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Ecologist plays critical role in first global ecosystem study


Up to 60 percent of "ecosystem services" that support life on earth, such as food, water and climate regulation, are crumbling at an unsustainable rate, members of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) project report here today (March 30). Designed to assist global policy-makers, MA is the first international study to appraise the status of Earth’s diverse ecosystems and their associated impact on human well-being.

Stephen Carpenter, a zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a world-renowned expert on human-ecology interactions, served on a 13-member panel of leading natural and social scientists that managed the execution of the four-year, $24 million project. Involving more than 1,300 scientists from 95 countries, the MA kicked off in 2001 under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), with financial backing from the Global Environment Facility, the UN Foundation and the World Bank, among other donors.

At the project’s helm is a board that includes representatives of international conventions, UN agencies, scientific organizations and leaders from the private sector, civil society and indigenous organizations. "The value in this initiative was that we made an attempt to be as unbiased as possible by having every bias at the table," says Carpenter.

Four working groups implemented different aspects of the immense study. Teams assessed current scientific knowledge, evolving trends and changes in ecosystem services both at the global and regional scale. Researchers also monitored strengths and weaknesses in ecosystem management strategies worldwide, and developed integrated scenarios of the future.

Carpenter co-chaired the "scenarios" group, with assistance from Elena Bennett, a UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher in ecology. With an international team of ecologists, economists, sociologists and demographers, the scenarios group surveyed about 100 industrial, government and scientific leaders to develop four plausible snapshots of the world in 2050.

What the exercise revealed is that "under certain scenarios we get favorable outcomes for human life-support, but these depend on major changes in policy, institutions and practices that are not currently under way," says Carpenter. "In other words, the future is in our hands."

In the 2050 scenario "global orchestration," world powers are implementing policies that focus on the equitable distribution of wealth and the alleviation of social problems such as poverty. Though such a trend could increase the capacity to confront environmental problems, an undue focus on social ills could reduce the emphasis on the environment and, indirectly, human well-being, write the scenario experts.

In the "techno-garden" scenario, the 2050 world is hyper-connected and rapidly emerging technologies can effectively boost ecosystem services. With new technology, however, could also come new environmental dilemmas, the experts postulate. In the "order from strength" scenario, the world could potentially organize around one superpower that wields military or economic power to control global activities. While such dominance could be used in some regions to environmental benefit, inequities could also arise as the world becomes increasingly polarized.

Finally, the "adapting mosaic" scenario envisions a world in which local rather than global institutions hold regional power and implement local environmental change. But the potential downside could be the neglect of global environmental problems such as climate change and declining oceanic fisheries.

"I feel that the trends in the world today are much more complicated that I thought before," says Carpenter, reflecting on the work. "I personally attach greatest hope in ongoing changes in personal values so that people live good lives that tread more lightly on the environment."

Steve Carpenter | EurekAlert!
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