The “long now” of ecology just got a whole lot shorter

Almost twenty years ago, Stephen Carpenter talked about the “long now” of ecosystems: ecological presents and futures are shaped by historical legacies, and events that unfolded over several human lifespans will echo into the future of ecological systems. Last week, the unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds of people; it triggered the death of over a billion sea animals cooked alive in their shells, the shoreline temperatures having skyrocketed past their lethal temperature. There is no evolutionary process fast enough to rescue a population suddenly exposed to temperatures 10°C above its Tmax in a matter of hours. There is no model of range displacement and landscape connectivity that we can use to devise evidence-based policies to mitigate any of this. There is only the shift of ecology as the chronicling of life to the chronicling of death and extinction.

The work of attribution on the recent heat wave is done: it’s our fault. We have confiscated Turtle Island from its historical stewards, and destroyed it. The mandate of predicting the future of ecological systems is now a Stoic intellectual exercise, futurorum malorum præmeditatio; we need to predict the bad futures, we need to come to terms with the dire consequences of our past actions, and we need to brace for what is coming.

Only we don’t have 20 years to do it. Or 20 months. Who’s to say the next “unprecedented” event is not 20 days ahead? And precisely because we are staring down a crisis (a trail-mix of interacting crises, in fact), we cannot let ecology become a crisis discipline; we cannot fall back on traditional ways of solving the problems, and we cannot afford to neglect novel perspectives. When the lives of the most vulnerable among us are in direct and immediate danger, understanding what lies ahead, is not as an academic exercise; it is a moral imperative, and a matter of survival.