Climate Action

2020 feels like dark fiction. Here's how science can inspire a better future

The Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado's history, burns outside Estes Park, Colorado, U.S. October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC23KJ9N6HVT

Wildfires - seen here raging in Colorado, USA - are just one of the crises of 2020 Image: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Nick Pyenson
Curator, Fossil Marine Mammals, Smithsonian Institution
Alex Dehgan
Co-founder and CEO , Conservation X Labs
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Science

  • Wildfires, climate change, biodiversity loss and the pandemic are all signs of how humanity's relationship with nature has changed.
  • Scientists have the perspective needed to rethink our future.

The current moment for our species feels a lot like fiction. Not without cause, fiction writers have made the most out of imagining near-future worlds that seem unthinkable or unbearable.

However, the real world of 2020 is both less unthinkable and more unbearable than fiction: we have longer wildfire seasons caused by shifts in climate, more frequent and destructive storms, greater food insecurity, and accelerating biodiversity loss. This entire doom list is also happening in the background of a global pandemic, which is neither the first nor the last one we will face.

All of these problems are interlinked, and many will persist and possibly accelerate, as they test human and planetary systems alike. While fiction may be a guide for grasping the magnitude of our calamities, we would like to make a different argument for storytelling: we think that the language of scientists who have intimately studied the planet and its life across other great periods of environmental change should also shape how we talk about challenges that appear too spiraling, disparate, and monumental to understand.

WWF has tracked a calamitous decline in animal population sizes Image: WWF Living Planet Report 2020

Scientists like us use metaphors to talk about biodiversity: tropical rainforests are cradles of diversity, evolution is a tree of life, extinction is a vortex. These metaphors are useful because they capture big ideas in a convenient way. We argue that there’s another metaphor that should be revived for our times: the evolutionary play in the ecological theatre. Biologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson used this metaphor in an essay to describe a dynamic set of forces acting on players in an ever-changing theater. In Hutchinson’s metaphor, the theatre provides the space for the interaction – here, ecology is about the number and the strength of connections between species, in the greater web of life. Evolution is the result of billions of years of past ecologies, funneled through chance events that fashion the players on stage, some of which adapt and persist, while others vanish.

Hutchinson published these essays over 50 years ago, but we think that his conceit remains useful for our calamitous present. First, the metaphor is scale-free: it works whether we are talking about viruses, a conspiracy of lemurs, a sunken whale carcass, or a tropical forest. All of these scales of biology showcase ongoing evolutionary plays. Second, we are actively changing the parameters of the ecological theatre, making it more crowded because our singular role now has a footprint of over 7 billion individuals. The theatre is also getting hotter, with interactions that have changed or frayed.

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Coronavirus is just one of many challenges from these changes that has accelerated through wildlife trafficking, climate change, and environmental degradation. In the next few decades, we risk seeing the massive gains in human health, wealth, and security reversed by our degradation debts. Finally, everything is accelerating, exponentially. Millennial-scale environmental changes are happening in decades, driven by our behavior. This acceleration in part defines the Anthropocene: the next 50 years are projected to recapitulate the past ten thousand years of environmental change. And we have made the stakes greater for every living thing in the theatre.

This projected magnitude of change, within human lifetimes, yields a key question for the future of biodiversity: how will the species and ecosystems on which we depend survive this acceleration? And ultimately, how we will our own species survive? We will need to rely on benchmarks from the past, such as museum collections, because many features of those past worlds will be a part of our real future. The fields of ecology and evolution need to develop advanced applied research arms, not unlike the DARPA models for engineering, so that they can deliver the greatest benefit for the depth of their expertise. The metaphor of an evolutionary play would also help conservation science – 35 years old this year – transform from being a crisis management discipline to one that uses innovation in a theater of ongoing environmental change.

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Shying away from the applications of evolution and ecology will hinder how we adapt to a rapidly changing planet. Above all else, we need to ensure that our solutions match the scale and speed of these problems. Right now, our challenges plot on an exponential curve, and our solutions have largely been incremental. Changes to how we do business as a species – the industries that we subsidize, the food and energy systems we build, and the materials we use – will allow us to replace the underlying drivers of extinction and engineer resilience into our ecosystems.

In other words, we can use our outsized role in the evolutionary play to adapt and thrive in a new ecological theatre. As scientists who know these challenges firsthand, we remain optimistic: after all, we have the tools to handle the emerging pests and pathogens that endanger us and we know how to restore the great tracts of land and sea that we need.

Like the fiction authors who imagine our future, or the paleontologists who conjure our deep past, we need to think concretely about the future we want. We will definitely need scientists to get there.

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Climate ActionNature and Biodiversity
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