Sustainable World Intro
Once, the human footprint on the planet was small. The world outside our towns and villages seemed wild, large and forbidding. We lived within its constraints and seemed inconsequential against its backdrop.
Now, we have become numerous. We have mastered technologies that magnify our efforts, energy and impact. When given the choice we consume beyond our needs. Our footprint has become large; large enough to change irrevocably the balance of power between humankind and the natural world.
Perhaps ironically, just as we have been changing this relationship, our understanding of people's dependency upon the natural world has undergone a quiet scientific revolution. It is not nearly as visible as the revolution in understanding our genes, but is equally if not more important. This advance in knowledge has revealed that human health-that human life itself- depends ultimately upon services provided by natural ecosystems. Simultaneously, it has revealed that the human footprint now threatens to diminish the natural world's capacity to support life.
This might seem unlikely to a resident of one of the world's growing megalopolises- New York or São Paolo or Shanghai. These cities might appear totally detached from any semblance of a natural ecosystem, or any dependency thereupon. They are not. As an example, consider the source of New York's water, the Catskill watershed. The city has saved billions of dollars by investing in protection of the watershed rather than attempting to replace its natural cleansing services with water treatment plants. Recall the ravages of flooding on the Yangtze River in 1999-China's worst in 40 years-and the subsequent wisdom of the Chinese government to ban commercial logging in its upper watershed, because of the irreplaceable importance of forests for flood control. Contemplate the contribution of natural genetic diversity in plants to our ability to improve productivity in crops and put food on grocery store shelves.
Over the past 20 years, the foundation has supported research expanding knowledge of natural life support systems along with efforts that would build public awareness of its results. Significant, if halting, progress can be shown. Indeed, polling reveals that now some 20 percent of Americans recognize the scientific term "biodiversity," a word that was in no one's lexicon merely 15 years ago. Far more progress must be made, and soon. Virtually all biologists engaged in assessing human impacts on the biosphere concur that we are on the precipice of a massive loss of species and widespread erosion of ecosystem health. Reversing this momentum will require considerable political will, at all levels of human affairs, from the most local to the most international.
Foundation support has also focused significantly on maintaining the health of several ecosystems in North and South America, and here we can point to several fragile successes, three of which are described below.
Protecting the Pantanal
In late 1989, word began filtering northward from Paraguay and southeast Brazil that plans to engineer a major waterway through the Pantanal south to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in Argentina were being revived. This plan, Hidrovia, had surfaced in various forms previously only to be shelved. Fully developed, it would have altered the hydrology and ecology of this vast region of South America profoundly, increasing floods, decreasing fisheries' productivity, undermining the health of the world's largest interior wetland, and in the process, threatening people and their livelihoods along a 1000-mile reach of the river basin. After preliminary investigations, in 1992 the foundation initiated a study to examine the hydrological and ecological consequences of the proposed project. The results of this work confirmed not only the negative consequences of Hidrovia, but also that its economic benefits had been overrated significantly.
Based on this scientific assessment, the foundation began to support efforts to organize nongovernmental groups (NGOs) in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil to educate the public within the region about the consequences of the project. The resulting NGO coalition, Rios Vivos, succeeded in building public and governmental opposition to the project.
By 1997, all governments in the region except Paraguay had stopped supporting Hidrovia's full implementation. A series of studies, including one by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, warned that Hidrovia would drain large areas of the Pantanal, upsetting the ecosystem, threatening wildlife and possibly even affecting weather. Reacting to these scientific reviews, Brazil's government scaled back the original project to a far more modest one that would eliminate the most radical change, straightening out the northern section of the Paraguay River. Now, construction plans are modest versions of the originals. While they will not leave the Pantanal untouched, they will not fundamentally change its hydrology. As with any project of this nature, more ambitious versions can be proposed, if not this year, then some day. That makes this success at best one that must be monitored continuously.
Reforming forest practices in the Northwest
In 1985, the Wilderness Society approached the foundation to map remaining old growth stands of forest in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This short-term project was designed to show that forestry practices at the time would eliminate most remaining old-growth forests in the region within two decades. Surely this demonstration would lead to changes in federal policies, thereby preserving these forests and the ecosystems they engender.
Fifteen years later, there have been enormous changes for the better. Logging rates on public lands in the Pacific North- west are down precipitously from their levels in the 1980s, 6 billion board feet per year in the late 1980s to 500 million in 1998. Restoration work is under way in many areas.
The path this work has followed, however, has been far more circuitous and challenging than anyone might then have expected. What began as a scientific exercise in mapping became, by the early '90s, a pitched battle pitting jobs vs. owls, loggers vs. environmentalists, activists vs. timber companies. Then in 1993 the tone changed as the Clinton Administration brokered a deal that addressed both environmental issues and the economic concerns of local communities and companies. Neither side was completely satisfied with the solution.
As a result of this intervention, there now remain many more old-growth trees and undisturbed salmon streams. Money was set aside for job retraining, and efforts went toward building new employment opportunities. Unfortunately, not all old-growth forest stands gained protection under the Clinton plan, and salmon populations continue to decline.
Two enduring lessons emerged. First, "environmental protection vs. jobs" was revealed to be a false choice. Job growth in the region flourished even as logging companies were encouraging "jobs vs. owls" demonstrations. The region's economy boomed. Numerous economic studies showed that the economic growth, and the resulting jobs, were in no small way due to the fact that the region's environmental resources attracted a highly talented work force, which enabled the engines of the region's economy-software and technology-to prosper. Indeed, more jobs were lost in the timber industry to plant modernization than to environmental protection.
Second, the tools and strategies needed to advance environmental protection changed as the issue evolved. What began as scientific mapping became local grassroots activism mixed with aggressive legal tactics. These approaches then merged with broader economic analyses and assessments of public opinion, combined with broad-based efforts in public education. As the Clinton plan was implemented, skills at helping rural economic developers chart courses independent of primary forest logging became important. As salmon populations plunged within the region and scientific assessments revealed their dependence upon healthy forested watersheds, new scientific arguments developed and new legal tactics ensued. All the while, vested interests poked and prodded the levers of public policy, hoping to trump recommendations coming from science and regional economics. Advocates for forest protection had to factor these shenanigans into their tactics while never losing sight of the larger picture. The foundation learned that no single approach was sufficient, nor did any one approach remain relevant through all stages.
Maintaining biological diversity at its apex
Nowhere on Earth is there a greater diversity of life than in the western edge of the Amazon, where the mountains begin to rise to the crest of the Andes. Nowhere on the planet is a vast expanse of intact ecosystem-replete with its full panoply of plants and animals, predators and prey, pollinators and flowers, herbivores and plants-more likely to persist than within this area.
This ecoregion, important for the sheer variety and exuberance of life within its boundaries, is also crucial to people living downstream in the Amazon Basin, as far as two thousand miles away where the river dumps into the Atlantic. Some 60 percent of the protein available for human diets, in country and city alike, comes from the native, freshwater fisheries of the Amazon. Their health depends fundamentally upon the ecological integrity of the river's upper watershed, this same region of western Brazil, eastern Peru and eastern Bolivia.
It is a vast area. By historical accident, we live at a time when fewer people inhabit many portions of the wilder, western sections-the lower Andean slopes in Peru and Bolivia-than at any time in the last two hundred years. So there are great opportunities to put in place a conservation infrastructure that does not compete with existing human demands. It is also a time during which threats are building. Perverse policies, some dating to several centuries ago, and some growing out of recent guerrilla insurgencies, have increased pressures for people to migrate from the highland Andes toward the lowlands, even though the lands to which they move are even more inhospitable than their homelands. Brazil's voracious appetite for hydroelectric power pushes it toward the gorges and valleys that dominate the eastern slopes of the Andes. World grain economics push agricultural land to its ecological limits. Demand for timber accelerates as other tropical forest ecosystems succumb.
The foundation began concerted support for this ecosystem with an initiative to protect Amazonian fisheries in 1994. The geographic scale of the basin; the complexity of the social, political and economic dynamics; and considerable scientific ignorance about fundamental biological and ecological processes, made quick success an unattainable goal. There have, however, been small, fragile victories.
Most notably, work led by a small grassroots organization in Bolivia, Eco Bolivia, supported by others there and by international conservation organizations, has led to creation of a magnificent, 4-million-acre protected area, the Madidi National Park. Madidi extends from the crest of the Bolivian Andes to the lowland Amazon forest. It is at the heart of the largest tropical forest corridor in the world. Together with adjacent large protected areas in Peru and Brazil, as well as other areas now under consideration for protection, Madidi encompasses an area of sufficient magnitude to support all the working pieces of its tropical ecosystem, from large carnivores such as the giant river otter and the jaguar, to tiny migratory insects, to bizarre fungi that parasitize grasshoppers. As important as the individual components of this diversity, the forest watershed encompassed by Madidi and its neighboring parks will remain healthy as one of the primary sources of water flowing into the Amazon.
Each of these small steps shows that progress can be made in stanching the loss of the Earth's biological heritage. They are sources of hope. The foundation's experiences in the Pantanal, the Pacific Northwest and the Andean slopes have also demonstrated how complex and difficult it is to achieve even fragile successes. They have taught us that staying power is essential. No single tool or approach suffices. Science must inform, but alone is not sufficient. Strategies must evolve. Local, on-the-ground efforts are irreplaceable. These events can be overwhelmed by larger forces, national and international, far beyond the reach of any truly locally focused organization.
Nothing today makes that last finding more resonant than the prospects of climate disruption. Every ecosystem is vulnerable to the changes in climate now under way because of human activity. Despite major investments by this foundation and by many other partners, despite extraordinary advances in scientific understanding of the issue, and despite brilliant work by many organizations, we appear headed irrevocably toward significant warming of the Earth. There still are huge opportunities to stop this process, the outcome of which may be truly catastrophic. Most importantly, these involve speeding the transition to a hydrogen economy based on clean, renewable energy.
One key tool to hurry this transition is reaching global consensus on a binding, intergovernmental treaty for climate protection which sends clear signals to all parties that the energy economy must become less dependent upon fossil fuels. Like the international arms control issues on which this foundation works, the scientific logic is compelling. Yet politicians, driven by partisan considerations and entrenched economic interests, resists taking steps for the common good. We remain hopeful that continued efforts to inform the public and decision-makers about what is at stake will overcome remaining serious obstacles to climate protection. Much is at stake.