Over the past few millennia, the activity of one species, Homo sapiens, has become the principal driver of change on the surface of the Earth. For the first time in the planet's history, a biological agent - a single species, at that -rivals or surpasses geophysical forces in shaping Earth's living systems.
Human activity changes environments, sometimes in big, obvious ways, sometimes in small, subtle ways. Converting prairies to agriculture or clear-cutting forests inevitably and visibly alters the mix of plants, insects, birds, and mammals in those places. Damming, channeling, or adding pollutants to a river inevitably but perhaps less visibly alters the river's biota. Such biotic changes are most often documented as counts of extinct, threatened, or endangered species, or as declining populations or production of species with commercial or recreational value. Unfortunately, the preoccupation with imperiled and commodity species obscures wider consequences of human activity for living systems. Without a report card for those wider consequences, humanity is ill-equipped to identify and protect ecologically intact places, restore degraded places, or make informed decisions about where to locate development.
The rapid expansion of human populations during the last 10 000 years requires us to reconnect to ecological indicators. As long as 4500 years ago, writings from Mesopotamia and South Asia revealed people's knowledge of biodiversity, of a natural order in the biosphere, and of the consequences of disrupting that order. Lessons of past societal collapses from Mesopotamia to Easter Island to the Yucatan reveal the substantial price paid for ignoring ecological indicators. Without ecological indicators, people cannot understand the state of the planet's ecosystems or act as proper stewards of them.
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