Every day, I watch humanity exploit, exploit, thanklessly exploit the planet’s resources, and helpless tension burrows deeper in my mind. I fear that humanity will utterly destroy the planet through our entitlement and laziness. We show utter disregard to the planet’s non-human denizens, refusing even modest accommodation for the sake of profit and convenience. We blink not an eye at the extinction of a species brought about by habitat destruction from human development, shrug our shoulders at the daily destruction of rainforest to accommodate grazing land for cheap beef.
We ignore the big picture and permit the erosion, piece by piece, of habitat. What’s one more house, one more street? What difference can one small wetland make? Our perceptions cannot encompass the compounding effects of development on a county or watershed scale, and certainly not at larger scales like the country or continent.
Ecosystems will change. Period.
Ecosystems will be restructured by climate change and encroaching human development. Some changes will be nearly imperceptible to us — specialist native species will be less precisely suited to their environments as climate change causes weather pattern shifts, so they will be more susceptible to competition from generalist species that have less specific habitat requirements. Other changes will have rippling effects from the top to bottom of an ecosystem — extinctions of predator species in particular.
I expect that, fifty years from now, the wild will still look wild — but the traditional power balances between species will be upset. Some ecosystems will remain largely intact while others will be amalgamations of native remnants and generalist invasives. Delicate mutual relationships between plant and pollinator may collapse. And urban areas will become even less natural than before.
Nature will survive, in spite of us.
Though I’ve become fatalistic about the fact of ecosystem changes due to human-caused disturbances and climate change, I’ve regained hope for the extent of those changes. I hope cascading failures may be avoided through the landscape’s natural resilience.
I am reassured when I watch the wild and see its ability to recover from disturbances. Natural cycles are harsh and unappeasable; life makes the best of the physical landscape. Life is adapted to changing conditions, from the daily lap of the tides to heavy rainstorms that trigger landslides and careen behemoth trees down surging rivers.
The wild heals itself. Like a lifelong warrior, the landscape is both scarred by old damage and bloody from new wounds, some minor, some worse. Alders bandage a ten-year-old landslide. Second-growth forests are a light scar, nearly healed, where 100 years ago the forest was razed for its wealth of timber.
Visit Mount St. Helens and witness firsthand the succession from volcanic wasteland to meadow (or watch this time-lapse video of vegetation recovery). Plants and animals slowly recolonize the destroyed area in cycles; first, grasses and small plants colonize the soil, improving it enough that woody shrubs and trees can move in, then up the scale to ‘climax communities’ like old-growth forests.
Knowing that life will adapt as much as it can, we should try to limit the changes species will have to make to survive.
Human disruptions — from logging to housing developments — will cause the wild to change irrevocably from its current state. But I am coming to peace with these nigh-inevitable shifts within ecosystems; I trust in life. The wild may not be as biologically diverse or tuned to one place like the ecosystems and species we now have, but life itself will continue, and perhaps new ecosystems will develop, given time. On the long timeline, the wild will make it over humanity.
With luck, we can convince society to slow our changes enough that current systems can adapt largely unchanged, not collapse. The less drastic changes and disturbances that an ecosystem has to adjust to, the more likely it will transition intact. Ecosystems with greater biodiversity may be less susceptible to individual species’ extinctions. We must do what we can to preserve biodiversity and to minimize our disturbances so that ecosystems and species have a chance to adapt.
How can you help?
- Encourage politicians to adopt an effective climate policy
- Artists: use your craft to celebrate biodiversity and explain the threats to species, as well as what people can do to help
- Live by example, practicing voluntary simplicity to reduce your impacts
- Support conservation groups, research projects, and strong science education
- Keep biodiversity and anthropogenic climate change a topic of thought/conversation