We rely on ecosystems for our survival. Besides providing us with natural resources, such as water, food, timber, plant fibres, metals and minerals, ecosystems perform vital services. These services include moderating air temperatures, regulating disease and the climate, supporting nutrient formation and pollination of crops, purifying water and providing for recreation. Scientists and natural resource economists have tried to calculate the financial value of some of these services if we had to provide them ourselves, and the costs run into billions of rands. Yet we are able to enjoy these ecosystem services for free, so long as the ecosystems providing the services are healthy.
However, because of various factors, South Africa’s ecosystems are being rapidly degraded. Overexploitation of resources and species, urban sprawl, climate change, invasive alien species and pollution of land, water and air are the main culprits.
A recent report assessed 132 countries and ranked them according to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). South Africa was ranked 128th and was recognised as one of the countries with the fastest rate of environmental decline. From a global perspective, the United Nations (UN) Millennium Ecosystem Assessment confirmed that 60% of the ecosystems on which human systems depend for survival are degraded. In other words, we are using natural resources at a rate much faster than ecosystems are able to produce them or process our waste. While the outlook for our ecosystems is bleak, the issues they face are a consequence of human behaviour. This means that, by changing our behaviour, we can change their future (and ours) for the better.
To reduce our negative impact on ecosystems we can:
- find out which natural resources and species are threatened or in decline and try to conserve them;
- avoid using non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and their by-products;
- support high-density urban development (eg multi-storey city apartments) rather than urban sprawl (eg golf estates);
- save energy, be more energy-efficient, and transition to renewable energy;
- removealieninvasivespeciesandreplacethem with indigenous varieties; and
- stop littering, pouring toxic chemicals down our drains and supporting polluting companies.
WHAT SHOULD WE AIM TO ACHIEVE?
Our vision should be healthy ecosystems that are easily able to support biodiversity and provide their vital services for humans and all other living things.
We must therefore prioritise the restoration of degraded ecosystems, switch to using renewable resources and reuse them as many times as possible before returning them to ecosystems in a form that will nourish rather than pollute.
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