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Preparing for a future with no precedent

Fall 2016 | By Paul Robbins

Having recently become a father, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to ask myself: does having a child make one think differently about the environment?

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Photo courtesy Chengdu
Institute of Biology.

On the one hand, it has allowed me to reflect further on the enormous value of the traditional environmental mission: conservation and restoration. I hope never to have to say to my son,“You should have seen…,” as in, “You should have seen a half-million sandhill cranes descending on the Platte,” or, “You should have seen the tigers of Ranthambore.” This is more than restorative nostalgia. It is a core value.

On the other hand, having a kid also gets you thinking about the future in new ways, and it has only caused me to redouble my dedication to the notion that conservation and restoration, by themselves, are insufficient. They must be joined with the admission that most of the Earth will have to be engineered, coaxed, tinkered and crafted by humanity in the next century, that there is simply no going back from a transformed Earth system in the Anthropocene.

That transformation – the result of our heavy footprint on the land, oceans, atmosphere and ecosystems – is our new reality, prompting scientists to use terms like “novel” and “no-analogue” when talking about the future. We’re seeing reshuffled combinations of native and non-native species virtually everywhere we’ve made an impact – in forests and fields, in lakes and rivers, even within our cities.

And the climate is changing at an alarming rate, one never experienced by humans. In fact, scientists in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research tell us the conditions we anticipate will be unlike anything found in Earth’s historical record as far back as science is able to detect.

So how do we see the Nelson Institute’s responsibilities in this world of inevitable, turbulent change this “rambunctious garden,” as author Emma Marris has termed it?

“We owe it to our students
to train them not only to
be tomorrow’s conservers
and restorers, but also
the engineers, coaxers,
tinkerers and crafters
of Anthropocene Earth.”

Above all, we owe it to our students to train them not only to be tomorrow’s conservers and restorers, but also the engineers, coaxers, tinkerers and crafters of Anthropocene Earth. UW-Madison faculty members are driving an innovative and service-oriented approach to education to develop new kinds of environmental citizens and leaders.

They’re also engaged in the imaginative research that our no-analogue future demands. For example, one team is working on an interdisciplinary effort to anticipate and understand complex, turbulent eco- logical change. Another research project on novel ecosystems is training a new generation of scientists and decision-makers to think about a future with no precedent.

These efforts, and others like it across the institute and university, will develop the tools and talents to intervene in Earth futures humanely, intelligently, and with a dedication to justice for both people and the planet. On a rapidly changing Earth, anything less would be irresponsible.

So, having a child has allowed me to better appreciate the conversation we so often engage in around here, which weighs “return, preserve and save” against “engineer, experiment and craft.” That fearless and rigorous dialogue will determine the world our children inhabit and shape the environmental knowledge and practice they grow up to see around them.

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute 

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