Thursday, August 5, 2010 - 3:30 PM

SYMP 19-6: Ecology in the Anthropocene

Erle Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


For centuries, humans have been driving earth systems in new and unprecedented directions. It is no longer possible to understand or predict the functioning of ecosystems, evolution, climate and most other earth systems without understanding how human systems interact with, change, and control them.   The emergence of the Anthropocene heralds new imperatives and opportunities for ecological science and education. Ecology is becoming more human, and like humans, more global, multifunctional, dynamic and adaptive.


More than three quarters of the terrestrial biosphere now consists of anthropogenic biomes, complex landscape mosaics fragmented about equally into lands used directly to meet human demands and the novel remnant, recovering and managed ecosystems embedded within these used lands. Given the reality that most of earth's terrestrial ecology now occurs within the used and novel ecosystems shaped and sustained by humans, ecological research, education and conservation must focus greater efforts on understanding anthropogenic ecosystems and the human systems that have formed them. To accomplish this, the classic paradigm of "natural ecosystems with humans disturbing them" must give way to a postnatural ecology in which human systems are incorporated as completely as biota, climate and the abiotic environment. Like climate, human systems shape, constrain, and interact with ecosystem processes including evolution, biogeochemistry and community structure both locally and globally as a function of strong and weak connections with markets, politics and other social systems. For example, socially-driven shifts in resource demand and strong global connections have made species introductions and extinctions a function of markets and can transform primary forests to monocultures within a year. This increasing globalization of human systems calls for an increasingly globalized ecology that goes beyond case studies and national boundaries. By more fully characterizing and monitoring the human environment and its interactions with ecosystems first globally and then locally, it will be possible to better predict and manage human transformation of ecosystems. Ultimately, we must embrace humans in ecology not as destroyers of nature but as creators, engineers and stewards of the biosphere. As educators we must build a new sense of wonder and discovery about human systems and the ecosystems they create and sustain. Just as a desirable global climate may depend on geoengineering, ecologists should be prepared to engineer a more sustainable biosphere. By humanizing ecological research and ecosystem management we can move beyond "keeping people out" and towards an ecology that we can all sustain.