To have biological integrity is to have “the capability of supporting and maintaining a balanced, integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region.”
Sounds great, right? But who determines what balanced means? And we depend on science to tell us whether the organisms have a functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region, but are we saying science has ALL the answers? That it knows all the intricate workings of the billions or trillions of relationships at play in any biotic community? We are not comfortable with this definition. Given the incredibly depleted state of most of the world today, there may be no places left with biological integrity. And given the transformation and decimation of most life communities, whatever biological integrity exists in the future will surely have a different composition than those of today or of the past.
But if you really think about it, for an activity to be sustainable, preservation of local and global biological integrity is essential.
So, since no human alive today will be able to experience vast areas of the globe in a state of biological integrity, we’ve come up with a new definition for sustainable:
Living in a manner that does not disrupt the trend of natural evolutionary processes toward increasing biodiversity, soil building, and reproductive capacity for nearly all members of the existing local biotic communities and all the neighboring ones.
In our region, the closest you can find to biological integrity is on certain steep slopes–particularly the north ones where diversity is much richer. These are often tiny remnants of not-so-distant life communities, as are some slivers of riparian forest that were not demolished for cropping and orchards. These are areas that used to teem with life and still support more than anywhere else. And since life is primary, wouldn’t it be great to have vast areas of land teeming with life again?
Some may argue that agriculture, done right, can be teeming with life. We agree, but the examples of it done right are nearly non-existent, especially if it is an economic enterprise. And even if done right, cultivation agriculture nearly always results in fewer species than a truly wild land in the same region.
Our analysis is that the populations of the majority of native plants and animals across most of California are between zero and ten percent of what they were just 250 years ago. For most lowland riparian communities, the average is about one percent. In this fragmented and depleted state, leaving a few acres, or even a few thousand acres, of oak savanna untended (rested, fallow) might just result in a decline in integrity and diversity, perhaps even sliding into desertification (see below). It all depends on the soils, local climate, corridors for wildlife, and quantities of native plants and animals regionally present when the “preservation” begins. In general, the natural water cycle is so damaged in most locales that it would require the dismantling of California’s engineered water infrastructure to reverse the trend toward desertification. Plus, there just aren’t enough wild grazers and browsers (and their predators) stimulating maximum photosynthesis, or migrating birds spreading guano to begin the often slow process of building soil and improving water and nutrient cycles. And with the net loss of millions of acres of trees, maximum photosynthesis is also a longshot.
That is why, in some instances, cultivation agriculture might be a wise transition toward biological integrity. Where the land really is nothing like its former self, a well-managed human-scale farm that uses only an amount of water for irrigation that does not deplete the surface or groundwater could be a huge step forward for biodiversity (defined below), a significant component of biological integrity. And if the stewards manage in a way that emphasizes native plant and animal recovery and mimics, as best as possible, the natural community dynamics of the pre-Euro-American landscape, it seems possible that a balanced, integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region becomes a real possibility. Biological integrity. A place that feels right when you see it.
While this term seems straightforward enough, it does imply more than just the number of different species in a given place. Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life. This can refer to genetic variation, species variation, or ecosystem variation within an area, bioregion, or the planet. Biodiversity is the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Aside from the long transition from dense forest to peat bogs that occurs where the forests receive sufficient precipitation and experience no widespread high-severity wildfires, it appears that biodiversity increases with evolution. Certainly that is the trend globally.
It was once widely believed that when large numbers of species coexist, their life cycles and food webs lock together in a way that makes the ecosystem more robust. This diversity-stability hypothesis has given away during the past 20 years to a reversed cause-and-effect scenario that might be called the diversity-stability hypothesis: fragile superstructures build up when the environment remains stable enough to support their evolution during long periods of time. Biologists now know that biotas, like houses of cards, can be brought tumbling down by relatively small perturbations in the physical environment. They are not robust at all. – E.O. Wilson, Threats to Biodiversity article in Scientific American, Sept. 1989
Unfortunately, biodiversity plummets with the impact of agricultural human societies. Evolutionarily, agriculture and urbanization are disasters, similar to the other causes of the previous mass extinctions (see below). They both literally destroy biodiversity and biological integrity, the very foundation of our existence. The period since the emergence of humans has displayed an ongoing biodiversity reduction and an accompanying loss of genetic diversity, both greatly accelerated starting about 10,000 years ago when agriculture was invented, and hyper-accelerated with the advent of industrialization. And it is still getting worse. Losses in biodiversity have been more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history and are expected to continue at the same pace or even to accelerate.[i] An example that demonstrates this acceleration:
Virtually all of Earth’s ecosystems have now been dramatically transformed through human actions. More land was converted to cropland in the 30 years after 1950 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850. Between 1960 and 2000, reservoir storage capacity quadrupled and, as a result, the amount of water stored behind large dams is estimated to be three to six times the amount held by rivers. – Green Facts
The Elder Creek watershed, while still having some remnants of foothill life communities not as depleted as the valley floor, is no exception to this crisis situation. For some historical background, please see Elder Creek in our Regional History section. Most people living in this watershed know the creek doesn’t flow like it used to, and already suffer from wells that draw-down every summer. But the transition from perennial to seasonal creek is a greater long-term threat for all life here:
In regional assessments, taxonomic groups with the highest proportion of threatened species tended to be those that rely on freshwater habitats. – Green Facts
Across the globe, water is disappearing, and with it goes the millions of years of complex evolutionary dynamics between trillions of organisms and thousands of species. There goes the life that created us and sustains us. Here comes the desert.
Desertification has been defined many ways, so for clarity, here is the definition we use: Desertification is a type of land degradation in which arid or semi-arid (also called brittle) lands becomes increasingly arid, typically losing their bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife. It is non-natural desert becoming desert. It can happen very slowly or very rapidly.
A loss of natural vegetation, a loss in soil organic matter and a loss of soil stability contribute greatly to desertification. Studies of arid and semi-arid ecosystems (like ours) indicate that the native life communities are uniquely adapted to the local climate, and when they are disturbed or destroyed, the lands move toward desertification. These ecosystems are rich in biodiversity and have distinctive associations of plants and animals when stable.
Thus a certain suite of species will represent the biodiversity of a wild area in a given environment, while a different suite of species will represent a human managed area in the same environment. Degradation is usually accompanied by the loss of biodiversity in either environment. Therefore, biodiversity is a good indicator of land degradation. As land degradation and desertification are closely linked, biodiversity can also serve as a good indicator of desertification. – Ranil Senanayake
In brittle lands, loss of biodiversity often leads to desertification. How long it takes varies greatly due to the vast number of factors affecting each locale. California, as a whole, has only been seriously degraded for about 200 years, yet the signs of desertification are abundant: creeks and rivers going dry, lack of native tree regeneration, millions of acres of bare ground (mostly between rows of vegetables or fruit and nut trees), greatly reduced native plant and animal populations, declining biodiversity, declining soil moisture.
Anthropogenic climate disruption, which is perhaps most influenced by the conversion of native plant and animal communities to agricultural lands, only makes this worse. The climatic models show that California–and much of the brittle world–is in for an extended drought that will persist for several generations.
The Current Mass Extinction
One of the worst ongoing crises devastatingly under-reported by most of mainstream media is the current mass extinction. This crisis is a result of the same unsustainable agricultural, mining, fishing and land use practices–including urbanization–that humans have been using for 10,000 years. Here are the current numbers from the 2012 Red List: 41% of amphibians, 25% of mammals, 13% of birds, 30% of conifers, 20% of all plants threatened with extinction (IUCN–2012).
And the oceans?
Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University, said: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.” – The Guardian
Of course this crisis cannot be separated from the crises in biological integrity, biodiversity and desertification. They all go together and not addressing them as a whole is a very likely a recipe for a kind of disaster humans have never before endured.
Taking a really long view, life is all about creating more life. When big perturbations in the past led to the five known previous mass extinctions, there was a natural response: a flourishing of new life forms. In no way does taking this long view alleviate our responsibility to the life that is here now, since humans are driving this sixth mass extinction, and the toxins of industrial society will persist for centuries in some cases, probably delaying the post-extinction rebirth. The long periods of stability that led to the mature and fragile communities–the remnants of which we call “old growth”– makes them more susceptible to lose the most species in a mass extinction. So perhaps the near future, due to the speed of climate change, will see the end of all currently remaining old growth communities no matter how hard we work to save them. It probably is too late. Which species will likely make it through this current mass extinction? Those that are most robust and resilient, those that need fewer companions of other species. That is our guess. And most of them are called “invasives.” Complex native life communities are our best hope for increasing biological integrity, biodiversity and restoration of nutrient and water cycles, though a few invasives may end up playing a critical role in getting there. The longer we ignore the causes for the proliferation of invasives, the slimmer our chances to reduce them become. We need to work with invasives, understand their functions, and focus on restoring soil and water cycles toward maximum function. Without these fundamental processes, stopping the mass extinction is impossible.
So we are here, sharing our perspectives and doing our humble work, and promoting a transition to de-industrialization. The stakes are too high to ask for anything less. Our moral imperative, based on love of life in all its glorious forms, keeps us going in spite of the tremendous odds against us. De-industrialization. Will it be embraced before it is too late for most life on earth? Not likely. But what is the harm in saying it, in pursuing it, in asking for it? Please join us in spreading the word. Join us in working for The Land, for life, not against her*.
For more on the topic of biodiversity, please see UN: Accelerating Biodiversity Loss a ‘Fundamental Threat’ to the ‘Survival of Humankind’
* This is not the word we usually use about land, but since that word is not English, this is the next best one to use. To us, land and life are interchangeable words and neither should be called an “it.”