February 4, 2010
“It’s the end of the world as we know it…..
The Long Term Ecology module is having a strange effect on me.
When we start looking beyond ourselves – beyond a lifetime, beyond the century, beyond the millennium and beyond the time human beings have on earth – everything seems fine. We as a species have been on this planet for a negligible part of its life time, and so although we may leave some permanent scars, whatever we do on this earth is likely to be relatively insignificant. And what one individual does in his life time is sure to be completely insignificant.
I had an uneasy feeling after the first session, but it really got to me with a paper by James Harris and his friends, titled ‘ecological restoration and global climate change’, which we had to read for the class on ‘determination of baselines and natural system variability’.
Whenever we try to undo the damage and destruction we have caused in the natural world – ‘restoration’, the first question that comes up is what do we want to restore to? The general idea is to take it back to ‘the ecosystem present before human influence became pronounced on the landscape’ (the definition of a baseline). But how far back do we go to define this baseline? Twenty years? To a point before industrialisation? But what about the fires and other manipulation by indigenous people, possibly thousands of years ago? I would tend to go with ‘before industrialisation’, and would modify the baseline definition to ‘the ecosystem present before fossil-fuel aided human influence became pronounced on the landscape’.
And I thought I was OK with that. Indigenous people and their rubbing sticks for fire in slash and burn agriculture was acceptable. They were a part of the ecosystem, and interacted with it on a somewhat equal footing. Us modern lot, with JCBs and selective herbicides are not. We’ve had an unfair advantage, and the ability to destroy it completely. So as far as I’m concerned, in our efforts to save the planet we should try not to meddle with the natural world too much – only try to take things back to the way they were a few 100 years ago. Not try to play God and intensively ‘manage’ forests under the arrogant assumption that we understand how it all works.
But then along came the Harris paper (and the lecture) and disturbed my peace. The global climate is changing at an unprecedented rate – rainfall is becoming erratic, sea levels are rising, the temperature is going up and everything is altogether more unpredictable. Our first reaction is to try to stop it all and possibly slow down climate change. But are we really going to be able to stop the gas guzzlers? We can perhaps slow them down a bit, but with the whole world now aspiring to the very lifestyle and values (of greed and accumulating wealth) that is destroying the world there seems little hope. From any angle climate change looks inevitable.
Animal and plant species are also going to have to adapt very rapidly if they want to survive. Population ranges are going to have to move away from the equator and towards the poles to find suitable cooler habitats. Or perhaps up mountain slopes to higher altitudes. Unfortunately though, they can’t really do that any more. We’ve got all the land around them, and have fenced them into ‘protected areas’. So species are going to die out, and ecosystems are going to stop functioning. Unless we are able to find and introduce other species that can survive in the new conditions to replace the roles played by the locally extinct ones. We can’t just try to restore things back to the way there were, because we can’t reverse climate change. We need to experiment at a massive scale – a mix and match between a host of species to create ‘novel ecosystems’.
Our iconic Nilgiri tahr will go up and up the mountains, but they won’t be able to evolve wings fast enough, so our best bet would be to catch them all and throw them in with their Himalayan cousins.
Perhaps stop trying to fight lantana. Just modify its genes slightly so that the herbivores can eat it.
When it gets too hot for the cerana and dorsata bees we transport their African relatives over to see how they can cope.
We don’t have a choice – even with our limited understanding we have to try and play God.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.