Understanding the Anthropocene – we have cast our planet adrift on a dangerous voyage, and need to take charge before it is too late.

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Our only home is adrift, and moving fast into dangerous waters.  We need to man up, take over the controls, and bring it to safer waters.  The terrible irony is that Earth is adrift because of our unthinking actions.  It’s high time to clean up the messes we have made.  Yet mostly, we do not even realize we are in a predicament.

The enormous success of Hokule’a, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe which on June 17th 2017 completed its 3-year, round-the-world tour using only traditional Polynesian navigation is a great inspiration, revealing that people are capable of seemingly impossible feats.  We now need to build new navigation skills and sail our planet towards calm waters, and away from the dangerous place into which our carelessness has pushed it.  Photo © Bryson Hoe, ʻŌiwi TV and the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Our sheer abundance is part of the problem, and our impatience re the future

Back when I was born, there were about 2.3 billion people on the planet; today 7.5 billion.  That is more than three times as many of us eating other plants and animals, drinking water, breathing oxygen, and using much more than 3 times more energy, along with a host of other resources, because most of us have more stuff and do more stuff that burns energy than people of my grandparents’ time did.  Furthermore, our population continues to grow, although at a slower rate than it did when I was younger, and by 2050 will have increased by a further 2.3 billion (the total population at the time of my birth) or more of us.  I have lived through what is called the great acceleration – that enormous change in the intensity of human activities that occurred beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing until today.  And most of the time, I am not aware of this.

None of us are.  Immersed in a global culture of consumerism that values only the new, we know that the times they are a’changing, but we do not appreciate just how rapidly, nor how profoundly.  Except when we deliberately look back, or look at data revealing temporal trends, and most of us, mostly, do not look back.  That would be nostalgic, old-fashioned, out-of-touch.  Instead we peer excitedly into the future like so many spaniels, heads out the windows of the speeding car, ears swept back, flapping in the breeze.  Our evolution has not prepared us for this ride we are on, and the ride will probably get rocky because of that.

Is this us?  Always looking into the future while moving as fast as possible.  Photo © Daily Mail/London Media

Humans (genus Homo) evolved out of earlier australopithecines about 2 million years ago, and our species, Homo sapiens, is about 150,000 years old.  We spent most of the Pleistocene in Africa, venturing out to the rest of the world only about 60,000 years ago.  Some of us. endured the final glacial episode (the Wisconsin) in southern France (among other places), moving north as it waned and the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene some 11,700 years ago.  Humans developed agriculture in several locations around the world about 8,000 years ago, and the entirety of human civilization since then has been spent in a remarkably benign and stable environment.  Until now.  Our Holocene experience has not prepared us for a world that is changing more rapidly than at most times in the geological past.

In Our Dying Planet, I talked about how our evolution has prepared us for jumping out of the way of Sabre-toothed cats and other predators, but not for making long-term plans to cope with advancing (or melting) glaciers.  That is one major reason why we have such difficulty making decisions about climate change, but climate change is not the only slow-by-human-standards, but fast-by geological-norms, change now occurring on this planet.  Relatively suddenly, over the last 50 years or so, we have been ripped from the bosom of a benign Mother Earth, and plunked into a world of constant change.  Mostly, that change is of our own making, but that does not make it any easier to appreciate.  The Anthropocene really is a very different world to any we have known during all of recorded human history.  We all need to understand where we are.

News media report new events; they don’t provide much context

Some neonic news

Our media brim with information on planetary-scale change.  Unfortunately, most media reports deal with a particular event (the news), and do not relate it to the wider pattern of change.  For example, a recent article on the effects of neonicotinoids on queen bees, published by Gemma Baron and colleagues at University of London, UK, and University of Guelph, Canada in Proceedings of the Royal Society B earlier this year attracted the attention of the Globe & Mail.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and other pollinators are vital to our agriculture, yet are being seriously harmed by our use of insecticides.  Photo © Zachary Huang

In a lengthy article, G&M reported the study accurately.  Baron and colleagues had dosed queen bumblebees with neonics at levels representative of what they would have picked up foraging in an agricultural environment where such chemicals were in use, and then measured fertility, egg production and so on.  They found significant effects of the insecticides on egg production and survivorship which would have led to colony failure.  The G&M article also provided some background – bee populations are in decline around the world, neonics are one of several possible causes, the plant fertilization services of bees are important to our crop production.  But the article did not flesh out that background information with the details that have appeared over time in other studies.  To find a summary of such background information, you have to look further, such as to the report on pollination issued by IPBES – the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  That report, published in 2016 contains gems such as 30-35% (by area farmed) of current crop production depends at least in part on animal pollinators, and that a total loss of pollinators would result in loss of 5-8% by volume of agricultural production worth $235-577 billion per year worldwide as well as critical erosion of the global food supply.  Further, our dependence on pollinator-dependent crops has increased in recent years due to shifts in crop species while our total production has increased, so that, overall, our dependence on animal pollinators has increased 300% over the past 50 years.  And, finally, yields of pollinator-dependent crops are dependent on presence of a diverse pollinator community, managed domestic bees cannot replace such diverse natural communities as pollination agents, and many pollinator species of bee, butterfly, other insect and vertebrate species have been declining, or going extinct, in recent decades.  The New York Times reported on the release of the IPBES report, but without including any details of the magnitude of changes already observed.  Oh, and in case you are wondering, recent evidence in other publications reveals that insect populations in general have been undergoing steep declines wherever they have been measured.

One summary of such studies appeared in Science for 12th May 2017.  Gretchen Vogel, a Science journalist reviewed results of long-term monitoring of 100 European nature reserves by the Krefeld Entomological Society, a German NGO of primarily amateur entomologists who have been tracking the abundances and diversity of insects since 1905.  Beginning in 2013, society members noted dramatic reductions approaching 80% in insects caught in standardized sampling procedures at a dozen different nature reserves in Germany.  Most of the group’s results are not yet published and the generality of this observation is not known, but it is indicative of serious changes in insect numbers and that has to mean serious changes in pollination activity.  A more recent experiment, also reported in Science in an article by B.A. Woodcock of the UK’s NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and 18 colleagues, examined the effect on three bee species of using neonic-coated seed in growing rape oil-seed crops in UK, Germany and Hungary.  In 22 treatment and 11 nearby control sites across the three countries, colonies of honeybee (Apis sp), wild bumblebee (Bombus sp) and solitary bee (Osmia sp) were sampled for reproductive effects.  They showed variable, but primarily negative effects of neonics on the capacity of the three species to persist from one year to the next.

Some Antarctic ice shelf news

The effects of our insecticides are not the only impact on the planet not being well-covered by reliance on the media.  Just this month, sometime between July 10th and 12th, the Larsen C ice shelf finally separated from Antarctica to produce an iceberg larger than Prince Edward Island or Delaware and containing ice sufficient to fill Lake Erie (if it was transported north, melted, and Lake Erie happened to be empty).  The widening, more than 120 mile long, split between the now-calved berg and the ice shelf has been followed, off and on, since it first started forming in 2010, and the final break was expected.  How did the media report this event?  Variously.  The American media generally began with the facts: it has broken off, it is very big, its eventual melting will not raise sea level because it was already floating.  Mostly they then reported some background – the earlier breaking off of Larson A and Larson B, and how reduction in extent of ice shelves can lead to acceleration of glacier flow and further melting which does raise sea level.  Interestingly to me, many American media then focused on whether or not this was a sign of climate change.  In The Daily Caller, based in Washington DC, Michael Bastasch devoted all but the first sentence of his report to the idea that the rest of the news media have been grievously incorrect in tying this event to climate change (they had not, but that does not matter),  He focused on comments of denialist Bjorn Lomborg and perfectly reasonable comments by Helen Fricker, Scripps glaciologist, that what had happened at Larson C was a normal Antarctic process.  The Atlanta Constitution Journal website had a ‘7 things to know’ article, ending with the role of climate change, where it managed to come down strongly on the view that climate change had nothing to do with it.  The Los Angeles Times, in an article by Sean Greene, was more circumspect (and accurate), but with a tone that stressed that there is nothing to worry about here.  It even quoted Fricker as saying, “Its still winter down there, for the next six months the ice shelf is going to be completely fine” – as in, don’t worry children, the sky is not falling tonight.  The Alamagordo Daily News stuck closely to the facts, noting that there is no evidence directly linking this calving event to climate change, but that warming will inevitably put more stress on the ice.

The progression of the split across the Larson C ice shelf.  Image © New York Times

An exception in my simplistic survey was the New York Times.  Its website provided a primary report with extensive background on the history of the split since 2010, and a nuanced discussion of the consequences of ice shelf breakup.  It covered the fact that this particular event is likely not directly a consequence of warming, while stressing that warming is taking place and radically altering the environment in Antarctica.  Reading this article would provide a good education on what has been happening, as well as on what had just happened.  The Times, however, went further with an op-ed by Yale University’s Fen Montaign who provided background to the event, including published comment by glaciologist John Mercer who stated in 1978, “If present trends in fossil fuel consumption continue… a critical level of warmth will have been passed in high southern latitudes 50 years from now, and deglaciation of West Antarctica will be imminent or in progress”.  We do not know how imminent the break-up of the West Antarctic shelf is.  We do know that the break-up of the Larson shelves in recent years is a good predictor of what may be coming next.  I did not look at media outside the USA on this topic.

I recognize that the news media are charged with reporting the news.  My point is that reading the news does not give us an understanding of the true extent of our impacts on the planet unless we are keeping track, maintaining some sort of record of past news, or reading more deeply to find the articles that give an overall review.  Most of us do not have the time for such in-depth inquiry, and the story of our impacts on the planet is received as a continuing series of apparently unrelated facts that most of us will be unlikely to stitch together.  When we don’t stitch them together, they fail to convey the real message – that we are seriously degrading our only home.  The fact is that our deleterious impacts on the planet are varied and the damage they lead to develops slowly (by human standards).  Becoming aware of what we are doing requires a major effort that most of us do not have time for.

One of the reasons I get so angry with the (now near continuous) reporting of coral bleaching is that each event is reported as something that happened to a coral reef somewhere far away.  Coral bleaching, in reality, is an ongoing commentary of our deleterious impacts on the atmosphere and the ocean; it is a story about us, our failures, and our need to act.  It does not come across that way very often.

The several ways in which we are stressing our only home

How are we degrading our planet?  An excellent introduction to this story is the small, easily-read book, Big World Small Planet, by Johan Rockström with some amazing photos by Mattias Klum.  It came out in 2015 as a way to convey the findings of the Planetary Boundaries project to a wider community.

Pointing out that the world as we know it is scarcely 10,000 years old, they argue that through the history of the genus Homo prior to the Holocene, the Earth’s climate shifted so radically from ice age to warm interglacials that it provided an environment inimical to the invention of agriculture, and that, indeed, we came close to extinction about 75,000 years ago during a critical cold period.  In a (to me) interesting twist on the conventional story, they relate the spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa to this climatic squeeze.  In any event, we have benefitted immensely from the benign climate of the Holocene, because by developing agriculture we were able to become sedentary, create food surpluses, and build the first complex states with citizens with diverse, specialized skills who were sustained by the food produced by equally specialized farmers.  Our populations grew, and our impacts on the environment began to grow.

Initially, of course, our impacts were almost entirely local.  And it is conceivable that our growing agriculture and land management activities may have increased the global rates of primary productivity over what they had been – not a bad thing.  However, as our global population grew, and as our technology advanced, we became able to harness vast amounts of energy locked in the muscles of other species, in flowing water, in wind, and in the chemistry of organic materials including wood and fossil fuels.  With the invention of the steam engine our growth in energy use began its rapid climb, and our impacts on the planet became far more intensive.

Greenhouse gases climbing

Since 1959, we have increased the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere by 88 ppm or 28% (from 316 ppm in 1959 to 404 in 2016).  It is 42% above its level in preindustrial times.  We have also increased concentrations of methane, CH4, by 57%, and nitrous oxide, N2O, by 13% since 1950; 143% and 20% respectively since 1800.  Look at those percentages, these are substantial changes to the composition of the atmosphere, and the increase in these greenhouse gases is responsible for the climate change we are now witnessing.

Loss of biodiversity

We have increased the global extinction rate until it is now between 1000 and 10,000 times faster than the background rate of between 1 and 0.1 extinctions per million species years.  Along with the greatly increased rate of extinctions, we have been substantially reducing densities of species living on the planet, whether these species are insects, fish, birds or anything else.

This incredible photo expresses the sheer abundance of life in the oceans, but if we could weigh all the fish in the sea today, we’d find it is only 10% of what it was in the 1940s.  In less than a century we have reduced abundance in the oceans by 90%.  Photo © Greg LeCoeur.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus excess

We have massively altered the global nitrogen cycle.  Nitrogen, in its gaseous form (80% of our atmosphere) is inaccessible to plants and animals, but nitrogen in various organic forms, such as nitrates or ammonia, is accessible to plants which extract it from the soil.  Lightning strikes generate 3-10 Tg (teragrams) of fixed nitrogen per year, while certain bacteria fix between 100 and 300 Tg nitrogen per year (most estimates closer to 100).  In preindustrial times, this total fixation of under around 150 Tg nitrogen drove all biotic activity.  Humans, through cultivation of certain plants, chiefly legumes, that have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, and (to a far greater extent) through our manufacture of fertilizers using atmospheric nitrogen, now generate an additional 170 Tg fixed nitrogen per year.  Effectively we have doubled the rate at which nitrogen is made available for biotic uses, and while some of this leads to enhanced agricultural production, most of it is surplus to agricultural needs, resulting in pollution and toxic algal blooms in many water bodies around the world.

We have similarly made massive changes to the availability of phosphorus through our mining of phosphates.  Overuse of phosphate-bearing fertilizers is causing significant problems in freshwaters around the world.

Terraforming

Our changes to the landscape itself have also been enormous over the last 50 years.  We now occupy in excess of 40% of the non-ice land surface for agriculture and have taken substantial additional land for urban areas.  Little land potentially suitable for non-irrigated agriculture remains, and we are not going to be able to feed the growing population without greater efficiencies in the entire food production chain.  We have also reduced the extent of forested land by about 40%, focusing our extractions on old-growth forests – the ones with the greatest biodiversity and greatest ecological resilience.  This drives down the capacity of the planet to withstand the changes that are inevitably coming with climate change and other stresses.

Freshwater, ocean pH, novel chemicals

Then there is the waste, and the pollution of freshwater supplies around the world – a subject which should be of existential concern since we all need water to live.  Also, our progressive acidification of the oceans due to the CO2 which dissolves into them from the atmosphere, and has already changed ocean pH more rapidly and to a greater degree than at any time since at least the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum 56 million years ago.  When I was a student, I was taught that the chemical composition of the ocean, including its pH, was so uniform that we could talk confidently about standard ocean water.  Not any more.

Finally, we are generating new novel chemicals at an enormous rate, such as neonicotinoid pesticides and plastic nanoparticles, and most of them find their way into the environment eventually.  Some prove benign; others do not.  Their consequences for ecological systems, and for us, vary, but many are severe and we find it very difficult socially and technically to correct the damage our novel chemicals produce.

As one tiny example of this problem of novel forms of pollution, the Globe and Mail published an Op-Ed by Tim Gray, of Environmental Defense, on 14th July, 2017.  Gray drew attention to the fact that Canada, at both national and provincial levels, lacks law that would require business enterprises to post bonds, or in other ways provide secure funding sufficient to clean up environmental damage done as a result of their activities, in the event they should fail financially.  The problem primarily concerns mining and other resource extraction and processing firms although heavy industry and electronic manufacturers are also frequent culprits.  At present, for example, Alberta law requires only that a mining company include in its business plan evidence that it has the financial capacity for, and plans in place to remediate environmental damage once extraction activities are finished.  If the company fails financially, or is liquidated, society is on the hook for any environmental damage left behind.

Gray pointed out that “Canadians are burdened by the accumulating financial liability associated with cleaning up the environmental messes made by abandoned oil wells, closed mines and decaying tailings dams.  For example, in Alberta, the oil sands have been producing a vast and growing legacy of tailings ponds. These ponds contain leftover toxic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, water and sand. They now cover an area larger than the preamalgamation city of Toronto and Vancouver combined and are growing at a rate of 25 million litres a day.  Estimates show that it will cost at least $44.5-billion to clean up the existing tailings ponds. This represents a bill greater than all the royalties paid to the Province of Alberta since the inception of oil sands business in 1970.”

His ire was provoked by news that the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) planned to appeal a recent judge’s ruling that gave creditors priority access to a bankrupt oil company’s assets, over its financial obligations to clean up abandoned wells.  As he pointed out, the government, through AER, was right to appeal, but the long-term solution is better law.  And it’s not just in the tar sands.  Far too often our global economy generates novel pollutants (and I think the mysterious mix of chemicals used in extracting tar sands oil can only be called novel), manages to leak them into the environment to cause damage, and we then discover that clean-up is tremendously costly, mechanisms to do the clean-up do not exist, and the company concerned has already ceased to exist.  While Gray’s concern was motivated by one bankrupt oil company, the inevitable winding down of the tar sands industry has begun a process of divestiture, departure, and disappearance as corporate bodies restructure their assets away from owning tar sands.  I do not believe for an instant that companies that have spent their entire lives delaying, postponing and in other ways deferring the cost of clean-up will magically tidy up the day before they all leave town.  The tar sands story looks set to become one more story about how we have consistently avoided paying for environmental damage, planned or otherwise, in the course of doing business – all part of our conviction that protecting the economy comes first.

Our Terraforming seems to know no limits, not to mention our toxic litter.  Syncrude site, Alberta.  Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute.

The existential need to act

Getting back on track (I could not resist a comment on my beloved tar sands), once we add up the many ways in which we are altering the planet, it should be clear that we are creating enormous change, and therefore enormous stresses on the ecological systems that operate here.  I think we need to understand this fact, and be very worried.  We depend, far more than most of us appreciate, on the benign Holocene planet our global economy has developed on.

I also believe that we need that understanding in order to be inspired to develop the motivation to actually do something serious about this problem.  Recycling our garbage, and using active transport are fine, even noble, things to do, but we have to aspire to do a lot more than that to deal with our irresponsibility over the last couple of centuries.

What is called for now is a concerted effort first to stop doing those things that stress the ecological systems upon which we depend.  This means not only curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases in order to avoid having global temperatures increase more than 2oC above the preindustrial average, and eventually bringing the increase down to 1.5oC.  It means cutting our rate of production of fixed nitrogen by at least two thirds, curtailing growth, and eventually reducing the size of our own population, and moving aggressively towards a circular economy that maximizes efficiency with which we use energy and resources while minimizing waste.  In short, it means radical retooling of the human enterprise so as to ensure the long-term sustainability of the rest of the biosphere.

Effectively, we have got to recognize just how powerful we have become, and begin to use that power to repair our past excesses.  Long ago, our actions could not have affected our planet in any significant way, even if we had wanted to.   Now we cannot avoid affecting our planet and must behave in responsible ways so that our impacts are benign, or else move the planetary system in desirable directions.  Effectively, having grown up into the powerful beings we are, we have got to take on the responsibility of steering this amazing craft we call Earth, so that it moves into places that are conducive to the continued prospering of creatures like us.  Right now, we are in danger of steering into very risky waters; we need to navigate towards safe waters.  And we need to get moving now, because nearly all the trends I have mentioned are continuing to worsen into the future.

The story of Hokule’a, which I alluded to in a post not long ago, convinces me that the task before us is doable.  The story of Hokule’a actually begins well over 2000 years ago as Polynesians were expanding out into the Pacific.  That immense area of open ocean, with tiny islands scattered through it was settled by an amazing sea-faring culture, capable of long-distance, open-ocean voyaging at a time when European and Chinese sailors clung close to continental shores, afraid they might fall off the edge of the world if they did not.  The Polynesians, with no metal and limited technology, developed a science of navigation, called wayfinding, that made use of myriad clues, beginning with the stars and planets, but including the waves and tides, the flotsam in the water, fish and seabirds, and the smell of reefs and land.  They used this science to sustain trading journeys among the island groups throughout the Pacific.  For reasons unclear, the long-distance trading had more or less ceased by the time that James Cook and others were ‘opening up’ the Pacific to Europeans.

Despite this, when the Tahitian priest, Tupa’ia, agreed to accompany Cook as he continued his first voyage from Tahiti towards New Zealand and on to the west back to England, Tupa’ia knew the locations of the various island groups and their approximate distances from Tahiti, and he was able to impart this knowledge to Cook.  Tupa’ia had never travelled far beyond Tahiti; his knowledge was traditional, embedded in his culture.

Despite the evidence provided by Tupa’ia, the conventional western view that emerged, as it dawned on Europeans that all those tiny islands had been colonized by Polynesians, was that Polynesia had been settled by accident, as islanders out on the ocean fishing, or making short coastal journeys, got taken by storms and pushed off to new places.  The absurdity of this belief should have been obvious given that each island group was colonized by people bringing dogs, pigs, yams, coconut palms along with them – not the sort of goods one would anticipate being in the average canoe on a fishing trip.  We were still being taught that nonsense when I was a graduate student in Hawai’I in the late 1960s.

In 1975, as part of a resurgence of interest in their culture by Hawaiians, a forward-thinking group decided to build a new ocean-voyaging canoe using the traditional methods.  Canoes of that size had not been built in Hawai’i for at least 400 years.  With building under way, they strived to learn the now-lost science of wayfinding, and they located Mau Piailug, a Micronesian master navigator from far away on the island of Satawal, Micronesia, and brought him to Hawai’I to teach wayfinding to Hawaiians.  Hokule’a made its inaugural long-distance voyage to Tahiti in 1976, with Mau Pialilug finding the path.  It was the first wayfinding voyage between Hawai’I and Tahiti in 400 years.  There have been many subsequent voyages with Mau-trained Nainoa Thompson and subsequent Hawaiians wayfinding, all without use of modern navigational aids, and Hokule’a completed a three-year circumnavigation returning to Honolulu on 17th June 2017.

Hokule’a, and the interest in voyaging and traditional Polynesian wayfinding it has inspired has been a vital part of the revitalization of Hawaiian culture.  It not only demonstrated that traditional knowledge, almost totally lost, could be rehabilitated.  It showed that people, with sufficient learning and experience can do amazing feats – such as sailing across the Pacific from one small dot of an island to another without use of any instrumentation.  Hokule’a’s story also encourages me because we are pushing our planet towards a very bad place, and it is high time, as I argued in a recent post, that we start steering back towards quiet waters.  I know we have the capacity to undertake this new navigational challenge.  We just have to build the will to try.

Is our planet a Blue Marble, seemingly motionless in the heavens, or is it a giant canoe that we must now start navigating towards safe spaces?  I favor the canoe.  Photo © Polynesian Voyaging Society, ‘Oiwi TV and Kaipo Ki’aha.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Communicting science, Fisheries, Land Use, Tar Sands, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Understanding the Anthropocene – we have cast our planet adrift on a dangerous voyage, and need to take charge before it is too late.

Just exactly what did Donald Trump do on 1st June 2017?

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These days, maintaining a blog is a challenge.  It’s spring around here; a wonderful time of year, and a time with plenty of things to do other than prepare a post.  The environmental crisis, my primary focus, is an unravelling which proceeds slowly compared to human timelines (although at breathtaking speed if viewed from a geological perspective).  There simply is not breaking news every week or so, and, apart from an expected and grossly stupid announcement in the White House Rose Garden on June 1st, things have been relatively quiet lately on the environmental front, if one judges by the media.  Because.  This year, the Trump circus is sucking all the air out of the room, dominating the media at the expense of every other topic including the environment.

I don’t want to contribute my own rant to the anti-Trump chorus, and yet the possibilities for outrage, for flailing at the machine, and perhaps for humor are very enticing.  On Twitter, I tried referring to him as Unpresident Trump (riffing off his own tweet in which he referred to ‘unpresidented’ attacks by the media, while also noting his lack of qualifications for his job).  But that term did not catch on with others.  I’ve also thought of calling him Emperor Trump, assuming readers would make the connection to the emperor who had no clothes.

Unqualified, ill-informed, brash, outspoken, but apparently very comfortable in his own skin

He recently returned from his first overseas trip, with all the opportunities it provided for revealing his shallow absence of understanding or nuance, and his petulant, bullying, narcissism.  My congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected President of France, who masterfully managed to out-manipulate him in the hand-shake and greeting department, and to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who responded to Trump’s misleading call for greater defense spending by NATO countries with “Decisions on Canadian military spending are made in Canada by Canadians”.  But back in Washington, desperate to remain the center of attention, he has now signed yet another Executive Order instructing his government to remove the USA from the Paris Agreement at the earliest possible date.  Nothing like moving fast.  But then Trump is only about the show, the event, the entertainment.  Definitely a petulant Unpresident.

It is increasingly difficult to take Donald Trump seriously.  His decision on the Paris Agreement reveals his total lack of understanding of that accord, or of how diplomacy works.  Far from restoring the stature of the USA in the world, he has eroded it severely.  Cartoons often tell real truths.  Image © Robert Ariail/The State.

Trump’s withdrawal from Paris may be a good thing

From an environmental perspective, the Trump presidency is likely to significantly roll back protections for US natural environments, much as the decade of rule by former PM Stephen Harper did in Canada.  Canadians are seeing how long it takes to rebuild environmental management, and the US will have that task once Trump is bundled off to wherever he ends up next – King of the World, perhaps.  On the international stage, Trump has chilled discussion of climate change, but has not yet had significant impact on actions being taken (even by States within the US).  In this regard, an interesting commentary appeared May 23rd in the Globe & Mail, written by political scientist Matthew Hoffman of University of Toronto.  He argued that it would be best for the world for Trump to announce a formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as soon as possible.  In Hoffman’s view, there is sufficient commitment to the idea of the necessity of global climate action for the world to move forward, whether or not Trump keeps the US near the front of the parade.  Better to have him make his illogical decision and fade away, then to have him continue engaged, while actively working against real progress.  Looks like Hoffman has got his wish.

Given my concern with the need for a much more robust effort at emissions reduction than is presently in place, I was not sure I agreed with Hoffman when I read his piece, although I do believe the irrelevance of a denialist agenda is being recognized by an ever-widening majority of people.  I feared that until he does fade from view, we would just have to put up with the strange reporting on Trump’s body language and his mental health that fill the pages of the reputable press, while Trump does what he can to strip away environmental regulations.  Trump is clearly unlike any prior US President.

But that was BEFORE 1st June.  The outrage that greeted his announcement was substantially stronger, and far more widespread than I had expected.  Progressive voices within the USA were quick to pounce, both on the decision itself and on the arguments Trump used to justify it.  The news media around the world (the serious news media like the New York Times and the Washington Post) not only reported the decision, but wrote editorials critical of it.  The Economist referred to the decision as “unconscionable and fatuous” and reported it was a decision rejected by most of his advisors, most large US companies, and 2/3 of Americans.  The New Yorker dug deeper and described how the decision (and its support by most Republican members of congress) was a clear demonstation of the effectiveness of the dark money campaign by the Koch brothers and others on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.  David Rank, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Beijing and a career diplomat with 27 years’ service, resigned from the State Department because he could not deliver the formal announcement of Trump’s decision to the Chinese in good conscience. Foreign leaders of every political stripe joined in with comments ranging from deeply disappointed to outright anger.   The Economist felt the decision had dealt a severe blow to America’s interests and international standing.  Even my friend, Randy Olson, who pleads constantly for environmental scientists to learn how to tell their stories effectively, jumped in, claiming Trump was the B in the ABT rule for story-telling (his blog post on this is worth a read).  And Twitter was alive with outrage.  Meanwhile a large number of other actors pledged to move forward on climate no matter what the Trump administration decided.  Here are my thoughts on the substance of the decision.

This image accompanied the New York Times editorial on June 1st.  Not only has the flag fallen out of the tree of countries in the Paris agreement, the flag is being flown upside down, and we all know what that symbolizes!  Image © New York Times

National Public Radio has provided a full annotated transcript of the event including the opening remarks by Vice President Mike Pence, and closing remarks by EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt.  The comments of those two gentlemen reveal the enormous gulf that presently exists in American political life.  Here is one quote from Pence:

“Since the first day of this administration, President Donald Trump has been working tirelessly to keep the promises that he made to the American people. President Trump has been reforming health care, enforcing our laws, ending illegal immigration, rebuilding our military, and this president has been rolling back excessive regulations and unfair trade practices that were stifling American jobs. Thanks to President Trump’s leadership, American business are growing again, investing in America again, and they’re creating jobs in this country instead of shipping jobs overseas. Thanks to President Donald Trump, America is back.”

Apart from the obvious (and acceptable) boosterish tone, this quote is full of aspirations expressed as achievements, plus claims of causation for events, such as job growth, that may or may not be justified.  Reading it, I struggle to understand the nature of the rose-colored spectacles that Pence and colleagues are wearing, because the Trump presidency does not look remotely like that to me.  CORRECTION – not rose-colored spectacles, Pence is not wearing any.  Must be the nature of the cool-aid I do not understand.

Scott Pruitt’s closing comments are not quite so egregious.  In fact, he even seems to consider reducing CO2 emissions to be a good thing – a strange perspective from one who denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change.   But there are two sentences in the middle that typify the problem some American leaders have with being a part of the world:

“This is an historic restoration of American economic independence, one that will benefit the working class, the working poor, and working people of all stripes. With this action, you have declared that the people are rulers of this country once again.”

Apparently, for Pruitt, and perhaps Trump, international agreements erode sovereignty, while restoring that sovereignty will somehow help the poor.  Renouncing Paris somehow restores American democracy?  But, hey, I’m not a political scientist.  I’m just a lowly environmental scientist who cannot be expected to understand.

Trump’s 1st June announcement revealed either total unconcern about details, or total lack of understanding of the Paris Agreement.  He refers to it, throughout as the Paris Accord, when its correct name is Paris Agreement (lots of people make this error).  But in one telling sentence he reveals how little he knows about its content:

“Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

Does Donald Trump not know what the word ‘non-binding’ means?  How can a non-binding agreement impose severe financial or economic burdens on a country?  Later he claims that “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as $2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, according to the National Economic Research Associates.”  Setting aside his reference to a widely disputed cost estimate, which, among other things, took no notice of new jobs likely to be created in the developing renewables economy, this sentence reinforces the view that the Paris Agreement sets mandatory costs on the USA.  It doesn’t.  That is what non-binding means.

Much of Trump’s announcement was a mish-mash of statistics about jobs, the economy, and growth or retreat of specific sectors, plus praise for the high environmental standards of the USA.  He is meanwhile doing all he can to erode those environmental standards.  Nowhere in his announcement does he mention climate change except for the spurious claim that “if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a [0.2oC change in temperature].”  That is one low-ball estimate of the incremental improvement due to Paris that has been widely disputed; a more realistic estimate is 0.8oC, but all people recognize that the commitments already on the table because of Paris are just a first step, and that there will be further commitments in the future.  (This fact about the Paris Agreement is seen by some as one of its greatest strokes of genius – it builds a community within which there will be peer pressure to do ever better – while others claim it is one of its great weaknesses.)  Instead of denying that climate change is a problem to solve (something I’d have expected from Trump), he avoids all mention of potential climate change impacts and their costs, and converts the Paris Agreement into some nefarious plot by those other nations to unfairly constrain the vibrant economy of the USA.

Bizarrely – well, OK, the whole announcement is bizarre, but, even more bizarrely — he announces that on withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the US will immediately begin to renegotiate it.  I guess this kind of brinksmanship is the type of business negotiation he is used to, but does he realize how long was spent in negotiating Paris?  Does he realize that to formally withdraw, the USA must wait 3 years from its date of coming into force (4th November, 2016) to send the letter, and an additional year before the withdrawal takes place (that’s in 2020, just after the next Presidential election)?  When is he expecting to commence renegotiations?  If there is one thing that Trump’s announcement made abundantly clear, it is that he simply does not understand the details of the agreement that he is determined to withdraw from.  But then, we are all beginning to learn that Trump does not bother about details.  Ever.  Just the spectacle.  Just the pomp.  Truly an Emperor without any clothes on.

This image is a year old, but is as relevant today as back then.
Cartoon
© Steve Sack, Star Tribune.

Yet the environmental crisis goes on

Despite the Trump circus, the media continue to provide coverage of the environmental crisis.  Bloomberg has now put up two of three articles on changes in the Arctic on its website.  The third will appear in June.  Apart from stunning photography (such as this image showing what can happen when melting permafrost burps methane), the articles provide an update on how rapidly the Arctic is warming, and on the impacts of this on the weather, the natural environment, and international politics and economics.  Countries like Canada should recognize there is a huge downside to continued warming up there.

A crater formed by the explosion of a “pingo”, a pocket of methane gas, on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia.  Those are people standing on the edge.  Warming is leading to more frequent occurrences and greater methane emissions.  Photo © Vasily Bogoyavlensky/AFP

On 18th May, a report in The Guardian detailed a paper published in Scientific Reports by Sean Vitousek of University of Illinois at Chicago, with five colleagues from the US Geological Survey and University of Hawaii.  They evaluated the consequences for flooding risk of continued sea level rise.  While sea level rise of ~4mm per year will not cause significantly increased flooding risk directly for many years, it does facilitate flooding during storm events when seas can be noticeably elevated above usual levels.  Flood risk management is always about these extreme events and how frequently they can be expected to occur.

Putting aside the disturbing fact that estimates of sea level rise expected during this century continue to rise as scientific understanding of the behavior of glaciers grows. The Vitousek article, by analyzing the effects of elevated sea level on impacts of large waves and storm surges, showed first that these effects are somewhat more important at low latitudes because tidal ranges are generally lower there.  They calculated that the risk of extreme water-level events is doubled by an increase in sea level of 5-10 cm.  This will likely occur by 2030.  Obviously, with still greater sea level rise the risk increases further.  In the authors’ view, the maps they developed of flooding risk suggest a dire future for many places including major cities like San Francisco, Mumbai, Ho Chi Min City and Abidjan.  As with other aspects of climate change, the picture keeps getting more bleak as we learn more details of how the planetary systems will respond to the changing climate.

On 9th May, Takamatsu Ito of Georgia Tech, and three colleagues from US and Japanese labs, published an article in Geophysical Research Letters.  The article is, as usual, behind a paywall, but there is a good summary of it on the website, Phys.Org.  Using a global database of ocean physics and chemistry, Ito and colleagues reviewed dissolved oxygen content in the upper 1000 meters of the global ocean for the period from 1958 to 2015.  They found a measurable reduction in oxygen content beginning in the 1980s, and continuing today.  The total reduction over that time is greater than the natural year to year variability in oxygen content, and its extent varies geographically.

The trend in oxygen content at three depths over the period 1958 to 2015.  Black areas are places missing data.  The reduction, measured as micromoles per year, is substantial in some parts of the ocean, and is partly caused by alterations in solubility of oxygen due to rising temperatures.  Image © M Ito and Geophysical Research Letters.

The amount of oxygen loss since 1980 is about three times more than anticipated based on temperature-induced changes in solubility.  Ito and colleagues believe this discrepancy can be explained by the simultaneous changes in water circulation associated with the warming.  The fact of the decline makes the long-term consequences for ocean biology an important question for ocean scientists in coming years.  Substantial loss of dissolved oxygen may contribute to the growth in coastal dead zones (chiefly caused by largescale nitrification due to land-sourced agricultural and domestic pollution) and has been a feature of several of the past mass extinction events on this planet.

Scientists continue to identify ways in which we are modifying this planet by our meddling with the atmosphere.  Politicians and the general public are increasingly aware of the urgency of the need to rein in CO2 emissions, in order to prevent extreme warming or run-away climate change.  Progress in decarbonizing the global economy is being made, although it remains far too slow.  June 1st, 2017 may well become identified as the day that climate change denial reached its ultimate level of absurdity, in the Rose Garden of the White House, and the day from which we will be able to mark the beginning of a global acceleration in actions to mitigate CO2 emissions.  The hope that sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs can survive the next century has likely been bolstered, so long as we commit to a more active management of them than in the past.  By getting the rest of the planet to recognize, and commit publicly to the need to act on climate change now, Trump may actually have finally done something useful.

Trump?  Not my President!  No Sir!
A great photo showing parrotfish on Maldive reef
© Victor Tribunsky

Categories: Climate change, In the News, Politics, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Just exactly what did Donald Trump do on 1st June 2017?

Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time

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Once a year, on Earth Day, many of us pause to think about matters environmental.  Then we get on with our lives.  Yet the ‘matters environmental’ get more serious year by year, and I wonder why so many of us fail to see the obvious.  Today I try to summarize the problem by looking at five articles that appeared in Science the day before Earth Day 2017.  They all centered on aspects of how humanity currently interacts with the rest of the biosphere.  Three reviews dealt directly with this interaction while the other two were more methodological.  These two were concerned with how to encourage people to care about how we interact with the natural world, and with why the problem of our interaction with the natural world is what scientists call a ‘wicked’ one.

You can almost see the Biosphere in images of Earth from space.  It is that infinitesimal layer of air, soil, water, and organisms that envelopes our planet and sustains all life.  This photo, taken from the Space Station on 28 February 2015 looks north up the western USA coast towards Canada, with Vancouver Island near center.  Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

All five reviews were clearly written and should be accessible to most readers; unfortunately, they are not on open access and this will limit their real accessibility to non-specialists.  That is a pity, because the world needs to understand the nature of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere, how it is changing rapidly during the Anthropocene, and the serious consequences that will follow if current trends in this interaction continue.  We also need to understand the complexity of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere and how that makes solutions to the growing problems difficult to devise, as well as the fact that our interaction with the rest of the biosphere is predicated on cultural norms and attitudes so that solutions must involve changes in culture.  You do not change peoples’ beliefs by providing detailed science-based explanations of what is happening and why, and certainly not by fear-mongering, so moving towards new forms of interaction with the rest of the biosphere requires sociology and psychology as well as natural sciences

The value of the Biosphere

You may have noticed my repeated use of the clumsy phrase ‘our interaction with the rest of the biosphere’ in that paragraph.  I wrote that deliberately to remind everyone, right at the start, that humanity is one species within the biosphere.  Our tendency to view ourselves as standing outside the biosphere is very strong, deeply entrenched in modern industrialized cultures of all political stripes, and imbedded in our laws and our economies.  That tendency is a major factor in why we currently have a substantial environmental crisis on our hands, yet for the most part seem unaware of it.  In reality, we, like all other species, are parts of the complex system which sustains life on this planet.  The biosphere is that thin layer of ‘stuff’ that surrounds our planet – water, soil, lower atmosphere, all forms of life, and the ecosystems these comprise.  Through the myriad chemical, physical and other interactions among its components it provides the opportunities for and sustains life.  The cycling of energy and materials through the various biosphere components provides the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, while also providing the other natural resources, such as timber, that we use in our lives, while decontaminating wastes.  The constant stream of energy from the sun and the intricate cycling of the biosphere are ultimately what make all life on this planet possible, even the life of Homo urbanensis, that city-dwelling, supermarket-browsing, nature-ignoring human that becomes more prevalent year by year as the global human population becomes more strongly urbanized.  City-dwellers increasingly fail to see the role of the natural world in their lives because they have been separated from it by our civilization.  And the idea that humanity will ultimately be able to do away with nature completely grows in acceptance despite the fact that we have never succeeded in doing this even on a small scale and for short periods of time.

Biosphere 2, a $200 million plus, 3.14 acre space enclosed under a glass and steel dome in Arizona, was intended to replicate the biosphere at small scale.  It was constructed in the early 1990s and stocked with selected species to populate five quasi-natural biomes.  Then 8 people were shut inside with the goal of living completely independently – other than by exchange of information, and inputs of sunlight – for two years.  The experiment failed within six months when the internal atmosphere became dangerously low in oxygen and food was running out.  And Biosphere 2 did not attempt to replace the natural processes such as photosynthesis that drive our biosphere, so even if it had been successful it would not have demonstrated we do not need the real biosphere on this planet.  Biosphere 2 continues to be used as an enormous closed environment, but it provides no confidence that we could engineer a replacement for the real biosphere if something serious went wrong.

The reality is that the bulk of our agriculture depends on the hydrologic cycle for irrigation, and all of it depends on photosynthesis to build the plant and animal foods we consume.  We speed up food production by enhancing the supply of nutrients using fertilizers derived from rock or by planting legumes and relying on their intricate symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make atmospheric nitrogen accessible to plants and microbes in the soil.  Our fisheries depend on natural production in lakes and the ocean, and increasingly on aquaculture, an analog for feedlot rearing of cattle which depends on continuous inputs of food obtained from marine or terrestrial sources.  In every case, we have been able to increase the rate of production of selected food products, but we are still relying on the processes the biosphere provides.  Along the way, our intensive agriculture and aquaculture have generated numerous problems in waste production that have overtaxed the biosphere’s capacity to recycle wastes.  The belief that humanity can do without the natural world is unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

I am taking time to emphasize the essential value of the biosphere for human existence because this is one point on which the reviews in the 21st April issue of Science are largely silent.  While environmental scientists understand and accept the essential value of the biosphere, I do not believe this understanding is widespread in our societies.  It is something everybody needs to understand, and many people do not.  Our considerable technical expertise and accumulated tools and infrastructure, and our modern consumer economy do not equip us to replace the biosphere.

Loss of Biodiversity

In their review of biodiversity loss and conservation in the Anthropocene, Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues from UK, Brazil, China, New Zealand and Australia, discuss the great acceleration in extinction rates that is now taking place.  They point out that our impacts on extinction rates go back 2 million years to the time when our ancestors, through their use of tools as weapons, first began to take over the role of large terrestrial predators.  The immediate result was the loss of two thirds of the other large predators of Africa, and the simultaneous loss of many large herbivores hunted by humans.  For example, the 12 species of elephant in Africa 3 million years ago was reduced to two.  Similar impacts subsequently occurred on other continents as our species expanded its range, and increased noticeably in rate over the past 60 thousand years.  They report 140 genera, more than 10% of all land mammals, went extinct in the 100,000 years prior to 500 AD.  This is a pace far exceeding background extinction rates for mammals, and similar patterns of loss occurred in reptiles and birds.  These ‘prehistoric’ extinctions tended to coincide with the arrival of humans at particular places, and are most easily understood as due to effects of highly efficient hunting.  More recently, we have caused extinctions of terrestrial species primarily through usurpation and modification of land, although hunting continues to be an important cause as does the introduction of invasive species from elsewhere that prey upon, causes disease in, or out-compete native fauna.

With the great expansion of our environmental footprint since the start of the industrial revolution, and particularly since 1950, there are many signs that the rate of extinction is rising rapidly.  We are now having demonstrable effects on marine organisms as well as terrestrial, and the bias towards extinction of larger species that was initially evident is now greatly reduced.  We now have many ways to cause extinction beyond hunting, and we are also harvesting many smaller species, at least in the oceans.

While extinction is absolute and permanent, it is also the end-point of reduction in population size.  Our impacts on the natural world have greatly reduced the standing stock of most species of animals and plants, both on land and in the ocean.  Reasonable estimates of the biomass of fishery species now swimming in the oceans suggest we have reduced abundance by 90% since the 1930s, primarily through over-harvesting.  Larger species have been hardest hit, but our direct impacts on oceanic abundance extend to anchovies and krill, both of which are harvested primarily as foods for aquaculture and livestock.  Johnson and colleagues point out that the consequences of these losses and reductions are not simply to the species impacted.  Because all species are engaged in a web of interactions with each other, the extinctions and reductions in abundance can have ramifications throughout the biosphere, often unexpected ones.  Johnson and colleagues note how the impacts on tropical trees with large fruit of the loss of mammalian seed dispersers has altered the composition of tropical forests, and how the over-harvest of larger herbivorous fishes has tilted the balance towards fleshy algae instead of corals on some tropical reefs.  Other authors have documented the impacts of reductions in abundance of bees and other pollinating insects on efficiency of seed set in agricultural crops around the world.  While Johnson and colleagues do not attempt to delineate a critical threshold for extinctions or abundance reductions, they refer to the loss of ecosystem resiliency that comes with loss of biodiversity and argue that major ecosystem collapse becomes much more likely as biodiversity falls.  At a time when climate change, another problem we have caused, is placing new stresses on ecological systems, we should be doing all we can to retain or enhance biodiversity.

Rates of extinction for various vertebrate groups over several time periods, shown as cumulative losses of: A) mammal genera over past 60,000 years, B) species of New Zealand birds since colonization, and C) bird (blue), mammal (red), and other vertebrates (green) since 1500.  Increases in the percentage of all birds, mammals and amphibians listed as threatened by IUCN since 1992 are shown in D) with estimates for a number of other taxa (open circles).
Image
© C. Johnson and Science

Johnson and colleagues show that increases in the rates of extinction show no signs of slowing down despite considerable attention at both local and global levels.  The reasons for our failure include the fact that our accelerating impacts, characteristic of the Anthropocene, are sufficient to swamp most of the efforts being made to conserve species.  The human footprint has been expanding ever since the concept was developed in the early 1990s.  Secondly, extinctions occur from combined effects of multiple stressors, but too often efforts to conserve a species focus on one or two of these.  Thirdly, adequate funding to tackle what is an enormous problem has never been available.  Fourthly, conservation is not mainstreamed into economic and social planning in most countries, and tends to be pursued separately, by politically weak (often non-governmental) groups.  This marginalization leads to an unwillingness, or inability to tackle the core driving factors of rising consumption, unrealistic ‘growth’ economic agendas, and the growing separation of people from nature.  While Johnson and colleagues close with some examples of effective action to rescue biodiversity, it is clear that this is a serious problem and needs far more attention than it is receiving.

The conflict between environmental sustainability and human quality of life

The review by Eileen Christ of Virginia Tech, and two colleagues at other US institutions, focuses in on the growing human population as a fundamental cause of biodiversity loss.  In their view, despite our considerable technical skill, and the fact that consumption of resources varies substantially among communities, the current size of the global population, and especially the continuing growth in that population mean that our pressure on the biosphere, and resulting biodiversity loss, will continue and likely grow also.  In particular, the need for food is not easily substituted with other resources, and our production of food directly impacts natural ecosystems if only in the land used to produce it.

Human population growth is an important part of the environmental crisis.
Cartoon
© Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader.

In their opening paragraph, they confront but do not resolve a core problem: raising human living standards sufficiently to eliminate poverty, and preserving natural ecosystems and their biodiversity are both valued goals of sustainable development.  Goals accepted, at least on paper, by all countries in the UN system.  These goals are in conflict.

Raising standards of living, while accommodating the roughly 3-4 billion additional people anticipated to be living on this planet by 2100, cannot be done without a massive increase in the diversion of natural production towards the production of food for humans.  While increased efficiency in production and reduction in food wastage can help, the expected expansion of the population plus the need to lift millions out of poverty will require a 70% increase in production by 2050 and a doubling or tripling of production by 2100.  Changes in the human diet could help, but current changes are all in the ’wrong’ direction – as people become more affluent, they consume more meat!

Christ and colleagues provide a coherent argument for the need to reopen the discussion of human population growth.  They also show that continuing the present avoidance of this topic makes any attempt to simultaneously raise human living standards and maintain biodiversity very unlikely to be successful.  We cannot double food production over the remainder of this century without putting massive additional stresses on global biodiversity, and the current rate of extinction is already alarming.

Having painted an alarming picture, they provide a possible solution.  They point out that the long-held belief that over-consumption was a problem of the global north while over-population was a problem of the global south is no longer true and is rapidly changing.  All over the world, large numbers of people are entering the middle class and adopting lifestyles that consume more resources of all kinds, including more meat in their diets.  The result is that over-consumption is now becoming a global issue, and that should make it easier for nations to come together and find solutions.  Secondly, it has been demonstrated many times that increasing educational and lifestyle opportunities for women leads to a preference for smaller families.  This is something that happens to a degree when living standards rise (the demographic transition), but it can be actively encouraged far more than at present.  Such a preference could be encouraged if there was agreement that growth in the global population needs to be reduced.  Stabilizing and then reducing the global population makes many environmental and human rights problems easier to deal with.  Continuing the present policy of not speaking about human population growth at all if we can avoid it is a sure way to ensure continued biodiversity loss, and perhaps also continued poverty.

By picking on the evident conflict between feeding growing numbers of people and protecting biodiversity, Christ and colleagues have particularized one of the major difficulties confronting those who seek to protect biodiversity.  Given that Johnson and colleagues listed three additional issues that made biodiversity conservation difficult, the Christ review has brought that difficulty home even more clearly.

How to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere

If Johnson and Christ have written reviews of specific aspects of our interaction with the rest of nature, Jonathan Foley of the California Academy of Sciences provides a passionate essay on the more general issue of how to live in harmony with the biosphere.  He summarizes the history of our understanding that the planet has finite limits on what it can provide by referencing the work of Malthus, then of Paul Ehrlich on the human population, and finally the publishing of Limits to Growth in 1972.  Each step, we refined our understanding of the ways in which humanity was outstripping the capacity of the planet to support us.  The most recent manifestation of this understanding has been the development of the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that together define a safe (or Holocene-like) living space for humanity on planet Earth.  In one paragraph he references the ways in which we are pushing planetary systems beyond their limits – 40% of land now converted to agriculture, freshwater resources being exhausted faster than they are replenished, natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus radically altered through our manufacture and use of fertilizers, ocean fisheries being depleted while we also acidify and warm the water, a 50% increase in atmospheric CO2 due to our emissions, and the profound climatic changes that change in atmosphere produces. Nothing new here, but it is a powerful recap.

Foley discusses the gaps in our knowledge and the need to better delineate the planetary boundaries, and he admits of the possibility of technological achievements which, like the Green Revolution of the mid-1970s, will adjust the planetary boundaries to permit a still greater intensification of our use of resources.  But he also points out that the ultimate rules set by physics and chemistry cannot be violated so our ever-expanding footprint has to be contained.  We may be optimists or pessimists, but ultimately all humanity must learn to live sustainably or suffer the consequences.

Foley finishes with a discussion of solutions, drawing a clear distinction between natural ecological systems and the artificial systems we use when we attempt to replace them.  He writes,

“I would suggest that natural ecological systems on Earth succeed—often where humans do not—because they adhere to the following guidelines: They do not consume resources faster than they are regenerated by the environment; do not produce wastes, especially those that disrupt the environment and the climate system, faster than they are assimilated or removed by the environment; are highly diverse, making them more robust in the face of changing conditions; and power nearly everything they do with the Sun.”

Until we are able to emulate that, we’d be wise to make the considerable effort needed to reduce our environmental impacts to something much more sustainable than we have at present.

These three articles together provide a thought-provoking discussion of our current dilemma.  We persist in calling it an environmental problem but it is a problem with how we are choosing to behave.  Change our behavior and all could be well.

Why the environmental crisis is wickedly difficult to solve

This brings me to the other two articles.  Ruth DeFries of Columbia University and Harini Nagendra of Azim Premji University, India, discuss the reasons why environmental management is a wicked problem.  They begin by stating that the ecological systems of the biosphere are self-regulating complex systems that have evolved over time to their present states.  In building our global civilization, humans disrupt these systems, and then are forced to introduce management activities to remedy the problems caused.  Far too often management introduced is too late, too feeble, or simply inadequate to rectify the issue of concern.  Over time, as our impacts grow, we are disrupting ever more of the biosphere, and failing substantially in our efforts to remedy the damage we cause.  They then suggest an explanation for why taking remedial action so often proves to be ineffective – environmental problems are wicked ones.

DeFries and Nagendra trace the development of environmental management from pre-industrial times to the present.  Indigenous local knowledge evolved to suit the local environment, and social systems were based on ecological understanding of the dynamics of the local resource base.  Such methods worked well so long as human use of resources remained low relative to the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate targeted components.  With industrialization, the initial goal was to manage exploitation of targeted local or regional resources so that natural processes of production were sufficient to maintain the ecological system.  The purpose of management was to ensure a sustained supply of renewable resources.

With time, as our use of resources expanded, it became necessary to consider deliberate efforts to retain land in natural condition in order to sustain natural ecosystems, and to consider management of waste disposal so that this was done in ways to facilitate its incorporation back into the dynamics of the natural environment.  With further growth in our economy, use of novel chemicals in our environment, and expanded long-distance transport of resources the task of environmental management became far more complex.  Problems had to be dealt with on regional or global bases as well as locally, new chemicals introduced novel forms of waste with unexpected environmental consequences, and all problems became larger.

To complicate matters, the science and practice of environmental management developed during a time when the prevailing view was that ecosystems were not only self-regulating, but regulated in ways that conveyed considerable stability in condition.  As the science of ecology matured during the 1970s and 1980s, and we became aware that natural systems were dynamic, and frequently maintained by periodic disruption, the task of environmental management became even more difficult.  Now, in the Anthropocene, with many aspects of environment and climate subject to profound, continuous, one-way change, that task is more difficult still.  Truly wicked.

A wicked problem is one which is inherently resistant to clear definition and easily identifiable, predefined solutions.  DeFries and Nagendra identify several factors that make environmental problems wicked ones.  The biosphere is comprised of complex and interdependent components, which create positive and negative feedbacks and nonlinear responses to management interventions.  The risks of acting as well as those of not acting in any particular circumstance are uncertain, and there are frequently unintended consequences of actions taken.  In environmental management, it is usual for several stakeholders to be participating – almost always these have differing values and different capacity to make decisions or implement them.  The spatial and temporal scales and boundaries of ecological processes rarely coincide with administrative boundaries, so that actions taken are implemented at inappropriate scales or over regions or time periods that do not match with the ecological processes.  Added to all these factors is the fact that environmental management takes place in the real world; management actions are seldom the only environmentally significant actions taking place, and discerning the consequences of the management action is seldom a clear-cut exercise. Definitely, definitively wicked!

Having established that environmental problems are wicked, DrFries and Nagendra set out five approaches to dealing with them effectively.  In discussing these, they emphasize repeatedly that environmental problems will usually prove to be time- and location-specific; there will be no off-the-shelf solutions.  As well, every management effort will require an adaptive management approach in which a cycle of “action taken, consequences assessed, action revised” is repeated over time as a way of zeroing in on an effective solution.  I think the chief value of their review is the clear picture it paints of the difficulties facing us if we hope to manage environmental problems effectively.  The idea that sustainable environmental management is not rocket science is important here.  It is way more difficult than rocket science.  Knowing that, it behooves us to treat our current circumstances with the seriousness they deserve, and work to increase our effectiveness at managing the environmental crisis.

Building the will to act

Taking the need to manage the environmental crisis seriously enough to learn how to tackle such wicked problems requires first that we recognize that the environmental crisis really is a crisis, and a really serious one at that.  Too many of us have heard about biodiversity loss, or desertification, or loss of coral reefs, or even climate change, but continue to assume that these ‘environmental’ problems are not going to impact our lives.  They are ‘environmental’ as in ‘not really important except to nature lovers’.  Elise Amel of University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two colleagues tackle the psychology that helps individuals develop an appreciation of the severity of the environmental crisis and a willingness to take action to build a more sustainable world.  Environmental advocates are learning that people do not become supporters of changing our way of life simply by being given the facts about the environmental crisis, and it is increasingly clear that progress on this front demands that we learn what we can of relevant human psychology.

The human brain does not sit passively sifting incoming information in order to make rational decisions.  If it did our lives would be a lot less interesting, although our politics just might be more rationally based.  Instead the brain actively selects information to receive and stores primarily information that it considers important.  In Amel’s words,

“rather than neutrally receiving information, human brains privilege that which supports their preexisting worldview. Given limited mental resources for processing the boundless information available in the world, evolution favored cognitive efficiency. New information is processed through the filters of personal beliefs, first-hand experiences, and social identities. Ideas are dismissed or assimilated on the basis of a quick but biased heuristic of whether they line up with what is already perceived to be true. It is difficult to escape bias, even when exerting conscious mental effort.”

Human behavior, our responses to the information we receive, is determined by forces both inside and outside of the individual.  Internal factors such as emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and values influence behavior, but so does the powerful context within which behavior occurs, comprising cultural worldviews, social networks, status inequalities, policies, scripts, roles, and rules.  Environmental problems are typically slow to develop, or be resolved, at least on human timescales, and our evolution has built us as creatures well tuned to respond to immediate, rapidly approaching threats, and to act in ways which bring short-term rewards.  We also crave a sense of belonging to the social group, which makes it difficult to alter our behavior from accepted norms, such as driving gas-guzzling SUVs to the supermarket, even when logic says we should be cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases by driving smaller cars or by getting to the shops using public transit or some form of active transport.  The shift may involve some change in personal convenience, but it also requires that we stand out from the crowd.

In 1968, the Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  Increasingly, environmentalists recognize that appreciating nature requires some real experience of nature.

Amel and colleagues also point to the need for community and national or global responses to solve environmental problems.  Without leadership by already committed individuals, these larger social groups have little chance of changing behavior.  In talking about the environmental crisis it is essential to build the will to act, changing personal, community, national and global patterns of thought and action.  They suggest several ways in which this might be achieved.

To begin with, information about environmental problems such as climate change should be framed in ways that emphasize short-term and local impacts to make the problem more ‘real’ and ‘immediate’.  Messaging that includes incentives for appropriate sustainable action will encourage individuals to act, and if sustainable behavior can also be presented as the socially accepted norm that will further encourage action – it is more effective to encourage individuals to recycle as many of their neighbors do, than to encourage them to recycle while suggesting that most of their neighbors don’t do this, regardless of what proportion of neighbors actually recycle.

Amel and colleagues also make the important point that in the great majority of environmental issues, the actions of individuals play only a small role compared to the actions of industry and government.  Thus, it is hopelessly insufficient to work to change individual behavior without also including a significant effort to encourage individuals to push for changes to societal behavior.  Motivating individuals to act to promote sustainable action is even more difficult than motivating them to change their own behavior, but this has to be the goal.  Building a new worldview, which is what reforming our relationship with the biosphere demands, is inherently a sociological, psychological and political process, and environmental managers have been slow to take up the appropriate tools and approaches.

Psychologists do not yet know what it is that makes some individuals more willing than others to take a bold stand, resisting the pressures to conform with conventional patterns of behavior, but they do know that it takes heroism.  Environmental managers have long recognized the value of local heroes, respected individuals with leadership qualities (although not necessarily in formal leadership positions), in getting buy-in by a community to sustainable management actions, although they have not learned how to produce such heroes when they are needed.  Amel and colleagues suggest there is work to be done; in doing that work environmental managers will benefit by drawing on psychological, sociological and political expertise.

The goal of environmental sustainability is within reach

The challenge of the Anthropocene is to wrestle humanity back into an appropriate relationship with the rest of the biosphere.  It is an urgent challenge and a difficult one to meet.  As Amel and colleagues note, more than 50% of humanity is now urban, and far too many of urban humans are growing up with little if any direct experience of nature.  Finding ways to provide our cities with more green space is not only a way to civilize or humanize them; it is an excellent way to provide opportunities to experience nature directly.  Parks, community gardens, bike paths and walking trails, together with school programs to bring youth into real contact with the outdoors need to be valued for the ways in which they bridge the gulf between urban experience and the natural world that ultimately sustains us.

If we can rebuild the connections between humanity and nature, while also reframing the environmental crisis as a human behavior crisis we have a good foundation upon which to build a reimagined worldview that keeps human activities to appropriate form and scale for the planet.  Our goals of ensuring a sustainable biosphere and raising the quality of life for all humans can be met, but we will have to redefine quality of life and control quantity of life.  If we engage psychology, sociology and political science along with the natural sciences, we stand a good chance of being able to bring about the immense transformation that solving this crisis requires.  These is considerable urgency to act, but many reasons for optimism that we will succeed in building a far better Anthropocene than the one we will surely inherit if we continue our current ways.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, Economics, Politics | Comments Off on Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time