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Earth Day 2008: Got Stoneflies?

April 16, 2008

Got Stoneflies? How about mayflies? Caddisflies? And midge and black flies? Do you have bugs in your water? I hope so – because after all ” they are indicators of clean running waters and economic sustainability. We need them.

The presence of benthic macroinvertebrates (BMIs), such as these critters, indicates how clean our creeks, streams, and rivers are around the planet. Stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies have a hard time surviving in polluted waters and are known for their sensitivity to degraded water quality. Damselflies and crane flies are generally less sensitive. Midge flies can indicate polluted conditions. And black flies, where they dominate the sample collection, are indicators of moderate organic or nutrient pollution. Got good indicators?

Around the planet every day, people are learning new ways to measure environmental conditions, change, and progress. Counting BMIs is one way. Global citizens everywhere are asking new questions about the global environment and connections to local ecologies, sustainability, the economy, poverty alleviation, peace, prosperity, and justice.

Recently, a group of Mongolian teachers spent ten days learning advanced environmental field education techniques, which included discussions on economics, security, and justice. Some of their training was in Yosemite Valley, where John Muir found much of the inspiration for his words that “everything is connected”. Muir’s internal vision (an eye injury impaired his physical vision) saw relationships everywhere he traveled in the United States: the grandeur of the landscape, the economy of the people, and the politics and future progress of the country. Muir measured genuine progress in America by indicators of mutual connections between environmental protection and economic stewardship, along with social welfare and spiritual stimulants.

This Earth Day, when it comes to the environment, I hope more of us will be asking, “Got good indicators?” Too often, environmental indicators, especially in Asia where I spend much of my time, do not connect with the economic and socio-political indicators of progress. Current approaches to environmental protection rely on clean technology, education, enforcement of regulations, and stakeholder dialogue. These have proven to be necessary elements, but insufficient to achieve sustainable environmental progress because of the widespread perception that economic growth and environmental protection cannot be achieved simultaneously.

Asia’s continued development will require innovative approaches to achieving economic growth without sacrificing environmental progress. Funders of innovation are most likely to be foundations, corporations, and investment funds concerned with the intersection of business, society and the environment, and are concerned especially with alternatives to remediation and regulation. The Asia Foundation supports traditional environmental governance approaches based on law and education, but also add a third way: market-driven approaches emphasizing economic incentives and collaborative public policy.

For the Foundation, stoneflies make compelling indicators of clean water and economic security. In Mongolia, we call this approach and program, Securing Our Future: Mongolia’s Natural Capital Conservation and Environmental Stewardship.

Christopher Plante is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Environment Programs. He can be reached at cplante@asiafound.org.

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