Thursday, July 14, 2011

Humans as part of the Ecology - the Anthropocene

     Farmers spend a lot of time outside and notice changes in weather perhaps more than most people. Not surprisingly, three agricultural societies with more than 10,000 members are saying that the Earth's climate is changing and they believe it is partly because of human activity. The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America said “A comprehensive body of scientific evidence indicates beyond reasonable doubt that global climate change is now occurring.” The impact on agriculture, whether it be by changes in temperature, pests, water availability or pollination is already being felt in some areas.
     Dr. Erle Ellis, an American ecologist from the University of Maryland, believes that humans are part of the ecology and we are now in an age of humans as driving forces in a new geological era called the Anthropocene epoch. He is part of a growing body of scientists who suggest that not just climate is being changed by human habitation on this planet, and that some of the changes are inevitable with a growing human population. Although the industrial era and the use of fossil fuels has had great impact, the Anthropocene is thought to have begun over 8,000 years ago with the growth of agriculture.
The classical view of ecology looks at humans as distinct from the natural world; the ecology of a place results in a disturbed degraded ecosystem, not a properly balanced ecosystem, when humans are put into it. Ellis says this perspective is a fallacy, because over 75% of the planet has been disturbed by humans – even in the past dating back to man's earliest existence. Dr. Ellis studies managed landscapes, primarily in rural China and also in the eastern US.
     The Gulf Islands have been shaped by First Nations and early settlers, as well as logging in the early and mid 20th century, and development to this very day. Invasive species have taken a strong foothold, farms are nestled into valleys that once were thick with trees. Waves from the ferries buffet the shorelines several times a day. Cellphone towers, fire suppression practices and roadways are signs of human habitation. In the past forty years development has grown in the Gulf Islands and the impact of mankind has grown along with it, despite the establishment of the Islands Trust. The mandate of the Islands Trust, “to preserve and protect”, has emphasized ecological protection in the hopes of preserving and protecting the fragile and fractured ecology of the place. It would seem that the ecologists guiding the Trust have a classical view of ecology, not one that recognizes the ongoing role of humans in shaping their landscapes. Instead, there is a grudging acceptance that people live here and must be dealt with. It could be argued that this narrow classical view should be balanced with an acceptance of ecological studies that accept the role of humans in shaping their environment. Some have argued that the model being forced on the human population by Islands Trust is somewhat irrational since people are part of the ecology and protected spaces are not true and pure ecosystems.
As Ellis says, everything around us has been modified, and nature is to be nurtured by us, it is changed by us and it is created by us. We are part of the ecology, something most Gulf Islanders recognize. Everything we do has an impact. Even trying to manage the ecology for the better is really a “best guess” approach since there are many factors involved in a dynamic system, many outside of our control.

from "The Farmer's Stand" in The Islands Independent, issue #70   July 15, 2011

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