Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sustainable development: how Swede it is

By now, it should be apparent that sustainable development is not about saving the Earth; it is about rescuing civilization from itself. As Jim Lovelock and others have pointed out, over the course of the past 4 billion years or so, Gaia has demonstrated an amazing ability to maintain global ecological integrity despite physical cataclysms and mass extinctions. Over 90 per cent of the species that have lived on Earth have become extinct. There's no reason to believe that humans are immune from a similar fate. Sometimes it seems as if the United States is the last country on the planet to understand this. Sweden, on the other hand, is one of the countries leading the way in developing and implementing sustainable development practices. (GW)

Swedish environmental researchers focus on sustainable development

by Danny Wattin
December 1, 2006

The ecosystems that form the very foundation of human well-being and economic growth are becoming increasingly degraded. Today Swedish researchers are focusing on more sustainable development, which will lead to both human well-being and viable ecosystems.

Nature’s free services are disappearing fast
In 2005, a scientific evaluation of the earth’s ecosystems was conducted on behalf of the United Nations. In this report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 1,400 experts provided evidence that the earth’s ecosystems are becoming increasingly degraded. The report also showed that more than 60 percent of the free services we receive from the earth’s ecosystems are being exploited in unsustainable ways.

For us humans, this rapidly escalating trend is a major problem − mainly because without insects to pollinate our crops and birds to devour pests, soon we will not have much left to eat.

As a direct response to the findings of the UN-sponsored assessment, Sweden’s Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra) has decided to fund the establishment of a new transdisciplinary environmental research institute in Stockholm. This institute will conduct research and publish information on ways to generate both human well-being and viable ecosystems.

Technological alternatives are an expensive solution
Christina Schaffer, Deputy Director of the Center for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research (CTM) at Stockholm University, believes that a large proportion of today’s environmental problems are rooted in the fact that few big-city residents are aware of how dependent on nature they actually are.

Schaffer explains: “Contrary to what people may believe, today we use nature more than any generation before us. For example, we Stockholmers need 250-300 tennis courts of nature per person to satisfy our needs for such things as food, clothing, paper, building materials and waste disposal.”

She considers it a problem that we seldom realize how important our planet’s natural free services are, before they are lost to us and we are forced to replace them with expensive technological alternatives.

“Consider parts of California, where pollinators disappeared and almond growers are now forced to rent bees from ambulatory trucks. Or on the border between Nepal and China, where thousands of people − for the same reason − climb around with brushes to pollinate the region’s apple trees themselves,” Schaffer says.

Nature hits back − hard
Carl Folke, Professor of Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University and Science Director of the new institute, believes that new mechanisms of cooperation and holistic perspectives are needed immediately, in order to respond to a world that is changing faster and faster: “We are seeing a pattern in ecosystems around the world. Nature is being exposed to gradual effects, due to human activities."

"However, ecosystems do not respond with gradual changes but with sudden events, such as storms, floods and fires. And when these disruptions − which the system could previously absorb − occur, their impact is that much greater.”

We have a planet we must manage actively
Folke believes that sustainable environmental work is no longer a matter of saving endangered species or of doing good deeds. It is far more important than this.

“If we exhaust the resources that we need in order to survive, we will meet the same fate as the civilizations before us that lived beyond their means,” he says. “There is no danger to the planet. It will still be there. This is about our civilization’s existence or non-existence.”

Positive view of the future
Despite the negative trend, Folke sees a bright future ahead. He believes that if we can only stop pretending that we are not dependent on nature, we have every chance of surviving.

“If we mobilize and begin to use the enormous knowledge and information-spreading capacity we have in a smart way, we can do something about the situation,” he says. “But we must begin now. The longer we wait, the fewer choices will be left.

“In the past 100 years, we have believed that nature repairs itself. But that time is past. We have a single planet that we must manage actively − before it is too late.”


  • Ecosystem services are the free services provided by nature that benefit human beings. Some of the important ones are oxygen to breathe, that insects pollinate our crops and that the water ecocycle works.
  • Pollinators are animals, usually insects, that ensure plants have a successful long-term sex life. Today the number of pollinators in the world is drastically declining, due to diseases, pesticides and changes in the modern agricultural landscape.
  • On June 7, 2006, Stockholm University received SEK 205 million that will be invested in a new international transdisciplinary institute for research and policy dialogue on sustainable development.
  • The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra) is supplying the funds for the new institute. Mistra works to promote sustainable development through collaboration between researchers and users to solve important environmental problems.
  • The new institute will begin its operations in January 2007. It will attach great importance to disseminating research findings to the media, politicians, public agencies and resource users at local, regional and international levels.
  • The Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) and the Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, plus the Center for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research at Stockholm University, are jointly responsible for the new institute.


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