Ecology and the transition to sustainability

Authors

  • Jerry M. Melillo (President),

  • Nancy B. Grimm (President-elect),

  • William H. Schlesinger (Past President)


Ecological knowledge is essential for a successful transition to sustainability – a transition to a world in which hunger and poverty are reduced, while the Earth's life support system, thebiosphere, is conserved. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) has been working working to promote a change to sustainability for over a decade. In 1991, the Society launched its Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (SBI), which has had many successes. The initiative stimulated new ecological research and advanced ecological knowledge in the service of society. In addition, it has fostered communication of that knowledge to our nation's leaders, to help them make informed decisions about the complex challenges of protecting and improving the environment while maintaining economic prosperity.

Despite more than a decade of effort, our work on the move to sustainability is in its early stages. This task is complicated by the fact that we are seeking sustainability in a changing world that is putting ever more pressure on the biosphere. Since the initiation of the SBI, the human population has grown beyond 6 billion. Across the globe, people are abandoning rural areas for cities; these human-designed environments, when poorly conceived, degrade the ecosystems that supply essential services such as cleansing of air and water and stabilizing landscapes against erosion by wind and water. Essential ecosystem services are also being compromised by the introduction of alien species of plants and animals into ecosystems, either purposefully or inadvertently. Regional air and water pollution have become the unwanted companions of economic growth in much of the developing world, and this pollution is taking a toll on human health as well as reducing yields of the food and fiber that are so desperately needed by a growing world population. Greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning and deforestation continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and are causing climate change. Overfishing, especially of the high tropic levels, is impoverishing the world's oceans. The list goes on.

As the threats to the world's transition to sustainability continue to mount, ESA has taken a fresh look at this critical issue and the future of ecological science in general. In 2002, the Society's Governing Board charged a committee to prepare an action plan that would accelerate our progress in addressing the major environmental issues of the new century. Over a 2-year period, what has come to be known as the “Visions Committee” consulted our membership as well as many organizations and individuals outside ESA. They articulated their core position as follows: “Ecological knowledge can and must play a central role in helping achieve a world in which human populations exist with sustainable ecological systems.” The action plan focuses on three areas: building an informed public, advancing innovative, anticipatory research, and stimulating cultural changes that foster a forward-looking and international ecology. The Visions Committee has proposed 26 specific actions, designed to cover these focus areas. Some require modest investments of time and money, while others require major commitments of resources. An example of the latter is the call for a major information campaign to bring issues of ecological sustainability before the general public. The Governing Board of the Society is working to prioritize the list of actions and to move forward rapidly.

On behalf of the Society's membership, we thank the Visions Committee for a job well done. This issue of Frontiers begins with an overview paper by the Visions Committee that summarizes its recommended actions. The remaining papers address some of the main ecological issues that must be dealt with if society is to make progress towards a more sustainable future.

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Jerry M Melillo (President)

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Nancy B Grimm (President-elect)

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William H Schlesinger (Past President)

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