Thursday, 4 February 2010

Novel Ecosystems

“It's the end of the world as we know it.....
….. and I feel fine”
The Long Term Ecology module is having a strange effect on me.
When we start looking beyond ourselves – beyond a lifetime, beyond the century, beyond the millennium and beyond the time human beings have on earth – everything seems fine. We as a species have been on this planet for a negligible part of its life time, and so although we may leave some permanent scars, whatever we do on this earth is likely to be relatively insignificant. And what one individual does in his life time is sure to be completely insignificant.
I had an uneasy feeling after the first session, but it really got to me with a paper by James Harris and his friends, titled 'ecological restoration and global climate change', which we had to read for the class on 'determination of baselines and natural system variability'.
Whenever we try to undo the damage and destruction we have caused in the natural world – 'restoration', the first question that comes up is what do we want to restore to? The general idea is to take it back to 'the ecosystem present before human influence became pronounced on the landscape' (the definition of a baseline). But how far back do we go to define this baseline? Twenty years? To a point before industrialisation? But what about the fires and other manipulation by indigenous people, possibly thousands of years ago? I would tend to go with ‘before industrialisation’, and would modify the baseline definition to 'the ecosystem present before fossil-fuel aided human influence became pronounced on the landscape'.
And I thought I was OK with that. Indigenous people and their rubbing sticks for fire in slash and burn agriculture was acceptable. They were a part of the ecosystem, and interacted with it on a somewhat equal footing. Us modern lot, with JCBs and selective herbicides are not. We’ve had an unfair advantage, and the ability to destroy it completely. So as far as I’m concerned, in our efforts to save the planet we should try not to meddle with the natural world too much – only try to take things back to the way they were a few 100 years ago. Not try to play God and intensively 'manage' forests under the arrogant assumption that we understand how it all works.
But then along came the Harris paper (and the lecture) and disturbed my peace. The global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate – rainfall is becoming erratic, sea levels are rising, the temperature is going up and everything is altogether more unpredictable. Our first reaction is to try to stop it all and possibly slow down climate change. But are we really going to be able to stop the gas guzzlers? We can perhaps slow them down a bit, but with the whole world now aspiring to the very lifestyle and values (of greed and accumulating wealth) that is destroying the world there seems little hope. From any angle climate change looks inevitable.
Animal and plant species are also going to have to adapt very rapidly if they want to survive. Population ranges are going to have to move away from the equator and towards the poles to find suitable cooler habitats. Or perhaps up mountain slopes to higher altitudes. Unfortunately though, they can't really do that any more. We've got all the land around them, and have fenced them into 'protected areas'. So species are going to die out, and ecosystems are going to stop functioning. Unless we are able to find and introduce other species that can survive in the new conditions to replace the roles played by the locally extinct ones. We can’t just try to restore things back to the way there were, because we can’t reverse climate change. We need to experiment at a massive scale – a mix and match between a host of species to create 'novel ecosystems'.
Our iconic Nilgiri tahr will go up and up the mountains, but they won't be able to evolve wings fast enough, so our best bet would be to catch them all and throw them in with their Himalayan cousins.
Perhaps stop trying to fight lantana. Just modify its genes slightly so that the herbivores can eat it.
When it gets too hot for the cerana and dorsata bees we transport their African relatives over to see how they can cope.
We don't have a choice - even with our limited understanding we have to try and play God.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.



  1. Of course you feel fine... humans like all other species on earth will ultimately go extinct (maybe sooner than later considering the destructiveness of human nature) and be replaced... and our planet will then be saved... but will it still be 'our' planet if we no longer exist?? Are we conserving it so that future generation could enjoy it or because it is our duty (towards other living beings) as sentient beings??? Our existence just constitutes a tiny bit of the earth's history and will ultimately just be a planet's bad dream... I feel fine too...

  2. Now, I do not believe any of you! That ''I feel fine because we are a tiny little bit in the history of the planet'' sounds just too much as trying to convince yourselves that it's OK that we lost the battle, it wasn't that important anyway.
    I share the unsettling feeling after long-term ecology class. It has destroyed my enemy! I was fighting the bad guys, the mean un-natural humans, in favor of the sacred nature, the pristine pieces of earth where our dirty foot hadn't set its print. And now someone tells me that the forest I thought of as pristine is actually a result from ancient human activity. That invasive species might sustain ecosystems with more species. All of the sudden, everything was my enemy, the battle was lost already, and that was just too much.
    But than maybe this just means that we shouldn't be trying to save the world from the forces of evil and for eternity, but just trying to bring some good to our every day lives. It's not only the outcome that matters, but also the journey. We can make the lifetime of living things, including humans, a better one.
    Let's say that a million years we are allowed to look back into our lives on earth. Maybe humans will be extinct by then, maybe all life. But we could still remember that we did something with our lives, and it had value when we did it. Maybe we saved a little bit of forest, an elephant, or help improve the life of some people. Something was done and it can never be erased. My spirit would be happy.
    Now maybe this is just a more intrincate consolation price, but it makes me feel fine.


  3. I do not believe that climate change has to reach the catastrophic stage for biodiversity. All may seem hopeless now, "with the whole world now aspiring to the very lifestyle and values (of greed and accumulating wealth) that is destroying the world." But miracles do occur, and changes happen faster than you think. I believe in the TIPPING POINT. Once enough people adopt low-carbon living, everyone else will too. (And I must add that there is no low-carbon tactic more effective than having fewer children!!) This demand will fuel technological innovation and cast light on alternative energies and lifestyles.

    Do not lose hope; a part can change the whole.