2020-10-22 Much More Than ‘Just’ Climate Change – “A Life On Our Planet” Part 2

Sir David Attenborough’s book has much more that must be done than just climate change. I start by quoting a few paragraphs about eating alternatives to meat. No one is asking anyone to give up eating meat. But with a population of over 7.5 billion people, the amount of land taken up for raising livestock and the food needed is exceeding the capacity of the land available, and forests are being cut down to grow more livestock and food for livestock. This is doing the exact opposite of what we need to do, we need to reforest the land.

If you think that you will never give up eating meat, then you are part of the problem. Mother Nature doesn’t care what you think, and will make you into fertilizer just like everyone else. Humans are the only animal on earth that have managed to step outside of living within the limits of Mother Nature. Other animals are forced to live within those limits. But humans cannot do this forever. We have reached another limit: we have forced the climate out of balance with our use of fossil fuels.

p.171 >> The largest fast food chains and supermarkets are all now experimenting with alt-proteins, foods that look, feel and taste like meat or dairy products, but that do not have the animal welfare issues or environmental packs of livestock farming. Plant-based alternatives to milk, cream, chicken and burgers are now very easy to find, and some of them are remarkable approximations of the original and can offer all the nutrients we need. While soy is a common ingredient in these products, in choosing to eat them ourselves, we are taking the position of herbivore rather than carnivore and so it is far less damaging to the environment than eating animals fed on soy.

At some point, clean meats will be arriving on the shelves. These products are grown from genuine animal tissue as independent cell cultures. Since clean meat production does not involve raising livestock, it is very efficient. The cultures are fed on a refined growth medium made from essential nutrients. They don’t require much water, energy or space to make, and there are far fewer animal welfare issues.

Further ahead still, there is a possibility of advances in biotechnology that will enable us to use micro-organisms to produce almost any protein or complex organic food to order. Some of these may be produced by adding little more than air and water, and be powered by renewable energy.

At present the cost of producing most of these alt-proteins is still very high since the technology is yet to be refined, and not all are yet proven to be fit for human consumption. Others have been criticized for being overly processed. But some suggest that as soon as they become as cheap to produce as beef, chicken, pork, dairy and, indeed, fish, there will be a revolution in our food supply chains. The bulk of easily substituted foods such as ground beef, sausage meat, chicken breast and milk products may switch to all protein production within decades. Even if more specialist items such as prime steaks, fine cheeses and cure delicacies remain produced by traditional methods, the human population would be able to feed itself on far less food, while using far less energy and water, and admitting far fewer greenhouse gases. The alt-protein revolution could prove to be a significant boost to our efforts to become sustainable on Earth. <<

p.173 >> The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, with current rate of improvements in farming efficiency alone, we will reach peak farm by about 2040. At that point, for the first time since we invented farming, 10,000 years ago, we may stop taking up more space on Earth. But by radically increasing yields in sustainable ways, regenerating degraded land, farming in new spaces, reducing the meat in our diet, and benefiting from the efficiencies of alt-proteins, we may be able to go much further and start to reverse the land grab. Estimates suggest it could be possible for humankind to feed itself on just half of the land that we currently farm – an area the size of North America. And that would be very valuable, because we have an urgent need for all that freed land. It is the setting for our greatest efforts to increase biodiversity and capture carbon. And the farmers who will have been most affected by the clean, Green revolution happening around them, have a pivotal role to play. <<


Wolves in Yellowstone

p.187 >> When working on a large scale, the opportunity arises for the most spectacular and controversial of rewilding ambitions — the reintroduction of large predators. In a world in which biodiversity gain and carbon capture are rewarded, it may make sense to do this, given enough space, due to the benefits of something called the trophic cascade. The most famous example was recorded in Yellowstone National Park upon the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. Until the wolves came back, the large deer herds spent long hours browsing the shrubs and saplings that were growing in river valleys and gorges. When the wolves arrived, that stopped, not because the wolves ate lots of deer, but because they scared all the deer. The routine of the deer herds changed. Now they moved frequently and did not remain in the open for long. Within six years, the trees grew back, shading the water, allowing fish to gather out of sight. Aspen, willow and cottonwood thickets sprouted on the floors and sides of the open valleys. The numbers of woodland birds, beaver and bison increased. The wolves hunted coyote too, so populations of rabbits and mice did better and so fox, weasel and hawk numbers increased. Finally, even the bears grew in number, as they benefitted from scavenging the carcasses of wolf kills. In the autumn, they feasted on the berries of trees and shrubs that would otherwise never have come into fruit.

The conclusion is clear: to gain biodiversity and capture carbon in a landscape such as Yellowstone, just add wolves. This thinking is active in the minds of Europeans now planning to deal with the 20-30 million hectares of abandoned farmland expected to be created by the continent’s continuing forest transition by 2030. This is an area the size of Italy. If forests are about to return to the farms by natural regrowth, it would be better for them to be as biodiverse and carbon efficient as possible. The return of the wild is becoming a practical policy option for governments which understand the true value of nature and of its contribution to stability and well-being. <<

p.190 >> In the wild, animal and plant populations in any one habitat remain roughly stable in size over time, in balance with the rest of the community. If too many are alive at once, each individual will find it harder to get what it needs from the habitat, and a few will die or leave the habitat entirely. If too few are born, there will be more than enough to go around. So they will breed well and the species will reach its full potential once more. Increasing slightly, decreasing slightly, the population of each species oscillates about a number that the habitat can sustain indefinitely. This number — the carrying capacity of an environment for a particular species — represents the very essence of balance in nature.

What is the human carrying capacity of the earth? Despite reasoned proposals and fearful warnings from great thinkers throughout history, we have never yet met our natural ceiling. We always seem to invent or discover new ways of using the environment to provide more of the essentials — food, shelter, water — for ever more people. Indeed, it is more impressive than that. We effortlessly support far more than the essentials — schools, shops, entertainment, public institutions — even as we increase our population at an extraordinary speed. Is there nothing to stop us?

The catastrophe unfolding around us surely suggests that there is. The loss of biodiversity, the changing climate, the pressure on the planetary boundaries, everything points to the conclusion that we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity.

p.203 >>

Achieving More Balanced Lives

A revolution in sustainability, a drive to rewild the world and initiatives to stabilise our population would realign us as a species in harmony with the natural world about us. How would it affect our own, individual lives? In a thriving, sustainable future, we would follow a largely plant-based diet, filled with healthier alternatives to meat. We would use clean energy for all our needs. Our banks and pension funds would only invest in sustainable business. Those of us that choose to have children would be likely to have smaller families. We would be able to choose wood products, foodstuffs, fish and meat thoughtfully, informed by the detailed information available with every purchase. Our waste would be minimal. The little carbon our activities still emit would be offset automatically within the purchase price, funding rewilding projects all over the world. In truth, it would be easier for us, in this potential future, to live a life in balance with the natural world than it is today. Business and political leaders will have been compelled to build products and societies that help all of us to have a lower impact. Take for example, the treatment of waste. I can remember a time before the disposable society we have today, when we repaired and reused, when we had little or no plastics, and food was a precious commodity. The present habit of throwing everything away, even though, on a finite planet there is of course no such thing as ‘away’, is a relatively new thing. Aside from the fact that waste is a waste, when it accumulates it often becomes damaging. The living world faces the same problem, and we will, once again, be wise to copy its solutions. In nature, the waste from one process becomes the food for the next. All materials are reused in cycles, involving many different species, and almost everything is ultimately biodegradable.

Those studying possibilities for a circular economy, such as the researchers at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are looking for ways to bring the same logic and efficiencies into our societies. The key to the circular mindset is to imagine replacing the current take-make-use-discard model of production with one in which raw materials are thought of as nutrients that must be recycled, just as nutrients are in nature. It then becomes clear that we humans are essentially engaged in two different cycles. Anything that is naturally biodegradable – food, wood, clothes made from natural fibres – is part of a biological cycle. Anything that is not plastics, synthetics, metals – is involved in a technical cycle. The raw materials in both cycles – the carbon fibres or titanium, for example are elements that need to be reused. The cleverness comes in designing ways to do so.


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