Ecosystem and Society
Society has valued nature and ecosystems in a variety of ways over thousands of years – initially because humans and nature were inextricably linked.
Today, we can live our lives without apparent contact with nature, and we consider that we are separate from nature.
We all know this is not true: ecosystems form the basis for everything, but we don’t always value the services it provides.
Over the past 50 years or more, our activities have changed ecosystems more extensively than at any other period in human history. Our needs for food, fresh water, timber, fuel, and fibre are increasing, all of which puts immense pressure on our ecosystems to meet our growing demands.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (carried out between 2000 and 2005) describes the pressures that society has put on ecosystems:
In only forty years, the world population has doubled (between 1960 and 2000 it had doubled to 6 billion people, and in 2014 we are now at 7.18 billion) and the global economy has increased sixfold.
- Food production has increased by two and a half times, water use has doubled, wood harvests for pulp and paper production has tripled, timber production increased by more than half.
- According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, approximately 60% (that is 15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services evaluated are being degraded or used unsustainably.
- Our expansion into most natural areas has contributed to the decline of a wide range of species and over the last 100 years we have increased species extinction rates by over 1,000 times over background rates (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).
Ultimately our ecosystems give us the freedom to choose our lifestyles; it supports us in what we want to achieve; it underpins our values and beliefs.
What is an ecosystem?
The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment define it as:
“A dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a function unit”.
Simply put, it covers the wide range of services that our ecosystems provide – for the benefit of us all.
We are ultimately dependent upon a whole range of services, despite the fact that we are increasingly buffering ourselves against environmental changes through advances in technology and through cultural change. We continue to rely upon ecosystems to influence our well-being, and often little recognise the multiple roles that our played out day-to-day:
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes the multiple benefits:
To support our lifestyles we need our ecosystems to:
- form soil
- cycle nutrients
- promote primary production (the main source of energy used to produce all living things is sunlight)
From these basic functions, our ecosystems can:
- Provide us with food, fresh water, wood and fibre, and fuel
- Regulate our climate, flooding, and disease and purify our water
- Provide us with our cultural heritage through the aesthetics of the natural environment, spiritual affiliations, education and recreation.
How does it improve our well-being?
- Gives us the basic material for a good life: provides us with adequate livelihoods; gives us sufficient nutritious food and shelter, and gives us access to goods.
- Being secure: helping us feel safe; giving us secure access to resources; provides us with security from disasters.
- Helps us stay healthy: provides us with strength and enables us to feel well; gives us access to clean air and water.
- Supports good social relations: It can bond our communities (local and global); can support mutual respect; and enables us to help others.
We base our work on using ‘the ecosystems approach’ and the benefits this can bring to people, businesses, land owners and authorities. We look for opportunities to work with people, organisations, authorities and land owners to embed ecosystems thinking into their decisions and actions.
Taking an ecosystem approach is to apply a framework that identifies the services that nature gives over different geographic areas and different time scales; that values ecosystems and prevents negative impacts on the ability of them to function; and works in partnership with nature to provide the goods and services we all depend upon.