Humans and their place in ecosystems

(version française ici)

In his recent comment, Mr. Merrett is generally correct but the one thing that I would clarify is that humans are indeed dependent on ecosystems and interactions with other species, but those ecosystems and species aren’t necessarily dependent on us. 

We’ve distanced ourselves from the ecosystems we depend on, using technology and global systems that disconnect us from feedbacks that occur locally. If we degrade local soils or our actions lead to the extirpation of native pollinators, we then just import food and even pollinators from other parts of the world. That is, if we live in a wealthy enough society. In the past, feedback from local ecosystems might have led us to change our destructive ways so that we could continue to have food and shelter, but the global economy protects us from having to change. 

However, we still do rely on ecosystems, we’ve just delayed the feedback cycle. We will feel repercussions when global systems start to fail, when pollinators are not available anymore for import, when crops can no longer grow in the places we import them from. Poor countries will suffer from these ecological feedbacks first, but eventually we will all feel them.  

We’ve reorganized ecosystems hugely over the past few hundred years to meet human needs (mostly for food), but overall ecosystems would do very well and would continue to evolve in a new direction if human systems no longer dominated landscapes. There are some species that currently depend on humans because of the way that they have co-evolved with human societies. For example, chimney swifts now depend on human infrastructure to survive. But most species are adaptable and don’t demand as much space or as many resources as the human species, and would likely thrive in a world without people. 

Humans cannot survive without ecosystems though – for food, water, medicine, construction materials, breathable air and more, including hope and beauty and things that are harder to measure and manage. I hope we can realize both our power to steward ecosystems in a more sustainable way, as well as our vulnerability – we can live in a very different way with nature and we had better figure that out soon.

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne

Director, Key Biodiversity Areas, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

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