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Science – Natural Systems Ecosystem Principles, Biodiversity
Our first major goal is to get a sense of what defines a natural system, specifically the roles of ecosystem principles in helping to describe a natural system and the concept of biodiversity as a measure (or proxy) for the health of a natural system, as well as the potential value that exists within the system itself (the Costanza reading). Natural Systems The first concept we should reemphasize from the reading is the idea that systems have boundaries. Recall the following representation of a basic system from the text:
The boundaries of the system are really what sets up the insights in understanding system dynamics. For example, note the outer boundary in the figure above: it separates the kinds of interactions that occur between the outside and inside of the boundary. The fact that the boundary exists means that we can influence the makeup of the system by altering the composition of concentrations within and outside the boundary.1 In the
The extent to which we can alter the composition of what is within and outside the boundary depends on the permeability of the boundary itself. If a boundary has a low permeability, then concentrations within and outside of the boundary are capable of
figure above, the large component of the system is defined in light blue. Within this large component there are smaller subcomponents in green that have a different composition than the large component (because they have their own boundaries limiting what goes into and flows out of the component). However, what is critical is to understand that the boundaries themselves establish the behavior of the system; if the boundaries did not exist, then the system would act and look different from its current state. This leads to the following insight: • The way a system functions can change by altering the composition of components within the system.
Once this insight is understood, the importance of equilibrium and phase shifts can be understood. Equilibrium theory suggests systems like the Earth are in a state of balance (recall the Gaia Hypothesis from the text); this balance has been created over a long period of time. Altering this balance has the potential to alter the equilibrium state of the system. Recall the following diagram from the text:
A few points can be made based on the figure:
greater change; the opposite is the case where a boundary has a high permeability.
• • •
The initial state of equilibrium is in green. Stress placed on the system can cause a shift in the equilibrium state (red). If the stress is abated before passing a system threshold, then the system can enter a phase of recovery (yellow) that ultimately returns to the initial equilibrium state (green). If the stress is such that the system passes a threshold (blue), then the system can move to a new (different) equilibrium state (red dotted).
The concept of a system threshold is dependent on the initial existence of boundaries, which then create the difference between system components leading to equilibrium of the system itself. The lesson here is that the existence of boundaries within natural systems helps us understand cause and effect. From an environmental policy standpoint there are a few take home lessons that help add to our understanding of natural systems: • First, natural systems are constantly changing (they are dynamic). Thus, we should expect to see change in nature – this is normal. However, we must be observant for constant changes over time as they might indicate a problem. Boundaries exist between components of natural systems. The extent to which these boundaries impact system interactions depends on the permeability of the boundary. Close examination of what is coming in and leaving the system (like carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere) can help us determine whether the system is in balance (or out of balance). Systems, like the Earth, that have been around for a long time tend to exhibit equilibrium states. Thus, concentrations observed today should tend to be similar to concentrations observed tomorrow and into the future. A change in concentrations is an indicator the system may be moving out of its current equilibrium state. Systems that are out of equilibrium state have the potential to move back to preperturbation equilibrium states. However, those systems also have the potential to cross a threshold after which they will likely encounter a new equilibrium state. If the new equilibrium state means greater weather variability (climate change for example), then the costs associated with that greater variability should be considered up-front in policymaking simply because it is almost impossible to move the system back to a ‘kinder’ equilibrium state after it has shifted.
B. Ecosystem Principles
Ecosystem principles are functionally about understanding the interactions between components of a system so that policy decisions can be grounded in those background realities. As stated in the reading, this means understanding the context in which one is
working. For example, a desert has fundamentally different ecosystem interactions than a rainforest. One would not expect to see the same kinds of things within each ecosystem, and as such the way in which one might approach an environmental problem in these areas differs. The main way in which ecosystem principles are defined in environmental policy is through the identification and cataloging of the kinds of services provided by the ecosystem under review. In general there are three categories of services to consider: • Provisioning Services: what the ecosystem provides for human consumption and direct use. Examples include using trees from forest ecosystems as an input (wood) for building homes and other things. Mountains might be manicured and utilized in winter for skiing (recreation). Certain ocean ecosystems provide important fishery habitat for human capture and consumption. Regulating Services: what the ecosystem provides that is not necessarily directly used by humans, but still provides important functions for human wellbeing. Examples include the natural water filtration that occurs in wetlands, or the storm protection offered to mainland human habitations by barrier beach ecosystems. Cultural Services: what the ecosystem provides for human self-satisfaction and spirituality. John Muir often observed the close connection people share with nature as “God’s cathedral.” Native Americans and others often have a deep spiritual reverence for nature and ecosystem features, including where the divine is observed ‘living’ through nature.
Biodiversity is, roughly, a measure of the abundance of life (the different total number of species and the relative concentration of species per unit area). One expects to find some measure of biodiversity everywhere on Earth (even in the Antarctic), but the relative abundance of biodiversity is not the same in different ecosystems. One does not expect to find the same kinds and abundances of species in a desert ecosystem as one finds in a rainforest ecosystem. The key message in biodiversity laid out in the text is that is represents a gauge or measure of the relative health of a system. The assumption here is that the following: • The relative abundance of life that exists today is a necessary background condition upon which human wellbeing depends (because the conditions that allowed for humans to develop and thrive included that background biodiversity).
If we accept this statement from an environmental policy standpoint, then we can see biodiversity serves as an important indicator of nature’s health (and potentially human health). Where biodiversity is being threatened, we may presume this is a policy problem worth fixing (because of how we connect this measure to human wellbeing). Where
biodiversity is flourishing, we may see this as an indicator of a state or condition that should be maintained. In this way we can see the use of biodiversity as a goal when establishing environmental policy agendas. Recall that biodiversity is a measure of life; it does not necessarily suggest all life is equal (although this is a presumption that may be made in environmental policy goals).2 From a policy standpoint, the use of biodiversity as a means of achieving policy goals can be controversial, particularly where the connection between human wellbeing and species diversity is not obvious. A great number of controversies surrounding government attempts to protect biodiversity at the expense of human endeavors is at the heart of environmental law courses and controversial statutes like the Endangered Species Act. The point here is not to debate the controversy itself, but to acknowledge the use of biodiversity as a measure of understanding natural systems in relation to environmental decisions; biodiversity is one way of trying to create legitimate means of identifying environmental issues, but is certainly is not a bullet-proof method. Note on Costanza Article The supplemental reading discusses the value of ecosystem services. A few points should be taken from the article: • First, even conservative estimates of ecosystem services (particularly provisioning services) are quite high (something around 4 times our entire national U.S. debt of value contributed by ecosystem services every year). Second, most of these services are not captured in markets, meaning the values expressed are the kinds that escape internalization when making choices (this will be further explained in the economics section).3 Third, the values expressed in the article represent substantial benefits to human wellbeing. Thus, there is an important role for environmental policy to play in maintaining these services. Biodiversity plays a role in understanding how to maintain these important and valuable services.
END OF SECTION.
Consider the U.S. Endangered Species Act as one example of a policy that presumes all species are important in so far as the Act allows for the listing of species who’s populations have been determined to be threatened or endangered. There is no original analysis in the Act that differentiates amongst different kinds of species (rank ordering the species).
Our methods for valuing these services and placing them inside our economic systems (like markets) may be an important function for environmental policy as a proactive policy approach to environmental issues.
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