Glacier Lake from Eagle Cap Trail Maybe

Approaching the Ecological Event Horizon

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

15 September 2016

oregon-forest-mortality-2011View from Tam McArthur Rim of lodgepole pine and whitebark pine killed by mountain pine beetle within the prior 10 years, Deschutes County, OR, in the Deschutes National Forest, September 2011. (Photo: Garrett Meigs, Oregon State University)

“If looking into the sun may cause blindness, then human insights into nature entail a terrible price.” – Andrew Glickson, Australian National University, 2014

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet.” James Watson, University of Queensland, 2016


This past July, I had the privilege of backpacking in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness with two extraordinary young adults, Andrew and Sachi, who call me Dad. A curse of being an ecologist is that I sometimes see things that others don’t, and these things are often alarming. Continue reading “Approaching the Ecological Event Horizon”


The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Climate Change, and The Public Trust

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

30 August 2016

_XYZ6725The Maine North Woods, Mark Picard / NRCM


On Wednesday, 24 August 2016, President Obama designated a large parcel of Maine’s North Woods as the nation’s newest federal parkland. Many environmental groups and environmentally inclined citizens have worked diligently for several years to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. These 87,500 acres were donated by Roxanne Quimby, a founder of the Burt’s Bees product line. The gift included a promised contribution of $40 million to support operations of the park. A gift of this magnitude is in the finest tradition of grand philanthropic giving to the National Park Service and is a much-needed boost to the chronically depressed economy of Maine. Although the benefits of preserving this area are manifold in the near to immediate term, I submit that the greatest value will be its ongoing contribution to our ability to respond to climate change. Continue reading “The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Climate Change, and The Public Trust”

Mossy Chaos copy

The Value of Carbon Capture and Sequestration as an Ecosystem Service

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Mossy Chaos copy
Evidence of chloroplasts doing their job of carbon capture and sequestration in service of the exquisite plants in the Olympic Range of Washington. (Photo courtesy of S. Mulkey)

“Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s lifecycle.”
Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) speaking in the House on Earth Day 2009

 “Essentially these communities of organisms are our life support system.” Hal Mooney, Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology, Stanford University, 2011


Over thirty years of industry-sponsored disinformation has compounded the public’s lack of scientific understanding of how our planet works. I recall the time in 2007 when I visited Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s office in Washington to speak on behalf of a doomed energy bill. A few minutes into my pitch, I realized that the young staffers dutifully taking notes did not understand that plants can affect the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere because they remove CO2 from the air. I was happy to explain photosynthesis and point out that every molecule of carbon in our bodies had been taken from the atmosphere by a plant before it entered the food web.

Public understanding of the profound disruption of the carbon balance of Earth should be as commonplace as our knowledge of influenza or how to drive a car. But, it is hardly fair to blame the public for scientific illiteracy when scientists use opaque jargon and doublespeak. Continue reading “The Value of Carbon Capture and Sequestration as an Ecosystem Service”

The integrity of ecosystems

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

“An essential paradox of wilderness conservation is that we seek to preserve what must change.”  — Steward Pickett and P.S. White 1985

“We must focus our attention on the rates at which changes occur, understanding that certain changes are natural, desirable, and acceptable, while others are not.”  — Daniel Botkin 1990


We have arrived at a point in history when it is clear that we have the responsibility for the survival of countless species of plants and animals. Continue reading “The integrity of ecosystems”

What qualifies as scientific authority?

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH)

“…this 97% [of climate scientists accepting human-caused global warming], that doesn’t mean anything.” Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)

“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Stephen Colbert, satirist

studies_consensussource Skeptical Science 
Continue reading “What qualifies as scientific authority?”

Higher education in the environmental century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

 “….what we’re doing today with greenhouse gas emissions — which is just a moment when you look at the geophysical timescales — has consequences for decades, centuries, millennia.” —Ricarda Winkelmann, Climate Scientist, Potsdam Institute, 2016

“Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope.”Lester Brown, Environmental Analyst, 2008

Planetary Boundaries (Image credit: Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre; Wikimedia Commons) Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009 (doi:10.1038/461472a) and Steffen et al. 2015 (doi:10.1126/science.1259855). The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.

Two overarching imperatives have come together to provide the framework for my lifework. The first of these is the long emergency driven by the existential threats of climate change and biosphere transformation. As a scientist, I have felt compelled to make my academic life relevant to these threats, which are illustrated above as safety margins for human activities. My research on the ecology of tropical forests has been meaningful in this context, but in early 2000, I became increasingly aware that higher education is broadly failing to prepare generations of students to face the unfolding crises of the environmental century. Thus, the second imperative is the need to transform higher education to provide students and professionals with the understanding to respond to profound disruptions of our biosphere and civilization. This represents a new paradigm of relevance for higher education, and increasingly students are asking how they can be a part of a meaningful response to these challenges. Continue reading “Higher education in the environmental century”