Novel ecosystems | Dr Marcus Collier | TEDxUCD



yes my research looks at the complex and rather vexing area of ecological processes and social institutions it is often referred to as social ecological systems thinking and the idea here is the more we examine this area the more we try and understand this area the more were able to build a more resilient society both ecologically and also socially and my my research has more or less focused on this for quite a long long time and its really be goes back to a long time ago when maybe when I was looking back in a few years ago for about two or three hundred years we have separated human processes from from from ecological processes humans have always saw themselves as separate to to nature and in recent years the debates and debates have been increasing about this this separation and this impact and this pressure and this is incredibly intense changing of the environment around us if you think about it this way nature and we saw these properties talks earlier on nature and the environment has shaped species and evolutionary processes for forever and it's only in the recent a couple of hundred years and maybe even a thousand but more or less a couple hundred years where one species us is starting to shape the environmental processes that also shapes the evolutionary processes in other words humans are taking the primacy in changing the environment that they live in and we're taking it rather rather as severely and around 2000 a theory was put forward to try and encapsulate this in a particular area and it gave it a name it's called the Anthropocene and next year in 2016 there will be the final debate among our geology colleagues as to whether we live in an era that is entirely created by us and what they mean by that is that there will be a geological presence for all eternity of our current impact on the planet um so therefore in a couple of million years time as if I was alive then I'd be taking a bunch of geology students not my discipline but just pretend I did out on a field trip and we'd be drilling down and we'd be looking at these little strata as we go down through the rocks and I'd say well now there you go there's that strata that's the Anthropocene strata and I'm scratching my chin and that everywhere you go on the planet you will find that layer that strata it indicates that period of time I don't know how thick or how thin it will be that humans radically and irreversibly shaped the planet and I say that that's part of the theory we have changed all the processes on the planet the geological processes are more or less the same we've changed the carbon cycle the newt the nitrogen cycle the phosphorous cycle through agriculture the water cycles cycles of deposition and erosion and the cycles of biodiversity and ecosystem processes we have integrate incredibly change those to such an extent that they are radically different than they we're before we started to find our legs and develop farming and develop civilization so in the middle of this theory of the Anthropocene which is quite a challenging theory it's almost as severe as it as the debates around whether Pluto is a planet or not but this is a lot more serious because it relates to this planet not some distant planet dwarf planet it is indeed a very complex and very very strong and I imagine that this will fill the copies on the newspapers and will fill TV programs for the next year year and a half more and more we gain more and more exciting coverage if geology could be excited but what was what what in this process this process of the Anthropocene is this area of another theory it's a theory of novel ecosystems not so I'd like to talk about a little bit more and nowadays model a novel ecosystems are essentially those ecosystems that have been so radically altered by humans directly or indirectly accidentally or on purpose but they will never recover to this to the time we can never restore them the time they were there before we could never get back to them at any particular state we will never be able to recover the exact type of ecosystem that was there before we change it they are novel ecosystems they contain huge diverse systems our species that are brought in from all over the planet and I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about here there Martin largely found in areas where humans have gone in and had enormous impact and they've changed the landscape completely like this is an open cast mine this is a peat mine you'll find it in Ireland you'll find it all over the world parts of Russia South America and and in many other many countries and here we have a large opencast mine which is removing all the resource if you could you could think of it as a quarry you can think of as a coal mine you could think of it as a nuclear testing site huge amount of damage has gone in there to remove the entire soil all the peat and the carbon that went with it and that'll be it now we go in there we take the things away and we leave it we abandon we tend to have a finite use for things and we move on but if you go to this particular site now that was 10 years ago that's what it looks like we've done nothing there we've planted nothing we've changed nothing we haven't we've blocked a few drains took away the plastic took away the train tracks and that's what's come back and so you're saying to me so much that's exactly like what it would have looked like prior to the peatland being developed part the peatland growing after the last ice age and yes it's exactly like it was a couple of thousand years ago before the peatland came in and should we leave it for a couple of more thousand years it will continue into a peatland and if you could imagine humans would ever for one minute leave anything alone for long enough for developed by itself and this is the inherent part of novel ecosystems that we are tinkering we are constantly interfering with things and we will never let things return to their normal or to their original trajectory and you're saying to me oh well this looks very natural night same of course you've probably spotted the elephant in the room here this Moss this green moss it's in the in the foreground here of course you all recognize that as the moss that come from the southern hemisphere this this is a computer back to centre of Lexus and this is a a mass that has come in from southern hemisphere and it is very good pioneer species for our for our peatlands and it is a non-native species if you go to the lake and sample so we're taking the lake behind you see it there in the corner there are insects and other invertebrates that come from South America that come from East Asia in among these Phragmites reeds you see here there are hundreds of different types of species of plants that would have normally grown in this area but also plans that have escaped from garden centers escape from guard people's gardens that have come in on in in bird droppings from from from all over the place so what appears to be a original type of ecosystem is in fact in the strictest sense not it's a novel ecosystem and we will never be able to recover and repair this because all around this novel ecosystem you'll find villages towns and people walking their dogs taking photographs or as I often do we take students in there to mess around and mess around ecologically I should say make sure I get that on the record so the important thing here though is that the normal ecological processes continue okay and they always will continue no matter what we do to this planet no matter how much impact we have ecological processes the cycles and the dynamic cycles of ecology will always continue but in this case they're producing a new type of ecosystem and a very crude mapping exercise was carried out by the restoration ecology people a couple of years ago and they deem about 26 to 38 percent in around that area of the global land surface can be classified as a novel ecosystem that's quite a lot I suppose and but we have to face face facts there are no pristine ecosystems left everything has been altered from the lowest oceanic trench to 2 kilometers above us where there's a there's a biodiversity and an ecosystem up there everything manifests some impact directly or indirectly of our existence it is anthropogenic we are living possibly as a Jiri Michael in the Anthropocene and the theory are the disciplines of conservation biology and restoration ecology which are themselves crisis disciplines their disciplines that came about out of a desire for scientists to do something about it and take our results not just for exploring ecology but also exploring it meaningful so that we could try and redress the balance and redress and fix the things we caused problems in these disciplines are very much not enamored with the theory of of novel ecosystems for two very distinct reasons first of all a novel ecosystem will return let's pretend this is a an abandoned farm an abandoned runway an abandoned corner of some city it could be an irradiated zone it could be the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea places where there's very few people at all places where it's just abandoned these areas are naturally revegetating and they're full of invasive species they're full of visiting visiting species migratory species you name it a nature abhors a vacuum and it fills it with lots of whatever it can find and you'll also find these places are very high in biodiversity in in the short term anyway we don't know much about them in the long term and what's what's what's the problem what the vexing issue with novel ecosystems is is that I could say why bother why spend all this vast amount of human capital and energy going out and planting trees and trying to recover rainforests and coastal dunes and coral reefs and all these things why bother just leave it let it do its own thing it'll come back for God's sake you know let's go do something else with our money the ecologist was saying that especially the restoration colleges how much knowledge capital will we lose if we just let all this go we've developed a hugely successful system of restoring biodiversity in areas where it hasn't been a severely damaged as this hasn't been they haven't removed all the soil I haven't irradiator if they haven't filled it full of toxins and the housing estates or whatever it is it's just basically a little bit of damage we can fix that again so the restoration ecologists are kind of annoyed about that stamping the little feet and wagging their little fingers say don't don't no don't don't talk about novel ecosystems but the more important and the more risky area of the novel Systems Theory comes where I could come up to you if I'm an industrialist now say you know that massive rain forest you have over there Minister we can cut that thing down make you a fortune boom the cup the country will be booming and you know our company's right to do that now you know these environmentalists they'll be all over me I never get elected again you say what huh when we're finished it'll be a novel ecosystem novel means good right so that's a big problem because it means you can argue with the novel ecosystem theory and you can also argue in some respects with the Anthropocene theory that a business-as-usual approach is in fact good or actually beneficial in fact the best thing we could do to the environment would be to harvest the damn thing and something brand-new will come up out of it and be exciting and new we don't know about it so this is where the problem lies in novel ecosystems theory because whilst on the face of it it sounds like we're exploring a new and engaging way of looking how social and ecological institutions interface we're also holding it up as a threat to the existing efforts that are being made on a massive global scale for 100 110 years maybe to restore to conserve to reintroduce species and ecosystems around the panel so why am i interested in this area that's pretty interesting certainly it's academic suicide for some people but this is a very interesting area on two reasons so first first of all for those of you who are interested in maybe studying ecology we know nothing about novel ecosystems we'd very we know very little about ecology in general what we don't know about ecology would fill thousands and thousands of books very very little do we know we know nothing about the energies and flows that go through here we know nothing about the trophic levels in other words you nothing but the food chains that are in these ecosystems so anybody who is looking at a career in discovering what it is about ecology that is exciting and so on it's right here these are novel ecosystems are almost on your doorstep in fact in many places they're in the cities they're abandoned areas gardens that have been left for 200 or to 2030 years all bits of parks are to an inaccessible to get a lawnmower into these are about these are all there and you can get there by public bus there's no need for helicopters or our trips to to the rainforest and so on or deep oceanic exploration they're right there and we know very little about them so that makes it very very exciting but what makes it even more exciting and makes it more interesting from my point of view is the fact that these ecosystems these novel ecosystems are right here among us and we interact with them on a daily basis we visit them we walk the dog we'd paint we take photographs etc etc they roll we do fishing and so on we interact with them and remember I said at the start what interests me most what interests me is this separation between society we separation between humans and nature well what I think and what I believe will probably happen in the in the coming years is the more we start interacting with these ecosystems the more likely it is that we will be able to recognize what is what is truly a wild system we have lost touch with wilderness we've lost touch with what wild actually means it is very difficult for most of us financially to get to a location on this planet and experience true abandoned and untrue unmanaged wilderness Terra it's right here in County Offaly right that's why right there behind me it's right here in your city center and in loads of locations throughout the world there are novel ecosystems just sitting there with people interacting with them and they're probably it's probably in fact good a truism that a novel ecosystem is the first ecosystem you've ever seen as a child the first thing you experience you're a back garden or an area that is a little bit will their first experience of wilderness it's probably a novel ecosystem so let's explore these things because it's in these areas it's in these novel ecosystems that I believe that we will be able to see a return of people to Wilding or to visit or to rewire themselves in other words that we will be able to experience a an abandoned and a wilderness area right here in in a very easily accessible location so in this particular year or two years what we're talking about the Anthropocene there's going to be a significant amount of of press and and doom-and-gloom because oh my god what have we done to this planet it's now present in the geological time period we'll actually be able to see it for all like future aliens can come down and go through that was our most embarrassing time it's there in the rocks we can never get rid of it it'll always be there but within this this debate and within the debate of novel ecosystems we have to recognize that there is also a huge opportunity for society to redress and to recover a part of itself that's been lost over the last couple of hundred years that it's separated itself from nature and I think that it is a supreme irony if this is true and this would be a very interesting study this is a supreme irony that the very areas that we damaged and the very areas we damaged the most could even be the locations that bring us closest to nature again thank you you

One thought on “Novel ecosystems | Dr Marcus Collier | TEDxUCD

  1. I do respect Collier's optimism and apparent good intent, but the plain naivety of the movement for 'novel ecosystems' is hard to ignore. There is no doubt in my mind that widespread acceptance of these novel ecosystems will ultimately result in a global lack of biodiversity. What once was a thriving deciduous forest, heath, or scrublands, will be replaced by an ecologically homogenous abandoned domain under the guise of a “novel ecosystem”. The myriad of ecological niches, which have been fine-tuned to the native ecosystems for millennia, will vanish and precede a uniform wasteland in which the once sacred endemism is none other than a forgotten tale.

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