Asking, “What should we do?” is Ignorant to the Answers Already Around Us

While a wide section of the science orientated blogosphere has been dominated with discussions about climate change, it remains, at this point, a lesser concern perhaps when compared to others. Rockström et al. (2009) for instance places biodiversity loss and alterations to the nitrogen cycle as being more pressing of the three variables deemed outside the safe planetary boundaries (the third being climate change, see the image below, figure 6 from Rockström et al. 2009).

Figure 6 from Rockström et al. 2009

While “carbon sinks” are often discussed to assist with keeping CO2 concentrations low, very little is discussed, at least within public sphere, about the nitrogen cycle. A recent study by Cardinale (2011) suggests that through increased biodiversity, greater niche partitioning leads to greater nitrogen uptake, decreasing nutrient loading – effectively improving in this case water quality. Cardinale suggests that this is evidence that greater diversity of species protects ecosystems from nutrient pollution.

This complements a point I’ve stressed on a number of occasions that ecosystem resilience is improved by greater diversity (see Fisher et al. 2006).

More broadly, the protection of species richness will not only assist with maintaining one variable (ie. biodiversity) of the planetary boundaries set by Rockström et al. (2009), but will increase carbon sinks and improve the nitrogen cycle, decreasing pollution. It is short-sighted, indeed hopelessly silly to ignore the potential benefits provided to our species in the form of ecological services. We make human activity increasing difficult by islandising our species.

As cheesy as it sounds, we honestly need to get real and face the fact that if we wish to continue to live at the population size we have currently achieved with the level of activity currently employed, we cannot continue indefinitely to be passive users of resources, but active agents, engineering both human activity as well as species richness in new forms of ecosystems unlike that currently found in the remnant natural world or human designed landscapes.

My current drafting of Prosperity or Plague has motivated a new wave of enthusiasm and finding Cardinale (2011) in the current installment of Nature only  furthered these thoughts. Personally, I believe that the greatest prosperity and resilience we can achieve over this century will be through a dramatic biophilic (ie. greater appreciation and integration of ecological function to human activity) transformation. This is not a “green” or “hippy” movement any more than appreciating good quality fresh produce is. It’s simply practicality and in some ways harnesses an old human habit – laziness is certainly the mother of invention and utilising what’s already there rather than attempting engineer a substitute (with included digital clock) has to be the laziest and in many ways easiest path for greater work function.


Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32

Cardinale (2011). Biodiversity improves water quality through niche partitioning. Nature. 472: 86–89. doi:10.1038/nature09904  

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.


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