Over the last few months we have watched the government enact a dramatic rescue plan for the global financial system. The U.S. Treasury has extended over $100 billion dollars to salvage companies like Bear Stearns and AIG, wrote a blank check to take over Freddie and Fannie Mac, and absorbed $700 billion dollars in dubious loans that were extended unwisely, and then bundled into complicated securities that no one completely understands. The final cost could be over a trillion dollars. Necessary and politically difficult steps, made by national leaders in a time of crisis, this mature approach to our recent economic crisis makes one wonder when we will handle our urgent ecological one; in short, where is the bail-out for the environment?
Not addressing the manifold and complicated environmental crisis has already had dire consequences for millions of people worldwide - not to mention the staggering list of animal species on the verge of extinction mentioned in the IUCN report released recently. Most people need the jobs that the economy provides, but everyone needs the air, food, water, shelter and benign conditions that the environment provides. Like the economy, the ecology of the planet is a global system; deforestation in the Amazon affects the climate and the climate affects all. Environmental degradation goes hand-in-hand with poverty and poor health. Our lives are connected to the environment in ways as tangible as the food on our tables and the air we breathe.
Fortunately compared to the economic system, saving the global ecological systems may be relatively cheap. One estimate of the cost to save nature put it at $27 billion per year within protected areas; ten times that to extend conservation efforts into agricultural and urban landscapes. For comparison, another study estimates that a healthy environment may provide up to $33 trillion per year in ecosystem services to humanity. Not a bad return on investment to provide the kinds of securities that we actually need.
Over the last few weeks, there has been much reminiscing about the collapse of 1929, but there is another date we might better be thinking of: the day 65 million years ago when a giant comet created the previous mass extinction event on Earth. The difference is that the dinosaurs couldnt do anything to avoid their fate. This time, as in the Great Depression, people are the inventors of both our destruction and our salvation. The only question is: when will we act?
-Eric W. Sanderson
associate director, Living Landscapes Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
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