Birds and Anthropocene: Not all Doom and gloom


Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

We drove to Gilbert to participate in the monthly meeting of the Desert Rivers Audubon Society. We went last year to one of their meetings and really enjoyed it. Tonight they had a talk by Arizona State University Professor Dr. David Pearson. His topic was “Birds and the Anthropocene: The Future of Biodiversity”. It was fascinating. Dr. Pearson looked at the issue from a new perspective. In other words, he wanted to beyond the doom and gloom of species loss. It is easy to go down that path. I know, I do it all the time.

The notion of the anthropocene is designed to capture the fact that the era of human impacts is upon us and we as a species have had such a profound impact on the planet that our impact is comparable to the global geological forces of the past. I recently blogged about the precipitous decline in animals (not just birds)  The numbers are stupefying. The big question though is what can we do about it?

Dr. Pearson began with a startling proposition: “Don’t dwell on the past if you want to conserve the future.” That is not intuitively true. After all should we not learn from the mistakes of the past? Of course we should, but that does not mean we have to be stuck in the past. We need a new approach. The problem that we have to take into consideration is that so much has changed that we must learn to adapt.

Pearson suggested we consider conservation and ecology but with a new focus. We have to change our focus. The most important first step is to realize that we must give up our search for the pristine. The pristine no longer exists, and it ain’t coming back any time soon.  That is why we have to forget about the past. It will only serve to depress. There is no pristine left anywhere on the planet. Human impacts can be seen on every continent. Even in Antarctica the human effects are obvious and easily discernable.

What worked 50 years ago won’t necessarily work today. Too much has changed. So we have to change too. So we have to forget about the pristine and forget about achieving it. Think outside that box. We need a new ecology. We cannot fix the past. We need knowledge. We have to be smart. Yes we have to avoid the mistakes of the past, but we also need to learn new ways of doing ecology. We have to realize that we can’t save everything. We need triage. Really that means we must prioritize what needs to be done and what can be done. We must also understand that money is always a factor. It is never unlimited. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, we have to practice smart ecology. We have to practice ecology that knows its limits too.

We have to work with the state of nature that we have, even though it is far from the pristine nature we would like to have. We can’t undo the past so what do we do?

Around the globe the number of species that have been lost for good and the habitat that has been lost for good are staggering. But concentrating on this doom and gloom won’t be help. It might even make things worse, because if things are hopeless people tend to give up.

Even in Kruger National Park, one of the finest national parks in the world, they have had to adapt. As a result much of it is now fenced! I remember when I was there, only a few years ago, they were just talking about fencing it. The notion seems abhorrent, but they had to adapt. We will have to adapt too and accept some things we don’t want to accept.

We have to reconsider what is natural. The natural is what is caused by nature, not by humans. But humans affect everything. Humans everywhere affect everything.

One of the things Pearson emphasized is that we can’t just concentrate on National Parks. We have to do conservation work elsewhere as well. We have to look at secondary habitats. In some of these places we can actually make a difference, and sometimes at a surprisingly small cost.

Since no habitat is able to escape human influence we have to be willing to go where humans have already had an effect. For example, we must look at urban ecology. This may sound counterintuitive, but we have to be willing to work in areas where humans have already had a profound impact. We have to practice ecology in our cities.

A single generation from today, by 2030, the population of the world’s cities will likely grow by 2 billion more people. That will be nearly 10 billion people. At present, about half of the humans on earth live in urban areas.

In short, the entire planet is becoming more urbanized, a phenomenon which is already having a profound effect on the natural systems that maintain breathable air, drinkable water, and fertile soil for agriculture.

But large areas of green spaces exist within cities. Lawns, parks, golf courses, and nature preserves created decades ago and now surrounded by development help filter pollution in air and water, produce oxygen, mitigate heat absorption by asphalt and concrete, and provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

In the past quarter century, scientists have recognized that understanding the interactions of the living and nonliving components of these urban ecosystems is vital to the future of all life on earth, including ourselves.

Dr. Pearson said one day he took his students at Arizona State University on a walk through their campus. They were amazed by the wildlife they found right there. He said before they were done 50 other students joined his class, intrigued by what they were looking at. We all have to take a fresh look at the environment. Even the environments in our cities.

We have to look at the costs and benefits of urbanization. There are a lot of hidden costs. They are only hidden though until we look. The costs of urbanization include the following: pollution has increased, more floods have been created, water has been affected, air quality has been affected and that has affected people living in cities, people’s stress has been increased, people have become alienated from nature, and garbage has accumulated. The list could go on and on.

Of course there are benefits to living in cities too. Otherwise so many people would not live there. Many people think the costs are worth the price. In fact since more and more people live in cities that must mean that more and more people think it is worth living in cities, notwithstanding the enormous costs. The benefits include better access to education, jobs, entertainment, culture, sociability, and efficiency of services, to name again just a few. Often life is just plain more comfortable and for many more enjoyable than outside the cities. Apparently the benefits outweigh the costs. At least to many people. That’s why so many choose to live there. We have to work with that.

One of the facts about living in a city is the presence of heat islands. It is hotter in the city than outside the city. People must learn that green islands in the city are not a luxury. They help modify the ill effects of city living.

Humans in cities have to do things to improve city life. Cats are a good example. Every year in the United States domestic cats kill 2 billion birds. This is contributing to the serious decline of bird populations. Humans should keep their cats inside or tied up. Cats can learn to accept that. Cat owners must be responsible. I admit to some guilt here. I used to have cat pets and always let them roam around the neighbourhood and I knew that my cats killed birds. I did not like it, but I let them out. If someone complained I promised to speak to the cats. Attitudes like mine have to change.

Riparian areas are marvellous adaptations inside cities. There are 2 astounding examples very close by–the Riparian Reserve at Water Ranch (where I took the photograph of the owl., though it is captive) and the Veterans Oasis Park. Both are wonderful green areas inside the city. And both help recycle water in a region that badly needs clean water! This is win/win at its finest. Dr. Pearson said he proudly shows pictures of these 2 places around the world when he gives presentations at conferences. I have been there many times and am always amazed at the wildlife inside a major city.

As Dr. Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.

The entire story is not grim. For example, in the past hundred years in Arizona perhaps only 1 or 2 plant species have gone extinct as far as we know. Even though many exotics have been introduced they have not muscled out the locals. Plants have been able to survive.

Next I will blog about species that are not declining. How is that possible?

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