Indicators

Environmental change has always been a reality, and it is continuous. Change on planet Earth is driven by wind and water; geological activity; astronomical events; and the work of microorganisms, plants, and animals. Usually, forces with the greatest potential for cataclysmic change are rare (such as volcanic eruptions), local (such as tornadoes or lightning fires), or slow to play out (such as the advance and retreat of glaciers).

Although these cataclysmic changes are important for life on Earth, most living organisms are preoccupied more with being keen observers, relying on multiple senses to identify threats, such as the presence of predators or competitors, and opportunities, such as the availability of food or potential mates. Even plants detect and respond to changes in their environment. The signals perceived by plants and animals stimulate behavioral, physiological, or other responses that improve their ability to survive, feed, or attract mates. In effect, they use the information they collect as ecological indicators - signs, symptoms, or indexes of the condition of their world.

Because the earliest humans depended directly on natural systems for their well-being, they no doubt tracked ecological indicators too, such as plant flowering and fruiting, animal migration, weather, and the march of seasons. But after humans developed agriculture some 10 000 years ago, they began to depend less and less on natural foods and shelter. By the twentieth century, humans essentially forgot about ecological indicators. Because technology and the market provided a seemingly unlimited supply of resources, indicators like cholesterol level, annual income, and gross national product became more important.

Humanity's collective amnesia regarding ecological indicators has, however, had serious consequences. In part because we humans have not continually tracked the natural condition of our world, we have so transformed it that we are losing the natural parts and processes that we still depend on. We need to return our attention to ecological indicators - not to help us gather food or find mates, perhaps, but to understand the effects of our actions and to protect ourselves from the consequences of those actions.

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