System Health Check

Lungs of the Earth

Lungs of the Earth (WWF Image)

How many lungs do you have? How many do you think you could stand to lose? If your lymph system is your waste plumbing, how clogged would you want it to get?

If the forests are the lungs of the Earth, then how many can we stand to lose? If the water systems are like lymph, how many toxins can they bear before a component of the system becomes overwhelmed and fails?

What Does Your Ideal World Look Like?

Natural flows
Industrial  Flows
Industrial Flows (Image by Hubert Blanz)


If you could redesign your world any way you want, how would it look?  How big is your vision? Is it just about you, your car, your house, your travel, and your bling? Or does it involve your friends, your family, your neighbours, your town, your country, and other countries too?

What happens if you extend the vision of your ideal world 2 years, 10 years, 100 years down the line? Will that vision work if the 8 billion other people who are scheduled to share the world with you by 2020 also want the same thing? How about for the 14 billion people that may be around in 2100?

These are the kinds of questions that only a few eccentrics, scientists and philosophers posed a hundred years ago. Now, they are questions that face us all. We are coming to realize something that humans never even conceived of for thousands of years of civilization. Not only natural resources (like fossil fuel and rare earth metals) are limited, but nature’s capacity to provide us with renewable services (like providing pure groundwater, and healthy soil), as well as filter out all the waste we put out has limits too. In total, around 60% of the Earth’s Ecosystem Services (ES) have been degraded in just 50 years (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Do we want to shrug our shoulders, say who can really know at such large complicated scales, and keep inadvertently pushing the bar on this one? I, for one, don’t.

So, how, with the given way the world works, can we prevent overwhelming natural systems and potentially causing them to fail? We have come to see that when these systems do fail, the cost of clean up is mind boggling, such as when there is an oil spill, or when an entire fishery collapses, such as the cod on the Grand Banks of Canada.   As a result of realizing how tenuous the situation is, over the last few years an international movement has sprung up to monetize nature’s services.  It might not be a perfect route, and it may be fraught with issues along the way, but the idea is that it will be oh so worth it if we make the effort.

Monetizing Ecosystem Services is also the best idea I have seen to make the most effective changes the most efficiently to address global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and water supply in the absence of strong government leadership.

And if we don’t… well, this isn’t a blog about future doomsday scenarios. There are enough blogs on the Internet catering to that fair.  The idea here is to look around and see what we really value keeping, as well as what we can, and most likely should, change for the better.

Integrating Ecosystem Services


Industrial Moscow, by Alexander Petrenko

School of Art, Media & Design, Singapore

Integrating the Right Things

“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
-Mark Twain

Ecosystem Services (ES) are the flows of benefits that we obtain from natural systems. The world’s ecosystems provide services with which we are interconnected and upon which we are dependent. For instance, ecosystems help regulate our clean water supply, sequester greenhouse gases, provide materials such as trees that we harvest as natural resources, and provide the environments that we come to know and love as individuals and societies.

Biologists, ecologists, natural resource managers, philosophers and poets have been talking about similar flows within and from ecosystems to human systems for decades. So what’s the big deal with ecosystem services now?

The new part is that the knowledge of the limits of these systems—and how vulnerable they are to human impact—has not been incorporated into classical economic valuation systems. When we talk about ES in economic terms, we often refer to natural capital. This natural capital has been externalized from market systems, and as a result the provisioning, supporting and regulating functions of ecosystems have been significantly degraded.

This is a blog about the mindful re-integration of nature. Making the externalized internal. Not only to our monetary systems, but to our social systems, our cities and homes, and in the end, ourselves.

An Economy of Mind (Image by Ben Goossens)