Although largely out of our sight, coral reefs are important both because they contribute to the balancing of many factors in the global ecosystem and because they have a direct impact on the economy. Around the world, reefs generate an estimated $300 billion each year in products and services. In the United States alone, tourism to reef areas generates more than $17 billion annually . In the realm of biomedicine, the reefs hold tremendous potential for the discovery of new therapeutic agents. When coral reefs die, we lose this source of promise, and tourism disappears along with the previously abundant fish populations . We need to preserve this natural resource for economic as well as ecological reasons.
Writing about environmental economics, Clement Tisdell observes that “monopolists are sometimes said to be a conservationist's best friend” . This conservation comes from their profit motive, which causes them to restrict the supply of resources to drive up the price in the market. Tisdell counters this beneficent role by pointing out that a monopolist may excessively restrict the supply, may use up the resource in a different manner, and may thwart conservation by wielding undue political pressures. Further, in search of greater revenue, the monopolist may fuel new customer demand for the resource in question, resulting in depletion. Tisdell believes we fail to appreciate the economic value of the natural world and of biodiversity.
Humans are using up nonrenewable resources, such as oil and coal, at a rapid rate and, in the very long term, will need to rely on renewable biological resources for energy as well as food. Reefs support the fish populations that feed the world. The United Nations has stated that the world gets 17% of its animal protein from fish , and the international community holds huge, ineffectual conferences to discuss the dwindling supply. Nearly three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are now believed to be overfished, because they are poorly protected .
When natural resources are widely available and ownership is unclear or unprotected, exploitation frequently occurs. Take, for instance, the work of Colin Hunt, a professor of strategic management in New Zealand. Describing property rights in the Pacific, he states that unsustainable use of marine resources stems from two factors . First, the absence of designated rights of ownership produces a free-for-all situation that Hunt terms “open access,” where individuals or organizations can grab whatever they wish and exploitation can result.
Similar overuse results from lack of enforcement of property rights. When anyone can scoop up unlimited quantities of fish from the open ocean, depletion occurs . Extending this biological model to publishing, similar ownership complications arise. We can speculate that when authors hold the copyright to their own works, a busy biomedical scientist may have great difficulty enforcing those rights in an electronic world that facilitates digital copying and redistribution.
Hunt concludes that problems with open access and environmental exploitation necessitate attention to protect the best interests of the entire community . He believes governments must provide public policies and systems to ensure sustainability. In April 2004, the US Commission on Ocean Policy came to essentially the same conclusion. Its preliminary report advises that we must shift to ecosystem-based management of our marine resources, setting policies and implementing practices that look at the complex interrelationships of many factors . Time has proved that it does not work when we focus on individual pieces of the environment, such as certain fish populations, water quality, or other components that we attempt to disconnect from the rest of the system.
While I agree with Hunt that government can help address some of the problems of our oceans, individual action is also required. For example, MLA members can make a difference by using sustainable design principles as we build new libraries or renovate old ones. We can recycle and buy products from ecologically conscious companies. We can insist our politicians take a long-term view and enact legislation for the future of the global ecosystem. We can support ecological groups, such as the Ocean Conservancy or the Coral Reef Alliance.