Utility of the Concept

Publicity from the massive ecosystem projects and the publication of Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring (1962) helped stimulate the environmental movement of the 1960's. The public began to realize that human activity was destroying the bioecologi-cal matrices that sustained life. By the end of the 1960's, the applicability of the IBP approach to ecosystem research was proving to be purely academic and provided few solutions to the problems that plagued the environment. Scientists realized that, because of the lack of fundamental knowledge about many of the systems and their links and because of the technological shortcomings that existed, ecosystems could not be divided into three to five components and analyzed by computer simulation.

The more applied approach taken in the Hub-bard Brook project, however, showed that the ecosystem approach to environmental studies could be successful if the principles of the scientific method were used. The Hubbard Brook study area and the protocols used to study it were clearly defined. This ecosystem allowed hypotheses to be generated and experimentally tested. Applying the scientific method to the study of ecosystems had practical utility for the management of natural resources and for testing possible solutions to environmental problems. When perturbations such as diseases, parasites, fires, deforestation, and urban and rural development disrupt ecosystems from within, this approach helps define potential mitigation and management plans. Similarly, external causative agents within airsheds, drainage flows, or watersheds can be considered.

The principles and research approach of the ecosystem concept are being used to define and attack the impact of environmental changes caused by humans. Such problems as human population growth, apportioning of resources, toxification of biosphere, loss of biodiversity, global warming, acid rain, atmospheric ozone depletion, land-use changes, and eutrophication are being holistically examined. Management programs related to woodlands (the New Forestry program) and urban and rural centers (the Urban to Rural Gradient Ecology, or URGE, program), as well as other governmental agencies that are investigating water and land use, fisheries, endangered species, and exotic species introductions, have found the ecosystem perspective useful.

Ecosystems are also viewed as systems that provide the services necessary to sustain life on earth. Most people either take these services for granted or do not realize that such natural processes exist. Ecosystem research has identified seventeen naturally occurring services, including water purification, regulation, and supply, as well as atmospheric gas regulation and pollination. A 1997 article by

Robert Costanza and others, "The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital," placed a monetary cost to humanity should the service, for some disastrous reason, need to be maintained by human technology. The amount is staggering, averaging $33 trillion per year. Humanity could not afford this; the global gross national product is only about $20 trillion.

Academically, ecosystem science has been shown to be a tool to dissect environmental problems, but this has not been effectively demonstrated to the public and private sectors, especially decision makers and policymakers at governmental levels. The idea that healthy ecosystems provide socioeconomic benefits and services remains controversial. In order to bridge this gap between academia and the public, Scott Collins of the National Science Foundation suggested to the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers that ecosystem scientists be "bilingual"; that is, they should be able speak their scientific language and translate it so that the nonscientist can understand.

Richard F. Modlin

See also: Animal-plant interactions; Biomass related to energy; Biomes: types; Coevolution; Community-ecosystem interactions; Ecology: history; Ecosystems: overview; Food chain; Forest fires; Paleoecology; Population genetics; Succession; Trophic levels and ecological niches.

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