The problem with ecosystem interactions

Here’s a phrase that’s lately been haunting me: “the extinction of ecosystem interactions.” I first encountered it in science writer Connie Barlow’s fascinating book, The Ghosts of Evolution, which is about the plants, mainly trees, that have lingered into modern times even though the megafauna with which they were co-evolved, that ate their fruits and dispersed their seeds, have gone extinct. Of the several reasons the animals disappeared, a major one has everything to do with our species’ penchant for using a resource until there is nothing left. Thus, when you look at, say, an Osage orange tree, with its large, inedible, multi-seeded fruits, or savor the delicious flesh of an avocado (while not eating the insanely large, poisonous seed contained within), you are summoning the ghosts of the elephant-like gomphotheres and others that once roamed the Americas.

This is an excellent example of the extinction of ecosystem interactions. Once the animals disappeared, so too did the relationships and their attending interactions, leaving the plants hard put to survive into the present day. How and why they did so is a long, convoluted story best told by Barlow. The phrase itself comes from a short article, published in 1977 by pioneering ecologist Dan Janzen, called “The Deflowering of Central America,” in which he traces the relationship of a particular bee species with a certain species of flowering plant, and describes what happens when that relationship is interrupted by over-disturbance of the human kind.

When we think about species extinction, we often think about individual, usually charismatic species such as honeybees, monarch butterflies, eagles, wolves or polar bears, or plants such as giant sequoias. However, individual species of plants and animals do not exist in a vacuum. They live as participants in a four-dimensional structure of relationships, dependencies, limiting factors, physical environment, weather, and multiple stocks and flows that includes all the other living beings who also exist in this same web. For example, plants have flowers so they’ll attract pollinators, who forage among the flowers for food in order to raise their young so that the whole cycle can perpetuate itself. And some pollinators such as monarch butterflies are so exquisitely adapted that their young can only grow and thrive on the pollen and nectar of certain plants. Plants also produce fruits and seeds, and, if not wind-dispersed, rely on animals to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds, though the animals, of course, are looking for tasty food. Then there are the soil critters with whom the plants interact (the biological system of the soil), and the predators that hunt the herbivores, and on and on in the dizzying complex web of interactions that makes a healthy, dynamically balanced ecosystem.

It is this web of interactions that can get thrown seriously out of whack through destructive human disturbance, which, as we can’t avoid knowing, is happening on a planetary scale.  Human overpopulation is a major factor. Urban overdevelopment on the one hand, and, on the other, desertification caused by overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices that include overuse of groundwater are perfect instances of what I’m talking about.  So is clear cutting forest, and in a very extreme example, the nearly complete replacement of thriving, complex ecosystems such as the oak savannas and prairies of the Midwest or parts of the tropical rainforests of Brazil with industrial corn and soy production. In these latter cases, the destruction of interactions extends as far as killing off a thriving soil biome and polluting streams and rivers.

Even in less extreme cases such as when land is cleared for a school, shopping mall or housing development, the native plants get cleared away, native bees and other insect pollinators, predators and herbivores subsequently decline through lack of food and habitat to enable good reproduction, which leads to further plant declines for lack of pollination. When the insects and the seeds and berries produced by native plants decline, so do the songbirds that depend on them, as do the raptors that hunt the songbirds.  The same pattern goes for all the other life of the ecosystem: mammals large and small, amphibians and other reptiles, and the myriad life of the soil. When birds and other dispersers decline, plants further decline, and so on in a downward spiral of impoverishment until–in my part of the world– the prairie, savanna or woodland becomes a shadow of its former self. If enough of these interactions go extinct, the ecosystem, which by definition is a complex adaptive system, will, owing to positive feedback loops, slide into a less complex state, with a cascade of negative effects for all other species in the system, including further extinction of species. The word for these kinds of sad landscapes is depauperate: they are poor, impoverished and devoid of the richness and biodiversity that should be there by rights.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to what I want to discuss, which is the importance of the protection and restoration of ecosystem interactions in human dominated landscapes and how reconciliation ecology can help us do so. The question is not just how we can save any particular good-looking species such as monarchs. Beyond that lies the bigger question: What can we can do to encourage complex ecological interactions, and do it on a large enough scale, quickly enough, thus saving monarchs, and all kinds of other species (some of which we haven’t even discovered yet), as well?

This is an altogether more interesting, difficult question. It is also more fraught: with danger, difficulty, and potential failure. Yet only by attempting to answer and act on this question in a given place—and indeed the answer is worked out through the action—can we, ourselves, find a home within nature, and help ensure that all kinds of ecosystems—and ultimately the planet—will be not only a suitable habitat for these others, but also for us. The question is fundamentally practical because answering it could go a long way towards helping solve many global environmental problems such as climate change and the need for carbon sequestration.  Yet it is deeply ethical and spiritual as well. Discovering answers and appropriate actions requires a shift in thinking, a redefinition of humanity’s proper role vis a vis the biosphere as well as a shift in ethics, religious doctrine and spiritual practice. In the long run, the complex definition of what it means to be human may shift and change, as well.

What is reconciliation ecology and how can it help?

As formulated by Michael J. Rosenzweig in 2003, reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.” Implied is an ethos demonstrated through action that has the potential to help us move beyond our current, cruel dilemma of how to live on the earth without wrecking it. Like ecological restoration does at the landscape level, it does not focus specifically on saving one or another particular species. When most effective, reconciliation ecology helps a given piece of land recover the myriad functions and interactions that enable it and all its denizens to thrive, yet does not post “keep out” signs for humans. Importantly, unlike conservation or preservation, which focus on reserving landscapes specifically for non-human species, reconciliation ecology also encompasses the work of reconfiguring overly human-dominated landscapes to make room for other species. It enables humans to take our rightful place as caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the earth.

The thing about natural systems is that they need a lot of space. In ecology, the species-area curve suggests that the larger the area, the more biodiversity can be supported. Thus, in general, islands have less biodiversity than continents. By extension, in a fragmented landscape of nature reserves surrounded by human development the reserves function like islands. Species go extinct and ecosystem interactions wink out when there is not enough habitat and contiguous landmass to sustain enough different species of plants and animals so they’re able to reproduce well enough to keep populations at a healthy size. While nature reserves are of the utmost importance, no matter how we increase their size and extent, they are not by themselves enough to provide for real habitat needs, even if connected by corridors. We can see this clearly in the case of bee and butterfly declines in the US. Yes, pesticides and disease take a deadly toll; but it is also simple lack of habitat—of large areas with huge numbers of diverse flowers that allow for healthy ecosystem interactions—that is a major factor in the struggles pollinators face in maintaining viable populations.

E.O. Wilson has recently proposed that we should give over to nature half of the earth by creating vast reserves on land and sea. This statement could bring to mind the old human culture/nature dichotomy so prominent in Western thought, including the either/or binary thinking and non-holistic problem solving that has so often and still continues to result in incomplete solutions that in turn generate further problems. This type of thinking gave us the now generally discredited idea that there is a bright line of demarcation (perhaps symbolized by a fence) separating humans and human culture from the rest of earth’s species. One might fearfully imagine the human population huddled in crowded cities, sequestered from vast areas where we are not allowed. This is clearly not Wilson’s intent, however. One of his models is places such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, where Dan Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs have, with local people, developed a model of conservation and restoration that includes livelihoods for residents.

One way I like to think of sharing the earth is to picture a continuum, with outright wilderness on one end and completely human-dominated areas, e.g. over-developed urban centers or industrial zones such as the tar sands mining areas on the other. These are extremes. It is desirable—and necessary—to greatly enlarge protected wilderness zones and to restore as many natural areas as possible, while sharply decreasing the size and impact of anthropogenic sites— and completely eliminating the most egregious. But in-between there is a huge amount of territory that is and will remain mostly human-impacted but livable. Here lie plenty of opportunities for reconciliation ecology at every scale.

Living the good life in the middle landscape

In the US, at least, much of our landscape is what could be considered what literary critic Leo Marx described as a “middle landscape” that blends human culture and nature—admittedly, often disastrously at the moment, but where we also have the most obvious chance to do better. This middle landscape, as discussed by Marx and others subsequently, encompasses towns, suburbs, farms and even nature preserves in a human-managed patchwork. This is the type of landscape within which Thoreau resided and wrote so productively about nature, as did both Aldo Leopold, when he moved back to the Midwest after years out west in wilderness areas and May Watts, who lived in Chicago and whose writings celebrated and defended close-by natural areas. It is where my colleagues and I do our own ecological restoration and management work in Chicago-area forest preserves and where I do my native plant gardening at in my backyard.  Most Americans may never hike in the Rockies or, conversely, visit the tar sands desolation. But most of us do reside in some version of the middle landscape. Here is where most ecological restoration via the practice of reconciliation ecology must and can be done—at home.

I like to think of reconciliation ecology as the umbrella term for all the ways that people are learning to live and work while making room for nature and biodiversity. The list is long and encompasses multiple, overlapping disciplines: ecological restoration and rehabilitation, carbon farming and ranching, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry and permaculture, among others that involve working on the land hewing closely to natural processes and cycles, while looking to increase biodiversity.  Urban planners, architects, landscape architects and designers who are incorporating green infrastructure, green corridors and other resilient features into their designs must also be included, as well as native plant and bird gardeners, regenerative gardeners and myriad others.

It all adds up. The fact that my next-door neighbor and I garden with native plants in our backyards might not be enough to help increase ecosystem interactions in our town. But the fact that over the last five to ten years hundreds of people in the same town have begun to engage in some form of native plant gardening, along with local schools and parks, means that for many species of animals, especially birds and insects, there is increased habitat richness and abundance, leading to the chance for increased complexity of ecological interactions and hence, a stronger ecosystem. Meanwhile, backyard carbon sequestration is going on, the air is a little less polluted, the soil is healthier, and rainwater more easily absorbed. And, these gardens form a link or corridor with the forest preserves, helping to expand habitat a little further—important not only for resident birds but for all the migrating warblers and other birds that pass through spring and fall. In this way, we local gardeners are contributing to improved ecosystem interactions at a continental, even a hemispheric level.

The kind of earth-centered ethos and practice I am talking about recognizes that, while human beliefs and actions help “bring the world into being,” a foundational teaching in some indigenous belief and ceremonial systems, our species is, as is becoming increasingly clear, not the boss of nature, even though we bear responsibility as caretakers. Nature gives us great gifts: life itself, for example, and the wherewithal to create societies and enduring civilizations. We might ask ourselves what we owe in return, and how we can reestablish a relationship of reciprocity. We indeed are not “as gods so we might as well get good at it,” as the Whole Earth Catalog famously proclaimed in 1968 and some neo-environmentalists seem lately to have taken for a motto, particularly those in favor of techno-fixes for ecological problems.

This is not at all to dismiss science or technology; I thoroughly understand the roles both will have to play as we work to help ecosystems recover their natural functioning. But, as Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out, also in the 1960’s, we must mature past “cowboy” ideas about living on earth. Hard limits mean we do not actually have the freedom to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, with no planetary consequences. Many people are still resisting if not outright denying this truth. However, ever-increasing numbers of people have embraced an idea of reciprocity, even if not fully articulated, from those risking their lives in environmental struggles in Honduras to affluent Midwest suburbanites who have stopped using pesticides, let their lawns get a little less “pristine,” and begun to plant milkweeds for the monarchs.

They all have recognized in some way and have expressed through their actions that it is time, past time, to once again take up our sacred role and responsibility of tending to the earth, whoever and wherever we are. This goes double for those of us who are not of indigenous cultures. In this light, reconciliation ecology might be seen as a religious project, for, as Chicago-based William Jordon (who coined the term “restoration ecology” in the 1980’s) writes, “religion is the art and discipline of dealing with the problems of relationship at the psychological and spiritual levels.” I recognize that some of those most committed to ecological restoration and reconciliation ecology would be the last people to speak in overtly spiritual, much less religious terms. Yet there it is. If we work faithfully and patiently to aid wild nature, we just might avoid mass extinction while helping mitigate climate change and making up for grievous mistakes we have made and continue to make.

I am not advocating a return to a hunter-gathering way of life, or, again, getting rid of science, nor the scientific method; nor am I advocating romantic pie-in-the-sky solutions that ignore the very real, implacable natural processes that can be so destructive to human kind. Nature is not our cuddly Disney friend, and much restoration work is hard, dirty and can involve sheer drudgery; I say this from experience. But I do believe that unless the spiritual, ethical and moral elements are reincorporated into our relations with nature, we will not get very far in our efforts against climate change, pollution or any other environmental problems we face.

Can reconciliation ecology, along with conservation and ecological restoration, return continental ecosystems to how they were before European settlement (in the US), a rule of thumb standard for many in the ecological restoration community? No, not likely. For one thing, time and change only move forward. As Heraclitus pointed out, a person cannot ever step twice into the same river because the water flows and the person changes.  So it is with landscapes: they can only ever evolve into something new. Physical conditions change, the people and other species inhabiting them are different, human culture is different and myriad new (and some destructively invasive) species have made their homes across the country. We must beware the false dream that there is some past, edenic golden age to which we might return, if only such and such conditions were met. (Also, as a reminder, in many places, pre-European landscapes were not unpeopled wilderness. The land was managed in ways to increase overall productivity; management was part of and requisite to material culture and spiritual belief systems.)

Physical conditions in the past were not those of today, and true to the nature of history, we can’t ever fully know what they were. Even if we had access to a wayback machine, the complexity would be too great for us to recreate. Even in the present we can’t know all the interactions in a given ecosystem, or for that matter, whether we are truly restoring or instead helping create something new. As Jordan has written, there are always “Humpty Dumpties,” or ecosystem features that may have contributed to the structure and ecological functioning of a given place that cannot ever happen again, preventing the landscape we are restoring from exactly entering its historical arc. The mere fact of taking on such a project in the present by modern people would guarantee that such a recreation would be inexact. However, though we can’t know all the interactions we are trying to restore, it is still possible to get things going again and build up to some kind of critical mass so that the web of relationships begins to recomplexify on its own.

The upshot is that if we carry on restoration and management projects, large and small, and make plenty of room for wild nature, as E.O. Wilson suggests, there is hope that continental ecosystems can recover into a new state of health. But much would have to change.

Where are we going? How will we get there?

Based on the evidence of climate change, resource depletion and species extinction, it is clear that many of our currently accepted, conventional ways of life and means of solving problems based on the model of “progress” aren’t good enough anymore because they fail to take the biosphere enough into account. To truly “return,” or recreate something even approximating pre-European conditions, in which there could be expansive enough habitat to maintain good enough biodiversity so as to least slow species extinction to normal ranges, while also increasing resilience and helping to sequester carbon and slow climate change, the US population would have to stabilize and ultimately shrink. In the meantime our society would have to evolve, hopefully by choice, but also perforce, into something so radically different from its present state as possibly to become nearly unrecognizable to many people alive today. Yet this new, biocentric or ecocentric civilization and resulting land use might also be unrecognizable to historic native peoples, though based on similar cultural deep structures of relationship with the natural world as those societies had and their descendants continue to have.

In such a society many of our accepted conventions would be turned on their heads and categories that are clear-cut to us would become permeable and would blur and change. I find it easy to imagine the landscapes, and harder to imagine the embedded society. Cities might become biodiversity hubs interlaced with green infrastructure, farms and wide green corridors that would connect large natural areas outside their limits, while in the meantime farms and ranches might not be easily to distinguish from the surrounding “wild” countryside. Large parts of the country would be off-limits to development and would be places dangerous for the unwary owing to a proliferation not only of herds of herbivores, but of the large carnivores on which ecosystems depend for their health. There might be fewer roads, and those that remained would have wide overpasses designed for free wildlife movement. There might be new religions, and traditional ones might become more ecocentric. Perhaps the old versions that focus on reaching for the sky at the expense of life on earth would come to be considered immature. The nature of work might change in unforeseen ways. Children would be trained in systems thinking and would grow up with a working knowledge of ecology in general and ecosystem knowledge specific to their place. Materialism might decline. With restrictions on resource use across the board, and particularly fossil fuels, material wealth would certainly decline, and life would be less “convenient” and harder, possibly much harder, measured by modern American expectations. There would be no such thing as “disposable” anything, dwelling spaces would be smaller, travel more difficult.

Such is the logic of truly low-carbon, ecosystem-sensitive living, which requires an ethic of modesty and restraint, the practice of living within the constraints of community and a willingness to attune human ambition, societal expectations and mores to what a balanced ecosystem permits. I do not in the least think I am indulging in “ecotopian” thinking. Human nature wouldn’t change and people in general would not suddenly become wiser and more wonderful than they are today. I suspect that many Americans, if deposited suddenly in this kind of society, would not find it to their liking. Yet I also suspect there might be satisfactions of a different kind than we are mostly accustomed to.