What happens at the end of a system? The American Chestnut used to be one out of every three trees in eastern hardwood forests; now there are a few blighted remnants, a few resistant individuals hiding in the far corners of what few forests remain uncut. The system has moved on, to a sparser, less self-sufficient balance. But what happens when the system can’t adapt? What does it even look like to us, human beings who struggle to think in systems and who shift our baselines faster than natural systems move?
Around this time last year, I parked my car, put on my snowshoes, and climbed the steep mound of snow at the edge of the woods. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the light crust across the surface was just enough to make a pleasant whoof with each sinking step. At lower elevations, the snow inside the forest’s edge was only a foot or two deep, but as I climbed higher it increased to three and more. On the high benches above the valley, a comfortable four-foot thick blanket hid most everything.
I spend a lot of time off trails, wandering and traveling in less-beaten, less-accessible places. The rolling topography of New England woods is flattened by a blanket of snow—transformed, really, into a different sort of terrain. Between wind, storms, glaciers, and time, the less accessible parts of the forest are generally strewn with logs and branches, covered with loose soil and leaves, and scattered with heaps of exfoliated rock. The combination of deep snow, moderate crust, and a few soft inches on top makes jumbled forests into new, glorious highways—for animals, and for people who know to take advantage.
I find it repeatedly baffling that human beings can being so short-sightedly human-centric. Yes, I know we have little ape brains evolved to think about little ape things, but we are also, arguably, the smartest animals on this planet. Despite that we seem intent on devaluing the distinction by behaving as though we are the only animals on this plant.
Now, a great deal has been written about conservation and how it makes a huge difference to our survival as a species. Likewise a great deal has been written about how the only effective way to conserve things is to appeal to our own self-interest. Finally it has been argued that it doesn’t matter what we do to the ecosystem, because we will just adapt and find new ways to go on as we always have. Leaving those debatable assertions unchallenged for the time being, I want to ask the question, “what does it look like from a different perspective?” This is a question I find repeatedly illuminating in myriad circumstances. Thus, if I were some other creature on this planet, what would I encounter?
As one of a select few, such as deer, pigeons, crows, or rats, I would find that while my evolved niche was now more or less absent, the detritus of humanity was rife with new niches for me to occupy. In my own unthinking way, I would go happily onward multiplying and expanding my territory and enjoying a very human way of life.
If I were just about anything else, though, I would have a very different experience.
If I were a migratory bird, I would find that the places I migrate are torn up and remade, from my perspective, overnight. It would be the equivalent of a human being going on vacation and returning to find their house, and all their neighbors’ houses, leveled and replaced with a 50-acre parking lot. And yet, the users of the parking lot would see no reason why I couldn’t go on living how I did before, just absent my house.
If I were a whale, perhaps, I would find that the oceans are growing increasingly crowded and noisy. I would live a long time, so I would remember just a few decades ago when I could talk to friends and family across long distances. Lately I would be more and more frustrated by an ever-loudening drone. I would feel like someone had started a perpetual rock concert in my home, and yet they expected me to go on living and communicating with my friends just as before.
If I were a wolf, I would probably already be dead. I might be dead because a farmer shot me, or because a car hit me, or because the government put a bounty on my pelt. I might be dead because some people tried to bring me back, but didn’t warn me that I would be eagerly killed if I strayed across the invisible line between Yellowstone National Park and The Rest of the World.
If I were any small mammal, I would find that someone had set up Indiana-Jones-Style speeding blades of death between me and several of the usual places I wanted to go. I would run the gauntlets daily, breathlessly, and with limited hope of survival. My average lifespan would have dropped because I am not very good at outrunning cars.
Human beings tend toward a human-centric worldview, and within that view we have a great fear of extinction. In our myths and cultures and stories we have the idea of an Apocalypse, where Famine and War and Pestilence and Death ride down upon us in fury to destroy us. But thinking about the world from the perspective of everyone else, I think we have it wrong—the Apocalypse isn’t coming for us; it’s coming for everything else trying to share this planet with us.
We are the horsemen, but we’re not riding out of fury. We’re not even riding out fear, or out of self-righteousness. I’m afraid we’re riding out of the worst thing I can think of: total indifference.
For some years now, some very smart people have been inventing ways to fit the processes of our global and local ecosystems into the processes of our global and local economies. The consensus product of this work has been the concept of “ecosystem services,” which are all the things we, as human beings, get out of an intact ecosystem.
Ecosystem services make a lot of sense compared to the other options. All the things we don’t consider in our economic calculations, all the externalities, start to become numbers that can fit into the schema. You might, for example, consider the cost savings of carbon capture associated with an intact forest. You might consider the damage averted by floodwater buffers provided by swamps and wetlands. You might count up the dollar value of a riparian buffer in topsoil retained and erosion prevented.
This is a major improvement, because traditionally, there have been only three ways to value something natural in an economic calculation, and only one of those has any real significance when it comes to conservation.
The main way we accommodate nature in our economic calculations is the most basic: resource exploitation. In fact, the majority of physical value in our economy comes from deconstructing natural systems and using their component parts to fuel human systems. Unfortunately, this mode makes no allowance for the value of the system, and only values the parts by how completely we can repurpose them. The only value in a standing old growth tree, by this measure, is the dollar value of its board feet.
The second way to measure ecosystems in our economy is by offsetting damage, and this is really an uneasy tug-of-war between environmental and economic interests. In this method, you can destroy a wetland if you create another, “equivalent” wetland somewhere along the way. This is, unfortunately, still used and never honestly applied. The replacement wetlands are often biological deserts with only a few plant species, and do not even come close to duplicating the diversity and function of the original. Another version of this approach is even worse: to preserve one wetland elsewhere as an excuse to destroy one, which is a 50% loss by any measure. The crux of it lies in interpreting the concept of “equivalency,” something for which there has rarely been a clear guide. By incorporating ecosystem services, though, there are specific measures one could use to lay out what would be expected in an “equivalent” wetland. Even so, this is not ideal—an honestly equivalent wetland would be prohibitively expensive, so any business creating one is highly motivated to cut corners.
The third way our economy values ecology is through tourism dollars. If something is beautiful enough that some people will pay to see it, conservation starts to have some economic value. But this is a precarious state of affairs—if a place becomes too impacted to be profitable, it could always be sold off and apportioned out for some other use. It also may not consider the whole system involved; we can preserve, for example, a beautiful canyon on the Colorado river, while still diverting so much of the river upstream that the riverbed in the canyon is only fetid mud.
Ecosystem services, I think, are a good step beyond all these approaches. They give us what none of the above can manage, which is a value for intact systems. As humanity covers more and more of the planet, fragments more and more of the wild places, and repurposes even more of our natural systems, the need for a consistent way to value intact systems is urgent.
And yet, I have never been fully comfortable with the idea of ecosystem services, because they seem, to me, to suffer from an irritating conceptual concession. Specifically, they concede that ecosystems are things we can and should value according to how they serve human beings.
Although it is a wonderful step to consider them as whole systems, the service of humans seems to me still too limited a view. What of the things systems do in which we play little or no part? How can we measure the value of a right whale, a spotted salamander, a boreal forest, or an arctic tern? What can these things be said to do for us? But to suggest they have no value is ridiculously anthropocentric.
I don’t want to be the kind of advocate who holds out for a silver bullet when a lead bullet is available. Neither do I want to be a person who settles for the mediocre when the good is possible. And so I think ecosystem services are worthwhile, and necessary, but insufficient.
I think, too, that we need to consider very carefully what it means to value things. Though it is a much bigger conversation, I think there is a serious difference between intrinsic value and dollar value. By necessity, the latter is smaller than the former. Even in human terms alone, the dollar value of a thing does not equal its total value. So, when it comes to conserving what is left of our ecosystems, I think we must not let dollar value take center stage. It has a use, and when it works we should use it, but we must not succumb to the idea that it is enough.
One quality of human societies is that we shape our environment to fit our needs. Sometimes we do this intentionally, such as when we clear land for agriculture or human occupation. Sometimes we do it as a byproduct of our actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to runaway warming of the global climate. In the past, human societies have endured, or collapsed, or adapted, depending on how much their environment could withstand change.
I think this begs the question, how resilient is our global ecosystem? How much can it handle? What are the limits?
Those with a narrower view tend to dismiss environmental concerns as frivolous, uneconomical, or overblown. The earth has always carried on, they sometimes argue, and even if it doesn’t, we can invent technologies to replace and improve on anything an ecosystem can do. Yet I wonder.
Ecosystems around the world have evolved to be both diverse and redundant, with animals and plants and insects and microbes all functioning together to support the system. Most of that diversity and redundancy is structural—the evolution of an ecosystem, like the evolution of any given species, does not tend to generate and maintain traits with no purpose. I don’t mean that an ecosystem is designed with a place for everything and everything in its place, but rather that diversity and redundancy in a natural system are present because regular stress on the system requires them. They are buffers that protect the system from failure.
From the human perspective, redundancy is usually perceived as an abundance of parts—a river full of salmon, a forest full of old growth trees, a sky full of passenger pigeons. This leaves us with the comforting sense that however many we take away, there are more than enough; the system will not falter.
That can be true on a small scale, but global human society does not act on the small scale. We have an economic engine dedicated to mobilizing resources, and it is very good at it. If a resource is found, there is an effectively unending line of people ready to use it and transform it into human economic capital. But that engine is very bad at asking questions of stability; if a resource is abundant, we use it rapidly and heavily without concern for the broader system. That old individual view, that taking a few doesn’t matter, seems to have evolved into the idea that natural systems can be processed and repurposed by humans without consequences.
Unfortunately, the data says otherwise. The declining biodiversity of forests and the strangled flow of major rivers are examples of what happens to natural systems when their natural buffers are carted off for human purposes. Current complex systems science shows us that the natural systems we rely on are being driven to the edge of catastrophic failure. Ecologists and complex system scientists call this “overshoot,” a state in which the key ecological foundations of a system are exploited much faster than they can regenerate.
Put more simply, we are playing ecological Jenga. Globally, systematically, we are stealing away the foundations of critical natural systems to build a human superstructure on top. Yet questions about that same foundation receive more derision than consideration; with a curious bootstrapping logic, we convince ourselves that the titanic edifice of human society is unsinkable.
That ideological position is so much stranger in the face of the evidence. We have known for some time that we are drawing down natural capital much faster than the rate of replenishment. In the U.S., California is a poster child for depletion of water. In Canada, Alberta is scraping off their largest intact natural forest to dig up tar sands. In the tropics, slash-and-burn agriculture is depleting nutrient-rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form.
As we busily remove the redundancy of natural systems that sustain us, the growing specter of climate change looms large. We are carefully pulling bricks from the base of our tower, scarcely noticing the wind of change ruffling our shirtsleeves. Systems evolved redundancy to cope with stressors, and the biggest stressor for an ecosystem is a changing climate.
Some say human ingenuity will avert any catastrophe. I think they’re right that it could, if we would just look honestly at the implications of our choices. If we could bring ourselves to take them seriously. If we could bring ourselves to alter those choices.
But the tower is getting taller, and the wind is getting stronger.
The science shows us that we can’t continue the game into perpetuity. Natural systems will reach points of change; many already are. Many already have. Some have collapsed.
So let’s hear it for human ingenuity, and let’s fix it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ingenuity isn’t our problem now. We’re plenty ingenious. What we’re not, is honest.