The topic of ‘ecosystems’ has been a feature of countless news reports and YouTube videos lately. It is considered ‘P.C.’ and ‘en vogue’ to be an ecosystem advocate. The term is also used on bumper stickers, in tweets, as part of streaming documentaries and in so many other places. But honestly, do we really understand what the concept of an ecosystem is all about?
Here are a couple stock ecosystem definitions taken direction from the web:
Merriam-Webster; the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit
Dictionary.com; a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment
and, (I like this one personally) again from Dictionary.com; any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts.
In the purest ecological sense, the Merriam-Webster definition may be useful to describe natural ecosystems, those historically only minimally impacted by human activities. But today most people are more so surrounded by the many human inventions of modern urban life than they are a part of native longleaf pine or hardwood scrub forests. This transition from a rugged hunter-gatherer way of being to a highly specialized indoor lifestyle has shifted human’s first hand awareness and knowledge of bushcraft to now greater familiarity of keyboard and automobile.
The Dictionary.com ecosystem definition, any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts, may be much more relatable today than definitions involving mainly biotic complexities such as in the Merriam-Webster definition.
Debate of whether this fundamental shift may be good or bad is a topic for other discussions. The purpose of this post is to encourage consideration of everyday life as participation in a complex cycle of interactions. Perhaps, if we can set aside the notion that we humans are the center of what exists and think in terms of our everyday life being part of a larger, complex equation then maybe we will become more aware that each of our daily decisions and acts carries the potential for very significant resulting consequences, both to our bodies, the earth and future generations.
Maybe, the first step towards greater awareness is embracing the ecosystem concept of life. It’s not just about how life fits into my plan, it’s how I fit into the ecosystem immediately around me. So what is my ecosystem?
To begin with, everything around us may comprise our immediate ecosystem and that includes almost an infinite number of variables, both biotic and abiotic, natural and manufactured, imagined and tangible. There are broad, all encompassing ecosystemic groups such as country or state or even communities in which we live. There are also smaller, more specific ecosystemic groups in which we function, such as our immediate family or house and yard.
So what Is Your Ecosystem About? Ecosystems usually function when all the components are in balance. However ecosystems are constantly changing. The rate of change for ecosystems can be fast if the ecosystems are unstable, or very slow when inputs are limited and internal homeostasis is somewhat stable.
There are almost an infinite number of ecosystems in the universe. Some scientists suggest multiple sub-ecosystems can exist in the same place at the same time. Moreover all ecosystems are constantly changing and have been changing since the beginning. Importantly, over the past several hundred years Homo sapiens have introduced changes into the earth’s ecosystems that have exponentially increased the rate of ecosystem changes. Much of this hurried up change is a result of increasing population pressures that may be nearly impossible to manage.
We humans too are so intimately a part of our surrounding ecosystems that we can not remove ourselves from these ecosystems, even if we try. For instance, dropping a piece of litter on the road is not negated by driving away. With each and every one of our actions we ultimately create a series of long term consequences. Though we may think we’ve had no measurable impact on the ecosystem around us from seemingly insignificant acts, in fact we may very well have created a cascade of significant future events. Each and every thing we do is causative to an endless chain reaction impacting the ecosystems in which we are a part of.
So what Is Your Ecosystem? The following are my ideas of a couple over simplified ecosystem examples:
Established native plant populations
Soils that exhibit complex life formations
Earth tone colors
Strong earth energies from unmined buried minerals
Food from wild caught fish, trapped animals, nuts, berries, grasses, birds, roots and eggs
City and Neighborhood (Human-centric) Ecosystems:
Mix of native plants and imported or genetically modified horticultural plants
Mostly horticulturally hybridized flowers with a few native wildflowers
Significantly urbanized, abiotic soils showing little signs of life but pronounced presence of concrete, asphalt, trash, hydrocarbons and adulterants
Air containing raised levels of particulate matter, acidic compounds, ozone depleting substances and potentially cancer causing compounds
Degraded surface and groundwater quality polluted with hydrocarbons, significant levels of lawn fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide contamination, fish kills and high turbidity levels
Industrial, city, traffic and boom box noise with a small mix of bird songs
Bright fluorescent colors, night light pollution and flashing lights, Internet, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Cable
Cell phone tower, microwave and power line EMF energies
Fast food fried with inflammatory vegetable oils, antibiotic fed meats and vegetables inundated with pesticides, fungicides and preservatives and processed foods based on GMO type foods
Metal, glass and vinyl structures
Interestingly, the City and Neighborhood Ecosystem types diverged from the Native Ecosystems only very recently in terms of the age of the earth. Native Ecosystems have existed, slowly refining themselves over millennia, since the beginning of life on earth. City and Neighborhood Ecosystems however have only existed as we understand them today for a few human generations. That is a time difference of three or four billion years compared to three or four hundred years.
Homo sapiens evolved hand in hand with Native Ecosystems. We humans are today what we are due in large part to the forage and shelter and health interactions we’ve had with Native Ecosystems over deep time.
With today’s subtle divorce from nature humans are venturing into the unknown. Land development, horticultural landscaping, agriculture and permaculture are so rapidly dismantling Native Ecosystems that the land in which our ancestors fashioned our DNA has all but disappeared. There may be no turning back.
Humans are replicating and expanding City and Neighborhood Ecosystems with each new day, fueled onward by the loss of time spent in nature. The few remaining Native Ecosystems across the land are rapidly disappearing, bulldozed and burnt for future concrete and electronic complexities.
Will Native Ecosystems soon be only a memory? Except to exist as isolated, small conservation and preservation tracts and parks it is possible Native Ecosystems may soon become extinct. What does the loss of Native Ecosystems hold for future human generations? Only time will tell but recent data suggests that current population demographics are indicating more illnesses and shorter lifespans in City and Neighborhood Ecosystems.
The momentum of change is seemingly insurmountable. Sometimes it feels as though any little contribution towards supporting Native Ecosystems is insignificant and useless.
One way to start is to begin thinking of our life as a very real part of a complex equation where every decision we make impacts the world around us in a significant way. Humans can return to considering life as ‘me and the world’ rather than just ‘me’. Thinking in terms of life in an ecosystem brings us closer to the natural world we came from and hopefully haven’t totally left yet. Asking ourselves about our ecosystems we live in each day can create useful perspectives that may help us navigate the future. What do you know about your ecosystem?