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Modern-day Noahs

"Recently scientists have recognized that failure to stop the loss of biodiversity risks the collapse of the web of life as we know it. And if this calamity happens, scientists say the endangered species will likely be us."

This concept is at first difficult to grasp. Collapse of the web of life? But as unreal as this may seem throughout the world, scientists are documenting the decline and even outright collapse of ecosystems. Here in British Columbia, the salmon fishery is an example of just one of the ecosystems in trouble. Already, 142 runs of salmon have gone extinct, while over 600 more are on the verge of disappearing. A further 803 other species are classified as "at risk" by the BC Ministry of Environment, partly because of an unprecedented rate of habitat destruction, such as old growth forests.

BC seems not to have grasped the important fact that the health of its economy is dependent on its ecosystems. For example, if the BC fish stocks are in trouble, and salmon species are becoming extinct, this has repercussions on the livelihoods of fishers and the coastal communities that depend on this source of food and income. And since salmon are a primary food for bears, a lack of salmon will lead to starving bears, which leads to further ecosystem collapse.

When one species declines it causes a ripple effect and other species that depended on the declining species also suffer. We know so little about how ecosystems work and they are declining so rapidly, that repairing them may be beyond our capability.

"Time, however, is growing short. Nature's machinery is being demolished at an accelerating rate, before humanity has even determined exactly how it works. Much of the damage is irreversible."

Paul Ehrlich, Ecologist

We have allowed ourselves to get into this situation partly because we have been operating in a bizarre world where the discussion of economics takes place in a vacuum. Somehow we enter into discussions about business and resource extraction without considering the damage to ecosystems and the loss of services they provide.

We talk about the number of jobs that cutting down a forest will produce, without also discussing the losses this incurs: the loss of clean air, clean water, habitat for spawning salmon for fisheries, habitat for thousands of species, recreational opportunities, and tourism opportunities.

"The environment makes up a huge, enormously complex living machine that forms a thin dynamic layer on the earth's surface, and every human activity depends on the integrity and the proper functioning of this machine. Without the photosynthetic activity of green plants, there would be no oxygen for our engines, smelters, and furnaces, let alone support for human and animal life. Without the action of the plants, animals, and microorganisms that live in them, we could have no pure water in our lakes and rivers. Without the biological processes that have gone on in the soil for thousands of years, we could have neither food crops, oil, nor coal. This machine is our biological capital, the basic apparatus on which our total productivity depends. If we destroy it, our most advanced technology will become useless and any economic and political system that depends on it will founder. The environmental crisis is a signal of this approaching catastrophe."

Barry Commoner,
The Closing Circle, 1971

Part of the problem is that we have lost the understanding of the original meaning of economics. The word "economy" comes from the Greek word 'oikos' (house), and 'nomos' (manage); so "economy"really means managing the house, managing our home.

But we have been managing our affairs on earth very poorly. Instead of saving the principle (the earth's resources and all its species), and spending the interest (the extra wealth the earth generates) we have been rapidly depleting the principle almost as quickly as possible. Instead of practising a form of ecosystem-based forestry for example, to ensure that there will be old growth forests in perpetuity, we are simply liquidating these assets as fast as we can.

"Liquidating old-growth forests is not forestry; it is simply spending our inheritance."

Chris Maser,
Biologist and Sustainable Forestry Consultant

Perhaps a useful way of reminding ourselves of the connection between economics and ecosystems, our life-support systems, would be to change the emphasis in this important word to "Eco-nomics." This would help us to start seeing the connections between our actions and our future, that by disturbing the delicate web of relationships, we impact our economic or monetary wealth as well.

In recent years many new approaches to managing our resources have developed. These approaches come from perspectives that say to manage a resource well one must be able to withdraw its wealth without compromising the diversity, stability and resilience of the ecosystem. Rather these qualities must be is maintained in perpetuity. A new field of research has developed, 'ecological economics', which seeks to right the imbalance in our traditional economic thinking. Ecological economics recognizes that economies are embedded in and dependent upon the earth.

With this new understanding the need to create parks becomes even more important. As we rapidly destroy the ecosystems that generate our wealth, that provide us with the basic services for our survival, clean air and water, and food for example, it is imperative that we conserve some remaining threads so that life as we knew it can go on. We are really acting like modern-day Noahs collecting and protecting ecosystem examples in parks.

For more information on how we can manage BC's resources in a way that both protects nature and creates jobs see our Jobs & Environment program.

"As we rapidly destroy the ecosystems that generate our wealth, that provide us with the basic services for our survival: clean air and water, and food for example, it is imperative that we conserve some remaining threads so that life as we knew it can go on."

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