Fifteen years ago, in their seminal article on valuing the world's ecosystem services and natural capital, Costanza et al. (1997) observed that habitat and biological processes and functions were not fully captured in commercial markets. Although traditional market forces reward the profligate consumption of renewable and nonrenewable resources, many of the costs are borne heavily by distant societies and future generations. If consumer prices reflected the true environmental costs of most consumer goods, Costanza et al. argue prices would likely be much higher. A decade later, Daily et al. (2009) reiterated the importance of capturing environmental costs in the marketplace and the need for approaches to help business, government, and other institutions make better decisions relating to the use of land, water, and natural resources. Is anybody listening?

Industry sectors that rely on the extraction of nonrenewable resources are in many ways ahead of other sectors that rely on renewable resources. Companies that extract minerals, natural gas, petroleum, and other so-called nonrenewables are integrating sustainability into their business performance models. Their conversations with scientists, governments, investors, and nongovernmental organizations about environmental management, stewardship, and restoration include discussions about ecosystem service offsets, substitutions, transfers, and transformations.

According to the Natural Value Initiative report on the impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services by the extractive industry (Grigg et al. 2011), it is increasingly fundamental for access to natural resources and business growth that companies involved in the extraction of nonrenewable resources recognize that they must operate within societal expectations; a “green” reputation has a meaningful impact on how stock trading markets and environmental regulatory agencies communicate with the industry.

The reputations of many energy, forestry, and mining companies historically involved in the extraction of nonrenewable resources have largely improved. Many of these same companies are adopting long-term land stewardship practices and making financial commitments to preserve or enhance affected communities before, during, and after their operations cease. At present, this new behavior in the nonrenewable industry sector is voluntary. It is an indictment of the slow response by many governments to implement policies that encourage and promote the integration of ecology, social well-being, and ecosystem service considerations into environmental management planning.

Although the world's fisheries should be renewable, the fishing industry sector largely reflects the resource abuses and habits historically attributed to the extractive industry sector. Recent reports by the New Economics Foundation (NEF 2011a, 2011b) and The Prince's Charities' International Sustainability Unit (ISU 2012) call attention to the precarious condition of nearly every species of fish sought for human consumption. The NEF (2011a, 2011b) and ISU (2012) reports describe the challenges facing any changes to current fisheries management. Achieving sustainable fisheries worldwide may be impossible if current practices continue much longer.

NEF and the ISU call for the implementation of an approach that is focused on the preservation of ecosystems as a necessary first step to sustainable fisheries management. In the context of the aquatic ecosystems supporting desired target species, taking a broader view of fisheries management could strengthen cultural identity, social stability through long-term employment, and both food and environmental security. The ISU makes an excellent case for rebuilding degraded fisheries to help increase the resilience of marine ecosystems, to withstand external shocks and stresses such as climate change and pollution. The expanding development of Marine Protected Areas internationally goes some way in helping increase this resilience. Nonetheless, rebuilding sustainable fisheries will require that policymakers go even further. Because of the international, cultural, political, and historical context of fisheries, however, there has been little political will, at present, for substantive changes to fisheries regulations.

Similar challenges face the farming sector. The recognition that farming practices can be better managed to minimize impacts on ecosystems is growing. Europe has developed ecosystem-based frameworks and guidance for policy makers on how to preserve soil biodiversity in land use management (Turbé et al. 2010). Under the Water Framework Directive in the UK, the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) program aims to reduce the level of diffuse pollution in rivers, groundwater and other aquatic habitats caused by farming operations (Environment Agency 2011). The United Nations Forestry Initiative is seeking to bring together producers and environmental groups to develop certification standards for crops implicated in deforestation that benefit farmers, agricultural productivity, and ecosystems (Tollefson 2012). Similar to fisheries, however, broad-based reforms have largely been met with political and cultural inertia.

With regard to chemicals management, the European Food Safety (EFSA) has taken steps to encourage the consideration of an ecosystems approach in food safety and crop protection policy and pesticide regulation for new and existing agricultural chemical products (EFSA 2010). Guidance on ecosystem-based evaluation of the impacts of plant pests on farm products (EFSA 2011) sets the stage for further broad-based changes that shift chemicals management policy from traditionally narrow, toxicology-based regulation, to a framework in which sustainable food security is balanced against the potential risks to other resource endpoints.

EFSA is challenging the ecotoxicology, ecology, and agricultural communities to address both product safety and farming practices in a broader context. The absence, as yet, of a specific assessment methodology is not unusual; investment in models and tools often follow after regulatory or commercial demands create the need. The use of ecosystem service-based decision frameworks to assess resource damage and evaluate the ecosystem tradeoffs of various restoration or remediation approaches is becoming well established (Efroymson et al. 2003). A broader approach that allows for evaluation of habitat and ecosystem service trade-offs, rather than reliance on strict chemical criteria in the broader environmental protection policy arena, is still in a learning phase. Despite some progress, many regulatory and decision frameworks remain narrow and standards-focused, paying, at best, lip service to what Chapman (2002) and others have referred to as the need to return “eco” to the field of ecotoxicology.

Our scientific knowledge of various components of the ecosystem (both those we monitor and those we do not yet understand) and how they respond to natural and anthropogenic changes remains incomplete. Traditionally, the lack of knowledge has supported inaction, often falling back on simpler resource management frameworks that provide a feeling of certainty but are too narrow to support long-term, sustainable practices. It is essential that we broaden the scope of environmental management in different resource industry sectors. The sustainability of market-driven resource management is interconnected within a global commons in which the entire world has a stake (Everard 2011). For many resources—fisheries, for one—it is well past the time to resolve the difficult challenges foreshadowed by Costanza et al. (1997) nearly 15 years ago.


  1. Top of page
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