|Toxics and Health: - The Potential Long-Term Effects of Industrial Activity (WRI, 1994, 68 pages)|
It is not enough to consider just the effects of industrial pollution on individual subjects, be they plants wildlife, or people. Ecosystems, which, as defined here, include human systems, are complex entities, composed of physical elements, processes, and the relationships between these two. Sustainability is a property of the system as opposed to its separate components.
Val Beasley, a veterinarian from the University of Illinois, and Bruce Wilcox, a systems ecologist with the Institute for Sustainable Development, introduced the concept of ecosystem health as a conceptual framework for thinking about the systemic effects of industrial pollution and for prioritizing research and policy. A healthy ecosystem is one that provides a continuous flow of current benefits and also maintains the capacity to respond to future needs and values. In other words, it must maintain both system structure and function in the presence of stress. This notion is embodied in the concept of resilience, which is a cornerstone of ecosystem sustainability.79'80
Chemical pollution from industrial sources is one of four major types of anthropogenic stress. (The other three are overharvesting vesting, physical restructuring, and the introduction of exotic species.81) In concert with these other stresses, industrial pollution reduces the health of ecosystems. The toll can be direct - for example, immediate declines in productivity or in the value of the goods produced (such as the loss of fish stocks after the Exxon Valdez spill). Or it may be indirect - for example, the weakening of assimilative capacity. The latter can gradually sap productivity or result in catastrophic change or collapse (such as the transformation of the Black Sea.82) Just as with a depressed immune system, when their selfregulation mechanisms are compromised, ecosystems cannot cope with what would normally be minor stresses.
Adopting a systemic approach permits a broader understanding of industrial pollution's effects. Increased loadings should be expected to do more damage in already stressed ecosystems than in healthy ecosystems. Impacts on individuals can have far-reaching effects, such as the economic losses occurring in parts of Africa as large numbers of AIDS victims leave the workforce and begin requiring extensive medical care.
At the same time, when declines in ecosystem health are observed, it is important to look closely at what has happened to the individuals and processes within the ecosystem. Ideally, the recognition of serious illness in a person usually leads to both diagnostic tests and an examination of lifestyle and diet. Similarly, observations of declining wildlife populations should be followed by diagnostic tests on individual subjects as representative of populations and by examinations of interspecies, habitat-related, toxicant-induced, or climate-associated sources of stress.83
At the most basic level, industrial pollution could contribute to what might be called a "development trap." Today's developing nations may not have the human and natural capital needed to follow the path staked out by Western societies decades ago - investing heavily in preserving and restoring environmental health only after reasonably high average per capita income levels are attained. Indeed, even if financing for universally raising living standards did become available, the systemic impacts of industrial pollution may prevent developing countries from attaining them.84