/ 21 May 2020

Threads of life: We have an opportunity to restore vital ecosystems

In South Africa
The pulling out of one thread of life makes another one vulnerable, with the tapestry of life meanwhile losing its value. In short, we are increasing life’s vulnerability, while reducing its resilience. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)


Our survival depends on a healthy planet. One whose health is about being resilient; the ability to recover after a setback. In turn, the ability to bounce back means having rich and productive ecosystems with all the basic facilities to recover. These facilities are about allowing populations of organisms, from the smallest to the largest, to thrive. 

The reality is that all populations have checks that stop them from spiralling out of control, or alternatively, they have needs that prevent them from going extinct. The checks come in the form of climate, disasters, disease and being eaten by something else. That is the nature of things. It is now upon us to ensure their needs are met.

There is no such thing as the balance of nature, but rather the dynamics of nature. Organisms ebb and flow across landscapes in search of the best conditions to feed, breed and rest. This includes plants and fungi, through their seeds and spores. 

What we have been doing to all other organisms is either remove them, or put them into permanent lockdown by parcelling up landscapes with buildings and fields. This confinement has prevented them from finding optimal conditions where they are healthy enough to leave offspring with a bright future. Organisms have been removed by displacement and death through cutting down of habitat, application of poisonous chemicals, the building of roads and cars, and plain carelessness. 

The loss imposed by biotic lockdown means that the full fabric of life across the globe is being unravelled. Because organisms can no longer find the best conditions for survival and breeding, they die out. The pulling out of one thread of life makes another one vulnerable, with the tapestry of life meanwhile losing its value. In short, we are increasing life’s vulnerability, while reducing its resilience.

In this time of Covid-19, we have seen how quickly life can recover, given the chance. The skies and streets have clearer air and we can hear birds singing that we had forgotten existed through the din of mechanisation on the ground and in the air. African penguins are walking the streets of Cape Town, and families of Cape foxes have been out and about during the day, even a Cape leopard has ventured within sight of housing. 

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we have all had time to consider more deeply how we value life in its entirety. The value of food and kind and loving relationships have reached a new level of importance. The great value of the outdoors has also made us realise what freedom actually means. We have been able to appreciate nature in all its forms from clear skies and the formation of clouds to the joy of the very fabric of life. 

These trying times have also enabled us to appreciate the invisible. Hidden beneath our feet and all around us are myriad little creatures whose contribution to our well-being we have ignored for far too long. Whole task forces of small creatures are making and turning the soil, keeping it alive, and enabling our world to remain flexible and resilient. All this depends on the sun’s energy which is captured by plants and converted through their greenness into energy available to us and many other organisms.

It is time now to redirect this crisis and turn it into an opportunity. The care that we show to each other should also be extended to the world around us. As we celebrate the International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, we should also keep in mind that caring about all life is crucial if we are to survive well into the future. 

So, how do we start the process of reviving our ecosystems? 

A good starting point would be to stop quick-fix solutions just because they are cheap now. The long-term price can be horrendous. We have seen how cheap air travel and leisure cruises led not only to massive air pollution but also provided contagion highways. Poor respect for the soil has meant its devastating loss and deterioration over time. 

Plastics in the ocean are killing marine life. The chopping down of the rainforests and, with it, the wholescale massacre of life — best described as “lifecide” —  is leading to nutrient cycle deterioration and climatic disasters across the world. Continued high-carbon emissions will lead to further aggravation, and not just loss of huge swathes of agricultural land, but also of many coastal cities. 

The baseline for change desperately requires a move away from selfish, immediate economic gains towards a future that coming generations can enjoy. New and advanced technology alongside embracing good old-fashioned caring-for-nature will see us through. We need careful and strategic thinking and must dump our desires and cravings for quick fixes and more “things”. 

We should exchange immediate self-gains and self-enhancement for mutual caring and equitability globally, especially through overcoming our innate tribalism. It can be done. We have much of the basic science to do so, now is the time to act.

Michael Samways is a distinguished professor in the department of conservation ecology and entomology at Stellenbosch University. His research focuses on, among others, landscape ecology and the conservation of invertebrates, especially insects.