Dan van der Horst*
Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES), University of Birmingham, UK
Received Date: November 26, 2012; Accepted Date: November 27, 2012; Published Date: November 29, 2012
Citation: van der Horst D (2012) Anthropocene Ecology and Technology; the Need for Co-Adaptation. J Ecosyst Ecogr 2:e115. doi:10.4172/2157-7625.1000e115
Copyright: © 2012 van der Horst D. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and and source are credited.
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The widespread adoption of the term Anthropocene in recent years indicates the wide acceptance of the view that human activities have become such a powerful driving force for global ecological change, that our destructive legacy will be recorded in geological history. We can use the language of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment to describe these activities; we have interfered with natural ecosystems in order to secure higher amounts of provisioning services (food, fibre etc), damaging the majority of other ecosystem services in the process. The concern we now have about these activities arises from our growing realisation that ecosystem services are co-dependent and that at the ecosystem level (i.e. for larger geographical areas), the long-term supply of provisioning services is undermined by the damage done to supporting and regulating services. Some of the main steps towards sustainability are widely agreed upon; reduce over-consumption, increase resource efficiency, protect biodiversity hotspots and critical natural capital and generally improve decision making by taking account of all ecosystem services affected by specific interventions. There have been a few areas where there has been more controversy than agreement. This has typically happened when new technologies are involved; the use of genetically modified organisms are one example, large scale renewable energy technologies are another. I want to examine the latter more closely, focussing especially on the conservation versus development conflict that surrounds the use of wind farms.
Most of the popular milestones in the evolution of human society (e.g. the ability to make fire, domestication of livestock, agriculture, the wheel, the steam engine, the aeroplane,) are about enhancing the efficiency of existing energy services or gaining access to new energy services and using this to colonise -in growing numbers- larger areas of the earth. The switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a switch from dependency on a limited store of carbon accumulated by prehistoric ecosystems service (a ‘savings account’ if you like), to a dependency on energy streams that (to simplify matters) are derived from the sun, the moon and the earth’s core on a more or less daily basis (a ‘current account’). The problem with the current account is that it is not neatly accumulated in specific pockets of the earth’s core. Energy fluxes are not highly spatially concentrated and as a result, the technologies that unlock them have big spatial footprints. ‘Conservation’ issues arise when these footprints stretch into areas where there are no extractive industries, or where nature conservation values are high because of a dearth of 20th century economic activities. This gives rise to stereotypical conflicts between those that want to conserve the atmosphere by installing more renewable energy technologies, and those who fear the ‘chopping up of birds and bats’ by wind farms or who wish to conserve the view of ‘unspoiled’ countryside.
This editorial serves as a call for academics to play a more prominent and constructive role in this debate. First of all we need to understand that there is no free lunch. Every KWh of energy has an ecological footprint, so the question is not ‘is this project good or bad’, but rather ‘do we want more of this particular service’, and if so, what is the most sustainable way of obtaining it. Technology alone will not save this planet from our bad habits, but without increasing technological sophistication we cannot sustain billions of people on this planet. Much of our technology is a crude approximation of biological abilities which we do not possess as a species. It is telling that we often resort to biomimicry in an effort to improve on the crudeness of our existing technologies. We should also recognise that even as our our technologies improve, they provide both risks and opportunities for other species. Adaptation may be required on all sides, as we have learned from 25 years of deployment of wind turbine technology.
The design of the wind farm can be adjusted to suit local conditions or to reduce negative impacts. Technological adjustments may include location and size of the wind farm, turbine type, height and spatial alignment.
The operation of turbines can be adjusted (e.g. switch off if a flock of birds is approaching, or switching off at very low wind speed which is when bats are more active)
Other technologies can be used to keep other animals away (e.g. warning signals). This might be a permanent feature for non-migratory species, a seasonal feature for migratory species, or only a temporary measure so that animals learn to associate wind farms with danger and steer clear of them.
Some animals will avoid wind turbines all by themselves. Although this might add extra length to their journey or might shrink their available habitat, it also means that wind turbines may be an effective tool to keep birds away from areas where they can cause damage to human interests, e.g. airport runways.
Animals may learn how to live alongside wind turbines and avoid collision; this might even be beneficial because there is less competition and fewer predators.
Wind farms may create new habitats. Whilst the construction of wind farms is clearly damaging for the local environment, over the course of the lifetime of the wind farm, there is time for species to recolonise the area. Perhaps the most obvious example here is off-shore wind turbines which form artificial reefs.
Wind farms may affect other ecosystem services, for example the access roads may cause erosion, the cable trenches and holes for the concrete foot may impact on the hydrology. Some wind farms on peaty soil have resulted in lowering of the local water table, thus releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. When the concrete foot is covered again with topsoil, this small area will be more prone to drought. On arable land, this area may have a lower crop yield. However it also means that this area may lend itself for some agri-environmental measures, e.g. providing a habitat for wild flowers and the insects that depend on them.
Wind turbines change the local micro climate. The extent to which this is damaging or beneficial depends on the pre-existing regional climate and the use of the land. By mixing the air, they increase the night-time temperature, and this is beneficial for agriculture in temperate climates as it reduces the occurrence of ground frost. They also cause the soil to dry more quickly and this is beneficial for agriculture in wet climates.
Wind farms can affect local access to natural resources in a variety of ways, creating winners and losers along the way. Protest groups have been very vocal about the negative impact of wind turbines on landscape aesthetics, but there are many different sections of the public and different people will value the impact of wind turbines differently. Studies have repeatedly shown that the perceived negative impacts of planned turbines (‘visual impact in the mind’s eye’) are much higher than the actual impacts of existing turbines. Studies have also shows that at the overall impact of wind turbines on tourism and visitors numbers is rather limited. Whist some people are put off by wind turbines, others find them inoffensive or interesting. New access roads to wind farms are seen as disturbance of wild land by some, but others enjoy the new recreational opportunities they create, including mountain biking, new vistas and pick-nick sites. Offshore wind turbines are effectively excluding commercial fishing vessels from the local area, thus forming small marine reserves which may be utilised by scuba divers or recreational fishermen on calm days.
In summary, we know that in order to survive, species need to be able to adapt to environmental change. What sets us apart as a species is our extreme ability to adapt to environmental change, through the use of technologies which themselves are causing significant environmental change. As we are now trying to mitigate these impacts through a more smart technological evolution, we need to examine with an open mind how even these more benign technologies are causing further environmental change to the species around us and how species and technologies can dynamically co-adapt in order to coexist. Experimentation and learning-by-doing are vital for all species, and in the case of new technologies, we have to do it together.
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