Does the environment need us or will it be better without us?

Opinion Piece by Sean Altern, NCC Consultant
28 July 2020

Would it be better for the environment if we as humans disappeared or took a step back? In some ways yes; and this seems to be an active school of thought as we see smog clear under a global lockdown. The reality is however that we have modified our world so much that we are now an integral part of the new system; perhaps the cause of many problems, but also the cure and as such continual environmental involvement including species control is desperately needed.

Consider the Cape Peninsula: If human beings suddenly vanished the mountains would soon be covered in invasive alien plants resulting in a monoculture or ‘green desert’ comprising ecologically damaging species such as Port Jackson Acacia saligna and Rooikrans Acacia cyclops. This is not only true when it comes to plants but various animals too as alien invasive species often rapidly reproduce, replace and transform areas where a myriad or finely balanced native plants and animals have evolved and adapted for thousands of years.

Our environment has largely become “modified” whether we like it or not. Very few places are truly wild or self-sustaining anymore. Ecological process’ or ‘drivers’ that help to create or maintain natural habitats such as migration routes, predator prey relationships, broad scale regenerative fires or even groundwater recharge have all been somewhat altered by humankind. For example years ago Cape Leopards roamed Table Mountain where they would play a vital role in keeping small prey numbers in check and act as a positive ecological driver or influence. Since they have been removed the predator prey balance has changed and this can have repercussions all the way down to vegetation composition.

Not only have the environments positive ecological drivers been reduced but now negative influences such as alien invasive species have entered the system. Invasive plants such as Pines, Gums and Acacias (Port Jackson) have and will continue to proliferate and cover large tracts of land unless they are directly prevented by human intervention. If not for previous control this may well be the case already! Once an invasive species has become established nature itself is unable to control it having no natural enemies or limiting factors in the foreign environment.

Much like the way the human body focus’ on maintaining essential functions when we are sick whilst our immune system attempts to eradicate and reduce infection, the natural environments vital ecological process’ or ‘drivers’ similarly need to be preserved whilst the infection (invasive species) is combatted through human control measures and management.

We as humans are both the cause of “natural” infections, but also the cure, and have to aid in the planets integral immune system. We need to assist, manage and take care of the environment by providing the necessary positive influences whilst removing the negatives influences and thereby fulfil our vital ecological balancing role in the modified world that we are in.

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