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Lords of the biosphere: Plant winners and losers in the Anthropocene

Plants People Planet

By W. John Kress, Gary A. Krupnick

“By the twentieth century, our numbers, our high-energy technologies, and our refined division of labor with its exchange economy made us capable of total transformation of any and all ecosystems. Some remained little affected, such as seafloor vents. But in most of the biosphere, co-evolution gave way to a process of ‘unnatural’ selection whereby chances for survival and reproduction were apportioned largely according to compatibility with human action. In this new regime those creatures symbiotic with us prospered greatly. These included those that suited our needs and adapted to domestication (cattle, rice, and eucalypts), and those that found suitable niches in our changing, churning biosphere (rats, crabgrass, and the tuberculosis bacillus). Creatures we found useful but incapable of domestication (bison and blue whales) and those that could not adjust to a human-dominated biosphere (gorillas and the smallpox virus) faced extinction or at best survived on sufferance. In the twentieth century we became what most cultures long imagined us to be: lords of the biosphere.” (John McNeil, 2000. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. Norton & Co., New York. p. 193).

Humans have not always been the “lords of the biosphere,” as John McNeil so aptly characterized in his monumental book on the Anthropocene (McNeil, 2000). Starting out as perhaps just another primate in Africa, it took nearly four million years for humans to effectively learn to utilize fire, incorporate tools into their daily activities, develop efficient communication followed by a complex social structure, and finally domesticate plants and animals around 10,000–12,000 years ago that led to the subsequent establishment of city-states. Since that time, human societies “have left long-term legacies” across terrestrial and marine habitats worldwide (Ellis et al., 2021). In particular, over the last one thousand years, we humans have touched and, in many cases, radically altered almost every element in the Earth's biosphere, which is the space on our planet inhabited by living things. Today the activities of humans continue to change the climate, degrade and destroy natural habitats, move plants and animals from one continent to another, exploit and over-utilize natural resources, and extensively pollute the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere more than any other species now or in the past (Bradshaw et al., 2021).

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Friday, March 11, 2022