The natural environment is greater than the sum of its parts

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Our outdoor columnist uses the analogy of a car to explain the importance and function of many elements in nature

When studying the natural environment, trying to understand the interrelationships of many species, the exercise can become a bit overwhelming. I say this as someone who has had the privilege of working in and for our environment for several decades.

Concepts that were once considered simple and straightforward have become very complex.

“In the good old days” there was the explanation that conservation was the wise use of our natural resources.

We recognized that we used trees, fish, game, water, air, land, and that we had better do it sparingly and with some care.

The next level of understanding was that some of these natural resources were renewable (a replacement tree could be planted) and some were not renewable (once you dig up all the limestone, it’s gone. ).

Understanding food chains, food pyramids, and habitat components has helped us think about ways to use conservation practices to save and protect preferred species.

Even earlier, in the 1940s, it was rumored that maybe all of these resources weren’t there just for humans to use, that maybe we were just a small part of a concept a lot. wider.

So writers like Aldo Leopold have presented us with a tenure ethic, according to which when a species is “managed” (for example, killing cougars or wolves to protect livestock) then many other species will be affected. Hey, who knew?

In the 1960s, this idea was transformed into a notion of ecology, the interrelationships of all species. You probably remember hearing about the web of life: all strands are connected; tear off a strand and the whole canvas vibrates. Groovy stuff to wrap your head.

All of this started to become common knowledge in the 1970s, when the impact of acid rain and chemical DDT in the food chain began to show in everyday examples.

Populations of the mighty peregrine falcon and osprey began to dive sharply towards extinction; stonework in buildings began to crumble. And the shout went out, “Why isn’t the government doing something about this ?!”

Thus, the search for something other than a “hook and ball” species began, while gulls and migrating songbirds began to be scrutinized very closely.

Also in the 1970s, a scientific article by F. Schumacher introduced us to “natural capital”. How much would it cost us to replace a tree and all the services it provides, such as oxygen production, carbon sequestration, food and shelter for wildlife, shelters for insects in the chain food, intrinsic human values, etc.

Trying to give a tree financial value was one way to get the attention of politicians and policy makers that a tree was worth far more than the number of picnic tables that could be made from the harvested wood. .

Natural capital was quickly renamed “environmental services” when discussions revealed that, yes indeed, we humans freely benefit from the natural environment and its properly functioning ecosystems.

Artificially creating such services quickly added to the billions of dollars that would have to be spent to maintain quality of life. It became apparent (to some) that it was far more fiscally responsible for protecting the environment than destroying it for another linear mall.

And now we call this whole awareness process “ecosystem services,” which is divided into four areas of study: food provision, climate and disease regulation, support for natural cycles, and cultural and recreational use. of the earth. .

To these intoxicating concepts is added the ability today to analyze the very DNA of an individual, to see his relationship traits with other species of similar character.

This ability to look so closely created a whole new set of challenges, as the simple ‘grouping and division’ of species and their roles in the environment became very unclear as to the end of one species and the other really. single.

As steward of the land (and aren’t we all), we now need to not only make lists of what grows and lives in a certain piece of land, but also needs to be aware of how they are. related to each other, and how that particular parcel of land relates to other parcels both near and far.

As one researcher puts it, “Ecology has moved from counting cash to counting cash.”

For many years, our rallying cry was “biodiversity”! If there are a lot of species on a piece of land, it must have greater ecological value than a neighboring piece with a shorter list. However, this notion of understanding the territory is now upset by terms such as functional diversity and phylogenetic diversity. Have I ever lost you?

A great analogy is that of taking an inventory of an automobile.

A quick assessment shows four tires, a gas tank, six pieces of glass, a battery and other items yet to be identified. A closer look reveals a fifth wheel hitch hidden inside, as well as three seat objects (two similar near the front and the third larger near the rear, all inside).

After several such investigations, we would have a long list of what constitutes a car, but we would have no idea how it works and what parts are essential to its operation. Would it still work if the back seat was removed? Would it still work if only the battery was removed? Would it still work if one of the five tires was removed?

This is how we now look at our natural environment. We have long lists of its parts, but we don’t yet fully understand how all of these parts come together to create a functional and complete ecosystem.

Just as this conglomerate of metal, plastic and glass needs a tiny little thing called a key to make it work, our ecosystems may also contain a currently insignificant species that, if removed, would cause collapse. of the whole glorious system.

Oh, the things to think about on a cold winter day.


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