28. Working with nature

Ch 28

Working with nature

This one, my friends, is the biggest “no-brainer” you’ll ever see.  We are in a world which has sustained life for 4 billion years, through billions of repeated experiments, to create the world which has now sustained human life for 0.1% of that time.

We can’t exactly say that the Earth has “learned” from all this experience – I am not a subscriber to the ideas of either an external guiding hand or an “Earth consciousness”.

But what has developed over those 4 billion years is a series of complex webs of life, many of which we are only now beginning to understand, and only imperfectly at that.  As I have already said, these complex systems exhibit features such as “emergence” – a synonym for magic, or “we don’t know how this works”.

But our understanding is improving, through the science of ecology and related fields.  And one of the fundamental things we have learned about is the interdependence of life.

The “great circle of life” refers to single life and death cycles (in “The Lion King”, the lion eats the antelope, becomes “grass” when it dies, and then the antelope eats the lion [as grass]).  But life as a whole is not a single circle, it is an enormous mix of intersecting circles, in at least four dimensions.

Using the spider’s web as a simple analogy – if we break a single strand, we may do little apparent damage.  But we can’t know what damage we’ve done, either because we can’t see it clearly, or we don’t follow it through the full life of the web.  And, in some cases, it may turn out that the single strand was an intersection point of numerous “circles of life”, and we have in fact caused enormous damage.  In fact, just pulling at a single strand (taking it out of alignment with the web) may severely damage or break the web.  Breaking or pulling at multiple strands more obviously weakens the entire web, and may lead to its premature collapse.

Ecological science is working very hard to understand these complex, interdependent systems, and it has taught us much about the effects humans are having on the great web of life.  None of it has been good.

Extractivism has been the cause of most of this damage – the blind belief that we can simply extract what we want from Nature, without proper understanding of either the immediate or the long-term consequences.  And the consequences will not be good for humanity.

The very clear-thinking, and deeply pessimistic, biologist and environmentalist Guy Macpherson uses as his by-line the phrase “Nature Bats Last”[i].  We cannot conquer Nature – she is what sustains us.  She does indeed bat last – she is very forgiving, and has managed to absorb much of what humanity has done to her, but she does respond when under pressure.

The damage we are doing, not just through carbon in the atmosphere but through damage to the land and the water, is increasing rapidly.  The increasing violence and turbulence of our weather, the increased flooding and desertification of our land, the decreasing availability of useable water, are all Nature’s adjustments to the damage we are doing her.

And she will continue to adjust.  Even if we manage to wipe out 90% of the species on Earth in our perpetual pursuit of bigger and better television sets, and smarter cellphones, Nature will still nurture the 10% which survive when we are gone.  The Earth will have suffered, but life will continue.

Cockroaches have lasted between 20 and 40 times as long as humans so far (somewhere between 70 and 150 million years).  They are pretty hardy. Even if the larger mammals and birds don’t get through, the cockroaches are odds on to survive us.  In the worst case, maybe only some of the forms of life deep in the oceans and bacteria will survive, but survive they will.

And Nature will have another 4-5 billion years or so to support another set of experiments with life before the Sun finally goes out.

Our way forward is obvious – as I said at the beginning of this chapter, it’s a no-brainer.  If we want to last longer as a species than a few more decades, or at most a couple of centuries, we need to begin again to work with Nature, not against her, and we need to do it fast.

We need to put far more effort into our understanding of how Nature works, and all citizens need to be educated in an ongoing way on the sciences of Nature, with ecology at the heart.

And, in our actions, we need to replace extractivism with a more regenerative approach to our relationship with Nature.  Stewardship is a word often used in association with this – the idea that we should be careful and responsible (and even thrifty) in our management of resources.  But this tends to suggest some sort of dominance, or ownership.  I prefer two other words, guardianship and partnership.

Guardianship is what is required in the short term, for us to fight back against extractivism through taking up a guardianship role over whatever parts of Nature we can be associated with.  Many indigenous cultures have been excellent guardians for centuries, and their guardianship is re-emerging as they fight against corporate rapacity.  And other local populations are joining them to do this, or doing it on their own.  Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Nothing” gives excellent examples of the re-emergence of active guardianship[ii].  It needs to be continued and expanded.  And Jane Gleeson-White’s “Six Capitals” showed to me how little I know about recent events in my own home town, in referring to the granting of “personhood” to the Whanganui River, and the accountable role of guardians to the local iwi, as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement[iii].

Partnership is the best term I can find to describe the long-term requirement to work with Nature.  The extractivists think we humans own Nature, and can do what we like to her, without serious consequences.  The reality is that she owns us – we are one of her interesting experiments.  But she is not an extractivist.  She is a generous supplier of all our real wants and needs, and even forgives some of our dirtier habits.

To survive and flourish, we do need to take things from Nature.  She’s all we’ve got, apart from the Sun’s energy.  But if we take them in a way which is “renewable” – which doesn’t do permanent damage to the local fabric of life, and enables regeneration – then we may find a way forward that gives us another 4 million years – or even more.  Certainly more than the few decades or centuries we appear to have left.  And think of what we might accomplish with this sort of time at our disposal!  We are clever – well, with material things, at least.

So, I use the term “partnership” to describe our necessary relationship with our planet.  Earth provides material to us and, in return, we learn how to obtain, use and dispose of that material in ways that both support the Earth’s vitality and also ensure our own survival.

The five most immediate requirements of this partnership are to stop fossil fuel use for conversion of the Sun’s energy, to accelerate reforestation as a better carbon sink and guarantor of species diversity, to stop industrial monoculture and monocropping, with its ongoing damage to soil fertility and both local and remote ecologies, to severely reduce the use of large domestic animals for provision of protein, and to begin undoing our damage to the ocean and ocean life.

Next week, we can move on to the less immediate challenges.

The very good news is that we already have not only the material technologies, but also the social and governance structures required, available to do all of this.  Today.

Many of these technologies and structures are those which have managed to survive the capitalist onslaught.  The ways of being, and methods of farming, of indigenous and pre-industrial societies have plenty to teach – or reteach – the affluent world about working with Nature.

And we can add to these some of the great advances of modern society, for example the rapidly developing renewable energy industry, the ability to harness economies of scale, and some aspects of scientific farming.

What’s stopping us is the commitment of the wealthy and powerful to maintenance of their current system of theft from Nature and from the rest of us, backed up by the more or less conscious complicity of many of us.

Stopping fossil fuel use

This is the most publicly obvious thing we need to do, to avoid high levels of global warming.  We have the necessary technologies, in wind, water and solar power, but they are not yet at a scale of use or price structure which makes them “economically viable”.

A large part of the reason for this is that fossil fuels are grossly underpriced, because their “real” costs, of extraction and of downstream effects, are not factored into their market prices.  Let’s take account of the $5.3 trillion in subsidies that the fossil fuel sector gets, for a start[iv].  Then let’s factor in the costs of the up to 10-foot rise in sea levels that will accompany 2 degrees of global warming, and the consequent severe damage to or obliteration of most coastal cities[v].  Then let’s factor in the fact that we only have 15-20 years left of fossil fuel use before we make 2 degrees the barest minimum rise in global temperature, only one sixth of what is already in the reserves of fossil fuel companies[vi].  After that, our allowance for fossil fuel burning is more or less zero – those reserves will need to stay in the ground.

And finally, let’s factor in the strong possibility that these assessments of warming and sea-level rise are far too conservative.  Science, and the IPCC, are conservative in their predictions.  Partly because they rely on a preponderance of scientific evidence, which is usually years behind the actual changes.  And partly because they require a high degree of probability, which is not a good basis for precautionary management – even a low degree of probability of a 10-foot sea-level rise should be enough to force political and economic action.

Fossil fuels are grossly underpriced, and the costs of wind, water, and solar power generation and storage are coming down fast.  What better way to speed this process up than by committing to the abandonment of fossil fuels in no more than the next five years, or at worst no later than the end of the economical life of our current generation systems and vehicle fleets?

While the good news is that our use of coal may have peaked, largely because China has adopted an aggressive strategy to get beyond coal[vii], the bad news is that, even if the Paris commitments are fully met, our overall emissions growth will only slow, not stop, over the next two decades[viii].  We need to act much faster than this.

Yes, there would be intermediate economic damage.  But that is a small price to pay compared with the massive dislocations we are facing.  And, in fact, studies are now showing that an energy economy based on renewables would actually create more jobs than the fossil fuel industry, both during and after the transition, partly because of the use of more “intermediate” technologies[ix].  But “more jobs” of course means “more costs” in the capitalist paradigm.

And yes, in the absence of significant transfers of wealth from the rich to the poor world, this would also lock in existing inequities in development and ability to generate future wealth.  In other words, the affluent world would have got all the benefits of industrialisation and escaped paying for the costs, while the poor world gets few benefits and continues to pay most of the costs.  More on the necessary transfer of wealth in chapter 32.


Efforts are currently being made to try and slow the rate of deforestation.  As discussed earlier, as deforestation continues, the capacity of forests to act as a carbon sink reduces, loss of species diversity accelerates, and there are increasing risks that the cover of tropical forests will reduce to the extent that large tracts of them will turn to savannah.

These are the reasons that reforestation is so important – it acts directly on both the problems of atmospheric carbon and extinction of species.  Among other things.  It’s a win in both the short and the long terms, because it is reversing the trend before it is too late – it is giving back to Nature some of what has been taken.

We need to reverse deforestation, not just slow it down.  Wealthy countries could do this internally with ease, and indeed are doing so, in some cases.  But they are also simultaneously encouraging, supporting, and financing deforestation in the poorer world.

The wealth countries need to stop this, and offer direct support to poorer countries (where most of the tropical forests are) to reverse deforestation.  The pillaging of tropical forests in Brazil, Indonesia, and other countries has to be reversed, and in a way which benefits those countries.

There have been some gains made.  For example, in the face of pressure from activists, high pollution, and the conscience of its own senior executives, Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil corporation, recently committed to only buying from farmers who promised not to cut down the rainforest.   Their action is influencing others in this and related industries and, while forests in Asia are still burning as farmers clear them for more “profitable” crops, these are signs of a possible momentum shift[x].

Abandoning industrial monoculture and monocropping

When I was doing research for the Auditor-General in 2011, I came across a book called “Seeing Like a State”[xi], which referred to one of the first modern experiments with “scientific forestry”, done in Germany in the 18th century.  Within one hundred years or so the land on which the monocropping experiment was performed had become barren.  At the time, I was unsure whether this was because of the nature of the crop (pine trees), or because it was only a single crop.

I have since found out that, while the nature of the crop is always a factor, any crop grown repeatedly in the same area will do the same thing.  More modern research backs up the conclusion that Scott reached about this – that monocropping doesn’t work.  It impoverishes the soil, drives out diversity, and eventually leads to barrenness.

But first, let’s be clear about the language I’m using.  The definitions below are my own, although they are mostly derived from authoritative sources.

Monoculture is growing a single crop in an area.  It damages the area by reducing the diversity of soil life, but this damage can be minimised by restricted use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, and by crop rotation between harvests.

Monocropping is continuing to plant the same crop in the same area.  It is devastatingly bad for any area, because it rapidly reduces soil fertility, eventually rendering the soil barren.

Industrial agriculture is agriculture on a grand scale with large machinery, as practised increasingly in the United States, Russia and beyond from the 20th century.  It is always monoculture, usually monocropping, and usually involves heavy use of pesticides, increasing use of fertilisers to compensate for reducing natural fertility, and repetitive deep, invasive ploughing, which disturbs and damages the soil life simply by the action of the plough.

The heavy use of pesticides in industrial agriculture, and their impact on bird, animal and human populations, was the target of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.  But abandoning pesticides would only reduce the effect of industrial agriculture – it would do nothing to mitigate the damage done by the run-off of fertilisers into waterways, or to the land itself, by the destruction of soil life and diversity through monocropping and heavy ploughing.

Traditional farmers know what works, and have known it for a long time.  Effective and sustainable farming practices vary from multi-cropping (ie crop rotation which, if well managed, can slow the damage done considerably, and partially restore the soil) to polyculture (the simultaneous growing of multiple crops in a single area, mimicking natural growth and being largely sustainable and even regenerative).

And scientists know it too[xii].  Industrial agriculture turns farmland into wasteland – it is an ecological disaster, and a serious threat to humanity’s ability to feed itself beyond the next generation.

But again, we already have the technologies we need to reverse this.

Some of what traditional farmers learned they learned by trial and error, some with science, and some with pure luck.  But they developed the practices over long periods.

The “Via Campesina” movement represents about 200 million farmer families seeking “food sovereignty”[xiii].  It is a deeply democratic movement (and I will refer to it again in chapter 31 on  democracy).  At its heart are traditional farming methods which encapsulate the necessary sustainable and regenerative practices.

“Via Campesina” also defends the importance of “place”.  Traditional farming methods not only develop over long periods, they also develop in relation to specific locations.  The crops you grow and the methods you use on the sunny side of the valley are not the same as the ones that flourish on the shady side, nor are they exactly the same as on the sunny side of the next valley.  Industrial agriculturists trample on the importance of place, firstly by displacing the people who have local knowledge and secondly by ignoring it.  Probably because they don’t even know it exists.

The modern “permaculture” movement is re-inventing and hopefully improving on traditional farming knowledge.  Not only does it combine existing knowledge with agricultural science, but it also attempts to learn from Nature, and to mimic natural processes as far as possible (it has a deep “polyculture” mentality).

Movements like Via Campesina and the permaculture movement hold the future of agriculture, because they are profoundly based on working with Nature.  And the Kingdom of Bhutan has recently taken up the challenge, by announcing that it will go 100% organic by 2020[xiv].

The only real barrier is the pursuit of profit.  Industrial agriculture is more immediately profitable than more sustainable agriculture.  While traditional agriculture offers up to 50% higher yields than industrial agriculture[xv], and family farms actually produce 80% of the world’s food (according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation[xvi]), it is also more labour intensive, and so more expensive under our current economic model.  Chapter 29 looks at this problem, of “profits before people”, in more detail.

Changing the balance in our sources of protein

In the 1950s, New Zealand built its post-war prosperity on the export of wool – and the underlying carcasses sold as lamb and mutton.  We were famously the country with 70 million sheep and 3 million people.

We’re down to only about 30 million sheep now.  But while the number of sheep has more than halved, the number of dairy cattle has more than doubled[xvii], to about 6.6 million.

Dairying is now our biggest and most important farming industry, and it continues to expand.  This is having all sorts of bad consequences.

First, it is by and large a commodity industry, with little value being added before exporting into a market where other countries are also rapidly expanding their dairy production.  So an important part of New Zealand’s economy is dependent on markets which are getting more competitive and show significant price swings.  This is not good for New Zealand, unless we develop better methods of adding value.

Second, it is a water-intensive and dirty industry, which shares responsibility for fouling a lot of our land and many of our rivers.  Naturally dry areas like Canterbury and Central Otago are using increasing amounts of water, reducing its availability for other uses.  They’re not exactly California (a natural dryland in the grip of a 1,000 year drought), but they’re on the way.  Increasing amounts of fertiliser are being used as the land degrades, and the impact of this on the land and water is increasing.  And dairy cattle foul the waterways directly with their excrement.

There’s a lot being done to clean up dairying’s act, for example fencing, and the planting of riparian belts to act as sinks for waste.  But it is still a dirty industry.

And cows contribute directly to global warming by belching and farting out methane – as do sheep.  It sounds silly, but it’s true.  In fact, it sounds so silly that when, in 2003, the then-Labour government proposed a small levy on farmers to fund research into the problem, the levy was derided as the “fart tax”, and eventually abandoned.  The new National government has subsequently directly funded international research into the problem, as one of its rare and grudging contributions to solving the global warming problem.

Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – over 20 times worse.  And our 30 million sheep and 6.6 million cows contribute a third of New Zealand’s greenhouse gases through their emissions of methane.  Worldwide, agriculture directly contributes about 14% of greenhouse gases, and a significant proportion of this is from the 1.4 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep and pigs.  New Zealand is a proud contributor, with the most sheep per capita and the second most cattle per capita, in the world[xviii].

Overall, the farming of large animals for protein is very expensive, to both humans and to the planet as a whole.  As countries become wealthy, their sources of protein tend to change from beans and other vegetable sources through dairy products and eggs to meat.  World meat production has quintupled since 1950, and meat consumption per person has more than doubled[xix].  This trend is unsustainable, and also unnecessary.

A great deal of agricultural land goes into not only housing the animals which we eat, but also into feeding them – 40% of all crops go to feeding livestock, and one estimate is that 75% of total agricultural land is used to produce feed[xx].  Looking at this another way, if we halved our meat consumption, we would more than double the amount of land available for growing other sources of protein and nutrition.  The FAO puts it like this:

“Globally, there is enough cropland to feed 9 billion in 2050 if the 40 percent of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption, while available grasslands were more efficiently used as the basis for livestock feed.”[xxi]

The current trend, of increased meat production and consumption, is largely unsustainable, because of its direct effect on the quality of the land, water and atmosphere.  A recent study even suggests that meat production is the main direct cause of species extinction[xxii].  The trend is also unnecessary .

While dairy products, eggs and meat are very good sources of protein, only very small amounts are required for good health.  The suggested annual amount of protein for adult males in the United States is about 22 kilograms[xxiii].  That’s the equivalent of 4 eggs, or half a pound (225gm) of meat[xxiv], or a cup of uncooked soybeans per day.

On average, the world gets well over half its protein requirements from meat, with Luxembourg and the United States leading the way by consuming far more than they need.  Australia and New Zealand are not far behind.  The average consumption of meat alone per capita (ie including women and children) in these countries meets their total protein requirement at male adult level one and a half times over[xxv].

An uncertain portion of the 50 billion-plus chickens in the world (that’s 7 for each of us) produce eggs (the rest are raised for meat).  And there are actually enough soybeans grown each year to provide all our protein needs on their own – although I for one don’t want to settle for just tofu.

So, there’s plenty of room to cut back – we don’t need new technologies, just less unhealthy eating habits.  In the wealthy countries, we can reduce our dairy and meat consumption dramatically, and be healthier too.

Restoring the oceans

The oceans are heating up, as they absorb CO2 released into the atmosphere, and acidifying as a result of the CO2, and of agricultural runoff.  What we need to do to address these problems is covered in the sections above.  This section is about the other damage humanity is doing.

The oceans have been humanity’s rubbish dump for many years, while simultaneously being stripped of their readily available fish.  A majority of known fisheries have now been overfished, toxic chemicals and plastic are entering the food chain through fishes and birds, and portions of the ocean surface have become vast rafts of plastic rubbish.

The fish themselves are probably the least of our problem.  As long as they are left alone, or fishing is carefully managed, they can regenerate quickly, even from complete population collapse – within a human generation or so, as noted in chapter 8.

In New Zealand, one of our recent environmental successes has been the regeneration caused by the introduction of marine and island reserves[xxvi].  The idea of “islands” of natural growth to support recovery, and provide safe havens for life, has been very effective both onshore and offshore.  These need to be expanded.

The remaining problem is our use of the oceans as a rubbish dump.  Clearly we must dramatically reduce our use and discarding of plastic (which never degrades, only recycles), and our cavalier dumping of toxic chemicals and products into the ocean.  And clean up the worst of the dumps we have already created.  One study estimates that, on our current trajectory, there will be as much plastic as fish, by weight, in the ocean before 2050[xxvii].

Nature has no waste, humans created it.  Nature recycles everything, and we as a species need to dramatically improve our own recycling ability, to mimic her.  Or we will, as the Pope points out, drown ourselves in our own filth.

As the poor world knows, processing and recycling of human waste can be a huge industry, generating very significant employment.  It needs to be valued and remunerated for what it really is, one of the essential industries for maintaining humanity’s foothold on the planet.  Not treated as a means of exploiting the poor by offering below-subsistence wages or piece-work payments.

Nature has been very forgiving, so far, of our overconsumption, and our inability to produce goods as part of a regenerative cycle rather than as throw-away toxic products.  But her forgiveness has limits.  We are clearly reaching them or have passed them in certain areas, as the Planetary Boundaries analysis shows.  We cannot afford to keep pushing towards them in other areas.

The oceans are a seductive and misleading aspect of our Earth.  Because of their vastness, and their lack of human population, our impact on them is not very visible, and many of us can pretend that they are an infinitely accepting reservoir for our waste.  They are not, and by definition they cannot be.

Just as we need to change our agricultural practices, to work with Nature rather than against her, so we need to change how we treat the oceans.

Read on, about “A new economics of thrift…”>>
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[i] http://guymcpherson.com/

[ii] “This Changes Everything, pp295ff or loc 5237ff

[iii] “Six Capitals”, loc 3174ff

[iv]  See https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2015/09/28/04/53/sonew070215a

[v] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/07/27/3684564/james-hansen-climate-danger-hyper-anthropocene/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cptop3

[vi] “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”

[vii] See for example “We might have finally seen peak coal”, ClimateProgress, 14 Jan 2016

[viii] See for example “The Paris climate deal’s smoke and mirrors”, Australian Business Spectator, 14 Dec 2015

[ix] See for example http://www.irena.org/documentdownloads/publications/renewableenergyjobs.pdf

[x] http://grist.org/food/48-hours-that-changed-the-future-of-rainforests/

[xi] “Seeing Like a State”, James Scott, Yale University Press, 1998

[xii] http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture#.VbbUk_mqoSU

[xiii] “The Value of Nothing”, loc 1661ff

[xiv] See “This Tiny Country is Going 100% Organic”, ClimateProgress, 11/10/2015

[xv] See USDA Census of Agriculture

[xvi] See “Putting family farmers first to eradicate hunger”, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/260535/icode/

[xvii] http://www.stats.govt.nz/infoshare/ViewTable.aspx?pxID=dbccfa9c-10f6-4f00-b2bd-beb9c178277e

[xviii] http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/global-livestock-counts

[xix] http://www.earth-policy.org/books/pb2/pb2ch9_ss4

[xx] See “End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth”, Loc 1611

[xxi] See http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/ar591e/ar591e.pdf

[xxii] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/08/17/3692194/meat-eaters-species-extinction-study/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cptop3

[xxiii] http://www.webmd.com/diet/how-much-protein

[xxiv] If you’re mathematically inclined, you might have spotted that 225gm of meat a day adds up to 80+ kg a year, far more than the 22kg of protein it represents.  This is because meat, like all other protein sources, is only partly protein.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_foods_by_protein_content

[xxv] See http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2012/04/daily-chart-17 and  http://www.scribd.com/doc/91840616/Meat-Consumption-Per-Person

[xxvi]  See for example http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2014/new-research-confirms-benefits-of-marine-reserves/

[xxvii] See “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics”, World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, January 2016