Friday, August 22, 2014

Novel Ecosystems - a really bad idea?

Novel ecosystems arise when human activities change biological communities e.g. through species invasions or environmental change. Many policymakers and ecologists consider them acceptable or even see them as new normal ecosystem because they appear ubiquitous. 

Some proponents of the concept assert that because of the global nature of climate change, all ecosystems are at risk of transformation by extinctions and invasions. Moreover, the pervasiveness of the human footprint suggests to some that no corner of the earth can escape transformation. Consequently, all systems previously considered ‘wild’ or ‘natural’, and the abandoned remnants of previously managed systems (particularly agricultural lands), are likely to become so profoundly transformed that no effort will suffice to return them to their historic state. In this scenario, conserving and restoring ecosystems is a futile endeavor, driven by sentimentality (R.J. Hobbs, cited in Science article) and psychological impairment. Instead, efforts should focus on steering ecosystems towards a desirable state or away from an undesirable state, none of which involves an historical pre-disturbance condition (hence its difference from restoration).

Meanwhile, the concepts of ecological restoration are making their way to the top of the agenda worldwide. Thirty years of research and development show it is possible to rehabilitate and restore degraded landscapes. Importantly, restoration makes scientific and political good sense as an investment whose benefits far outweigh its costs. Consequently, an international scientific team heavily criticizes the adoption of concepts such as novel ecosystems by colleagues and policymakers.

The authors warn that the concept is not only an empty shell; it is also a real threat in terms of policy direction. It would be tantamount to opening the floodgates to invasive species and abandoning ecosystems and their communities that have evolved over a long period of time.

Instead, they call for applying the precautionary principles of conservation and restoration to re-establish or try to emulate the historical trajectories of ecosystems, to allow restored systems to adapt to environmental changes while providing essential services to human populations.

The authors acknowledge barriers to restoration and conservation but note that they are sociological, political and economic, not ecological.  "Novel ecosystems yield unintended and perverse outcomes, and the concept provides 'license to trash' or 'get-out-of-jail card' for companies seeking to fast-track environmental licenses or to avoid front-end investment in research and restoration," says Dan Simberloff, co-author of the study. "The concept may even provide incentives to governments to continue to ignore the long-term environmental and ecological negative impacts of business as usual with respect to sustainable development and natural resources management."

According to the paper the concept of novel ecosystems is largely based on faulty, data-deficient assumptions and conclusions drawn at an inappropriate scale. It does not rest on robust and empirically tested science. The discussions in the ecological community will continue but it is my hope that especially decision makers understand that there is no easy way out and that accepting novel ecosystems as the new normal comes with a very high price:

What is at stake is whether we decide to protect, maintain, and restore ecosystems wherever possible or else adopt a different overall strategy, driven by a vision of a ‘domesticated’ Earth, and use a hubristic, managerial mindset. Scientists should exercise caution when making recommendations that might undermine initiatives and diminish investments intended to protect or restore natural ecosystems.

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