Is It Too Late To Start Again?

Posted by on June 1, 2013 in Featured, Science, Thoughts | 4 comments



The Anthropocene brings with it several challenges, and not the least of them is the question “Where to from here?” Because the very nature of the Anthropocene is an irreversible change to the planet brought on by humanity, the “where to” question may, to many seem null. But let’s make one thing clear: While we have destroyed many ecosystems and sent many plants and animals into extinction, the very reason we are here as the dominant species capable of creating such change is the fact that we are resilient and adaptable. Without our unique ability to adapt and change with our environments, humans would have gone the way of the mastodon many centuries ago. Often times the biggest threat to the survival of a species is being too specialised and too dependent upon current situations.

Given that we have changed our environment to an irreparable state (meaning that it is too late to return the environment to what it once was), should we still focus our efforts on trying to return ecosystems to their initial state? Is this even possible?

In a recent editorial in New Scientist from May 16th, titled “Rebuilding not rewinding is the future of conservation“, the author  wrote (bolding is mine):

Species are threatened largely because their habitats are threatened. Only by saving ecosystems can we save species.

But “saving” ecosystems can no longer mean just preserving them in aspic, or rewinding them back to some romantic, pristine past. Most ecosystems have been altered by human activity; some of the ones we cherish, such as heathland, were created by it. And in any case Earth has always changed, so there is no such thing as an original state to aim for.

We must now accept that we live in a human-dominated world and that our primary goal should be healthy ecosystems rather than pristine ones. If that means engineering them or creating artificial ones, so be it.

This statement may have many traditional environmentalists up in arms, as is seems to go against every aspect of conservation that environmentalists have stood for. The problem here is, though, that it is true. Having grown up with parents who were environmental scientists, and a mother who is highly involved in the preservation of some specific local sites around her area, it is a difficult cognitive shift in attitude to move from the mindset of “Leave it alone or it will disappear” to the mindset of “If we leave it alone, it may disappear.”

It would appear, however, that much of the damage is already done to our world, and we need to come to terms with this in order to make any moves forward. This shift in focus is already apparent in the conservation efforts we undertake today; Reforestation will not recreate a “pre-human” environment any more than an artificial limb will make a limb grow back. What it will do is provide artificial habitats that mimic the original ones to such a degree that the species that depend upon it can live safely and into the future.

While, to many, this may seem to be a “Plan B” that lets us off the hook for our ecological disasters, nothing could be farther from the truth. Our current environmental policies are far from stringent enough to even allow for the creation of artificial habitats for endangered species, but what little we have done has proven to be effective in those areas we maintain. In other words, we are not doing enough, but at least there is some evidence that our efforts are not in vain.

The New Scientist article that the above-mentioned editorial links to speaks of a focus on the environments of endangered species instead of focusing on the species themselves. By doing this, we create environments that can sustain and maintain populations of species, and have a hand in maintaining these environs to ensure we do not damage them further. It is definitely food for thought, and an attitudinal shift of this kind may be our only option in a world facing further degradation at the hands of humanity.

One important thing to point out though, this would require not a loosening of the efforts we are currently undertaking in regards to capping CO2 output, environmental pollution and conservation of existing and remaining habitats. In fact, it requires that we redouble our efforts, moving the topic of environmental to the forefront of politics and governmental policies, and into the mainstream of the sciences, so we can use our collective knowledge and research to achieve these goals. I don’t have the answer here, as the problems are many and varied, but the rhetoric of our policy makers needs to shift away from economies and continual growth to a long-term focus on the survival of the remaining parts of our planet. The money-focused language of today’s politics should be replaced with terms like “sustainable growth” and “responsible land use”. We are, after all, responsible for the state the planet is in, and it is up to us to make changes where we can.

This renewed focus will become more necessary as human populations rise, and demands upon natural resources grow. Third world countries are finally rising from poverty, and many inhabitants of these countries are demanding the kinds of privileged lifestyles that we in the west have taken for granted. Each person in India or Africa who can now afford to own a car, will want to do so. This will put a strain on our remaining resources, and add to the toll of environmental pollution. Once we reach a world population of 9 billion (predicted in 2050), if we use the current way of thinking about how we consume, there will be little left to consume.

It is too late to start again. We have changes this planet so much that this is the initial state we have to work from to create our futures. There is no going back to the previous state, whatever that was. We have to be honest with ourselves and see the problem as it exists now, and make an effort to not make it any worse, rather than a futile romantic struggle to return earth to a pre-human condition. In this process, we can address the real problems out environment faces without a rose-tinted hippy-like utopia-seeking dream.

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  1. “It has been argued that the Anthropocene may transition to a much longer epoch of human stewardship over the environment known as the” 

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  2. Doesn’t anyone else find it curious that Earth is the only planet in the solar system currently able to support carbon based life forms? This does not suggest to me that we are the normal state of being for a planet. Venus and Jupiter have constant storms in their atmosphere that are probably changing whatever’s inside constantly. Mars looks like it might have had changes occurring on it at one time. I observe that while we humans have the power to change our environment, the predominant way we do this is by destruction. When we do ‘create’ something, like say a pier or a dam or a canal, it is for selfish purposes of commerce or convenience, and tends to destroy habitats for other species, which we then render extinct by manipulating the land to serve our own selfish needs. We have not learned how to properly preserve the Earth. In fact, it doesn’t look like that’s our job. We’re not supposed to sustain the environment. Our job is to help change it, and when our job is done, Earth will no longer have any need of us. Just like over 99% of other species that have ever existed on this planet. We’re not the final result. Mankind is just another cog in the wheel; another step along the way. We won’t see the destination just like we weren’t present when the journey started. Ecology is another selfish idea in a long line of selfish ideas. We want to perpetuate our own existence, and the universe is simply not interested in what we want. We’re just another storm.

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    • Selfishness has such negative connotations. What’s evidently unique to us mouth-talkers is that we can temporarily spout moral narratives of this universe as if we might look back at puny earth and feel nothing …but ultimately we mouth-talkers tend towards reverting back to a earthing’s view of ecology and economy — so called “econology”. Wherein being selfish and species-ist is not so much egotistical, as humane.

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      • blamer i’d recommend “selfish selflessness” in that we should ideally participate in behavior that helps others but also helps ourselves at the same time. Not making choices where we pick one over the other. If I can’t swim, jumping into the water to save someone drowning will just get us both killed, but if I throw a flotation device, i stay warm and dry and the drowning man now has a chance. However, at no time should we give in to the illusion that this changes anything. Mankind is doomed to go the way of the dinosaurs, the dodo, and every other species in this universe. At best we are only postponing the inevitable. We can try to save every species on this planet, but that doesn’t change the fact a species of bug or bat or fish probably died while you were reading this and you didn’t even notice.

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