Bending the Trend Away From Impoverishment

When's that last time you heard a conversation about the International Commission on Stratigraphy come up with your neighbors and friends?  During the last Super Bowl?  During the NBA finals?   At a Little League soccer game, perhaps?  Or, maybe never?  Yet, this coven of geology geeks and suzerains is in the midst of a spirited debate regarding the appropriate name  for our current geologic epoch.  And while that may sound like a conversation that has all the urgency of drying paint,  the Commission is, in fact, the eminent chamber in which such debates should occur: its members are charged with designating the officiall names for geologic time periods.   And even though this sounds like a makings of the proverbial tempest in a teapot, the debate does have implications for those of us who are far from the ivory halls of this rarefied enclave.

Since 1855, the current epoch has been called the Holocene ("whole recent," which started after the last ice age).  But the firebrands in the Stratigraphy Commission are agitating for a new name for the current geologic time due to the immense impacts of humanity on the global environment.   They want the name changed to the "Anthropocene," and they base their advocacy on the proliferation of what they see as a number of permanently altering developments that have changed the face and functions of the good ship earth.   These rabble-rousers point to the growth of homo sapiens from under a billion members to over six billion in the past two hundred years. They include the growth of mega-cities around the world with their hardscaped environments and  associated infrastrucutre developments such as mega-dams, and railway and transportation corridors.   And they also find significant the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution to levels not seen in eons.  So, school kids in the very near future who are studying geologic time periods in their textbooks may encounter more than the familiar names for epochs such as the Cambrian, the Jurrasic and the Pleistocene.   They may also be reading about the Holocene, and the epoch they are living in, newly defined as the Anthropocene.

This tempest in one of the more esoteric halls of the scientific community does have bearing on us mere mortals.  Yes, the "debate" continues over the existence and potential causes of climate change, but the debate, such as it is, appears to be promoted by industries that benefit from maintaining the status quo, such as Big Oil and Big Coal.  The on-going stasis in the Beltway regarding climate change and the impacts of anthropogenic contributions to ecosystem impverishment is one example of the effectiveness of this dissembling. 

Yet states, cities, local communities and others are pursuing opportunities to maintain and restore ecosystem health across multiple land ownerships.   We may be forced to develop more creative, and varied, approaches to conservaton, restoration and preservation than those we have pursued in the past.  For instance, preserving wilderness and natural resources areas may not be enough to change the trajectory of ecological impoverishment, which by many measures we are currently on, to a more sustainable, and productive approach that enhances our portfolio of natural resources and ecosytem services.   For instance, according to the World Databse on Protected Areas ( approximately 9.6 million square miles (25,000,000 square kilometers) of habitat are protected worldwide.  This out of a total area of 196 million square miles of surface (510,000,000 square kilometers) on the earth.  That's less than 5% of the earlh's terrestrial and marine areas that have some level of protection from development or exploitation.  And the chances of that increasing, given the exponential growth of homo sapiens, and the quest by many in the developing world to garner a more affluent lifestyle, are slim.  Consequently, more diverse srategies will be needed to sustain and restore the world's natural resources and the ecosystem services they provide in order to abort the trajectory toward ecological impoverishment that we are currently on.

Private non-profit groups, for-profit businesses, states and even other nations are purusing creative, and in some cases promising, approaches to preserving or recovering ecosystem robustness.  Many new approaches to conservation on private lands include acquisitons of areas that have high ecological value, or the potential for ecological recovery.  State agencies, such as  Oregon's Watershed Enhancement Board, have strategic, targeted programs for acquiring lands with high ecological values.  Costa Rica, as another example, began a Payment for Environmental Services Program in 1997, which pays private landowners for the provision of four ecosystem services they deem essential: carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, hydrological services, and provision of scenic beauty for recreation and ecotourism. Australia has launched numerous conservation programs using market-based instruments to enlist private landowners in managing for water quality, salinity, and biodiversity targets (National Market-based Instruments Pilot Program,

Yet, given the large percentage of land that is held privately (approximately 60% of land nationally in the US is in private lands), for any landscape-based conservation or restoration strategy to have legs, conservations strategies must include supporting species habitats and healthy ecosystems on private lands in order to sustain wildlife and species at risk.  Yet, this is a tall order for landowners, especially farmers, ranchers, and timber interests who may be risk-adverse and operating under uncertainty about how future biophysical, economic, and institutional factors may affect their investment, as well as operating under long time frames in order for any investments to mature.   A future blog will look at some approaches that are being used to address private lands conservation in more detail, including recruiting private lands in a landscape-based conservation strategy.