We expect too much from Earth. This year at the UN COP26 climate conference, scientists from around the world are discussing a frightening truth, our planet’s resiliency reaching a tipping point. Now is the time to move beyond cleaning up the mess we’ve made and evolve our ways to respect our home, which is trending toward a less-and-less habitable climate and environment. It is time to heed the calls from ecologists and climate scientists alike and redouble our conservation investments and clean energy commitments.
Life is interconnected. As humans, healthy minds and bodies can only thrive in a flourishing and prosperous world. Disturbances, resulting from our decision to continue the same exploitative resource choices, outpace biodiversity’s recovery timelines. Left unchecked, our way of life will no longer be sustainable.
Over the past year, California’s Orange County has been sandwiched by disasters. From major wildfires to the oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach — all during the COVID-19 pandemic. These events have obvious direct impacts on plants, animals and microbes that form our supporting ecosystems, and they have interconnected consequences that degrade our health and well-being.
The news coverage of the recent oil spill spotlights marine animals, showcasing images of creatures covered in oil. We are misguided to think they are the only casualties of our dependency on fossil fuels. These disasters impact us all, starting with the hidden world of microbes, the foundation for life on the planet. Plankton are the backbone of marine life. They are vital for the system behavior that allows the entire planet to thrive. Our kelp and reef systems, wetland and tidal habitats, as well as the widespread fisheries food web that extends up and down the coast and to the deep sea are all impacted by the spill. Maintaining resiliency in these systems is essential for the health of our region and planet at large. Damage to these hidden ecosystems is most worrying, and its difficulty to measure makes it easy to ignore the risk. However, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend how devastating the loss of these ecosystems would be for our planet.
Economic losses from these catastrophes are quantifiable. We know how much oil has been taken out of the market, we know how stakeholders and investors will suffer, the cost of clean-up, and the loss of tourist dollars to the local economy. It’s much harder to wrap our heads around the damage to the biosphere, the value we place on experiences in the natural world — and particularly the impact to future generations reliant on the biodiversity of the planet.
Man-made catastrophes fall into the category of unforced errors. We know through risk assessment that our human-engineered systems include a certain likelihood of failure, and these failures generally result in irreparable biological damage.
In Southern California, we continue to perpetuate a perverse incentive for developing fire-prone neighborhoods. We know the risk of fire, and we know the likelihood of ecological disturbance — yet, we still we build homes as the market for them continues to exist. Again, while we can quantify the financial cost of fires to homeowners and the cost of putting them out, it is harder to understand the change in fires’ long-term ecological consequences given this new landscape we create. We have changed the nature of fires in a way that fundamentally alter soils, harms plant species, drives out wildlife and changes the chemical make-up of our air. We continue this cycle despite knowing there will be long-term ramifications of these damages to our region’s ecosystem and human health.
It is crucial to accept the evidence and stop politicizing science. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of evidence-based approaches. Man-made disasters produce emotional reactions and calls for more regulations and stricter controls. Emoting is understandable and policy change is necessary, but both fall short. We must be accountable for our ecological debt and the immediate damage we incur with each systematic failure we risk, whether it’s allowing pipeline infrastructure to decay or zoning high-end residential developments in fire-prone areas. Simply mitigating the impacts after the damage has occurred is insufficient — we have to do better. Understanding this, and that all life is inextricably interconnected, is the first step in the right direction.
We must fortify our conservation efforts by understanding our connection to the ecosystems around us and we must strengthen our commitment to renewable energy, ending our reliance on fossil fuels. So, what can we expect from Earth? If we adapt our thinking and change how we interact with the planet, we can expect a home where we all can thrive.
Frank LaFerla is dean of the School of Biological Sciences at UC Irvine and chancellor’s professor.
Travis E. Huxman is director of the Center for Environmental Biology at the School of Biological Sciences at UC Irvine, a professor, ecology and Evolutionary biology and director of the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center.
This piece has been updated.