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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. May's Theme: "Balance"
Volume 4 Issue 4 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Striking a Balance
Local Actions Have Global Consequences

by David Suzuki PhD

I've written about the software called Google Earth which lets users explore the entire planet using a series of maps. For me, the software provided a real sense of how dependent we are on each other and on the health of this relatively small planet for our survival and well-being.

Unfortunately, we are a long way from behaving that way. Right now, the prevailing attitude is that we all depend on stuff - the goods and services provided by a modern economy, things like processed food, clothes, fuel and a vast array of consumer products. We tend to take these things for granted and assume they are simply products of the global economy, as though the economy is the starting point of everything and provides us with all that we need.

But that's not entirely accurate. Certainly, our economy reflects how goods and services are traded around the world, but it is not the starting point for them. Rather, the economy ultimately depends on the resources of the planet. All our consumer products were just raw materials before people used ingenuity to craft them. From the energy, water, chemicals, materials and air needed to make those products, to the landfill, atmosphere and water that will absorb our wastes, it is the earth that makes an economy possible. If our planet isn't healthy, we lose many of those materials on which our economy depends. And if the services provided by the planet become degraded, our health and economy suffer as well.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way we use our land. We need land on which to grow our crops, graze our animals, build our factories, roads and homes. In fact, human-altered ecosystems now dominate the planet. Two human activities alone - agriculture and livestock grazing - now take up some 40 per cent of the earth's land base. Using the land in these ways provides for our immediate needs, but there is only so much land to be had, and many human activities degrade the services that make it so valuable in the first place.

According to a review of research published in the journal Nature, activities such as unsustainable agricultural practices, overuse of freshwater and forestry resources and expanding urban areas is diminishing the capacity of the planet to supply us with the services and resources we often take for granted - things like cleansing our air and water, maintaining a stable climate and keeping our soils fertile.

The authors point out, for example, that practices such as intensive agriculture may have boosted production in the short term, but have also caused a host of other problems such as soil erosion and reduced soil fertility. While such problems were once considered merely local issues, they are so pervasive today that they have become global in nature. The researchers conclude: "Modern land-use practices, while increasing the short-term supplies of material goods, may undermine many ecosystem services in the long run, even on regional and global scales."

This means that land-use issues are no longer just local problems. It also means that dealing with these issues will likely require increased co-operation at international, national, regional and local scales. Agencies operating at these levels need to work together to develop sustainability strategies, to ensure that present demands on our ecosystems are not stripping away their ability to provide services for us in the future.

Examples of land-use measures that would help protect nature's services include: maintaining and enhancing the organic matter in soil, which also retains moisture and nutrients, thus reducing the need for irrigation and fertilizers; increasing green spaces in cities, which would reduce pollutant-carrying runoff from pavement; and maintaining a balance between natural ecosystems (such as forests or swamps) and managed ecosystems (such as crop land) so the managed ecosystems can take advantage of natural ecosystem services, such as insect pollination, pest control and water filtration.

Our little planet is now home to more than six billion people - all of whom need both the products of our modern economy and the services provided by healthy ecosystems. Striking a balance so that we can have both is the challenge of our time.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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