Ecology, the study of the interactions between various species (and their environment), has seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, a lot of the knowledge has failed to trickle down into politics or mainstream society. In many cases, what people believe (or even what is taught in some religious books) is completely contradicted by science.
In this text I will outline 8 of what I consider to be the most serious ecological myths. I will not be touching on more small-scale myths (such as the myth that removing fallen leaves is alright: it is ecologically backwards and makes the soil more acidic, robs it of nutrients, and reduces biodiversity while harming soil ecology). Instead, I will be taking on the 8 biggest, most important, and most serious misunderstandings of ecological and evolutionary fact.
1. Ecosystems always recover
This myth is fairly common, and I hear it uttered out-loud essentially every time I mention that we are currently seeing an extinction rate roughly 1000x the normal background rate. The fact of the matter is that an ecosystem, like all systems, tries to remain in its current state; resisting change (we call this resilience). But, this only works until a certain point.
Far from “always recovering,” ecosystems facing enough change, damage or loss change states, and then retain this new state with a certain degree of resiliency (Scheffer,2001). The same as not every injury will “recover perfectly,” not all damage can or will be evened out in an ecosystem. Also keep in mind that your body can only properly repair wounds if you are otherwise healthy, which is a metaphor directly applicable to ecosystems and discussed more thoroughly in point 2.
Anyone paying attention to the most recent publishing in regard to Chernobyl and Fukushima realizes that these disasters have not disappeared. Attempts at bioremediation have largely been limited in their effectiveness, and the costs to try to “fix” ecosystems that are “broken” is far in excess of simply preventing their collapse in the first place.
On the scale of hundreds of thousands to millions of years, new ecosystems can evolve in the same locations that are not overly dissimilar to the old ones (once a new ecosystem state has emerged and constant enough selectionary pressures exist.) The problem with this is that humans have to worry about survival on the scale of hundreds of years, and cannot wait for this new stable state to take form (see point 4).
2. When species go extinct, other species simply come and take their place
A good way to think of this is comparing it with someone claiming that if your mother dies, another will simply come and take her place. Although the household still technically has the possibility of fulfilling the “mother” niche, the “mother” which comes would have to fit into the existing system (and also be close enough, and available enough, to find her way into the household).
To put this back into the ecological context: organisms are often inter-dependant, and often one species’ niche is far more complex than anticipated. The loss of a species may, or may not, cause the entire food chain to fall apart (resulting in further instability and extinctions). The more diverse an ecosystem is, the higher the ecosystem’s stability and the longer its food chain can stretch. Sometimes, one species’ predation or competition with another 2 can allow them to co-exist, and its extinction leads consequently to the extinction of one of the other two.
Random events, as well as changing abiotic factors (temperature, acidity), lead individuals to die and species to go extinct. The ability of other species to fill their niches is not guaranteed, and if the ecosystem is not bordered by other functional ecosystems: the species loss often spirals out of control (as Thomas Lovejoy’s 20 year Amazonian splinter experiment showed).
In the same way you cannot assume a new mother figure will simply migrate into your family, you cannot assume that other species will overtake niches that become available when a species dies off. This is only likely when the ecosystem in question is bordered by other functional ecosystems (which, with deforestation a worldwide phenomenon, is not particularly likely).
3. Ecosystems react to change and damage linearly: an ounce of pollution equals an ounce of damage
As mentioned near the beginning: ecosystems work in terms of stable states (so tipping points) and not linearly in regard to change. This is something I go to great lengths to explain in a text specifically dedicated to discussing the mechanism and consequences of ecological collapse.
Unlike an ice-cube, which melts on one side of a certain temperature and freezes on the other, an ecosystem has dynamic tipping-points that display resilience towards change. So you can think of this as like an ice-cube that freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, but unfreeze at 7, only to freeze against at -2 (but not 0) the next time. This is the same concept that point 1 is trying to illustrate.
4. The biosphere can never break: the world ecosystem will always be fine
This is probably the most dangerous and faulty of all the myths in this text. This planet has undergone “mass extinctions” several times since life first emerged here about 3.5 billion years ago. A mass extinction is honestly just another way of saying a “biosphere state shift,” which also resulted from the steep increase in oxygen resulting from the first photosynthetic life.
Recent research into the reaction of our current biosphere to the staggering extinction rates (which, by the way, extends into essentially every type of life on this planet right now, including invertebrates like insects) indicates that we are facing a “biosphere collapse” in the not-too-distant future (Barnosky, 2012). Far from “never breaking” and “always being fine,” it instead appears that sh!t is about to hit the fan.
5. Humans have this under control: the governments and companies will fix it
Unfortunately, this couldn’t be much further from the truth. In a huge governmental multi-department meta-analysis „Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment,” it is admitted that managers, planners, and politicians are not coordinating or seeking counsel from scientists or experts.
Despite absolutely no debate that coal is essentially the most environmentally destructive fuel source, it still constitutes the largest sector of energy production and it is projected to stay that way. Far from having things under control, our problems appear to be spiralling increasingly out of control. The problems facing us are big and pretty scary, so most people have decided to stick their heads in the sand.
6. Well, if things continue to be screwed up here, it might just be cheaper to move to Mars
Several texts (here’s one) making the rounds recently propose that terraforming Mars (for an estimated $3 trillion) is not only cheaper than fixing things on our planet, but also at least as effective. They propose that it is feasible to create a breathable atmosphere on Mars, and that people could then live there without problems.
The biggest and most glaring problem in this proposed solution (aka fantasy) is that Mars does not have a molten core or magnetic field, and thus cannot accumulate atmospheric gases as well, or shield those on the surface from solar radiation, in the way Earth can. It is also worth mentioning that the surface of Mars is highly radioactive, meaning that anyone living on the surface would be facing multiple sources of intense ionizing radiation far in excess of that which we face here on Earth.
Not only is it very unlikely that we could terraform Mars to be livable, we almost certainly couldn’t do it for only $3 trillion. The development of the necessary technology, and the logistics of transporting it all to Mars (and including replacement parts) would itself likely stretch far beyond the $3 trillion mark.
Keep in mind that there is no proof that such an endeavor is even remotely likely of succeeding, and that ignoring our current crisis on this planet to bet everything on a hope without evidence is about as insane as it gets.
7. We can simply go to a different solar system then!
The logistical problems represented by moving to Mars are increased exponentially when we try to leave our solar system. Few realize that, on Earth, we are shielded by cosmic rays by both our Sun and the Earth’s magnetic core. As soon as you leave the solar system: you become fully unshielded from the cosmic rays and liable to be fried by any of the thousands of stars exploding and shining all over this galaxy.
Humans, like everything on Earth, evolved over millions of years to survive on this planet. We are adapted to the Sun’s rays, Earth’s atmosphere, and are dependant on our environment. We are not even able to synthesize all of our own amino acids, and require over a dozen vitamins (some which cannot be stored or transported well). We tend to forget how much of the human form, genetics, and functionality is directly bound to living on this planet.
Once we did get to another planet or another solar system, there would be NO guarantee (and actually a pretty low probability) that we could survive on the alien world. The number of humans who would survive the journey would be far less than would be needed to maintain a healthy and diverse population. Once the survivors landed on the new world, weakened from space flight and likely negatively impacted by the new environmental conditions, they would have to colonize it.
For anyone familiar with the “extinction vortex,” in which a relatively small population leads to a decrease in genetic diversity (increased inbreeding), leading to a decrease in fitness, leading to a smaller population and fewer viable offspring, which then further decreases the effective population size. Keep in mind this vortex takes place on a planet where the species’ are specifically adapted to live there and would be even more exaggerated when being applied to a species living in a completely foreign environment.
8. No matter how many other species die: it won’t affect us.
This is the adult version of the “I’m not listening, I’m not listening” defense we see small children use when confronted with unfriendly information. Pretending that humans are “above” and independent of nature is part of the reason we are facing such serious problems right now, and part of the reason humans are failing to react to the emergency.
Far from being “immune” from the mass extinction taking place around us, we are actually highly dependent on the ecosystems we live in. Costanza et 2014 al’s meta-analysis found that we are losing approximately $4-$20 trillion a year in ecosystem services (so services that we would otherwise have to provide ourselves: clean air, water etc). Even before a full biosphere collapse, we are losing more value every year than what proponents of the “move to Mars” theory propose could actually let us stabilize our biosphere.
The lower the diversity (or the fewer different species) in an ecosystem, the shorter its food chain must be. We are top-tier consumers, actually more dependant on the ecosystems around us than plants (producers) or rabbits (primary consumers), because we rely on both the producers and other consumers for our survival.
Working to prevent biosphere collapse, and encourage biodiversity and ecological stability, is not just an altruistic endeavor. We need functional ecosystems to survive on this planet in any meaningful way (or beyond the next century, or two). Preserving the varied life and existence of our fellow earthlings is more than an ethical consideration: it is a practical necessity for further human evolution and survival.
Although we may someday need to, or be able to, leave this solar system, we will not be afforded the chance to try unless we can continue to survive on this world. This is the only place we can surely survive, and it cannot honestly be that us humans are too short-sighted to alter our course.