Ecosystems and the public good, Darwin style

This week there has been no shortage of Darwin-related events to attend about town in Washington, D.C., as science and environmental  groups have clamored to put on talks, events and celebrations commemorating Darwin’s legacy. Today I attended a symposium sponsored by the National Academies , titled “Twenty-first Century Ecosystems: Systemic Risk and the Public Good.”  The session I attended on biodiversity gave interesting perspectives on the state of ecological and evolutionary knowledge and how it interfaces with public knowledge and with policymakers.

Many of the speakers, including Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), focused on ecosystem services, the (relatively) new buzzword for valuing the services that nature provides to humans.  (Is it a foregone conclusion that the word will become ‘ecoservices’ within the next five years?) Steiner pointed out that in parts of India, poor people have been shown to rely directly on ecosystem services for 57% of their livelihood. He emphasized the role of developed countries in sharing the burden placed on these nations to sustain their healthy ecosystems.

Ecological economist Steve Polasky of the University of Minnesota stressed that valuing nature in terms of ecosystem services does not have to mean monetary units. He stressed that valuing some aspect of nature means assessing its impact on well-being and pointed out–as in the Stern Review–that economic decisions about our natural world will always be ethical ones, and will depend simply (and perhaps tragically) on the quality of the future we want to build for our children.

Especially in light of the economic stimulus package passed today, remarks by Peter Raven, dynamic speaker, environmentalist, anddirector of the Missouri Botanical Garden, were especially poignant. He said, “We can’t wait around until our economy is stimulated and we’re all wealthy to act on environmental issues. We’ve got to do it now.”

Finally, I was impressed by the emphasis placed on evolution and the necessity to work evolutionary theory into models predicting ecosystem change and biodiversity. I can only hope that evolutionary biologists are more successful at convincing policymakers of the realities of evolution than we have been with public schools.

Closing remarks for the session were given by Cristián Samper, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He tipped his hat in good manner to Darwin, saying that if Darwin were on Earth today he’d be impressed with the advances in science over the last 150 years. But he’d probably also be appalled and saddened at the havoc we’ve wreaked on the natural world.

You can read more about the symposium and view a live webcast at the National Academies web site. The symposium concludes tomorrow afternoon. The event was co-sponsored and hosted by AAAS.