Reading the ecology literature now I am excited by the papers that are filling in small gaps in our understanding of population and community ecology. Good work indeed. But I am concerned more about the big picture – what would we like ecological science to show to the world in 50 years as our achievements? There are two aspects of this question. At present the findings of ecological research are presented in the media mostly as what could be coarsely described as ecological trivia, light entertainment. We must continue to do this as it is an important part of keeping the public aware of environmental issues. The second aspect of our public face is the bigger issue of how we can make the future world a better place. This part is a global agenda for ecology that should be the background focus of all our research. So what should be our global agenda?
We could call it global change. Specifically, how will our ecological systems change as a joint consequence of climate change and human disturbances? So look out the window to any natural landscape where you live and ask how much we now know that will allow you to predict what that scene will be like in a century or so. We should be able to make this prediction more easily with human disturbed landscapes that with those driven by environmental change, but I am not sure everyone would agree with this hypothesis. We will probably know that if we continue to overgraze a grassland, we will end with a weed infested wasteland or even bare soil. Consequently, a rational management agency should be able to prevent this degradation. These kinds of change should be easy to manage yet we as a society continue to degrade ecosystems all over the globe. Is there an general index for degradation for the countries of the world, so we could add it to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, freshwater contamination, overharvesting of fish and timber, and a host of other environmental indicators that are useful to the public?
The consequences of climate change are the most difficult to understand and possibly manage. We have lived in a dream world of a stable environment, and the mathematical gurus focus on stability as a sine qua non. Change in a system that is well understood should be predictable both in the short term of 50 years and in the long term of 500 years. But we are not there yet. We work hard on the pieces – is the bird population of this particular national park going up or down?, how rapidly are peat bogs releasing CO2 under current changing climate? – but these details while important do not allow one to predict whole ecosystem shifts. more rapidly. What do we need to do as ecologists to achieve a broad consensus on global issues?
Sutherland et al. (2013, 2018) have made a heroic attempt both to recognize fundamental ecological questions and to identify emerging issues in a broader societal framework. This helps us to focus on both specific ecological issues as well as emerging global problems. One useful recommendation that could proceed from these reviews would be a specific journal that would review each year a small number of these questions or issues that would serve as a progress bar on increasing understanding of ecological unknowns.
A personal example might focus the problem. My colleagues, students, and I have been working in the Yukon boreal forest at Kluane for 46 years now, trying to understand community dynamics. The ecosystem moves slowly because of the cold climate, so in the short term of 50 years we cannot see there will be much significant change. But this is more of a guess than a solid prediction because a catastrophe – fire, insect attacks – could reset the system on a different pathway. The long term (500 year) trajectory for this ecosystem is much harder to predict, except to say that it will be driven largely by the climate-vegetation axis, and this is the link in ecosystem dynamics that we understand least. We cannot assume stability or equilibrium dynamics in boreal forests, and while paleo-ecologists have given us a good understanding of past changes in similar ecosystems, the past is not necessarily a good guide to future long-term changes. So I think a critic could well say that we have failed our attempt to understand our boreal forest ecosystem and be able to predict its trajectory, even though we have more than 300 papers describing how parts of this system interact.
My concern is that as we make progress with the pieces of the ecology puzzle we more and more lose sight of the final goals, and we are lost in the details of local ecosystems. Does this simply mean that we have an ecological ‘Red Queen’ that we will forever be chasing? Perhaps that is both the fundamental joy and the fundamental frustration of working on changing ecological systems. In the meantime, enjoy slaying the unknowns of local, specific ecosystems and on occasion look back to see how far we have come.
Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology 101(1): 58-67. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12025.
Sutherland, W.J.et al. (2018). A 2018 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33(1): 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2017.11.006.