Oswald Schmitz: Reflecting on Hope for Life in the Anthropocene

This post by Oswald Schmitz, author of The New Ecology, was originally published on the March for Science blog. On April 22, PUP’s Physical and Computer Sciences editor Eric Henney will be participating in a teach-in the National Mall, focusing on the social value of direct and engaging scientific communication with the public. 

Springtime is a welcome reprieve from a prolonged cold winter. It is a time of reawakening when all kinds of species become impatient to get on with their business of living. We hear the trill of mating frogs, see leaves unfurl from their quiescent buds, and behold forest floors and fields unfold rich color from a dizzying variety of blossoming wildflowers. The energetic pace of life is palpable. It is only fitting, then, that we dedicate one spring day each year – Earth Day – to commemorate the amazing variety of life on this planet, and to take stock of the human enterprise and reflect on how our behavior toward nature is influencing its sustainability.

For many, such reflection breeds anxiety. We are entering a new time in Earth’s history—the Anthropocene—in which humans are transitioning from being one among millions of species to a species that can single-handedly determine the fate of all life on Earth. Many see the Anthropocene as a specter of doom, fraught with widespread species extinctions and loss of global sustainability, and attributable to humankind’s insatiable drive to exploit nature.

This view stems from the conventional idea that all living beings on Earth represent a heritage of slow evolutionary processes that occurred over millennia, culminating in the delicate balance of nature we see today. Many despair that humans are now jeopardizing the balance, as species will necessarily be incapable of coping with the onslaught of ever-new and fast-paced changes.

Iguana

An Aegean Wall Lizard, so named because of its evolved habit to live and hunt in rock walls constructed around crop fields in Greece. Individuals living on the walls have different limb morphology and mobility than counterparts of their species that are found within their original sandy habitats, demonstrating their capacity to adapt and thrive in human developed landscapes. Photo courtesy of Colin Donihue.

As an ecologist, I am torn by the changes I see. I have a deep and abiding respect for the amazing diversity of living organisms, their habits and their habitats. This ethic was shaped during my childhood when I was free to wander the natural environs of my hometown. I could go to those places any time of day, during any season: breathing, smelling, listening, observing, touching and tasting to discover nature’s wonders. That sense of wonder has endured. It’s what keeps me asking the probing questions that let me learn scientifically how species fit together to build up and sustain nature. It thus saddens—sometimes even maddens—me to see nature’s transformation in the name of human “progress.”

But as a scientist, I must admit that these changes are also fascinating. It turns out that rapid human-caused changes present much opportunity for new scientific discoveries. They force me to see and appreciate the dynamism of nature from fundamentally new vantage points. I find that nature can be more resilient than we often give it credit for, a fact that should inspire hope for a bright, sustainable environmental future in the Anthropocene.

Changing the mindset from despair to hope requires letting go of a deeply held notion that nature exists in a fragile balance, and that humankind has a persistent habit of disrupting that balance. Nature is perpetually changeable, with or without human presence. Life’s energetic pace, and the primal drive of all organisms to survive and reproduce, is what builds resilience in the face of change. We are learning how nutrients are perpetually transformed and redistributed by plant and animal species to sustain myriad ecological functions. These functions ensure that we have ample clean and fresh water, deep and fertile soils, genetic variety to produce hardy crops, the means to pollinate those crops, and the capacity to mitigate impacts of gaseous emissions, among numerous other services that humans rely on to sustain their health and livelihoods. Many species also can rapidly acclimate and even evolve within a mere span of a couple of human generations to cope with significant and rapid environmental change. Such adaptability allows many ecological systems to recover from human-caused disturbances and damages within the short time span of a human lifetime, no less.

This capacity for resilience is perhaps our most important evolutionary heritage. It is what gives hope for a sustainable future. The challenge of sustainability, then, is to engage with nature without eroding this capacity. The emerging science-based ethic of earth environmental stewardship can help on this front. It sees humans and nature entwined, where humans have obligations to one another mediated through their mutual relationships with nature.

Earth environmental stewardship strives to sustain nature’s resilience by protecting the evolutionary and ecological interdependence of all living beings and the physical environment. It strives for continuous improvement of environmental performance and human wellbeing through a commitment to use nature’s resources wisely and efficiently as dividends of resilient ecosystem functions. This means protecting entire ecosystems, not just their parts, and ensuring the development of sensible environmental policies and regulations to ensure that ecosystem services benefit all living beings now and in the future.

Effective earth environmental stewardship requires that we take deliberate interest in becoming scientifically informed about how our needs and wants are linked to our local environment and the larger world beyond. So on this Earth Day, it is perhaps fitting to reflect on and celebrate our amazing scientific achievements to understand the durability of nature and the wealth of opportunity it offers for a sustainable future in the Anthropocene.

Oswald J. Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His books include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity and The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene.