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How to Fix the Economy: Nature Knows Best© Henry S. Cole, Ph.D.Copyright

November 12, 2009

Too Big to Fail? American chestnuts once towered over the Appalachian forests. Then in the early 1900s blight, accidentally imported on an Asian variety, devastated the American giants. As a youngster hiking in the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey, I saw their ghosts, huge gray-white trunks. The forest, however, did not collapse; other tree species sprang up to use newly available sunlight, water and nutrients. Nature’s biodiversity ensured that even the great chestnuts were not “too big to fail.”

Arguably, ecosystems such as forests, prairies, and coral reefs represent the most successful, enduring economic systems on earth. A pound of forest soil contains thousands of bacterial species but also fungi, worms, beetles – gainfully employed, competitive, yet mutually contributing to the forest’s overall health. Ecosystems have no credit card debt, no inflation, no federal deficits and no bailouts. Despite numerous cataclysms – ice ages and asteroid collisions life has evolved, adapted and thrived for 3.8 billion years.

Rather than learning from nature we are assailing it ferociously – depleting fisheries, destroying forests, and uprooting traditional societies whose economies are closely aligned with nature. We are changing climate in ways that will create future displacements and economic havoc.

Resilience: Ecosystems (those escaping human onslaught) are remarkably resilient; they absorb and recover from shocks like droughts and fires. The enormous variety of life forms and their genetic diversity increases the odds that the system as a whole will survive disturbances and adapt to changes.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2010 8:43 pm

    There are a lot of studies that are coming to the conclusion that ecosystems will be more resilient to climate change if they (or at least key species) are not already stressed by human impacts… It looks as though we’re more or less compounding the problems ahead.

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      July 11, 2010 10:31 pm

      I agree; we have excellent evidence for the ability of ecosystems (free of human onslaught) to adapt to large changes in climate. The forests that occupy the Appalachian Mountains inland from the east coast of the U.S. have been in place for hundreds of thousands of years. During the ice ages, glaciers covered the northern portion of the forest. Several lines of evidence indicate that the southern portion of the mountains were quite cold; the forest responded with a shift from temperate deciduous forest, to one that more closely resembles the boreal forest in Canada.

      When some endeavor destabilizes an ecosystem, for example, cause soil erosion via clear cutting, the ecosystem is less resilient and less able restore and adapt to change.

      • July 11, 2010 10:43 pm

        What I find really troubling is that we’ve caused so much change to landscapes (in most cases have acquired the best lands, leaving poorer lands as remnant patches) that as climate zones increasingly shift poleward, different species will have varying ability to migrate and/or locally adapt. That really threatens ecosystem function and without a doubt will lead to simplification and species loss. And yet most of the noise regarding climate science is political in nature and ignores the already observed bio-physical indicators.
        Ie. it’s hard to address biodiversity conservation when people are still arguing about the role of our greenhouse gas emissions.
        At best, I feel resilience will be improved by interconnectivity via corridor establishments between remnant patches. I think the best way to argue this point is to have better education regarding ecological services to human health.
        🙂

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