Eldridge Cleaver said, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” Cleaver was bright man, a leader in the civil rights movement, but I think he got this one wrong, at least if we apply the admonition to our environmental challenges. All of us, everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, political persuasion, income, gender, or any other criteria, we all are both part of the problem and must be part of the solution, if there is to be a solution.
Let’s be brutally honest to begin, and not duck behind the frequently used excuses of “the problem is too big and there’s nothing I can do,” or “it won’t make any difference whether I do anything or not,” or “there really isn’t a huge problem, it is only a liberal exaggeration.” I wish any of these excuses had validity, but they do not. We have an environmental crisis, global in dimension, that we all have contributed to, and which, if we fail to address it soon in some meaningful way, will forever change our relationship to the Earth. I’m not just talking about climate change, and the continued use of fossil fuels that alters atmospheric conditions more each day, but the underlying problems stemming from growing inequity in distribution of wealth and the increasing control the wealthy have over policies-policies that are needed to prevent further damage to the natural world but which are hijacked to increase the wealth of those with the most power. Of course it is the least wealthy who most feel the brunt of environmental damage. Wealth in a free-market economy equals power, and power equals control, meaning that existing and new policies will continue to favor the wealthy who wish to continue business as usual. This runaway ship is on a collision course for political and environmental upheaval, synergistic responses that are interlocked.
What, you reasonably ask, has this to do with our backyards. Give me a page or two and I’ll make the connection.
I think people throughout the world can be placed into one of three categories. In reality people fall along a continuum. On one extreme, people worship nature, or consider nature sacred, something pure, perfect, God’s creation, or at least essential to the well-being of everyone, to be protected at all costs. This point of view favors regulations and limits to resource use, and attempts to put a moral burden on those who abuse resources and the environment. John Muir and Aldo Leopold held this view. On the other end, there are those who believe that nature is there for humans to use, however it serves our purpose and at whatever cost. James Watt, former Secretary of the Interior, held this point of view, as do big oil company executives and major stock holders. They believe that our economy rests on the continuous expansion of technology requires expanded use of resources with various degrees of environmental costs. Those on this end of the continuum consider the depletion of non-renewable resources and environmental deterioration the cost of doing business. Those who hang their hats on technology believe that whatever problems we make in our use of resources can be fixed with new technology. This thinking goes hand-in-hand with capitalism and free markets, where aggressive entrepreneurialism is favored, but also where wealth is increasingly concentrated among fewer and fewer people. For those who have given serious thought to environmental issues, especially from a global perspective, as the climate change issue forces us to do, nearly all will fall somewhere more centered along this continuum.
As an aside, most people haven’t given enough thought or become sufficiently informed to place themselves on this continuum. Nevertheless, they fall along the continuum as evidenced by their behavior. They are the vast majority of people in the world, who don’t think about these things, don’t care, or simply live their lives as they can, “go with the flow,” taking their values from others, whether the church, political leaders, neighbors, family, or friends, or even from pop culture. I will refer to this group as the “uninformed,” although many are very intelligent people, perhaps seeing merit in both the nature and technology points of view. I’d like to focus for the moment on those who are well informed, have given it much thought, and who have strong opinions about nature and technology.
A deadly serious discussion is ongoing among many ecologists and environmentalists about where on this continuum civilization should be. Few of us would argue for one extreme or the other, but it might be argued that where we come down as a society will determine whether we have a sustainable future. Should we continue to hold to nature as the durable model of sustainability, and modify our behavior and technology to protect natural systems, or at least avoid wholesale destruction of them? Those in this camp point to nature’s services–fertile soils, pollination, productive oceans, hydrologic cycles that freshen watersheds, biological controls of pests, nutrient cycles, and so on–worth trillions of dollars. Technology, of course, can augment the compromised services nature provides, but often with hidden or long-term damages to natural systems, and frequently depends on depletion of non-renewable resources. For example, we can install levees to limit flooding, but often long-term damage is as great or greater, and the ecology of the stream is damaged This notwithstanding, there are those who argue that we have so altered the natural world that we now have no alternative but to encourage the use of every technological innovation and strategy we have, or can invent, to work with what is left to create a sustainable future. At first glance, these might seem not that different, but those who see nature as irreplaceable argue for protecting and restoring nature to the greatest extent possible and curtailing resource use to do so, whereas others believe those efforts are largely futile and that we should use our energy and creativity to move forward with technology. One example of the latter argument, for example, might be use of technology to offset decreasing food production by greater emphasis on GMOs, hydroponics, and aquaculture. Another emerging debate is the extent to which we should permit genetic engineering. Scientists have recently discovered how to get engineered genetics passed from one generation to the next such that an entire species can be forever modified, the breakthrough that many have feared. A related technology is use of fossil DNA in an attempt to bring back a now-extinct species, or assisted migration for species being threatened by climate change. Even more in current debate is the use of geoengineering to offset climate change.
Those favoring technology as the key to our sustainable future have been labeled neo-environmentalists, “new environmentalists,” by Paul Kingsnorth. Much of the emerging philosophy embodied in neo-environmentalism has been expressed by the assumptions articulated by Stewart Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog. Those who have followed Brand’s remarkable career know that he has written widely about technology and the environment, most recently Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking Penguin 2009), where he continues his argument that the only possible sustainable future lies with encouraging technology while protecting as much as possible in nature without impeding innovation. He and his like-minded colleagues believe that we have so altered nature with climate change, exotic species, soil erosion, altered chemistry of the oceans, and so forth that it is foolish to expend tremendous energy on restoring nature and severely limiting continued development and use of resources. They argue that we need to protect native diversity as much as possible, even setting aside wilderness areas and protecting them from development, but no longer pin our hope for the future on restoring nature.
I find myself to be an uneasy follower of neo-environmental philosophy, with strong leanings toward nature, and my backyard is a case in point. I encourage native pollinators in my garden and orchard, and have developed a very diverse quarter-acre prairie garden to increase pollinator diversity. I encourage soil development and soil health by putting huge amounts of chicken litter, as well as leaves and grass from my yard on my garden, and am gratified to see that the soil has excellent structure. I never need to add chemical fertilizers. Pests in my garden are largely taken care of by natural predators, primarily wasps, flies, and birds. I locate the wasp nests and let folks know to avoid them, but otherwise accept the minor threat of an occasional sting. I maintain a diverse structure in my backyard mostly through the over 15 species of native trees and shrubs growing there. I tolerate the phoebes and house wrens who build their messy nests on porches or in any convenient structure on the side of a shed, and I tolerate the two dozen cliff swallows that build their mud nests under the eaves of the barn. There is a lot of nature in my backyard, but nature has been compromised as well.
Within this “natural” environment, I have introduced all kinds of exotic structure and species. I mow my lawn to maintain open space around my house and garden. My lawn is nearly all exotic, including the dandelions and bluegrass that dominate. I don’t need to use herbicides or fertilizers on my lawn because I appreciate the dandelions and violets, and most of the lawn clippings are left to decompose in place, where the nutrients are nicely recycled. I raise two dozen kinds of vegetables and flowers, all of which are exotic. I have a few exotic trees and shrubs that came with the property…such as forsythia, lilac, apples, crabapple, mugo pine, junipers, and a blue spruce. I have added stone walls and two raised beds that chipmunks and ground squirrels love. I have a septic system and a compost bin to handle waste. I maintain many bird houses to attract different species and I keep bird feeders and fill them with sunflower and niger seeds to further encourage the birds, mostly because I enjoy seeing them, but also because I recognize their role in my backyard ecosystem.
To suggest my backyard, diverse as it is, is sustainable would be a gross exaggeration. I’m continually surprised at how quickly nature takes over if I become neglectful. Iris beds have to be redone every three or four years, or bluegrass and creeping charlie take them. Fruit trees require pruning. Bird houses last an average of four or five years. Additional organic matter is required in my garden, especially because it has become home for such a huge population of non-native earthworms that consume organic matter at a much faster rate than it otherwise would decompose. If I stopped mowing, my lawn would soon become a weed-patch, with nearly all exotic species except for the spiders and some insects, and smaller creatures. I believe, if I walked away and abandoned my backyard for 20 years, I’d return to find that nature has reclaimed it, but exotic species would be in control. Nutrient cycling would be upset because of the earthworm population. Quackgrass, smooth brome, spotted knapweed, dandelions, and bluegrass would occupy open areas, and be favored by an impoverished nutrient cycle. Black locust would have taken over much of the area, as well as neighboring fields. Mountain ash, white spruce, white and red pine, alternative-leaved dogwood, white ash, and red maple, all of which are native, would be coming up in the orchard, garden, and lawns where black locust had not yet gotten established, seeding from landscape specimens in my yard. My backyard wouldn’t look much like a yard, and it wouldn’t resemble local forests either.
In a hundred years, my backyard would be largely forested, but very likely to contain many exotic species such as garlic mustard and buckthorn, which I now am careful to remove as quickly as I spot them. Large areas might be dominated by black locust, which is able to discourage competition from most other plants. Likely, new exotics will be moving into the area, and some might become more invasive than garlic mustard, buckthorn, or black locust. It is possible that with the addition of these non-native species, succession would lead to a different forest community from that now occurring in this area. Some ecologists, perhaps influenced by the neo-environmental arguments, have suggested that these altered ecosystems that become more or less stable be called “novel ecosystems.” These ecologists argue, much as Stewart Brand has, that we should not waste our effort on trying to restore these damaged ecosystems, but accept the altered ecological conditions and the consequences. Within this new normal, where all of nature has been modified by human actions, they argue that we should find ways to adapt our lives, including food and fiber production, relying on present and new technology to assist us, even though it means additional loss of nature.
What can I conclude from my “hybrid” backyard, given the mix of exotic and natural components, and my speculation about what would happen if I abandoned it? Obviously, nature hasn’t gone away. Indeed, the most important observation is that we can do nearly anything, and nature will still be there. Given enough time, without continued input of human endeavor, even our cities will crumble and return to a natural ecosystem. The most mystical and marvelous thing about this magnificent world in which we live is that it has evolved an extraordinarily complex set of processes that are continually repairing themselves in such a way as to sustain life. Technology, more often than not, results in damage to these natural functions. The variable is mostly time. The more we damage ecosystems, the more we isolate them, the longer it will take for nature to repair them. My backyard is a reminder that nature is a constant presence in the world.
My second conclusion is that the species that co-evolved over eons, and form the biotic structure of every ecosystem, are the “tools” that must be re-established in order for damaged ecosystems to restore themselves. It is the living activities of these species that do the functions that build and repair the ecosystem, the results of which provide the critical ecological services that support life on earth. Leopold famously referred to the species as cogs and wheels: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Without at least a good complement of all those species (some are more critical than others) that gave rise to an ecosystem, the functions of that ecosystem will be impaired. We see this as loss of ecological services, whether it is rapid runoff with erosion and loss of nutrients, decreased productivity, overpopulation of one species or another, and so forth. With technology, we struggle to compensate for these lost services using exotic pollinators, flood-control levees, fertilizers, or policies to regulate harvesting, water pollution, and the like.
Finally, my backyard reminds me that we can live with nature, drawing heavily upon her services, as long as we avoid altering the environment too greatly or causing loss of too many species. Because there is a lot of overlap among species that make up healthy ecosystems, we can reduce diversity to some extent, and most of the natural processes will continue. If we replace a forest with a corn field, however, we cannot expect that corn field to provide many ecological services, and it is very unstable unless we use a tremendous amount of technology and energy to augment natural functions. So we use tillage, pesticides, fertilizers, petroleum, and commercial seed, all with negative environmental consequences, and with environmental impacts far from the watershed. Currently, the world loses farmland roughly equivalent to the size of Kentucky every year from erosion and soil loss. That soil and the associated chemicals add to the water pollution in our major rivers and even in estuaries of the oceans. Still, if we abandon a corn field, for example, it will, in time, repair itself to become a healthy ecosystem with minimal soil and nutrient loss, although it might be somewhat different from the original, given loss of species and appearance of new ones, either through invasion or evolution. This suggests an important caveat. There must remain a source for at least many of the original species to become established again. This is why extinction is such a concern. Extinction is forever. When species have become extinct, then some aspect of their ecosystem will be impaired, until evolution fills that vacant niche, and other species adjust to the new species. The more isolated a damaged ecosystem, the longer it will take for missing species to find their way back. Because they have not co-evolved, exotic species rarely can replace native species and, indeed, often interfere with ecological functions, like “throwing a wrench in the system.” Ecological restoration attempts to eliminate exotic species and identify missing ones, much as one might repair a watch by replacing a missing cog or wheel.
The philosophy of neo-environmentalists and the proponents for novel ecosystems imply, it seems to me, that we have passed a tipping point, that we have forever changed nature, and, if not impossible, it would be very expensive to try to restore ecosystems that have been badly damaged. While it may be the case that we have caused great damage to natural systems, nature continues to be remarkably resilient. The question is whether we should continue pushing new technology if it results in additional damage to the natural ecosystems that have heretofore provided the natural services upon which we depend. Proponents for more technology seem to ignore the resulting loss of native diversity and the concomitant loss of ecological function. They also seem to ignore the time factor. Some altered systems that appear stable might slowly revert to pre-disturbance form, or they might, over time, begin to fail because of soil erosion and dysfunctional nutrient cycles. Accepting novel ecosystems as the new normal also belies the continuing success restoration ecologists are reporting in ongoing efforts to restore damaged ecosystems. Neo-environmentalism also seems naïve when one considers the vast and diverse set of ecological services natural ecosystems continue to provide, and which become diminished in degraded systems. While we can engineer flood control, produce vegetables in hydroponic systems, pollinate by hand, perhaps even shoot sulfur dioxide or tin-foil into the atmosphere to block solar radiation, or make any of thousands of other technological fixes that would be necessary to achieve what nature has heretofore provided, is this the world we want? Are we at the point where this is the world we must accept?
The ecosystems of the world, in general, have been badly abused. The title of Bill McKibben’s classic book, The End of Nature, published in 1988 (Random House) notwithstanding, we have not seen the end of nature. It has become cliché to suggest that “nature bats last,” but it remains as true now as it was ten or one hundred years ago. Of course, McKibben was suggesting that we have badly altered nature, especially in regard to putting greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. He was suggesting that we no longer can consider nature apart from humans. Because we are having such a profound effect on nature, we now must recognize that we are as much a part of the same global ecosystem as every other species, and that our actions, our behavior, alter nature, nearly always in bad ways. This was the thrust of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life on earth and the live-sustaining systems it creates, published in 1972, well before climate change so clearly demonstrated that we are all part of a global ecosystem. Any change in an ecosystem, even our global system, results in functional adjustments. Because species have evolved over thousands of years, resulting in the finely tuned relationships to one another, and these species are what provide the critical ecological services we too often take for granted, any change, especially rapid change, is likely to result in negative consequences in the ecosystem. Hubris has been reinforced by our successes in rendering the world an easier place for our existence, whether in medicine, agriculture, architecture, transportation, or communication, but there has been a tremendous cost of this technology in loss of nature, as seen in loss of species diversity, increased soil erosion, acidification of the oceans, loss of pollinators, reduction in natural flood control, increase in severe storms, and so on. Yet natural functions continue such that, if we were to remove humans from the globe, there is every reason to expect that, in time, nature would largely, probably completely recover, although it might take several millennia.
There are also moral and ethical issues here, and they are even more problematic. Ethically, we must acknowledge that our high standard of living, in large measure, is a result of our exploitation of resources and the environment. For example, the United States represents less than five percent of the global population, but we have been responsible for over 25 percent of the total greenhouse gas production since 1850, when fossil fuels began to be used widely. This compares to only 11 percent cumulative production by China, for example, which represents 20 percent of the global population. On a per capita basis, our greenhouse-gas footprint is second only to Canada, and nearly three times that of China. Today, our greenhouse-gas emissions remain about 16 percent of the global production, slightly less than China, which is about 17 percent of the total. We could make similar comparisons looking at consumption of almost any resource or environmental impact for which we have good metrics. On a more personal level, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans control 75 percent of wealth; on the flip side, the poorest 20 percent control only 5 percent of our wealth. Because we live in a finite world and a closed global ecosystem, our high standard of living, for all practical considerations, means other people have a proportionately lower standard of living and suffer from environmental damages even when they receive little benefit. I see no way that we can avoid an ethical responsibility to those who have less, whether they live in United States or elsewhere.
Morally, we must answer to our children and grandchildren. Those of us who have been fortunate to enjoy a very high standard of living, even if we intend to pass as much of it to our heirs as possible, must accept that we are also passing to them a badly damaged planet. It seems heretical to make sacrifices so that we can give our heirs financial independence while at the same time ignore the fact that they will face severe environmental and social challenges. Somewhere, we got the notion that material wealth is the key to happiness, yet sociological studies tell us otherwise. What right have we to live the good life by corrupting the environment for the next generation, and even more so for generations beyond? Is that second car, that vacation in Europe, that house much bigger than needed, the 30 pairs of shoes in the closet, or the well-padded IRA worth living in a damaged world with contaminated air and water and fewer birds? Can we look the other way when people in some regions suffer from water shortages, or inadequate food? Are we willing to continue electing officials who favor policies that make it easier for us to accumulate more wealth while ignoring or denying climate change and the ways that our high standard of living contribute to it?
There is also the ethical issue of recognizing our role in contributing to the environmental crisis and failing to alter our behavior. It is analogous to the drunk driver who understands that driving under the influence is irresponsible and puts the lives of innocents at risk, yet continues to drink and drive. We must recognize that it is the sum total of our day-to-day actions and decisions that result in the damage to our natural world. For example, leaving the refrigerator door open longer than necessary results in wasteful expenditure of electricity that requires burning fossil fuel or creating more nuclear waste. Driving the car when we could walk or ride our bikes, purchasing a pair of shoes we don’t really need, or buying tomatoes that were produced in California, rather than those at the local farmers’ market have environmental consequences. As affluence grows, so does our potential impact. What size home do we really need? What automobile should we purchase? Who to vote for in the next election? Many, if not most, of these decisions are greatly influenced by social networks such as friends and family, and opinions of others with whom we interact, directly or indirectly. Thus, the overall effect of any of our decisions becomes part of a much larger effect of our society. This is both good news and bad news: bad because our consumption is greatly influenced by our social networks; good because our responsible decisions can have positive effects through our social networks. Decisions such as these will determine our impact in more dramatic ways. Being responsible may mean giving up things we want. Polls reveal, however, that most people would gladly sacrifice material things for better communities, cleaner air, more parks and natural areas, cleaner water, and a better future for their children.
As Al Gore has written, these moral and ethical issues are uncomfortable truths. Most people like to think of themselves, I believe, as ethical and moral, but the complexity of our world makes it possible for people to exploit resources and environment in someone else’s backyard to harvest the benefits for themselves, while conserving their own backyards. The uninformed might assume their actions are having no negative consequences on others, but in today’s information age, there is no excuse for such ignorance. Those of us in developed countries can no longer plead ignorance. We will never completely understand even the simplest ecosystems, much less the global ecosystem. Frank Egler wrote, “Ecosystems are not only more complex that we think, they are more complex that we can think.” But we understand enough to know that when we lose species or when exotic species invade, when we fragment ecosystems, or introduce disturbances different from what nature has experienced over eons of time, the functions of the ecosystem will be altered, nearly always with a loss in functionality. If we’re wealthy enough, we can often avoid the negative consequences, but climate change now confronts us with catastrophic loss locally, regionally, and globally. What we do in our backyards and our homes matters, to our neighbors, to our children and grandchildren, and to the rest of the world. We are unavoidably part of the problem. We must choose to become part of the solution.
© 2016 Alan Haney and http://www.StarBimaging.wordpress.com / All rights reserved.