Our Sense of Place in the Age of Anthropocene

By Nancy Burnett, Founder of Shape of Life

photo of sunrise over water

I was excited to attend the Western Society of Naturalists (WSN) in Monterey this year. WSN is a conference where students get to introduce their research. There were talks on all sorts of different subjects. It was great to see so many people (800-900) at the meeting, especially when you think of natural history as not being an embedded part of our curriculum. Today, we are teaching more and more about the micro-level of organisms and, of course, technology. We seem to have forgotten whole animals and their environment.

There were strands on topics including: Marine Protected Areas, community ecology, plastics in the ocean, ocean acidification, conservation technologies, and behavioral ecology to name a few. More than half were about applications to real world issues. And a huge percentage was about climate change.

In the past, natural history was usually the observation of organisms and the ecology of place. This kind of old time natural history, where the focus was local remains essential, but in our rapidly changing world today, a different approach is needed. As Dr. Emmett Duffy said in his presentation, “modern naturalists need to integrate place-based with global knowledge; field chops with modeling skills; community structure with governance structure.”

Today’s world, (a.k.a., the Age of Anthropocene), requires “naturalists be collaborative, quantitative, interdisciplinary, and solution oriented, reflecting the highly-connected world of the 21st century.”  Why? Because “ecological processes are changing rapidly on global as well as local scales and understanding them  requires comparative approaches unavailable to previous generations.”

Highlighted in this overview was integrated networked knowledge with the example of research on sea stars’ wasting disease and the diseases threatening eelgrass beds. Climate change is a global force and networked knowledge provides a way to understand how these diseases affect communities and organisms on a global scale.

In addition, natural history must include Homo sapiens and our interactions with nature because we centrally shape the long-term wellbeing of the biosphere that supports us. Realizing that contribution involves letting Homo sapiens into the club. This requires a rigorous, scientific natural history of people, linking our evolved traits and behaviors to socioeconomic interactions across scales, and building a rigorous, integrated ecology of human-dominated ecosystems.

*Duffy, J.E. NETWORKED NATURAL HISTORY FOR A NEW CENTURY Smithsonian Institution In the 20th century Charles Elton defined ecology as scientific natural history.