Part I: What is Observational Ecology
Ecology, or Earth Science, is a term that was most likely coined by a master of observing nature, the German Renaissance man artist, Ernst Haeckel. For all his faults, Haeckel was a notable Darwinian scholar and perhaps the best illustrator that has ever lived. Like all human endeavors, ecology begins with intentional observation – including the use of our five senses, plus the many technologies that have vastly extended our spectrum, from the microscope to the telescope. Observational ecology, meanwhile, was one of the first terms coined by western scientists in the 19th century to describe the study of phenology – the study of observable and often cyclical biological and physical changes in flora and fauna across the seasons and time in general.
Human ecology is yet another, newer and much broader framing of ecology, that considers human activities and social institutions in conjunction with the health and functioning of the natural environment. Human Ecology becomes ever more urgent as we learn more about the profound and growing impact of humanity on every part of our biosphere, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, in our current era, the Anthropocene, human ecology may just determine the very survival of our species. Human Ecology increasingly integrates science, the humanities, visual art, writing, social and economic studies, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), thus leading us back to our roots.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the last form of ecology I will mention here, comes from the direct experience of our elders, and comprises our most ancient form of human wisdom and knowledge, passed down through the generations by example and word of mouth. While no one can deny that modern science is not an incredible boon to human flourishing, it is equally crucial that we recognize TEK as the longstanding baseline of humanity’s deep understanding of our biosphere. What is more, TEK is still highly relevant, and Indigenous communities, despite their bitter struggle against exploitation and colonization, still hold vast amounts of it, along with a significant portion of the Earth’s habitats that remain free from industrial‐level human impacts. TEK also comes with unique perspectives, and Indigenous people often recognize traditional lands and waters to be intrinsically valuable, prioritizing long-term use such as for food and water sources over short-term gains, like those provided by a pit-mine or lucrative monoculture. This has been evidenced by recent movements such as those of the Water Protectors of North America and the Rainforest Guardians of Brazil.
From my own direct experiences, I have come to appreciate that the goal of Ecology in today’s imperiled world is to engage diverse people around becoming active caretakers of our land and sea and to ensure a hopeful future for our children and the planet’s many other worthy lifeforms. By using the term Observational Ecology, I aim to express the idea that through careful observation we can place the human experience within the broader context of the functioning ecosystem on which we all depend, including for breathable air, potable water, and food on our tables. In summary, I believe that by integrating Observational Ecology, Human Ecology, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, that we can take the most important step toward restoring a reciprocal relationship with nature – deciding and learning to take and give back more, instead of just taking until it’s all gone. The latter course has been called the “tragedy of the commons,” but I believe it is more aptly perceived as our common tragedy.
Now, let’s get to the solutions.
Part II: Eco-Logical Solutions
In advocating for (A) Nature-Based Solutions and (B) Community-Based Solutions, I am especially concerned about the urgent, compounding, and I believe existential, social, and environmental problems that we face as a global society, namely climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss. I also believe that wholistic solutions can reach far beyond just caring for plants, animals, and habitats, and help achieve greater societal justice among people of all nations, including ensuring that millions of people stay housed and fed. On the other hand, business as usual will likely lead to unimaginable scenarios such as nuclear war, mass famines, and global ecosystem collapse. The only question is how far ahead are we able to look, and is it farther than what we can stash in our coffers today and our coffins tomorrow.
(A) Nature Based Solutions include the conservation, restoration, and protection of our few remaining natural habitats, with an emphasis on ecosystems that provide critical human services, such as food, livelihoods, clean air, and water. We also focus on those that are biodiversity hotspots above and below the sea. Nature Based Solutions are precautionary and palpable, and generally involve simply allowing the biosphere to function on its own – doing things like sequestering greenhouse gases, filtering the air and water, and producing the planet’s great abundance and diversity of life.
In addition to representing the most realistic, data-driven, and socially responsible actions that we can take, Nature-Based Solutions also take into account the immeasurable, intrinsic value of the natural world – a value that stands apart from the economic value that is often, and seemingly necessarily, attributed to habitats and species that we want to protect through wise management decisions. Countries like New Zealand and Canada have started the process of codifying this intrinsic value into laws, for example by protecting their rivers and other natural Taonga, or treasures as entities with “personhood,” – a major leap forward when it comes to healing our relationship to the Earth.
When it comes to Nature-Based Solutions in my own work, much of my focus will be on “Blue Carbon,” a concept that places coastal and marine ecosystems in the context of carbon sequestration and thus climate change mitigation. I will also touch upon the value of biodiversity and the many human services that can be secured through precautionary habitat protection.
(B) Community Based Solutions are the key to most, if not all successful conservation projects, and involve the direct participation of local communities in the care and sustainable management of their local resources. They are also known as a “bottom-up” vs. “top-down” management model that is driven by governing bodies and powerful institutions to some extent removed from the day-to-day reality of local people. Community-based solutions ensure environmental justice and the long-term viability of conservation projects.
Though top-down actions are always needed, such as the enactment and enforcement of well-considered laws, I view the community-based model as one that stands in direct opposition, not only to the form of colonial thinking in which the goals of the privileged class are pitched against the needs of the poor and vulnerable, but also to the essentially philanthropic model in which the wealthy are called upon to carry the impossible weight of government inaction and corporate irresponsibility. Gross exploitation, polluting, and extraction of resources at ever larger scales is not only unsustainable, but also far beyond what can be managed at the local or even regional level, let alone by the generosity of a relatively small, conservation-minded sector of the upper middle class.
There is perhaps no clearer example of top-down failure than the sham plastic recycling campaigns aired by the plastic industry throughout my lifetime, despite their unabated annual increase in plastic production from raw fossil fuels. It is this purposeful destruction of our world for short-term-profit that Community Based Solutions are designed to avoid, and the wider the communities and their networks, the more difficult it is for land and resources to be sold out and destroyed.
I my experience, local, community-based solutions can be a powerful form of resistance – something I have been able to experience first-hand, from Mexico, to New Zealand, to the Caribbean, where I met hard working people deserving of hope and a share of the economic benefits that will come with stewardship actions. Though these actions might take a long time to show returns, we need to help local communities understand that eventually they will pay off with exponential gains to both their economy and quality of life. This is not wishful thinking, but well-documented by case studies from across the globe.
A Call to Action
Blinded by the dominant metaphysical and scientific worldviews, our so-called leaders have too long fantasized about a world in which the human species is in full control of our environment, and where technology will one day allow humanity to realize the evidently bogus pipedream of infinite growth on a finite planet. This utopian fantasy is an illusion, and it is bringing about the needless suffering and forced migration of millions, along with the collapse of our biosphere as we know it.
As our planet becomes ever more unlivable, the wealthy and powerful set their sights to building walls and bunkers, and even towards colonizing further planets, like children who want more without first caring for what they already have. It seems our society has chosen science-fiction over responsibility – both to our Mother Earth and her myriad inhabitants, human and otherwise. But how did we get here, when the human species has flourished on an abundant and ever providing planet for at least 100 million years? Indeed, most of the irreversible devastation to our biosphere has occurred only in the last five decades – an insignificantly small amount of time when we consider the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.
Somewhere along the recent path, we have dropped our medicine bundle and let technology, hubris, fear, and greed overshadow our inherent sense of wisdom when it comes to understanding and caring for our place within and as part of the living biosphere. Today, we stand at a crossroads, and we can either keep moving full steam ahead towards a precipice – the end of organized human life as we know it – or we can restore some of the crucially important reciprocity that allowed our ancestors to survive for countless generations into pre-history. I believe in taking the latter path and I hope you will join me.
Native Americans of the Great Plains and many other Indigenous groups had a long-standing tradition of taking into account at least the following seven generations when making any major decision about resource management, and I believe this can be a starting point for coming together collectively to take down barriers and build bridges into a more hopeful and just tomorrow.
By Alan Ruiz Berman
Founder & Director of Observation Ecology