The Earth’s living conditions are changing faster than species can adapt. As a result, biodiversity loss has increased significantly in the past decades, as have the number of extinctions. Data currently suggests that human activity has ignited the Earth’s 6th mass extinction – which would be the first since dinosaurs got wiped out 66 million years ago.
These types of findings can only be made once enormous quantities of data have been collected and analyzed. Thanks to the data, scientists can show how biodiversity loss has occurred in the past, and how it’s modelled to progress in the future.
But data is just data. It doesn’t offer solutions to the biodiversity crisis or any preventive measures for the projected mass extinction. All it can do is show why/how biodiversity loss is occurring.
That being said, easy solutions to the biodiversity crisis do exist. If the data has outlined the largest contributors to the biodiversity crisis, a simple first step would be to stop those contributions immediately. But what if there’s no financial incentive or political will to do so? And what if a ‘point of no return’ has already passed, meaning that biodiversity wouldn’t be able to recover if left on its own?
In those scenarios, human intervention is required to prevent ecosystems from degrading any further. One way to make sure that human intervention will be successful is to build models that describe every single component of an ecosystem. With this type of model and a little computational power, humans would be able to guarantee the outcome of any human intervention.
Unfortunately, no such model exists. All models are simplifications of the real world, environmental models in particular due to nature’s overwhelming complexity. Additionally, this ideal model would require future data, which can only be modelled.
As such, the outcome of a human intervention is always uncertain. Sometimes, this uncertainty will be small enough to suggest that human intervention will be extremely likely to succeed. However, at other times the uncertainty may be too high, so the outcome could go either way. If human intervention is carried out nonetheless, maladaptation can occur.
A human intervention can be described as maladaptation if it attempted to improve the state of natural system, but instead ended up degrading the environment even further. In this section, we’ll take a look at a few maladaptation examples and see how an incomplete understanding of nature and uncertainty can be harmful.
Introduced Invasive Species
The population sizes of numerous species are continuously monitored to make sure they aren’t headed toward rapid extinction. Historically, extinction has been a natural and unavoidable process, and that was okay. Imbalances in the ecosystem were normal and would simply help the ecosystem find a new healthy equilibrium.
However, anthropogenic [caused by humans] extinctions aren’t natural processes, and they’re occurring so quickly that they’re threatening entire ecosystems. Nowadays, protecting endangered species isn’t just about cleaning up after ourselves, it’s also about preserving natural conditions as much as possible to make sure that ecosystems don’t collapse worldwide.
Thanks to monitoring, species are added to an endangered species list when population sizes are too low. There, they’ll benefit from special measures to help them get back on track. When numbers get too high however, entire ecosystems can imbalance – and there’s no surefire way to deal with that.
For example, in Australia, the larvae of cane beetles were ravaging sugarcane roots near the 1900s. This was a problem for Australia at the time, since it was an important sugar exporter.
In an effort to control the population size of these pests, 3000 cane toads were released in 1935. Remarkably, not only did the toads fail at controlling the beetle population, they also became an invasive species themselves. With now over a million individuals, the cane toad is responsible for the drops in population of both its predators and preys – since it’s poisonous and hungry. This caused an imbalance to the ecosystem, as many insectivores suffered from reduced portion sizes.
This is an example of maladaptation. To quickly reduce the beetle population, an invasive species was introduced. Fortunately, introducing species isn’t always a bad idea, especially if native species are being reintroduced into ecosystems that they were previously kicked out from, often due to human activity.
Wildfires are causing quite a stir at the moment, as the intensity and frequency of megafires have significantly increased in recent years. For reference, the area burnt by wildfires in the US has increased by roughly 665% from 1983-2020.
Wildfires occur when there is enough heat, sufficient fuel [trees and bushes], and a spark. The spark can be a natural event [e.g. lighting strike] or originate from human activities [e.g. grid lines falling, baby gender reveals]. With increasing global temperatures and longer periods of drought, it makes sense that stronger and longer wildfires are taking place. However, there’s another reason for the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, and it’s due to maladaptation.
Wildfires are natural events that promote new growth and help forests cleanse themselves from their dead trees. But at the time when cities decided to expand around forests, this wasn’t common knowledge [even though it was traditional knowledge]. As a result, wildfires were seen as natural disasters that only bring death and destruction, especially with cities so close to forests. So numerous countries decided to suppress wildfires as early as possible. For example, the US had an aggressive fire suppression policy in place during a good chunk of the 20th century.
Consequently, forests grew denser and filled with dead trees, which are perfect food for insects and fuel for wildfires. Alas, more food and warmer temperatures often result in even more dead trees, as insect populations boom.
Today, the warmer temperatures, longer periods of drought, and added fuel are all leading to more destruction and emissions than ever recorded. Partially due to maladaptation, megafires are now threatening to permanently alter forest ecosystems.
Deforestation is likely the oldest unsustainable practice ever developed. This isn’t a surprise, humans have always needed room to do things, and trees can get in the way. Nowadays, humans still need more room, as evidenced by the 1.78 million km2 of net forest cover lost from 1990-2020 – an area almost as large as Mexico.
Trees are essential for mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss, so preserving existing forests is a priority. However, due to past and current deforestation, it’s clear that other solutions are required. One possible solution is forestation. Forestation is the process of planting trees, either on previously or currently forested lands [i.e. reforestation or restoration], or on non-forested lands [i.e. afforestation].
Forestation is an increasingly common practice that organizations are using to offset their emissions. The concept is relatively straightforward. Since trees absorb a certain amount of carbon as they grow, all an organization needs to do is plant trees. If they can plant enough to match the amount of GHGs they emitted, they can claim to be net-zero.
Unfortunately, there are loads of problems with these types of carbon offsets [which will all be discussed in a later section]. One particular issue is that they can incentivize reckless large-scale forestation instead of carefully conducted small-scale forestation. As a result, carbon offsets can end up causing more harm than good.
One of the main problems with large-scale forestation projects is that biodiversity often gets overlooked. For example, it’s estimated that for 79% of all commitments to the Bonn Challenge [restoration/reforestation of 1.5 million km2 by 2020] through 2019, the plan is to grow monocultures – or just a few tree types that grow valuable products like rubber, vegetable oil, or fruits. This corroborates the fact that currently, 45% of planted forests worldwide are plantation forests [defined as “intensively managed forests, mainly composed of one or two tree species, native or exotic, of equal age, planted with regular spacing and mainly established for productive purposes”]. While 44% of the world’s plantation forests are made up of introduced species.
From 2000-2018, only 18% of the Bonn Challenge’s 2020 forest restoration goal was completed – in terms of increases in forest or tree cover. That’s much less than anticipated considering countries had pledged 113% of the 2020 goal.
Large-scale forestation strategies are often examples of maladaptation. They can easily aggravate biodiversity loss, especially when reaching the tree planting quota is the main priority. If monocultures and introduced species are planted, then the entire ecosystem can collapse very quickly, sometimes taking the newly planted trees with it. Avoiding these types of impacts needs to be the priority for forestation projects.
Nonetheless, forestation is an excellent initiative and many organizations are doing it well, by helping nature recover instead of forcing its hand.
Maladaptation happens when human intervention doesn’t succeed, due to an incomplete understanding of nature or uncertainty. Recognizing and communicating uncertainty is one of the most effective ways of reducing the risk of human interventions. Especially when natural areas are concerned, since we know they’re extremely complex – and we don’t even know how much we don’t know about them.
Maladaptation examples show that rushing into decisions without a full understanding of long-term consequences can be destructive. This is certainly relevant for the global energy transition that has just begun.
While renewables can and will continue to reduce emissions, there is significant uncertainty that the world can phase out fossil fuels at current levels of energy consumption. Additionally, it’s uncertain whether the critical materials needed to make renewables can be supplied in time for the energy transition to fully take flight. Lastly, it’s quite certain that the Earth’s resources are finite, which makes the long-term availability of critical materials uncertain.
To avoid maladapting to the energy crisis, countries can reduce uncertainty by developing a system in which renewables can succeed. Lower energy consumption is the foundation of this system.