Dr Aaron Bernstein, MD, from the US-based Harvard Medical School and the Centre for Health and the Global Environment, will deliver the Thomas Oration on Thursday (and you may have heard him on Radio National this morning).
He argues that our health is closely connected to the health of the natural world, and writes below:
“When it comes down to it, we are lousy accountants and the global financial crisis is only but one sign of it. Far more problematic to our well-being, both fiscal and physical, is the poorly kept balance sheet of the dividends of conserving and costs of ignoring the state of the planet, and in particular the living world.
It’s no secret that biodiversity, a word that encapsulates the variety of life – from individual species, to the genes they possess and the ecosystems they form – is disappearing. A conservative estimate puts the pace of species extinctions today on par with 65 million years ago when 50% of all species went extinct, including the dinosaurs.
Pollution, over harvesting (especially of seafood), and invasive species all contribute to biodiversity loss but the lion’s share of the problem at present owes to the degradation or outright destruction of habitats on land, in freshwater bodies, or at sea. At mid-century climate change will likely overtake habitat loss as the leading driver of species.
Underlying all these causes rests an already unwieldy and growing human population.
What does this vast simplification of the biosphere cost us? Not much, based on our current accounting practices. That would be a fair value if not for it deriving from a dangerous delusion, perhaps the most dangerous of our time, that somehow we can wipe out vast swaths of the living world without that loss affecting ourselves.
Particularly for antibiotics and cancer treatments we rely upon nature for inspiration. Want a dose of Tamiflu to treat your H1N1? Or vancomycin to treat methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA (vancomycin is one of our last lines of defence against this superbug)? You’d be out of luck without the Chinese star anise tree and a bacterium known as Amycolatopsis orientalis.
We may lose new blockbuster drugs as we lose species but this loss is, among the other value that biodiversity holds, comparatively small.
More costly has been the dismantling of ecosystems, such as those that hold infectious diseases at bay – the emergence of SARS and Nipah virus can be pinned on human activities that altered ecosystems – or that are needed for productive agriculture. Topsoil erosion, the loss of pollinators, and the spread of crop pests and pathogens all relate to lapses in sound management of our natural capital.
And that takes me back to the ledger. If we are to find our way to sustainability, we need to have a better accounting of the value of nature’s services to our own well-being, a task that scientists and economists have just begun to grapple with.
Costing out the value of lost species to pharmaceutical development or scientific progress (much of biomedical science depends on insights or materials provided from nature) is relatively straightforward, although valuing what we only know perhaps 1 in 10 of all species.
More daunting will be sorting out how changes to local ecosystems, even in the absence of outright species extinctions, may degrade our quality of life. Until we have this knowledge at hand, it will be next to impossible to have a balanced nature budget.
But even before we can start valuing nature and its services, we may have another bridge to cross. What has enabled our poor accounting has been the gradual erosion of our relationship with nature. Most humans, and particularly those living in the developed world and in cities, have literally lost sight of nature and lacking a direct attachment to it, discovering how damage to the biosphere may harm humanity becomes a still taller order.
To ensure the healthiest possible future, then, we must also find ways to relearn that we have a vital bond with nature and that ultimately, we share a common fate, at least on some level, within.”