Introduction to special issue

Human-Dominated Ecosystems

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Science  25 Jul 1997:
Vol. 277, Issue 5325, pp. 485
DOI: 10.1126/science.277.5325.485

Ecologists traditionally have sought to study pristine ecosystems to try to get at the workings of nature without the confounding influences of human activity. But that approach is collapsing in the wake of scientists' realization that there are no places left on Earth that don't fall under humanity's shadow. Furthermore, many scientists now believe that eventually all ecosystems will have to be managed to one extent or another, and, to do this well, managers will need sound scientific advice.

In this Special Issue, Science takes a look at the progress made to date in the study of human influence on the planet. The focus is on the science rather than the politics of the topic, but authors were invited to explore the policy implications of their findings. The global reach of their efforts is underscored by the fact that the authors are from five different continents.

The Editorial is contributed by a politician, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who realized very early on the importance of considering scientific findings when crafting legislation for resource management. She chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, and the publication a decade ago of the commission's report, “Our Common Future,” was a pivotal event, helping to spark the current political interest in global environmental issues.

Opening the Articles, Peter Vitousek and colleagues provide a synthesis of the biotic and abiotic influences of humans, demonstrating beyond all doubt that this is indeed a human-dominated planet. F. Stuart Chapin III and co-authors discuss the influence of individual ecosystem components on ecosystem functioning as a whole. Current practices and the possibilities for sustainable agriculture, fishing, and forestry are assessed by Pamela Matson and colleagues, Louis Botsford and colleagues, and Ian Noble and Rodolfo Dirzo, respectively. The Articles conclude with a frank assessment from Andrew Dobson and co-authors of the prospects for restoring degraded land.

The News reports focus on the seas. The first piece questions the old assumption that the oceans are too big and their inhabitants too prolific for humans to threaten many marine creatures with extinction. The second asks whether “no-take” marine reserves will help replenish dwindling fisheries. The third takes a look at what has been learned about the world's coral reefs since the late 1980s when they were first described as globally imperiled. New reports suggest that the decline may be more local or regional than global in scope.

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