What does ‘collapse’ mean, and should we continue using the term?

30 08 2022

The conservation, environment, and sustainability literature is rife with the term ‘collapse’, applied to concepts as diverse as species extinction to the complete breakdown of civilisation. I have also struggled with its various meanings and implications, so I’m going to attempt to provide some clarity on collapse for my own and hopefully some others’ benefit.

State transitions (Fig. 2 from Keith et al. (2015))

From a strictly ecological perspective, ‘collapse’ could be described in the following (paraphrased) ways:

But there is still nor formal definition of ‘collapse’ in ecology, as identified by several researchers (Keith et al. 2013; Boitani et al. 2015; Keith et al. 2015; Sato and Lindenmayer 2017; Bland et al. 2018). While this oversight has been discussed extensively with respect to quantifying changes, I can find nothing in the literature that attempts a generalisable definition of what collapse should mean. Perhaps this is because it is not possible to identify a definition that is sufficiently generalisable, something that Boitani et al. (2015) described with this statement:

“The definition of collapse is so vague that in practice it will be possible (and often necessary) to define collapse separately for each ecosystem, using a variety of attributes and threshold values

Boitani et al. 2015

Despite all the work that has occurred since then, I fear we haven’t moved much beyond that conclusion.

Hell, cutting down the trees in the bush block next to my property constitutes a wholesale ‘collapse’ of the microcommunity of species using that patch of bush. An asteroid hitting the Earth and causing a mass extinction is also collapse. And everything in-between.

But at least ecologists have made some attempts to define and quantify collapse, even if an acceptable definition has not been forthcoming. The sustainability and broader environment literature has not even done that.

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2017

27 12 2017

Gannet Shallow Diving 03
As I have done for the last four years (20162015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2017 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

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Crying ‘wolf’ overlooks the foxes: challenging ‘planetary tipping points’

28 02 2013

tipping pointToday, a paper by my colleague, Barry Brook, appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. It’s bound to turn a few heads.

Let’s not get distracted by the title of the post, or the potential for a false controversy. It’s important to be clear that the planet is indeed ill, and it’s largely due to us. Species are going extinct faster than the would have otherwise. The planet’s climate system is being severely disrupted, so is the carbon cycle. Ecosystem services are on the decline.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – we have to be wary of claiming the end of the world as we know it or people will shut down and continue blindly with their growth and consumption obsession. We as scientists also have to be extremely careful not to pull concepts and numbers out of our bums without empirical support.

Specifically, I’m referring to the latest ‘craze’ in environmental science writing – the idea of ‘planetary tipping points‘ and the related ‘planetary boundaries‘. It’s really the stuff of Hollywood disaster blockbusters – the world suddenly shifts into a new ‘state’ where some major aspect of how the world functions does an immediate about-face. Read the rest of this entry »

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