Changing Tides

SIERRA-body-WB_2Thanks to Sierra for publishing In Pursuit of an Ecological Resilience in the Anthropocene, an excerpt from Alejandro Frid’s “Changing Tides”:

The birth of my daughter, in 2004, thrust upon me a dual task: to be scientifically realistic about all the difficult changes that are here to stay, while staying humanly optimistic about the better things that we still have.

By the time my daughter turned eleven, I had jettisoned my nos­talgia for the Earth I was born into in the mid-196os—a planet that, of course, was an ecological shadow of Earth 100 years before, which in turn was an ecological shadow of an earlier Earth. The pragmatist in me had embraced the Anthropocene, in which humans dominate all biophysical processes, and I ended up feeling genuinely good about some of the possible futures in which my daughter’s generation might grow old.

It was a choice to engage in a tough situation. An acknowledgement of rapid and uninvited change. A reaffirmed commitment to everything I have learned, and continue to learn, as an ecologist working with Indigenous people on marine conservation. Fundamental to this perspective is the notion of resilience: the ability of someone or something—a culture, an ecosystem, an economy, a person—to absorb shocks yet still maintain their essence.

But what is essence?

Ecologists have one kind of answer to this question. In the early 1970s, Buzz Holling—a highly influential ecologist and, I like to boast, my academic grandparent (Buzz supervised the dissertation of another influential ecologist, Larry Dill, who in turn supervised my dissertation)—formalized the concept of ecological resilience into the language of Western science. The notion was already well understood in the traditional knowledge of many Indigenous cul­tures, yet Buzz pioneered its mathematical expression and was the first to acknowledge its implications for how industrialized societies exploit ecosystems. Generating beautiful curves, concentric circles and spirals, he described how external forces disturb ecosystems,­ forests burn or are logged, wetlands flood or dry out, exotic species infiltrate food webs. By itself, that was old news. But Buzz went further by explaining how, despite these disturbances, ecosystems could maintain their essential structure and function, as long as certain interactions and processes endured. For a forest, that might mean being burnt to a crisp yet not losing its ability to regenerate over time into a vertical woody structure resembling that which existed before.

History, however, is unlikely to repeat itself exactly. Extinctions, invasive species, and climate change might preclude the regenerating forest from maturing into the exact same combination of species or age structure that it held in the past. Yet a shift in species composition does not necessarily change the essence of an ecosystem. In the case of the forest, this essence includes slugs or other decomposers breaking down plant matter so that the nutrients are incorporated back into the soil; trees providing structures for lichens, mosses, ferns and cavity nesters; predators like wolves and cougars keeping herbivores like deer from overbrowsing plants; high winds breaking branches and knocking down individual trees, thus creating gaps in the canopy that allow light to pour in and support a vibrant understory…

Read the whole excerpt here.

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