Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

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Editors: J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman
Date: 2009
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview; Work overview
Length: 945 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1490L

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Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) documents how people are transforming their environment and how environmental transformation is affecting human well-being. As a scientific assessment the report is supposed to be free of ethical judgments. At the same time the intention of the MA is to inform the public and policy makers so that ethical judgments embedded in behavioral and policy decisions are scientifically informed.

The MA was initiated largely by biological scientists who, at the end of the last millennium, were already concerned about the effects of ecological transformations on humanity's future. The four-year study was carried out by some 1,300 environmental scientists, economists, and other social scientists from developed and developing countries who came into the assessment with a wide range of perspectives on issues such as the prospects for new sustainable technologies or the possibility of market solutions to environmental problems. The study frames people's relation to nature in mostly economic terms. Ecosystems are portrayed as natural capital from which ecosystem services flow in support of the human economy, whereas human activities modify and typically deplete nature's capital and thereby also affect the flow of services and future well-being.

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The four main findings of the 2,500-page study, published in four volumes and titled Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (2005a), are as follows:

  1. Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.
  2. The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.
  3. The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (adopted by the United Nations in 2000).
  4. The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met under some scenarios that the MA has considered, but these involve significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices, that are not currently under way. Many options exist to conserve or enhance specific ecosystem services in ways that reduce negative trade-offs or that provide positive synergies with other ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005b, Synthesis Volume, p. 1).
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The assessment investigates five key stressors on global ecosystems—habitat change, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution (including both toxics and nutrification)—across thirteen broad ecosystem types: forest (boreal, temperate, and tropical), dryland (temperate grassland, Mediterranean, tropical grassland/savanna, and desert), inland water, coastal, marine, island, mountain, and polar. For the five drivers across thirteen ecosystem types, there was only one combination, habitat change in temperate forests, where the impact of the driver was lessening. Thus, for sixty-four of sixty-five possibilities, stresses on ecosystems are increasing.

The MA investigated alternative policy options to decrease, or even reverse, stresses on ecosystems. The elimination of subsidies that encourage destructive practices such as land conversion and greenhouse gas release would be effective in reducing many kinds of ecosystem transformations. Reducing ecosystem stressors further, however, requires combinations of new economic incentives, behavioral changes, and technological innovations, the specific mechanisms and combinations of which will vary across ecosystems; as well as social, cultural, and political contexts. Integrating complex, context-specific policy responses across stressors, ecosystems, geographic scales, and political boundaries is difficult to even contemplate, let alone describe coherently for policy makers.


The findings of the MA have been widely cited in academic and popular literature. Material from the MA can be found in the readings of many college courses and textbooks. Numerous regional assessments around the world are amassing knowledge for subsequent global analysis. Nevertheless, the impact of the MA on environmental understanding, values, and policy decisions remains unclear. While the climate assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been crucial in shaping climate knowledge, eliciting fresh concerns for the future and focusing policy debates, the MA is much less focused, and so its impacts on people's values, corporate decisions, and public policy are harder to pinpoint.


The choice of a scientific framework for the MA has ethical implications simply because different frameworks highlight, and hence differentially value, different aspects of a problem. The assessment's characterization of ecosystems as capital and their benefits as services evinces a utilitarian ethics and an economic worldview. Perhaps this economic framework accounts for the MA's favorable portrayal of the economic approach known as “payments for ecosystem services.” Selecting scientists from developing countries concerned with improving the material well-being of the poor balances the more ecocentric views of scientists from the developed countries. Conventional economists avoid the term overconsumption, but the inclusion of ecological economists and sociologists in the work of the assessment has led to an extensive exploration of this issue. Hence even scientific assessments reflect underlying, implicit ethical predispositions and decisions, even if they are never explicitly formulated.

The MA is an example of a new approach to applying science to the complex interactions between social and natural systems. This approach, used most famously in the climate assessments of the IPCC, entails the use of several thousand scientists from a wide range of disciplines to address key policy questions to explore and summarize the findings of the latest scientific literature. Although the focus of the assessment is on the interaction between social and natural systems, natural scientists’ portrayals of ecosystems rarely include people, and social scientists rarely include nature in their descriptions of social systems. Numerous other methodological problems had to be overcome, including recognizing and transcending disciplinary assumptions and language in achieving insights into the issues of natural capital and ecosystem services. One of the most important byproducts of the MA was the training of numerous scientists to think and communicate across disciplinary boundaries and to identify critical questions for future research.


Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005a. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. 4 vols. Washington, DC: Island Press. Available from .

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005b. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis Reports. Washington, DC: Island Press. Available from .

Mitchell, Ronald B.; William C. Clark; David W. Cash; and Nancy M. Dickson, eds. 2006. Global Environmental Assessments: Information and Influence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Norgaard, Richard B. 2008. “Finding Hope in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.” Conservation Biology (April 10).

Richard B. Norgaard

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3234100188