[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
by Rusty Pritchard
Think the world’s biggest environmental problems are overpopulation and climate change?
Overpopulation is overblown. Total fertility rates (the number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime) are dropping like a rock nearly everywhere on earth. Families have fewer children as they grow more prosperous, as they access better healthcare and infant mortality declines, and as their lives become more stable. The Economist recently concluded that there are no interventions short of forced sterilizations and mandatory abortions that would cause birth rates to drop much faster than they’re already dropping.
Climate change is significant, but its main impact is to make bad situations worse. Military officials consider it a “threat multiplier” in already unstable situations. The biggest, most direct environmental threats to human welfare and the health of the natural world are already occurring, even without climate change: The last remnants of the world’s natural areas are disappearing.
Through scientific efforts like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we are beginning to understand and quantify the overall role of creation’s services in the human economy. We’re learning to correct some fundamental misconceptions about conservation and development.
Clean drinking water doesn’t just come from drilling wells. Water wells are, in fact, one of the final steps in getting clean water to people who need it. It’s not rocket science: For wells to supply water, underground aquifers need to be replenished and sustained. That process starts with rainfall but depends crucially on healthy watersheds–the upstream forested areas where rainfall can soak in to recharge aquifers and to supply a steady flow to streams.
When watersheds are deforested, out of desperation or ignorance or corruption, wells go dry and streams stop flowing. Clean water is muddied with eroded soil and debris. Drilling wells is not enough; thoughtful conservation on a landscape scale is also required–otherwise upstream mismanagement leads to downstream poverty. With 1.1 billion people lacking clean water and 3 billion living in areas of severe water stress, protecting watersheds from deforestation is not optional.
Sustainable agriculture doesn’t just come from managing farms well. On-farm actions are important, but healthy
farms require healthy ecosystems. Nearby hedgerows and forests provide a home for birds and insects that are natural predators of agricultural pests, providing an estimated $100 billion of free pest control services to the world’s farmers every year. And
people the world over supplement their farm incomes by using timber, wild foods, fodder, medicinal plants, and fuelwood from nearby forests, necessitating the wise conservation of those forests.
Natural disasters aren’t just “acts of God.” Everywhere that storms rage and seas surge, places where conservation has been ignored suffer the most. Conserved natural systems act as buffers that protect communities from environmental variability. Forested watersheds and wetlands like swamps and marshes help to mitigate flood damages,
moderate the effects of drought, and filter contaminants and pollutants. Coral reefs and coastal mangrove swamps and marshes act as insurance against erosive waves and storm surges from hurricanes. Biodiversity–the number and abundance of different species and ecosystems on the landscape–adds stability and resilience against disturbances like fires, insect outbreaks, and storms. This resilience can be lost if steps aren’t taken to maintain healthy natural areas.
Poverty isn’t just an economic problem. Poverty is an environmental problem, too. Secure jobs and flourishing economies depend on a secure environment. Short-sighted attempts to fix broken economies may worsen long-term prospects for human health, access to natural resources, and flourishing societies. Sometimes broken institutions or missing markets prevent people from making a secure living from the fisheries or forests or farms they’ve always tended.
And the relationship works both ways. Poverty drives people to exploit the resources they depend on for short-term benefits, because they need those resources now. Stabilizing economies and raising the standard of living for poor people likely results in reduced pressure on resources and increased capacity to care for creation.
In his book Tending to Eden, Scott Sabin writes about the “vicious cycle” whereby desperate need drives Haitian farmers to cultivate steep mountain slopes, removing the trees from the watershed, speeding erosion, ruining watersheds, and spoiling productive land—thereby generating more of the same desperation.
Plant with Purpose, the organization Sabin leads, challenges the dominant foreign aid paradigm, in which we spend 20 times more on food aid for Africa than on agricultural development. In contrast, Plant with Purpose doesn’t give anything away. Through small loans they help people start businesses that get more economic value from using natural resources than from destroying them, creating an incentive for conservation. They promote secure property rights, vibrant markets, and entrepreneurship, converting vicious cycles into virtuous cycles.
The conservation crisis that threatens the world is not a single malady. It is a syndrome of mutually reinforcing factors–deforestation, wetland destruction, overgrazing, lack of markets and property rights, poverty, and ignorance. We would do well to reprioritize our development assistance to encourage the kind of virtuous cycles Plant with Purpose brings about. We can’t afford to ignore the conservation crisis that is altering the face of the planet and threatening the livelihoods of the world’s poorest people.
Rusty Pritchard is co-founder and president of Flourish.