After four years of study, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, accompanied by an appropriately sombre statement from UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan, was released on March 31, 2005. The findings: More than half the vital "ecosystem services" the earth provides to support human life - breathable air, abundant fresh water, fish and birds and plants, the regulation of regional climate, the control of natural hazards and pests, and so on - have been desparately degraded, or are being used unsustainably.
There were 1,300 experts from 95 countries involved in the study. Several United Nations agencies pitched in, as did 22 international scientific organizations and development agencies, and business groups, and environmentalists. So there are many people to thank for their efforts in telling us what we already knew: There are forces at work in the world that are turning our living, breathing planet into burning cinder, hurtling through the firmanent.
The odd part is that these forces are operating in perfectly legal ways. All this is happening in full accordance with the strictures and codes of international and domestic law.
Expect declines in water quality, sudden shifts in regional climate, and more vast "dead zones" in the oceans, the experts said. Expect more people to suffer. Expect more people to go hungry. Expect more people to succumb to strange new diseases. Expect the legions of the poor to grow ever larger. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, expect another 89 million people to fall under the crushing weight of abject poverty over the next ten years.
"Radical changes in the way nature is treated, at every level of decision-making, and new ways of cooperation between government, business and civil society" - this was the experts' remedy. Fair enough.
There is a principle in law, and it is found in every legal tradition on earth. It is known as the "defence of necessity." The pinciple recognizes that there are times when people are forced by circumstances to transgress the law. The very planet is now gripped by such cirumstances as to make a defence of necessity justifiable in defence of what remains of those things the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes so coldly as vital "ecosystem services."
Acts of defence that transgress the law may prove the most effective remedy available to us. It's sobering to consider this, but so is the alternative: The cities in flames, the world round.