Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The world that we forgot

Humans are an inherently short sighted species. We do not think too far into the future, and rarely gaze much further back than our youth. At most, the average person thinks a few decades forward, and a century back, anything beyond that is largely forgotten, or ignored. For conservationists protecting nature, this cone of vision is slightly less narrow, often looking an entire century forward, and sometimes upwards of 500 years back. This allows them to view the general trends these last few centuries have experienced. But it is still a narrow view, and still does not offer one crucial thing; Perspective. Most conservation efforts focus either on preserving areas as they are today, or turning them back at most a few hundred years. Often the time just before the industrial revolution is used as a target, an ideal. In this post I will discuss why to properly conserve nature, one must look much further back, and how this lack of perspective and vision is choking nature today.

The Cairngorms of eastern Scotland

When most people think of British nature, they probably think of the highlands. Vast, beautiful, and devoid of people, they are an icon of conservation. They are also however almost completely devoid of any wildlife to be conserved, and in many places one can walk for hours, barely witnessing any animals, with the majority of the species one does see representing common taxa, also found in urban and rural regions. The reason for this is quite simple: Animals need shelter to survive, especially in areas exposed to harsh conditions, such as windswept mountains. But the British highlands are almost completely devoid of any form of shelter or cover, and thus, very little can live there. This is not the only reason for this scarcity, other factors include persecution by game keepers, use of pesticides in the lowlands, and the general tendency for uplands to house less wildlife than the more fertile lowlands. Of these factors however, only the former plays a major role, as pesticide use rarely affects many regions of the uplands, and many areas of the highlands are not below the natural treeline. The root issue is simply the lack of habitat.

How does this relate to this lack of perspective and vision that I mentioned in the first paragraph? Well, the Highlands did not always look as they do today. In the past, only a few thousand years ago, they were heavily vegetated. Some regions were cloaked in forest, others in shrub, and many areas consisted of savanna-like wood pastures. This diversity of habitats was matched by an astounding diversity of wildlife, not typically associated with northern Europe. Then came agriculture, and with it axes and fire. The trees were felled and the woods burned, so that cattle and other domestic animals could graze the areas. Soon, fire turned the verdant habitats into monocultures of heath and little else. Heather you see, is a pioneer species, adapted to flourish in the aftermath of wildfires, deposit its seeds, and then give way to other species through natural succession. When the next wildfire comes, these seeds germinate, and the cycle begins anew. But in the heavily grazed, heavily burned moors created by humans, this succession never came. Trees and bushes were prevented from regenerating by the intense grazing pressure, and the heath was perpetually renewed by periodic burning. Thus the forests and pastures gave way, and were replaced by vast tracts of heaths, almost entirely devoid of life. Fast forward 2000 years, and this landscape has changed little. What has changed however, is our perception of it. While the first people to begin this transformation were very much aware of what came before, two millennia later, all memories of the ancient woods were long gone, and heath was now perceived as normal, or rather, natural. 

A highland moor, once a verdant woodland

This brings us to modern conservation. As with the habitats it seeks to protect, the movement remained fairly unchanged for over a century, continuing the same age old practices. More precisely, when the movement began, it sought to, as the name implies, conserve nature. But the nature that was present throughout much of the country at the dawn of the movement was the depauperate heathland, and thus, it was chosen as one of the primary goals for conservation. It was quickly realized that without constant maintenance, these open areas would rapidly turn to shrubbery, and soon forest. To prevent this, a strict burning and grazing regime was implemented, mimicking the slash and burn tactics practiced by farmers for the last 2000 years. In practice, the conservationists implemented agriculture to protect what they perceived as nature. This meant an overabundance of sheep, repeated burning, and removal of any trees attempting to colonize the protected areas. They locked in place the agricultural landscape, denying it any ability to change. To this day, these areas remain as they have been for hundreds of years, barren, empty, and devoid of life. All of this is the result of a complete lack of perspective, a lack of awareness of what came before. Even of those who did know of the old woodlands, few wanted to see them restored in the place of moors. 

A few pinewood remnants have clung on til this day, and as is the perceived duty of conservationists, they have been maintained, unchanged. The problem is that these woods were never a healthy, nor stable ecosystem. Many of them emerged within a brief timeframe, when conflict forced the farmers and shepherds to retreat from the mountains, allowing forests to regrow. However, since the farmers returned, and deer stalking created a financial incentive to increase the population of said animal to unnaturally high numbers, natural succession has halted, and nearly all of the trees in these forests are approximately the same age, all centuries old, and all beginning to die. This has been going on for decades, with many woods present just 30 years ago now gone, yet in most places, little action was taken. A reluctance to embrace change, and insistence that the nature of the future should continue to resemble that of the recent past, has been the demise of these last forests. 

Lone Scots pines, remnants of a now gone forest. Conifer plantation in background

This issue is not exclusive to British isles, though they are one of the best known examples. It is endemic to almost all areas in which we have become accustomed to impoverished conditions. The extinction of megafauna(large animals) across most of the world has made this a nearly global problem, as conservationists and people in general from most countries have forgotten the ecosystems of the past. One such case is Australia, which is also possibly one of the most insidious examples. Australia once had a megafauna, just like every other continent, but here it was in a league of its own. Isolated from the outside world, ancient Australia was the sandbox of evolution, where animals long extinct everywhere else coexisted with wholly novel lineages. Giant terrestrial crocodiles hunted marsupial rhinos, huge kangaroos stomped through the outback, and giant monitors, which I previously discussed here, stalked the bush. Then came humans, and the same story as Britain unfolded, except whereas when people first arrived in Britain, the megafauna was already gone(exterminated when humans reached their Mediterranean refugees during the ice age), the first humans in Australia encountered a world of monsters. It did not take long for them to reduce it to nearly nothing, both through spears and fire. By the time Europeans first arrived, most of the large animals had been extinct for over 40,000 years, while some species, such as the Thylacine, had been gone from the mainland for over 4000. 

Today, we have a tendency to view pre-European conditions as natural, with the native humans living in harmony with nature, only for this to be disrupted as soon as the Europeans first arrive. While it is certainly true that conditions have tended to worsen after European colonization, on most continents the most severe destruction occurred long before. In other words, the idea that native populations lived in harmony with nature could not be any further from the truth. Going back to Australia, as this is a continent colonized by Europeans quite recently, the benchmark for conservation has typically been right before their arrival. The most ambitious conservationists sometimes mentioned returning Tasmanian devils to the mainland, but not until recently has this idea gained any real traction, and aside from this, conservationists have mostly been solely focused on ridding the continent of all introduced species. By now, it is well known that ridding an island, much less an entire continent, of a well established species is almost impossible, while introducing new or extirpated species is much easier. In choosing to focus only on the eradication of all non-native(read, post-European) species, and in no way attempting to reintroduce extirpated species, they have essentially chosen to spend all of their money and energy on fighting an impossible war, rather than implement more radical ideas that may actually be feasible.

The extinct giant marsupial Diprotodon, by Peter Trusler

The phenomenon of people forgetting the past, of accepting current conditions as natural, is known as Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Essentially, it involves every successive generation viewing the state of nature during their youth as natural. As species decline, and nature becomes increasingly poor over the years, successive generations come to view each progressing stage of the decline as natural, until eventually a species dies out, and while the generation witnessing the extinction may lament it, those who grow up in its absence will not. Unfortunately, as I have described above, conservationists are not immune from Shifting Baseline Syndrome, far from it. This one phenomenon is in large part responsible for the decline and extinction of many species, as those who may otherwise have helped nature, actually become its enemies. At its core, SBS is a positive feedback loop, which is exceedingly hard to escape. Nature has been in a state of constant decline for so long now, that what many people and conservationists view as natural, and a goal to be striven towards, is in fact an unstable and thus unattainable state, which can never be achieved for the same reason why, if you are a person who has just jumped off a building and landed on the ground, it is quite possibly to return to the roof or stay on the ground, but you cannot move 20 meters back up into the air and then stay there. If you return to a state of freefall, said fall will resume as soon as you return there, and you will soon be back to where you started.

Hippopotamus once lived in Europe. Whether or not you want them back, the perception of them as non-native is a case of Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Nature in Britain(and most of the world) was already in decline 500 years ago, so returning the country to that period will simply save some time, merely postponing the issue. The only true way to save an ecosystem is to make it self sustaining, and to do that, one must first remember how a functional ecosystem even looks. This is why fields such as palaeoecology and paleontology are so vital for conservation, because they allow us to see how things were before. While we can never return to this past state, the Diprotodon is gone, as is the Mastodon, we can use these past ecosystems as examples, templates from which we can create new and healthy ones. To understand the present and the future, one must first understand the past, and for far too long, conservation has not done this. Luckily, times change, and progress is beginning to occur, but that is a topic for another post.

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