California: Taking Stock, Looking Ahead

by Erika Zavaleta

This guest post is published to coincide with the Ecological Society of America conference in Baltimore, MD. Come back for a new post every day through the end of the conference on Thursday, August 13th.

9780520278806 (1)Hal Mooney and I envisioned Ecosystems of California to tackle a simple question: what do we know about the trajectory of this globally significant region’s ecology, from the deep past into the next 100 years? To understand process and dynamism in what has long been a complex social-ecological system called for a close look at prehistory as well as scenarios for the future, and management and use as well as natural history. An ecology that includes society has roots in the peculiar way that science evolved in California from the late 19th century: rapidly, with strong integration across disciplines from geology to botany, and in the context of sweeping environmental changes that from the outset linked ecological science with conservation efforts here. A social take on ecology is not the same thing as a perspective that nature is dead. To the contrary, in the words of contributors Bernie Tershy and colleagues, it is an explicit look at the power we hold given California’s extraordinary intellectual, economic and cultural resources to “have both thriving human communities and thriving ecosystems with their full diversity of species.”

We live in exciting times. California, as the rest of the world, faces accelerating change on every front. The perspectives of many contributors to our book converged on climate change, invasive species, and continued land cover change as particularly acute challenges to the region. The happy news is that much of this ongoing change is also for good: leaving behind the long legacy of DDT and the nadir of our state’s air and water quality, discovering new restoration tools and conservation partnerships, innovating policy responses to climate change, recovering long-lost species, forging sustainable paths in forestry and fisheries management. With each passing year, any future possible becomes the one we have chosen. A crucial piece of choosing well, and realizing that vision, is to understand the dynamics and history of our ecological heritage and to embrace our roles in it.

Erika Zavaleta is Professor of Environmental Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research bridges ecological theory with conservation and management practice. She received the 2008 Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America and has published in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.