2020 feels like dark fiction. Here’s how science can inspire a better future

How can scientists move us beyond the calamities of 2020?

The current moment for our species feels a lot like fiction. Not without cause, fiction writers have made the most out of imagining near-future worlds that seem unthinkable or unbearable.

However, the real world of 2020 is both less unthinkable and more unbearable than fiction: we have longer wildfire seasons caused by shifts in climate, more frequent and destructive storms, greater food insecurity, and accelerating biodiversity loss. This entire doom list is also happening in the background of a global pandemic, which is neither the first nor the last one we will face.

All of these problems are interlinked, and many will persist and possibly accelerate, as they test human and planetary systems alike. While fiction may be a guide for grasping the magnitude of our calamities, we would like to make a different argument for storytelling: we think that the language of scientists who have intimately studied the planet and its life across other great periods of environmental change should also shape how we talk about challenges that appear too spiraling, disparate, and monumental to understand.

WWF has tracked a calamitous decline in animal population sizes
Image: WWF Living Planet Report 2020
Scientists like us use metaphors to talk about biodiversity: tropical rainforests are cradles of diversity, evolution is a tree of life, extinction is a vortex. These metaphors are useful because they capture big ideas in a convenient way. We argue that there’s another metaphor that should be revived for our times: the evolutionary play in the ecological theatre. Biologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson used this metaphor in an essay to describe a dynamic set of forces acting on players in an ever-changing theater. In Hutchinson’s metaphor, the theatre provides the space for the interaction – here, ecology is about the number and the strength of connections between species, in the greater web of life. Evolution is the result of billions of years of past ecologies, funneled through chance events that fashion the players on stage, some of which adapt and persist, while others vanish.

Hutchinson published these essays over 50 years ago, but we think that his conceit remains useful for our calamitous present. First, the metaphor is scale-free: it works whether we are talking about viruses, a conspiracy of lemurs, a sunken whale carcass, or a tropical forest. All of these scales of biology showcase ongoing evolutionary plays. Second, we are actively changing the parameters of the ecological theatre, making it more crowded because our singular role now has a footprint of over 7 billion individuals. The theatre is also getting hotter, with interactions that have changed or frayed.

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