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Ecosystems under attack

A groundbreaking assessment shows that the Britain’s undervalued ecosystem has been damaged by 50 years of intensive agriculture, reckless consumption, waste and the drive for profit.

This landmark report called the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, puts a value, in monetary terms, on a healthy functioning ecosystem and it turns out to be worth billions. It delivers breathable air, food, raw materials, climate regulation, flood barriers, microbes to break down waste, a water supply and the soil microbes and pollinators needed to grow crops.

The report also quantifies less tangible benefits – the space for recreation and contemplation, exercise and therapeutic activities. The health benefits of merely living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year in savings on health and social care costs.

The assessment shows how natural ecosystems have been undermined by unfettered, profit-driven economic growth. In England, the area of farmed land increased by 40% from 1940 to 1980; 97% of enclosed semi-natural grasslands in England and Wales were lost over the same period.

The push to increase timber production resulted, particularly in Scotland, in the creation of extensive areas of coniferous plantation at the expense of other habitats. Two-thirds of the current 30 million hectares of woodland is less than 100 years old and comprises non-native species grown for sale.

Huge areas of land have been taken for housing and commercial and industrial development. Important flood plains have been concreted over and significant development in river basins and coastal wetlands means the risk of flooding has increased.

Aquatic ecosystems have been polluted by run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers. The Farmland Bird Index – a measure of the state of biodiversity on agricultural lands – declined by 43% between 1970 and 1998. Many species of moth and butterfly are under threat, including those that used to be common in cities, and the decline of bee populations is well documented.

There has been a marked decline in the condition and accessibility of urban green space: around 10,000 playing fields were sold between 1979 and 1997, while allotments are now down to 10% of their peak level in the late 1940s.

There have been areas of improvement – National Parks and conservation areas, the Clean Air Act, wildlife protection, more diverse woodlands and reduced use of fertiliser and pesticides. But the crisis is still intensifying, with about 30% of the key ecosystem services that we rely on still degrading, compared to 20% that are improving.

Ministers say they will use the findings to reshape planning policy but from this government you can be sure it will only be where it benefits their NIMBY landowners friends and chums in the City. In fact, they are relying on New Labour’s laissez-faire planning laws to force through big infrastructure projects, such as nuclear or coal power stations, roads and airport developments.

The assessment makes two crucial points. It points out that “globalisation and its primary driving force, international trade and associated mass consumer advertising,” have had a major effect on behaviour and consumption patterns. Secondly, the assessment insists that “we humans are an integral part of the natural world, ultimately dependent on a functioning biosphere and its constituent ecosystems for our survival”.

But capitalism views nature as a commodity to be exploited, whatever the long-term consequences, and is a barrier to fulfilling the natural relationship the assessment refers to. Just see how carbon emissions have gone through the roof in the last year.

As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Capitalism is certainly a cynical system. Wilde also wrote that: “Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.” Only a transformation of our system of values and of political economy can bring that happiness.

Penny Cole

Environment editor
2 June 2011

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