Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Strengthening Capacity to Manage Ecosystems Sustainably for Human Well-Being

Nature and the Looking Glass: How the World's Reflections Shape the Future

New research from the UN and partners places humans firmly at the centre of the environmental debate

Holding up a mirror to nature has long been the preserve of artists. The compelling landscapes of Constable, Monet and, in more recent times, Hockney and Spencer have made generations of people appreciate the innate beauty of our natural and urban surroundings.

While artists continue to record our changing scenery, the world’s scientists are poised to show us, as part of an ambitious project involving a number of United Nations agencies and international conservation organisations, that the aesthetics of the world around us have a fundamental effect on human well-being. Their new research will not only explain why the sight of a sunset, a beach or a building designed by Norman Foster is as valuable to us as a painted landscape, but also provide the world’s decision makers with up-to-date, accessible scientific knowledge about the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is the most extensive study ever of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. Launched in June 2001 by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, the MA is a $21 million scheme with a four-year mandate and international backing which will put forward options that can help to conserve ecosystems and enhance their contribution to human well-being and poverty reduction.

On 24 September 2003, the first of its published results, entitled Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment, will be released, and is expected to show the human/environment relationship as never before.

“Each one of us is intrinsically linked to changes in ecosystems, both through the impacts we have on the environment, and by the consequences of those changes on us”, comments Neville Ash, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment working group co-ordinator.

“For example, we tend to take aesthetics for granted, but they are an important part of the incredibly complex way in which humans respond to and interact with the natural world. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment will put humans at the centre of its study, and demonstrate how fully our needs – cultural, aesthetic, physical, mental and emotional – are dependent on the earth’s biological resources.”

The scale of the MA is unprecedented in the history of conservation work. Over 1000 volunteer scientists and researchers from more than 80 countries are contributing to the reports. Finance and guidance have come from a whole host of agencies and organisations, including the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank.

The United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), based in Cambridge, UK, gives its full support to this vitally important project. Neville Ash and his colleague, data co-ordinator Jillian Thonell, are based at the Centre, which enjoys a world-renowned reputation for providing objective, scientifically-rigorous information about the environment.

Jillian is keen to emphasise the importance of the Centre’s contribution. “Some of the key data we are using for the MA research comes from UNEP-WCMC, such as the Protected Areas and Biodiversity data sets. The Centre’s IT infrastructure is another excellent resource for us, as it allows us to serve information over the web, thereby facilitating data co-ordination.”

Mark Collins, the Centre’s Director, is enthusiastic about the MA programme. “Our organisation focuses on helping people around the world understand the importance of sustainable development. Human action is the main driver of change on Earth. Our global industries, from mining to fashion, have an impact on the fabric of our ecosystems and our lives. The MA reports will show the extent to which our attitudes and practises have changed with regard to conservation of our natural world, and give us guidelines to adopt in the future.”