UN Sounds Eco-Alarm, Supports Technology, Property Rights

Published May 1, 2005

Most ecosystem services that support life and human society are being degraded and used unsustainably, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) released on March 30 by the United Nations. The report notes the absence of property rights is leading to overuse of resources in many areas.

According to the report, efforts to achieve the United Nations’ (UN) Millennium Development Goals, which include halving the number of people living on less than $1 per day, reducing child and maternal mortality, and establishing universal primary education by 2015, will be significantly impeded if these ecosystem services are allowed to deteriorate further.

More Agricultural Land

Ecosystems provide humanity with provisioning services such food, water, timber, and fiber, and with regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water supply. The MA, compiled by more than 1,300 experts from 95 countries, looked at 24 different ecosystem services and found 15 of them are being degraded or used unsustainably.

One of the chief findings is that “over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history.” This is because, as the report notes, since 1960 the world’s human population doubled and economic output increased sixfold.

As U.S. Department of Interior analyst Indur Goklany points out, between 1961 and 1995 the number of acres devoted to cropland worldwide increased by only 10 percent, and total land area devoted to agriculture also increased only 10 percent. The UN report notes that since 1950, the amount of area devoted to cultivation has stabilized or declined in North America, Europe, and China.

The UN authors acknowledge, “Most of the increase in food demand of the past 50 years has been met by intensification of crop, livestock, and aquaculture systems rather than expansion of production area.” Land area devoted to cropland is falling in developed countries such as the United States and members of the European Union.

Effective Forest Management

The report also points to continued deforestation in poor countries, but notes tree plantations comprising just 5 percent of global forest cover provide 35 percent of the world’s industrial roundwood supplies. Assuming no improvements in plantation forestry management, this implies plantation forests could supply all the world’s industrial wood needs from just 15 percent of the world’s forested area, conceivably leaving 85 percent for nature. Furthermore, the report documents many areas where forest cover is increasing, with the United States clearly leading this category.

Reducing Avoidable Diseases

Disease regulation is another ecosystem service analyzed by the UN report. The MA asserts that sub-Saharan Africa’s annual total economic output would be $100 billion higher if malaria had been eliminated from the continent 35 years ago. Cholera and malaria, once endemic to most of the United States, were exterminated in this country by means of public health measures such as water chlorination and spraying DDT to eliminate malarial mosquitoes.

Importance of Property Rights

One of the starkest facts highlighted in the report is that nearly all of the ecosystem services identified as deteriorating are common-pool resources. Common-pool resources are owned by no one; therefore no one has any incentive to protect them, and everyone has an incentive to take as much as they can because they know that if they don’t get it, the next guy will.

For example, the report cites the well-known fact that catches from capture fisheries have stagnated for the past decade. Many of those fisheries are being badly overharvested. The same situation explains excessive freshwater withdrawals from rivers and aquifers and the emissions of various pollutants. The report recognizes that historically, as natural resources become overharvested, assigning property rights to specific owners has been the traditional and effective way to prevent their total destruction.

“It’s always hard for any market to value anything whose ownership is always claimed by governments,” Tom Tanton, a senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, explained.

The UN authors also see property rights and markets as essential to protecting and improving the natural environment. They advocate the removal of all crop and irrigation subsidies, investment in new agricultural technologies including genetically enhanced crops to expand food supplies, allocation of water rights, establishment of water markets, and adoption of property rights in fisheries in the form of individually tradable quotas, among other things.

“The ‘promising intervention’ of eliminating harmful subsidies is something that we might all agree with,” Kendra Okonski, sustainable project director at the International Policy Network, said.

Globalization Benefiting Poor

In one of the more surprising passages, the UN authors declare their support for globalization: “Actions that focus on improving the lives of the poor by reducing barriers to international flows of goods, services, and capital tend to lead to the most improvement in health and social relations for the currently most disadvantaged people. But human vulnerability to ecological surprises is high. Globally integrated approaches that focus on technology and property rights for ecosystem services generally improve human well-being in terms of health, security, social relations, and material needs.”

Although the report exaggerates the dangers of some ecological problems, the authors nevertheless reject no-growth, anti-globalist ideological environmentalism and instead support technology and property rights to solve the problems that do exist.

Ron Bailey ([email protected]) is science correspondent for Reason magazine. A longer version of this article first appeared in Reason magazine (http://www.reason.org). Reprinted with permission.

For more information …

The United Nations’ March 30 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is available online at http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/Article.aspx?id=58.

The Millennium Development Goals are described online at http://www.developmentgoals.org/About_the_goals.htm.