Sustainable plant growing in an era of the human burden.
I would not tend to describe myself as Malthusian in my outlook, but in the modern world of ‘click bait’ journalism and bad news stories, it is often hard to remain upbeat about the future of our planet’s ecosystem and wildlife.
If it isn’t the oceans drowning in plastics, or the ozone layer that now seems not to have repaired itself at all, or the plight of the white rhino or ocean acidification, all stories of the environment seem to be pessimistic. It seems as though whatever do, we can’t win.
One area of environmental degradation that I has long attracted my ire is deforestation: arguably this is at the heart of most of the other problems we face as caretaker to this world. Not only does it represent massive habitat loss and a collapse in species diversity, but it upsets the carbon cycle that has helped keep global temperature stable since the last ice age. Because of this, we now see the oceans are storing more carbon than before leading to its acidification, and a warming planet that brings with it consequences of all sorts: ruined harvests for human consumption and lack of fresh water that causes migration pressure and violence, melting ice caps and sea level rise, and more frequent examples of extreme weather events across the globe.
For my part, I am convinced that our part in deforestation is the main culprit – it has been going on for a very long time and I suspect the damage done by our centuries of felling dwarfs our outputs of CO2 over the last fifty years. And yet we haven’t accepted this. One of the bad news items that we are regularly accosted with and that contributes to our sleepless nights is how clearance of the rain forests is taking place to grow coffee and palm oil. And of how cleared forests are being turned over to provide alternatives for fossil fuels.
Large scale palm oil production, of which 80% of global production comes from Indonesia and Malaysia has led to a great deal of habitat destruction – such as the home environment of the orangutang, of which 90% has been lost. (Such is the extent of the push for palm oil production than in March 2017, the EU released a report that claimed that 40% of global deforestation was taking place due to large scale palm oil production. This is contested in an article in The Conversation journal that took a closer look at this claim and broke the figures down. They found that an alternate global figure for deforestation due to palm oil production to be 2.3%).
Nonetheless, the rise of monoculture crops, be they for agriculture or palm oil, has given rise to concern from many different groups of people. But with an ever growing global population what do we do? Who has the right to say what diets people can eat and who should be allowed the luxury of development? It is a moral quagmire that can’t be solved without making many people unhappy in a globalised world with pervasive media showing off what ‘the rich have.’
But can we grow enough on a sustainable basis? One horror story from the headlines I saw proclaimed that in the UK, we have only 40 harvests left before soil fertility and nutrients become exhausted. The problem is the intensive nature of the modern world’s farming methods. If we were to move to a more sustainable solution, would this be enough?
The answer is unknowable, but some models predict it could be so if we turned to a far more vegetarian diet, but it would pay to err on the side of caution and presume we probably couldn’t feed a planet of ten billion strong. As a world we have been here before, a century ago before the green revolution sparked by industrial production of nitrogen to use as fertiliser, and by the works of such gifted men as Norman Borlaug, now attributed with saving more than a billion lives from starvation. Technology found an answer then, and our tools have only advanced at an ever more rapid pace with genetics and computing power foremost amongst them. There are possibilities.
In all, I am a great believer in human ingenuity. I am also a believer in our ability to adapt to change and to modify our behaviours to meet new challenges. As a society now we are seeing how damaging our actions are on the environment, and word now travels at the speed of light. We can change to confront this new problem.
And it’s perhaps best to start locally, in our own back gardens. Planting trees, nurturing flowers and shrubs, getting people to appreciate what they have on their doorstep and to build an affinity with the natural world away from our flat screens and mobile phones. That is the first step of many.
Encouragement should be taken from that wisest of sages, Sir David Attenborough, who just last year declared that he was more optimistic than ever about humanity making the necessary choices to save the natural world, witnessing the change in human attitudes to our planet over his lifetime as the reason for this.So let us take inspiration from his words, just as we have taken inspiration from his programs, and know that if we all take steps, the natural world can be preserved.