Journey to the Cross-roads

“Extinction – the irrevocable loss of a species – causes pain that can never find relief. It is an ache that will pass from generation to generation, for the rest of human history.” – Callum Roberts in An Unnatural History of the Sea

In my opinion, preventing extinction should be the premier goal of every biologist, regardless of their specific discipline. Ecologists, botanists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and climate scientists should all be equally concerned with the Sixth Extinction and the ever unfolding Anthropocene. The biodiversity of today is temporally and spatially unique and thus deserves our preservative efforts on principle alone. Beyond this, however, biodiversity on every scale should be preserved based on a growing recognition that it is key to resilience and thus to our own species’ survival.

In an age of unprecedented, human-caused extinction and climate change, maintaining high biodiversity will be integral to the biosphere’s health. High biodiversity has been connected to an ecosystem experiencing greater resilience to drastic changes and a greater ability to recover after disturbances (see a wonderful article here http://conservationbytes.com/2014/01/08/more-species-more-resilience/ for some solid reading). This consensus comes at a time when buzz words like “sustainability” and “renewable” are losing favor and words like “resilience” and “stable state ecosystems” are gaining esteem (see another wonderful article here http://conservationmagazine.org/2013/03/good-bye-sustainability-hello-resilience/ for more solid reading).

The strength of the Seeds of Success Program lies in its dedication to preparing for an uncertain future and thereby promoting resilience. The SOS program is clearly preparing for the future through their collection goals. As a whole, SOS works on conducting research and creating large seed banks of “native winners,” early successional species, and populations of common species that are thriving in drier, hotter, and/or higher elevation locales throughout the country. The SOS Program exemplifies the foresight we all must have to ready the U.S. for the stochasticity associated with the inevitable, yet unpredictable, global shifts before us. My co-intern and I are collecting seeds in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which stands as a testament to the beauty, fragility, and longevity of semi-arid ecosystems and our public lands. I see these collections as a way to help the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program and Seeds of Success be better prepared for an uncertain future and to bolster resilience in the GSENM.

Cleome serrulata and cumulus

Cleome serrulata and cumulus

Plant petroglyph near Bluff, UT

Plant petroglyph near Bluff, UT

In my perfect world, unadulterated logic would dictate the future of conservation biology. Sensitive, unique landscapes like Southern Utah, areas of high biodiversity and low protection like the vast Southeast, and areas of high biodiversity and great threats like the California Floristic Province would be managed for resilience. This would, in my mind, translate into preserving as much biodiversity as possible, all as cheaply as possible. However, this world is far from my ideal, and unprecedented changes are causing deep disruptions that erode resilience and our ability to prevent extinction. Not only are the chemical and physical properties of both the ocean and the atmosphere changing rapidly (on both geologic and human scales), but so are our views of them and the life they harbor. Our biased views have an untold potential to affect ecosystem resilience and the future of biodiversity the world over.

Summertime Blues 147There is an idea in environmentalism and conservation biology that successive generations accept their environments as normal, regardless of historic variations. Thus, whole groups of people lose their collective memory of what the world used to be like because most individuals rely more heavily on their personal experiences than on those of others. This can be hugely evolutionarily beneficial, but it can also be socially and environmentally devastating.

Anecdotally, this idea of “shifting baselines” is intuitive. My generation has grown up with the United States at war on foreign soil because of one day and 60 words (see http://www.buzzfeed.com/gregorydjohnsen/60-words-and-a-war-without-end-the-untold-story-of-the-most#.yfV1ZD7apa for a fascinating read), but we don’t know what it’s like to see an end to a war. My parents’ generation remembers the horrors of fighting in Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall. My grandparents’ generation lived through the Great Depression, witnessed Pearl Harbor being bombed, and saw the end of a World War. As each generation succeeds the last, ideas that are unthinkable, unimaginable, or simply unconventional become normalized. Thus the collective baseline of reality shifts and the past becomes history. This phenomenon can be referred to as the “shifting baseline syndrome.”

By way of a common scientific example, fisheries scientists and fishermen through the centuries have been chronically susceptible to shifting baseline syndrome. Due to collective shifts in reality, modern day seafarers cannot – or will not – fully comprehend their predecessors’ environments and instead rely on their own immediate realities to assess the world. This is creating a dangerous collective ignorance in the managing and harvesting of marine living resources.

Callum Roberts, in his 2007 book An Unnatural History of the Sea, provides some anecdotal evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome by exploring the oft neglected descriptions of what the oceans were like hundreds of year ago. Accounts from Europeans arriving in North America paint a nearly inconceivable picture of marine abundance that is almost entirely forgotten – or else deemed irrelevant and wholly ignored – by today’s fishing industry. In stark contrast to today’s depleted oceans, John Smith, the first governor of Jamestown, said that halibut were so common on the coasts “that the fisher men onely eate the heads & fines, and throw way the bodies” (qtd. in The Ocean of Life, Roberts 2012).

As another example, the Atlantic cod used to be an economically and gastronomically invaluable species, feeding peoples wherever land touched the North Atlantic. As the species’ value increased, so did fishing pressure. Catch quotas were eventually set, but, without any data, they were more or less arbitrary as far as the species’ health was concerned. As time went on quotas began being set relative to recent quota data. These new numbers, however, were based on an already significantly reduced global population of cod, and were thus set far above maximum sustainable yield (MSY). As catch quotas were set without using long-term and historic data, overfishing became the norm without any pomp or, indeed, any fleeting notice. Decades after the Atlantic cod fishery’s collapse and belated strict protection, the species has still not recovered. It is now generally accepted that the species is not likely to regain its size during the peak of fishing and will certainly never return to its historic peak prior to its boom in popularity.

The incomparable Pacific - full of finite resources

The incomparable Pacific – full of finite resources

While John Smith grew accustomed to the marine abundance in our Northeast, we are currently baffled by his descriptions. While Europeans and Canadians believed in the limitless bounty of the Atlantic cod, few laypeople know of its tragic story and are filling themselves with frozen fish fillets from the Antarctic instead. When once hand lines and minimal time commitment could feed a family, today’s oceans are filled with an enormous number of hooks, lines, nets, trawls, and weights – all increasing fishing effort but not increasing catches. In all likelihood, as the oceans continue to degrade and as species continue to be lost, successive generations will see the sea as just how it is supposed to be. These stories, and the objective data backing them, exemplify the shifting baseline syndrome. We should all take a moment to appreciate how terribly and drastically our oceans have changed and should simultaneously appreciate that our terrestrial ecosystems must also be in danger.

Purshia mexicana seeds

Purshia mexicana seeds

A canyon tree frog

A canyon tree frog

Though the shifting baseline syndrome specifically refers to how people view their natural environments, the broader idea that accompanies it is that ecosystems can, and do, shift between stable states. In other words, the “shifting baseline syndrome” might be merely the anthropocentric view of ecosystem change acquired throughout a long, complex evolution. However, like with extinction, rate is crucial. Our world is changing fast and our ability to forget past environments in order to adapt to new conditions is no longer a boon. Oceanography and atmospheric science have shown that it is statistically improbable that any inch of the planet remains unaffected by human activity – from the most remote forests or mountain tops to any untouched reef or unseen, aphotic stretches of ocean. In the face of a changing global climate, increasing CO2 absorption by both the atmosphere and the ocean, and increasing reliance on damaging industrial and farming practices, we are entering into a period where shifting baselines and changing ecosystems are going to create unprecedented environments and challenges.

As our species and our planet are journeying to a great cross-roads and we must decide what is worth saving, remembering, and forgetting. Friends, I sincerely hope that we will not forget what it is like to have wild public lands. I hope that we will be immune to the shifting baseline syndrome and will reject the idea that rapid, irreversible species and habitat loss are natural and normal. I hope that we will not take our terrestrial ecosystems and resources for granted like we have for marine and freshwater ecosystems. I hope that wild places will remind us of our origins, our birthright, and our responsibilities to others. I hope beyond hope that programs like SOS will be able to restore and bolster resilience in our magnificent public lands. And, above all, I hope that our species, our varying populations filled with a plethora of beliefs, ideologies, creeds, values, backgrounds, privileges, socioeconomic statuses, and goals, will work together to preserve this planet’s rich biodiversity and thus protect our collective home.

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