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‘Ours is an age in which ecological thinking and methods have more than ever before to contribute to the progress of mankind’

A. H. Bunting & V. C. Wynne-Edwards (1964), Journal of Applied Ecology, 1, pp. 1–2.

Over geological time-scales, whole millennia can disappear easily into a few irresolvable millimetres of the sedimentary record. This is not the case where change is rapid, however, as demonstrated by clear fossil evidence of mass extinction at the beginning and end of the Mesozoic era. As we now know, the last two millennia have also been of major significance to ecology in general, and to the application of ecology in particular.

When the second millennium began, large parts of the world were still under semi-natural vegetation. The first Homo sapiens had only just set foot on Madagascar (500 ad) and New Zealand (≈ 700–800 ad), while our global population was somewhere in the range of just 200–500 million (Goudie 1993). In Europe, the Dark Ages were ending, but dramatic ecological change was about to follow important new technologies: the horse collar, the stirrup, the wheeled plough, the windmill, the water wheel, and the jointed-flail axe. Released from harnesses that severely constricted the throat and restricted breathing, horses could now exert their full tractive force on ploughs large enough to turn true furrows. The new axe meant that forest clearance could accelerate, while irrigation, drainage and reclamation could substantially increase the farmed area. Elsewhere – for example in Asia – a wider range of environments would soon be cultivated due to the use of newly introduced or newly domesticated species: maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tobacco, tea. Population expansion would follow, punctuated in Europe by wars, famine and plague only in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Now, in this year 2000, our perception of the impact of people on the biosphere is altogether more acute. Six billion share the planet, and large land areas are dominated by their activities: 65% of Europe, 29% of Asia, 25% of North America, and 36% of the exploitable global surface in total (Hannah et al. 1994). Technological innovations have continued to expand the scale of impact: mechanization, large-scale application of agro-chemicals, highly bred varieties of crops and livestock, widespread species’ introductions, and now the prospect of genetically modified organisms. Some crucial resources are stretched, and there are ecological constraints from both resource exploitation and waste disposal. For example, roughly 55% of the world’s accessible freshwater is already co-opted into human use either for supply, or for the dilution and dispersion of pollutants (Postel, Daily & Ehrlich 1996). Further population growth towards 7–11 billion in the coming decades will not be sustainable without dramatic increase in water resource provision for food production (Falkenmark 1997). In turn, there will be large changes to natural river systems, wetlands and irrigated areas. Resource exploitation of this magnitude, of course, has brought widespread ecological effects: global species’ extinctions have now accelerated from background rates (2–3 species year− 1) by over 2–3 orders of magnitude (Lawton 1996). Acceleration by a further order of magnitude is probable during this new century. It is sobering to note that all of these changes have occurred in the equivalent of just 13 human life times – the space of one millennium.

The corollaries of human ecological dominance and anthropogenic change are many, but four will stand out to applied ecologists.

First, with so much ecological pattern now affected by human activity, it is already difficult to research populations, species or ecosystems under truly natural circumstances. The weight of activity in ecology will continue to tip from the fundamental to the applied as it has over the 36-year life span of this journal.

Secondly, continued ecological change, by definition, will cause continued disequilibration: populations and communities will fluctuate over a resource base that is continually reshaped either purposefully or incidentally by human actions. Couple this view with another held by many ecologists – that much ecological structure and function is characterized by stochasticity – and it is easy to imagine that the application of ecology in management will be difficult and challenging. Yet, there are many examples of year-to-year persistence, stability and predictable succession that show how some ecological processes are resilient against global change. Equally, there will be many examples where endangered species or habitats slip from our grasp despite our best efforts.

Thirdly, because of its dynamic context, applied ecology will continue to generate insight and innovation. What we learn, for example, about GMOs will augment what we knew about pesticides; what we learn about ecological response to climate change will extend what we knew about responses to acid deposition. Applied problems will continue to extend the array of circumstances under which basic ecological theory can be examined (see Ormerod, Pienkowski & Watkinson 1999). New applied knowledge, in turn, will extend our armoury of management options.

Finally – and most important of all – successful ecological management will become one of the most pressing necessities of our time. As articulated in the first ever editorial published in this journal in 1964 (see above), the services of applied ecologists have never been more important. Not only are we involved in seeking solutions to the problems arising from resource exploitation, but also in advising on how exploitation can be optimized to deliver ecosystem services in ways that are safe and sustainable. Guiding subsistence, well-being and resource-use are as much our domain as are the grim warnings we must continue to give about adverse ecological trends.

The Journal of Applied Ecology will continue to work in the vanguard of these tasks, setting the highest standards of rigour, scientific quality, clarity and service that we can. We will continue to provide one of the world’s major journals through which ecologists speak to each other, and to related disciplines in environmental management. The editors will increasingly aim also to promote the dissemination of applied ecological knowledge to a wider public, and to a wider audience of decision makers, through reaching management institutions, the press and other media. The work of our contributors should be important not only intrinsically, but because it has been published in these pages.

In all these ways, we will continue in 2000 and beyond to ensure that the Journal of Applied Ecology remains a world-leading journal for communicating the utility and value of ecology.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. References

We thank our Production Editor, Penny Baker, as always, for her efficient handling of this editorial.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. References
  • Falkenmark, M. (1997) Meeting water requirements of an expanding world population. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 352, 929 936.
  • Goudie, A. (1993) The Human Impact on the Natural Environment, 4th edn. Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Hannah, L., Lohse, D., Hutchinson, C., Carr, J.L., Lankerani, A. (1994) A preliminary inventory of human disturbance of world ecosystems. Ambio, 23, 246 250.
  • Lawton, J.H. (1996) ′Population abundances, geographic range and conversion: 1994 Witherby Memorial Lecture’. Bird Study, 43, 3 19.
  • Ormerod, S.J., Pienkowski, M.W., Watkinson, A.R. (1999) Editorial: Communicating the value of ecology. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36, 847 855.
  • Postel, S.L., Daily, G.C., Ehrlich, P.R. (1996) Human appropriation of renewable fresh water. Science, 271, 785 788.