The Vatican Information Service reported on last week’s address by Pope Francis to the collected environment ministers of the European Union. In his remarks, the Pope reiterated the environmental concerns expressed in his encyclical, Laudato Si:
This morning, before the Wednesday general audience, the Pope received the environment ministers of the European Union who will soon face two important events: the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the COP 21 in Paris. Francis remarked that their mission is increasingly important since the environment is a ‘collective good, a patrimony for all humanity, and the responsibility of each one of us – a responsibility that can only be transversal and which requires effective collaboration within the entire international community.’…
‘In the encyclical Laudato si’ I spoke about our ecological debt, especially between the North and the South, linked to commercial imbalances with consequences in the environmental sphere, such as the disproportionate use of natural resources historically made by some countries. We must honour that debt. These latter are required to contribute to settling the debt by offering a good example, substantially limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy, contributing resources to countries in need to promote policies and programmes of sustainable development, adopting suitable systems for managing forests, transport and refuse, and facing the serious problem of food waste, promoting a circular model for the economy and encouraging new attitudes and lifestyles.’
This, much like the assessments making up the bulk of Laudato Si, present a largely unwarranted, pessimistic view of our environment. In the words of Sgt. Hulka (played by Warren Oates) in Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.” While, admittedly, much work still needs to be done to protect our environment and reverse decades and sometimes centuries of neglect (a significant share of devastation wrought more from poverty than industrial activity), much has been improved since the environmental movement began 50 years ago.
Mother Earth too often is depicted as a frail, delicate creature, when she’s in reality a strong, resilient and multi-faceted combination of ecosystems. Consider:
Rebound is already happening. Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has released at least 30 million hectares and possibly as much as 60 million hectares to return to nature, according to careful studies by geographer Florian Schierhorn and his colleagues. Thirty million hectares is the size of Poland or Italy. The great reversal of land use that I am describing is not only a forecast; it is a present reality in Russia and Poland as well as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In America alone the total amount of corn fed to cars grows on an area equal to Iowa or Alabama. Think of turning all those lands that are now pasture for cars into refuges for wildlife, carbon orchards, and parks. That would represent about twice the area of all the US national parks outside Alaska.
This comes from a report released this past month by the Breakthrough Institute, a technology-friendly, progressive group “who reject outmoded orthodoxies on the Left and Right, and are dedicated to new ways of thinking about energy and the environment.” In “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment”, author Jesse H. Ausubel interjects a hefty dose of optimism sadly missing from Pope Francis’ encyclical, including this on food waste:
Wasted food is not decoupled from acreage. When we consider the horror of food waste, not to mention obesity, we further appreciate that huge amounts of land can be released from agriculture with no damage to human diet. Every year 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away globally, according to a 2013 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That equates to one-third of the world’s food being wasted.
Some food waste results from carelessness, but laws and rules regulating food distribution also cause it. Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries are changing rules to reduce food waste. In California, the website Food Cowboy uses mobile technology to route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens instead of to landfills, and CropMobster tries to spread news about local food excess and surplus from any supplier in the food chain and prevent food waste. The 800 million or so hungry humans worldwide are not hungry because of inadequate production.
If we … stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or of the United States east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so.
Just so. Not every solution to food waste above derives from government bureaucracies or agency diktats.
Ausubel reports that acreage and crop yields “decoupled” beginning in 1940. No longer were yields dependent solely on thousands of square miles of agricultural efforts, writes Ausubel, adding, “American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land” in the past 60 years.
Forests have also rebounded, writes Ausubel:
Foresters refer to a ‘forest transition’ when a nation goes from losing to gaining forested area. In 1830, France recorded the first forest transition. Since then, while the population of France has doubled, French forests have also doubled. In other words, forest loss decoupled from population.
Measured by growing stock, the United States enjoyed its forest transition around 1950, and, measured by area, about 1990. The forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.
The forest transition, like peak farmland, involves forces of both supply and demand. Foresters manage the supply better through smarter harvesting and replanting. Simply shifting from harvesting in cool slow-growing forests to warmer faster-growing ones can make a difference. A hectare of cool US forest adds about 3.6 cubic meters of wood per year, while a hectare of warm US forest adds 7.4. A shift in the US harvest between 1976 and 2001 from cool regions to the warm Southeast decreased logged area from 17.8 to 14.7 million hectares, a decrease of 3.1 million hectares, far more than either the 0.9 million hectares of Yellowstone Park or 1.3 million of Connecticut.
Forest plantations produce wood more efficiently than unmanaged forests. They meet a growing fraction of demand predictably and spare other forests for biodiversity and other benefits. The growth in plantations versus natural forests provides even greater contrast than the warm versus cool forests. Brazilian eucalyptus plantations annually provide 40 cubic meters of timber per hectare, about five times the production of a warm natural forest and about 10 times that of a cool northern forest. In recent times about one-third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to rise to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop by half. It is easy to appreciate that if plantations merely grow twice as fast as natural forests, harvesting one hectare of plantation spares two hectares of natural forest.
Certainly, not all is bread and honey, warns Ausubel, especially as it pertains to our oceans, rivers and streams.
Overfishing is one culprit he mentions, but he also offers a potential solution:
High levels of harvest of wild fishes, and destruction of marine habitat to capture them, need not continue. The 40 percent of seafood already raised by aquaculture signals the potential for reversal. With smart aquaculture, life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity and restoring nature.
In a world of 7 billion human mouths, aquaculture must largely replace hunting of the wild animals for many, maybe all forms of marine life. We are accustomed to the reality that even vast America does not produce enough wild ducks or wild blueberries to satisfy our appetite.
We depend on the hydrogen produced by the chlorophyll of plants. As my colleague Cesare Marchetti has pointed out, once you have hydrogen, produced, for example, by means of nuclear energy, diverse throngs of microorganisms are capable of cooking it into the variety of substances in our kitchens. Researchers for decades have been producing food conceived for astronauts on the way to Mars by cultivating hydrogenomonas on a diet of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and a little oxygen. They make proteins that taste like hazelnut.
A person basically consumes around 2,000 calories per day or 100 watts. California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power park operates two 1,100-megawatt electric power plants on about 900 acres, or 1.5 square miles. The power of Diablo Canyon, a couple of gigawatts, is enough to supply food for a few million people, more than 2,000 per acre….
A single spherical fermenter of 100 yards in diameter could produce the primary food for the 30 million inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico. The foods, of course, would be formatted before arriving at the consumer. Grimacing gourmets should observe that our most sophisticated foods, such as cheese and wine, are the product of fine-tuned elaboration by microorganisms of simple feedstocks such as milk and grape juice.
Globally, such a food system would allow humanity to release 90 percent of the land and sea now exploited for food. In such places as Petaluma and Eureka, both in California, humanity might maintain artisanal farming and fishing to provide supreme flavorings for bulk tofu.
While the expectation that 90 percent of exploited nature will be spared may be far-fetched, I do think that humanity is moving toward landless agriculture, progressively using less land for food, and that we should aim to release for nature an area the size of India by 2050. Overall I think the next decades present an enormous opportunity for what Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan call “Revive and Restore.”…
The incipient rewilding of Europe and the United States is thrilling. Salmon have returned to the Seine and Rhine, lynx to several countries, and wolves to Italy. Reindeer herds have rebounded in Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, bison have multiplied in Poland….
The image of a humpback whale in New York Bight with the Empire State Building in the background was the most significant environmental image of 2014. Humpback whales and other cetaceans, perhaps even blue whales, are returning in large numbers to New York Bight. Recall the whale despair of the 1970s and consider that the Bronx Zoo has just announced a program together with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to monitor whale numbers and movements in sight of New York City. Many decades without hunting, and improved Hudson River water quality, have made a difference.
Whether into the woods or sea, the way is clear, the light is good, and the time is now. A large, prosperous, innovative humanity, producing and consuming wisely, might share the planet with many more companions, as nature rebounds.
Reading Ausubel brings to mind the counsel of St. John the Divine: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” One need not rally the troops and scare the children and elderly – or wreak economic catastrophe – with overblown, pessimistic claims of an “environmental crisis.” As noted above, there’s still much work to do, but the future’s looking brighter all the time. Lighten up, Francis.