Focusing on Connectivity
Maureen Kearney’s article, “Astonishingly Hyperconnected” (Issues, Winter 2022), is first and foremost about connections: between the global climate and biodiversity crises, between organisms, and between humanity’s future and that of the rest of the living world. Its focus resonates strongly with the fabric of life on earth, emphasizing humans’ ancient and deep entanglement with all other living organisms, locally and remotely. In Kearney’s words, “Because life is astonishingly hyperconnected on scales much larger than we thought … the fate of any species in the face of environmental change is intertwined with the fate of many others.” Here I add a few reflections as to what this hypoconnectivity entails for science and policy.
Connectivity among disciplines. First, I agree on the need for convergent research among the natural sciences. I would add to this the need for more convergence between the biological and physical sciences on one hand, and the social sciences and humanities on the other. This is indispensable because the present environmental crises are manifested in the atmosphere and the biosphere but their roots and therefore their potential solutions are deeply social, economic, and political. The biophysical sciences are clearly not enough to deal with them. For researchers, this certainly entails extra layers of difficulty in bridging vastly different methods, categories, and epistemologies. For funding agencies, this involves a mindset shift concerning risk adversity, budget allocations, timetables, and researcher evaluation criteria. For example, what the literature call “boundary work,” which binds together the different disciplines in an integrated project, needs more time and money. Related, the judging of curricula vitae needs to consider that most researchers are venturing into uncharted waters and avoid penalizing the lack of an extensive trajectory in the new subject area.
Connectivity among policymakers and researchers. I also agree on the need for policymakers and researchers to work in a more integrated way in addressing global climate and biodiversity challenges. In this, it is important to abandon the complexity-adverse attitude that has predominated so far. For example, in the preparation of the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the emphasis has been on particular aspects of biodiversity, often the easiest to communicate and monitor, yet not necessarily the most effective ones. The fact that the fabric of all life is interwoven and complex does not mean intractable, but defies “easy” targets such a setting aside X hectares under legal protection or promoting Y species from threatened to nonthreatened. The new goals for nature need to be clearer and bolder than ever before, but at the same time they must focus on connections and be themselves interconnected in a safety net.
Connectivity among institutions. One key point, probably the most difficult, is that indeed we are astonishingly hyperconnected in many ways, but yet astonishingly disconnected in others. The institutions that deal with different knots in the fabric of life are often disconnected or misaligned, each setting its rules, incentives, monitoring indicators, and standards in isolation from, or in contradiction with, the others. This happens, for example, in the regulation of water and wild animal populations across municipal, regional, and international borders. It is also rife among bodies acting at the same spatial scale but on different sectors, such as road maintenance and nature restoration, or urban planning, food sovereignty, and biodiversity protection.
The transformative change being called for by all the recent international assessments has to be not only bigger and deeper than ever before; it also has to shift the focus toward much more connectivity. We have been trying to handle an astonishingly hyperconnected earth with a set of astonishingly disconnected set of narratives, mindsets, and institutions. We can afford this no longer.
Professor of Ecology
Córdoba National University
Senior Member of the National Research Council of Argentina
Maureen Kearney extends an important conservation about climate change and biodiversity. As context, I have a stack of books on my desk that tackle this fraught topic, most of them dealing with loss of diversity, but some addressing the possibility of recovering species through de-extinction. A sample includes: Second Nature by Nathaniel Rich; Thor Hanson’s Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid; Strange Natures by Kent Redford and William Adams; Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky; and the most recent arrival is Ben Rawlence’s The Treeline. All add in various ways to the increasingly clear conclusion that climate change is negatively affecting earth’s biodiversity and that we need to think hard about how to mitigate such an outcome.
Kearney agrees with that conclusion. In an important way, however, she goes further, exploring the thesis that biodiversity and climate change are not just connected, but “hyperconnected,” meaning they are inextricably intertwined. Her message is that we cannot solve the problem of declining biodiversity without solving the challenge of our changing climate, which is itself a complex function of earth’s biodiversity. Each influences the other in deep and important ways.
Others have gone down this road, but Kearney makes a strong case for the intersection of these areas, which makes a lot of sense. She first reviews how biodiversity contributes to an array of ecosystem services that benefit humans, making it clear how we rely on the organisms that surround us. And in a review of biotechnology approaches to managing environmental change, she appropriately urges that this possible set of solutions must be approached cautiously in light of possible unintended consequences.
Still, there are some people who flatly reject biotechnology approaches to mitigating climate change, or manipulating the environment in general. It would have added to Kearney’s perspective to comment on this view, and how she feels it can or cannot be incorporated into her call for integrating climate change and biodiversity.
The subtitles of the books mentioned earlier echo Kearney’s arguments. Rich uses Scenes from a World Remade to suggest how humans are altering ecosystems and the responsibilities that follow. Hanson uses The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change to emphasize that organisms adapt to climate change and do not just suffer its effects. Redford and Adams use Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology to highlight their analysis of how the tools of gene editing will shape a future world along with the responsibilities that accompany such use. For Kolbert, The Nature of the Future invokes the ways in which humans have altered earth’s systems, raising questions along the way about what “nature” will look like in the future. Rawlence’s The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth uses the iconic boreal forest as a study system for analyzing the intersection of biodiversity and climate change.
Kearney joins these authors to highlight a topic—the intersection of biodiversity and climate change—that needs our increased understanding. In a discussion of “planetary futures” she emphasizes that “natural systems are climate solutions on par with greenhouse gas reductions and other objectives.” That sounds right. Her call for research on biological complexity to understand much better than we do the reciprocal interaction of climate change and biodiversity is also the right one in an era of global change that will call for adaptation as well as mitigation. It is a call we should join her in pursuing.
James P. Collins
Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment
School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University