Calling for a New Ecology

Written by Last Ocean USA Coordinator Cassandra Brooks during her visit to New Zealand to work with the NZ Last Ocean team.  

Traveling through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, I am mesmerized by the green smoky mountains and glacial blue braided rivers. Lost in thought, I wonder (as I always do when immersed in a new place) has this stunning eco-scape always looked this way?

West Coast South Island New Zealand (photo by Cassandra Brooks)

I came to NZ to work on a project called “The Last Ocean.”  Collectively we are trying to tell the story of the Ross Sea, Antarctica, a region that’s been deemed the last intact and healthy marine ecosystem.  This southernmost stretch of ocean has remained beyond the reaches of widespread pollution, mining or large-scale fishing (until recently).   Most incredibly, the Ross Sea still has near virgin abundances of all its top predators.

As I drove through the rugged New Zealand mountain passes, the weight of this hits me.  Prior to human arrival, the largest inhabitants here were birds unlike those anywhere else in the world.  Giant flightless birds known as moa dominated the land, hunted only by the Haast Eagle, a massive raptor.  I tried to imagine moas, which stood ten feet tall, grazing in the mountain lowlands while the Haast Eagle, with a nine-foot wingspan, soared above.

Giant Haast Eagle attacking New Zealand moa, artist rendition (published in PLoS Biology, downloaded from Wikimedia)

I tried to imagine grizzlies still roaming through California, wolves and mountain lions in my childhood home of New England.  But we’re lucky to see any of these animals in our lifetime.  If we do, it’s likely in a national park, reserve or zoo – all tiny relics of the past preserved in space and time.

And yet, there are pockets of the world where animals have either persisted or returned, many of them within the ongoing presence of humans.  After all, an ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their environment, whether we like it or not, that includes us.

As I watch the sun set in the Southern Hemisphere, my mind drifts north to my current home in Point Reyes, California.  I think of all the large predators I’ve seen there – bobcats, coyotes and even great white sharks. I think of the mountain lions, the herds of elk and deer, many grazing amongst the cattle.

Elk at Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore, California (photo by Cassandra Brooks)

Here on the Point Reyes Peninsula we’ve somehow found a way to peacefully coexist – a national park amidst ranch land where the ecosystem seems to have settled.  The environment seems healthy – by that I mean the region is rich in biodiversity, invasives exist, but don’t dominate, plants and animals aren’t suffering from disease, the air and water are relatively clean.

Of course, Point Reyes supports a tiny population of a few hundred people while at the time of writing this our human population has now topped 6.9 billion people.  That’s an awful lot of us tapping resources, polluting, and if not actively, certainly passively bulldozing biodiversity.

Our planet Earth (photo from NASA/Wikimedia)

Our big human brains are surely to blame.  We’ve devised such cunning ways to live easier lives, exploit more efficiently, overcome disease and dominate the planet. Perhaps its time we use our big brains to become responsible members and active participants in our ecosystem. Try as we might, we cannot live outside of it. All we do to our environment comes back to us – all of our resources, our food, water and energy, come from the earth; all our waste goes back into it.

The first step to healing our environment is simple and depends solely on human will. We need a paradigm shift in our way of thinking so that we consciously see ourselves as part of our environment. In this new ecology, perhaps we could find a way to create as much as we destroy, so that we do not deprive future generations of clean air, fresh water, food, and energy.  Perhaps we will stop causing extinction, and instead find ways to support biodiversity.  Perhaps once we see ourselves as an extension of the Earth, we will fight to protect those systems that are still intact and work towards repairing the rest. If we do there is still a chance to provide a hospitable planet for generations to come.

Scientist on the ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo copyright John B. Weller)


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