Ecosystems at Risk

Posted by Alex Sarian On July - 9 - 2013
Alex Sarian

Alex Sarian

Two very scary, and seemingly unrelated, things happened in 2008:   1) 100,000 nonprofits around the US (many of them arts, education, & culture based) began the slow and painful process of going out of business, and 2) the Holdridge’s toad, one of Costa Rica’s most prevalent species, was declared extinct.

Let’s talk toads first:

There are two schools of thought that explain why a species might become extinct. The first holds the environment responsible, stating that the Holdridge’s toad became extinct because of “chytridiomycosis” (look it up), a disease caused by effects of climate change. In this case, the toads were not able to evolve fast enough to adapt to the fast-changing environment around them. The second option, ironically, holds the species responsible. This popular evolutionary theory called the “Red Queen hypothesis” – named after Lewis Carroll’s character who described her country as a nation in which “it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place” – argues that species biologically increase in numbers until they reach the ‘carrying capacity’ of their environment, by which point the environment is too consumed (deteriorated) to sustain such diversity. Extinction. Scientists predict that by 2050, as a result of one of the two theories mentioned above, a full quarter of the species known to us today will be extinct.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that it took scientists 22 years to declare the Holdridge’s toad extinct (the last known toad was seen in 1986). Understandably, nobody was really surprised by the announcement in 2008.

Yet, who among us knew that 71% of performing arts organizations in New York City would face deadly budget cuts, 33% would be forced to lay off employees, and 35% would have to cancel programs? And statistics weren’t as friendly for our friends over in the visual arts, where 63% were forced to reduce their staffs. It’s also worth arguing that these percentages were far more devastating in other regions around the country, where the arts aren’t easily associated with the identity of a city like they are in NYC. New York wasn’t even ranked in the top 10 states faced with the largest budget cuts in the nation – Michigan faced an 81% budget cut in the arts that year, and California’s per capita spending on the arts was an embarrassing $0.12.

So why were we caught so unawares when the standard definition of ‘ecosystem’ applies equally to both cases? “A system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.”

I am more worried for arts education than I am about toads. Why? Because as a species, we’ve always had a crisis of identity – not knowing what ‘environment’ we belong to in the first place: Arts? Education? Certainly, if Congress has taught us anything, it’s that ‘arts education’ is not (yet?) its own, fully realized environment. The second reason (the more daunting one perhaps) is the requirement to interact with a community of organisms – something our field has historically not done so well.  But not only has collaboration never been a traditional strong suit of our field, we are all also wanting to do more and more every day – getting us all a little bit closer to the ‘carrying capacity’ of what our environment can sustain. And we all know what happens next.

My wish for all of us is that we truly absorb the definition of “ecosystem” in all that we do. It requires us to genuinely collaborate with each other while being mindful (and knowledgeable) of the many, many environments that surround us and affect our work.

And know that all is not lost: the Holdridge’s toad was rediscovered in 2010.

2 Responses to “Ecosystems at Risk”

  1. The term ecosystem is perfect for the environment most artists inhabit. As in any ecosystem, the arts need to encourage and develop the synergies that will benefit everyone’s survival. An environment of competition, although useful if it promotes quality, is generally detrimental to diversity and experimentation in the arts. In order to survive the tough times, we all need to cooperate, collaborate and support one-another.

  2. Cassie Newman says:

    Ironic that collaboration has never been a strong suit for our field, when we all are working in an inherently collaborative industry…

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