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You are an ecosystem


Make that thousands of ecosystems.

You might not like to think about it, but your body provides a home for trillions of bacteria — in fact, our bodies contain ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells.  Every nook and cranny is a habitat, from that place behind your ear to the pit of your stomach, and every habitat has residents. Don’t drink Lysol just yet, though: most of our tiny inhabitants are vital for our health, and their ecology affects us. We’ve long known, for example, that the bacteria in our guts are important. They help us absorb nutrients and keep our internal environment in balance (hence the probiotics craze), and their composition may affect everything from susceptibility to asthma to your chances of having a heart attack. In fact, the same bacterial species — E. coli, for example — can be good for us in some situations and make us ill when it gets out of control.

A friend once told me you should never wrap good cheese in plastic wrap because it kills the microorganisms responsible for culturing the cheese, many of which would otherwise keep working (they’re safe to eat); with no competition, other, less desirable microorganisms take over, and you end up with the paradox that is Cheese Gone Bad (aka Your Cheese Is Rotting Incorrectly). One of the downsides of our obsession with antibiotics and antibacterial cleansers is that they may have the same effect: you’re getting rid of bacteria that aren’t harmful and that would otherwise help to prevent hostile takeovers.

(WARNING: Topic of post now veers sharply from cheese to babies.)

Now a team of researchers has determined that early colonization by different types of gut bacteria in Norwegian newborns (we’re born without the requisite intestinal biota, but start to acquire them almost immediately) may affect the baby’s growth and development. Their study, published in PLoS Computational Biology, found that the detection of E. coli in stool samples during an infant’s first month correlated positively with growth, at least for males; some other bacterial species appeared to have a negative correlation (i.e., more of the bacteria=slower growth).

When you look at the growing body of knowledge about our bodies’ relationship with microscopic life forms, you become aware of just how foolish it is to think we can make it on our own, and how short-sighted the “kill everything we don’t like” attitude can be. It parallels the larger issues in, for example, agriculture, where biodiversity loss from intensive/monoculture farming has led to the degradation of the very environmental functions that support agriculture in the first place. We’re creating dramatic changes in how life functions, both inside and outside our bodies, and it can have unforeseen effects.

Ecology is everywhere — even in the least glamorous places.

Big Trouble

If the world in general wanted to get together and do a really comprehensive, well-researched, rigorously documented scientific study of exactly how bad our environmental problems are, whom would we get to undertake it? The U.N., right? Get an international panel of experts together to look at all the available scientific literature, then have them argue a whole lot and proceed to laboriously synthesize everything and double- and triple-check it and look at a bunch of models, and maybe have them make a few tentative projections, too, based on the trends they see occurring in the planet’s ecosystems, right? That’d be a smart idea. A study of, basically, the state of life on Earth might finally spur true action toward protecting biodiversity! As an environmental-ish-t, I wish someone would conduct a study like that. I’d definitely pay attention to what they said.

What’s that, U.N.? You already did that?

Eight years ago?

…wow, really? Ahahaha. That’s embarrassing.

So, uh… *scuff* … what’d you, like, find?

r-really…? … how screwed? like, specifically…?


The population implosion?

Today, Science Daily posted a press release by Spanish news service Plataforma SINC about a new population study with a surprising prediction: By 2100, the world will have about 800 million … fewer people than it does now. According to the researchers (at the Universidad Autonóma de Madrid), their model forecasts fit well with the UN’s lowest population projections, a scenario under which population rises to ~8 billion by 2050, then stops growing and gradually declines. Says co-author Félix F. Muñoz:

“Overpopulation was a spectre in the 1960s and 70s but historically the UN’s low fertility variant forecasts have been fulfilled”

Population of the world, 1950-2100, according to different projections and variants

“Figure 1: Population of the world, 1950-2100, according to different projections and variants” — from UN DESA’s “World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision.” (2011) Source:

What. WHAT?? What about everything everyone’s been telling us for decades — about how the population will keep on growing until we’re like sardines in a can (if sardines still exist)? What about Megacity One? What about Soylent Green? What about [insert dystopian future of choice here]? Monsanto’s main marketing argument’s been based on this for years: “we need to feed more people on less land,” etc. In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, all four future scenarios were based on projections of population growth to at least 8 billion by 2050 — and the M(E)A’s outlook for ecosystems was quite grim because of this.

So what gives? Can we stop worrying now? Can we start dreaming again about a future that doesn’t suck?


I hate to dwell on the negative (okay, I love to dwell on the negative), but even the UN doesn’t think its lowball population scenario is likely. Their Population Division is betting on the “medium variant” scenario, where we have 9.3 billion people by 2050, and level off around 10 billion by the end of the century. Their “high projection variant” predicts 15.3 billion people by 2100. So let’s not get cocky, kids. With even the medium scenario, we’re getting another 3 billion people on the planet in the next few decades. You might want to buy real estate before all the good cans are gone.

On the other hand, don’t give up hope.

In a nutshell…

It’s hard to write a good executive summary, especially for people like me, who prefer to ramble on in a stream-of-consciousness fashion for at least 20 pages. But the intro to this policy brief is one of the best summaries I have ever encountered — not only of ecosystem services (or “environmental capital”), but also of just about every environmental problem ever. For example:

The root causes of the degradation of environmental capital are the combined pressures of population growth, rising affluence, and frequent reliance on environmentally disruptive technologies to meet the associated material demands. All of these factors are compounded by bad management, traceable in part to under-appreciation of the importance of environmental capital for human well-being and to the exclusion of the value of its services from the economic balance sheets of producers and consumers. …

In the absence of [government] intervention, individuals and firms are able to capture the benefits of activities that produce … ecosystem disruption but are able to avoid most of the attendant damages, which are spread across society. … Private firms and individuals have little incentive, absent requirements imposed by government, to invest in maintaining or growing capital of this kind.


It is now much clearer than before that the historic drivers of degradation of environmental capital—replacement of complex natural ecosystems with simpler man-made ones, invasive species, overexploitation of commercially valuable plants and animals, chemical pollution—are being compounded and amplified to a rapidly growing degree by global climate change.

Anyway, it’d better be good — it’s for the executive-est of executives.

Want some cookies with that CO2?

logging truck

Deforestation causes tropical swamps to emit more carbon. Photo: Rainforest Action Network

More evidence that global warming and deforestation are linked: peat swamps in Indonesia that have been clear-cut for agriculture are releasing 50 percent more carbon than swamps that are still forested. And no, that isn’t because of decayed or burning waste from the clear-cutting; the carbon measured by Open University researchers in deforested swamps was older than carbon that came from swamps where the forest ecosystem was still intact, and appeared to come from much deeper in the sediment.

This would appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2011 study that suggested peat bogs were unlikely to release a great deal of carbon; however, that study specifically examined conditions in the Northern Hemisphere, rather than the humid tropics. If there is a difference with latitude, though, the high rate of tropical deforestation should raise even more concern in light of the OU findings. A lot of Indonesia’s forests are being cleared right now to make way for agriculture, including palm oil and paper plantations (see Asia Pulp & Paper and Girl Scout Cookies for two of many reasons why, though we’re making some progress there). This is not only bad news for carbon storage, but also a culprit in the rapid disappearance of iconic species like Sumatran tigers and orangutans.

Now here is a situation where carbon markets could make a huge difference. Destroying rainforest and releasing peat gases should be hurting somebody’s pocketbooks, not making them more money. As with so many environmental issues, the global/public costs (increased global warming, loss of beloved species and their less-well-known supporters, and probably pollution/runoff issues too) don’t count for much against private revenues. Not that we can chide Indonesia (or its businesses and small farmers) for this when we’re the ones consuming so much palm oil and paper. Carbon trading would be nice, but let’s face it: we’re already trading whenever we buy a candy bar.

How much is your ecosystem worth?

In 1997, a paper published in the journal Nature tried to estimate the financial value of all the services performed by Earth’s ecosystems (for instance, pollinators contribute to agricultural yields, beaches to tourism, wetlands to water quality improvement). The figure its authors (Robert Costanza of the University of Maryland in the lead) came up with was $33 trillion — roughly twice the value of the entire global economy at the time. Since its debut, the paper, “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” has been criticized at almost every level. Even its authors acknowledged that their analysis was crude and their methods questionable. But the paper was not published as an example of analytical precision. Rather, the point was to call attention to something that is too often overlooked: the economic importance of a healthy biosphere.

According to this relatively new school of thinking, we may put commodity prices on goods such as food products, game, and timber, and services such as water purification, but we fail to take into account (economically) the complex and interrelated natural systems that make the provision of these goods and services possible. For instance, we pay money for a fruit crop, but place no monetary value on the animals that pollinate the plants that produce this fruit, or the soil microbes that provide the plants with nutrients, etc. As Pavan Sukhdev says in his TED talk, “When was the last time a bee gave you an invoice?” Sukhdev believes that we treat natural systems so cavalierly because we are not confronted with their true value in terms we would understand — a problem he refers to as “the economic invisibility of nature.” He argues that we must therefore integrate the value of ecosystems into world markets. If people start to view ecosystem destruction as a bad idea financially, similar to walking into a Swarovski store and smashing all the crystal-ware with a hammer, they may be more motivated to preserve these systems.

Some environmentalists have embraced this idea. Personally, I think commoditization and consumerism are two of the basic reasons why the balance of the global ecosystem has gotten so screwed up lately, and I’m skeptical about the market’s ability to solve a problem it helped create. But I’m learning a great deal more about the “ecosystem services” school of thought now… We’ll see if pragmatism can win me over.

Stay tuned. Or whatever.