Tag Archives: generations

Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.

All of this has happened before

Although summers are quite busy, usually I try to find the time to read several books that have been occupying the corner of my desk during the academic year. I have finally read a book on my “meaning to get to” list for years: “Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change,” (Cambridge University Press), by the professors who taught me landscape ecology, Paul and Hazel Delcourt.

Originally published in 2004, the book combines archaeology and paleoecology to describe how landscapes in North America were changed by human societies long before Europeans arrived. Ecologists especially have always believed that pre-European societies had little lasting impact on ecosystems in North America. This belief underpins many conservation biology targets for habitat and species restoration. However, the Delcourts describe thriving human societies in Ontario, southern Illinois and Eastern Tennessee that used fire and forest harvesting to support their agriculture-based societies, dramatically increasing nut-bearing trees and pioneer species (such as ragweed) at the expense of species adapted to mature forests. These changes, made at increasingly large scales, may have also increased herbivore species such as white-tailed deer that thrive in early-successional and edge woodland habitats.

The book is framed by Panarchy theory, and explains how these changes, when they reached a critical proportion of the surrounding landscape, created greater disturbances (such as floods) that likely led to the area being abandoned by these societies, long before Europeans arrived on the scene. These events are a reminder that humans, like all species, alter their environments. Sometimes these alterations are beneficial in the short term, but often they are detrimental in the long term. Even with small-scale disturbances (such as slash-and-burn agriculture), if the period allowed for ecosystem regeneration is too short, soil fertility can decline and ultimately the practice becomes unsustainable.

Of course, the lessons we gain from the distant past (14,000 to 500 years before present) are limited in their applicability. North America is now home to over 400 million people, almost two orders of magnitude larger than it has ever supported before. It may be that the agricultural and settlement practices of even the most sustainable of these early societies would be completely unsustainable today. But what we can learn is that our impacts will certainly be available for study for a long, long time.

Gen-X and the future

A while ago I finally carved out some time to read a book written by the two professors responsible for my disciplinary focus in landscape ecology: Paul and Hazel Delcourt. Their book, “Living well in the age of global warming: 10 strategies for Boomers, Bobos, and Cultural Creatives,” provides advice for people nearing retirement on how to adapt their finances and living arrangements given forecasted changes in ecosystems and the climate in the United States. It is a read that is as insightful and quirky as my former professors.

(For those of you wondering what a “bobo” is…. it’s a bourgeois bohemian, of course (!). “Cultural creatives” are those who are generally highly educated, engaged in “creative” professions, and tend to have less materialistic goals.)

While I really loved the approach that Paul and Hazel took to develop this kind of advice, I have to say that I felt the advice would serve Generation X (born roughly between 1965 and 1981) quite poorly. Much of the advice is based on how the amenities of different regions will be affected by changes in climate and species ranges, particularly from the viewpoint of real estate values. The book was written in 2001, well before the 2008 collapse of the housing market, and so much of their advice is moot at this point. But as I said, it is certainly a clever approach to the issue.

I have been thinking off and on about what sort of advice I would have for my fellow Gen X-ers, that cynical, sarcastic bunch sandwiched between the Boomers (who will likely suck Social Security dry) and the Millennials (who hate our current dour demeanors, and will certainly hate us as bitter, complaining elderly folks). Generally, Gen X-ers seem to be far more at ease when working individually, although we do spend a good chunk of energy on maintaining and growing our networks (personal and professional). It also seems that we have a propensity for the DIY activities (regardless of whether we are any good at them). This translates into a generation who may “downsize” and disappear into small towns and rural areas, with good soil and plenty of water, grumbling about all the things we miss about the big city until we visit our children in the big city (when we will grumble about the traffic, the pollution, the deterioration of infrastructure, etc.)

Of course, actually applying science to these hunches like the Delcourts did… that will require much more than the hand-waving that I’ve done here. Let’s see if this child of the Slacker Nation can actually pull that off… stay tuned!