#01 Patterns of the Biosphere
#01 Patterns of the Biosphere



THE BEIJER INSTITUTE AT THE ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY OF SCIENCES is an international research centre, a cross-disciplinary institute at the interface of ecology and economics, which gathers leading researchers from around the world. The research provides a deeper understanding of the interactions between ecological systems and societal and economic development. The goal is to identify pathways to a sustainable future.

SVENSKT TENN'S PROFITS go to research in areas such as sustainability, the environment, and pharmacology and the customers make it possible. During the spring of 2015, Svenskt Tenn showed the interaction between humans and the biosphere in an exhibition. The artists Eric Ericson, Jesper Waldersten, Liselott Watkins and Stina Wirsén, interpreted central concepts and insights from the Beijer Institute’s research.


Be a tree and you will see

SINCE THE BEGINNING OF THE 1800'S, the world’s population has increased from one billion to seven billion. During the same period, and particularly after the end of World War II, factors such as economic development, technological inventions, new medicines and international cooperation have helped raise the standard of living and improve the health of an increasing proportion of people. Despite this, several billion people still live in poverty and the world's forests, lakes, seas and other ecosystems have begun to show signs of serious damage.

IN 2005, the Beijer Institute contributed through its research to saw the publication of the first health check on the world’s ecosystems, the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, to which the Beijer Institute contributed through its research. The diagnosis was clear: mankind’s rapidly increasing need for food, clean water, timber, fibres and fuel has altered the earth’s ecosystems more rapidly and more severely in the past 70 years than at any previous time.

THE UN REPORT also brought some good news. It helped confirm that humans and human societies are inseparable parts of the biosphere – the global ecological system that includes all life on earth and in the atmosphere. The report also emphasised the importance of calculating the value of nature’s goods and services. The conclusion was that combatting poverty and economic development are dependent on good management of ecosystems and their ability to provide us with essential services..

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OVER HALF of the world’s population now lives in cities and the number continues to grow, so that 60 per cent of the land that will be urbanised by 2030 has still not been built upon. We have many opportunities to create cities where people can prosper, cities that provide clean air and water and secure access to food.

ECOSYSTEM SERVICES are the multitude of services and functions supplied by ecosystems and their species to us humans. In cities, trees clear the air of particulate matter and exhaust fumes, reduce noise and provide shade, which is increasingly important with future global warming. Birds spread seeds, insects pollinate crops and wild plants, and green areas absorb storm water and prevent flooding.

URBAN GARDENING is an increasingly popular re-invented activity that is not just a good hobby, but can also make a considerable contribution to food security in many countries. It is therefore regarded by the UN as an essential component in the fight against hunger. During World Wars I and II, vegetables were grown in parks, in back gardens and on railway embankments, football pitches and roofs, in order to provide people with food. Such urban gardens also make it easier for animals and plants to spread from one patch to the next around the city.

BY PROTECTING ecosystem services and ensuring that they have a place in our cities, we can become healthier. Urban green areas provide spaces for exercise, recreation and quality of life, and strengthen our feeling of belonging with nature. Now that increasing numbers of people are becoming urban dwellers, we must give ourselves the chance to re-establish the bonds with nature and the biosphere in order to guide development towards a sustainable future.

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THE GULF OF MAINE in North America is recognised as a successful example of an economically and socially sustainable fishery where the lobster is not overfished. Through cooperation and joint regulations, 7,000 fishermen and many others living around the Gulf can earn a living from lobster fishing and supply the whole world with the ‘black gold of the sea’.

HOWEVER, when this lobster fishery was studied from a social-ecological perspective, researchers found that practically all other species of fish had been fished out of existence. The natural enemies of the lobster had disappeared from the ecosystem, so the lobsters were able to expand in great numbers, and when too many lobsters live close together, they can easily develop diseases. A few dozen miles south of Maine, a bacterial infection has already killed off over 70 of the lobster population. In social-ecological systems people and nature are studied as a whole where all societies depend on ecosystems and all of nature is affected by people. Separate the two and important connections can be lost.

AS THE EXAMPLE ABOVE SHOWS, large-scale production of a single species, so-called monoculture, is seldom a good idea in the long term. This applies to agriculture, forestry and aquaculture, i.e. production of fish and shellfish, which is one of the Beijer Institute’s research areas. The research shows that aquaculture has great potential to increase food availability, but to ensure sustainable production there must be more efficient use of resources, a lower environmental impact, improved certification and a greater diversity of species and culture methods. If aquaculture is to be a sustainable part of the solution to meeting future demands for food, we need to stimulate innovation in relation to alternative food production and to combating poverty.


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ECOSYSTEMS – forests, wetlands, fields, coasts, seas or grasslands – are living natural capital. The earth has invited humans to a great feast and has provided food, warm protective vegetation, water, power and beauty. However, the resources and services in our global ecosystem – the biosphere – are not limitless. They are natural capital that we must manage well, since economic growth and ecological sustainability go hand in hand.

ECOLOGY AND ECONOMICS have long been studied as separate parts. Previously, ecologists studied natural ecosystems but saw no humans. At the same time, economists sketched out social systems where nature was regarded as one resource among many, a resource considered to be never-ending. The Beijer Institute invited both these groups to sit at the same table. When their world views were superimposed, new patterns which corresponded much better with reality were able to emerge.

THE BEIJER INSTITUTE'S RESEARCH shows that when people who are jointly managing natural capital such as fishing waters or grassland acquire knowledge of threshold effects, they have the ability to work together to prevent such effects occurring and to find better ways forward. This joint work often starts with crisis awareness, where knowledge and standpoints are tested and perspectives widened. The possibilities of working with the natural capital instead of against it, of developing technologies and economies in partnership with the biosphere, are now crystallising.

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