Humans are a curious species. We alone, with full knowledge of our impacts, are destroying the environment that sustains us. Localized historical examples of this behavior may exist, but now we are in a position to drive ourselves, along with many other species, to extinction. So we must change our habits and, most importantly, our beliefs in order to prosper.
Take, for instance, the belief that we must continually grow our GDP and our population for economic prosperity. Such an economic system is unsustainable on a finite planet.
Or take, for instance, the belief that societal problems are best addressed by corporations that act with no civic responsibility and that operate in the best short-term interest of shareholders. This business model can never solve long-term environmental problems.
Many believe the highest measure of success is an individual who invents the next big thing and becomes one of the richest people on earth. Nowhere do our spiritual teachings tell us this.
So we must change radically and quickly because, above all, we are biological creatures dependent on the ecosystems that include and nurture us. That can be hard to remember in an age when the term ecosystem is often used to describe the many products of a giant technology company.
How can we change all this? We should be sure that the actions we take now are actions that will be supportive of future generations. We are all guilty here because we typically accept as normal the environment and belief systems into which we are born. In addition, our alternatives seem limited.
If I am born into an environment where chemically treated corn and soybeans occupy the land as far as the eye can see, that is my normal; and it will be difficult for me to see the value of alternative land uses. But if I have an open mind, good teachers, and the capacity for critical thinking, I eventually understand that functioning prairie ecosystems with their pollinators, biological diversity, and carbon storage are useful and necessary for our well-being.
If I am born into a forested area where short-lived species such as balsam fir and poplar grow thickly and are harvested periodically, that is my normal. Yet we know that great stands of red and white pines once stood here and that diverse forest ecosystems were maintained by fire.
If I don't know that most of the oxygen we breathe comes from microscopic marine plants, I might not understand that oceans cannot be repositories for human refuse.
Ecosystem ecology is a young science that arguably began in the 1940s at the University of Minnesota and was made widely accessible with the publication of textbooks by Eugene Odum in the 1950s. These publications became the genesis of our understanding of how ecosystems function, and the science has led us to an appreciation of what scientists have termed ecosystem services. Others will prefer the phrase God's gifts.
They include the availability of food, oxygen, drinkable water, medicines, materials for shelter, pollinators, places for recreation and spiritual enrichment, and many more. We must begin educating young people early on about the exact nature and tremendous value of these gifts, emphasizing that we degrade them at our peril.
Climate regulation is also an important ecosystem service. Using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Washington Post determined that five Minnesota counties, including Aitkin, already have average annual temperatures that are more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above their long-term averages calculated from 1895 to 2018. The number for Roseau County is 4.4 degrees, making it one of the most-affected counties in the United States.
We never imagined that we could damage essential natural systems. Now we know better and must act accordingly.
David Gerhart of Duluth has a doctorate in aquatic ecology from Cornell University and has published and reviewed manuscripts for scientific journals in the fields of ecology and biochemistry. This commentary was reviewed and edited by ecosystem ecologist Gene Likens, Special Advisor to the President on Environmental Affairs and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Connecticut, before it was submitted to and edited by the News Tribune.