Several previous Sightings blogs have focused on the ecological underpinnings of our society and planet. A sustainable earth must be one that mimics natural processes that maintain healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems are the life support system for the planet and polluting them, hastening extinctions or changing their chemical makeup is contrary to their long-term sustainability. Ecosystems have resilience and can recover from some abuse, but once an ecological threshold (tipping point) is crossed they change their character and makeup forever; generally, not conducive to existing populations.
A prime example of crossing a tipping point would be the slowing or the shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which has already begun from ice melt. AMOC delivers Caribbean water to Greenland and is responsible for warming Europe. Another threshold is the melting of the Arctic ice caps, also underway, along with collateral damage to the jet stream. History shows that ecological change can be swift once the threshold is crossed.
On a positive note, there is an assortment of natural and man-made solutions available – many recognizing the value of the ecosystem service of sequestering carbon. Plan B 4.0: Mobilization to Save Civilization (2009) by Lester R. Brown and Drawdown (2017) by Paul Hawken detail many of the solutions needed to slow global ecological decline. They are excellent resources to dig deeper on this topic.
Preservation of natural areas
One core strategy cited by both authors is to preserve ecosystem health, biodiversity and ecosystem services. E.O. Wilson in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life suggests that half the planet should be untouched and sustained. He points to places like the Amazon River basin and the California’s redwood forests. Protecting major migration pathways on each continent to allow species to migrate as needed to adapt to changing global conditions is also a major recommendation.
Paul Hawken, author and environmentalist, edited Drawdown which identifies 100 strategies to reduce global warming. Several of the key suggestions are about preserving natural areas and restoring others (e.g. afforestation). They serve not only as habitat, but also sustain ecosystem services particularly storing massive amounts of carbon in the soil.
Industrial and Construction Activities
The current day “take, make, waste” linear economy is not sustainable on a finite planet. It is estimated that we would need four earths to sustain a world behaving like American consumers. The global plastics pollution is a perfect example of a flawed economic model that mines fossil fuels to make plastics, inserts some toxic chemicals and then sell these to consumers that throw them away within a short period. A circular economy would consider waste as food to be used as raw material for the next product. As in a forest where the autumn leaves decay and provide food for a diverse array of microorganisms and natural fertilizer for the forest. It is this same approach that needs to be adopted to build a circular economy.
Carbon is not the enemy, but we need to consider multiple uses of carbon as a raw material for products to assist businesses in becoming carbon neutral or carbon negative. The American Institute of Architects challenged architects globally to become carbon neutral by 2030 through green roofs, generating excess energy from renewable energy, and using bio-based building materials, to list a few methods. Interface’s Climate Take Back Initiative hopes to draw carbon from the atmosphere to use as a raw material in its carpet tile production. These initiatives to be carbon neutral or to extract carbon from the atmosphere are vital to limit worsening ecological damage from climate change.
A carbon dividend is proposed by the Climate Leadership Council made up of prominent conservatives, including Jim Baker and George Schultz, to put a price on carbon emissions from fossil fuels of about $40 a ton. The fee would gradually increase over time to address the true costs of carbon and its adverse effects on the climate. The key feature of the carbon dividend is that the money would go to citizens on a quarterly basis. It is estimated the dividend would average about $2,000 per year. It is important that the benefits go to the public and not special interests to get full pubic buy-in due to increasing fossil fuel costs. In the current political climate, it will not likely proceed at the federal level.
Sustainable Food Production
As climate and ecological disruption progresses, greater strains will be put on our ability to provide adequate food to a global population expected to reach 11 billion by 2100. Two approaches to accomplish this dramatic feat are bringing ecological balance back to our ocean’s fisheries and reducing land disturbance on farmlands to reduce carbon emissions.
Lester Brown in Full Planet, Empty Plates (p.17), estimates 80 percent of marine fisheries are fished at or beyond their sustainable yields. As the yields decrease from over-fishing, the population is put at risk until it collapses. As natural populations are decimated, fish farming is expanded, requiring additional land, water and food to maintain the domesticated fish populations. High concentrations of fish and waste result in pollution and disease that can migrate into natural populations. Drawdown highlights ocean farming that uses a matrix of kelp permacultures and oysters to sequester carbon and remove pollutants produced by fish farms by applying simple ecosystem management principles.
Sustainable agriculture consists of several farming techniques including regenerative and conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture consists of three principles: limit soil disturbance, maintain soil cover, and rotate crops. Unlike regenerative agriculture which also limits soil disturbance, conservation agriculture uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These agricultural approaches provide resilience to farmlands during droughts and heavy downpours. They also contain carbon within the subsurface soils.
Managed grazing represents another agricultural approach that would reduce carbon emissions from meat production. Managed grazing restores natural prairies with herds that feed on native grasslands. Ted Turner has whole-heartedly embraced this approach by purchasing vast tracts of land in the West and allowing them to return to natural prairies populated by bison herds. Being the consummate business man, he has developed a sustainable “farm-to-table” industry. Ted’s Montana Grill serves as an outlet for commercial bison production and promotes consumption of a leaner, healthier, and less polluting bison meat.
Conversion to Renewable Energy
If government is not going to favor the industries of the future over those of the past, then they should just get out of the way and let market forces determine the best path. This, plus a carbon dividend will show the market failure of centralized utilities dependent on fossil fuels, and in addition, the market will give the death blow to current day nuclear technology. Renewables will win the economic battle given a level playing field.
Unfortunately, the federal government in particular is infested with fossil fuel industry lobbyists on both the inside and outside. It is clear from the figure below that the US is abdicating its leadership role on the 21st century’s green energy economy and is instead embracing the technologies of the 20th century. Going are the jobs and the money generated from global leadership of the new energy economy with solar, wind and battery evolution. Despite special interests tipping the scales, a renewable energy industry is evolving in the US and the economics of renewables should eventually win out.
When I was born in 1950, the global population was 2.6 billion people. Today, the global population is 7.6 billion and expected to reach 11 billion by 2100. All this population growth in little over one lifetime. This is a finite planet, and the ability to feed and support this population for decades in the future is questionable. Lester Brown identifies food scarcity as the number one societal issue in the future as food and fossil fuel fertilizer prices increase and arable land becomes scarcer due to drought and fire.
Drawdown highlights the importance of the education of women around the world in combating climate change, since this reduces family size and its resultant demands on nature. It also allows women to develop businesses to support their families and strengthen local economies. The simple reality is if we do not better manage global population, nature will.
The actions cited above are some of those that would cut carbon emissions or sequester carbon in the most sustainable ways. These and many more are needed to slow climate disruption and ecological change. The good news is that the technologies and behaviors that need to be expanded are already here, they just need to be implemented. The bad news is that we do not have much time. Scientific models and judgement have generally underestimated the likely impacts and their severity. Regardless, we must transition to an earth-centered economy to better adapt to this changing world. An economy that sustains the planet’s ecosystems and adapts to a tougher future, particularly in agricultural and fisheries production, is vital. Pope Francis in Laudato Si reminds us that “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” At what pace should this transformation happen? Lester Brown, Bill McKibben and others feel we should be in a war economy, with everything focused on transforming our global society. I agree.
The next Sightings, “Wish Upon a Star,” will examine new scientific evidence for life or its building blocks on other planets and their moons. It will suggest that life on other worlds, perhaps different, would still have to follow the universal laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. Statistically, life on other worlds is highly probable.