A Natural History of the Future

“The way out of the depression and grief and guilt of the carbon cul-de-sac we have driven down is to contemplate the world without us. To know that the Earth, that life, will continue its evolutionary journey in all its mystery and wonder.” Ben Rawlence in The Treeline

Using what he calls the laws of biological nature, academic ecologist Rob Dunn predicts the future of life on Earth. (1)  His book is based on the premise that by 2080, climate change will require that hundreds of millions of plant and animal species—in fact, most species–will need to migrate to new regions and even new continents to survive.  In the past, conservation biologists were focused on conserving species in particular places.  Now they are focused on getting species from where they are now to where they need to go to survive.

In Dunn’s description of ecology in the future, the native plant movement is irrelevant, even an anachronism.  Instead of trying to restore native plants to places where they haven’t existed for over 100 years, we are creating wildlife corridors to bypass the obstacles humans have created that confine plants and animals to their historical ranges considered “native.” 

The past is the best predictor of the future. Therefore, Dunn starts his story with a quick review of the history of the science that has framed our understanding of ecology.  Carl Linnaeus was the first to create a widely accepted method of classifying plants and animals in the 18th century.  Ironically, he lived in Sweden, one of the places on the planet with the least plant diversity.  Colombia, near the equator, is twice the size of Sweden but has roughly 20 times the number of plant species because biodiversity is greatest where it is hot and wet.

Global Diversity of Vascular Plants. Source: Wilhelm Barthlott, et. al., “Global Centers of Vascular Plant Diversity,” Nova Acta Leopoldina, 2005

 

Humans always have paid more attention to the plants that surround us and the animals most like us.  Dunn calls this the law of anthropocentrism.  We are the center of our own human universe.  Consequently, our awareness of the population of insects that vastly outnumber us came late to our attention in the 20th century.  In the 21st century we learned that all other forms of life are outnumbered by the microbial life of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that preceded us by many millions of years.  Our knowledge of that vast realm of life remains limited although it is far more important to the future of the planet than we realize because those forms of life will outlast our species and many others like us.

Tropical regions are expanding into temperate regions

The diversity and abundance of life in hot and wet tropical climates give us important clues about the future of our warming climate.  We tend to think of diversity as a positive feature of ecosystems, but we should not overlook that tropical regions are also the home of many diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, zika, and yellow fever that are carried by insects that prey on animal hosts, including humans.  In the past, the range of these disease-carrying insects was restricted to tropical regions, but the warming climate will enable them to move into temperate regions as they warm. The warming climate will also enable the movement of insects that are predators of our crops and our forests into temperate regions.  For example, over 180 million native conifers in California have been killed in the past 10 years by a combination of drought and native bark beetles that were killed during cold winters in the past, but no longer are.  Ticks are plaguing wild animals and spreading disease to humans in the Northeast where they did not live in the cooler past. 

Human populations are densest in temperate regions“The ‘ideal’ average annual temperature for ancient human populations, at least from the perspective of density, appears to have been about 55.4⁰F, roughly the mean annual temperature of San Francisco…” (1) This is where humans are most comfortable, free of tropical diseases, and where our food crops grow best.  As tropical regions expand into temperate regions, humans will experience these issues or they will migrate to cooler climates if they can.

Our ability to cope with the warming climate is greatly complicated by the extreme variability of the climate that is an equally important feature of climate change.  It’s not just a question of staying cool.  We must also be prepared for episodic extreme cold and floods alternating with droughts. Animals stressed by warmer temperatures are more easily wiped out by the whiplash of sudden floods or drought.

Diversity results in resiliency

Diversity can be insurance against such variability.  If one type of crop is vulnerable to an insect predator, but another is not, growing both crops simultaneously increases resiliency.  That principle applies equally to crops that are sensitive to heat, cold, drought, or floods. 

Agricultural biodiversity. Source: Number of harvested crops per hectar combining 175 different crops. Source: Monfreda et al. 2008. “Farming the planet: Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000”. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Vol. 22.

Historically, cultures that grew diverse crops were less likely to experience famine than those that cultivated monocultures.  The Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century is a case in point.  The Irish were dependent upon potatoes partly because other crops were exported to Britain by land owners. When the potato crop was killed by blight, more than one million people died in Ireland and another million left Ireland.  The population dropped about 20-25% due to death and emigration.  The diversity of crops in the United States (where corn is the commodity crop) and Brazil (where soy is the commodity crop) is very low, compared to other countries.  This lack of diversity makes us more vulnerable to crop failure and famine, particularly in an unpredictable climate.

Change in total use of herbicides, antibiotics, transgenic pesticide producing crops, glyphosate, and insecticides globally since 1990. Source: A Natural History of the Future

Instead of increasing crop diversity, we have elected to conduct chemical warfare on the predators of our crops by using biocides, such as pesticides for agricultural weeds and insects and antibiotics for domesticated animals.  The scale of our chemical warfare has increased in response to growing threats to our food supply.  This is a losing strategy because as we increase the use of biocides we accelerate evolution that creates resistance to our biocides. We are breeding superweeds, insects, and bacteria that cannot be killed by our chemicals.  This strategy is ultimately a dead end.

Evolution determines winners and losers

Inevitably, evolution will separate the survivors of climate change from its victims. Dunn reminds us that “The average longevity of animal species appears to be around two million years…” for extinct taxonomic groups that have been studied.  In the short run, Dunn bets on the animals that are most adaptable, just as Darwin did 160 years ago.  The animals most capable of inventing new strategies to cope with change and unpredictability will be more capable of surviving.  In the bird world, that’s corvids (crows, ravens, jays, etc.) and parrots.  In the animal world that’s humans and coyotes.  We aren’t helping adaptable animals survive because we are killing abundant animals based on a belief it will benefit rare animals.  Even in our urban setting, the East Bay Regional Park District contracts Federal Wildlife Services to kill animals it considers “over-abundant,” including gulls, coyotes, free-roaming cats, non-native foxes, and other urban wildlife throughout the Park District.  We are betting on evolutionary losers.

 

If and when humans create the conditions that cause our extinction, many of our predators are likely to disappear with us.  Bed bugs and thousands of other human parasites are unlikely to survive without us.  Many domestic animals will go extinct too, including our dogs.  On the bright side, Dunn predicts that cats and goats are capable of surviving without us.             

Timeline of the evolution of life. Source: CK-12 Foundation

However, in the long run Dunn bets on microbial life to outlast humans and the plants and animals with which we have shared Earth.  Humans are late to the game, having evolved from earlier hominoids only 300,000 years ago, or so.  The plants and animals that would be recognizable to us preceded us by some 500 million years, or so.  But microbial life that is largely invisible to us goes back much further in time and will undoubtedly outlast us.  Dunn says microbial life will give a big, metaphorical sigh of relief to see us gone and our environmental pollutants with us.  Then microbial life will begin again the long process of rebuilding more complex life with their genetic building blocks and the tools of evolution. 

Some may consider it a sad story.  I consider it a hopeful story, because it tells me that no matter what we do to our planet, we cannot kill it.  For the moment, it seems clear that even if we are not capable of saving ourselves at least we can’t kill all life on Earth.  New life will evolve, but its features are unfathomable because evolution moves only forward, not back and it does not necessarily repeat itself. 


  1. A Natural History of the Future, Rob Dunn, Basic Books, 2021

11 thoughts on “A Natural History of the Future”

  1. We will invent any world view to suit our convenience, won’t we? I will keep growing my native plants, and adding those from southern migration routes, because I know that supports the most array of life…I see the return of birds and butterflies with the improvement of their habitat (bearing in mind that this may be a correlation, and they may be coming because the environmental degradation elsewhere is happening rapidly). This is not just for those animals…it is how I live with myself as a member of a race that shoves everything away that is the least bit inconvenient. It beats committing suicide, as that is the next step after not producing offspring in a world locked into utterly artificial constructs…and ideas.

    I turn on my outdoor lights (an invention that turns evolution in a day and night ecology on its head) a few times a year, and track the increasing diversity of moths and other insects. Yes, the microbes WILL be the winners…our shoddy and pathetic opportunity to act as one species against a mortal threat makes THAT abundantly clear.

    1. Once again, I will provide one of many studies that contradict your belief about the preference of insects for native plants. This article was published by “American Butterfly,” the magazine of the North American Butterfly Association: http://nababutterfly.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Tropical-Milkweed.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2o5cA59H0iSc1btkwH-gUTVEuBQg08RHnZwd7eCHgR3wB1uLIizIKnc4M This is an excerpt from the study:

      “Recently, a number of people involved with Monarch research and conservation published opinion pieces in which they claimed that people who were planting Tropical Milkweeds might be harming Monarchs. Predictably, many media outlets picked up on this story. If people believe these headlines and the statements of Lincoln Brower and others, that planting Tropical Milkweeds anywhere. This would be a shame, because there is little evidence to support the idea that planting Tropical Milkweeds will weaken Monarch populations and NO evidence to support the idea that Tropical Milkweeds are “trapping” Monarchs and stopping them from migrating to Mexico…
      “In conclusion. The answer to the question “Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?” is yes, and that those who have claimed, as a fact, that planting Tropical Milkweeds harms Monarchs, may have themselves harmed Monarchs by discouraging people from becoming involved and from creating more habitat for Monarchs.”

      I repeat that I have no objection to people planting native plants if that’s what they prefer. My only objection is to the pointless destruction of non-native plants that are useful to wildlife. Even that objection is not the point of this blog. The point is that non-native plants are being killed with herbicides that are harmful to every living thing in the environment…the soil, the plants, the insects, the birds, humans applying the herbicide, children eating berries that have been sprayed, etc..

      You are under the mistaken impression that you are serving nature with your preference. If you are using herbicides to kill non-native plants you are not serving nature. You are damaging it.

      1. You are under the mistaken notion that you know it all…you don’t and neither do I. Attempting to prove your premise based on “one” butterfly and one plant makes me really question what the agenda is here. I simply want to know, and do much work in the field. I have watched ecologies change, for better, and for worse. I felt the need to say why I do what I do. And you needed to attack. Mmm hmm.

        1. Who is attacking whom? I don’t “know everything,” nor do I make such a claim. I am providing scientific sources of information, not my opinion. You are not providing information other than your opinion.

          Monarchs are only one of many butterfly species that use non-native plants and some species are now dependent on non-native plants. Here’s an excerpt from Arthur Shapiro’s (Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution, UC Davis) Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions:
          “California butterflies, for better or worse are heavily invested in the anthropic landscape [altered by humans]. About a third of all California butterfly species have been recorded either ovipositing [laying eggs] or feeding on nonnative plants. Roughly half of the Central Valley and inland Bay Area fauna is now using nonnative host plants heavily or even exclusively. Our urban and suburban multivoltine [multiple generations in one year] butterfly fauna is basically dependent on ‘weeds.’ We have one species, the Gulf Fritillary that can exist here only on introduced hosts. Perhaps the commonest urban butterfly in San Francisco and the East Bay, the Red Admiral is overwhelmingly dependent on an exotic host, pellitory. And that’s the way it is.”

          1. Thanks, but I have read the science, and will rely on the meticulous comparison of insect life comparisons Dr. Tallamy and his team make. Because the first thing I see on this blog is an unfair attempt to paint people who care about both their garden AND ecology as some kind of absolutists…we are not. We generally oppose invasive non-native plants, but that leaves a whole range of other plants such as food plants. Why the demonization?

            I don’t think the answer is to bulldoze an existing garden of non-natives, because I read the science, and exotic plants don’t serve zero function) and recommend making a gradual transition for the existing organisms to survive and complete their life cycles.

            You are hell-bent on making promoters of native ecology into absolutists…we are not, and it is wrong to stereotype. The science has changed much since I got interested in native plants…it used to be ok if they were North American native plants. Tallamy, at least publishes peer reviewed science, under his own name..anyone can look it up, or go to You Tube and hear what he has to say.

            I would like to know more about you and your past…why you feel the need to debunk some of the most elegant and solid ecological “systems” science in a long time. Science is inconvenient…like the climate science. It does not care what your opinion is. Yup, it will be unpopular with just about every horticulturalist. Heck it was unpopular with me, an ex-ornamental garden designer…because he confirmed things I had been observing for a long time. So pony up, I would love to see your original research and know who you are. Because I wonder if you are a plant hybridizer or nursery owner. I am just trying to figure out from what angle you are coming from.

            I can see how this would be very threatening to anyone making money off manufactured plants, and that grieves me deeply. I used to think going to a nursery and filling up the car with chartreuse and purple leaved plants was like Christmas. But I ended up bringing home new forms of animals. Pretty sure I am why the viburnums all around me are dying because I had a tendency to buy the plants that were struggling at the back of the store. I can’t laugh about that. This is a big and thorny issue. There are no simple answers. We need to know how to grow native plants to steward them in ways that they can move with the climate as well. It is a form of technology we do not have…and the complex soil science that makes them difficult to grow is also poorly understood. So maybe lighten up a bit?

          2. I have no economic interest in this issue. In fact, my study of invasion biology is a costly hobby. I have bought hundreds of books and studies. I have attended many costly conferences that promote nativism. I have taken classes and interviewed academic scientists. I do not do “original research.” I study original research and make it available to my readers.

            My interest in the issue began 25 years ago when my local public parks began to be destroyed by nativism that is eradicating non-native trees and spraying harmless vegetation with herbicides. Thriving ecosystems have been turned into barren, poisoned wastelands. Here’s a local example from another website that has followed that particular destructive project for 15 years: https://sutroforest.com/

            Unlike Doug Tallamy, I don’t publish books or give presentations for hire. He is a popular speaker for a hefty speaker’s fee. Yes, I do critique his studies because he is the only person who is quoted by his followers. I am not the only critic of his studies that are methodologically weak. Here are a couple of articles that are critical of his work:
            https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/meet-ecologist-who-wants-unleash-wild-backyard-180974372/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20200319-daily-responsive&spMailingID=42063966&spUserID=OTk2ODU2MjQyNDgwS0&spJobID=1721840884&spReportId=MTcyMTg0MDg4NAS2&fbclid=IwAR3AOTIELuDNVhJ99nu2wzggGkLszYw17QUQP2Ow-kG4iPthC5YHuwOQ6cI Professor Shapiro was not given equal time by this article. Shapiro’s criticism is primarily that Tallamy generalizes beyond his evidence.
            https://indefenseofnature.blogspot.com/2022/01/ The author of this article lives in Virginia. Her observations may be more relevant to your local ecology. She has published many articles about the flaws in Doug Tallamy’s publications.

            Regarding “demonization,” there are many examples of demonization in Doug Tallamy’s publications:
            • In Nature’s Best Hope, Tallamy calls invasive plants “ecological tumors.” You might be tempted to respond that invasive plants are a small subset of non-native plants until you realize that Tallamy calls 3,300 plant species in North America “invasive” in that book. That’s a significant portion of introduced plants. The title of Tallamy’s book is a misnomer. Nature is not confined to native plants, as Tallamy wishes it to be.
            • In the same book (Tallamy, Doug, “Flipping the Paradigm: Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in Christopher, Thomas, The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011) in which he reports the study of his graduate student that found no evidence of greater predation of native plants in gardens, Tallamy repeats his mantra: “…our wholesale replacement of native plant communities with disparate collections of plants from other parts of the world is pushing our local animals to the brink of extinction—and the ecosystems that sustain human societies to the edge of collapse.” In that case, he made no distinction between non-native plants and invasive plants.

            You have not “read the science.” You have read Doug Tallamy. I have read Tallamy too. Can you say that you have read any of the references I have provided to you? Until you do, I don’t plan to publish more of your comments because they are repetitive. We’re done here.

  2. Thank you so much for your article and the fascinating maps. I am amazed at marianwhit’s insults and what seems to me to be obvious projection. Clearly you are working hard to help save our environment and the lives of so many plants and animals, with good intentions and no ulterior motives. Her accusations are outrageous and infuriating, but you answered her so well.

    I don’t understand why so many nativists seem to be so petty and even cruel, and act like they want to just wipe out those of us wanting to protect their innocent targets for hate and murder. I’m in several facebook wildflower and plant groups and see new members excitedly posting photos of beautiful plants they found, to share with others, only to be told by the nativists in charge that the plant they love should be pulled up and killed, including every one they see in the future — for the good of our environment! So the person apologizes in shame. When I get involved in defense of the person and the wildflower, the fanatics turn on me also. I try to answer, partly to reach others who are reading, so they don’t obey the order to kill the plants and therefore animals who need them. I’ve never even seen some of the hated exquisite flowers, but can see in the photos that they are often surviving in otherwise wasteland areas. Recently one of the targeted plants, Pineapple Weed, was said to actually be native, so some of the killers were regretful. But not enough to get anyone to re-think their destructive attitudes.

    I’m so glad they haven’t stopped you.

    1. It is clear having a rational discussion is out here. Because when the name calling starts, there is no reason to continue.

      Webmaster: I assume you refer to the use of the word “nativist” to describe your viewpoint. This is the Oxford Dictionary definition of nativism: “the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” That is an accurate description of your viewpoint. You are clearly advocating for the protection of native plants. The use of that word is an accurate description of those who have a strong preference for native plants.

      I just hope everyone involved keeps looking at the science, the motives, and the outcomes. I am still here, and will continue (if allowed in this highly contentious and sadly “either/or” intellectual environment) read what is said here with interest. If it is considered rude to ask someone for their qualifications or challenge their dogma then a rational conversation is clearly also out. We ALL have biases. The one who does not admit that is most likely to be entrenched in their own viewpoint, because we approach things from our own respective backgrounds and perspectives.

      Interestingly, this bog owner and I are both motivated by our respective traumas by a “loss of place”, and I think that is well worth reflecting upon. Rethinking gardening from something other than an anthropocentric perspective shatters a lot of what we previously believed. Actually gardening with a compassion towards the particular needs of the whole interdependent ecology is not an easy thing, but it is the most rewarding and fulfilling work I have done in decades of gardening.

      Webmaster: We also agree about the goal of gardening with every inhabitant of our gardens in mind. That’s the reason why I object to the nativist viewpoint of gardening that requires the use of pesticides to kill non-native plants. Pesticides (including herbicides) are harmful to everything living in our gardens and damage the soil. We have the same goal, but we disagree about how to achieve that goal. Pesticides do not “heal.”

      You can try to “pigeon hole” and label me as evil all you want…but I have all the fascination of a healing ecology right in my back yard. The part of me that (still) loves pretty flowers, and a lifetime of garden design work makes me actually hope that I will be proved wrong…but cherry picking from one perspective does not make that so. Remember the stages of grief? 1. Shock and denial 2. Pain and guilt 3. Anger and bargaining 4. Depression 5. The upward turn 6. Reconstruction and working through 7. Acceptance and HOPE. Almost every objection to restorative ecology can be found right here in this process. I am quite happily at 6 and 7. And I am not a nativist, so please just stop that. Mixing in natives is a step in the right direction. Leaving a bit of your property for native plants is a great thing. If you have not actually engaged in it, you might want to try it first before condemning it. Because let me tell you, the delight of bird song, and many colorful butterflies over the season is something not to be “weeded out” of your life. 🙂

      Webmaster: My garden is also occupied by many birds and insects. Many are here because of our huge, native Coast Live Oak tree, but most other plants are introduced species or cultivars of native plants. If a native plant volunteered in my garden I would not “weed it out.” Once again, I encourage you to plant whatever you want in your garden and I plan to do the same.

      I do not intend to publish another of your comments on this article because they are repetitive. I am unwilling to post negative comments without responding to them. I don’t have time to respond further.

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