Equilibrium: Living with Nature

Simply invoking the word nature can get you in trouble these days. Entire books have been written debating whether the concept of nature even exists any more. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature may have sparked the controversy 25 years ago, but the debate continues.

In his book Living Through the End of Nature, environmentalist Paul Wapner argues that with 7 billion people on the planet (and rising), our very concept of nature must change. “Nature is no longer an independent realm separate from human beings,” he argues, “but instead part and parcel with the human world.” To save what’s left, instead of trying to protect other species from the impacts of humans, he says we need to “realize that environmental questions can no longer be framed as trade-offs as what is best for humanity or nature.”

Surveys of human happiness tend to ignore our relationship with climate, ecosystems and other species. Do these connections matter?

Instead, he advocates a “middle path,” a post-nature future “in which there is no such thing as either humans or nature, but a hybrid of the two.” In other words, human needs and the needs of the rest of life on Earth must be thought of as one and the same.

To those who see no limits to growth, of course, the very idea of “saving” nature is absurd. If man is part of nature, then human dominance of the planet is a natural part of evolution. Things are exactly as they should be.

Why preserve or restore ecosystems at all? Can’t we simply mechanize, industrialize and digitize our way to a prosperous future, with or without polar bears or spotted owls or Pacific salmon?

“The issue of conservation is something that can unite humanity, if people know enough about it, to change the view that gross materialism and the search for wealth are not the only things in life.”—David Attenborough, from Planet Earth, The Future (BBC)

The answer is: No, we can’t. And this is where science and human self-interest are stepping in, on the side of an issue that until now has often been advocated with appeals to ethics, empathy and emotion, as something separate from people. But we now know that with the death of every ecosystem, tangible assets disappear—and humans lose. These assets may include cures for cancer, or a way to control the spread of Lyme disease (read on), or beneficial insects that cause crops and fruit trees to flower, or oysters that remove heavy metals from our fresh water. The list goes on and on.

A Life and Death Lottery

Half the world’s grasslands are gone. Half of its forests. We’re losing thousands of species every year. Some biologists believe we’ve entered a new period of mass extinction. Extinctions happen naturally, but this one is different, they say: It is greatly amplified by human stress on ecosystems.

Lifeboat Earth is not sinking—yet—but it’s clearly time to man the pumps, while we make the necessary course correction. In the short term, however, which species or ecosystems do we rescue? That’s a question conservationists wrestle with every day. Some will live. Others will perish. The endangered species that the public knows best—polar bears, spotted leopards, pandas—are not necessarily the most important in the big picture. But they play an essential role psychologically, by triggering empathy.

That “biophilia” (instinctive bond) we have with other species is probably not the only conservation tool we should count on to preserve biodiversity. Studies show that people have widely different attitudes toward wild animals, for example. Their empathy is affected by past relationships with pets, how much the animal in question is suffering and the age and “cuteness” of the animal. Do we really want to hang the fate of the world’s amphibians on how “cute” they are? The problem, notes biologist E.O. Wilson, is that most of the species we’re losing are not cuddly mammals. They’re tiny worms, insects, arthropods and plants. They’re not likely to trigger a “cuteness” reaction—or much reaction at all.

Apathy-Proof Conservation

Another way to conserve organisms and natural systems is to understand, plan, protect and restore habitats. Approaches to habitats tend to take one of two approaches: landscape-specific design, which creates ecosystems where species will naturally find homes there, or organism-specific design, designed around one important species. The idea is that if this “keystone” species thrives, many others will find balance.

Often, landscape architects try to incorporate a “natural” ecosystem into a region, but what about cases where humans displaced the natural balance hundreds, or even thousands of years ago? Do these areas make good candidates for habitat restoration? These are complex questions, but ecologists are doing their best to come up with answers.

As a result, research on “what works” for habitats is becoming much more sophisticated, especially in highly populated urban areas. Until now, the typical development model for most urban areas has been a mathematical equation: Retain a certain percentage of open space, divert a certain volume of stormwater and make sure you leave room for parking.

According to researcher Zhifang Wang at the University of Michigan, however, this model eradicates most biodiversity. “Urban ecosystems lack habitat patches,” he writes. “Instead, they have abundant invasive and non-native species, as well as strong external control of natural succession.”

This approach is changing, in part because architects and land planners in China, Brazil and elsewhere are showing that habitat planning can work. The U.S. is starting to catch on. According to Richard Conniff at Environment360, “The U.S. Forest Service, which once laughed off the idea that anything urban could be wild, now supports a growing urban forest program.” Urban ecology and urban wildlife programs are also proliferating on university campuses.

Wilding Future Cities?

The key to future biodiversity, ironically, may be how we plan and adapt our cities. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, the number of people worldwide living in cities will almost double, “increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050.” In coming issues, we’ll talk about the need for human populations to migrate inward toward urban living, rather than outward into functioning ecosystems.

Will new generations squeeze out the last wild creatures in these new megacities? Not necessarily. Growing interest in urban ecology suggests just the opposite. It’s highly likely we will bring the forests and fields to the city with us. This is something new, still an inexact science to be sure, but radically different from “business as usual.”

Conniff points to research showing that 20 percent of the world’s bird species are found in cities, and a study in the UK showing that community gardens greatly increased the number and variety of pollinating insects.

He adds that would-be urban ecologists also have powerful new digital tools at their disposal, such as i-Tree, from the U.S. Forest Service, which maps trees in urban area, and eBird, from Cornell, which keeps track of bird sightings from thousands of volunteer observers.

Madhusudan Katti, associate professor at California State University, notes that cities worldwide tend to have one-third less plant and bird diversity than the regions surrounding them, but “the overall picture is not bleak. Cities can provides new habitats and niches that may be quite different from those in natural ecosystems, but still can support a variety of species. Species that evolve under such urban conditions may well represent what the future holds for much of Earth’s biodiversity.”

Suburbia’s Transitional Role

Although migration to denser cities may be desirable, and even inevitable, for survival of life on Earth, in the meantime, we live in a nation of suburbs. The good news is these communities tend to have a lot of room for ecological improvement, in the form of lawns, back yards, parks and sporting fields. Here’s where one of the most vilified private organizations in American society can help: homeowner associations (HOAs). A recent study in Ecology (http://tinyurl.com/maxb4ul) found that homeowner associations could be a powerful force for adding biodiversity to the ‘burbs.

“Virtually all new developments in the United States use HOAs due to local zoning codes,” the study notes. “The HOA developments range in size from small clusters of two or more houses to large, city-scale developments.”

Because most developers tend to walk away from projects and hand over the keys to HOAs, these organizations wield significant clout. They decide what happens to and around the properties in perpetuity. Even small changes in HOA rules matter, when it comes to ecosystems, and HOAs have a lot to say about landscaping. This power can be used for either good or ill with regard to species diversity.

On the “ill” side are measures such as “rapid localized landscaping” (pruning plants, removing certain weeds, maintenance of certain lawn aesthetics and so on). These measures limit the potential for wildlife diversity.

On the other side, an HOA with progressive policies can “promote multiple habitat patches and zones throughout a neighborhood, and assign management regimes appropriate for different species composition.” In layman’s terms, they can allow wild plants to flourish, restrict the use of toxic herbicides and limit aggressive landscaping, thereby becoming stewards of biodiversity.

Squirrels Yes, Moose No

Of course, not all types of species will get a warm welcome in either the ‘burbs or cities. Large mammals, especially predators such as grizzlies, wolves, and some large cats are out, as are alligators and poisonous snakes. But even foxes and moose sometimes trigger “biophobia” (fear factor) in us. They get a cold welcome.

For example, a few summers ago, a male moose wandered into my suburban neighborhood (I’ve since moved downtown) in Portland, Maine, heading for the inland bay on Portland’s West Side. As a mixed crowd of kids, retirees and Boomer parents gathered on the shore, a local cop walked up to the moose, shot and killed it at point-blank range. He defended the choice, saying the moose posed a threat to public safety. Not everyone agreed, and the moose had little say in the matter.

Celestia Bison

Wild Bison. At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida, hundreds of species co-exist, not far from human settlements.

Big animals often need large stomping grounds. They like to wander. And human development is breaking up their old habitats. Certain scavenger creatures, such as squirrels, raccoons, mice, rats, skunks, crows and pigeons, can adapt to more urban environments. But the rest require more isolated and specific types of habitats. This could mean retraining future generations to respect large animals, rather than regarding them as man-eating stalkers.

Creating barriers between living areas and habitats is a well-established science. In Micanopy, Florida, for example, the 22,000-acre Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park supports wild horses, 10-foot-long alligators, barred owls, gopher tortoises and more recently, a herd of bison, encompassing almost 300 ecosystems. And to my knowledge, no one living nearby has yet been eaten by an alligator or trampled by a bison.

On the edge: That’s a good term to remember. The challenge for the next century is to make sure that “the edge” of human settlement is established and recognized around urban areas. As permaculturists often point out, it’s along the edges where life happens.

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Celestia Nature Lovers

Many technology enthusiasts envision a future on Earth that is abundant for human beings. They point to greater overall “wealth” for humans, but they tend to measure that wealth in conveniences and material comforts and “time-saving choices.” In the book, Abundance, for example, writer Peter Diamandis notes that life today is superior to the past, because “We have massively increased access to goods, services, transportation, information, education, medicines, means of communication, human rights, democratic institutions, durable shelter...”—and that tomorrow will hold more of the same.

While few would argue those points, what’s missing from this book—and from most technotopian forecasts, is any acknowledgement of how the other millions of species on Earth will play into man’s grand plan for the future. Don’t we actually need biodiversity to stay sane and happy?

Author Richard Louv, who coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” says we do. In a recent essay, he pointed out several ways that nature is good for our psychological and physical health, including improving our psychological health, helping kids develop empathy, building stronger family and social bonds, and buffering us against the drastic changes that climate change may cause in our lives.


Why Biodiversity Matters

Even if you never set foot on a hiking trail, here’s why saving other species is in your best interest.


The rare plant you protect today might cure your kid’s cancer tomorrow. That’s the underlying point made by Greg Yarrow, professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University. Here are some reasons he says we should all care about conservation.

“Every species is an encyclopedia of genetic information, a reservoir of biologically active compounds,” Yarrow writes. “If we consider that the lowliest bacterium may have 1,000 genes, and that many flowering plants and some animals have 400,000 genes, every species is a hidden treasure chest of information that may be important to humans. So far, we have barely begun to unlock the potential benefits of the world’s plants and animals.”

In addition, recent research at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, identified a connection between loss of species biodiversity and human health. “The work reveals a critical connection between conservation and disease,” according to analysis by Science Daily. “Species losses in ecosystems such as forests and fields result in increases in pathogens—disease-causing organisms.”

As an example, the study cites the proliferation of Lyme disease, a devastating health problem in the Northeast—as I can attest first hand, having watched several friends go through crippling bouts. The scientists found that as forests become fragmented, opossums die. This in turn causes the white-footed mice population to soar (opossums eat them). The mice carry Lyme disease, and also tend to attract black-legged ticks that acquire the pathogen—and pass it on to humans.


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