A recently published book by Emma Marris, The Rambunctious Garden, sheds light on the environmental issues of ecosystem management and species preservation at a point in which concerns over global warming are daunting to those of us who are particularly concerned with these issues.
For Marris, instead of looking back in time to what nature should represent to us, we must create new natural surroundings that encapsulate a new relationship with what we consider to be nature. We have reached a point in which humans have affected, to some extent, all reaches of the Earth.
Most modern conservation efforts focus on reestablishing some baseline ecological landscape from our past. However, this baseline contradicts itself. For example, The Leopold Report, established in 1963, provides the baseline in many U.S. parks to resemble the places which European settlers first saw when they discovered them. Such a baseline is detrimental in many respects.
Firstly, climate effects as minute as shifts in weather patterns can play a large role in an ecosystem. As climate changes such as the El Niño shift an ecosystem’s baseline over time, it becomes more and more difficult to achieve the baseline established in the initial conservation effort. In other words, nature is continually in flux with the climate.
Secondly, when the goal is to re-establish the appearance of a landscape, the intricacy of the ecosystem is not being fully realized. For example, killing off introduced species to preserve what was once flourishing in an area, could potentially destroy a food source necessary to the native species’ survival. Furthermore, the introduced species could provide a plethora of benefits, such as controlling erosion, building soil, or sequestering carbon. Ecosystems are dynamically related to the ecosystems around them.
Ecological changes are natural phenomena and have occurred throughout Earth’s history. Some believe that humans have even caused widespread ecologic changes in the past. For example, some believe human hunters drove several larger animal species to mass extinction across America around 13,500 years ago, further leading to changes in forest and plain development.
This highlights how policies that strive to reinstitute some baseline ecosystem are near-impossible to achieve when we recognize that our atmosphere and climate is currently changing. Therefore, as Marris suggests, we need to start managing the environment while being cognizant of the fact that ecosystems of the past will not look like those of the future. Secondly, we need to weigh out which species are important to us and why, because it will be important to make revisions in our ecosystem management to ensure their survival. Lastly, we will need to create new landscapes with the idea that not all of nature can take on the pristine image that we associate with it being unaffected by man—for human influence is evident everywhere.
The complexity of ecosystems, despite years of diligence on the part of ecologists and conservation biologists, still contains many unknowns. With limited money and time, Marris suggests that we answer carefully some critical questions revolving around what is left of nature and biodiversity today. Each question should be asked on a case-by-case basis. We must weigh our values together as we step into the future and build our new natural landscape.