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Thread: What is environmental damage?

  1. #1 What is environmental damage? 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    I am often bemused by claims that people are harming the environment, when often we do not know exactly what we mean by harm. Often what humans are doing is changing the environment, and this is called harm. But is it reasonable to call mere change as harm? What of changes that are more insults to our idea of beauty?

    Some examples to feed ideas.

    1. Elephants have been damaging the environment in Africa for long enough that this damage fuels evolution. Acacia trees dominate much of Africa, and elephants have the charming habit of pushing over any Acacia tree they encounter, in order to eat the top leaves. This prevents forest forming, and stabilises the immense grasslands. The result has been the evolution of an amazing ecosystem depending on African grasses. Without the elephant pushing over trees we would not have giraffes, antelopes etc. Is the elephant an environmental vandal or an environmental saviour?

    2. Damage may increase biodiversity and biological productivity. Alpine lakes are very beautiful, with crystal clear blue waters, but in terms of life are essentially the equivalent of deserts. If we pollute those waters with nutrients, such as farm run-off, we end up with a lake that is green and diverse, and a biomass that is enormous. Is this increase in biodiversity and biological productivity an example of environmental damage, or just aesthetic damage?

    3. Pollution may have interesting effects. Australian naturalist, Tim Lowe, in his book "The New Nature" tells an interesting example. In the build up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, many sites were investigated to build Olympic venues. One site was a polluted pond. It was considered that this site would be great for development, since it could only improve the environment by removing a polluted eyesore. In fact, they discovered in that pond, the largest ever population of an endangered bell frog. It seems that this frog species was dying out due to infection by the chytrid fungus, and the pollution in this pond selectively killed off the fungus, allowing the frog to thrive. So is pollution always an environmental detrement?

    The question of how we define environmental damage is clearly not simple. Any ideas?


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  3. #2  
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    'Damage' tends to repair itself over time, even refreshing the area, such as with forest fires.


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    Perhaps damage could best be defined in terms of the 'natural state of things.' An elephant does not damage the savanna by knocking down acacia trees because that act has become a part of the natural order of things as they occur in that area. However run-off that leads to increased biodiversity in a lake has violated the natural state of that lake. Who's to say that there should be more species in that lake, if non-human natural processes haven't put them there? Whether run-off damages that lake or not then becomes a purely human notion.

    Most of what is considered environmental damage seems to be that caused by humans... Which leads to the question of whether or not humans and their impacts are just a part of the natural order of things. Of course, when damage is considered 'unnatural,' this is associated with it being anthropogenic, yet humans are as 'natural' as anything else. We seem to make ourselves 'unnatural.' (not to get too philosophical and too far off topic, but it is relevant)
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    The environment the elephants have created is more or less in equilibrium. Much of the English countryside is very beautiful but the surface features are almost entirely man-made. Change occurs slowly and people and ecosystems can usually adapt.

    The kind of change that is disturbing is the rapid change in which the environment is thrown out of equilibrium and the components of that environment cannot adapt. Global climate change is of course the obvious rapid change that comes to mind. Animals forced to migrate will meet natural and man-made barriers. Tree species that require hundreds of years to mature may die out before they can become reestablished in new areas. Crops adapted to specific climates and soils may not thrive in changed conditions. I suggest that rapid change is usually harmful, while gradual change may be unnoticeable and easily adapted to, therefore less harmful or beneficial.

    In 1997 a group of economists and scientists put a value on the services provided by the world's ecosystems at twice the GDP of all nations combined. According to E.O.Wilson, these services include:

    Regulation of the climate and atmosphere
    Purification and retention of fresh water
    Formation and enrichment of the soil
    Nutrient cycling
    Detoxification and recirculation of waste
    Pollination of crops
    Lumber and biomass production
    Fodder production

    How will climate change affect the cash value of the environment - never mind the insults to beauty?
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  6. #5  
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    I agree that the speed of change is probably a part of it, but only a part. There are 'natural' changes that are very fast, also, including some periods of climate change way before humans were in a position to much affect it.

    I also think that humans with our 'unnatural' influences can be a part of the ecology. My favourite is the Australian aboriginals. These guys arrived in Australia some 50,000 years (plus or minus a bit) ago. At that time, Australia underwent its greatest and most rapid mass extinction, with over 100 species of megafauna going out.

    Today the aboriginals are hailed as 'living with nature'. One of the things they do to earn this acolade is called mosaic burning, in which they light fires to burn off a section of the landscape to encourage fresh grasses, which attract their prey animals. This is called 'living with nature' because a lot of Australian plants now rely on fire to assist their reproduction.

    I wonder, though, which was cause and which was effect. I suspect the effect of mosaic burning was simply to wipe out all the species that could not cope, and now, 50,000 years later, all the plants left in those areas are adapted to these fires.

    So, do the aboriginals 'live with nature' or are they, as I suspect, just as much exploiters and rapers of nature as the rest of humanity, with nature itself doing the adapting?
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    There are many examples of what you describe, including the well known hunting technique of driving herds of animals over a cliff so the hunters could harvest one or two of them, and the less well known forest clearing that east coast American Indians did to produce grazing pasture for bison herds. But I don't think most people still hold the "noble savage" sort of view that you seem to think we do. That view is outdated and not very widespread.
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    I think in addition to the velocity of change we must also consider the extent. With the elephant example, those trees they knock down and the cascading downstream impacts account for a change to some tiny fraction of a percent of the total environment.

    Humans, however, have been so successful in adapting the environment when we do things that we tend to have downstream cascading impacts on rather significant portions of total environment. Instead of tiny fractions of a percent change to the previous state/balance, humans tend to change it in the 10s (like 20% of the total environment impacted, or 40% of the total environment impacted, etc.).

    Now, I concede that animals or insects like ants and bees and other similar also have a huge scope when they impact the environment, but these then tend to lack the aforementioned velocity of change. I also concede that other animals and bugs can make changes at huge speeds... very quickly... but those then tend to lack the extent... the scope of that change is rather narrow.

    We are, in fact, part of nature.... and what we do is by definition natural. However, it's a false equivalency to suggest that we are no different than other organisms which change the environment. When we humans do it, it tends to be incredibly fast, rather jarring to the established equilibrium, and the scope of the changes tends to be fairly significant and far reaching.

    Both factors (velocity and scope of impact) are IMO what make the impacts from humans more frequently described as "harmful."
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    I read someplace that elephants actually manage jungle growth. Far beyond knocking down certain trees.
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    About 3 million years ago, continental drift created a land bridge between North and South America. What followed was rapid migration of species in both directions, and rapid extinctions of many species that were suddenly preyed upon by a species they had not encountered before.

    In what way is this so different from human impact?
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  11. #10  
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    One was caused by physical processes, the other by individual choice in aggregate.
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    n what way is this so different from human impact?
    It was a lot slower.

    But is it reasonable to call mere change as harm? What of changes that are more insults to our idea of beauty?
    Such as filling a clearwater gravel bottom lake with sewage and chemical runoff, causing it to be a home for Chinese carp that are poisonous to eat and fill itself with algae blooms that are disgusting to swim in?

    Sure, that's a judgment call.

    You don't have to call the conversion of beautiful and enjoyable meadows full of singing birds and butterflies and such, into rutted mudscapes of povertygrass and sandburrs and the occasional English sparrow, "damage", if you don't want to.
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  13. #12  
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    Does anyone want to have a go at giving a reasonable definition of 'environmental damage'?
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    I would think a definition of environmental damage might have to somehow incorporate the concept of entropy. Any environmental damage such as the Asian carp expanding their range and destroying native species, trees being felled to plant soybeans, or mountaintops being scraped off to obtain coal for burning seems to involve a reduction in diversity that is irreversible.
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    In my very humble opinion, " Environmental Damage " is whatever the " Eco Fascists " want it to be, thus allowing them to raise taxes, in whatever manner they please.
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  16. #15  
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    Indeed, to misquote Churchill, your opinion has much to be humble about.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bunbury
    Indeed, to misquote Churchill, your opinion has much to be humble about.
    Thank you kind sir.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Does anyone want to have a go at giving a reasonable definition of 'environmental damage'?
    Lasting diminution of capability to perform as desired or deliver value as prior.
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  19. #18  
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    iceaura

    Interesting definition, and I see much merit in it. It is potentially very humano-centric. This 'capability to perform' or 'value' needs to be expanded.

    Can you elaborate?
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    I think if you are going to go for a strict definition, then it'd have to be very human-centered in nature. So, when a natural resource of aesthetic, economic or scientific value to humans is damaged or destroyed then you could call it environmental damage. The greening of a desert could perhaps be viewed as environmental damage; but desert is of no value (for the sake of argument since I personally find deserts fascinating). Desertification and the loss of valuable farming land would be seen as damage, rather than as the creation of a new desert ecosystem to be treasured.
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwirko
    Desertification and the loss of valuable farming land would be seen as damage, rather than as the creation of a new desert ecosystem to be treasured.
    The farmer whose land has become desert might have a difficult time treasuring the the new ecosystem. Aesthetic, economic and scientific values are often at odds. How would you rank them? I suggest that maintaining status quo has some value.
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    To use the name damage it implies negative effect.
    On another hand we are part of nature and the product of evolution.
    How do we know that so called ‘damage’ will not be beneficial to evolution and natural selection? In the end of the day it is created by the same nature i.e. us.
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    Well if climate change causes the poles to melt and raise the level of the ocean by just 30 feet, that could be viewed as man made environmental damage that won't be cleared up anytime soon. Then all those people forced to relocate are going to cause more environmental damage. In some parts of the world I'm sure war will break out and cause more damage while using scarce resources. I'd guess we would have a whole cascade of different damages happening over many decades.
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  24. #23  
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    Is a simple rise in sea level environmental damage?

    After all, there have been major periods in the Earth's geological history when there was no ice cap and sea levels were 100 metres higher than today. Yet life was thriving.
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  25. #24  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Is a simple rise in sea level environmental damage?

    After all, there have been major periods in the Earth's geological history when there was no ice cap and sea levels were 100 metres higher than today. Yet life was thriving.
    Do you mean under water life? Anyway I'm sure this world's life will make a few more comebacks after humans are gone and the winners of those comebacks will consider themselves lucky if they have enough intelligence to care.

    From the point of view of people living by the coast the environmental damage is obvious. Anyway I don't suppose you consider disrupting the lives of about a third of the worlds human population to be environmental damage? How about all the coral reefs that will die because they can't live at the greater depth?
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  26. #25  
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    To LW

    I return to my query.

    Is mere change to the environment the same as environmental damage?

    Your comment about drowning coral reefs.
    This has also happened before. Researchers diving off Australia's Great Barrier Reef bring up samples from 60 metres deep, of dead coral, that carbon dates back to 10,000 years ago. These were coral species that can live only in shallow water. The sea level rose and drowned an entire reef system. A new reef system developed and replaced it. The Great Barrier Reef.

    Today there is a lot of worry about sea level rises and the swamping of coral atolls. Yet research also shows that the fringing coral reefs are growing sufficiently fast to keep up with the rising sea level. After all, 2 to 3 mm per year is not actually a lot. Previous incidents have involved much faster rises in sea level.

    The rising seas will cause great change. River systems will be invaded, and create vast new estuaries. Old coral will die and be replaced by new. Coastal cities will have to spend trillions to build giant sea dykes.

    The human cost is obvious, but does this change mean environmental damage, or is it a mere ecological change?
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  27. #26  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    The human cost is obvious, but does this change mean environmental damage, or is it a mere ecological change?
    I think environmental damage is only relevant in context of the current life being affected by it. After that it can be considered ecological change, because as long as a biosphere exist it will make adjustments and come to a new equilibrium and life will evolve to fill in all available niches.
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  28. #27  
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    The gulf in timelines is very wide in this thread.

    One one hand we have the view that environmental damage is that which happens so fast that we loose biodiversity for an ecosystem or the entire ecosystem dissapears. At the global level this would lead to a mass extinction event--which many scientist already believe is not only possible but likely given humans current rate of geographic expansion and unsustainable economies.

    On the other is the possibility that this same damage will create opportunities for others to evolve. That would take millions of years.
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  29. #28  
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    Relevant to the OP question, this film, Manufactured Landscapes, which I just finished watching, provides much food for thought without preaching. I recommend it. It's available through Netflix.

    http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/film.p...uredlandscapes
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    If you remove the bacteria and virus that cause human diseases from the environment, arent you damaging the environement and reducing biodiversity?
    The same when we plant crops.

    I dont mind calling environmental change damage, as long as it doesnt serve a functional purpose that is more beneficial to us than the greater disturbances it provokes. Pollution is not a benefit, so we should avoid methods that create pollution when other methods exist.

    We have to remember though that we have evolved to adapt to recent condition, and its better to avoid needlessly changing the environment.

    Its incorrect to assume that all is immuable and nature always heals itself, some time ago the earth's atmosphere was deadly to humans, it changed completely, there is no evidence that it is "impossible" for the environment to change to one that humans(and many organisms we know now) cannot live in. If bacterias and various invertebrate can adapt to an alternate environment its no consolation. I also think that there was a time period where massive clouds of toxic gas emanated from the oceans. Also, unlikely as it may be, theres no garantee that a large asteroid will not hit the earth in the next decades, and we as a sentient race are aware of this possibility but take very little steps to take cautionary measures, aliens looking down on us could very well conclude that there is no intelligent life on earth.
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  31. #30  
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    Sandra

    That is a quote only.
    Not a contribution to this thread.
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  32. #31  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Sandra

    That is a quote only.
    Not a contribution to this thread.
    It did contribute something... Spam. Reported.
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  33. #32  
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    Looks like, and could be target spam, which is happening more and more.

    If not Sandra please respond.

    Will monitor.
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  34. #33 Re: What is environmental damage? 
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    I am often bemused by claims that people are harming the environment, when often we do not know exactly what we mean by harm. Often what humans are doing is changing the environment, and this is called harm. But is it reasonable to call mere change as harm? What of changes that are more insults to our idea of beauty?

    Some examples to feed ideas.

    1. Elephants have been damaging the environment in Africa for long enough that this damage fuels evolution. Acacia trees dominate much of Africa, and elephants have the charming habit of pushing over any Acacia tree they encounter, in order to eat the top leaves. This prevents forest forming, and stabilises the immense grasslands. The result has been the evolution of an amazing ecosystem depending on African grasses. Without the elephant pushing over trees we would not have giraffes, antelopes etc. Is the elephant an environmental vandal or an environmental saviour?

    2. Damage may increase biodiversity and biological productivity. Alpine lakes are very beautiful, with crystal clear blue waters, but in terms of life are essentially the equivalent of deserts. If we pollute those waters with nutrients, such as farm run-off, we end up with a lake that is green and diverse, and a biomass that is enormous. Is this increase in biodiversity and biological productivity an example of environmental damage, or just aesthetic damage?

    3. Pollution may have interesting effects. Australian naturalist, Tim Lowe, in his book "The New Nature" tells an interesting example. In the build up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, many sites were investigated to build Olympic venues. One site was a polluted pond. It was considered that this site would be great for development, since it could only improve the environment by removing a polluted eyesore. In fact, they discovered in that pond, the largest ever population of an endangered bell frog. It seems that this frog species was dying out due to infection by the chytrid fungus, and the pollution in this pond selectively killed off the fungus, allowing the frog to thrive. So is pollution always an environmental detrement?

    The question of how we define environmental damage is clearly not simple. Any ideas?
    For me, to better understand this, I just categorized it as negative and positive. Maybe the term doesn’t apply 'coz when you say "harm" it automatically means bad or damaging - it's no longer useful at some point. So with your examples above, I believe that "pollution" should be categorized like "natural" and "man-made" pollution. As you can see, most man-made pollution are those that really triggers negative effect on our environment and on earth as a whole.
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    thanks for good post!)
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    It seems to me that there are misconceptions at work in some of the posts in this thread. Many of the definitions are redefined by the expansions of the original definitions. Environmental damage is when an area of outlined ecological characteristics is affected in a manner which degrades functionality of the previously outlined ecological characteristics.

    There is nothing within those parameters, other than degree, which negates the ability for the environment to recover and possibly adapt. Environmental damage that completely eliminates capability for recovery is generally referred to as irreparable environmental damage, and can be considered the highest degree of environmental damage.

    Nor is there anything within those parameters delineating causation. The reference to human-induced effects adds a context to the meaning of the sort of damage inflicted, but does not change the original definition. It only narrows the parameters of damage being considered.

    Similarly, narrowing the parameters of the outlined ecological characteristics to more subjective categories, such as aesthetics, does not change the definition.

    All environmental damage is harmful by definition, to one degree or another. Therein lay the trickiest parts of conservation. With so much to be learned in ecology, the outcome of various effects on various environmental characteristics can be uncertain in many cases. The struggle to decrease our own environmental effects until more is known of the plausible outcome adds all the more urgency as greater effects are discovered.
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  37. #36  
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    Quote Originally Posted by figminternal
    Environmental damage is when an area of outlined ecological characteristics is affected in a manner which degrades functionality of the previously outlined ecological characteristics.
    Reasonable!

    That does mean that ecological succession is environmental damage... "harmful" and inviting conservation, as you say.

    Well, not long ago the place where I'm sitting was covered in ice sheet. Certain tree species moved in, but as these trees can live a thousand years the evolution of our forests has been slow. Should we try to preserve these immature forests at the particular state of development we find them in? It's a pressing question because plants and animals from other parts continue to colonize and disrupt. And thanks to globalization I guess that over the next century every species on Earth will have had a go at it.

    Given that exposure to potentially harmful species is inevitable, I wonder if a pre-emptive "recipe" of introductions could help protect the main characteristics though surely sacrificing some.
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  38. #37  
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    Environmental damage is when an area of outlined ecological characteristics is affected in a manner which degrades functionality of the previously outlined ecological characteristics.
    Like this picture of a Kansas wheat field I took last year? And thus the dilemma we all face, the wheat growing on the left side of the field is essential for humans to eat but catastrophic for the natural environment which started as a meadow as on the right.

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    Every animal changes the environment they live in. Humans more than most. But that is a quantitative difference, not qualitative.

    Elephants create the African savannah, and that has led to the evolution of a fantastic and wonderful ecosystem.

    I suspect that humans are dramatically influencing evolution as well, even though the process is too slow to see. One place this may have happened is Australia. The local people there have been living their way of life for at least 50,000 years - enough to drive evolution of plants and animals. It is noteworthy that many of the plants there are pyrophytes. That is : they use fire to assist reproduction, and they have adaptations to encourage fire. Is this related to the fact that the aboriginals have been 'mosaic burning' the landscape for 50,000 years?

    Will the time come in the future when the ecologists of the day wonder at the marvellous way life has evolved to adapt to the ecological niches produced by Homo sapiens?
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Every animal changes the environment they live in. Humans more than most. But that is a quantitative difference, not qualitative.
    It's quite quantifiable as the picture shows. Hundreds of native species replaced by a few crop species and the few rodents and pest species that live on that homogeneous unsustainable ecosystem.

    --
    Will the time come in the future when the ecologists of the day wonder at the marvellous way life has evolved to adapt to the ecological niches produced by Homo sapiens?
    It will almost certainly be much less diverse. Replacement be "marvellous" new species is uncertain and takes tens of millions of years. We'll be homo something else by then.
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    Speciation can take a lot less time than that. There are research results that show change much more quickly. eg. a chichlid that changes in 100 years.
    : http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/8/60

    and very rapid lizard evolution
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/n...evolution.html
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  42. #41  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Every animal changes the environment they live in.
    Every species you mean. Some plants excel at strangling or literally poisoning their competition, by acidifying the soil for example.

    These changes will accelerate as every species of every continent enjoys opportunities to run rampant in every part of the Earth. I guess that over time a persistent, worldwide sort of melting pot ecology will establish, so that around London you will see the same mix of roadside plants as in Moscow, Tokyo, or Cape Town. Kinda like how international airports all look the same... and for the same reason.

    Any predictions on this global climax ecology's composition? I would nominate raccoons and also peacocks believe it or not. Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom could fit in too.

    Must the climax resolve one way or could different orders of introductions lock-out certain outcomes?

    Has anybody tried global climax in experimental farm? By simply seeding and inoculating with *everything*, I mean.
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  43. #42  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Lynx

    Speciation can take a lot less time than that. There are research results that show change much more quickly. eg. a chichlid that changes in 100 years.
    : http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/8/60

    and very rapid lizard evolution
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/n...evolution.html
    Which is nothing compared to the whole sale replacement that's been experienced after past mass extinctions similar in magnitude to the one it appears humans are about to create and for which it took tens of millions of years and longer to accomplish replacement.
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  44. #43  
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    Actually Lynx, it is difficult to know the speed at which evolution replaced occupiers of specific ecological niches in previous great extinction events. Obviously it took time to replace the giant dinosaurs with giant mammals, but the major part of the process was involving smaller organisms. How long a new and fully viable ecosystem took, we do not know.
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    IPCC predicted Caspian Sea level would rise in 1995, instead said level has fallen 20 cm. by 2010, one wonders what other inaccurate forecasts they are making...

    Environment is ALWAYS changing, therefore nothing more futile and UNNATURAL than to try to "freeze" it at particular point in planetary development.

    Smarter to make new environment from scratch, in space. 8)
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  46. #45  
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Finger Prince
    IPCC predicted Caspian Sea level would rise in 1995, instead said level has fallen 20 cm. by 2010, one wonders what other inaccurate forecasts they are making...
    Do you mean a prediction IPCC made in 1995? If you want a serious discussion post the source of the report so we can look at the underlying studies, their assumptions and how it's starting to look 15-20 years later. (Most IPCC are reports are based on 3-5 year old info. Twenty years is about the minimum period to start to see climate trends.)
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    Quote Originally Posted by figminternal
    Environmental damage is when an area of outlined ecological characteristics is affected in a manner which degrades functionality of the previously outlined ecological characteristics.
    Reasonable!

    That does mean that ecological succession is environmental damage... "harmful" and inviting conservation, as you say.

    Well, not long ago the place where I'm sitting was covered in ice sheet. Certain tree species moved in, but as these trees can live a thousand years the evolution of our forests has been slow. Should we try to preserve these immature forests at the particular state of development we find them in? It's a pressing question because plants and animals from other parts continue to colonize and disrupt. And thanks to globalization I guess that over the next century every species on Earth will have had a go at it.

    Given that exposure to potentially harmful species is inevitable, I wonder if a pre-emptive "recipe" of introductions could help protect the main characteristics though surely sacrificing some.
    Actually, no, I never said ecological succession is environmental damage, nor did I say that it is harmful, nor did I say that it is inviting conservation. However, as you yourself have illustrated, ecological succession could be looked at as damaging and harmful, but only if one were to define ecological characteristics in such a way as to ignore the implications of the concept of ecological succession, which would be illogical. Ecological succession is a known cycle or progression in which it is known that stability is enhanced. To define ecological characteristics of an area in a manner which intentionally excludes stability as a characteristic to be considered only in an attempt to prove that a mechanism leading to enhanced stability is harmful is paradoxical.
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