The timing is unbearable. Here on my desk in the middle of the blooming, buzzing month of May is the best report yet on the state of the world’s ecosystems. Best not because it contains good news — it doesn’t — but because it’s short and clear and blunt.
The report evaluates the health of our life-support system with a simple grid of colored squares. Five columns across the top list the five kinds of ecosystems from which we live — agricultural land, coastal waters, forests, freshwater, grazing land. Four rows down rank each of these systems according to their ability to produce what we need from them: food and fiber, water (both quality and quantity), and biodiversity (the support of other species). The colors of the squares cover a range from “excellent” to “bad.”
One glance reveals that there’s no “excellent.” There’s one “bad” (freshwater biodiversity) and four “poors” (ag land water quality, ag land biodiversity, forest biodiversity, freshwater quality). Eight “fairs,” only three “goods” (ag land production, forest production, freshwater production). Three squares are blank, meaning not relevant or not assessed.
That’s all I can take in one dose. I sigh and wander outside, where our farm is twittering. Warblers migrate through in waves, barn swallows swoop for black flies, an oriole pours forth joy from a blooming apple tree. Wow! The song of an oriole is liquid gold, and then to see its brilliant orange and black against white blossoms! The colors on that grid may be gloomy, but the colors in this little spot in Vermont are amazing.
The story isn’t over yet. The planet is still full of magnificent things worth saving.
That oriole fortifies me to study the chart more carefully. The colors of the boxes show the present state of each ecosystem. Within each box is an arrow showing its direction of change. The arrow slopes up if the ecosystem’s capacity is increasing, down if it is decreasing, both up and down if the trend is mixed. Of the 17 squares, two are mixed (coastal water quality, freshwater production). One is improving (forest production — the legend says that forest plantations and natural forest cutting are increasing and there’s no fiber scarcity in sight). Fourteen, including forest biodiversity and water quality and quantity, are pointing down.
That’s on a global scale. These are the systems that sustain human life. Whew! Time to go outside again.
There’s some nice bottomland on this farm, one of the main reasons we came here. For one year we left in it alfalfa and grass, then we plowed under seven acres, sowed a cover crop, plowed that down, picked out the big rocks, spread manure and lime, harrowed. Stephen and Kerry, our vegetable farmers, are planting it now to supply 50 subscribing families with fresh-picked produce from June through October. Next year we’ll be able to certify the land as organic. I’d call it “good”; we’re aiming to get it up to “excellent.”
The story isn’t over. At least in small places people are actively building resources instead of tearing them down.
The report — entitled World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life — was put out by a page-long list of scientists and advisors convened by the U.N. Development Programme, the U.N. Environment Programme, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute. Just in case their grid doesn’t convey the point, these august bodies conclude in italics, “The current rate of decline in the long-term productive capacity of ecosystems could have devastating implications for human development and the welfare of all species.”
Dozens of groups have come to a similar conclusion over the past decade, but somehow it hasn’t sunk in. Listen to the chatter of the media, the pronouncements of politicians, the forecasts of economists, and you don’t hear any recognition of what must be the most important fact of the present world. We are undermining the systems that support all people and all production. Why don’t we even talk about this? Why can’t we focus on it?
The pastures sloping up from the bottomland are that intense May green, spangled with yellow dandelions. Our three horses and 10 cows are in heaven up there. We’re keeping the stock count low; we’ll do rotational grazing to help build fertility.
High up on the ridge the forest is light-green lace. We worry about that forest. Acid rain falls on it. Climate change encourages the spread of pests like the woolly adelgid, which kills hemlocks and is moving north toward us. The chestnuts, elms, butternuts are already gone. Though we hope to make our forest more productive, it’s not possible to move a small place toward “excellent” if systems all around are crashing down from “fair” to “poor” to “bad.”
The story is far from over. Life is bursting forth, pushing, throbbing, aiming toward fertility, productivity, purity, and the most astonishing beauty. It’s an awesome force working in our direction, if we would let it do so.
Get Grist in your inbox