Blog Archive

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Stephen Mulkey: Sleepwalking toward a new ecology

by Stephen Mulkey, The Environmental Century, March 29, 2015

The pace of ecological change is quickening and I see little sense of urgency to address the negative consequences that are unfolding. The increasing speed of change is a direct consequence of two interacting drivers – resource use and climate change. The long standing processes of human use of natural resources and resulting habitat degradation have increased in scale and impact as our population has continued to explode. Adding to this, as defense analysts have argued, climate change is both a primary driver and amplifier of change. Collectively these factors are driving worldwide ecosystem change at a pace and scale far exceeding any previous period of change in the history of our planet.
Will Steffen and colleagues recently published updates of the famous “Great Acceleration” graphs, which showed major socio-economic trends in resource use from 1750 to 2000. It is no surprise that none of these crucial trends shows any evidence of slowing over the last decade (Steffen et al., 2015, Anthropocene Review 1-18). Although the starting point remains an issue for academic debate (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014, Quaternary International 1-8), there is little doubt that we have entered a new geological epoch whose hallmark characteristic is the impact of humans. The scientific community has declared this to be the Anthropocene epoch (my personal preference was for the term Homogeocene, but this never gained traction).
Steffen et al. 2015.
All ecologists and natural historians who have lived more than a few decades are painfully aware of numerous local habitats that have degraded beyond recognition in our lifetimes. Quite independent of the effects of climate change, we are watching these changes unfold so quickly that destruction can essentially be overnight. The legendary botanist, Alwyn Gentry, witnessed the now classic example of the loss of dozens of endemic species as a consequence of a single episode of logging at Centinela Ridge in Ecuador in 1978. This scenario is being played out with increasing speed on land and in marine habitats all over the globe as the Sixth Extinction ensues. Climate change significantly amplifies this steadily increasing loss.
Although ecologists and conservationists have long understood these trends, it is disturbing to me that our institutions and government agencies seem to be clueless about how to manage such change. Simply put, we should be vigorously engaged in proactive adaptation. It seems logically axiomatic that proactive adaptation is far less disruptive and costly than is reactive adaptation. The water crisis in California is a case in point. For well over a decade, general circulation climate models have projected prolonged decadal drought for California and the American Southwest. For many years, the booming agriculture and population growth of the state have been on a collision course with dwindling water resources. Recently, NASA data have shown that California has one year of water reserves above ground. The implications of this for human and natural systems are extreme. Had proactive adaptation been implemented a decade ago, this situation would be much more manageable and much of the pain of conservation and likely rationing could have been avoided.
Most alarming to many ecologists is the speed at which climate change is impacting species and habitats. Evidence has been accumulating for over two decades that species are responding to climate change and  shifts in growing zones (e.g., Walther et al. 2002, Nature 389-385). The implications of these studies are profound for the stability and predictability of ecosystems. Proactive management of forest, prairie, freshwater, wildlife, and marine habitats must begin now if we are to hope of having viable resources in the second half of this century. Forests are an example of change that influences survival and reproduction of tree species within the lifetime of individual trees.
The management challenges posed by this speed and degree of change are manifold. When I was a wildlife student at a big university in the Midwest, I was taught that construction of nature preserves was the best approach to ensure the longevity of species. Now we see that the growing zones are on the move and are increasingly decoupled from the species at the base of the food chain. As this decoupling progresses we can expect many preserves to be located in climate regions that are inappropriate for their various conservation functions. Without aggressive intervention, we can expect widespread transformation and even outright failure of species interactions and functional processes within ecosystems. Clearly, we need a much more dynamic and proactive approach to conservation than was typically assumed in the 20th century.
The specific tools and approaches for such dynamic conservation remain nascent in their development at our major research institutions. To respond to the need for proactive management we must refocus public funding to provide strong incentive for research and implementation of adaptive management specific to this new paradigm of change. For example, habitat corridors connecting protected areas will become an increasingly important conservation tool as climate change ensues. The theory and practice of habitat corridor establishment and development are only superficially understood. Similarly, we must more fully understand the complex process of assisted colonization so that we can move species as their preferred habitat changes or degrades. Indeed, it would seem that we must re-examine our understanding of invasive species in this brave new ecology. Unless we make the development of such tools for proactive adaptation a top priority, we will certainly lose much of our natural heritage. Indeed, our children and their descendants will live on a depauperate and diminished planet.
My recommendations and concerns are only relevant if we can mitigate the causes of climate change before midcentury. Although management of human use of natural resources has always been an urgent need, climate change has increased the stakes and made the costs of inaction staggeringly high. An increase of more than 3-4 ˚C above the preindustrial global average is unthinkable. If we don’t manage and effectively halt emissions of greenhouse gases, there is little that sophisticated management can do to stem the impending losses.
I am struck that many of those working hard to move governments and corporations to address climate change are simply unfamiliar with the concept of ecological change.  It has not been part of their training or thinking, and thus they focus on the impacts of climate change on human engineered systems. This is extremely short sighted given that all human systems are ultimately tied to our planetary ecology. As pointed out by Sir Nicholas Stern, climate change is the greatest market failure in history because there is no legitimate way to externalize this cost.
We stand at a crossroads for human civilization. It remains to be seen if we can accept the reality that we are of, and not separate from, the Earth. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his landmark The End of Naturethere remains no place on our planet that has not been touched by the hand of humanity, often with devastating consequences for living systems. Despite this widely understood reality, we continue to act as if we can, with impunity, irrevocably alter the fundamental life support systems of our home. David Orr pointed out in his indictment of politics in the US, The Last Refugethat contrary to conservative claims, most of the major predictions of ecologists have turned out to be fundamentally correct. Today the warning signs could not be more clear and the outcome more crucial. We can continue our zombie walk into the future, ignoring the data from well established science, but this time the consequences will be irrevocable on a millennial timescale.


Bioneer: Tony C. Saladino said...

This is why I have been planting trees through our 100% volunteer organization, ECO-Tours of Wisconsin Inc. for nearly a decade and why I am making biochar and sharing that age-old technology as widely as possible.

Anonymous said...

Why continue to assume that humans do ANY of the following:

a) assess risks accurately;
b) adapt their behavior accordingly;
c) accept their own responsibility;
d) choose the long term wiser path;

None of the above exists within the human record. If it does - it is always coupled with profits and future potential for profits. This adopted methodology for survival has now taken over 99.999% of the world.

Therefore, the basic premises that proactive "management" will ever be adequately addressed is flawed.

Moreover, humans should not even attempt to "manage" the environment. This is based on even more false assumptions that we can do a better job then Nature itself.

Nature has always been "in the way" and THE source of resources for needs and profits. But it it profits that have become the problem - not needs. The paradigm of money, value, growth, advancement and expansion (people, places, things) is severely flawed.

It has all led to this global decline in natural "capital" and over-construction, over-population, "resource" collapse.

It will always lead to this and all the points raised in the article. But expecting us to "manage" our way out of this is ridiculous. If we could have done that - we would have done it already. But we're not going to change now.

We will not escape what we are. THAT is the real problem.

We would have to become something very, very different then what we are today and it can be reasonably argued that we cannot do this.

We lack the desire, knowledge, awareness, empathy and now the environment to make such a change.

It is self-evident that humans will go the way the rest of the species have gone - into irreversible decline and extinction as the environmental conditions degrade so badly that we can no longer manipulate the environment sufficiently to support us. We will sacrifice everything that is left instead in a desperate attempt to continue. It will not work.

The cause of all this is us - not Nature. This is also very self-evident now, but barely recognized by billions of selfish, careless, indifferent humans.

There will be a great deal of angst and anguish to prevent this, but it won't matter. Nature is as indifferent to us as we are to her. All the charts and graphs in the world won't change a thing.

But I applaud the effort.

What we need is a new culture, but there is no path from this one to that one. I used to think it existed - but not anymore.

Stephen said...

I understand and sympathize with these comments. I am, however, not hopeless. Ultimately, our ability to have a meaningful future depends on how we solve the failure of democracy. The liberal base of power does not exist because labor no longer has any leverage. The conservative far right is empowered by Citizens United, and middle has been disenfranchised and is becoming increasingly impoverished.

Obviously, the entire system needs to be disrupted. Here is a possible way forward: