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Though the focus of this section is on the importance of socio-economic change in triggering environmental impacts, it is clear that environmental change is a potent driving force in its own right. Countries and regions must contend not only with unequal environmental endowments, but also with acute environmental problems. Human impacts on the environment have aroused growing anxiety. Atmosphere, land and water resources have been spoiled. Persistent organic pollutants and toxic substances have accumulated in living organisms. Species have been lost and ecosystems degraded. In addition, social and ecological systems are vulnerable to natural and human-influenced hazards and catastrophes.

'Among the four scenarios, Sustainability First assumes the largest shift from current trends in terms of culture.'

The way natural systems react to these pressures (the rate, for instance, at which climate patterns change as a result of higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, or the response of coastal ecosystems to pollution), can have a big impact on social, economic and other natural systems. The realization that individual states cannot shield themselves from environmental change is already changing the basis of geopolitics and global governance.

The scenarios presented here do not differ greatly in their assumptions about the environment as a driving force. Most significantly, it is assumed that natural systems are in a more fragile condition in Security First than in the other scenarios. This implies that ecosystem collapses and curbs on the capacity of certain natural systems to provide goods and services are more likely, even when facing the same pressures. In Policy First and especially in Sustainability First, the values of stewardship and caring for the environment play a greater role in guiding science, technology and governance, as well as in shaping economic and social development.