By Brandon Fey, Staff Writer
Geography and Environmental Science Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland gave a guest lecture at Gettysburg College on Tuesday. His lecture was entitled “Making a Better Future in the Age of Humans” and was about the potential for humans to positively impact the global environment in the modern age of humanity.
Ellis began his lecture by explaining that we currently live in a geological age known as the Anthropocene, characterized by human mastery of the world. He used a satellite image of the Earth aglow at night to depict the significant unintentional impact human activity has had on the planet.
Despite the common claim that the Anthropocene has brought with it the ongoing process of what is to be the sixth mass extinction, Ellis argued that it is instead a transformation of the planet through land use changes, with the potential for a better future.
“The Anthropocene is basically this idea that we now live in a human age of the planet, a planet defined by human transformation of just about everything,” said Ellis.
Human land use, he explained, has created the largest transformation so far, particularly deforestation, which has transformed many diverse ecosystems. Human societies have shaped ecology for thousands of years, even in what would now appear to be seemingly pristine areas.
He further mentioned that climate change is not solely caused by industrial activities, but that it has been the result of human civilization’s transformative impact on the planet throughout human history.
“The idea that people just started causing extinctions in the industrial age is incorrect,” Ellis said. “Some of the most consequential extinctions that people have contributed to occurred back when there were no agricultural societies. Hunter-gatherer societies were able to drive some of the megafauna extinct and this has had big consequences.”
The professor then remarked that this unique ability to shape the planet through socio-cultural niche construction sets humans apart from other species, and this explains why human societies have been able to transform the planet, unlike any other species. Organisms shape their environments through ecosystem engineering, which leads to ecological inheritances that affect their ability to reproduce.
Culture is also important, as organisms learn from others through social learning and rely on cultural inheritances that influence their behavior and reproduction. Social species, such as bees, have genetically determined sociality while humans have evolved “ultra sociality,” which is culturally learned and open-ended. Humans are set further apart by their unique ability to engage in non-kin subsistence exchange, which is not observed in other species.
Ellis discussed the use of non-human energy sources throughout human history, including the use of fire for cooking and the progression from biomass to harnessing abiotic fuel, as seen in nuclear energy. He spoke of the potential of using solar power as an external energy source beyond the biosphere, determining the limits of human society’s energy use through cultural capabilities rather than biological limitations.
Recent agricultural intensification and urbanization have led to a decrease in the average amount of land used per person over time, with people moving to urban and dense areas for social opportunities and food production. He highlighted that cities are fed by large-scale specialist farmers who produce a surplus for trade, rather than small-scale subsistence farming that had once been mainstream.
Another modern development, Ellis stated, is the rapid decline in population growth that is only expected to continue to lower. He argued that population growth and land use are no longer inherently connected and that conservation efforts have led areas of forest around the world to recover despite continued urban development.
Ellis believes that with instantaneous global communication, humans have unprecedented capabilities to shape a better future despite disagreements on what exactly that future should be. He mentioned the importance of recognizing the interconnectedness of the biosphere and human society, as well as the need to conserve and restore the planet for future generations.
Ellis explained, “We have the capabilities of social superpower. Imagine if ants could communicate with every other ant on the planet in real-time. We can do that. It’s amazing to think of the capabilities we have, and to imagine that we can’t use these for the better.”
However, according to Ellis, the challenges of multifunctional landscapes where human and animal needs collide, result in new conflicts such as those created by human infrastructure that intersects wild habitats. He emphasized the importance of larger-scale thinking and collaboration to address this issue, including the Half-Earth Project, which aims to conserve half of the Earth’s land and oceans.
Ellis highlighted the importance of indigenous people in conservation efforts, citing examples of their historically successful management of landscapes and biodiversity. He noted that indigenous cultures have managed to coexist with wildlife in certain areas, such as the Maasai Mara, through the traditional practices and beliefs of the native people. Such practices, like controlled burning, can help to manage forests and restore culture while promoting biodiversity.
“The idea that conservation can be done without indigenous people is very quickly being thrown out the window,” Ellis said. “Everyone realizes now that the most biodiverse places left on Earth are not the places without people, they are the places these people have utilized.”
He then reemphasized the importance of collective action toward a better future, despite uncertainty about the outcome.
Ellis concluded his presentation by saying, “Life on Earth is entangled with our societies. When we change, the rest of the Earth changes, so there’s no option to not change the Earth. The question is, can we change it in a better way? That is the better future.”