Resilience… Priceless: The Human Island (Chapter 16)

“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry again.”

We’ve all heard that, or a variation of it, at some point in our lives. I’d prefer if it read more to give a person an apple tree rather than an apple. Not that the meaning is drastically changed, but from resource perspective (where the original is more about education) it’s more suited to The Human Island. I don’t see much of what I’ve written as new information but instead reiterating hard won knowledge that resulted from millennia of trial on changing landscapes which seems to have been ignored in this incredibly short-lived period of abundant and easy energy.

The extremes of effort, that the world woke up to as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill polluted the Gulf of Mexico, should have been seen as an early sign of growing oil scarcity. Given a century hence the age of fossil fuel will be an era for the history books. Sure, they will persist for some time after, but only as a minor player – especially in combustion.

However, if we play our cards right, there still will be apples to pick and fish to catch. If we show a yet to be seen wide spread zeal for innovation and development, a century from now may know a standard of living comparable to that known at the height of fossil fuel addiction. This future is my hope and the inspiration behind The Human Island, Innovation is Key and my work on MothIncarnate in general (soon Gen[A] as well).

Economy, as explained in the previous chapter, is the parasitic child of ecology. To have resilient economies demands that we have resilient ecologies. You cannot have prosperous societies without resources and you cannot have ample resources without ecosystems to produce, manage, distribute and/or condition them. To return to the analogy of the previous chapter, if the cuckoo hatchling wishes to demand more resources as it grows, we need to increase the health of the parent birds and their hunting grounds. Luckily ecosystems can be incredibly resilient whilst being productive for human use, if properly managed [18] [19] [20].

I suppose an even further development from the quote above (following my conversion of it) would be;

“Give a person an apple and you’ll feed them for a day. Teach them how to propagate an orchard and they’ll never go hungry. Provide them a richly diverse environment in which to do so in and you’ll feed their society indefinitely.”

Resilience truly is priceless. Resilience is the “cash cow” in ways that endless consumer growth simply cannot match. We’re not really at a point where we can safely say how large the global population of our species can grow to before we’ve reached our limit (which is inevitable regardless of what that number may in fact be) – arguably, with current distribution and resource management, we could suggest that such activity cannot support the current population (ie. with so many people still living in poverty and malnutrition, we clearly are not supporting each member of our species). In short, we’re probably overpopulated under current practices which will only exacerbate with continuing species loss [19] [20] [21].

From the best of our understanding, current extinction rates are likely to be around 100 times greater over the previous century when compared to the background extinction rate – the average rate of species loss typical in the fossil record [22]. So great is this increased extinction rate that it is seriously argued whether we are in fact witnessing the sixth mass extinction event [21] [22] [23].

As explained throughout the early chapters, life within ecosystems is interdependent. Without pollinators, many flowering species would fail to propagate. Without those flowering plants, many herbivores wouldn’t be able to persist. Even more subtle than this, you may have a species that disturbs soils or grazes on particular grasses, creating landscapes and soil conditions necessary for other species. The point here is; the deeper you look into ecology, the more wonderful, bizarre and incredible it becomes. This is why it continues to interest me professionally and personally every day. We simply cannot entertain behaviours as discussed in chapter eight and turn a blind eye to extinction.

We have only a limited catalogue of the forms of life that currently populate this planet and even less understanding of how that life interacts with others. We have copious information on ecology; but still, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. As previously explained, the loss of keystone species can result in a dramatic shift in the species assemblage within an ecosystem which in turn could result in losses of ecological services on which we currently rely.

One of my previous lecturers did some of her research in bio-prospecting; not only are we far from understanding much of ecosystem function, but also potential benefits in food and medicine hidden within. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” as they say, and for all we know, the cures for cancers, disease and infection may have already been invented by nature and exist in the bodies of organisms growing today – some of whom may be threatened with extinction at this moment.

It’s the unknowns, even more than the known’s, that should demand greater concern over such extremes of extinction rate as we’ve witnessed in recent centuries.

We simply don’t know all the species currently alive. We simply don’t know how each one interacts with its ecosystem. We simply don’t know what services we are provided, or could be provided, by such ecosystems…

We just don’t know enough to laugh about the loss of the dodo or any other species that stands on the door step of extinction, or has been pushed over by human impacts.

If resilience of economies is our aim, surely we require increasingly resilient ecosystems – even above a new shopping complex. Islandising our species is counter to all of this. We would need to do everything for ourselves, by ourselves. It would be difficult, if not impossible to achieve. There is no stronger case for species protection than for our own protection.

Reference

[18] Fischer, Lindenmayer and Manning (2006). Biodiversity, ecosystem function, and resilience: ten guiding principles for commodity production landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment. 4(2): 80-86.
[19] Díaz, Fargione, Chapin III and Tilman (2006). Biodiversity loss threatens Human well-being. PLoS Biology. 4(8): 1300-1305
[20] Folke, Carpenter, Walker, Scheffer, Elmqvist, Gunderson and Holling (2004) Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35: 557-581
[21] Rockström et al. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32
[22] Mace, Hillary Masundire, Jonathan Baillie et al. (2005) Chapter 4. Biodiversity. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Volume 1. Current State and Trends Assessment.
[23] Wake and Vredenburg (2008) Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians. PNAS. 105(1): 11466-11473

This is chapter sixteen of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

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