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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November's Theme: "Birthing"
Volume 5 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Designer Ecosystems
by David Suzuki PhD

We have designer clothes and designer perfumes. Now we need designer ecosystems - at least according to a group of scientists writing a report in the journal Science.

The authors argue that humans have so monumentally interfered with the planet's natural systems that we have to stop focusing on the fewer and fewer remaining undisturbed ecosystems on Earth. Instead, they say, we need to focus a lot more on the services nature provides, and how to modify ecosystems to make sure they can continue to provide these services in a human-dominated world.

It's an interesting idea. Natural services are essential for human survival. Even with all our ingenuity, we cannot artificially recreate the systems that have evolved over four billion years on this planet to build the very conditions necessary for life to exist. As far as we know, ours is the only planet in the entire universe to have accomplished this monumental task. From water filtration, to climate stability and soil fertility, there is an intelligence embedded in these natural systems that we are only just beginning to fathom.

At the same time, human activities are pushing the capacity of these systems to their limits. And with a projected population of nine billion by 2050, we cannot afford to continue with business as usual.

With this in mind, the authors bring up two very important points. First, the knowledge that we do have about ecosystem services is not widely disseminated, and it is certainly not being acted upon. For example, we have known for some time about the importance of city green spaces for water filtration. Plants and soil are essential in helping remove impurities from our water. Yet, rarely is this knowledge incorporated into urban design. Instead, we funnel rainwater from our roads and rooftops into concrete drainage systems that empty directly into our lakes and rivers - causing tremendous pollution.

Second, as the authors point out, all the scientific knowledge in the world won't protect natural services unless the public understands that they are vital to our health and well being. Without the public bringing sufficient pressure to bear on our political and business leaders, those leaders are unlikely to make the policy changes needed to ensure the protection of ecosystem services.

But for all its value, the report does miss some key points. First, the analysis provides barely any sense of how little we actually know. We are only just beginning to understand how our complicated natural systems work. We don't even have an adequate grasp of how many species there are on the planet or what they do.

Also missing is the crucial point that there are still intact ecosystems providing important services to humanity. Large parts of the Amazon basin and Canada's boreal forest are still fairly pristine. These forests are extremely important resources for life diversity and climate stability. Removal of their forest cover would have profound repercussions in terms of global weather patterns and climate change. Even small patches of relatively undisturbed ecosystems in or near our cities are extremely valuable in terms of providing refuge for wildlife.

Extreme caution is also necessary around the very idea of designing ecosystems. Generally, minimal interference has proven to be the best policy. In fact, whenever humans have tried to design or modify ecosystems in the past, it has usually resulted in disaster. Ecosystems are incredibly complicated. We barely know how parts of these systems function, let alone the whole. When we have introduced alien species, for example, we have inadvertently caused a host of other unexpected problems.

Still, any discussion of natural services is very important. The value of these services is largely ignored in our current economic and political systems. We treat them as though they are free and limitless, when in fact they are invaluable and irreplaceable. And although designer ecosystems may one day be necessary, more important are thoughtfully designed human systems - from our cities to our energy sources and our agriculture. It's much easier to learn to live within the natural systems we have now than to try to desperately redesign the ones we have left later.

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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