By Adam D. Sacks
Executive Director, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate
Climate urgency is very clear.
There is an established belief in science that there are roughly 20-to-30-year time lags between a year of emissions and the perceptible appearance of their effects. Therefore we are currently seeing the consequences of carbon concentrations 40 to 60 ppm less than at present. Furthermore, the signature of positive feedback loops is acceleration – it is apparent that in the last 2 or so years we are witnessing that acceleration in spades, as heat records are broken right and left, wildfires rage, etc. etc.
Those of us who research and educate about eco-restoration have these accelerating phenomena firmly in mind. What considerations might be at the top of the list in approaching our daunting portfolio of problems? Here are some suggestions:
- Human technology is, along with the population growth made possible by technology, the foundation of the anthropocene era. Technology’s ultimate end is to expand carrying capacity so that we can accommodate a growing population, and bears many unintended consequences of which global warming is one of the most serious. The technologies in question over the past few hundred thousand years include the intentional use of fire, development of hand tools, agriculture, wheels, shipbuilding, architecture, culminating in the industrial era and widespread use of fossil fuels.
- There is a long list of unintended technological consequences and progress traps that have effectively put an end to every large-scale complex society in human history.
- The basic planetary life-support system – sunlight, photosynthesis and soils in terrestrial and aquatic habitats – is an absolute necessity for virtually all life on earth.
- Catastrophic climate change is one of many symptoms of the widespread destruction resulting from human technologies.
- The ecological damage we are seeing today is a result of unintended consequences which always result from human technologies. In other words, human technologies always bear risks, from minimal to catastrophic, that may take decades, hundreds, or thousands of years to manifest (a long time in human terms, but geological microseconds).
- This sixth mass extinction is the culmination of human technologies in the service of short-term human survival, which is a natural outcome of responding to immediate needs, i.e., food, water, shelter, warmth, reproduction. That is, it’s nobody’s fault, it’s the way we’re built.
Any invocation of human technology will bring unanticipated risks that will inevitably result in harm eventually, sometimes serious, occasionally extreme enough to cause widespread extinction and loss of the biodiversity on which our life-support systems depend. No life-support system, no life – we are not immune from extinction.
The inevitable reasonable conclusion is that we cannot rely on human technologies to solve the problems we are facing because of the unknown dangers such technologies bring. A corollary is to use the least complex and least invasive technology possible for maximum safety and, ultimately, effectiveness.
UNFORTUNATELY we are in the thrall of our technologies to the extent that the effects of technology are often invisible to us, leaving us to wander into progress traps and to fall victim to our own ingenuity. We fail to see the pending outcomes until it is too late and resort to more technology to cure prior technological ills, digging ourselves into holes that turn into graves. The poster child today is global warming, but there are many others.
FORTUNATELY the natural world has all the answers we need. We have only to develop the ability to see them. We are blind to the power that brought us liquid water, an oxygen atmosphere, a narrow temperature range suitable for life, and millions of species for an exquisitely complex and biodiverse world. The same natural world that resulted in the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens in the first place.
In sum, our faith is entirely upside-down, believing in the world of nuts, bolts, copper wires, silicon chips and rocket ships, thinking that these are more important and powerful than biological systems. We won’t successfully address climate or any other ecosystem disasters until we understand this fallacy through and through, at a visceral as well as an intellectual level.
When we start to understand how the natural world functions – as complex systems – only then will we grasp what we need to do.
Those of us who work in eco-restoration face daunting odds because a paradigm shift is required, and the places where our cultural habits dictate that we look for answers don’t have them. The answers we desperately need cannot reside in the dominant paradigm which brought us these problems in the first place. The solutions lie elsewhere.
Fortunately, we know many of those solutions, they’ve already been applied on millions of acres on five continents. These solutions – from planned grazing to reforestation to permaculture to biochar to rock powders to wetland and ocean restoration – are all ready to go, far cheaper than anything tech, with many associated benefits for water and carbon cycles, control of floods and droughts, food production, economic justice, and on and on.
Based on this reasoning and experience, one can only conclude that complex and/or untested technologies such as geoengineering (as distinct from geotherapy) should be off the table. They are potentially ineffective, expensive and/or very dangerous. Unfortunately they fit in neatly with the dominant paradigm, and getting excited over something techno-cool that we know little about is a reflex well-conditioned into our daily lives, only all too often turning out to be a snake-oily empty promise. Unfortunately, we no longer have time to play with empty promises.
From nature’s perspective geo-engineering makes no sense whatsoever, despite promises resulting from the misleading oversimplification of complex systems. Solar radiation management (SRM) is readily available with intact ecosystems and healthy water cycles. Similarly for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) – photosynthesis can remove all the atmospheric CO2 we need. Artificial trees, deep well injection, etc. are similarly pointless – untested, expensive, potentially dangerous – we only go there because the dominant paradigm is blind to its own shortcomings and the power of nature, while we wax ecstatic over our reflex cultural loyalties. And because we are rightly desperate.
Many people request persuasive evidence that biological drawdown and ecosystem restoration alone can prevent a continuous thaw of the permafrost and other climate phenomena, given how late the hour is. Coming from the land of the dominant (reductionist) paradigm – and we all struggle with its powerful constructs – such a request makes sense.
This is a common request, and at first blush not unreasonable, so let me take a moment to deconstruct it. There are many tricky and undefined (and perhaps undefinable) words in that sentence: “persuasive,” “evidence,” “alone,” “prevent,” “late.” There are also assumptions about mechanisms of drawdown, permafrost thaw, biological drawdown and eco-restoration. Suffice it to say that such requests are rife with undefined elements, and the key is that “seeing is believing” (not the other way around). That is, if you are prepared to believe what you’re asking for you will see it. Otherwise, it will continue to be invisible, and the conventional response to such invisibility is that “the science” isn’t there (wherever “there” may be).
When we refer to “the science” in the mainstream sense, we’re mostly referring to academic and reductionist science (where systems interactions are discounted), associated with revered institutions, experimental protocols, statistical analyses, and peer-reviewed studies.
But we should keep in mind that before any scientific field is mainstream, it isn’t. No academic support, no peer review, no formal studies – but plenty of evidence, perhaps derided as “anecdotal,” but without which there would be no science at all.
So how does one arrive at a comfortable place of “seeing persuasive evidence”?
When we’re studying systems such a personal transition is different for different people, but involves exposure to many new ideas, plenty of illustrative stories (“anecdotes”), conversations with numerous people, perhaps reading technical literature (or perhaps not), reflection on nature vis-a-vis human affairs, seeing the magic of eco-restoration first-hand, perusing some wonderful books by nature writers, and contemplating the vastness of the universe, the amazing existence of life on earth (perhaps nowhere else) – until you begin to recognize life as a force greater than any other on earth. Earth – it would be a dead rock in space, like Mars or Venus – without life.
I hope this longish post is helpful – I know that connecting these dots is not obvious. I’ve been on this winding road for the better part of a decade, the understandings are a personal evolution as much as anything.
There is, thankfully, a great deal of knowledge and experience out there that has opened up a new paradigm of life on earth, into a universe of great possibility and hope where there are positive tools for regenerating a bountiful planet, where a healthy global ecosystem can take care of global warming and so many other pressing problems. We humans have a vital role to play.
Let us proceed in partnership with nature on the path to biodiverse abundance, with enthusiasm and joy, guided by the gods within.*
* Harking back to the original meaning of “enthusiasm,” en- (in) + theos (god).