Ecosystems Are Not Machines

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Courtesy of Ensia

If we want to save the world, we need to treat nature more as an organism and less as disposable and replaceable technology.

“The child is father of the man,” said Wordsworth. We now know that a whole microbial menagerie also contributes to the parentage. In fact, “the man” (or any person) is less a single individual than a fuzzy-edged, mobile ecosystem.

We are at the beginning of a new understanding of the importance of the hundreds of species of bacteria, virus, fungi, archaea and eukaryotes that live in and on us all. Recent research reveals how they provide us with critical services. For example, they feed us by producing enzymes that help break down the carbohydrates we consume for energy. They communicate with our immune system and prime it in early life for healthy function later. They help fight off pathogens and prevent disease.

So our bodies are not elaborate machines. We might be able to fit impressive prosthetics, transplant organs and develop smart drugs. But we can’t do without our ecosystems, and we can’t replace them. A sophisticated understanding of our interdependence on other living things can lead to better health and less reliance on expensive, short-term correctives.

This is as true for the ecosystems outside our bodies as for those within.

It is a perspective which informs the critique of the dominant worldview of ecosystems as machines that Jules Pretty, Sue Hartley, Paul Tett and I have just published for Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas Change the World project. We suggest an alternative way forward that recognizes human ingenuity and invention while respecting the need to treat ecosystems more as organisms than as disposable and replaceable technology, and that emphasizes the importance of ecosystem health in ensuring food and environmental security for the world.

The dominant narrative focuses on technological advance combined with market solutions. It envisions a techno-future in which humans can successfully use technology to make nature succumb to our will. Yet, as is the case for our own bodies, many of the ecosystem services that nature provides for us cannot be replaced by technology. Where technological replacements do exist — for example, for water purification — nature usually performs the function more effectively and at a far lower cost.

We are not saying it is possible to meet the world’s food and bioenergy needs through organic means alone, even if demand and population growth are sensibly managed. For example, rapid advances in genetics will help us to produce crop varieties suited to the more extreme weather resulting from climate change. In many cases this will include speeded-up conventional breeding through techniques such as marker-assisted selection. The careful application of technology is essential, but only in the context of a broader respect for healthy ecosystems.

We advocate a mosaic approach to farming, replacing large-scale monocultures supported by intensive inputs with managed landscapes in which smaller areas of intensive production are supported by and integrated with contiguous areas providing waste retention, pollination, watershed, climate regulation and other services. Mosaics may operate over a range of different scales, from less than an acre to many square kilometers, but they exclude the zoning of entire regions or countries into mono-functional units. And they can — and should — be applied to managing our seascapes as well as our landscapes.

This approach will, we believe, enable a modest growth in global production of food. And it will be more resilient than the techno-centric intensive approach, which we believe will lead to boom and busts in production and further degradation of global ecosystems. So our approach could meet the challenges of feeding the world in 2050, given reasonable predictions about population growth and demands for food and fiber.

What the mosaic approach could not do is provide a meat-heavy diet — such as that consumed by most Americans and Western Europeans — for 10 billion people. Thus, it is absolutely critical that lower-meat, healthy diets are promoted and adopted, and that the long-standing demands from women across the world for reproductive rights and education are met to help world population stabilize at the low end of United Nations projections. The techno-centric dominant narrative simply fails to recognize the importance of this demand management, instead adopting a “predict and provide” approach and hoping that technology and the market will supply solutions.

Human ingenuity has produced amazing technological developments and will continue to do so. Without technology, much of the world’s population would not be alive. But natural processes still sustain ecosystems, both inside and outside us. Disruptions to our internal ecosystems – our human microbiomes – are thought to contribute to diseases ranging from autoimmune disorders to cancer and heart disease, and may play a role in psychological conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and mood disorders. Further degrading external ecosystems and continuing to treat them as replaceable machines will lead to even bigger problems, ushering in a brittle and dangerous future. The alternative involves moderating our impacts and working with ecosystems for a healthier world.

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