Finding meaning in the era of profound ecological change

Sunday service delivered to the Nature Coast Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

7 August 2016

Stephen Mulkey, PhD

I am a tropical forest ecologist by training, and for the past 20 years, I have increasingly focused my scholarship on climate change and the role of plants in the global carbon budget. I finished my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in 1986 and was affiliated with the Smithsonian for over 20 years. In 2002 while working in Brazilian regrowth forest, I became troubled by the massive ecological disruption and human misery in Eastern Amazonia. I returned to my lab, assembled my graduate students, and asked them why our research mattered. After they stopped giving me the answers that they thought I wanted to hear, we concluded that, although funded, well published, and respected, our work was marginally relevant. We began to look for ways to have a bigger impact, and this eventually led me to become an interdisciplinary program developer, science advisor to policymakers, and president of an environmental college.

I have struggled to find what to say to you that is both realistic and uplifting. This is reflective of my internal struggle to find meaning in this era of global consequences, which I refer to as the Environmental Century. If you are awake in the daytime, I am sure that you would agree that these are deeply troubling times.

As an ecologist, I understand our long emergency from an existential perspective acquired from many years of bearing witness to the disruption of our biosphere. My worldview includes the other living things on this planet, and not because I want to save them, or conserve or restore nature. The meaning of these terms remains scientifically unclear. Instead, I recognize that at this point in history the fates of all living things are bound together, and in the face of profound ecological disruption, we must find a way to maintain the form and function of our biosphere.

Here are some of the major trends that I offer for your consideration this morning.

[slides – download here]

These first two figures show the acceleration of resource use and the response of Earth systems.

[Slide 1]


[Slide 2]


These trends would not be particularly alarming if our planet has the excess capacity to accept such large and rapid changes. Unfortunately, the operation of transnational corporations and the maintenance of our global economy require continual growth and are based on the utterly false assumption that the world is effectively unlimited.

[Slide 3] Planetary Boundaries. Researchers at the Resilience Center at Stockholm University have quantified the safe operating limits for humanity with respect to key life support components. I show this figure to illustrate that we have exceeded these limits for biodiversity loss, additions of excess reactive nitrogen and phosphorus, land system change, and climate change.


[Slide 4] The temperature spiral. The 1.5˚C limit adopted by the Paris climate accord will require us to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The 2.0˚C limit is quite arbitrary with relatively little science to support this as a “safe” increase. Presently, all nations’ commitments at the Paris Conference of the Parties would achieve, at best, 3.0˚C.


[Slide 5] Tipping points in Earth systems. I offer this merely to illustrate the comprehensive global scope of disruptions underway.


Among many consequences, the science points me to five realities.

(1) Presently human-caused climate change is an amplifier, rather than a primary driver, of human impacts on ecosystems. In fact, our use of resources and habitat destruction is well established as the cause of the Sixth Great Extinction in the history of the Earth. Most of these losses are silent and are more likely to affect beetles, rather than charismatic animals like the Florida panther. Toward the middle of this century, without massive changes in our emissions, climate change will inexorably become the dominant cause of widespread disruption of the biosphere, vastly accelerating species displacements and local, regional, and global extinctions.

(2) Without dramatic reduction in carbon pollution, climate change will set in motion the restructuring of all of Earth’s biological systems. The era of upheaval resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago is the most comparable period of climate change in the geological record in terms of the speed and comprehensive nature of the impact of human-caused climate change. Similarly, the current transformation will be measured in geologic time. Because the natural carbon cycle is intrinsically a return to a climate uninfluenced by human emissions will require more than a thousand years, even if all fossil fuel pollution were to stop immediately. On any meaningful human timescale, the climate of the 20th century is gone forever, regardless of our current and future efforts to control emissions. On any meaningful human timescale, the pristine habitats of the 20th century are unrecoverable.

(3) Emissions from the living portion of the Earth are accelerating and amplifying climate change. In addition to the urgent need to dramatically reduce emissions from fossil fuels, we must now manage the biosphere to maximize carbon uptake and minimize carbon emissions from living systems. The tundra is thawing, methane is emerging from once frozen lands and from warming coastal waters, forests and savannas are burning, extreme weather is damaging ecosystems, extended drought is resulting in impaired growth of forest, there is worldwide forest dieback, massive peat fires are now common – and all of these things increase emissions from natural sources.

(4) The Earth’s oceans are undergoing massive change –

  • because of their absorption of much of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere, ocean acidity has increased 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution,
  • the pace of acidification is more rapid than any similar process in over 300 million years,
  • the oceans have absorbed over 95% of greenhouse warming and they will affect the climate for hundreds of years as they thermally equilibrate with the atmosphere,
  • acidification and warming of surface waters are disrupting marine ecosystems and killing coral worldwide at an unprecedented rate, and
  • sea level rise will exceed 6 ft by 2100 and is accelerating because of thermal expansion of surface waters and increasingly from melting ice from Greenland and Western Antarctica.

(5) As reported in the journal Science, human population will not stabilize during this century, and may reach as high as 12.3 billion souls by 2100. In 2012, the WWF estimated that at current rates of consumption we will need two Earths by 2030. Over the next 40 years, we will need to produce as much food as we have in the last 8,000 years of agriculture.


These realities are painful and, like you I’m sure, cause my mind to recoil. But, it is inescapable that ecological change during this century will be comprehensive and profound. Because of the speed of change, preservation of nature as it has been in our lifetimes will mostly not be possible. For most ecosystems our task is to maintain form and function, preserving ecosystem services, such as watershed integrity and nutrient cycling, which we rely on, while saving as many species as possible. Over the coming decades and beyond, the biological communities themselves will transform into something different, in some cases vastly different than they are now.

Given that I and many thousands of other conservationists have worked most of our professional lives to prevent these changes, what must we do now that widespread transformation and disruption are inevitable?

Some ecologists, such as Guy McPherson of U Arizona, have given up. They believe that their role is simply to bear witness.

I disagree with this fatalism. Anyone who has witnessed a friend or family member die of a terminal illness knows the Kübler-Ross five stages of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages have been applied to our collective reaction to the reality of climate change, but I hasten to point out that dying is not in the cards for the human species as a whole. The science suggests that we will not go extinct, at least not this century, but if we manage ourselves poorly there will be much suffering. I believe that it is important to get to the acceptance stage as quickly as possible. As is true for the dying, after acceptance, constructive action is possible. Much work needs to be done.

The disruption of our biosphere is, however, an existential threat to our civilization. Our current emissions trajectory will cause between 4˚C and 5˚C increase in average global temperature by 2100 – an estimate that I view as conservative. Such an increase is not compatible with civilization as currently configured.

The philosopher Felix Adler said that the purpose of life is not happiness but worthiness. How do we find worthiness, and thus meaning, in our existence when so much of what we cherish will be disrupted or lost?

I employ what I refer to as spiritual axioms to guide my search for meaning during our long emergency.  Here are few of the most important.

Axiom 1. We need each other. It is a fact that we all live in the shelter of each other, and this is simply not negotiable. Working and living alone for any extended period is without exception deeply painful. I try to respect this reality at all times. This is derived from our evolutionary biology – we are obligate social primates. Natural selection acting on countless variations of the human organism has created our obligate need for one another. We have no claws, no fur, no fangs, and we don’t run very fast. Intelligence alone will not save you from becoming a predator’s lunch, or for that matter, assure your success in modern life. It is our collective power and wisdom that will determine our success as we face the most significant challenge in the history of our species.

Axiom 2. All other axioms depend on axiom number 1.

Axiom 3. Our genes do not determine who we are or what will become of us. Nature vs. Nurture is not a useful way to understand how we will respond to the transformation of our planet. We need not be driven by our instinctual fears. Instead, our ability to acclimate and reconfigure our civilization is best understood as Nature via Nurture. Our experiences and actions on this journey into the unknown will shape the expression of our instincts. This plasticity gives us the ability to at least partially guide our fate.

Axiom 4. As a species, we are not evil, and we did not intentionally get ourselves into this mess. Blaming ourselves or each other is not useful. We arrived at this point in our history by doing what you might expect any intelligent social species would do – we used concentrated forms of energy to build a civilization and maximize our collective Darwinian fitness. Now that we know what is wrong, it is urgent (and highly adaptive) that we do things differently.

Axiom 5. Self-awareness is our most powerful tool for managing our future. Without awareness of our situation and what we are as a species, we will continue to make bad choices – reacting rather than taking thoughtful action. This may seem obvious, but current world trends show that it is hard to practice, given our tendency to allow our base instincts to control our actions.

We must be skeptical of simple answers to complex problems. Addressing climate change and living sustainably on this planet will require humanity to understand the complexity of the various choices that we must make as a species.

It is the responsibility of our democratic institutions and our systems of education and research to provide this awareness. In this respect, higher education is about creating critically thinking citizens, not just producing workers.

Axiom 6. Humility must be a collective core value if civilization is to survive. Every time I have been convinced that I had the truth in a corner, I was wrong, at least to some extent. A recent scientific paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that we find our collective humility. Scholars of sustainability science have concluded that we must cultivate a respect for the limits of the biosphere and our ability to manipulate it.

Ultimately, we are not in charge, no matter how much we think that we should be. Nature bats last. In this respect, geoengineering the climate to cool the Earth strikes me as the ultimate hubris and very dangerous.

We have built our civilization on the assumption of continuous improvement, but our standards for what constitutes a better life are individually selfish and not congruent with the flow of energy and materials on our planet. Instead of bigger, brighter, stronger, and more, we must now fit into the procession of life on Earth.

Axiom 7. Taking action is the ultimate antidote to the poison of despair. In the sweep and scope of history, it really doesn’t matter what we think about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how we feel about what is happening. And to our politicians I say, it really doesn’t matter what you have to say. Future generations will not judge us by our intentions, but instead by our actions. The main thing that can significantly improve the quality of our lives and the lives of countless species of plants and animals is what we do now. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we may be the last that will be able to significantly mitigate its impacts.

Certainly, with acceptance comes action. I believe that we must now engage in even more vigorous but realistic development of our species in a way that progressively moves us to a sustainable relationship with our planet as it is transforming. As an ecologist for over 35 years, I believe that this remains within our grasp if we choose to make the reach.

Axiom 8. I try to be of service to something bigger than myself and the immediate needs of my family.  Every generation has what Thomas Berry has called their Great Work. My father went ashore at Normandy during WWII, and I know that he viewed this, and the rebuilding of Europe, as The Great Work of his time. The Great Work of our time is the development of a sustainable relationship with the Earth, a challenge considerably more perilous than those faced by my father’s generation. I encourage you to find and develop your means to participate in The Great Work of our time. Our children need you.

I offer you a quote from Martin Keogh, editor of a remarkable volume of meditations about our unfolding crisis entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet. “If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Axiom 9. Learning is the foundation of our future. I recently heard an old timer say, “The older I am, the less I know.” I want to shake this guy and say, Dude, are you paying attention?!  How can you have a productive and meaningful life without constantly learning? To be of maximum service in this time of dire need, we must continue to grow in learning and understanding.

Three forces are undermining the value of learning in our culture:

First, within the academic community is the postmodernist philosophy which holds that the findings of science are a cultural construct, and thus not in any absolute sense, objective. Surely the process of science, like any human enterprise, is subject to bias. But, as a system that tends to correct its mistakes, science shows that objective understanding does exist.

Secondly, religious fundamentalism vastly limits what can be learned by its adherents, and is a threat to the free exchange of facts and ideas in any open society.

Thirdly, anti-intellectual sentiment has waxed and waned throughout American history, and it is often assumed to be an honorable, yet unexamined, tenet of democracy. Presently, anti-intellectual sentiment is widespread. An individual’s common sense about climate change is often respected as equivalent to my years of scholarship and to the research of legions of scientists.

Taken together, postmodernism, religious fundamentalism, and anti-intellectual sentiment feed an unprecedented political and corporate assault on science and academics.

Axiom 10. We are not members of various tribes – White, Black, Asian, Hispanic. We belong to a species. We should act like it. In public discourse, I have found that too often the most important aspects of what is said, are who is saying it, and who is hearing it. The argument itself seems to be less important than the cultural or social context. Is the speaker part of my tribe? Am I speaking to my tribe?

Tribalism is a dubious comfort that we can no longer afford as participants in a global ecology. I have contempt for any leader who appeals to me as part of a tribe, rather than to my understanding of a problem and what needs doing.

Axiom 11: Nature is the ultimate source of wonder and awe. My sense of wonder and awe is the foundation of my wellbeing, and I believe it grounds me as a member of our species. The way I maintain my sense of wonder is through spiritual practice, which involves nature as often as possible.

Whenever possible I try to go someplace where I can see the stars. The simple act of looking up on a clear night usually takes my attention away from my self-centered fears and gives me a sense of gratitude and optimism about the future of life on Earth.

 For me, at times the universe feels like a magnificent and infinite mind, rather than an exceedingly complex physical machine. Neurobiology would suggest that this is merely an artifact of the human tendency to have ideas of reference, i.e., to interpret the universe us as being all about us. But, I am not so sure. This is personal and you may see things differently. Each person develops a spiritual perspective in their own way, or not. But without it, I find that there is a vacancy in my sense of self – a sense of continual longing.


I believe that the most valuable thing that we share is community. It is essential that we invest in our relationships and try to always have faith in our dependence on each other.

Wendell Berry said: “If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbor’s prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.”

Cooperation on a massive, global scale is necessary to constructively respond to these large-scale shifts in Earth systems. I see encouraging signs that such a sea-change in our relationships with each other and our planet has begun. Because of nearly universal access to information, never before in the history of humanity has such cooperation been as possible as it is now. Moreover, it is astonishing to me that we have arrived at this crisis with a scientific understanding of what is causing it and what we can do about it. I suggest that things could have turned out very differently in the course of human development.

As noted by the UF scholar of environment and religion, Bron Taylor, a science-grounded spiritual ethic about the ecology of our planet is on the rise. Noting our responsibility to creation and using science, Pope Francis has issued the historic encyclical, laudato si’, titled On Care for Our Common Home.

I am hopeful that efforts at climate mobilization derived from the recent Paris climate accord will succeed before we lose our opportunity to salvage a livable climate for our children. It is possible that the Paris agreement will be the turning point, ushering in a new era of sustainability and proactive mitigation and adaptation.

Moving into a future of disruption and transformation, we now face a critical test of the hypothesis inherent in our Latin binomial, Homo sapiens. Are we indeed wise humans?