Ecologists and knitters have a lot in common. Perhaps seasoned knitters have found a way to tame their yarn, but in my case, it seems to have a mind of its own. I have made many a lopsided scarf, but my specialty is impossible knots. In my capable hands, the yarn quickly folds itself into a colossal knot that defies logic. Each strand is knotted to at least half a dozen others, forming an incomprehensible tangle.
In a way, ecologists are the great untanglers of the natural world. Whether through masochism, curiosity, or some mixture of the two, we spend our lives plucking at the knots. In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir describes the interconnectedness of the natural world: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Until recently, grappling with nature’s complexity was the sole business of The Scientists. For the bulk of Americans living in cities and suburbs, nature was far removed from their everyday lives. Our romanticized conception of wilderness as an untamed and perilous expanse included one unspoken assumption: it is not here.
In a single generation, perception of our role in the natural world has experienced a seismic shift. As the rumblings of climate change have grown ever louder, we have begun to grasp that humans cannot exist in isolation from the environment. In comparison to our humble beginnings as small hunter-gatherer societies, the individual decisions of 7 billion people now have very real global impacts. By 2050, the global population is projected to hit 8.9 billion. The question of whether intense human pressure on natural resources can be sustained is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in the room. In other words, is it truly possible to balance the needs of 8.9 billion people with the preservation of species diversity?
Enter Michael Rosenzweig, evolutionary ecologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. As a leader in the field of reconciliation ecology, Rosenzweig argues that long-term preservation of diversity is possible through the modification of human-dominated environments. Essentially, by reconciling our current lifestyles with the ecological reality of impending extinctions, we can expand the areas available to wildlife. Reconciliation, as I’m beginning to learn, is a dynamic concept that can take on a variety of meanings. For some, it can be as simple as teaching third graders how to raise chickens and grow their own food.
As a relative newcomer to the field of reconciliation ecology, I am cautiously optimistic about its potential to preserve diversity. In some ways, however, the change in mentality that reconciliation demands may have greater environmental impacts than the actual increase in species ranges. Historically, our tendency to regard nature as a separate entity has fostered some of our most challenging environmental issues. By regarding nature as away and apart, its piecemeal dismantlement has been less apparent and easily swept under the rug.
Reconciliation ecology doesn’t offer the promise of untangling the everlasting yarn ball. In fact, by increasing the connectedness between the ecological and the human spheres, it adds more knots. In terms of environmental, social, and historical complexity, California is an especially tangled web. From the high Sierra to the murky Salton Sea, California faces a diversity of environmental challenges, all of which are intimately tied to social and historical issues. In the face of these challenges, Californians are working to create new landscapes that integrate ecological and human needs.
To some, living with nature rather than outside it may appear to be an unrealistic pipe dream. While I’m uncertain whether reconciliation is a viable long-term strategy, a profound shift in mindset is undeniably occurring. Whether through small-scale changes in how we manage our lawns or broader efforts to maintain native pollinator species, Californians are rethinking the intersection of manmade and natural habitats. The climate is changing, in more ways than one.
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Reconciliation is what we make it. Comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.