I was watching the movie Jurassic Park with my family this past weekend. I have always been quite taken with Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcom and especially his campy and somewhat misguided delivery of the concept of Chaos Theory. I was reminded of Dr. Malcom’s wry remarks as Marla Stelk (my fellow policy analyst at ASWM and the one who brings you News of Interest and Wetland Breaking News each week) and I discussed some recent news items. We scan a range of news issues, including conservation, natural resource management, biodiversity research, wildlife management, green infrastructure, climate change, energy and land use planning, among many, many more each week. What strikes me frequently during this review is how many pieces of the ecosystem puzzle are in motion in ways they’ve never been in motion together before —so many innovations and conflicting developments, all happening simultaneously, all without knowledge or consideration of the other parts of the equation.
Thinking back to recent posts we have read or discussions in which we have taken part, I am reminded of the Dr. Malcom character’s delightfully dry line, “See? I’m right again. Nobody could have predicted that…”
“Crazy” things have always happened. Innovations have been escalating in scope and impact for centuries. Human influences on the environment have been survivable for thousands of years. However, as a systems thinker, I find it increasingly disturbing to recognize how many parts are indeed in motion in ways they never have been. Migratory flyways are changing. Species are changing their ranges. Lifecycles are changing and inter-species interactions upon which some species rely are being disrupted. New competition is being introduced. Resiliency is being reduced. Invasive species are capitalizing. Habitat is being lost at staggering rates. A World Wildlife Fund report indicates that more than half of all wildlife on the planet has disappeared in just the last 50 years. We are at a hugely complex moment for the environment – where human influences, choices and behaviors are colliding with natural shifts in ways that make modeling and prediction increasingly challenging.
While all these changes seem perhaps counterproductive, they are far from irrational. Deciding to capitalize on natural genetic mutations rather than genetic modification to increase output is rational behavior if it opens a market and increases food supply, as is trying to find a way to create beneficial uses from a fracking byproduct. In its most basic economic form, rational behavior does not require decision-makers to take into consideration ethical, environmental, social and other outcomes unless these things limit economic benefits to the immediate decision-maker. And the result of all this rational decision-making is now an odd set of highly complex circumstances and impacts interacting with one another in highly unpredictable ways.
This is the world in which we are working to protect ecosystems and wetlands. However, instead of being surprised by these decisions and changes, we need to start thinking about alternatives to the standard ways we have been addressing increased precipitation (e.g. pipes, canals and levees), drought, hurricanes, eroding beaches, invasive species, fire hazards, flooding and other challenges. Instead of waiting for people to make decisions that will reverse climate change or end the blame game, we need to acknowledge that whatever the cause or the ways to stop it, we need to deal with climate volatility right now. And wetlands need to be part of that discussion and planning process. In many of these circumstances, one way to increase resiliency is to integrate wetlands.
Wetlands are gems at creating resiliency – slowing water runoff; holding water and creating oases of green during droughts, providing safe havens of wildlife when habitat is being destroyed, reducing erosion, buffering wind and tidal surge along coastlines, and reducing fire risk by retaining soil moisture. In the movie Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcom infamously argues, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Although I think we should all be working to remove perverse incentives that encourage people to contribute to climate change, mess with genetic code, and build homes in hazard zones, I personally don’t think we can wait for this revelation. Regardless of how much change is happening or will continue to happen, wetlands can be a tool to address negative climate impacts… whether changes to the climate are clearly understood or not. Since wetlands are one of nature’s great buffers, part of our work now needs to focus on promoting wetlands as an essential part of the climate resiliency toolbox.