The Human Island: A place of Ecological Ruin

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
-John Donne, Meditation XVII.

Donne’s words pre-date the Age of Enlightenment by more than a half a century, yet with the birth of modern science, it would become increasingly obvious that his sentiment didn’t go far enough. Indeed no human is an island, free from the requirements of others, nor are any multi-cellular life form truly free from others. In fact, all but for a few pools of sludge – incredibly simple cells that take their energy from physical processes – are reliant on other life to make their life possible.

From the organ-like structures within eukaryotic cells (such as the relationship with mitochondria), to the balancing act between prey and predator populations; from the bacteria, plants, animals and fungi that all work to process soil and return organic material and minerals to the environment, to the beneficial bacteria in the gut of animals that assist with digestion of food; from the various users of river water upstream to the estuary nurseries at the river mouth; where ever you look life supports life.

Understanding how each species fits into the whole, Donne’s “continent”, is the work of ecologists. The more we learn, the more amazing life appears to be. Perhaps most interesting is the realisation that we are far from independent from other forms of life. For all the vast improvements that we have made over recent centuries, especially over the 20th century, there are still numerous situations where our current standard of living would be impossible where it not for the services of other species. We are not an island species, nor can we hope (or should we hope) to be.

Over the coming series, I hope to open this concept up as much as possible to demonstrate how wonderful ecology is and, probably most importantly, clearly define what resilience means. In doing so, I want to build a compelling reason as to why the various threats to biodiversity over the coming century (such as urban sprawl, pollution, desertification, intensive agriculture, depleting abundance, islandisation / fragmentation of remnant vegetation and of course, climate change) are in reality threats to our own species as much the loss of an abundance of various life.

Parallel to this, I will do my best to also make as clear a case as I can of what a future of low biodiversity abundance would look like and what it would mean to our species, if we were to persist with business as usual as much as possible (ie. think agricultural pollination without pollinators).

Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, male, chromolithograph after painting

In all the political noise of recent years, the sublet warning calls around us are being dampened. We cannot be too harsh on our ancestors who removed the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, the Thylacine and numerous other species from the living world – they didn’t know any better. However, we do know better now and turning a blind eye to a global ecosystem buckling under the pressures of humanity makes us all as guilty as the next.

There will be no excuses when we explain how we willingly continued to allow extinction rates to persist far above the known background rates, once we had the evidence at hand. There will be no joy for future farmers who have to mechanically treat the landscape now barren of life when the floodplains and neighbouring vegetation for useful species are lost. Should I expect my great-grandchildren to think much of me when the only tuna they ever know of is a stuffed skin in a museum somewhere or held, proudly, by an angler of yesteryear – staring out from the pages of a history book?

I am confident that we as a species could persist for some time in a barren future; for we wouldn’t have today’s luxury of mocking science when it challenges our perception and when we work together, based on scientific reason, we can achieve a lot. But why would we want a world like that? It is likely that we’re fast approaching a crossroad beyond which, we cannot hope to turn around and go down another path. I want to provide one more reason why we should take the only real option, because we don’t want to have to spend the great amount of energy in becoming and maintaining an island species. We must govern all life, preserve the ecological richness as much we can or face a barren future.

* This piece is the first part of The Human Island series. As the series grows, it will published as a continuous piece on it’s own page, reachable on the new Innovation and Ecology tab above.

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