News Archive September 2019

The Amazing Resilience of Mother Nature

Image by Bessi from Pixabay

Chernobyl Revisited

Thirty-three years ago the environment suffered from the disastrous meltdown at Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant. 30,000 people had to be evacuated, a 2,000 square mile area was designated as an uninhabitable Exclusion Zone.

The damage to the local environment and wildlife within the exclusion zone was devastating. Animals and plants suffered mutations, stunted growth, and behavior abnormalities.

Yet, today parts of the exclusion zone are now a haven for a thriving biodiversity. While there are still signs of some radiation effects on plants and animals, nature has once again proved resilient.

One example is frogs living in the exclusion zone are darker than those living outside the zone. The darker coloring may give them extra protection against radiation.

Wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone despite the remaining radiation contamination.

Image: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack

Researchers have seen brown bears, lynxes, European bison, boar and Przewalski’s horses in growing numbers. Estimates are that wildlife population in the exclusion zone is growing at the same rate of other uncontaminated wildlife sanctuaries that are not impacted by human interference.

The following two stories also have a common thread. Can you identify it?

The Hideous Forest

Photo by Damon WInter

How does nature respond when 150 million tons are dumped in her lap?

Arborist and author William Bryant Logan recently made a trip to Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island to find out.

The landfill, once the world’s largest garbage dump, has been closed since 2001.

Salt marshes full of wildlife had been turned into gas-emitting hills of garbage that rose upwards to 225 feet high.

What he found was a tangled mess of life struggling to survive. There was a battle between invasive plants trying to choke out and kill new growth of native plants.

It was not a stroll through your typical beautiful forest.

Photo by Laura Wooley

“The deeper we walked, the uglier the woods got. The invasive oriental bittersweet and porcelain berry, along with the native grape and the poison ivy, fought it out to win the game of overtopping trees, bringing them down in a heap.” 

In spite of the horrific pollution caused by human waste, the forest will eventually recover. It may take a thousand years to digest and eliminate the damage caused by people, but that is what nature does. It will continue the cycle of life and regeneration long after people are gone.

Source: The Lessons of a Hideous Forest

Discarded Orange Peels

Credit: Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs

What do you do with land that has been damaged by clear-cutting, overgrazing, and poor fire based land management?

In 1996 two ecologists came up with a radical suggestion to help rejuvenate the barren, nutrient-poor soils in a deforested area in Costa Rica.

“What if the organic waste from a local orange juice factory could be recycled to accelerate the reforestation of some barren spaces in the conservation area?”

A deal was signed and 12,000 metric tons of orange pulp and peels was dumped onto a three-hectare stretch of former cattle pasture.

The experiment was terminated by a financially motivated lawsuit and short sighted political pressure.

Left alone for 18 years, nature took her course of resilience and the land returned to a healthy, thriving living forest.

A team of scientists visited the area to record the impact of the orange dump on the previous barren land.

They noted “As well as a three-fold increase in the richness of woody plant species, the team calculated a 176 percent increase in aboveground woody biomass compared to the control area. Deep in the soil the team also identified significantly elevated levels of macro and micronutrients.”

The right is the lush forest that was loaded with orange peel waste, the left is the untreated land. Photo by Tim Treuer

Source: The story of how discarded orange peels turbocharged a Costa Rican forest

Bottom line, climate change can wipe us out, but nature as a whole will do fine. It is far more resilient than we are because it does not depend on the complex technological systems that we have created and need to sustain us in our numbers. Climate change and global warming are Malthus’ revenge.

Malthus’ Revenge

By Dr. D. Michael Shafer, Director, Warm Heart Foundation

As a young man, Thomas Malthus was my model of the guy who “didn’t get it.” Malthus modeled the Club of Rome, the doomsayers who warned that world is running out of everything. Malthus modeled the man who got past trends right, but failed to account for our creative capacity to use technology to escape the fatal nooses that he and others like him imagined tightening about our necks.

I believed this until I realized that Malthus has been right all along and that climate change is his revenge.

A bit of history for those of you who need a refresher. Malthus was a late 18th century English gentleman minister who hobnobbed with the likes of David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau. He was also a great thinker and writer, best known today for his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, a work long discussed and until recently considered falsified by history.

Malthus’ principle of population was simple, powerful and grounded in data. He observed that historically the food supply on average grew only slowly, but tended to grow substantially in periods of prolonged good weather and then shrink dramatically when rainfall or temperature declined. Human population, he noted, grew exponentially when provided with food and the new population then lived on past the end of the period of better than average food supply growth. The inevitable result, he argued, is a boom and bust cycle of population above and below the sustainable food production capacity – the carrying capacity of the land. Human population starts small, enjoys abundant food, grows fast, exceeds the carrying capacity of the land, suffers devastating starvation and disease, and dies back to less than the land can support, and so on.

Malthus’ argument, like that of his Scottish contemporary far to the north, Adam Smith, was moral, but pessimistic. Where Smith saw the invisible hand of the market converting the inherent greed of humans into a competition that drove innovation, optimal allocation of capital, minimum prices and maximum public consumption, Malthus saw ultimate disaster. For Malthus, humans’ inability to live within their means doomed them to over-reproduce to the point that only a population implosion would “save” life on earth. It is a fine irony of history that the dour Scot and the gentleman curate from Surrey should end up with such unexpectedly different worldviews. It is no less amusing that today we find ourselves again entangled with the great thinkers of the late 18th century.

Considering historical population data, Malthus had a strong case – until the very time in which he wrote Principle. As Malthus published his book in 1798, in northern England we find the first evidence of sustained “positive” population growth beyond Malthusian constraints.

Neither the timing nor the location are coincidental; they mark the first sustained application of mechanical power to human economy. Here was the birth of King Coal, the Industrial Revolution, and modernity. Here apparently was the ultimate escape from the Malthusian bind that made possible today’s world of 7+ billion inhabitants – virtually all of them better off than the fewer than one billion people of Malthus’ day.

Like generations before me, I grew up believing that Malthus was just a quaint reminder of the days before tractors, fertilizer, railroads and refrigerated containers.

That is, until the day I woke up to realize that climate change was going to knock human population on earth back to a fraction of its current level, back to a new carrying capacity we cannot even guess at.

Then I realized that climate change is Malthus’ revenge.

Details aside, Malthus’ core insight is as relevant today as it was in 1798. All systems have their limits, their carrying capacities. Exceed these limits and the system changes fundamentally, usually catastrophically. Malthus focused specifically on the carrying capacity of the earth understood as how large a human population it could support given current technology and available land, which at the time were largely static. What interested him was the dynamic relationship between fixed system and variable human population. In this dynamic, he observed that once human population exceeded system limits, it crashed.

Observing the changes wrought by King Coal and its successors, Malthus might observe that there is a qualitative difference between expanding the “earth system” as technology has done, and rendering it infinite, which it has not.

If the Industrial Revolution and subsequent modernity merely expanded the system, then the impending climate change disaster should not surprise us any more than it would Malthus. We escaped the earthly bonds of hand-tilled soil to build an unimaginably big human population by tapping the deep carbon reserves of the earth. In doing so, we have exhausted a resource that in Malthus’ day we did not even know was a resource, the atmosphere. Today, we know that it is not only a resource, but that it is both finite and intimately bound to every other earthly resource: soil, water, and sea. The technology of modernity did not free us from the kind of resource constraint Malthus pointed to; rather, it simply increased the pool of resources to be tapped and so the carrying capacity of the earth. Through the interconnection of atmosphere and all of our earthly resources, however, our system has now reached capacity. Indeed, many argue that we have exceeded system limits and our crash is imminent. Here we are facing the fact that Malthus was right all along: access to more resources just means more people will need to die to bring the world back into balance.

Or perhaps, despite it all, you remain an optimist, one might say, a humanist. You may believe that while human ingenuity got us into this mess, human ingenuity can get us out again. You may believe that just as the carbon-spewing Industrial Revolution has permitted all the good stuff we enjoy and all that excess population; too, human ingenuity may find a way to live carbon neutral and suck all that accumulated carbon out of the atmosphere before Malthus extracts his revenge.

Most of the rest of you can only hope that the optimists are right, although I am afraid that the word “optimist” always puts me in mind of an old Soviet joke about the guy who says to his friend, “I can’t afford to be an optimist any more. Optimists say, ‘things could be worse’ – and they always are!”

Me? I’m 66. I’m not likely to be around, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “to watch your cities fill up with water.” You young folks, however, might want to kick it into gear.

Amazon Rainforest is Burning

What is happening in the Amazon is terrible, but it is important to understand what exactly is happening. Yes, new forest is being burned, but the key point, revealed by current satellite imagery, is that most of the burning is in existing fields. Remember: the cleared area is bigger than Texas and it is covered with crops. Farmers clear their fields before replanting by burning.

This means that every year – every year – an area the size of Texas burns emitting CO2, CO2e, black carbon, smog precursors and PM2.5 into the atmosphere. Every five years, cumulative emissions from this crop waste burning exceed the emissions of the original fires. And these fires happen every single year.

The Amazon Rainforest, often referred to as the “lungs” of mother earth, is suffering from extreme mismanagement and destructive clear-cutting by unscrupulous opportunists.

Recent changes in Brazilian politics and their lack of protection of the Rainforest is drawing criticism and outcry from all around the globe.

Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to allow more farming and logging in the Amazon, and has been accused of promoting agricultural development at the expense of the forest.

While this may line the pockets of a few, it has a huge negative global impact. At a time when we are struggling to find ways to save humanity from extinction, loss of the Amazon Rainforest is a real blow and increases the threat of global warming. If we just sit back and don’t give a damn, the planet we all share and call home will eventually become uninhabitable for humans, and we will take out the majority of wildlife with us.

Do you want to contribute to the next global extinction event – and see your children and civilization as we have constructed it – go, too, or do you want to fight?

The earth doesn’t care. The earth has seen several global extinctions and come back as the earth we know. Chernobyl and the Fresh Kills tell us that nature will come back, even if as an ugly forest.

Question is, can we?

The Rainforest Action Network has several ways you can help make your voice heard.

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