Can we build an ecosystem?

News | Posted on Friday 3 March 2023

Jack Hatfield discusses to what extent we can intentionally shape ecosystems and invites your thoughts on the matter.

While recently working on a framework for conservation in the face of fast paced dynamic change, there was much discussion of a single word in the framework name. What term to use to describe actions to support future desirable changes? We decided to go with the term “Facilitate” whereas other have used terms such as “Direct”. You may be wondering what is in a name, but in this case the distinction relates to our ability to shape and build future ecosystems. Direct suggests a higher level of control compared to the more supportive role suggested by Facilitate. In the end it boils down to the question of can we build an ecosystem?

The building of new ecosystems has long had a home in the sphere of science fiction, with humanity spreading across the universe, terraforming planets. Growing up as an aspiring zoologist one of my favourite computer games was The Gungan Frontier. Set in the Star Wars universe you were tasked with building a functional ecosystem on an empty moon while providing resources for the new Gungan colonists. Although a simplified version of a real ecosystem, each species has environmental preferences, and you must be mindful of food webs. Many people will have played similar computer games or one of the growing range of board games.

What about in the real world? Well, our ability to alter ecosystems is not in question, we have been doing it for thousands of years and have now influenced every part of the globe. In a sense we can build new ecosystems as shown by the vast expanses of croplands worldwide created by and for humans. When most people think of ecosystems though, I would hazard a guess that pictures of lush tropical rainforests, vibrant coral reefs or expansive jam-packed savannahs are conjured. Our urban and agriculture environments may seem poor and simplified in comparison. It is also debatable whether we have built such ecosystems intentionally or if they are just a consequence of the pursuit of other goals (eg, food production). What about in ecology then? After all it is the study of living things and their environment and to me seems focused on trying to understand complexity.

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The field of restoration ecology aims to try and restore past ecosystems and, in many cases, has been very successful. If we can rebuild ecosystems, then this surely counts? Ecosystems are complex and dynamic so perhaps what you restore is not exactly the same as what was lost, but do we need or want it to be? Other approaches such as rewilding focus on restoring ecosystem processes instead of the ecosystem itself, often in pursuit of ‘self-willed’ nature. Do these efforts count as truly building an ecosystem?

So why does this even matter? It is unlikely that we will be setting up that lunar colony or terraforming Mars anytime soon. We have altered ecosystems for millennia and now do so at a rapid rate with the spectre of climate change looming, suggesting this is but the beginning.  As anyone that has tried to move house while retaining their flat pack furniture knows, taking something apart without knowing how to put it back together is a very risky business. We may be simultaneously underestimating our influence on the world’s ecosystems but overestimating our control of them. We may be able to change things more than any other species on the planet but there is still much we don’t yet know.