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Evaluating ecosystem health

Abstract

In the past decade, metaphors drawn from human health are finding increasing application in environmental assessment at ecosystem levels. If ecosystem medicine is to come of age, it must cope with three fundamental dilemmas. The first stems from the recognition that there are no strictly objective criteria for judging health. Assessments of health, as in humans, inevitably are based on some combination of established norms and desirable attributes. The second stems from the irregular pulse of nature which either precludes the early recognition of substantive changes or gives rise to false alarms. The third is posed by the quest for indicators that have the attributes of being holistic, early warning, and diagnostic. Indicators that excel in one of these aspects, often fail in another.

Advances in ecosystem medicine are likely to come from closer collaboration with medical colleagues in both clinical and epidemiological areas. In particular the time appears ripe for a more systematic effort to characterize ecosystem maladies, to validate treatments and to develop more sophisticated diagnostic protocols. These aspects are illustrated with comparisons drawn from studies of environmental transformation in the Laurentian Great Lakes, the Baltic Sea and Canadian terrestrial ecosystems.

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Dedicated to Prof. J. Stan Rowe whose pioneering work in formulating a holistic perspective on ecosystem health has substantially contributed to the development of these ideas.

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Rapport, D.J. Evaluating ecosystem health. J Aquat Ecosyst Stress Recov 1, 15–24 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00044405

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Keywords

  • ecosystem
  • health
  • stress
  • diagnosis
  • early warning