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  • The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene by Oswald J. Schmitz
  • Amy Ione, Director
The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, U.S.A., 2016. 256pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0691160566.

Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor an ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:

The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784 [1].

Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism, despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed, one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota are doomed is incorrect: “The New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view, Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.

Chapter 1, “The Challenge of Sustainability,” uses the well-known debates about the short- and long-term impacts of mining the Bristol Bay region of Alaska to introduce how competing human values complicate ecological issues. Schmitz expands on this idea in Chapter 2, noting that even as we “pay attention” to known variables, there are many impacts we cannot evaluate in terms of valuing species and ecosystems. Of particular importance is that we must account for the fact that any action humans take reverberates through the rest of the interdependent chain. The difficulty in terms of scale and specific traits is the subject of Chapter 3, where the author turns to biological diversity and ecosystem functions. As he points out, the scale of a function as well as functional redundancy among species makes ecosystem evaluation even more challenging.

“Domesticated Nature,” the topic of Chapter 4, extends this to the complexity of evaluating human activity. A key point of this chapter is that, in his view, there is currently an incorrect tendency today to “blame” nature’s reordering on human actions despite the abundant evidence that environmental change is often engineered by species. Using beavers and termites as examples, the author argues that ecosystems often change when species perform ecosystem engineering without human intervention. He also points out that humans are unlike other species in generating transformations geared to...


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pp. 545-547
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