Ecological triage and other reasons to get up in the morning

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
– Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Heather in the heather copy

Like many environmental scientists and educators, I struggle to keep my deep sense of loss from overtaking my belief that we must not give up the fight to preserve the living systems of Earth. The science is about as grim and daunting as it can be. We have lost much of the nature that we believed so precious and we will certainly lose much more. Bearing witness is soul crushing. Although spiritual practice eases the pain, many of us who are aware of the depth of transformation underway struggle daily with despair.

It is clear that a line has been crossed and much of the damage done is irreparable on any meaningful human timescale. Scientists from many different specialties are aware that we can slow down climate change and the attendant ecological disruptions, but we can’t stop it this century. Returning our planet to anything approximating Holocene biological and geological rhythms may occur after 2100, but only if we lay the foundation for a sustainable civilization.

The ongoing destruction of the biosphere is nothing new. If we date our awareness of human impact on the diversity of life to the time of the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who formalized our system of naming species, the hemorrhaging has been accelerating for over 300 years. In fact, our global impact began 70,000 years ago when we left Africa. Whenever Homo sapiens arrived in a new part of the planet, major extinctions ensued. We have yet to more than scratch the surface in cataloging the leaves on the tree of life. The great Sixth Extinction of the Anthropocene is wiping out countless unnamed and unknown species.

In the face of such devastation, I am astonished and sometimes reduced to tears by the irrelevance of human priorities. The ongoing presidential election process in the US is a terrifying case in point. One of the two major political parties continues to deny the existence of the greatest challenge in the history of our species. Naturalists of any era have felt similar horror as they watched their fellow humans treat the masterpiece creations of natural selection with utter disregard. The great natural historian of our time, E. O. Wilson, has written eloquently and passionately about our headlong rush to destroy the diversity of life on our planet:

“We’re not yet sentient or intelligent enough to be much of anything. And we’re not going to have a secure future if we continue to play the kind of false god who whimsically destroys Earth’s living environment, and are pleased with what we have wrought.”

The reality of our utter dependence on functioning ecosystems is incontrovertible and collectively we have ignored this simple fact of physics far too long. The Australian ecologist, Will Steffen, posits that the Great Acceleration beginning in the second half of the 20th century will force us to face the consequences of our reckless disregard for the function of the biosphere. Multiple Earth systems are now transitioning to new states with manifold impacts for all ecosystems.

Our joyride is over. The Earth is imposing very real mortal limits on our behavior and it is time to sober up. The addict looking back from the mirror has acted as a sociopathic member of the family of living things. Exhibit A: Dead whales and birds with stomachs full of plastic. Exhibit B: Centinela Ridge in the Andean lowlands where in a single afternoon of logging uncounted species new to science were lost. Exhibit C: The abomination of the Canadian Tar Sands mining. This list could be endless, and it serves to demonstrate our intrinsic hubris and self-destructive belief in the nature human duality. Our young, especially males, are taught from an early age that we are separate from nature and that the natural world is something to be feared and dominated.

In the face of what seems to be a war being lost, why keep the faith that it can be better? If I am honest, there are days when I don’t. It is easy to get the F-its, especially when common discourse about climate change continues to revolve around the surreal proposition that it is not happening.

The great irony is that because we have run out of viable options, it may now be realistic to have hope. The Earth’s resources are finite and the climate is transitioning to a form that is anything but amenable to our present form of civilization. Over the next few decades we will be faced with multiple global crises driven by climate change, including accelerating sea level rise, extreme weather events, demographic shifts, infectious disease, crop failure, and famine. Climate change amplifies many of the problems caused by human population overshoot and resource depletion. Perhaps with too much optimism, I have hope that these consequences will move millions of people in the service of ideas to build a more sustainable relationship with our planet.

The process of ecological reconciliation and realignment will take place over generations, but there is evidence that it has begun. Foundational work has made it clear that our species must engage in nothing short of large scale management of our biosphere. Fully developing this effort will require the application of well established ecosystem science and new research into poorly understood processes of the biosphere. It is likely that mistakes will occur and there will be human suffering, especially among the poor, before meaningful results can be delivered. Those of us with an understanding of natural systems must redouble our efforts at targeted research, outreach, and education.

It may be that as ecologists our time has come. I have always thought that a day would arrive when ecological science would be accepted as foundational for civilization to thrive. I would wager that most of us entered the field because we were completely convinced of its relevance. Sadly, the rest of the world didn’t get it, but I am hopeful that soon ecological principles will be central, rather than marginal, to the processes that drive our economy.

Triage tri·age \trē-ˈäzh, ˈtrē-ˌ\ : (2) The process of determining the most important people or things from amongst a large number that require attention.

True to this definition, practice, research, and training in environmental science and ecology must initially focus on those aspects of the Earth’s climate and biosphere most necessary for maintaining the functional underpinnings of living systems. Triage during the coming decades will consist of identifying where our efforts can have the most impact, and deploying effective practices for carbon management and maintenance of biodiversity.

Assuming fossil fuel emissions are drastically curtailed, global scale management of the biosphere will be the most important task for the second half of this century. The IPCC Working Group III in the Fifth Assessment Report has made a good start at quantifying those human altered biological systems (agriculture, forestry, and land use) that can have the greatest leverage when properly managed. Because these systems are largely under our control, there are often clear choices for improved management. Similar approaches to management of natural sources of emissions, such as tundra, are absolutely necessary, but such plans remain poorly developed and uncoordinated worldwide. By managing the biosphere globally for increased carbon sequestration and reduced biogenic greenhouse gas emissions we can increase the likelihood that civilization will prevail through ongoing climate disruption. Conservation of biodiversity cannot succeed without this essential work.

As I noted in an earlier post, focus on pure preservation as practiced in the 20th century is no longer realistic. We are entering an era in which the emerging interactions among living things will have been largely determined by what we have wrought over the last 200 years of industrialization and population explosion, and more importantly, by how we manage the biosphere in the decades to come. There is literally no corner of the Earth that we can passively assume will function autonomously in a manner consistent with the maintenance of civilization. This is not science fiction; it is science reality.

Environmental science and ecology as established academic endeavors are not delivering the results that we need fast enough to make a difference. The academic model in which I was trained is isolating and dysfunctional for the kind of collaboration necessary for globally effective research and education. Current research priorities at NSF do not adequately reflect the urgency that we manage our profoundly damaged ecosystems. Instead of being an organizing framework for research, the US Global Change Research Program is merely one item on the NSF do-list. Academic administrations often have only a superficial notion of sustainability. Thus, they may allocate university resources to enterprises that yield short term gain, but over time can damage institutions, communities, and ecosystems.

Higher education is inappropriately focused on vocational outcomes rather than developing thoughtful effective citizens. Students have precious little contact with the natural world or the organisms that they purport to understand. The aseptic environs of the classroom and online delivery systems replace the hands-on experience that brings students face-to-face with living systems in nature. Undergraduates need to get their boots muddy and their hands dirty. Similarly, civic engagement requires substantive exposure to the arts and humanities. The liberal arts expands on the social connections that compel us to care about each other and the Earth. We should not be surprised when this generation of students grows into professional maturity without a sense of how the natural world works, or even why it matters. Basic ecological literacy must be a requirement for the baccalaureate.

Higher education has an ethical obligation to prepare a generation to build the foundation of a sustainable civilization. Again, I call for our institutions to re-examine their relevance to the immense task at hand. Presently, the reward structure within higher education favors activities that often do not lead to the kind of research, outreach, and teaching that are so critical for sustainability. I urge faculty to build support systems within the community of scholars and to give priority to being of service in this era of dire need. I recommend that administrations reconsider how they distribute resources in order to facilitate the kind of collaboration that is needed to build sustainable societies. Governing boards should direct that administrative resources, positions, and salaries reflect the highest ideals of the academy, which at this point in history must align with the existential crisis that we face.

The optimist in me chooses to believe that social order will be maintained while humankind restructures our relationship with the Earth. It seems unthinkable that our intellectual advances will be overpowered by mindless fear in the face of this long emergency. Perhaps this is not entirely wishful thinking. With global access to information and ideas, people everywhere are realizing that governments and markets are poor substitutes for communities and families. It is obvious to environmental thought leaders that accepting our ecological limitations requires a radical transformation in values. Widespread dissemination of information about the demise of our ecosystems is making it increasingly futile for vested interests to deny the reality of our environmental challenges.

It is possible that our efforts to grow beyond our adolescence will be derailed by the failure of our institutions, and social chaos will ensue. Other than through writing and speaking, I am unable to have significant influence on this possibility. I am in a position to offer my services to my profession and to students who are ready to engage in positive change. Despair benefits no one. This is all that I have and all that I can do. It is my hope that many of my colleagues will rise from their canalized toils and join the thousands of scholars who are choosing to apply their specific expertise to building a sustainable civilization.