With the climate crisis and coronavirus bearing down on us, the age of disconnection is over

We can no longer pretend that we’re separate from each other and from the natural world

 ‘What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us’ Photograph: Blend Images/Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images

Everything is connected. It’s hard to imagine right now that, just weeks ago, the truism of ecological politics was treated as hippy nonsense by mainstream politics.

Announcing the statutory review of the commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) last October, the Morrison government pitched it as an opportunity to weaken the Howard era laws even further and make it easier still for environmentally destructive projects to be approved. And, regardless of clear statements from scientists and strong advocacy by campaign groups, it looked like it would get away with it because, back then, we were still living in the age of disconnection when the environment and the economy could be seen as separate things, in competition with each other.

But then the summer arrived, delivering one after the other two massive wake-up calls. In the age of consequences, with the climate crisis and a deadly pandemic bearing down on us, it’s impossible to pretend that we are separate from each other and from the natural world.

A pandemic, more than almost any other phenomenon, shows that all our lives are inextricably intertwined, for now and forever, whether we like it or not. It brings into sharp focus the impossibility of trying to keep economics, health, environment, education and social justice treated as separate questions with separate answers. It heightens awareness of our vital need, as social beings, to stay connected to each other as well as we possibly can while keeping our physical distance.

It shows how the “efficient”, on-demand world that capitalism has constructed is so incredibly fragile that a series of shocks can bring it to the point of collapse. And with the rules of neoliberal economics being broken by governments the world over, it demonstrates that massive policy interventions, shifting the entire structure of the global economy, are possible.

With the complete focus right now on Covid-19, it takes an effort to cast our minds back to this summer’s bushfires. They were, of course, far larger and fiercer than ever before, over a season that started when we were barely out of winter. Where previously bushfires had affected a small number of people, this season the smoke blanketing Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, and the repeated evacuation of summer holiday spots, meant that most Australians were affected. 

This heralded a shift in thinking that went deeper than personal impact. Perhaps due to the remarkably low loss of human life compared with the scale of the disaster, there was a tremendous focus on the more than a billion mammals, birds and reptiles killed. We mourned the thousands of koalas and the numerous species being pushed towards extinction if their habitats aren’t restored.

The true legacy of this summer could be a vital turning point in recognising that “the environment” isn’t something “over there”. The environment is the air we breathe and the water we drink; it’s the soil in which we grow our food; it’s the animals we identify with and the landscapes imprinted on our souls; the environment is us, all of us, together, integrally connected with everyone and everything else on this beautiful blue marble floating in space.

Damage the environment and we damage ourselves. And not just some of us – all of us together. Continue to think in our compartmentalised, linear fashion, and we’ll keep missing what’s coming, be it weeks of smoke, runs on toilet paper, or deadly pandemics.

What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. Everything we do relies on extraordinary networks of activity by people we’ve never met, crisscrossing the globe. And responding to a health crisis that was likely triggered in part by environmental destruction has world-changing impacts on the economy, on education, on social justice, on geopolitics.

The age of disconnection is over.

To bring us back to where we started, where does that leave the review of the EPBC Act?

We have an opportunity now to not just push for a new generation of environment laws, but to re-evaluate the whole deal, to cultivate a new political settlement based on ecological principles of living well together in harmony with the natural world, understanding our place as part of it as First Peoples did for millenniums, with an economy designed to serve people and planet.

As part of this, in the immediate term we need to advocate for vital improvements to the EPBC. It is extraordinary that the Howard legacy of deliberately excluding a project’s climate impacts from the triggers to require assessment still hasn’t been remedied. That must now be fixed, as must the fact that there is no mechanism for assessing the cumulative ecological impacts of various proposals. After this summer’s destruction of huge areas of remaining healthy ecosystems, we need to institute, in both legislation and the practice of assessment, a presumption of protection instead of a culture of managed destruction.

All this will, of course, be attacked as “green tape” and we have to be ready to actively defend it instead of changing the subject – and defend it on ecological grounds. Regulation is a vital part of the connective tissue which holds the body politic together. Removing it sees us fall apart. Covid-19 is, among other things, showing us the consequences of deregulating markets in health services, food supply and more.

Having that conversation in this way means we won’t just be advocating for marginal improvements, but will be working to change politics. We’ll be building into the political common sense the idea that corporations absolutely should be regulated to enforce environmental and social responsibilities, and that we can no longer consider shareholder profit to be their sole focus. That helps move our politics towards altering the DNA of corporations so they operate as part of the body politic rather than as cancer cells.

The flip side of this systemic shift is to institute legal rights for the natural world. If BHP has legal rights, why shouldn’t the Great Barrier Reef? Rights of nature is an increasingly mature legal field, instituted from New Zealand to Bolivia, India to parts of the US. We can and should at least insert them as a normative principle in the goals of the EPBC.

While we’re thinking at that level, a new ecological political settlement will need a rethink of federalism. Our system sees national and state governments cooperating to shut out community participation and scientific advice to facilitate destructive development. An effective regime based on a presumption of protection would see federal, state, territory and local governments enabling communities to collectively develop creative ideas at their local level, within the context of expert scientific advice, and coordinating those ideas at a regional and continental level.

If we shift environmental regulation from a process that is primarily responsive to demands of developers into a proactive, constructive, community-led system, we can see it morph from a defensive protection stance into one of active restoration, repair and regeneration. It can lead to the greening of cities and towns as we embrace the fact that habitats are not just “over there” but among us. It can create industrial jobs in coalmine rehabilitation. It can support regenerative agriculture, and cooperative sharing of scarce water. It can even open space for community-led conversations about relocation as the overheating world retreats from rising seas and inland desertification is inevitable.

Supporting and enabling communities to make decisions is also vital for rebuilding confidence in democracy, which has collapsed in recent years. The ongoing panic-buying response to Covid-19 suggests that the abject failure of government to provide leadership through the fires worsened this further. This is now an opportunity to rethink governance, reclaim agency for communities, build practices of trust and social cohesion, embedded in respect for expert advice.

Now it’s important to recognise that with this government we’re not going to get these kinds of changes. At best we might hold off the push to weaken the EPBC even further. But that shouldn’t stop us advocating for what we need. Quite the opposite.

Politics, like the natural world it operates within, is a system. It works in complex ways because all it is is the collected actions of humans, influenced by each other and by external impetuses such as the weather. Or viruses.

Over the past three months, a huge number of people made that conceptual leap. In recent weeks the crisis has become such that even mainstream politics finds it impossible to ignore.

At the same time, over this period numerous people decided to just get on with it, without waiting for government. In both bushfire response and the tremendous mutual aid response to Covid-19, millions of us are setting up local projects, or joining existing ones, that make life better, generate social cohesion, reduce our footprint, and cultivate an ethic of care – for ourselves, for each other, for the natural world we are part of.

If enough of us start doing this in our communities, and if enough submissions to the EPBC inquiry call for reforms that are embedded in ecological thinking, we will be putting a whole lot of small chocks under the lever. Each of those chocks is tiny. But together they can tip the balance.

All of a sudden, especially at a moment like this, change will come. SOURCE


 Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute and visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s school of regulation and global government (RegNet)

Plant trees, but remember: nature is more than a carbon sink

Pledges to plant billions of trees are great for climate change, but biodiversity and other benefits of nature also have a value worth calculating.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Pat Lauzon.

The federal government pledge to plant 2 billion trees over 10 years has garnered considerable attention from Canadians eager to find solutions to the climate crisis. Planting trees is intuitively attractive: if trees soak up carbon, why not plant more? But ensuring best value for money turns out to be complicated.

In February, US President Donald Trump elevated attention around tree planting by committing to join the global “Trillion Tree Initiative” in his 2020 State of the Union address. Republican lawmakers proposed legislation soon afterwards, setting a goal for the United States to plant a trillion trees by 2050 as a “fossil fuel-friendly climate fix.”

These tree-planting pledges have come on the heels of a key report by world scientists pointing to the importance of forests and lands in regulating climate. Governments, it argued, should do a better job of leveraging nature as part of the solution to climate change.

But as we move to harness nature’s ability to help fight climate change, we need to be mindful of the other crucial services that nature provides, including biodiversity. Building these values into decision-making frameworks such as cost-benefit analyses is not straightforward.

This is because the “value” we get for our funding dollars extends beyond carbon sequestration, and includes habitat for plants and animals, protection for species at risk, flood and heat-wave protection, and cleaning water and air, among others. There are also recreational values and income for local communities to consider. Ignoring these other values in climate-change policy would be a bad idea.

It’s not that governments don’t respect these other values (the government has doubled down on international targets and now aims to protect 30 percent of Canada’s land by 2030) but there is generally no price on nature or explicit market value.

And so, choosing the right projects becomes an issue when we don’t assign explicit values within our conservation, biodiversity or resilience-related goals. This means that projects could be ruled out because of high carbon costs even when they have high values in other areas. For example, wetland restoration would do little to ease climate change but could improve biodiversity and stormwater management, reducing the risk of flooding.

Likewise, policies that aim to give harvested wood products a boost will be highly effective at sequestering carbon and help develop local resources, but could ignore biodiversity outcomes.

Adverse impacts are also possible without strong safeguards in place. Obviously, planting trees on natural grasslands or harvesting old-growth forests to plant faster-growing trees could be good for climate but would devastate existing ecosystems.

So how can we make sure that our climate change policies are also good for nature?

For one, we need to see beyond the trees. There are other landscapes good at sequestering carbon that offer considerable co-benefits, including wetlands, grasslands, agriculture lands and coastal ecosystems. Coastal ecosystems, for example, sequester and store significant amounts of carbon but also offer a slew of other natural benefits including providing diverse habitats, protecting coastal communities from flooding and storm surge events, and preventing coastal erosion. Grasslands provide important habitat for many of Canada’s species at risk.

Second, most academic research on carbon stocks and fluxes shows that it is much better to keep what you already have than to give it up – through economic activities – and then try to restore it through tree planting or land regeneration. Lands and forests can also be a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbated by forest fires, pest infestations and human activity such as resource extraction and exploration.

When policies are designed to protect what we already have, we immediately avoid the greenhouse gas emissions that would have otherwise been produced. For example, 35,000 hectares of Canada’s peatlands have already been drained, releasing significant emissions. (Peat is used in horticulture, among other things.) Conservation tactics would offer immediate benefits. Restoring what we once had (in this case, rewetting peatlands) needs to be carefully coupled with protecting what we already have.

But this still doesn’t directly address how to determine value for money. What benefits should we be trying to measure, and how do we measure them? How can we compare all of the value in two parcels of land?

Economics offers ways to get around this, including valuation techniques that put a dollar figure on particular species or services by measuring human preferences. A simpler tactic would be to decide on criteria that would give projects extra points when they demonstrate more than one kind of benefit.

Regardless of the technique, a certain amount of subjective decision-making accompanies project selection. Are we more interested in protecting species at risk or areas with an abundance of plants or animals? There’s no avoiding criteria selection to figure out what we’re looking to improve.

It’s not that tree planting is without merits. It was only recently that the Smart Prosperity Institute calculated that 2 billion trees could sequester around 1.8 to 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, and double that amount by 2050.

So there is no question that nature is a fundamental piece of the puzzle for fighting climate change. However, policies with a sole focus on climate could miss a bigger opportunity to protect and enhance all of the benefits that nature provides. SOURCE

On the verge: a quiet roadside revolution is boosting wildflowers

Projects to reduce grass cutting and increase the diversity of plants and wildlife along Britain’s roads are having dramatic results

Main image: Traffic passing pyramidal orchids and other wildflowers along the A354, near Weymouth, Dorset. Photograph: http://www.pqpictures.co.uk/Alamy

n 2014, Giles Nicholson was battling the growing year from hell. A mild winter followed by a warm, wet spring had turbocharged a ferocious mass of cow parsley, nettles and dense grass along the hundreds of miles of road his team maintains for Dorset council. Austerity meant there was barely enough money to pay for repeated cuttings to hold back the matted swards. Complaints poured in about messy roadsides.

“[The machinery] wouldn’t go through it,” says Nicholson, recalling the overspilling verges.

But the chaos of that summer would prove an unlikely turning point for wildflowers and biodiversity in the English county. Vast stretches of roadside have been transformed. Where there were thick clumps of grass, there are low-growing wildflowers such as black medic, birds-foot trefoil and red clover. The verges are cut two or three times a year, not 12, saving the council tens of thousands of pounds. Butterflies and other invertebrates have returned in their droves.

The reasons behind this unlikely mini-revolution for biodiversity are simple. When the worst of the 2014 growing season was over, ecologist Philip Sterling was brought in to oversee the council’s service team. He and Nicholson, Dorset council’s countryside and greenspace manager, set about applying the centuries-old principles of hay making to the management of verges, cul-de-sacs and urban grass patches across the county. It is a practice that has now been adopted by other counties in the UK, including in Lincolnshire.

 

In Sandford, Wareham, wildflowers are part of an initiative to provide an attractive habitat for butterflies and insects, while helping to cut the costs of roadside mowing. Photograph: Eva Worobiec/Alamy

The process is simple: cut infrequently, ideally, just twice a year in spring and then late summer once plants have bloomed and seeded; remove the clippings to gradually reduce the fertility of the soil and prevent a buildup of mulch; repeat, wait, and enjoy the resurgent wildlife and flowers.

“It will not fail,” says Sterling, who, as programme manager for charity Butterfly Conservation’s building sites for butterflies project, has taken his roadside revolution around the country to any local authority that will listen. “As fertility declines in a soil, biodiversity increases. At first that seems a little counterintuitive because you imagine the more you pour into a soil, the more plants that can grow. That’s not how it works in the natural system. In more fertile systems, a few species dominate and they swamp and smother everything else.”

 

Wildflowers on roadsides are a haven for butterflies and insects. Photograph: Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

Grass cuttings are almost always left where they fall along the thousands of miles of road verges that are maintained by law in the UK. Over time, the resulting mulch increases the fertility of the soil, meaning the grass grows with increasing vigour and needs to be cut more frequently. The cut and collect method breaks the cycle.

The before and after photos of otherwise ordinary roadsides across Dorset show the dramatic effects of Nicholson and Sterling’s maintenance regime, as suffocated seed banks have been allowed to spring back into life. Yarrow and yellow flashes of lady’s bedstraw punctuate roadsides and roundabouts throughout summer. Magenta pyramidal orchids linger outside a branch of Tesco.

The cost savings of managing roadsides this way are equally stunning for the council’s accounting department. The annual budget for highway verge management dropped from nearly £1m to £650k in five years under the cut and collect, low fertility approach. London boroughs, councils from across the country and European governments are paying attention.

“For the last 40 years we’ve been doing entirely the wrong thing,” says Sterling, impatient with the possibilities for roadsides across the UK and beyond.

Wildlife corridors

Wildflower meadows, ancient British ecosystems that are crucial for wildlife, thrived for centuries with the help of traditional farming methods and livestock husbandry, but have largely vanished in the post-war era. Industrialised use of nitrogen fertilisers and poor land management have diminished the crucial wildlife habitat by 97% since the 1930s. But road verges have become an unlikely source of hope.

Last September, the wildlife charity Plantlife produced new guidelines for transforming the management of the UK’s roadsides that incorporate some of Nicholson and Sterling’s practices. Crucially, the plan to turn verges into wildlife corridors is also backed by the country’s highways authorities and construction and services businesses such as Kier and Skanska.

If adopted nationwide, an area the size of Nottinghamshire could see 700 species of wildflowers thriving along the road network in Great Britain, equivalent to around 40% of the government’s land restoration targets for 2040. A petition backing Plantlife’s campaign has more than 85,000 signatures.

Botanical surveyors inspect roadside verges in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Matthew Roberts/Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

“It’s about bringing colour back to the countryside and to our roadsides. If we have that colour there, then we’ll have lots of other wildlife there as well,” says Plantlife botanist Trevor Dines.

“Plants are the powerhouses of our food chains. They are the only things that are collecting energy from the sun and pumping it into the food chain. Without that diversity of plants there, you don’t get the diversity of other wildlife,” he adds.

One 4.5-mile stretch in Dorset shows what is possible: the Weymouth relief road. Opened in 2011 ahead of sailing events at the Olympics, the seven hectares (17 acres) of verges that line one of the busiest roads in the county have become a crucial site for biodiversity.

 

Yellow clusters of kidney vetch, the only wildflower where the small blue, Britain’s smallest butterfly, will lay its eggs, dominate the roadsides in the spring and summer. But the medicinal pea-like flowers, whose seeds can cost more than £2,000 a kilo from commercial providers, are not an extravagant token of the region’s Olympic legacy.

“I harvested the seeds for that myself,” says Sterling, recounting the painstaking task of growing enough kidney vetch at recycling centres and flood bunds since the early 90s. “Now look how much there is.”

Since the road opened, more than half of the species of butterfly known to inhabit Britain have been recorded on the grasslands lining the road, including the Adonis blue and Chalkhill blue. Sterling has 10kg of of kidney vetch seed ready in his office for when the Stonehenge tunnel gets approval .

A Holly blue butterfly rests on a yellow kidney vetch. Photograph: MusicalJoe/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“If you think about the species of butterfly that Weymouth relief road supports on seven hectares, what would it be like on a hundred hectares?” says Nicholson excitedly.

“There’s a huge opportunity here in the UK to change what we’ve currently got,” says Sterling. “We can put back much of what we’ve lost. It’s not impossible to do. We haven’t gone beyond that tipping point where there is so little left that there’s no point.

“If half the species of butterfly in the UK can turn up on a road verge created less than 10 years ago, then we do have the capabilities to do this, don’t we?”

But such enthusiasm for Britain’s wildflowers are not apparent everywhere. Opposite a burger van in a ditch near Ely lies one of England’s rarest plants, the only known native fenland ragwort plant.

The critically endangered wildflower, which is supposedly protected by being on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is surrounded by faded McDonald’s packaging and beer tins. The plant was only discovered when a French botanist from a nearby Cambridge research centre identified it while relieving himself in a layby in the 1960s, so the story goes.

“It was the first sighting of fen ragwort since the mid to late 19th century, so getting on for 100 years, more or less,” says Tim Pankhurst, Plantlife’s conservation manager for the east of England, as lorries storm pass on the road that links Ely and Newmarket.

“That’s it for fen ragwort. This is the sole native site in Britain. A lonely roadside ditch at the back of a verge near Ely.”

The tall plant is a relic of how the fens, in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, used to be: a vast expanse of marshland full of native birds and wildlife. Fen ragwort would have been torn up and moved around by flood waters, but since the region was drained in the 18th century, there’s now only one known native site. SOURCE

How to Turn Your Yard Into an Ecological Oasis

Replacing grass with even a few plants native to your region can save insects and the ecosystems that depend on them.

For years, Toni Genberg assumed a healthy garden was a healthy habitat. That’s how she approached the landscaping around her home in northern Virginia. On trips to the local gardening center, she would privilege aesthetics, buying whatever looked pretty, “which was typically ornamental or invasive plants,” she says. Then, in 2014, Genberg attended a talk by Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. “I learned I was actually starving our wildlife,” she says.

The problem, Tallamy explained, is with the picky diets of plant-eating insects. Most of these bugs—roughly 90%—eat and reproduce on only certain native plant species, specifically those with whom they share an evolutionary history. Without these carefully tuned adaptations of specific plants, insect populations suffer. And because bugs themselves are a key food source for birds, rodents, amphibians, and other critters, that dependence on natives—and the consequences of not having them—works its way up the food chain. Over time, landscapes that consist mainly of invasive or nonnative plants could become dead zones.

Top, Toni Genberg. Bottom, an enormous bumble bee (Bombus sp.) visits a wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in Genberg’s Virginia backyard. Photos by Toni Genberg.

Croplands can be just as destructive, making up nearly 20% of all land in the United States. And that doesn’t even include the single largest irrigated crop in the country. Covering more than 40 million acres in the U.S., grass lawn consumes an area roughly the size of New England—land that, for the sake of habitat conservation, might as well be pavement.

Considering how little habitat and food these monocultures provide, and the incredible amount of resources they require, is there any wonder why the global insect populations are plummeting?

But there are solutions. One, at least in theory, is quite simple: Plant more native species. It’s a calling that has spoken to a growing number of park managers, home gardeners, and landscapers—many of whom trace a direct line of inspiration to Tallamy. His research has helped overturn decades of harmful horticultural practice, forcing us to rethink how we tend to both public and private spaces.

Savanna Syndrome

In lieu of monocrops, landscapes with a larger, more diverse biomass of native species help support pollinators, sequester carbon, capture runoff, and rebuild habitats. One recent study found habitats with two or three native tree species are on average 25% to 30% more productive than monocultures, meaning they contribute that much more food and energy to an ecosystem. Habitats with five native tree species were 50% more productive. Wildlife is drawn to lands teeming with native plants.

Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology, works to promote the planting of native plants in place of turfgrass. Photo by Cindy Tallamy.

For individuals who’d like to live a more sustainable lifestyle, the simple message of planting more native species is both productive and rewarding—a refreshing contrast to consumerist exhortations that blame the collective problem of environmental collapse on individual shopping choices. Like anything else, real change has to happen at the macro level, especially when it comes to turfgrass—a crop with deep cultural, even evolutionary roots.

Sociobiologists refer to the preference humans have for vast swaths of low-cut grass as “Savanna Syndrome.” Open grasslands allowed our primitive ancestors to keep an eye out for predators. So even today, on a deep level, we feel safer when we can see to the horizon.

Lawn is the default landscape, but it doesn’t have to be.

Until the Industrial Age, the demands of agriculture kept lawns at bay. They were seen mostly as status symbols that said a person had enough money to brush off the territorial demands of farmland. The invention of the lawnmower democratized the lawn, and further embedded its pathological hold on our psyches.

But lawns require huge quantities of water and often chemical treatments to maintain them—not to mention the emissions produced by two-cycle lawnmowers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, running a lawnmower for one hour emits as much air pollution as driving a typical car 100 miles. This resource allocation becomes more and more difficult to justify as climate change continues to dry up once-productive habitats. As a monocrop, lawns displace landscapes that could benefit people, plants, animals, and insects. It’s time for us to reconsider lawns on a grand scale, several researchers have concluded.

Considering how entrenched lawns are in the American imagination, to uproot them will require some give-and-take. Advocates say we need a culture shift as well as policies that support it.

“As climate change and droughts worsen, we might get to a point where there’s political support to outlaw lawns,” says Sarah B. Schindler, a professor of law at the University of Maine, who has written several papers about the legal authority of municipalities to ban lawns. “I do think we’re seeing a change in norms, and I think part of that is tied to rising awareness of climate catastrophe.”

Many native species flock to Genberg’s property, including American goldfinches that dine on the seeds of orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida). Photo by Toni Genberg.

Part of that work is simply raising awareness. Many people don’t think about the possibility of their yards as anything but turfgrass. As Tallamy puts it, lawn is the default landscape, but it doesn’t have to be. “People don’t realize there’s an alternative.”

Choosing Native Plants

Some communities are beginning to impose alternatives. In CaliforniaColorado, and Arizona, where water shortages are a growing crisis, cities offer rebates for each square foot of lawn replaced with native or water-saving landscapes—a process known as “xeriscaping.” In wetter climes, Washington, D.C., and cities in NebraskaWashington stateIowa, and Minnesota have implemented rebate programs for the planting of rain gardens, which capture and infiltrate more runoff than grass. The city of Alexandria, Virginia, recently changed its municipal mowing to allow for the growth of meadows and glades in city parks.

Throughout the country, local groups are advocating for the planting of natives on roadsides, medians, campuses, and parks. Some, like Food Not Lawns, encourage homeowners and neighborhoods to replace lawns with edible plants to establish food sovereignty and food security within their communities. Others take a more clandestine approach by planting “guerrilla gardens” or tossing “seed bombs” into abandoned lots and properties where they don’t have the legal right to garden.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are often seen visiting the cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) on Genberg’s property. Photo by Toni Genberg.

“One thing that we’ve learned with our research is that there is room for compromise,” Tallamy says. Native planting doesn’t have to be all or none to make a difference. He gave the example of chickadee reproduction: If you have at least 70% native plant biomass in a given habitat, you can have sustainable chickadee reproduction. “That gives you 30% to plant perennials and exotics and other ornamental plants.”

Tallamy’s research into the relationship between native plants and insects has inspired gardeners to do more than just turn their yards into native oases. Many are now creating resources to empower others to do the same.

The National Wildlife Federation created a native plant finder web tool, which allows users to plug in a ZIP code to find trees, shrubs, and plants native to their region. Following her horticultural revelation, Toni Genberg created ChooseNatives.org, a resource to help users find, purchase, and learn about native plants. Since switching to natives, Genberg herself has seen all sorts of wildlife return to a property that, before, was only a suburban simulacrum.

Matt Bright founded the nonprofit charity Earth Sangha with the goal of propagating and restoring local native plant communities in the D.C. area. “We’ve set records for total plants distributed from our wild plant nursery for four years running,” he says. “And overall, the trend has been towards more demand from all corners, whether that’s from park managers and ecologists, homeowners, or landscaping companies.”

Biodiversity Among Buildings

But shifting away from lawns is complicated by the fact that municipalities have long adopted rules called “weed ordinances,” which require short ground cover for purely aesthetic reasons. This effectively mandates the planting and maintaining of lawns, as do many local zoning laws and HOA bylaws. And these rules aren’t always taken lightly. In Michigan a few years ago, a woman faced jail time for growing a vegetable garden in her front yard instead of lawn.

A long-horned bee visits an orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) in Genberg’s backyard. Photo by Toni Genberg.

 

People don’t want to be told that they can’t have their lawns, but they also don’t want to be told that they have to have a lawn.

The elephant in the room, of course, is property rights. Limits and requirements can inspire backlash. As Genberg points out, “Americans don’t want to be told what to do, especially when it comes to their properties.”

That’s why Tallamy has focused on talking to the public instead of advancing top-down regulation. Laws, especially bans, need public support to pass. To even think about regulating lawns you first need to change the culture around them. As people like Toni Genberg and Matt Bright show, Tallamy’s message is resonating.

“What you do on your property affects everybody,” Tallamy says. Nonnative or ornamental plants may not look like pollutants, but from an ecological standpoint, they are. Tallamy’s research bears this out: A new paper from his team shows just how effective nonnative plants are at destroying local habitats.

“We compared caterpillar communities in hedgerows that were invaded with non-natives versus hedgerows that were mostly native,” he explains. “There’s a 96% reduction in caterpillar biomass when they’re nonnative, so if you’re a bird and you’re trying to rear your young, you just lost 96% of your food.”

A bluebird taking off with its meal. Photo by Doug Tallamy.

But there’s a flip side, he says. If you take the invasive species out and put the native plants in, you’ve just created 96% more food.

And this isn’t some gardening trend reserved for America’s suburbs and conservation lands. In Manhattan, the most densely populated urban center in the country, officials converted an abandoned railway line into a public park called the High Line, with a policy of planting at least 50% native species.

“There are monarch butterflies there, there are all kinds of native bees, which really surprised me,” Tallamy says. “If you can do that in Manhattan, you can do it anywhere.” SOURCE

Race to exploit the world’s seabed set to wreak havoc on marine life

New research warns that ‘blue acceleration’ – a global goldrush to claim the ocean floor – is already impacting on the environment.

Aitutaki lagoon in Polynesia. Photograph: Andrea Izzotti/Alamy

The scaly-foot snail is one of Earth’s strangest creatures. It lives more than 2,300 metres below the surface of the sea on a trio of deep-sea hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Here it has evolved a remarkable form of protection against the crushing, grim conditions found at these Stygian depths. It grows a shell made of iron.

Discovered in 1999, the multi-layered iron sulphide armour of Chrysomallon squamiferum – which measures a few centimetres in diameter – has already attracted the interest of the US defence department, whose scientists are now studying its genes in a bid to discover how it grows its own metal armour.

The researchers will have to move quickly, however, for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just added the snail to its list of threatened species. German and Chinese industrial groups have revealed plans to explore the seabed around two of the three vents that provide homes for scaly-foot snails. Should they proceed, and mine the seabed’s veins of metals and minerals, a large chunk of the snail’s home base will be destroyed and the existence of this remarkable little creature will be threatened.

“On land, we are already exploiting mineral resources to the full,” says Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, of Stockholm University. “At the same time, the need for rare elements and metals is becoming increasingly important to supply green technologies such as wind and solar power plants.

“And so industrialists are looking to the seabed where it is now technologically and economically feasible to mine for minerals. Hence the arrival of threats to creatures like the scaly-foot snail.”

Jouffray is the lead author of an analysis, published last week in the journal One Earth, which involved synthesising 50 years of data from shipping, drilling, aquaculture, and other marine industries and which paints an alarming picture of the impact of future exploitation of the oceans.

This threat comes not just from seabed mining – which is set to expand dramatically in coming years – but from fish farming, desalination plant construction, shipping, submarine cable laying, cruise tourism and the building of offshore wind farms.

Another illustration of blue acceleration is provided by seabed grabbing, state the authors. Article 76 of the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) allows countries to claim seabed that lies beyond the 200 miles of a nation’s exclusive economic zone. Since the first claim under Article 76 was made in 2001, 83 countries have made submissions. Put together, these claims account for more than 37 million sq km of seabed, an area more than twice the size of Russia.

Many seabed grabbers include small island states that are trying to become large ocean states in the process. For example, the Cook islands in the South Pacific has claimed an area of seabed that is 1,700 times its land surface. “The extension of the continental shelf is therefore not only transforming the geopoltical landscape, it is also substantially shrinking the area designated as the common heritage of humankind,” states the report.

Chrysomallon squamiferum – the scaly-foot snail.
 Chrysomallon squamiferum – the scaly-foot snail. Photograph: Chong Chen Pinterest

 

Examples of the conflicts that could ensue because of the blue acceleration include the disruption of key fish stocks by drilling for gas or oil offshore; pipelines that prevent trawl fishing; and offshore wind farms that disturb tourism.

Norway provides a stark demonstration of likely future conflicts. It aims to bring about fivefold rises both in salmon farming and cruise tourism in its waters over coming years while also building more and more offshore wind farms and more and more offshore gas and oil platforms. Seabed mining for minerals is also scheduled to begin. This saturation of ocean space renders Norwegian waters as being highly vulnerable to shocks, states the report.

The South China Sea is another potential flashpoint. It is a key gateway in the region’s network of undersea telecommunication cables; a third of the world’s shipping passes through it; while half the world’s fishing boats operate in its waters – which are disputed variously by China, Malaysia, Vietnam and others. Should armed conflict break out here over any of these issues, there would be a far-reaching impact on the world’s economy.

“The relevance of the ocean for humanity’s future is undisputed,” states the report. “However, addressing the diversity of claims, their impacts and their interactions, will require effective governance.”

To achieve this, the authors call for greater accountability to be imposed on those financing the fundamental changes that are now being made to Earth’s oceans. These include both banks and governments.

In addition, the vulnerability of small island states needs to be addressed, it adds: “Navigating the blue acceleration in a just and sustainable way requires particular emphasis on the implications of increased ocean use across the globe – and how these claims could have an impact on the economic safety and wellbeing of vulnerable communities and social groups.” SOURCE

The Pacific Ocean is now so acidic, Dungeness crab shells are dissolving

A worker moves a bin of Dungeness crabs after it was offloaded from a fishing vessel on Nov. 17, 2010 in San Francisco, California.

A worker moves a bin of Dungeness crabs after it was offloaded from a fishing vessel on Nov. 17, 2010 in San Francisco, California. File/Getty Images

The Pacific Ocean is now so acidic that it’s dissolving crab shells.

Lower pH levels in the ocean waters are causing parts of Dungeness crab shells to dissolve, which damages their sensory organs, according to a study published this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA

A new NOAA-funded study shows for the 1st time that along Pacific NW coast is impacting shells and sensory organs of young : https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2581/Dungeness-crab-showing-impact-of-coastal-acidification 

Via @NOAAResearch

View image on Twitter
The corrosive effects of the acidity were found in crab larvae, and it’s unclear as yet how it affects adult crabs. The animals’ tiny hair-like structures, which they use to navigate their environments, have been damaged by the low pH levels, too.

READ MORE: The point of no return? Recapping a year of dire climate change warnings

The analysis of the young crab samples confirmed damage to the upper shell, called a carapace.

This is something scientists have never seen before, CNN reports.

“We found dissolution impacts to the crab larvae that were not expected to occur until much later in this century,” said Richard Feely, study co-author and NOAA senior scientist.

According to the study, the crabs’ injuries could impair them from fending off predators. Their shells also regulate their buoyancy in water.

Prince Charles talks about his children and grandchildren in Davos speech
Prince Charles talks about his children and grandchildren in Davos speech

“If the crabs are affected already, we really need to make sure we pay much more attention to various components of the food chain before it is too late,” study lead author Nina Bednarsek, a senior scientist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, told CNN.

But it’s not just crabs that are at risk, the study suggests. Oysters, clams and plankton that also rely on the same carbonate ions — less abundant in acidic water — to build structures such as shells are in harm’s way, too.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The Dungeness crab is one of the most important commodities caught and sold in Pacific Northwest commercial fisheries. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the commercial Dungeness crab fishery has a value of around US$19.9 million.

The study says the ocean is acidifying because more carbon dioxide is being absorbed from the atmosphere. This lowers pH levels in the water.

READ MORE: Here’s how climate change will impact the region where you live

The NOAA says in order to deal with this problem, we should reduce our carbon footprint to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean, or find ways for wildlife and humans who rely on it to adapt to the changing sea. SOURCE

Logging B.C.’s ancient forests adds to extinctions

Governments everywhere must safeguard ancient forests, their webs of life and the life support systems upon which we all depend.

Old-growth western red cedar, western hemlock and Pacific silver fir in the Capilano River watershed near North Vancouver. AMANDA STAN / SUN

Human destruction and disruption of the natural world have sped up the natural rate of species extinction by at least 100 times. A recent study found that globally billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost in recent decades with habitat destruction as the leading cause, now exacerbated by global warming. They referred to the massive loss of wildlife as “biological annihilation.”

Here in “Super, Natural B.C.,” we often celebrate our biological richness and spectacular landscapes. Many of us hang on to the belief that things are not so bad in our neck of the woods, despite the fact that 1,900 B.C. species are at risk of disappearing.

For a reality check, consider this: Vancouver Island’s remaining intact rainforest is being destroyed three times faster than the remaining Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, acted immediately to open large areas of the Amazon rainforest to industry, including in protected territories of Indigenous peoples. This puts at risk the 80 per cent of the rainforest that remains standing. In the last 25 years, nearly 10 per cent of the rainforest has been destroyed, falling to 3.3 million square kilometres last year compared to  3.7 million sq. km in 1993.

Globally, and right here at home, the loss of intact forests threatens species, carbon storage, clean air and clean water. In some countries this is mainly due to deforestation. In other countries such as Canada, it is mainly through the replacement of rich ancient forests with even-aged young forest.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in the capital of Brasilia in January 2019.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in the capital of Brasilia in January 2019. SERGIO LIMA / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

B.C.’s temperate rainforests represent the largest remaining tracts of a globally rare ecosystem that covers just half a per cent of the planet’s landmass. Many species that live here don’t exist anywhere else. At a time when we need to respond to climate change, it’s worth noting that temperate rainforests store more carbon per hectare than tropical forests and while trees grow tall in decades, in tropical forests they need centuries to become old in temperate zones.

Logging of B.C.’s ancient forests continues in habitat that is needed for spotted owl and caribou, species on the brink of disappearing. Like in tropical areas, the loss of forests disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples who hold title to them and who have used the resources in them since time immemorial.

Governments everywhere must safeguard ancient forests, their webs of life and the life support systems upon which we all depend. Bolsonaro’s rise to power is a huge threat to the future of biodiversity, Indigenous rights and the climate. It’s also a reminder that B.C. is not taking its global responsibility seriously.

B.C. can set a strong example by protecting original forests in a way that respects Indigenous rights while creating jobs and improving second-growth forestry. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements showed that progress for healthy rainforests and healthy communities is possible and the NDP was elected on a promise to implement this science-based approach elsewhere in B.C.

A year-and-a-half later, the B.C. government has yet to take any meaningful steps to protect endangered old-growth ecosystems outside the Great Bear Rainforest.

The sixth mass extinction is a global threat that doesn’t stop at our borders. Thousands of people have written to the B.C. government, calling for immediate action to protect remaining endangered rainforests. The time for bold action from B.C.’s government is now.

A staggering 1 billion animals are now estimated dead in Australia’s fires

The number of kangaroos, koalas, and others killed keeps skyrocketing. Here’s where the eye-popping estimate comes from.

A kangaroo jumps in a field amid smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma, Australia, on January 4, 2020. Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

As fires continue to rip through Australia, some devastating numbers are emerging: At least 24 people killed. More than 15.6 million acres torched. Over 1,400 homes destroyed. And, according to one biodiversity expert’s count, an estimated 1 billion animals killed.

That last number is staggeringly huge, and has begun to make the rounds on social media. You might be wondering: How are so many animals dying? And how do we know the number of animals killed?

The bushfires, exacerbated by climate change, have since September swept through vast swathes of Australia — we’re talking about an area bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined — affecting a mix of rural and suburban areas.

Many wild animals and some farm animals have been killed directly by the flames. We can see the evidence with our own eyes: Distressing images of burned kangaroos and koalas, and videos of dead animals on the sides of the roads, have circulated online over the past week.

Other animals have not been burned alive but have faced death due to the destruction of their natural environment, which they rely on for food and shelter.

Initially, the number of animals killed was put at 480 million, an estimate that came from Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney, last week. A statement from that institution explained how he arrived at the number.

Anwen, a female koala, recovers from burns at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, Australia, on November 29, 2019.  Nathan Edwards/Getty Images 

In 2007, Dickman co-authored a report for the WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) on how land-clearing affects Australian wildlife in the state of New South Wales (NSW). To calculate the impact, he and the other authors first mined previously published studies for estimates of mammal population density in NSW. Then they multiplied the density estimates by the areas of vegetation approved to be cleared.

Using this simple formula, Dickman was able to calculate that approximately 480 million animals had been killed since the bushfires in NSW started in September.

Some experts suggested that estimate was too high. Sadly, there are three reasons to believe the true loss of animal life is much greater — more like 1 billion.

First, the 480 million number applied to NSW alone, and the bushfires have since spread to the state of Victoria. Second, the number included mammals, birds, and reptiles, but did not include insects, bats, or frogs. Third, the 2007 report “deliberately employed highly conservative estimates in making their calculations,” according to the statement.

That’s why Dickman now estimates the real number of animals lost in the fires is at least 1 billion.

“The original figure ― the 480 million ― was based on mammals, birds, and reptiles for which we do have densities, and that figure now is a little bit out of date. It’s over 800 million given the extent of the fires now ― in New South Wales alone,” he told the Huffington Post.

If we also count bats, frogs, and invertebrates (and given their environmental impact, there’s good reason to think we should), Dickman said it’s “without any doubt at all” that the number of animals lost tops 1 billion. “Over a billion would be a very conservative figure.”

Stuart Blanch, an environmental scientist at WWF Australia, also said 1 billion was a modest estimate given how far the fires have recently spread, according to HuffPost.

How the fires became so deadly for animals

At this point, you might be asking yourself: Can’t animals just run away from a raging fire? Can’t birds just fly away?

In many cases, particularly for birds, the answer is yes. “Certainly, large animals, like kangaroos or emus — many birds, of course — will be able to move away from the fire as it approaches,” Dickman told the BBC. But he added that “it’s the less mobile species and the smaller ones that depend on the forest itself that are really in the firing line.”

Koalas are a good example. An estimated 8,000 of them have died from the fires, ecologists say. That’s almost one-third of all koalas in NSW, which forms their main habitat.

“It may well be up to 30 percent of the population in that region [was killed], because up to 30 percent of their habitat has been destroyed,” explained Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister.

WWF is currently collecting donations to restore koala habitats.

Other animals may have fared better — reptiles, for example.

“Although it is hard to find estimates of how well reptiles survive fires, in similar areas of Australia the majority of these reptiles live in the soil,” said Colin Beale, an ecologist from the University of York. “Soil is a very good thermal insulator and burrowing reptiles can certainly show very low mortality even during intense fires.”

Some ecologists, including Beale, say Dickman’s estimates may be inflated. Although it’s plausible many animals have been affected by the fires, the proportion of them that actually died may be smaller.

Let’s hope so. The truth is, it’s hard for anyone to know the precise impact of the fires at this stage, not least because many animals that survive the flames will likely die later due to lack of food, water, and shelter.

Regardless of the exact numbers, this is a crisis for biodiversity in Australia, which is home to some of Earth’s most distinctive animals, like marsupials. Around 244 species of mammals are found only in Australia. What’s more, according to the University of Sydney’s statement, “Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.”

The current loss of Australian animal life is a serious tragedy by anyone’s count. It adds to the terrible human toll: two dozen people killed, and thousands more evacuated. Fires are expected to keep raging for another month.

To help with the evacuations and firefighting, the government announced this weekend that it’s deploying the military. Experts say the deployment is on a scale not seen since World War II. As Defense Minister Linda Reynolds put it, “It is the first time that reserves have been called out in this way in living memory.” SOURCE

 

George Monbiot: Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet

Scientists are replacing crops and livestock with food made from microbes and water. It may save humanity’s bacon

Illustration: Matt Kenyon

It sounds like a miracle, but no great technological leaps were required. In a commercial lab on the outskirts of Helsinki, I watched scientists turn water into food. Through a porthole in a metal tank, I could see a yellow froth churning. It’s a primordial soup of bacteria, taken from the soil and multiplied in the laboratory, using hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source. When the froth was siphoned through a tangle of pipes and squirted on to heated rollers, it turned into a rich yellow flour.

This flour is not yet licensed for sale. But the scientists, working for a company called Solar Foods, were allowed to give me some while filming our documentary Apocalypse Cow. I asked them to make me a pancake: I would be the first person on Earth, beyond the lab staff, to eat such a thing. They set up a frying pan in the lab, mixed the flour with oat milk, and I took my small step for man. It tasted … just like a pancake.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foods is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Several impending disasters are converging on our food supply, any of which could be catastrophic. Climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists call “multiple breadbasket failures”, through synchronous heatwaves and other impacts. The UN forecasts that by 2050 feeding the world will require a 20% expansion in agriculture’s global water use. But water use is already maxed out in many places: aquifers are vanishing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. The glaciers that supply half the population of Asia are rapidly retreating. Inevitable global heating – due to greenhouse gases already released – is likely to reduce dry season rainfall in critical areas, turning fertile plains into dustbowls.

global soil crisis threatens the very basis of our subsistence, as great tracts of arable land lose their fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination. Phosphate supplies, crucial for agriculture, are dwindling fast. Insectageddon threatens catastrophic pollination failures. It is hard to see how farming can feed us all even until 2050, let alone to the end of the century and beyond.

Food production is ripping the living world apart. Fishing and farming are, by a long way, the greatest cause of extinction and loss of the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Farming is a major cause of climate breakdown, the biggest cause of river pollution and a hefty source of air pollution. Across vast tracts of the world’s surface, it has replaced complex wild ecosystems with simplified human food chains. Industrial fishing is driving cascading ecological collapse in seas around the world. Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost.

But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.

Research by the thinktank RethinkX suggests that proteins from precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. The result, it says, will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The new food economy will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable”. Using tiny areas of land, with a massively reduced requirement for water and nutrients, it “presents the greatest opportunity for environmental restoration in human history”.

Not only will food be cheaper, it will also be healthier. Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats. But food is likely to be better, cheaper and much less damaging to the living planet.

It might seem odd for someone who has spent his life calling for political change to enthuse about a technological shift. But nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife. Research by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that only 1% of the money is used to protect the living world. It failed to find “any examples of governments using their fiscal instruments to directly support the expansion of supply of healthier and more nutritious food.”

Nor is the mainstream debate about farming taking us anywhere, except towards further catastrophe. There’s a widespread belief that the problem is intensive farming, and the answer is extensification (producing less food per hectare). It’s true that intensive farming is highly damaging, but extensive farming is even worse. Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl. But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

paper in Nature suggests that, per kilo of food produced, extensive farming causes greater greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution than intensive farming. If everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several new planets on which to produce it.

Farmfree production promises a far more stable and reliable food supply that can be grown anywhere, even in countries without farmland. It could be crucial to ending world hunger. But there is a hitch: a clash between consumer and producer interests. Many millions of people, working in farming and food processing, will eventually lose their jobs. Because the new processes are so efficient, the employment they create won’t match the employment they destroy.

RethinkX envisages an extremely rapid “death spiral” in the livestock industry. Only a few components, such as the milk proteins casein and whey, need to be produced through fermentation for profit margins across an entire sector to collapse. Dairy farming in the United States, it claims, will be “all but bankrupt by 2030”. It believes that the American beef industry’s revenues will fall by 90% by 2035.

While I doubt the collapse will be quite that fast, in one respect the thinktank underestimates the scale of the transformation. It fails to mention the extraordinary shift taking place in feedstock production to produce alternatives to plant products, of the kind pioneered in Helsinki. This is likely to hit arable farming as hard as cultured milk and meat production will hit livestock farming. Solar Foods thinks its products could reach cost parity with the world’s cheapest form of protein (soya from South America) within five years. Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.

Another hazard is the potential concentration of the farmfree food industry. We should strongly oppose the patenting of key technologies, to ensure the widest possible distribution of ownership. If governments regulate this properly, they could break the hegemony of the massive companies that now control global food commodities. If they don’t, they could reinforce it. In this sector, as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws. We must also ensure that the new foods always have lower carbon footprints than the old ones: farmfree producers should power their operations entirely from low-carbon sources. This is a time of momentous choices, and we should make them together.

We can’t afford to wait passively for technology to save us. Over the next few years we could lose almost everything, as magnificent habitats such as the rainforests of Madagascar, West Papua and Brazil are felled to produce cattle, soya or palm oil. By temporarily shifting towards a plant-based diet with the lowest possible impacts (no avocados or out-of-season asparagus), we can help buy the necessary time to save magnificent species and places while these new technologies mature. But farmfree food offers hope where hope was missing. We will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it.

SOURCE

Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide

As record fires rage, the country’s leaders seem intent on sending it to its doom.

An out-of-control fire in Hillville, New South Wales, on Nov. 12.

Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

BRUNY ISLAND, Tasmania — Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.

The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.

The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.

Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more.

All this, and peak fire season is only just beginning.

As I write, a state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales and a state of disaster in Victoria, mass evacuations are taking place, a humanitarian catastrophe is feared, and towns up and down the east coast are surrounded by fires, all transport and most communication links cut, their fate unknown.

An email that the retired engineer Ian Mitchell sent to friends on New Year’s Day from the small north Victoria community of Gipsy Point speaks for countless Australians at this moment of catastrophe:

“All we and most of Gipsy Point houses still here as of now. We have 16 people in Gipsy pt.

No power, no phone no chance of anyone arriving for 4 days as all roads blocked. Only satellite email is working We have 2 bigger boats and might be able to get supplies ‘esp fuel at Coota.

We need more able people to defend the town as we are in for bad heat from Friday again. Tucks area will be a problem from today, but trees down on all tracks, and no one to fight it.

We are tired, but ok.

But we are here in 2020!

Love Us”

The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.

And yet, incredibly, the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the coal industry, a big donor to both major parties — as if they were willing the country to its doom. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mines expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports. The prime minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, went on vacation

Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Today, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas. It recently was ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate-change action.
In no small part Mr. Morrison owes his narrow election victory earlier this year to the coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer, who formed a puppet party to keep the Labor Party — which had been committed to limited but real climate-change action — out of government. Mr. Palmer’s advertising budget for the campaign was more than double that of the two major parties combined. Mr. Palmer subsequently announced plans to build the biggest coal mine in Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia.
Credit…Joel Carrett/EPA, via Shutterstock 

Since Mr. Morrison, an ex-marketing man, was forced to return from his vacation and publicly apologize, he has chosen to spend his time creating feel-good images of himself, posing with cricketers or his family. He is seen far less often at the fires’ front lines, visiting ravaged communities or with survivors. Mr. Morrison has tried to present the fires as catastrophe-as-usual, nothing out of the ordinary.

This posture seems to be a chilling political calculation: With no effective opposition from a Labor Party reeling from its election loss and with media dominated by Rupert Murdoch — 58 percent of daily newspaper circulation — firmly behind his climate denialism, Mr. Morrison appears to hope that he will prevail as long as he doesn’t acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster engulfing Australia.

Mr. Morrison made his name as immigration minister, perfecting the cruelty of a policy that interns refugees in hellish Pacific-island camps, and seems indifferent to human suffering. Now his government has taken a disturbing authoritarian turn, cracking down on unions, civic organizations and journalists. Under legislation pending in Tasmania, and expected to be copied across Australia, environmental protesters now face up to 21 years in jail for demonstrating.

“Australia is a burning nation led by cowards,” wrote the leading broadcaster Hugh Riminton, speaking for many. He might have added “idiots,” after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack blamed the fires on exploding horse manure.

Such are those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.
A man drags away plastic garbage bins from a property engulfed in flames in Lake Conjola, New South Wales, Australia.
Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times 

More than one-third of Australians are estimated to be affected by the fires. By a significant and increasing majority, Australians want action on climate change, and they are now asking questions of the growing gap between the Morrison government’s ideological fantasies and the reality of a dried-out, rapidly heating, burning Australia.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchik were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern. In Australia today, a political establishment, grown sclerotic and demented on its own fantasies, is facing a monstrous reality which it has neither the ability nor the will to confront.

Mr. Morrison may have a massive propaganda machine in the Murdoch press and no opposition, but his moral authority is bleeding away by the hour. On Thursday, after walking away from a woman asking for help, he was forced to flee the angry, heckling residents of a burned-out town. A local conservative politician described his own leader’s humiliation as “the welcome he probably deserved.”

As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis? SOURCE

RELATED:

Australian navy begins evacuation of beach where thousands had sought refuge from fire
Australia fires intensify: ‘It’s going to be a blast furnace’