Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ecer 2012, Day 4: The Novel Ecosystem Brawl

Day 4 of the ECER 2012 conference was the day for my presentation on the topic of using functional analysis as a tool to detect environmental filters in ecological restoration. It occurred at the same time as a much visited and controversial full afternoon session on Novel Ecosystems took place. I had time to listen to the beginning of this brawl.
Cara Nelson, Vice Chair of SER International, opened the session by making the point that new concepts can cause strong oppositions due to unclear terms. She stated that people are many times closer to each other than they think. “Well, let´s see about that!”-commented one professor.  After Cara, James Aronson explained the scale from undisturbed systems-hybrid systems-novel ecosystems, with novel ecosystems being systems that came into being due to human influence, but that no longer needs human input to stay alive. He commented that people have been using environmental disasters (e.g. oil-spills) as example of novel ecosystems, and stressed that this was never the intention. My comment to this is that such an exception is hard to make, since an oil spill fueling the growth of oil-eating bacteria is indeed a novel ecosystem, that has replaced the system that was previously there. If I understand the novel-ecosystem camp correctly, examples where we should accept novel ecosystems are when restoration is not possible (that is not a choice), or when the restoration comes with an environmental cost, that is higher than what can be gained from the restoration of the ecosystem.
When the debate opened for all listeners to contribute the fight was on. One professor stood up and said that he basically did not think the novel-ecosystem people had contributed with anything new, and that their definition of what´s novel is wrong to start with, since systems are changing.
A Belgian scientist stood up and got a lot of attention when he stated that he thinks that this topic is a dangerous topic, which we should not discuss (blogging about it is probably forbidden to). He stated that those who are keeping this debate alive are playing with fire. The reason for his fear is that the E.U. is investing a lot of money into ecological restoration, and we may find ourselves in a situation where a politician makes the argument that restoration is not necessary since the degraded site is now a novel ecosystem. Although I share the fear that many politicians would do this, and one person in the audience from the U.S. stated that this is already a reality in the U.S., I still object to the notion that something should not be discussed due to fear of it being misused. Especially when the topic has been published repeatedly in leading scientific journals, and gotten media attention. We may not like the terrible destruction that can be caused by fission processes, but the knowledge of nuclear physics will not disappear just by stopping people from talking about it.

We should never accept the novel ecosystem argument as a reason not to restore, when restoration is possible, and can be done without causing more damage than what can be gained. At the same time we have to realize that we have already accepted novel ecosystems. The once wide-stretched European primeval forest has in most places in Europe been replaced by monocultures of grains originating from the Fertile Crescent. Cities protected by floodwalls have replaced flood meadow, and become a good place for those species that have learned to make use of human architecture and lifestyle.

The day after I drove from Ceske Budejovize to Prague Airport and headed home enriched with new input from many great presentations by outstanding scientists.

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