So far in our series on global megatrends, we’ve looked at trends that may impact the business and consumer world in diverse ways.
Now we’re shifting gears and looking at how our consumer and resource-intensive industries are harming the world’s most fragile resource - its ecosystems.
As you’ll see, the way we migrate, feed ourselves, and convert our once-natural landscapes can have a major impact on plants and wildlife. Severe cases of pressured ecosystems can even threaten millions of human lives.It’s a damning picture of how our Earth’s more precious ecosystems are being damaged. But there’s hope yet - modern innovations and unique new policies may help us better measure and reduce the impact we have on our most fragile ecosystems.
What is an ecosystem?
What exactly is an ecosystem? In its simplest form, an ecosystem is a community of plants and animals that interact with one another in a given area. That community interacts with many other natural elements such as the weather, sun, soil, climate and atmosphere.There is a relationship among all the living elements of ecosystems - taking one element away might cause changes to the characteristics of others.A simple example is how deforestation causes a chain reaction in the ecosystem: fewer trees mean less habitat for animals and insects, reducing the homes and therefore changing the behaviour and possibly reducing the population size of the impacted species.In other words, ecosystems are fragile. There’s evidence that ecosystems need a specific scenario to continue functioning effectively. Those scenarios have evolved over thousands of years in a natural way. Even slight changes may alter the characteristics enough that they no longer provide the same benefits to species that rely on the ecosystem for survival.In the case of reducing forested regions of the world, it could mean a loss of animal and plant life. In more severe instances, like the drying up of freshwater basins or river systems, millions of humans could be at risk.
Factors that put pressure on ecosystems
There’s more than one factor that puts pressure on our ecosystems. They come from our tendencies to migrate, build cities, and feed ourselves. If we’re not conscious of our behaviours, there could be serious repercussions in the natural world.Luckily, awareness for better ecosystem management is always growing and new innovations may help us protect and save ecosystems that were once trending in the wrong direction.
1. Urban growth
About 2 percent of the global land area is covered by cities and infrastructures. There’s evidence that the urbanisation trend will only grow. Estimates suggest that cities may take up twice as much land area by 2050 as they do now.Converting a natural landscape into a thriving metropolis can degrade the environment, reduce the amount of land that species depend on, and irreversibly damage ecosystems.One urban planning technique that can minimize the negative effects of urbanisation is known as Smart Growth. It’s a better, more compact, and more ecologically-friendly way to design and build urban communities. It aims to combat urban sprawl by integrating communities into natural landscapes. It takes advantage of mixed-use developments to combine homes, offices, parks, and restaurants near to one another.Doing so can reduce the footprint of urban areas and decrease costs for construction or essential utilities like water and electricity.Other methods of promoting natural landscapes have been around longer than Smart Growth - they’re known as green belts. These are simply a way to preserve natural environments in their original condition to act as barriers for neighbouring cities that have the habit of merging into one another.Some developed nations are leading the way with green belt policies. They’re even built right into the National Planning Framework of the United Kingdom.
2. Land use
As population grows and people migrate, their needs start to compete with the natural resources around them. Deforestation in some regions has caused an alarming rate of destruction of forested ecosystems.Globally, tropical deforestation is high but there are signs that things are slowing down. Deliberate attempts to plant trees or sow seeds to reforest some areas have helped. The OECD even predicts that net global deforestation will flatten after 2020.There’s a downside, though. Forestry plantations aren’t as productive or beneficial as primary forests and don’t adequately replace habitats for species that rely on them.Nonetheless, new technologies are leading the way to help replant forests. A UK based company, Biocarbon Engineering, has developed a seed-planting drone system that could help restore the world’s forests. The new drone technology can help plant 400,000 trees a day if used with ten drones and two operators - much faster than the traditional labour-intensive process.
3. Dietary changes
One of the leading drivers of demand for land conversion involves our diets and food habits. You might be surprised to find out that meat production involves as much as five times the amount of land to produce the equivalent nutritional value of plant-based foods.There’s one controversial innovation that is helping reduce meat demand around the world. Animal-free meat has taken off in the last few years, with plant-based versions of popular meat products such as chicken and beef burgers hitting the shelves of consumers and restaurant menus.Some developments in biotechnologies are even creating lab-grown meat from cow stem cells.If you’re interested in curbing your meat consumption without wanting to worry about the ethics of growing meat in Petri dishes, there are still some things you can do.The United Nations Environmental Programme suggests that adding one meat-free meal every week to your diet can go a long way to help reduce global meat demand.
Our knowledge and understanding of diverse ecosystems is rapidly evolving. But it must evolve at a faster pace than the rate of commercial and industrial expansion. At the moment, we’re lagging behind. Innovations, like those listed above as well as others that are needed to fill the gaps, can help us get there.Next in our series on global megatrends, we’re looking at the consequences of climate change.