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Sustainability of Human Ecological Niche Construction

Forest Isbell, Department of Ecology, Evolution & Behavior, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Michel Loreau, Centre for Biodiversity Theory and Modelling, Experimental Ecology Station, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Moulis, France

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06395-190145

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Abstract

Humans influence and depend on natural systems worldwide, creating complex societal-ecological feedbacks that make it difficult to assess the long-term sustainability of contemporary human activities. We use ecological niche theory to consider the short-term (transient) and long-term (equilibrium) effects of improvements in health, agriculture, or efficiency on the abundances of humans, our plant and animal resources, and our natural enemies. We also consider special cases of our model where humans shift to a completely vegetarian diet, or completely eradicate natural enemies. We find that although combinations of health, agriculture, and efficiency improvements tend to support more people and plant resources, they also result in more natural enemies and fewer animal resources. Considering each of these improvements separately reveals that they lead to different, and sometimes opposing, long-term effects. For example, health improvements can reduce pathogen abundances and make it difficult to sustain livestock production, whereas agricultural improvements tend to counterbalance these effects. Our exploratory analysis of a deliberately simple model elucidates trade-offs and feedbacks that could arise from the cascading effects of human activities.

Key words

agriculture; human health; niche theory
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087