My career trajectory and approach to ecology and conservation science was profoundly influenced by R.T. Paine. As a doctoral student I was initially convinced that describing patterns of biodiversity would improve ocean conservation. Bob redirected my thinking by convincing me that experimenting with ecosystems and patiently observing nature would allow me to better understand how oceans worked. With that understanding, ‘one could begin to make some intelligent decisions’.
That guidance took me to New Zealand where I used marine reserves as human exclusion experiments and discovered the oceanographic conditions under which the exploitation of predators triggered cascading effects on primary production and ultimately coastal carbon flux. It also influenced my quest to understand the cascading effects of humans along Alaska’s coastline, where the strongly interacting grazer, Katharina tunicata, Paine’s unsung scientific muse, became my research protagonist. On these rocky shores, Katharina was actively harvested by indigenous people and according to their observations, had recently declined. By integrating ecological data, historical records, archeological faunal remains and traditional knowledge, we discovered that the serial depletion of alternative prey by both humans and sea otters lead to intensified per capita impacts on Katharina, its recent decline and dramatically altered shorelines. Not only did this highly collaborative and interdisciplinary endeavor reveal to me the value of deep time perspectives and the co-production of knowledge, it forever transformed my view of ecosystems and my approach to conservation science.
Now, I see ecosystems as just one component of a much larger complex adaptive system, one composed of feedbacks between social systems and ecosystems. Moreover, these systems tend to be influenced by interactions across multiple scales of space and time and are prone to tipping points. Consequently, while the top-down pressures imposed by humans in the Anthropocene are profound, pervasive and undeniable, humans can no longer be seen as external disruptors of an otherwise pristine nature. Rather, ecological and social systems are intimately linked and coevolving. Only with an integrated and multi-scale understanding of the ecological, economic and socio-cultural dimensions of coupled social-ecological system will sustainable and socially just solutions to the world’s foremost environmental challenges emerge.