Gareth J. Williams, Nicholas A.J. Graham, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Albert V. Norström, Magnus Nyström, Jamison M. Gove, Adel Heenan, Lisa M. Wedding
The footprint of human activity is reflected in all of Earth’s natural ecosystems, from the poles to the tropics, and from the shallow waters to the deep ocean. Prior to humans, ecosystems were purely shaped by their surrounding environment, with natural ranges in things like temperature, moisture, and light leading to variations in the diversity and patterns of organisms seen in any one place. Even until relatively recently in the grand scheme of the timescale of Earth, humans had a much smaller influence in driving ecosystem structure and function.
Things changed with the industrialization of human society, and the advent of our now globally connected world and mass expansion of human population and subsequent consumption of resources. Around the 1950s, we started to become interested in why ecosystems were structured the way they were, and the scientific discipline of ‘ecology’ emerged. As hypotheses were developed and theories tested, human influence across our planet continued to rise. We have now entered the Anthropocene – a time where humans are the dominant force of planetary change. This poses the interesting question: do our existing ecological theories, developed under a fundamentally different state in human-nature relations, capture and explain the current ecological patterns and processes we observe today?
Using tropical coral reefs as an example, we argue in this Perspective piece that the ability of environmental gradients to explain ecosystem patterns will become increasingly compromised as we move further into the Anthropocene. To date, most ecologists have focused on the immediate human drivers of change to coral reefs such as fishing, pollution, and climate change. In fact, these drivers emerge as a result of more complex human societal processes such as coastal migration, trade and finance. We outline a new approach to capture this complexity, and embed human societal and cultural processes within coral reef ecological theory and practice as much as environmental processes are today. Such a shift in thinking is needed if we are to manage these ecosystems successfully in this era of rapid change.