7 Ecological health
Does all this matter? Why is it important to divide the biosphere into ecosystems and study the interrelationships they contain?
My first answer would have something to do with the wonder and fascination of nature itself. For me, and for many other people I suspect, what science can tell us about how the biosphere works – about the interrelationships involved – serves to make it more interesting and more beautiful.
There is, however, another pressing reason to study ecosystems. Preserving the ecosystems of the Earth, and their ability to sustain us, is now our responsibility. It is time to put ourselves back into the picture. If asked, we define ourselves in terms of nationality or employment or social class. But we belong to ecosystems as well, and the adaptability of human beings means that we can be found in all sorts of environments from the poles to the equator.
As we have seen, all living things shape – and are shaped by – the physical environments that they inhabit. But no other species has our capacity to alter the world around it, to maximise the exploitation of its resources. And our influence is now global: modern patterns of business, food distribution and the use of natural resources mean that most of us have an indirect influence on ecosystems across the world.
The ways in which we have altered the ecosystems of the world include:
the use of biological resources, from hunting and fishing to cutting down forests
the use of physical resources, such as quarrying for rock and diverting water for irrigation systems
the use of energy resources, including the burning of wood and fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas)
the creation of artificial ecosystems, such as agricultural land for food production, and towns and cities as places for us to live.
The human population continues to grow and this, combined with the pressure for economic growth and development, will tend to increase our demands on other living things and the physical environment. To manage – or protect – an ecosystem we need to know how the living things it contains depend on each other, and how they depend on the air, soil and water in which they live. In large part, this means understanding the interrelationships involved, and so recognising the consequences of our actions for the ecosystem as a whole.
It is time to introduce a new term into our examination of ecosystems: ecological health. This term has become increasingly popular in discussions about the environment, although it is difficult to define or measure with any accuracy. It is possible to identify specific changes to an ecosystem, but any evaluation of its health is a matter of judgement not fact. Who decides whether an ecosystem is healthy? And on what grounds? Is a desert as healthy as a rainforest? Or does ecological health simply depend on a lack of human interference?
The fact that we find it hard to define ecological health doesn't mean that it has no value as a concept. We find it hard to define human health, but we recognise that it is important none the less. We know that some individuals are healthier than others and that certain things – a poor diet, for example – can have a negative effect. Like human health, ecological health is best thought of as a combination of many different things: the diversity, numbers and condition of the living organisms in an ecosystem; the complexity of the food webs involved; and the quality of the air, soil and water that make up the physical environment.
We need to study the health of ecosystems to find out how to protect them. How much change has already taken place? What will be the long-term consequences of our actions? How can we increase an ecosystem's ability both to resist change (ecological resistance) and to recover from the changes that have already happened (ecological resilience)?
We are the most powerful actors in most ecosystems, yet until recently we have been largely unaware of the ecological consequences of the way we live our lives. A quick glance through the newspapers, however, indicates that we are now becoming increasingly concerned about our collective impact on ecological health, in terms of pollution, climate change and the use of finite biological and physical resources.