Part I: What is Observational Ecology
Ecology, or Earth Science, is a term that was most likely coined by the legendary observer of nature, artist, Darwinian scholar, hopeless romantic, and one of my personal heroes, Ernst Haeckel. Like all human endeavors, it 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 – or how flora and fauna exist within the context of the seasons and other observable biological and physical changes that we can observe, and sometimes, measure.
I have co-opted this term to mean Human Ecology, a relatively new and much broader framing of ecology that takes into account 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, and when we consider that our current era – the Anthropocene, is one in which the very survival of our species likely relies on our global society’s capacity for rationality and eco-logical decision making. 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. From my own direct experiences, I have come to appreciate that the ultimate goal of Earth Science in today’s imperiled world is to engage diverse people around becoming active care-takers of our land and sea and to ensure a hopeful vs. a truly bleak future for our species and planet. t
What is more, 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 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 necessary to human flourishing, it is equally crucial that we recognize TEK as the baseline of humanity’s deep understanding of our biosphere.
Furthermore, TEK is still highly relevant, as Indigenous communities, in spite of their bitter struggle against exploitation and colonization, still hold vast amounts of knowledge, along with a significant portion of the Earth’s habitats still free from industrial‐level human impacts. In addition, 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.
I believe that by integrating Observational, or Human Ecology, and Traditional Knowledge, that we can take the most important step toward restoring a reciprocal relationship with nature – the one where we decide to take and give back more, instead of just keep on taking until it’s all gone. The latter course has been called the “tragedy of the commons,” but I believe it is our common tragedy, and that it can and will be turned around by raising our level of consciousness while applying two types of crucial 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, helping achieve greater societal justice and equity 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 much do we love the Earth and our youth, and is it worth more than what we can stash in our coffers today, and in 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 absolutely critical human services, such as food, livelihoods, clean air and water, and also those that are biodiversity hotspots above and below the water. 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, which we humans depend on to exist.
Nature-Based Solutions also tend to represent the most realistic, data-driven, and socially responsible actions, as well as those that 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 to make management decisions. Countries like New Zealand and Canada have started the process of codifying this intrinsic value into laws protecting their rivers and other natural Taonga, or treasures – a major leap forward when it comes to making truly wise and forward-looking decisions.
(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. Also known as the “bottom-up” vs. “top-down” management model – the latter being driven by governing bodies and other powerful institutions which are always, to some extent, removed from the day-to-day reality of local people, community based solutions ensure greater equity and the longer term viability of conservation projects.
Though top-down actions are always needed, such as the enactment and enforcement of well-consdered 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, it is 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 community. In addition there is the very real moral and economic burden reliably placed on consumers, including in the developing world where no infrastructure exists, to take on the burden of bad practices. There is perhaps no clearer example of this 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. This was very noticeable in the Caribbean, where so many nations come to the same small area, both taking and giving, but often taking much more than they give back. The Caribbean has hardly been permitted to form a union of local people with local interests, and little has been spared environmental devastation, including overfishing, water pollution, and rampant coastal development.
Nevertheless, local, community-based solutions can be a powerful form of resistance – something I have been able to experience first-hand in places like Punta Rucia, a tightly knit, artisanal fishing township at the Dominican Republic’s northern border with Haiti. Though the future of fishing in this area is bleak, with juvenile fish now making up most the dissipating catch, there are also extensive mangroves, restored corals, permaculture opportunities, and strong 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.
Part III: 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 pipe-dream 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 sites 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 generally speaking 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