Nature is hiring

paul_hawken.jpg[Editor’s note: Following is Paul Hawken‘s recent commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Portland. It is so inspiring, so filled with poetry and wisdom, and so dead on the mark that I feel compelled to reproduce the whole thing verbatim. I have admired Paul Hawken since I read the equally inspiring book he co-authored with Amory and Hunter Lovins, “Natural Capitalism” (which I still have not added to the NP Essential Reading list where it belongs). Talk about thinking outside the box. He is a true Natural Patriot. Read this essay, ponder it, print it out to read again every couple of months, and follow his advice.]

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there. Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food — but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

natcap.jpgWhen asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver‘s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television. This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Education, Natural Patriots, Science, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Can we transcend consumerism?

consumption.jpgI’ve somehow got on a lot of email lists that I attribute to the Natural Patriot. Greenpeace sends me press releases with a lot of implied exclamation points, as do various purveyors of allegedly green consumer goods. I get excited announcements, often addressed to me by my first name from people I don’t know from Jack, that so-and-so is available for interviews. I have even been flattered to start receiving releases from various esteemed research universities flogging the latest accomplishments of their faculty. Not sure how they got my number so to speak.

I bring this up only as backdrop for one email I received recently that somehow, inexplicably, survived my highly practiced finger on the delete button. It is a very thoughtful, thought-provoking, and compelling essay by Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic arguing (much as Bill McKibben did in Deep Economy) that runaway consumer culture is the real root of America’s–and the industrialized world’s–creeping malaise (stop me if you’ve heard this one).

It would seem easy to dismiss such philosophical arguments as woolly-headed dreaming. But let’s not be premature. As Etzioni notes,”This mentality may seem so integral to American culture that resisting it is doomed to futility. But the current economic downturn may provide an opening of sorts.”

“The kind of culture that would best serve a Maslowian hierarchy of needs is hardly one that would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs–the economy that can provide the goods needed for basic creature comforts. Nor one that merely mocks the use of consumer goods to respond to higher needs. It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones

I will leave you with this thought, and encourage you to read the whole article:

“All this may seem abstract, not to mention utopian. But one can see a precedent of sorts for a society that emphasizes communitarian and transcendental pursuits among retired people, who spend the final decades of their lives painting not for a market or galleries but as a form of self- expression, socializing with each other, volunteering, and, in some cases, taking classes. Of course, these citizens already put in the work that enables them to lead this kind of life. For other ages to participate before retirement, they will have to shorten their workweek and workday, refuse to take work home, turn off their BlackBerrys, and otherwise downgrade the centrality of labor to their lives. This is, in effect, what the French, with their 35-hour workweeks, tried to do, as did other countries in “old” Europe. Mainstream American economists–who argue that a modern economy cannot survive unless people consume evermore and hence produce and work evermore–have long scoffed at these societies and urged them to modernize. To some extent, they did, especially the Brits. Now it seems that maybe these countries were onto something after all.”

And may I add to that list some of my own favorite communitarian and transcendental activities: walking outdoors, camping, gardening (though I prefer to call it ecological engineering), puttering around looking at bugs and birds, fishing, neglecting the lawn, turning over rotting logs, among others. Mainstream American Economists? No wonder it’s called the dismal science.

Posted in Politics, Sustainability | Tagged | 1 Comment

Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project: 2nd spring

bleeding_heart.jpgDear me.  First lightning bugs of the season out in the last few days and I haven’t even reported on this spring’s new incarnation of the Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project (translation for uninitiated: yardwork. Only more fun.). Well, it hasn’t been for lack of interest. Since I am off tomorrow for a overnight trip with the boy’s class, a brief tour of the highlights will have to suffice for the time being.  More to come soon, well, eventually anyway. There’s a lot happening out there.

The alert reader will recall that I made a resolution of sorts a year or three ago, inspired in part by Doug Tallamy’s wonderful book, to get serious about re-engineering the yard toward a landscape more in harmony with the evolutionary history of the local area, more hospitable to desirable wildlife of all sizes, less thirsty for imported water and industrial fertilizer, more pleasing to the eye and spirit, less work (?), etc. This has involved both a surprisingly satisfying campaign of piched battle against various aggressive and invasive alien plants, as well as a systematic plan to plant a wide range of native shrubs and perennials over the course of the next few years.  Oh, and a vegetable garden too. A major re-imagining of the property.

After starting tentatively last spring with a little butterfly patch and a few pots scavenged from a native plant sale, we decided to launch into this righteously and contacted our local native plant nurserywoman and guru, Denise Green, who produced a coherent plan to convert a large swath of monotonous green “grass” (mostly alien weeds, albeit many with little flowers that are charming in their way) into a structurally diverse sward of native flowers, grasses, and shrubs favored by butterflies and birds. The idea was to have this native landscape meld into an edible landscape that included an existing pecan tree at one end, and our little vegetable plot on the other. The plan is shown below.

Well, it all looks good on paper. But of course turning this into reality requires busting one’s  hump to pull out all the privet, honeysuckle, English ivy, and so on, mulching the area, planting the plants, and then watering them through the sometimes brutal Virginia summer. But of course, this is a labor of love.

blueberries.jpgSo, long story short, I started with the area between the house and the shed, along the sinuous brick path. First the destruction: I cut down a gnarly old black cherry that was hugging the shed and constantly dropping dry sticks around, as well as a “grandmother tree” (Chinaberry) that had been split and broken up and resprouted many times and was basically an eyesore. Then covered the intervening grass area with old newspapers and pizza boxes and then heaped mulch over that. Into this I planted the shrubs — four highbush blueberry plants (of two varieties to ensure vigorous cross-fertilization), a small fig sapling (the only non-native), and an oak-leaf Hydrangea. Put them in in March and they are doing great!  Lots of big fat blueberries on the bushes (now covered with bird netting), the fig leafed out and growing well, the Hydrangea with two nice flower clusters.

Around the same time I installed a second rain barrel along the front of the house so we now have a capacity of 100 gallons (I hope to add a third eventually on the other side but that will require installing a gutter too, which is a bit more advanced than I want to tackle at this point). I haven’t tapped into the well yet this year.

tomato_leaf.jpgNow the vegetable patch, at the other end of the edible crescent. Last year was my first hack at this and the results were what one would expect. I planted tomatoes, basil, rosemary, lettuce and probably something else I don’t remember. Basil is pretty tough to kill and it did accordingly well —  we had homemade pesto many times during the summer, always a hit. I got a few tomatoes but most fell victim to a fiendishly clever animal, which I have deduced must have been a raccoon because the villain actually pried apart the wire fence stapled to the timbers surrounding the plot (and, to add insult to injury, mostly took one or two bites out of each, then dumped it on the ground). The lettuce was an abject failure, started too late for one thing.

Anyway, I learned my lesson. Installed a heavier-duty fence with lots of staples and no door (I just hop over the short fence) — so far so good. Worked the whole winter’s accumulation of compost into the vegetable patch. Planted three varieties of tomatoes, giving them a bit more space than last year’s jungle, a bunch of sweet basil, two summer squash plants, two rows of green bean seeds, some spinach from seed, and a single pepper plant. Mulched them after they got established. And have watered them regularly with my collected rain. It helps that this has been a great spring for long soaking, gentle rains. Bottom line: all the vegetables are going crazy. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, the stunted pecan tree is coming into its own now that it has been released from the shadow of the old black cherry. In a few years, we should have good crops of pecans, figs, blueberries, and vegetables too.  Oh, and I am also weeding away and nurturing some volunteer blackberry brambles that came up in the general chaos of the yard edge.

vegetable_patch.jpgRight. About the natives. Along the wasteland between the driveway and the vegetable patch, I have been waging war against the impenetrable privet thickets for a few years now.  The stuff is almost gone. And, to my delight, it is being replaced, right out of the woodwork, by a volunteer stand of Aralia spinosa, the “devil’s walking stick” — so named for its long naked single trunk covered with frightful thorns.  The spray of flowers turning to berries expected late in summer is supposed to be a favorite of birds. In the same area, vacated by the chopped down chinaberry, two native spicebush are taking off. And, also to my delight, the little patch of sensitive ferns I put in last March has come back and is spreading vigorously. As is the Joe-Pye weed planted in the butterfly patch, which is frighteningly buff — looks like it’s been watered with pharmaceutical effluent from a Major League Baseball clubhouse. The bleeding hearts also returned (see photo at top).

Stand by for photos of the insects attracted to this wonderland as it starts to bloom. Don’t look now but I’m thinking about a chicken coop next year . . .

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Sustainability, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project | 5 Comments

The end of the world as we know it

world-end.jpgIsn’t traveling great? I love the . . . no, not the luxurious accommodations on today’s state-of-the-art aircraft, nor the mouth-watering bag of desiccated pretzels (all three of them), nor the physical intimacy with complete strangers with which one is sharing a 12-hour flight across the Pacific, nor even the vague guilt at the colossal carbon footprint one is generating while flying.  No, one of the few remaining charms of long flights is the rare chance to read, something that seems to happen vanishingly infrequently for me in regular life anymore. Hours on end with no interruptions (except perhaps the intermittent pleas to play the electronic version of battleship with one’s child), nowhere else one could be going.

So, on our (no longer very) recent trip to the Antipodes I was able to read two books, seemingly worlds apart but actually with a curious connection between them. Rather against my will, I seem more and more often these days to find myself drifting into ruminations about the end of the world as we know it.  It’s hard to avoid such dystopian daydreams what with accelerating global warming, the sixth wave of extinction underway, the reigning environmental Ponzi scheme known colloquially as “the global economy”, and various other wonders of modern civilization celebrated by our friends at the Cato Institute and such places.

But, to quote Monty Python, “This is supposed to be a happy occasion!  Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who . . .”

theroad.jpgLet’s do the bad news first.  After passing by it in the airport bookstores several times in recent months, even picking it up and leafing through a few pages, I finally succumbed to the macabre fascination and bought a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What really hooked me in the end was that the story is about a man and his young son traveling through the wasteland together and that hit a nerve.

My impressions: The book is both horrific and irresistible. The End Of The World with no silver lining, no blinking, and no punches pulled. I don’t know how to describe its — it is the bleakest, most disturbing narrative perhaps ever written, the more so because of the growing sense that it could in fact happen. But this also, in some perverse sense, makes it hopeful for me. I can’t believe, or it’s hard for me to believe, that the world could truly be completely destroyed with only humans remaining. Life is simply too strong and tenacious. Though it is possible that we’re dumb enough.

It seems much more probable that we would end up with The World Without Us (which I haven’t read). Perhaps it’s only a question of time scales. Ultimately, at some point, humans will disappear as all species do. The question is whether we will go out with a whimper, such that The World Without Us is left, or with a bang, as in The Road. Even in the latter case, life will return and a new age will begin. But it may well be centuries. Even millennia. Depending on how badly we stumble . . .

But that is hardly a topic for polite dinner conversation. Perhaps it’s best to just move on.  The world is in trouble. It is what it is, as the current cliche goes.  So what are we going to do about it?

deepeconomy.jpgThat, for the most part, is the subject of the Bill McKibben’s excellent recent book Deep Economy. So let us turn to what might reasonably be called the good news. If you’re tired of reading and hearing about impending disaster (perhaps especially because it’s likely to be true), if you’re suffering paralysis about what you can do constructively to help turn the world from its current alarming path, this book is a real shot in the arm, as would be expected from this true hero of American environmental letters.

Basically, McKibben’s thesis is that the solution to the multifaceted complex of threats facing modern civilization is a return to humanity, meaning the humane life of small, more self-sufficient communities — anti-globalization, if you will (one reviewer of the book described him as the “anti-Thomas Friedman”).  And (horrors!) anti-growth.  Meaning that the dogma of economic growth, which is more fundamentalist than any religious belief worldwide, comes under some harsh scrutiny. Its time to live within our means, not just because it is necessary to prevent the collapse of global civilization (in case that is not sufficient justification) but because it will make us happier. Does economic growth make you happy?  It does if you’re starving.  But most Americans aren’t. We long ago reached the point of diminishing returns on the relationships between consumption and happiness. How much happier has the opening of the new Wal-Mart outside of town made you (even ignoring the several stores that closed in the aftermath)?

Local food, local power generation, local community, yes even neighborliness. These are McKibben’s answers. There have of course been many critics of globalization, and in the hands of a lesser writer, this thesis might sound smarmy and naive. But McKibben’s argument is characteristically informed, measured, balanced, and strongly supported with examples from the real world. Very compelling. And let’s face it — it becomes clearer every day that what the world needs is a fundamental rethinking of the way we do things and think about things. This book makes me think that there may yet be a silver lining.

Posted in Books and media, Sustainability | 9 Comments

Bracing for a sea change

thegust.jpgI was kindly invited by Ava at the Reef Tank blog to contribute a post to a series they are featuring on climate change and its particular connections to marine ecosystems.

I took the opportunity to organize some of my thoughts from various presentations I’d done recently on climate change in the mid-Atlantic coastal zone of North America.  The result has now been posted: “Bracing for a Sea Change“.

The Reef Tank blog also features lots of other interesting material, including several posts from my colleague and friend John Bruno on coral reefs (see one example here).

Check it out!

Posted in Biodiversity, Oceans, Science, Sustainability | 2 Comments

The search for intelligent life

moko1.jpg[Just returned from two weeks in the Land Down Under.  After a workshop in Sydney, we flew to New Zealand and the family spent a week in Gisborne on North Island – Whale Rider country. Very beautiful – dramatic craggy coastlines, gorges through the mountains cloaked in Paleozoic vegetation, tree ferns everywhere, in the dim shade everything covered with mosses, liverworts, brilliant little coral-colored fungi, delicate creepers, ferns of all kinds. Then there is the ocean, which produced something completely unexpected:]

We’d been told by the restaurant owner next door that a dolphin has made its home in a small Bay south of here on the Mahia peninsula and reportedly enjoys, even seeks out, human company. OK. I’m a natural skeptic, and I’ve also been a marine biologist for almost 30 years, which means that the topic of dolphins regularly comes up from civilians at cocktail parties and what not. Everyone loves dolphins, wants to swim with them, share crystals, etc. But in general my sense has been that dolphins do not want to play with us. Why would they? So I nodded politely at all this.  But I was intrigued.  So with a cloudless blue sky and a free day ahead of us, the boy and I headed south to investigate. There are few roads in this neck of the woods so it wasn’t difficult to find our way and after an hour or so of driving we came on a beach – a beautiful strand framed by rocky headlands, which would surely be thronged with people and snarled lines of traffic anywhere in the USA.

But it wasn’t thronged, not in this awe-inspiring country where people are outnumbered by sheep. The water was calm and from the road we spotted a group of maybe ten figures wading in waist-deep water and, sure enough, on closer examination, a dorsal fin was intermittently visible. We hurriedly donned our swimsuits and jogged down the beach and waded into the cool water. There, an adult dolphin, perhaps 8 or 9 feet in length, was slowly cruising the shallows, carrying a diver’s fin on its muzzle, occasionally prodding the wide-eyed onlookers to toss it for him, circling around, enjoying (apparently) a gentle rub under the chin. We stroked his skin, which had the consistency of hard rubber, with a slick surface. We gamely tossed the fin, patted him as he swam by, dodged his misty exhalations, and generally watched in wonder at this strange phenomenon. The locals call him Moko, which I gathered from our Maori guide the next day is a shortened form of an affectionate word for a child that expresses its belonging to the whole community.  Evidently Moko has been a regular at this beach, hanging with the locals, for two years (two years and two days, one woman there told us).

moko2.jpgWe spent nearly an hour in the water with him, far and away the closest contact I’ve ever had with a dolphin, the boy (and I) enraptured and I reflecting on what a once-in-a-lifetime experience this was. It jolted me into pondering afresh what goes through the mind, by all accounts of an intelligence rivaling our own, of a dolphin? What could this being, this mammalian fish at home in its intricate seascape of clicks and whistles and echoes, its unfathomable intuition of the shoals where fish gather, the subtle, shifting, borders of watery currents in the sea, its strong family ties, what could this creature want with us? Is it an explorer as some of us are? The odd one that feels more kinship with other species than with its own kind, as again some people do? A lonely outcast from the conventional society of dolphindom? An eccentric?

And what does it feel as it weaves among the pairs of lumbering legs and through the cacophonous splashing and shouting of these apparently aware but unintelligibly strange creatures at the edge of the dry world? Does it know that these legs belong to the same creatures that are inexorably changing the watery world its ancestors have known intimately for some millions of years? How could it not know? Surely an animal with the intelligence that its brain size and structure and behavior suggest it possesses could not have escaped the realization, the connection, between us and the growing sickness of its underwater home, that the noisy boats and nets and hooks that relentlessly drag away its food and habitat are operated by these same curious bipeds. Surely the dolphin, its kind if not this individual, has made the connection, as its eyes breach the surface along its wide wanderings, between the density of humans and the sediments and trouble washing off the land to murk up the adjacent sea and confound its sonic seascape? Could this individual even be a missionary of sorts, a lone voice in the deteriorating marine wilderness attempting to make contact in the desperate hope that, for lack of a better word, love might turn the tide? Almost certainly we will never know.

And it suddenly strikes me as perverse that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars launching modern-day rosetta stones into space and monitoring the faint trickle of cosmic electronic noise at the far reaches in a grandiose search for “intelligent life” in the distant universe, somehow – astonishingly – missing that the most incredible manifestations of intelligent life are immediately under our noses, and all we can think to do with them is render their carcasses into meat and oil, or wrench off their long tusks to make baubles and leave the rest rotting on the savannah in view of their own children, or confine them behind plate glass with a beach ball.

What exactly do we mean by intelligent life?

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Oceans | Tagged | 13 Comments

Green, leafy, and cool

agriculture_ast.jpgNow that it is becoming increasingly clear that we are already on board for a substantial increase in global temperature in the coming century, the discussion has broadened from efforts to cut the greenhouse gases that drive the process, which are obviously more critical than ever, to include also efforts to mitigate the expected impacts.

In addition to efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and overhauling energy industries, there have been many suggestions for geo-engineering on a global scale to reduce atmospheric heating. The latter range from the sublime to (often) the ridiculous — huge parasols in space to shade the earth, dumping freight cars of iron filings into the tropical ocean to stimulate blooms of plankton that suck down the CO2, etc. Many such suggestions would be astronomically expensive and some are truly over the top.

Is there really no better way? Why not look to Nature for an answer?  This approach has worked countless times before. Natural ecosystems have had 3-some-odd-billion years to experiment in the face of constant pressure and have discovered a plethora of ingenious ways to solve problems.

Consider the new paper in Current Biology by Ridgwell and colleagues. These authors suggest the ingenious hypothesis that regional warming might be mitigated not by costly futuristic infrastructure but by relatively simple changes in crop varieties that change leaf albedo over large areas.

Ridgwell et al. proceed from the observation that historical conversion of native vegetation to crops with higher albedo (i.e., ability to reflect incoming solar radiation) has reduced warming, and they suggest a low-tech, relatively inexpensive approach that would exploit the existing infrastructure of agriculture.  The idea is to switch crops to known varieties that have leaf glossiness and/or canopy architecture that reflect more solar radiation. By making these changes in the Hadley Centre coupled atmosphere-ocean model, they estimate that summer temperatures could be reduced by a substantial 1 degree C throughout much of the mid-latitude northern hemisphere. These changes could potentially be done cheaply and quickly and might even be improved by selective breeding for higher-albedo foliage.

ridgwell_fig1.jpgThe figure at left shows the global distribution of croplands. The model of Ridgwell et al. allowed C3 grasses (crops such as rice, wheat, and soybeans) and C4 grasses (e.g., maize, sorghum, sugarcane, and millet) to grow within these areas designated as cropland.

The figure below shows the results in terms of  climatic impacts of bio-geoengineering.  The colors show the global anomalies of summer (JJA) and winter (DJF) surface air temperature resulting from a +0.04 increase in maximum crop canopy albedo and an elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration of 700 ppm, relative to “control” conditions with no change in crop albedo. The small “hotspots” of cooling or warming visible on the map are mostly associated with localized changes in seasonal sea-ice extent or snow cover relative to the control, induced by the cropland albedo changes elsewhere.


To me this is a classic potential application of reconciliation ecology, and also biomimicry, that is creative use of nature’s methods to achieve goals that are important to humanity but minimize impacts on the rest of the ecosystem (in the sense that we already have huge areas under agricultural cultivation and this is unlikely to change).   Plus it’s surely a whole lot cheaper than putting a bunch of colossal umbrellas in space, even if that was likely to work.

[Original source: Ridgwell A, Singarayer JS, Hetherington AM, and Valdes PJ. 2009. Tackling Regional Climate Change By Leaf Albedo Bio-geoengineering. Current Biology 19(2):146-150.]

Posted in Biodiversity, Science, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

To days of winter

winter.jpg[The earth is beginning to wake up and stretch again.  So let’s savor the last breaths of the unique waning season before we move on. Number ten in a series.]

To days of winter
W.S. Merwyn

Not enough has been said
ever in your praise
hushed mornings
before the year turns new
and for a while afterward
passing behind the sounds

Oh light worn thin
until the eyes can
almost see through you
still words continuing
to bloom out of yourselves
in the way of the older stars
your ancestors

season from before knowledge
days when the sun is loved most

Posted in Poetry | 3 Comments

Carnival of the Green # 170!

carnivalofgreen_logo.jpgIt’s a thrill to host this week’s Carnival of the Green — and especially fitting as the world is beginning to turn green again here in my neck o’ the woods in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere.  Last night I returned from a trip (with some anxiety about getting the carnival of the Green under control, I must confess), got in my truck and drove home. When I opened the door in the dusk I was greeted for the first time this year by one of my favorite sounds, that telltale music of spring, the chorus of spring peepers from the swampy sloughs and puddles in the nearby woods. And I knew we were turning the corner. I had to close my eyes and just stand and drink it in for a while.

So the COTG turns 170 this week (in weeks, that is). Not sure how many dog years that is, but it’s pretty ripe vintage for a blog carnival. For those irregulars who may not know, the Carnival is organized by Treehugger and you too can enjoy the honor of hosting it — see details here. Slots are going fast for January 2010 so act now. Operators are standing by!

The Natural Patriot is proud to receive the baton today from last week’s host, Turning Transparent in a Green World, and will dutifully pass it on next week to The Enobling Journey.

Disclaimer: Any comments of a curmudgeonly, cynical, politically incorrect, or otherwise potentially disagreeable nature are solely the responsibility of the Natural Patriot and should not be construed as representing Treehugger, The Carnival of the Green, my in-laws, or anybody else.

Right. Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s get down to all the green news that’s fit to print.  Or perhaps all the green news that fits.  Something like that.

News you can use

Jen, from the Clean Bin Project has sussed out The Recyclepedia — a resource where you can find out about what different recyclable materials are are, and where you can recycle them.  If you happen to live in British Columbia, that is. For the rest of this there is still some useful generic information on, for example, what polystyrene is. Alas, if only we had such a forward-thinking community in rural Virginia.

In the time-honored tradition of the Carnival of the Green, we have this week a wealth of tips concerning how to avoid waste or turn it into something useful.

Sigrid at A1 How To provides a list of useful information and reading about environmentally safe cleaning products.

Cara at Repurposeful discusses 14 ways to repurpose plastic packaged fruit containers (colloquially known as “clamshells”). Instead of throwing them in the recycle bin, they can be given new life in a variety of way — at least 14. Check it out.

Beth from the Fake Plastic Fish blog considers the dilemma of what to do with those plastic gift cards one encounters everywhere these days. Turns out there is an outfit that collects and recycles them into — you guessed it, new gift cards.  Perhaps other products too.  They have set up collection centers at stores and will also take cards by mail.  This strikes me as an interesting potential case study for a pervasive question in many green ideas, that of life cycle costing — do the benefits of this recycling program outweigh the energy used in accomplishing it?

But what about recycling cars? Lisa at the Greener Pastures: Personal Finance blog reports on the US Federal Government’s program to get old, inefficient, gas-guzzlers off the road, and simultaneously make the ubiquitous and politically popular attempt to stimulate the economy.  The program was formerly called by the homey name of “Cash for Clunkers”, but is now referred to with the official title of Voluntary Retirement of Fuel-Inefficient Vehicles, perhaps in order to put people to sleep as they kill the program.  Evidently the program is now on hold for reasons detailed by Lisa in her post.

Not sure whether this qualifies under the current heading but we also have a summary on how to get started with conserving electricity in the home (for beginners).

Just when you’d thought you’d heard everything, Paul at Triple Pundit draws our attention to a somewhat unique approach to conservation, a new printer font with holes cut out of the letters (no, I am not making this up). It saves 20% of the ink.  So now if we can just get the whole world to use it . . .

But the coolest of all the gadgets I’ve seen this week is so-called solar ivy, discussed by Mack at Green Light Reflections. The concept substitutes traditional fixed solar panels on a building with a flexible covering of small, thin, flexible solar “leaves” that can adapt to most buildings and even turn in the wind to capture wind energy.  Whether this could generate significant quantities of electricity is not clear from the post but it sure sounds ingenious.

And, as St. Paddy’s Day approaches, here are some tips on how to make that day greener in the more modern sense, courtesy of Chris at Lighter Footstep.

Some philosophical perspectives

Now where did I put that soapbox?  Oh yes, here it is. At the risk of offending some of our contributors, I am reminded in many of these discussions of a talk I recently heard by Tom Friedman, commenting on the swollen torrent of information we are bombarded with daily on “simple steps to go green”.  His contention, which resonates very strongly for me, is that this is not a revolution, it’s a party.  When, he asks, was the last time you saw a revolution where nobody got hurt? We’ll know the green revolution has come when nobody talks about being green any more — when reducing waste and using resources efficiently has become so important to competition in the marketplace that if your products and services are not truly in harmony with the environment, your company goes under. Sadly, I suspect we are still a long way from that day.

A similar sense comes from Brad at Tri-Freedom, who notes that our environmental problems result from insatiable appetites and are unlikely to be solved by conservation without large new sources of energy.  Personally I could find a few bones to pick with Brad — it seems clear that we will need both massive conservation measures and massive new implementation of renewable energy if we have any hope of weathering what’s ahead.  But his post highlights one of the fundamental dilemmas of our modern predicament: The relentless increase in our average per-capita use of resources as a global society.

The other side of that coin, which just as desperately needs a frank, objective, and forward-looking discussion from across the political spectrum, is the role of exponentially increasing growth of the human population, and how we can humanely stabilize it before we all are  buried.  This was the subject of the Natural Patriot‘s most recent post.

A sober reminder of some of the unintended consequences of the waste we generate in daily industrial life comes from Olga at Enviroblog, who discusses a recent report showing that prenatal exposures to environmental pollutants may lead to chronic diseases later in life.  Researchers worldwide are working towards understanding the full spectrum of health consequences of the prenatal, transplacental exposure to chemical pollutants. Lots of food for thought there.

Miscellaneous infomercial-type stuff

I got a number of submissions this week that my perhaps hyper-skeptical tendencies red-flagged as advertising (of various quality) disguised rather thinly as green bloggery. Being somewhat new to carnival hosting, I was unsure about the etiquette on this stuff (I did feel comfortable axing a contribution on “how to make fast cash”). I beg your indulgence if I seem irreverent but I think we all know what I’m talking about.  At any rate, I include some of the entries here on the chance that the products may be useful to some of our readers.  They include:

How to make your own windmill. I find the idea of having a windmill very appealing in a sort of leisurely bucolic way, to go along with the goats that I hope to get one day. But I don’t know if I could handle building one given my rather rudimentary handyman skills.  If I lived in a place like North Dakota where there was an ample and reliable source of wind energy I might well consider this.  I would certainly need some detailed info to get started.  Bottom line: if you want to know how, buy the how-to guide, conveniently offered at the linked site.

Want to get into green engineering?  This site claims it will help you do so. And how about how to pick eco-friendly dinnerware?

Walking the walk

We all talk the talk.  But there are lots of people out there who are really making a concerted effort to live by their principles, despite challenges ranging from minor inconveniences to seismic shifts in the fabric of modern life, and are figuring out how to get along with as little impact as possible.  Many such intrepid individuals are documenting their pilgrim’s progress in the blogosphere and we have contributions from several this week.

I really dug this post from Jen at the Clean Bin Project.  They are trying to go a year without buying material goods (I know it sounds preposterous but I think I got that right) and are documenting it on film.  They have posted an entertaining and thought-provoking teaser of the film-to-be on their 235th day of living this dream (?) right here. I look forward to the feature-length version.

Much of the energy in going green involves how to produce and consume food in a healthy and environmentally sensitive way. Alison from the Home Schoolers’ Guide to the Galaxy, has posted a summary of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)– what it is, the pros and cons, and how to find a CSA provider near you.

On a similar note, Sally from Veggie Revolution reports on two cool women and an idyllic farm:  Grateful Growers Farm.  She has posted a short account, chock full of links, about this pair that’s endeavoring to do everything the sustainable way.  The links in the post might help you find a nearby source for the foods you’re looking for.

Then there is Tiffany at NatureMomsBlog reflecting on Jule Dervaes’ idea that “Growing food is one of the most dangerous occupations on this earth because you are in danger of being free.” Free from the ubiquitous strangling tentacles of the industrial octopus that increasingly controls our every move, by dictating for example the very foods that we are able to find and eat.

Mrs. Green at MyZeroWaste and her family are on a similar journey.  She reports that, according to the Local Government Association in the UK, around 40% of supermarket food packaging cannot be easily recycled. How should this affect our actions? Will it undermine efforts to recycle, or should it make us more proactive about making better choices and working to influence manufacturers to get them to change their packaging? The post has generated a lot of discussion, with over 40 comments.

Happily, taking control of one’s own food supply has a wide range of benefits, from economic savings in these troubled times, to better health, to the palpable spiritual and psychological advantages of self-determination and the nourishing smell of dirt on your hands.  Here in my extended neighborhood of southeastern Virginia, Suffolk is setting up a group of community vegetable gardens, as reported by The Backyard Good work and good luck!

Andy at the Ethical Superstore reports that Cadbury’s decision this week to use Fairtrade cocoa in the manufacture of Dairy Milk has the potential to triple Fairtrade cocoa sales in Ghana, which one assumes will be good for the farmers there, and one hopes also good for the sustainability of their farms.

Eyes on the prize

And let’s not let all the gee-whiz new gadgets and politics and what not distract our attention to the real reason why we are concerned about a greener society: to preserve the only living planet we will ever know and all of the fantastic and astonishing creatures with which we share it.  This week 10,000 Birds has interviewed Jim Lawrence of Birdlife Internataional’s “Preventing Extinction Program” about their activities.  And 10,000 Birds is also putting their money where their mouths are by making a three-year financial pledge to BLI. Hats off to you guys and may others follow.

See you next week at The Enobling Journey!

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Blogospheria, Sustainability | 12 Comments

Speaking out

sloverpop_lrg.jpgMy colleague John Feeney has been working tirelessly to break through the widespread taboo against discussing the root cause of global society’s manifold, seemingly unrelated, yet accelerating problems: there are too many of us.  And we use too many resources, of course, but let’s not let that divert our attention from the very basic fact that the earth is finite and we cannot sustain continual growth in population or per capita resource use.

John has organized an effort to get the issue of overpopulation back on the table, and into the conversation, by recruiting a number of people working in areas related to population and resources to speak out about population during February 2009 (that’s now!) via the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO).  Several media outlets have gotten on board as you can see at the GPSO’s media page.  Last week John and I were interviewed by Caroline Harding at KRFC radio in Fort Collins, Colorado as part of this effort — my comments were about how human population growth threatens the oceans and can be heard here (scroll down to the KRFC logo).

As John asks in a recent article published at the BBC’s “Green Room”:

“Fundamentally, we need to ask what is the greater threat to human welfare: the possibility that humane efforts to address population growth might be abused, or our ongoing failure to act to prevent hundreds of millions, even billions, dying as a result of global ecological collapse?”

Speak up!

Posted in Oceans, Politics, Sustainability | 5 Comments