Human Effects

By Richard P. Grant Human Effects Erle Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman, and Navin Ramankutty. 2010. The paper E.C. Ellis et al., “Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000,” Glob Ecol Biogeogr, 19:589-606, 2010. Free F1000 Evaluation The finding To accurately measure the changes to the terrestrial biosphere on a global scale, Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and coworker

By | January 1, 2011

Human Effects

Erle Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman, and Navin Ramankutty. 2010.

The paper

E.C. Ellis et al., “Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000,” Glob Ecol Biogeogr, 19:589-606, 2010. Free F1000 Evaluation

The finding

To accurately measure the changes to the terrestrial biosphere on a global scale, Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and coworkers integrated 300 years worth of information about human population with natural and human-induced changes in vegetation. They found that the biosphere switched from mostly wild to being dominated by human activity as recently as the beginning of the last century—the first demonstration of a worldwide effect.

The tool

Ellis integrated data “in a very elegant way,” says Faculty Member Rik Leemans. The researchers queried the land-use data with a series of “if-then” questions that let them classify the usage into more descriptive categories, which Ellis calls “anthromes”—such as wild, populated, and unused land within populated areas—and examined how these categories changed over three centuries.

The tamed

Ellis showed that of the unused land existent in 2000, about 40 percent was wild, while the remaining 60 percent were islands of unused habitat embedded within agricultural land or settlements. Ellis says that these areas, which have existed for only a few hundred years, represent “truly novel ecosystems.”

The future

“We can look at how humans have changed the biosphere in the past,” Ellis says, but the big question now is, “how do we want to change it in the future?” He is currently looking at how anthromes could be used to assess global changes in biodiversity and other long-term anthropogenic changes.

F1000 evaluators: G. Peterson (Stockholm University) • R. Leemans (Wageningen University)


Avatar of: Gil Lawton

Gil Lawton

Posts: 42

January 7, 2011

While I am totally capable of placing myself inside any intellectual frame of reference regarding "nature" and anthropocentric "improvements" upon it, let me ask that we examine more than just the frame of reference whereby the most important issue is "control." Granted we can think of man's having seized "control" from nature and, as some prefer to envision that, man's having IMPROVED upon it but, that done, let me ask that we examine the situation (of man's taking the reins from nature, from at least one other perspective. Fair enough?\n \nLet's examine the same situation from the point of view of the concept of "carrying capacity."\n \nLet me emphasize that I've not failed to assume the position (no pun intended) that the taking over of "control" is a valid fulcrum upon which to seek to grasp what is changing with nature and mankind. So, okay, let me invite you to go along with me now in a little, shall we say, "thought experiment" wherewith we look at the same situation from the perspective of "carrying capacity."\n\nBear with me, as I say that, from this alternative perspective, "nature" may be viewed as being whatever happens, period, with humans involved, or without. But, if that is too abrupt, then put that thought out of mind and let's just go to the "mind experiment." \n \nWarning: The following may take some readers out of their comfort zone, so prepare yourself. And, when we are through, you can go back to whatever is more comfortable for you. \n\nWe all know that any mention of "carrying capacity" has become politically incorrect. Game biologists are able to use the term without being slammed for it, only if they first are able to persuade their audience that some benefits stand to be enjoyed by all from game population management. Put some white tail deer on an island, with no predators and the heard will eventually over browse, starve, become vulnerable to parasites and, in a very real sense, "self-destruct." Put yeast in a jar with some sugar, and the yeast cells will eventually perish at some level of concentration of some admixture of their own excrement. These experiments are totally replicable.\n\nHOWEVER, mention any consequence of human population growth limits, or Earth's carrying capacity for human numbers,and an immediate knee jerk response jerks the conversation out of that mode and into a loop rhetoric, with one link assertion of the rhetoric chain being, "Malthus was proved wrong. Or, Malthus was nothing but a Chicken Little... a radical... a doomsayer... a person who had no knowledge of how scientific advances will always come along to make food available, more diseases treatable, more protection from the elements possible..." Okay, for sake of this mind experiment, let us embrace that assumption, and continue on.\n\nAnother link in that rhetoric chain is the assertion that only a totalitarian government (such as China) would try to deter people from their "right" to have as many children as they want, whenever they want. Okay, this is only an experiment, so let's allow it, and see where we end up.\n\nOf course, another link to this logic chain attributes to God a belief that He will always intervene and make things okay by some divinely benign solution. Let's allow that one, too. We are only seeing where these things go as we continue on. We're not disagreeing with any link in the chain.\n\nOkay, now, food... Let us suppose agricultural science WILL always find a way to feed everybody, no matter how many of us there are. From this assumption pinnacle, we can see that all those awful environmentalists -- who stupidly use words like "sustainability" as if that idea had anything to do with our view of reality... well, they are just radicals and Chicken Littles... just Malthusian dupes.\n\nWe are really sailing along now with this mind experiment, aren't we. We've got all the answers, and they are all correct, as postulated.\n\nBut please bear with me further as we examine where the embracing of these links is taking us.\n\nLet us, instead of daring to argue against the "We have a RIGHT wisdom, and the "Everything's gonna' be alright wisdom, move on to one little question: "Then what?"\n\nWell, one issue to consider about "then what?" is, "How happy will we be when the unavoidable mathematical consequence of continued expansion in human numbers leads to there being standing room only?"\n\nHold on. We haven't disagreed with anything here.\n\nAt some increment of doubling in numbers, each person standing in the standing room only world will, with the next doubling after than, have either to stand on someone's head or, if he be so altruistic as to submit to it, have his own head stood upon by another human.\n\nBut our mind experiment does not stop there. At that juncture, we must ask once again, "Then what?"\n\nWell, suppose we consider whether there are other alternatives. God might provide us a war, a famine, an epidemic that reduces our population back down to some level we would concede to be in accord with what we like to think of as "quality of life." But, didn't we agree that it would be a "benign" solution. Okay. Let's shuck war, genocide, epidemics, and look for some other alternative, in which our "right" and freedom to have all the children we want, whenever we want, works out such that "Everything's gonna' be alright."\n\nWell, let's see. Oh, here's one: Humans could with each successive generation be smaller in size. That would provide elbow room for a few doublings. But wait. The question arises, "How many."\n\nIt doesn't take a lot of math sophistication to know what "limits" are, or how if the number of subsets in a set increase, then the size of each subset must eventually decrease to accommodate.\n\nOr, at least that is so if the set has limited space to occupy, and each subset also takes up some modicum of space. So, let's embrace the size-decrease alternative.\n\nNow we run into such troblesome questions as: At what point will our increments of size accommodation render us too small to have, or need, a brain. We will reach levels of convergence {or deconvergence (:>)} at which we will no longer need a skeleton, a brain, arms, legs... hey, won't we be converging toward a minimum size... (shudder) into becoming microbes, then viruses (but viruses aren't alive, are they)? Perhaps we will thence become crystaline in nature, and thence just molecules. But, no, wait, at some point "NATURE WILL EXERT A LIMIT ON US... RATHER THAN US ON NATURE!\n\nHave we left out some other alternative? What if, say, God gave us the New World (Was it he who caused disease to wipe out 90% of that New World's indigenous population? That wouldn't have been benign, would it? Oh, my. But, surfing over that question, let's wonder together if God will provide us a way to teleport individuals who have no place to stand to another anthropo-friendly planet, then another, and another, and another...\n\nYes, that's better than the war thing, the epidemic thing or the unthinkable science-will-hit-a-wall-and-can't-come-up-with-more-food thing. \n\nHopefully we are seeing together now that, based on the generalized loop hypothesis links we named above, the "Everything's gonna' be alright," and the "Some solution will always come along" link...(or whatever we called it)... there is another factor. Would you agree with calling it the, "Something's gotta' give factor."\n\nOkay. Enough. Maybe this though experiment is just hogwash. Nobody's judging anybody here. We've just embraced a loop chain and examined a dimension that, instead of just orbiting in the loop, is a veritable perpendicular dimension, or some such, that manifests just where it all goes from here if -- in reality -- all the links in the loop chain are valid.\n\nOh, but we must not overlook an eschatological solution. The world will end before things get unbearable. Tell that to a starving African. He might ask us, "Isn't the end a bit overdue?"\n\nWhatever...\n\nPlease notice that nothing here disagreed with any apologetic or pretext... and just tried to follow the logic around and back to its fundamental postulates. And, hopefully, we have been able to examine a depiction of an escalating "control of nature by man" as, possibly, just one way of looking at a large picture.\n\nNow, anyone finding the stance in this mind experiment intellectually or emotionally uncomfortable can go back to wherever he was before.\n\nFrom where I stand, it seems to me that the conquering of "nature's control" over matters of Earth and its human occupants, may be grossly exaggerated.
Avatar of: PAUL STEIN


Posts: 61

January 11, 2011

If read to its conclusion, which did take considerable time, Gil Lawton presents an interesting thought experiment. I'm not quite sure I followed it all, but I would like to say something on the topic of global carrying capacity.\n\nMan can certainly expand to seemingly never-ending numbers through his use of agricultural technology because the Sun will always shine, air, water, and soil will always exist, at least for the next four or five billion years, and the laws of physics should go on forever. However, we have already markedly affected that beautiful world around us that we all try to escape to sometimes, for a moment, on a lunch break, or on the weekend or vacation. What would the world look like if we turned everything into either a factory farm or an apartment complex solely for the continuation of the human species? I personally do not wish to live in a "Soylent Green" world.\n\nRegarding the article of Ellis et al., taking nothing away from their work, still, it is a sorry state of biological scientific affairs if all we will ever do from now on is to document the destruction of Nature.

January 11, 2011

Do beavers destroy streams?\n\nI agree that much of what we have engineered is less aesthetically beautiful than what was there before us. But are we destroying nature?\n\nI challenge you to find that person who is intentionally destroying nature. We humans are just reengineering and using nature for our own purposes.\n\nThere is no scientific basis for stating that humans are destroying nature. We are merely transforming it. Just as photosynthetic organisms changed the atmosphere forever, so now goes Homo sapiens, for better or for worse.\n\nHopefully for better- and deciding what is better- that is up to all of us- including those who need to cut down forests to grow their food and those who pay others to do their forest cutting for them. \n\n

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