If we want the ecosystem richness we once had, we are going to have to let go of the ecosystems we have left.
The first bad news is that the Anthropocene hasn’t been kind to the ecosystems that predated it. Ever since we came up with fire and agriculture — the first and still most important revolutions in energy and biotechnology — we have been an increasingly disruptive species, with a far too large footprint to be accommodated within the existing energy and resource webs.
In a way, the same can be said of any successful organism, starting at least with the original photosynthetic organisms (how’s that for atmospheric change? a whole order of life suddenly appears whose very metabolism renders the atmosphere highly toxic, not to mention geochemically active in new and exciting ways). What makes the current Great Extinction particularly worrisome for us is that the ecosystems coalescing through our civilization aren’t particularly good for us. They are fragile in ways that impact our food security, prone to generating dangerous diseases, interact in highly problematic ways with other parts of our societies (get on the bad side of Monsanto’s lawyers, and your nice food-producing land becomes an IP-blighted desert), and, to boot, are usually very ugly.
Although there’s nothing we can do about the first problem for the foreseeable future — there’s a minimum of solar energy and biomass needed to feed seven or nine billion humans, and even if everybody goes vegetarian it’s not going to be a negligible amount — we do have the potential to solve the second bundle of problems. After all, we haven’t landed in this mess because we lack the tools to impact the global biosphere.
Our problem comes from lack of knowledge, which partially comes from lack of practice. We just don’t know how to build from scratch useful, interesting, beautiful, resilient ecosystems at a sufficiently large scale, partly because we don’t know enough yet about how the existing ones work, and partly because we haven’t been trying very much. Most people either attempt to preserve existing ecosystems, or reshaping them with an eye to maximum profitability along limited measures. That’s a pretty restricted set of goals, and it’s disappointing that, despite much work from very smart people, our ecosystem engineering makes enterprise system architectures look positively elegant and nimble.
It’s already too late for almost anyone in the 21st century to live or spend much time in a pristine environment; we have thoroughly broken most of them, and the few which remain cannot be isolated from widespread climate change. It’s time to accept that if we want ecological beauty and biodiversity we are going to have to build it ourselves — an extraordinarily complex scientific, technological, and political challenge that nonetheless we cannot afford to ignore.