climate change, worldwide loss of biodiversity and degradation of natural resources are symptoms of flaws in our understanding of the biosphere and how we interact with it. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was the first scientific effort to describe the full array of vital "ecosystem services" provided by nature, such as oxygen production, water purification, pollination, soil formation, and nutrient recycling. Too often, when we acknowledge their value at all, we consider them individually. But like the instruments in an orchestra, they perform in harmony, not alone.
The wonder of the biosphere lies in its all-embracing integrity and wholeness. Each component satisfies not only its own needs but also those of the larger system of which it is part. When we fail to recognize this, as has been our habit since the onset of the industrial age, we are more prone to actions that destabilize ecosystems. In the short term, the outcomes may seem rich with benefits, but in the long run they can be inherently unsustainable.
One need not look far for examples. The Madison area, with some of Wisconsin's richest agricultural lands, is also its fastest-growing urban center. It is a prime example of the national trend in which about 2.2 million acres of crop land are converted annually to commercial and residential areas and associated infrastructure, including roads, highways, and parking lots. In our quest for immediate economic rewards, we are turning a valuable renewable resource into an expendable commodity.
Globally, losses of farm land to urbanization and other non-agricultural purposes are staggering. Labor-saving technology, increasing land values, and undercutting of local food prices drive people off farms into cities, which in turn expand outward onto adjoining farmland. This fuels pressure to intensify agricultural production with use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, higher-producing strains of crops, and new genetically modified varieties. Agrarian culture in time is displaced by agribusiness, and local stewards of the land are replaced with managers who oversee industrialized crop production.
Under this scenario, important life-sustaining ecosystem services provided by the land are devalued or lost entirely. And our societal institutions act as accomplices in the process. They make it possible for prices and rent of land for agrarian uses to be lower than for industrial agriculture and still lower than for residential, business, and industrial development. They fail to create, develop, and sustain means to keep land affordable for small-scale farming. They encourage, even stimulate, unsustainable behaviors.
Our institutions -- from business to government to higher education -- must transform themselves into entities that shape more sustainable human societies and environments. How do we accomplish this? There is no single answer. To become sustainable, we must better understand our place in the biosphere, we must imagine what we want the future to be like, and then we must make decisions that lead us in that direction.
Given the differences among human political cultures, economic classes, historical roots, spiritual traditions, and all the other social groupings that tend to separate us -- not to mention our propensity as a species to disagree with one another -- we have our work cut out for us. There's no time to waste.