We don't know the answer to this question, and the only good news is that we know we don't know.
Says EPA, "Americans recognize the value of indicators focused on the state of the economy, but no comparable system exists to measure the ecological state of the nation."
Sure, EPA released the "Draft Report on the Environment" in 2003 (amid cries of tampering with the science), while Heinz released "State of the Nation's Ecosystems" in 2005, and "Millenium Ecosystem Assessment" was released in 2006.
So we know more about ecosystems in general, yet we still don't know a heck of a lot about our particular ecosystems.
The reasons, say EPA researchers, is that adequate data for nationwide trends exist for only a few indicators of ecological condition, and other indicators have only been collected once or for limited geographic regions.
Says EPA, "most of the gaps are likely to remain for some time to come."
Sure, there are some good reasons for this that reflect the major challenges to developing adequate indicators of national ecological condition:
- Indicators must be tied to conceptual models that capture how ecosystems respond to single and multiple stressors at various scales.
- Federal, state, and local monitoring organizations must find a way to coordinate and integrate their activities to meet multiple, potentially conflicting, data needs.
- Mechanisms must be found to ensure long-term commitments to measuring selected indicators over long periods and in standardized ways, to establish comparable baselines and trends.
- Indicators must simplify complex data in ways that make them meaningful and useful to decision-makers and the public.
None of these challenges appears insurmountable, but the gaps indicate that much remains to be done.
So, when we see these reports, we may start to salivate at the prospect of piles of data, only to find out the data don't really exist.
For example, Heinz draws trend lines (shown above) for ag and forest products, freshwater withdrawals and marine fish landings, but guess wot? The trends are based on very limited data, and the 2005 "Update" contains no new data in this area.
Forest and fish indicators, for example, show only 7 data points between them in the 24 years since 1980.
I'm stunned, frankly. I knew there were data gaps, but one would expect this basic highly aggregated data would be more readily available.
What would we know if we would? Well, the MA asks these questions:
- How Have Ecosystem Services Contributed to Recent Improvements in Human Well-being?
- Which Areas Have Seen the Biggest Changes in Ecosystems over the Last Several Decades?
- What Are the Main Drivers of Change That Affect Ecosystems, Ecosystem Services, and Associated Human Well-being?
- Is There Evidence That Changes Made to Ecosystems in Order to Increase Provisioning Services Have Altered Regulating, Cultural, or Supporting Services?
- Is There Evidence That the Capacity of Ecosystems to Provide Services Is Reaching Critical Levels?
- Are There Parts of the World in Which Recent Declines or Stagnation in Human Well-being Can Be Attributed to Changes in Ecosystem Services?
- What Are the Most Critical Gaps in Knowledge and the Most Crucial
Good questions. Yet, even after all this effort, the answer to most of these questions is: we don't know.