Ecology as the guiding discipline of the future

A nature-based economy that regenerates ecosystems and stops species extinction? Christoph Küffer believes this is possible if we strengthen ecology in research and education and make ecological expertise a basic skill for society.  
Foster nature where we live. Vision of a green city of the future. (Image: Blue Planet Studio / AdobeStock)

Species extinction has become one of the greatest global risks. International politics and business have recognised this. At the Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, countries today agreed on a global treaty and urgently needed new targets for biodiversity, including the protection of at least 30 percent of the world's land and marine areas by 2030.1 This is an important milestone for species protection and a significant signal to the people. But that will not be enough.

Biodiversity is the foundation for quality of life, health, a well-functioning local climate, sustainable agriculture and many other vital functions of our landscapes. We must therefore succeed in ecologically regenerating the entire utilised landscape. This requires a transition towards an ecological economy that increases natural capital instead of destroying it. We can achieve this if the economy focuses on nature-based solutions.

Working with nature instead of against it

Nature-based solutions work together with nature, generate added value and – if they’re well thought out – benefit biodiversity, the climate and human health. They are multifunctional and self-sustaining. This makes them often more adaptable, more resilient and cheaper to maintain than technological solutions.

If we regenerate forests, moors, rivers and soils, we promote biodiversity and secure valuable services. Ecosystems reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate the effects of climate change.2 They quickly absorb large amounts of rainwater and balance the regional climate by buffering high temperatures and droughts.3

Ecological agriculture produces food with the help of biodiversity in the fields - from mixed crops to beneficial insects to microorganisms in the soil. Agroforestry combines crops or pastures with trees and brings entire species communities back into the farmland. This increases the resilience.

The advantages of green infrastructure are particularly evident in cities: Vegetation purifies the air and cools the urban climate because unsealed soils store rainwater for later evaporation and transpiration. Green spaces offer areas for recreation and improve human health and quality of life.

Progress through ecology

Interdisciplinary urban research is currently an exciting field for nature-based solutions.4 Planners, architects and engineers are working with ecologists to make cities climate-friendly and generally sustainable by including nature.

This also includes ‘bio-based’ building materials such as clay, wood, bamboo, straw, living plants and fungi.5 They are reusable, store CO2 and harbour the potential for climate-neutral construction in a future circular economy. ‘Regenerative design’ imagines self-renewing buildings that are biodegradable whereby waste feeds the urban nature and provides substrate for new building material to grow.

These visions illustrate how the ecological approach can lead to radically new ideas. Nature-based does not look back nostalgically, but offers perspectives for the world of tomorrow.

Also, the urgently needed transformation of agriculture will only succeed if we build on the principles of biodiversity. Modern ecology has shown, for example, that mixed crops are more productive than monocultures.6 Sound ecological knowledge can lead to an agriculture that restores lost natural qualities and invents new production systems: Which fungi and microbes can best regenerate degraded soils? How do we regain lost natural services such as pollination or biological pest control? What role will insects or algae play as protein sources for our food?

Participating as a society

Golden eras for technological progress arise when basic research driven by curiosity meets a social need. In the 20th century, progress in physics and chemistry led to an economy based on engineering and fossil fuels. Currently, we are witnessing a partnership between computer science and digitalisation. As a society, we have a choice regarding which types of research we support, and this can indirectly influence which skills are developed and which innovations might emerge.

«The biodiversity crisis is, above all, a crisis of our knowledge society: there is a lack of ecological knowledge, values and competences for action.»      Christoph Küffer

Equally, the path to a nature-based economy depends on the strategic orientation of the universities. If we as a society want to preserve or increase our natural capital, we need ecological competences in research and development and ultimately at all levels of society.7

For universities, this means investing in basic ecological research, promoting technology transfer of nature-based solutions through idea incubators and start-up platforms, and integrating ecological knowledge into all degree programmes and continuing education courses.

In the area of sustainability, ETH Zurich has shown how focusing works. The university made sustainability a strategic focus early on and anchored sustainability broadly in research and teaching, and on campus.8 Sustainable principles now flow into the teaching content of all disciplines. I see a similar cross-sectoral issue when it comes to biodiversity.

A successful ecological regeneration of the natural basis of life will require expertise from all disciplines. However, this can only succeed if ecology becomes the leading discipline of our time. The biodiversity crisis is, above all, a crisis of our knowledge society: there is a lack of ecological knowledge, values and competences for action.