Pavement Cracks And Chain-Link Fences Are the New Ecosystems of the Anthropocene | Smart News | Smithsonian
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Pavement Cracks And Chain-Link Fences Are the New Ecosystems of the Anthropocene

The "natural" world is gone, and it's not coming back

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Yesterday was Earth Day, a celebration of our planet and all of its natural splendor. There's a problem, though, with this conception of environmentalism, which, like Earth Day, was invented in the 1970s. And it's a big one: there is literally no such thing as “nature” anymore.

As Christopher Mims wrote for Motherboard a couple years ago, the natural world—independent of us—simply no longer exists.

[A]ny attempt to talk about the 21st century without acknowledging that every living thing on the planet will be altered by humans is intellectually bankrupt. There is no “nature” left — only the portion of nature that we allow to live because we imagine it serves some purpose — as a thing to eat, a place to reprocess our waste, or an idea that fulfills our dwindling desire to maintain “the natural” for aesthetic or ideological reasons.

Whether bulldozed or clear-cut, fished, farmed or warmed by greenhouse gases, every ecosystem on Earth is currently being shaped by humans and human technology. That's true now, and it's been true—to an ever-increasing extentfor thousands of years. At this point, believing that it's possible to restore a place to its original state by removing a dam, restoring a marsh or culling some deer requires a naïve interpretation of how ecosystems work.

In his assessment, Mims noted that the ecosystems of the future will not consist of the world, plus us, plus our technology. Rather, the global ecosystem will increasingly be guided, shaped and supported by us and our technology. This shift can already been seen in humanity's most prominent constructions: cities. 

Writing for the Design Observer, Peter Del Tredici, a botanist and author, explores how cities are giving rise to novel growing conditions, and new, wholly anthropogenic ecosystems. Instead of rivers, marshes or forests, Earth now has chain-link fences, abandoned lots, highway medians and cracks in the pavement. These aren't devoid of life; they are new human-made ecosystems, and different types of life—what Del Tredici calls “spontaneous urban vegetation”—thrive in those environments.

Most people have a different word for "spontaneous urban vegetaition"—weeds. But these urban plants, Del Tredici says, are the symptom of change, not the cause. Instead of blaming weeds for existing and trying to restore a place to its original state, engineers working in ecological restoration focus on restoring “ecosystem services." These are jobs that keep an ecosystem working, and getting those positions filled is what matters most—something needs to keep the soil from being washed out by the rain (even if it is a "weed").

So, here's Del Tredici's idea: Instead of longing for some more “natural” ecosystem that is long-since lost, we should work with these new species to design ecosystems that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Rather than trying to fight the infiltration of plants in cracks and vines on fences, we can acknowledge and embrace the changes we've wrought.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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