Is there such a thing as a ‘healthy’ ecosystem?
We often hear the people refer to degraded ecosystems as ‘unhealthy,’ but is that the best choice of words? Could an ecosystem be considered simply as either “healthy” or “unhealthy?” While some scientists think so, others disagree.
Is this a healthy debate?
We often use ‘health’ to describe how something affects our own (human) bodies and well-being. If an ecosystem doesn’t provide anything to support our health and well-being, does that mean it’s unhealthy? Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but ecosystems weren’t always designed to revolve around humans.
A group of researchers recently set out to critically review what ‘ecosystem health’ means. Many scientists debate that we shouldn’t call an ecosystem healthy or unhealthy because these words can easily be based on our own judgement, which doesn’t necessarily fit well with objective science. Our own judgement and perspective varies between people and it also changes as our understanding of the natural world changes. What we might consider a healthy ecosystem today might not be considered healthy 10 years from now even if it hasn’t changed, so it might not be the best choice of labelling from a scientific standpoint. Calling an ecosystem healthy or unhealthy also implies either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ state, which many scientists feel is an unrepresentative oversimplification to the public.
Another big issue some scientists have is that an ecosystem isn’t technically a living thing, so how could we call one healthy if it’s not alive? This is often referred to as the ‘Organism Theory;’ they are structured and function like an organism without being one. Because of this, many scientists think we shouldn’t be defining ecosystems by properties of living things.
When looking at the other side of the coin, one scientist has argued that “ecosystem health is a ‘normative’ concept that implies specific societal goals rather than an ‘objective’ scientific concept.” Although ecosystems aren’t alive, he still thinks it’s a useful concept because we often institutionalise normative terms in national and international policies. So even if its scientifically incorrect, labelling ecosystems that we put a lot of stress on as unhealthy might help us take better care of protecting them? Essentially it’s a simple term used as a communication tool.
So what is a ‘healthy’ ecosystem?
Is it one untouched by man? There are actually quite a few definitions used to clear the air. One group of scientists suggested a healthy ecosystem is one that can remain sustainable over time in the face of stress from floods, droughts, invasive species, mining, overexploitation etc. Another group suggested a healthy ecosystem is one that is free of disease. It still brings about the question though of how you could objectively define what an ecosystem disease is if an ecosystem isn’t alive?
Perspective – Is a sustainable farm healthy because it provides food to meet our needs, or is it unhealthy because its altering an ecosystem and removing the plants and animals that were meant to be there? Agriculture by StateofIsrael (CC BY 2.0)
What’s the verdict?
It’s clear that many of our activities are harming communities of plants and animals around us because of the stress we place on them to sustain our lives, activities and (you guessed it) bank accounts. Because of this, it’s often hard to tell what changes to ecosystems are natural, influenced by us or both. Whether resorting to using either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ to describe ecosystems should be a universally accepted concept, this may always be an open-ended debate. But what are your thoughts? Is an over-simplified term a good way to encourage conservation, or should we be more scientifically correct to the public? I’d love to hear your healthy opinions!