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Environmental Influence

Decrypting conservation: Why novel ecosystems aren’t anathema to conservationists

Professor Peter Bridgewater thinks that when it comes to novel ecosystems, resistance may be futile.

Not that he’s out to valorise these ecosystems altered by human agency. “I think we need to consider the novel ecosystem as neither disaster nor meltdown, but the next reach of a river in time,” he said.

“Novel ecosystems are assemblages of species that haven’t co-occurred historically.”

Instead, they are part of the Anthropocene*, ecosystems that have come into existence as a result of both direct and indirect influence from human activity.

According to the Adjunct Professor in Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Governance at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) and Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), novel ecosystems are a fact of life, because humans are a(nother) fact of life.

Change management is the bottom line.

“Novel ecosystems are relatively stable, and they exist alongside the semi-natural – or what we think of as natural – landscapes and seascapes of the world,” he said. They can also be integrated into urban and suburban areas.

“In 2010, Erle C. Ellis et al reported in Global Ecology and Biogeography that between 1700 and 2000, the terrestrial biosphere made the critical transition from mostly wild to mostly anthropogenic, passing the 50 per cent mark early in the 20th century.”

And so the best, most efficient and most sustainable use of conservation resources is to work with them and to integrate said resources into urban settings where necessary – rather than to constantly try to turn back the clock, and transmogrify them into the assemblages of species that historically pre-date the Anthropocene.

“Ecological research and conservation efforts, in all but a few biomes, would benefit from a primary focus on the novel remnant, recovering and managed ecosystems embedded within used lands.”

Peter feels that novel ecosystems have long been undervalued – even vilified – and ignored in terms of policy-making, when they hold promise for the maintenance and promotion of biodiversity.

"One of the things that needs to be understood is that novel ecosystems don’t just encompass species loss, but also the addition of species,” Peter said.

“They also provide vital ecosystem services like providing food and water, cycling nutrients, protection and purification,” he said.

Novel ecosystems can often form points of connection between humans and nature, as we build living hubs around rivers and trek through woodlands and created wetlands.

A myriad possibilities arise from a more objective and open acceptance of novel ecosystems; one of these is rewilding, an approach to conservation that is currently taking hold in Europe. It involves the conscious creating of spaces for nature across various contexts, from wide open wildernesses to urban jungles.

With climate change bringing huge environmental changes sweeping across the planet, simply focusing on efforts like planting trees isn’t enough to conserve and manage our biodiversity, says Peter.

“We need to approach this more strategically, by linking wilder nature and urban spaces, and by recognising the importance of strengthening both ecosystem health and human relationships with ecosystems,” he said. “Novel ecosystems can play an important part in this big picture thinking – if we let them.”

*The current geological age, in which human activity has been the dominant factor influencing the climate and environment – although its duration and validity is still debated by geologists.

Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo by Madeleine Wood

Conversations around conservation can be confusing and ambiguous; in the Decrypting Conservation series on UnCover, Adjunct Professor Peter Bridegwater will shine a light on various conservation topics.

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