Those of us who express concern about sustaining the natural world see some urgency in the need to change our behavior. We see value in natural ecosystems and danger if we do not sustain them. Many other people do not share this concern. Will more clarity bridge the gap?
On March 1st 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, establishing Yellowstone as the first National Park in the USA. It was also the first in the world. This action is taken by many people to mark the first flowering of ideas on conservation. But conservation is more than the setting aside of tracts of land, or ocean, to be preserved in perpetuity. And thinking about conservation started long before Grant signed that law. In one sense, conservation began with a sense that all was not right with the world, and that humanity had a responsibility to conserve as much as possible of what was right. But where did this notion of correctness in the state of the planet come from, and how do we justify it?
Old Faithful, perhaps the best-known feature of Yellowstone National Park, the oldest National Park on the planet. Photo © Yellowstone National Park, USNPS.
Over the last many years, a lot of people have expressed concern regarding the state of our environment. Some have been professional environmental scientists while others are simply people who care. Some have directed their concern to specific ecosystems or particular places while others have taken a global view. Some have used logic and data to support their claims while others have argued on the basis of ethics, morality, or the teachings of particular religions.
It’s undeniable that the environment of 2018 is not the environment of 2000, or 1950, 1872, 1776, 1492 or any of numerous other dates in the past. Our world has changed in small and big ways, and continues to do so. The concerns being expressed all derive from the notion that our present environment, or our anticipated future environment, is a less desirable one than the environment of some time in the past. What is often not clear, however, is the basis on which this judgement has been made, and the authority with which it is made. My goal here is to try and sort this muddle out, and explain where the concern comes from.
Who really cares?
Our planet doesn’t give a damn. Nor does the universe. They do not care one whit about the state of the biosphere on Earth. For billions of years in the early existence of planet Earth, it was devoid of life and therefore possessed no biosphere. Scientists have yet to find convincing proof of the existence of life on any other planets in our solar system; those planets likely lack biospheres today. But for the past 3 billion or so years, there has been life on Earth and over this time the biosphere has tended to become more complex in a number of different ways – sheer extent of biological activity, richness and variety of life forms, tonnes of biomass present. The trends toward greater complexity have neither been constant nor linear, and there have been episodes of substantial reduction in complexity (notably the five global mass extinction events), but the overall, long-term trends have been positive. Throughout all but a tiny fraction of these 3 billion years, these trends towards an increasingly complex biosphere proceeded unnoticed. The biosphere itself does not care about its state, or even its continued existence, and so far as we know the overwhelming majority of living organisms do not give a damn about the state of the environment, other than in how changes in that state might directly impact their own individual lives.
But many people care, and in discussing their concerns they usually start with the implicit assumption that caring about the state of the environment is a natural and normal concern to have. Given that there are many other people, perhaps the majority of the world population, who do not care, perhaps it’s worth exploring this shared concern. Where does it come from? What are we really caring about? After all, it may be possible to explain why we care, helping other people understand the issue? Or it may turn out that on careful reflection there is no reason why we should care, in which case we can all get on with our lives.
The biosphere, which one can almost imagine as visible in this 2015 NASA photo centered on Vancouver Island, doesn’t care about its state of health. Nor does Earth care. Nor the universe. Nor, so far as we know, does any animal other than Homo sapiens, and then only some of us care. Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.
Developing ideas about environment
Our species of human, Homo sapiens, has existed on this planet for at least 200,000, perhaps 300,000 or more years. Until recently, anthropologists agreed we had originated in sub-Saharan Africa, however a recent find in Morocco suggests archaic members of our species were present in North Africa 300,000 years ago. A pan-African origin for our species is now seen as most likely, with populations mingling as they moved back and forth across the extensive savannahs that included what is now the Sahara. Our species, and several other Homo species had culture 300,000 or more years ago, revealed by tools, use of fire, cooking of food, and ritual treatment of the dead. They may have had a clear, and well expressed, understanding of environmental matters. Or they may not.
We lack any direct evidence of what our distant ancestors thought about environmental change, and it would be dangerous to infer that they thought much about it at all. (We also have absolutely no evidence that any species other than our own has ever thought much about environment. But we also do not know for sure that elephants do not spend many hours thinking about the changing climate, or that humpbacked whales do not sing to each other about falling ocean pH. And snapping turtles just might keep diaries concerning wetland degradation.)
With the dawn of agriculture, we can surmise that people must have become aware of environmental changes, especially seasonal ones, and environmental catastrophes such as forest fires and floods. They had to be timing their management of crops and livestock in accord with seasonal cycles, and they recognized when unusual years ‘failed’ to produce needed warmth or rainfall, leading to crop failure and famine. Given the widespread myths of great floods or other catastrophes in the folklore of present-day hunter gatherers, as well as in that of agricultural or other groups, it is reasonable to assume that awareness of typical seasonal cycles, and fluctuations in, or disturbances of these cycles, also existed in pre-agricultural populations. (In that distant past, people undoubtedly thought of time as circular, operating on daily, monthly and annual – and perhaps longer – cycles. Thinking of time as linear, as an arrow into the future, came much later.)
With the advent of a written record, we have more assurance of how people thought about environment (it’s even possible that the development of linear writing led to the change in thinking about time). Certainly, Europeans in the Middle Ages recognized environmental changes, but their recognition was confined to changes in their local experience. The idea that the environments of the planet as a whole might change through time resided only in the origin myths of peoples, as ways of accounting for how the world had come into being in a remote past; after its creation the Earth was thought to provide a more or less constant environment. Departures from seasonal norms, whether cases of a year of extreme weather, a prolonged period of aberrant environmental condition such as a decade-long drought or the Little Ice Age which chilled Europe over some 400 years, or a short-term catastrophe such as a forest fire, an outbreak of insect pests or other pathogens, or an earthquake or volcanic eruption, were all recognized, talked about, recorded. They were departures from normalcy. Much thought was given to why such environmental changes had occurred, and supernatural causes were usually invoked. Such short- or long-term aberrations in environmental conditions were recognized as ‘unnatural’, and often thought to arise as punishment for wrong behavior by humans. In some other cultures they were just seen as the earthly consequences of actions by capricious gods; something that humanity and other organisms just had to put up with.
Thinking began to change, at least in Europe, with the renaissance and the scientific revolution. Over the period from about 1500 to 1800, our view of the natural world changed in many ways. We began to believe that the planet was much older, and to have changed considerably during its lifetime. Lyell’s concept of uniformitarianism informed a new geology in which the form of the landscape had been created over time by slow, readily observable processes such as erosion by wind and water. Darwin took such ideas into biology, and natural historians developed ideas about changes to natural living systems caused as responses by organisms to physical environmental change. Fossils were transformed from lithic curiosities, or misleading cues planted by the devil to divert humans towards evil, into evidence of that lengthy, changing past. There developed an appreciation that environmental changes occurred due to ‘natural’ rather than ‘supernatural’ causes, although these new ideas coexisted with a persistent belief in the superiority, and often the uniqueness, of humanity compared to other organisms, and a belief that the planet was provided for our use. (By this time, western humans thought of time as an arrow, one that moved upwards, towards a teleological perfection.) In addition, the holistic view of the natural world, long held over from Greek and Roman philosophy, was slowly supplanted by a more scientific, but also more reductionist and mechanistic one. This objectified and particularized the natural world, set humanity outside of nature, and likely helped foster the idea that the natural order was to have humans somehow in charge. With these ideas came thoughts about the goodness, the appropriateness, and the usefulness to humans of nature. We could talk about a good environment and one that was less good. Coincidentally, this willingness to think about the value of the environmental state developed at about the same time that the industrial revolution was offering abundant evidence of our ability to reduce that value. No longer were humans innocent bystanders to the changes occurring around them; sometimes we had a major part in causing those changes.
Our profound impacts on the biosphere
It is now clear that Homo sapiens has had profound impacts on the planet from at least as far back as the last Pleistocene glaciation (~110ka – 11ka) or even into the Eemian interglacial (~135ka – 110ka) which preceded it. The widespread extinctions of terrestrial megafauna during the last glacial period, on all continents except Africa, arriving so suspiciously soon after the arrival of our species, are now attributed substantially to over-exploitation by Homo sapiens. We were (are) a highly effective hunter, although (non-anthropogenic) climate change and other ecological changes may have modified the pace of some of these extinction events. Only in Africa had megafauna experienced our species during our earlier evolution and our development of hunting skills. That African megafauna had been able to evolve defenses against us, and it still persists (although many members are now perilously close to extinction).
This Late Quaternary Extinction (LQE) eliminated 34 genera of large mammal in North America (72% of mammals >44kg in weight), 50 genera (83%) of such animals in South America, and 14 genera (88%) of such large mammals in Australasia. The 2006 review by Paul Koch, UC Santa Cruz, and Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley, published in Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics documents how removal of these creatures had profound effects upon the ecology of those continents. In addition, our inferred early use of fire to manipulate landscapes to favor certain desired species, had its own impacts. Imagine how different the world would be if the megafaunas of other continents had been spared until today.
Graphs showing the percentage of animals (by body size) that became extinct during the late Quaternary extinctions on each continent. Note that the largest 2-3 size classes all became extinct at this time on all continents except Africa. Image © Annual Reviews
Modeled history of deforestation due to agricultural expansion between 1000BC and 1000AD in Europe. Land unmanipulated by humans no longer exists on that continent.
Image © Elsevier Ltd.
With the advent of agriculture, our environmental impacts grew. It is very likely that parts of Europe saw multiple episodes of deforestation, abandonment and afforestation during the Holocene, but one recent modeling study (by Jed Kaplan, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and colleagues and published in Quaternary Science Reviews in 2009), which looked only at the effects of land clearing for agriculture, reveals a dramatic deforestation of Europe between 1000BC and 1000AD, and continuing to the present. Only northern Scandinavia and Scotland escaped having their forests converted largely to grasslands. By 1000AD a ‘natural’ environment scarcely existed anywhere in Europe, although there were, and remain, extensive rural regions.
With population growth, and with the advent of the industrial revolution, our impacts on environment grew. But our awareness of these impacts grew more slowly. We saw, and commented on, local deforestation, local pollution, even a general local lack of game, but we did not see the broad scale at which our impacts were being felt. While we recognized that it was our own over-exploitation that had removed those trees or game, and our careless discarding of wastes that led to the pollution, we also knew that just over the next hill, or across the bay, there were untouched environments waiting for us to use them. Our destructive tendencies were cause for alarm, but it was local and modest alarm. It took Christmas Eve of 1968, and a photograph of Earth in the sky of the moon, to move us to an understanding of the planet-wide scope of our destructiveness, and to an awareness that over-exploitation was occurring on a planetary scale and could not continue – if ethics would not stop us, simple physics would. At least that is how thinking evolved for those of us who thought about such matters; many others remained immune to what we were doing to the planet, focusing their attention on the amazing, even inspiring, growth of the human enterprise.
Earthrise, Earth floating in the sky of the moon, photographed 24th December 1968 by Bill Anders, from Apollo 8, is a photograph, widely reprinted, that changed how people thought of this planet. Photo courtesy NASA.
It’s worth noting also that our understanding of our impacts in the marine realm remain trapped largely in the ‘pre-Earthrise’ world in which we see and understand local calamities, but do not appreciate the global extent of these. Overfishing has globally reduced the biomass of fishery species alive in our oceans by 90%, and yet most of us still see the oceans as large, remote, wild, and untouched by us. If the global demise of coral reefs, driven by repeated bleaching due to the rising sea surface temperatures caused by climate change, can teach us one thing, it will be that we are having disastrous, planetary-scale impacts on the oceans, just as we are doing on land.
History of ideas on conservation: a European beginning
There is a prevalent history of the conservation movement that implies our evolving thinking on this topic was a North American phenomenon. This history begins with President Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park. It honors Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold among others for conjuring up, during the period from 1870 to 1940, the idea of conservation of wild lands as the right thing to do, and I will visit their shrine shortly. A more accurate history recognizes the important, 17th – 18th century, European development of ideas about the value of the natural world, and the need for humans to reign in the capacity of their capitalist economies to destroy that world.
In 1990, in a short commentary in Nature, Richard Grove, Cambridge University, described this European portion of the story as a direct consequence of colonialism. In Grove’s view, beginning in the 16th century with the flowering of expansionist voyages of discovery of foreign lands, European colonialism provided a growing awareness of the detrimental impacts of European economic activities on newly ‘discovered’ lands. Europeans were aware that the industrial revolution had caused damage to European environments, but these were already simplified and tamed before industry arrived. The impact of imported industry on previously less obviously altered colonial environments was impossible to miss. Indeed, by the 18th century, the great mercantile corporations such as the British East India Company provided opportunities for scientifically-trained thinkers, employed as medical doctors or as managers of overseas commercial ventures, to observe directly the deleterious environmental consequences of deforestation, ill-though-out agrarian reforms, or other economic ‘investments’ in tropical colonies. Coming to these tropical colonies, fresh from a Europe showing much evidence of negative environmental consequences of industrialization, these individuals were well-placed to observe and correctly interpret the environmental consequences of rapid resource exploitation, and by the late 18th century they were using such experience (plus their colonial governance power) to formulate progressive policies on forest and watershed management in the colonial regions under their control. (Grove acknowledges that in some cases, these colonial Europeans were influenced by Eastern concepts of the relationship of humans to environment – the new thinking was not a purely European product.) What got exported back to Europe, along with raw materials, was a set of ideas concerning environmental value and ecosystem service, even if those terms were not expressly used.
The idea that natural environments contain intrinsic value beyond the economic value of their resources, and that economic ventures, when not managed (=constrained) appropriately, can perturb those environments and disrupt, reduce or eliminate that intrinsic value was a major step forward in thinking about our relationship to the natural world. The value identified was sometimes a value of direct economic benefit to human activities – intact forests protect soils, and regulate water flows in ways that are often beneficial to nearby agriculture. Such a value would now be termed an ecosystem service. Other times value was seen as not obviously beneficial to human economic activity, but still important to the ecological integrity of a place, to the maintenance of its biodiversity, or (in modern parlance) to its ecological resilience. Regardless of the type of value, the intrinsic value of nature is a value given by, and relevant to, humanity – value does not exist outside the human sphere.
The flowering of conservation in North America
This body of European thought on environment travelled to America, a new nation with extensive ‘natural’ landscapes, and it was there that the idea of environmental conservation as a societal good was refined. I put ‘natural’ in quotes here for a reason. We now know that native peoples had manipulated North American landscapes to a considerable degree, but the conquest of the Americas was accompanied by a major killing off of those populations and a substantial collapse of their economies – so great a collapse that the resulting regrowth of forests caused a global dip in atmospheric CO2 around 1610! This clearing out of the past made it possible for colonists to consider vast tracts of the land as virgin country untouched by humanity – a perspective that was incorrect in North America, but also one that could never have developed in Europe or in Asia.
By the middle of the 19th century, the considerable untapped economic value of the natural resources of vacant land was being recognized. In parallel with this growing awareness of economic value, there was a growing appreciation of the other intrinsic values of natural environments, and of the damage that could be done to environmental value during the process of resource extraction. To these ideas of value, was added a spiritual part.
John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. His family emigrated to the USA in 1849, settling in Wisconsin where John grew up. Wanderlust led him to California by 1867, where he spent the rest of his life. The Yosemite Valley, which Muir first saw in 1868, had a profound philosophical/spiritual impact on this young man. That impact stayed with him, helping force his development into a leading thinker and writer on the essential, spiritual value of natural landscapes, their forests and their wildlife. In hundreds of articles, published in the Atlantic, Harpers, and other eastern magazines, and over 10 books, Muir ostensibly wrote about his travels throughout North America (especially the west). In reality, he was defining a philosophy centered on the intrinsic value of natural ecosystems, including their spiritual value, the propensity of human activities to destroy that value, and the need for national governments to protect natural lands as a part of the shared wealth of the nation. Muir had considerable influence on President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Yosemite with Muir in 1903, and subsequently signed Yosemite into existence as the nation’s second national park.
John Muir had a major influence on the early conservation movement through his writings about the natural world, in particular, the Yosemite Valley. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The other major influence on Roosevelt’s thinking about conservation came from Gifford Pinchot, who he appointed head of the US Forest Service. Pinchot, a professional forester and initially an ally of Muir’s in the struggle to protect natural lands, eventually fell out with him over the relative importance of intrinsic, spiritual value and resource-based, economic value of natural landscapes; a difference in perspective that exists still within the environmental movement.
The ideas of people like Muir and Pinchot had major influence on the initial development of a conservationist environmental philosophy which valued natural places and the resources they contained, and sought to protect them. Muir, after all, was the co-founder of the Sierra Club, the oldest environmental organization in existence. Their ideas were expanded, and imbedded in the new science of ecology by a later generation including Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Leopold, who started out as a wildlife manager, and, like Pinchot, saw environmental value primarily as the economic value of sustainably managed natural resources, evolved into one of the great environmental philosophers. His A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949 a year after his death, remains in print and continues to inspire people who think about environment. In its Foreword, he wrote (using ‘land’ as we would use environment, ecosystem or biosphere),
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture. That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, took the ‘land ethic’ of Leopold and applied it to a particular problem – the use of DDT and other novel chemicals. A science editor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson had a gift for language, and three highly successful books on the sea under her belt by the time she tackled DDT. She documented the problem, and its causes. But she went far beyond what most investigative reporters would have done – she pointed to the ethical failure that permitted industry to create damaging products and to continue successfully to promote them long after the environmental, medical and other damage they cause was recognized and understood. She did not operate entirely alone, but she played a major role in expanding the perspective of environmentally concerned people beyond the preservation of iconic natural places or species. If Leopold could lament, as he did in his essay The Land Ethic, published as part of A Sand County Almanac, the lack of an ethic “dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it”, and argue that extending ethics to our relations with the natural world is “an ecological necessity”, by Carson’s time, the environmental movement fully embraced the idea of such an ethic.
Today, most conservationists acknowledge that natural ecosystems posses many sorts of value, including spiritual and esthetic value and the economic value accessible through the exploitation of their natural resources, and they are comfortable with the notion that ethical behavior requires that in interacting with the environment, one should do so in ways that ensure the long-term sustainability of that value. Even on one’s own land, it is morally unacceptable to act in ways that diminish the effective operation of the ecosystem.
But individual environmentalists still differ on the relative importance they attach to these two types of human-defined value. Within the modern conservation movement there continues a tension; some leaders, such as Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, emphasize economic value and novel ways to leverage that value to achieve protection for natural places or endangered species (see an article here), while other leaders such as Michael Soulé, at UC Santa Cruz, and founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, argue passionately for the importance of non-economic, spiritual or esthetic value as the driver of conservation, and the risk of commodification of nature if too much attention is given to the economics of resources (see a 2013 article here). In the view of Soulé and others, if we cease arguing for the ethics of conservation, we will lose the battle against human short-sightedness and selfishness.
Where does the value of natural systems come from?
At their core, the national park movement within the USA (and as exported to many other countries) and the broader conservation/environmental movement began with the idea of preservation of undeveloped landscapes, for the long-term benefit of nations. That core has been expanded and enriched by the integration of ecological ideas concerning the functioning of natural systems. But ‘preservation’ remains, and it implies that there is a state of nature that is static, and can be retained so long as human activities detrimental to that state are prevented. That static primeval nature has always been a myth, because the planet is not in stasis and because natural lands untouched by human impacts do not exist. The myth developed largely because of the peculiar history of colonization of North America, and it has been able to endure because the processes causing change in ecosystems, especially when viewed at a landscape scale, are mostly slow-acting and almost invisible. The pace of change is nearly always so slow relative to the lifespans of humans that it is not noticed. While there is occasional, calamitous, often highly destructive, change due to fire, flood, earthquake, eruption and other geological events, it is now the activities undertaken by industrial economies, first to extract natural resources, and then to prepare land for agricultural or urban use that are most obviously damaging, and state-altering to ecosystems.
This brings me back to the question I started with: Why do so many of us believe that there is value in natural ecosystems that is not present in systems extensively modified by human endeavor to provide superior agricultural, industrial, residential or cultural landscapes? What is wrong with a vision of the future that pictures the entire planet tamed to serve human needs? I suggest these two questions can be answered by focusing first on hubris.
Cultural evolution over the past 500 years or so has shifted our common view of time from circular to linear. Modern culture sees history as a linear process towards a succession of goal states, and we have been remarkably clever at convincing ourselves that the new is always also the better. Over the past 500 years or so, conventional wisdom assumes our lives have become much better. While there are innumerable examples of progress, which can be summed to suggest betterment, I think the question of whether or not we are now absolutely better off than we were 500 years ago is a question still worth pondering.
For example, the global number of refugees and other forcibly displaced people has almost doubled from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016. Not included in those numbers is an estimated 22.5 million displaced since 2008 by environmental disasters (many linked to climate change). These numbers are larger, in absolute terms, than at any time in human history. In addition, while the world has been successful in cutting the extent of extreme poverty from 30% of the global population in 1990 to 10% in 2015, there are large discrepancies among countries, and evaluations of relative wealth that use higher levels of expenditure than $1.90 per person per day (the World Bank criterion for extreme poverty) reveal increases in the numbers of poor people in many middle-income and wealthy countries. More anecdotally, did the creation of smart phones, Facebook, Google and Twitter all usher in a clear net improvement in the quality of our lives? Our rush to embrace the new may not be a certain way to assess changes in the quality of our lives.
While the Syrian refugee crisis is usually described in political terms, it has environmental root causes in a devastating drought that forced people into the already crowded cities causing unrest, savage crack-downs and civil war. Are we better off when more of us than ever before undergo forced migration? Photo of refugees arriving on Lesbos © Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty.
I also suggest that as our technological capacities have grown, we have been quite good at convincing ourselves that we know a lot more than we do. A portion of the resistance to acting on climate change derives from a widespread belief in our collective ability to engineer our way out of any problem that arises. Indeed, this faith in our ability to solve all the problems has been instrumental in maintaining our complacency in the face of an exploding global population, the rapidly approaching global crisis in potable water supply, and our rampant pollution of our coastal oceans. Every issue is observed in isolation, as a problem to be fixed, with utter confidence that the new technologies needed to do that fix will be invented in time. Our confidence is such that we routinely ignore such minor details as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us it is very difficult to build order (such as a complex ecosystem) out of disorder (a degraded one), or the even simpler idea that a perpetually growing economy (assuming the economy uses real resources) is incompatible with a finite planet. We glibly assume we will develop agriculture that will feed the 2.5 billion more people that the planet will hold by 2050, ignoring the fact that plants have had millions of years to perfect photosynthesis and it remains a low-efficiency process. Is all of this not hubris? The conceit of a naked ape who thinks he is all-powerful?
Thus, the concerns of many people about the value of natural ecosystems, and the need to ensure they survive, despite our careless deprivations. We are only naked apes with less than perfect creative capacities, and limited ability to see into the future. Under such circumstances, the precautionary principle should be invoked – we must do our best to minimize our impacts on the planet because past history has shown us that our impacts can often be decidedly bad. The values we assign to nature are human ones, and hidden behind them is the knowledge that we are now quite capable of creating a world which is far less amenable to our own existence than the one that we currently occupy. The need for conservation, the reason for valuing environmental sustainability, arises because experience tells us we are much more likely to cause critical damage to natural ecological processes than we are to build an environment that does a more effective job of providing ecosystem services than the natural one it replaces. And, yes, less likely to provide the spiritual and cultural values we see in those natural ecosystems.
The Anthropocene is a game-changer
If I had set these thoughts down in 1950 (unlikely thoughts for a kid more interested in exploring tidepools), I could stop here. Now that we live in the Anthropocene, however, there is a new complication that must be taken into account. Many of our actions over past years have combined to cause global change at a pace that is far faster than in previous times. Whether we consider the pace of warming, of ocean acidification, of sea level rise, or even the pace at which novel chemical compounds are being released into the environment as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, or microplastics, the pace of change is far higher than at nearly any time in geological history. Never mind the nature of the changes. The pace of change is taxing the capacities of species, and the natural ecosystems they comprise, to respond, adapt and evolve. Because of this, conservation has suddenly become far more difficult. Setting aside a new national park in the Anthropocene is no guarantee that the ecological systems of that place will be sustainable into the future. In fact, we can be quite sure that all that will have been done is ensure that that place will proceed to change, possibly to degrade, in ways that are different to what would happen if no protective status was put in place.
The idea of a primeval nature, with intrinsic value worth protecting from human interference was always a myth. But setting aside places like Yellowstone and Yosemite did secure locations to continue changing along slow paths, ones to which the biota was well adapted, and ones imperceptibly slow to most humans. That simple approach to conservation is no longer valid, because our planetary-scale disruptions of the biosphere continue to have their effects. To truly achieve environmental sustainability in the Anthropocene, we must continue to act locally to protect selected valued places from our local deleterious impacts, while we simultaneously act globally to rein in those other actions that are pushing major changes at the planetary scale – a tough challenge indeed.
This graph shows that, as of 2017, our emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, despite all the effort directed to climate change in recent years. They continue to rise because the increase in our demand for energy far exceeds the rate at which we are transitioning away from use of fossil fuels to provide that energy. The future is unknown, but most projections are gloomy – getting to <2oC increase in global mean temperature is going to be very difficult.
Image © InsideClimate News.
Furthermore, in the Anthropocene, with a human population of 7.5 billion heading towards 10 billion by 2050, and with rapid industrialization under way across many countries that were, until recently, agrarian, our impacts locally and globally are bigger than ever and growing larger still. Therefore, the much more demanding task now required if we are to maintain environmental sustainability must be undertaken at a time when our actions have a capacity to inadvertently perturb ecosystems that is far greater than it has ever been. This is why I and many other people are so deeply concerned about the environmental crisis – the challenge we face now is way bigger, and way more complex, than ever before, and there is no certainty that we are capable of success. It’s essential to maintain an optimistic, can-do attitude re the need for environmental conservation. It’s hubris to think it’s going to be easy. It would be foolhardy indeed to give up, become complacent, and assume we will somehow muddle through. In many ways, we are like dinosaurs, peering into the sky, watching the asteroid descend. Only this time, we are the asteroid. What are we going to do next?