“Green Fire” introduces Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to a new generation

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the conservationist, writer, and educator, and author of A Sand County Almanac, has long inspired those seeking to understand human society and its relationship with the land.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Curt Meine wrote his doctoral dissertation on Leopold. That dissertation was subsequently published as Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press). As a senior fellow at The Aldo Leopold Foundation, Meine continues to explore and communicate the legacy of Leopold to new generations in an ever-changing world.

Now Meine serves an the onscreen guide to Leopold’s life and influence in a new documentary, Green Fire. The Foundation produced the film in conjunction with the US Forest Service and the Center for Humans and Nature. See the bottom of this post for a longer synopsis of the movie. For a thoughtful article on Meine and Leopold, click here.

Watch the Green Fire trailer:

I’m looking forward to seeing Green Fire when it comes to town. The filmmakers also anticipate a national release on public television around Earth Day 2012. For more information, check out the movie’s website.

Two other items of note:

Leopold’s Vision and the Forest Service

The Forest Service has an informative podcast with the movie’s filmmakers, Steve and Ann Dunsky and Dave Steinke. Green Fire grew out an earlier project that the filmmakers produced to celebrate the centennial of the Forest Service in 2005. In the interview, Steve Dunsky speaks about how Leopold’s vision ties in with the evolving perspective of the Forest Service.

Well I think that was what was so exciting about doing this film is we didn’t just want to do a film about Aldo Leopold’s life, we wanted to talk about why he’s important today and the reason that this is in a way a sequel to The Greatest Good is that we see Leopold as being kind of the guiding vision of the Forest Service in the 21st Century. Gifford Pinchot and his colleagues in the early part of the 20th Century had a different idea about conservation: that nature was there to be used by people and it is. But Leopold’s vision is much more about people being part of a natural community, and that shift has been occurring in the Forest Service over the last twenty years. And I think that now is the time that we are really seeing the manifestation of that in the agency’s policy and our actions and so the timing is really perfect for Green Fire to be coming out.

The discussion also notes that one of the Forest Service’s priorities in Region Five (California/Pacific Southwest) is ecological restoration, which is what “Leopold was doing…before there was even a term for that activity.”

A transcript of the interview can be found here.

Leopold Out Loud

This past weekend, communities across Wisconsin got together to read from A Sand County Almanac. What started as a local gathering is now an annual celebration. In 2000, the Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley organized “Lodi Reads Leopold,” a 10-hour event during which 35 participants read A Sand County Almanac out loud, cover to cover. In 2004, Governor Jim Doyle (who served prior to the current governor, Scott Walker) declared the first weekend of March Aldo Leopold Weekend. The Weekend has spread to at least six other states.

Next year, after Green Fire has been screened widely, perhaps more communities will join the celebration.

The following is a long synopsis of Green Fire posted on the movie’s website:

Contemporary concerns about human impacts on the biosphere have made Aldo Leopold a powerful and increasingly relevant voice today.  His message of hope, curiosity, and critical appreciation of the natural world inspires people from many walks of life who are concerned about their own changing times and places.  In his own life, Leopold’s commitment to land, family, and community were inseparable. In light of the ecological challenges we face today, his story and ideas add depth to national and local discussions of the relationships between people and nature.

In Leopold’s more philosophical writing, he described nature—or, as he preferred to express it, “land”— as a biotic pyramid, “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit” of soils, waters, plants, and animals as well as people. “Land health”—what scientists today more commonly term ecosystem health—implied a state of normal functioning in that land community and a high “capacity for self-renewal” or resilience. For Leopold a “land ethic” was an expression of individual responsibility to the health of the land, premised on the notion that human beings were “plain member and citizen” of the land community rather than “conquerors.” A land ethic was thus grounded in a sense of individual responsibility to the larger community of life.

Those who come to Leopold’s story and ideas have found varied meanings. For most, however, the experience inspires deeper reflection about the relationship between people and nature. Leopold’s personal story, his deep aesthetic appreciation, and his concepts of land health and a land ethic have influenced people across cultural and political divides and provoked robust debate. Leopold would be heartened by this, for he regarded a land ethic not as an individual’s expression but as a product of social evolution. “Nothing so important as an ethic is ever written,” he wrote. It evolves “in the minds of a thinking community.”  This perspective makes Green Fire an excellent vehicle for stimulating reflective discussion about community concerns and environmental ethics today.

Green Fire explores the themes of community and responsibility, both of which are pervasive in Leopold’s life and writings and in the work of many contemporary humanities scholars.  It will trace the evolution of these themes during his lifetime and in the broader American culture and explore them through contemporary efforts in communities, landscapes, and organizations across the nation that draw upon his work for inspiration.  From urban citizens in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Chicago to Western ranchers and farmers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and from the campus of Yale University to the wilds of the Apache National Forest in Arizona, these seemingly disparate threads come together through the story of Leopold’s life and ongoing legacy. Green Fire extracts these connections to help audiences think critically about community and responsibility and their own responses to today’s ecological challenges.

Leopold’s notion of an evolving land ethic provides the backbone of the narrative. It was the organizing idea that defined not only his personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth but in many ways the development of the American conservation and environmental movements over the last century. In particular, Leopold sought to resolve the long-standing (and often divisive) tension between the preservationist and utilitarian strains of conservation thought, policy, and advocacy. This essential dynamic in the history of American conservation remains problematic; meanwhile Leopold’s role in productively addressing it remains too little appreciated.

Green Fire also examines the theme of community–both within the natural world and in the social context of conservation. The related themes of sense of place, stewardship, and responsibility derive from Leopold’s notion of community and connect his story to creative contemporary expressions of an environmental ethic. His personal journey is part of a still larger, longer-term, and unfinished journey of Americans (and indeed people around the world) as their relationships to the natural world continue to evolve. The contemporary stories woven into the film illustrate Leopold’s continuing influence today, while also demonstrating a diversity of human relationships to nature.

The film frames Leopold’s life in terms of historical tensions that continue to shape our lives and landscapes: between nature preservation and the need to sustain healthy working landscapes, between the environmental impact of modern technologies and the practice of ecological restoration, between the proper functions of government and the creative role of experimentation by individuals and citizen groups; between urban and rural communities and interests; between local, national, and global concerns. Leopold was engaged in all aspects of these tensions and thought about them deeply. In illustrating the all-inclusive nature of Leopold’s ecological approach to politics, the film implies not one true or ultimate land ethic, but myriad ways and traditions of acting responsibly toward (and within) the land community.

Green Fire features commentary and insight from some of today’s most recognized historians and conservation leaders, including three of Aldo Leopold’s children (Nina, Carl, and Estella), numerous Leopold scholars, noted environmental scholars and writers, and respected scientists, public officials, and business and non-profit leaders. Historians Susan Flader and Curt Meine, and philosopher Baird Callicott have spent years explicating Leopold’s work. Additional scholars include historians Bill DuBuys and Sylvia Hood Washington, educator David Orr, and writer Peter Forbes, among many others.  Practitioners, like former Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Paul Johnson and International Crane Foundation founder George Archibald, return regularly to Leopold’s writings, while groups like Chicago Wilderness, the Southwest’s Quivira Coalition and Malpais Borderlands Group, and Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities draw heavily on Leopold’s inspiration and philosophy in finding new solutions to today’s conservation challenges. Other interviewees include ranchers, urban educators, Midwestern farmers, and students.   By challenging viewers to think about their own relationship and responsibility to the land community, the film inspires them to consider what a land ethic might look like in their own communities today.



Urban Bee

Kelly Brenner captured this wonderfully poetic image of an urban pollinator framed against the hustle bustle of the city.

Rather than going against the flow, bees in the city make sense. Studies suggest that bees often thrive in urban areas, which host a greater variety of plants than suburban yards or agricultural tracts. While pollinators — including bats, birds, bees, moths and butterflies — face many threats, urban beekeeping is growing rapidly. City dwellers (humans) can also help bees and other wildlife and conserve biodiversity by supporting wildlife gardens.

Kelly has a nice post on urban bees in her excellent blog, The Metropolitan Field Guide. She has also started the Seattle Urban Wildlife Group.

Photo credit: Urban Bee © Kelly Brenner/The Metropolitan Field Guide  (Many thanks to Kelly for permission to post her photo. You can find more of her photography on her Flickr page.)


Wetlands + NCAA Basketball = Marsh Madness (aka Brackishology)

If your interests run towards sports or towards nature – or even both – then I hope you’ll like this. May you will even be inspired to get involved during the next few weeks.

I like to learn about ecology, conservation, and the world around us – and I happen to love the NCAA (US) college basketball tournament.

So last year, Marsh Madness started out as a personal exploration of wetlands – marshes, bogs, fens, swamps, prairie potholes, vernal pools – during the course of the annual NCAA tournament.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, “Marsh Madness” is a play on “March Madness” the (trademarked) nickname of the NCAA tournament. Over the course of three weekends, teams from across the nation vie for the national championship. It’s one of the most watched events in the United States. According to Nielsen, more than 135 million viewers watched some of the NCAA tournament on television in 2008.

I like the NCAA tournament both for the drama of the sport and for the geographical aspects. For many, myself included, what makes March Madness fun to watch is the diversity of play and the matchups between teams that never meet during the regular season. The selection process for the tournament ensures that virtually every region of the country is represented. Some teams represent huge schools with long (in the relative sense) basketball traditions; others come from small colleges with several hundred students. Talent level and coaching styles vary widely. These pairings set the stage for unpredictable games and crowd-pleasing “Cinderella” stories. Last year, Butler University surprised most viewers by getting to the Finals.

Marsh Madness is everywhere

The phrase “Marsh Madness” came to me independently – but as with many things, others have thought of this as well. Marsh Madness is a fishing guide service in Louisiana, a local conservation group in Massachusetts, a fundraising run in California, and – this weekend – a celebration of wildlife in Greene County, Indiana. Marsh Madness has apparently captured imaginations everywhere. More on my Marsh Madness below.

Wetlands are threatened everywhere

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, providing critical habitat for migratory birds and spawning grounds for fish, maintaining water quality, and preventing flooding. Coastal estuaries help to provide food, attract tourism, and support key economies.

Wetland loss, however, is a low-profile ecological catastrophe. According to Ducks Unlimited, the United States loses about 80,000 acres of wetlands annually, equivalent to a football field every nine minutes. Even though Marsh Madness is inspired by an American sporting event, wetlands loss is a global phenomenon. Wetlands International estimates that 50% of wetlands worldwide have disappeared since 1900. Last year’s Deepwater Horizon debacle highlighted the fragility of already degraded Gulf Coast wetlands.

For general information on marshes, you can start by checking out the EPA’s website.

A virtual journey across America, wetland by wetland

So my challenge was to look up a wetland near each college represented in the NCAA tournament. The tournament started with 65 teams and progressed through elimination rounds. Since a team reaching the finals plays six times, I eventually had to look for six wetlands each around Duke and Butler. Finding a wetland for each team playing in a game for each round, plus finding a wetland for each host location (why not), entailed researching approximately 140 wetlands.

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The Big and Little Things of Life

“Little Things” is a beautiful video meditation on the value of nature created for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study.

Hosted by the UNEP, TEEB convened a range of partners to assess and communicate “the global economic benefit of biological diversity, the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation.”

No small challenge.

After consulting with over 500 experts from across the globe to discuss biodiversity loss and potential responses, TEEB produced reports directed at five categories of “distinct end-users”:

  • ecologists and economists
  • international and national policy makers
  • local governments
  • business
  • citizens

In October 2010, TEEB released its Synthesis report, “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature,” at the Nagoya Summit on Biodiversity.

For citizens (granted, a rather broad category), TEEB launched a website, The Bank of Natural Capital. TEEB also sponsored a video competition which asked participants to communicate “Why Nature is so precious to me.” “Little Things” was the winner of this competition.

More recently, TEEB sponsored a contest in conjunction with Visualizing.org and Challengepost.com to challenge designers to visualize and communicate the value of nature and use of natural capital.

Today, TEEB announced that Jacob Houtman’s entry (click on the image above for an interactive version) was the most effective visualization:

The Value of Nature – Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity visualization was deemed the most effective at showing how we are using our natural resources and provided an informative and fun tool for people to explore the issue by country and by sector. The interactive map covers each country around the world, visually depicting the difference between the country’s capacity and footprint. Unsurprisingly, the States has a deficit given it’s footprint is much larger than its capacity!

What you have here are complementary ways of looking at nature’s services. Some appeal to the emotions and some to reason. Each is a part of an effort to align all of our interests so that, ultimately, everyone will take action to conserve ecosystems and life across the planet.

No small challenge.

The scale of this necessary endeavor brings to mind the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, a version of which President John F. Kennedy kept on his desk in the Oval Office.

H/T to Maria Popova (@brainpicker) for the “Little Things” video. You can also follow TEEB on Twitter @TEEB4me

Photo credit: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Conserving Nature, or Learning to Love the Pigeon

“Rats with wings.”  Is that how you think about pigeons?

If ecologist Matt Palmer from Columbia University has his way, you’ll look at these urban dwellers (and maybe even rats) with new eyes. A handful of new phone apps can also help us to connect with and think differently about wildlife in the city. And that change of mindset may be a vital and necessary step towards conserving the world’s resources.

The Pigeon Paradox

At a conference on biodiversity sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation this week, Palmer spoke about the “Pigeon Paradox,” a concept proposed by Robert Dunn and colleagues in 2006.

The tremendous human footprint on the Earth’s resources is one of the hallmarks of this new age, dubbed the Anthropocene. Current conservation efforts are not sufficient to keep pace.

Palmer discussed the impact of urbanization on biodiversity. Most people across the planet now live in urbanized areas. Even though urban areas cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, they account for 75% of resources consumed by humanity. Many rapidly growing cities, such as Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Jakarta, directly affect highly biodiverse regions through land use changes. And recent research by Eric Sanderson of the World Conservation Society indicates that the indirect effects of urbanization — through urban consumption — also impacts areas of great biodiversity.

Next, Palmer pointed out that direct exposure with nature shades perceptions of the world and contributes to a “conservation ethic.” This mentality broadly influences consumption, spending behaviors, and voting patterns. As more people live in cities, environmental leadership — for both local stewardship and global conservation — will have to come from urban residents.

The problem is that the growing numbers of people living in cities will also have less contact with nature. Out of sight, out of mind. Even though conservation efforts can preserve and even restore some habitats around urban areas, the range of urban flora and fauna will remain limited and certainly be less “charismatic” than those shown on nature programs on TV.

The “Pigeon Paradox” then means that fostering a “conservation ethic” — and conservation behaviors — may rely on developing a direct connection with what wildlife there is in urban areas.

So where to find wildlife in the city? Here in New York City, Palmer noted that one has to look at the parks and beyond — backyards, community gardens, street trees, highway medians, even cracks in the sidewalks. Other resources include institutions such as nature centers, zoos, and science museums (New York is blessed to have many), and activities specifically directed at celebrating local nature, such as NYC Wildflower Week.

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Blog Action Day: Following the Water

As part of Blog Action Day, bloggers from across this Pale Blue Dot will be posting about some aspect of water, a timely topic indeed.

Recent reports highlight aquifers running dry, glaciers melting, sea level rise, floods, pollutants in our rivers and streams, upcoming “water wars” for agriculture or energy or between nations, failing infrastructure, and even “Peak Water” in the United States.

Lots of alarming news.

In any case, let’s take a step back.

Start from wherever you are right now

Wherever you are reading this — especially if it’s on a computer plugged into an outlet — you are probably not more than 25 yards (or meters) from a faucet or tap, perhaps in a kitchen or restroom, water fountain or even garden.

From the tap to the pipe — If you follow the connections, that pipe will lead you down through the circulatory system present in almost any building in more developed nations. The fixtures, the valves, and the joints reveal the standardization that guides (and sometimes hamstrings) an industry and facilitates wholesale construction.

From the pipe to the main — Moving into the ground, the pipe leads into a network of conduits that course for miles under roads, houses, and fields. Water seeps from cracks along the way. Water mains run alongside sewage mains and gas and electrical conduits, all part of the invisible infrastructure that serves the population–invisible, that is, except when something breaks down or have to deal with unexpectedly extreme conditions. Likewise, waste treatment plants usually protect waterways from sewage, except when they don’t.

Pipes tell a tale of your town or city’s history and development, even if the pipes just lead to a well in your backyard. The pipes or mains might be decades old, perhaps more than a century old. On the rare occasion, something like a greywater system or bioswales might suggest promising changes in how settlements could be developed. Pipes embody decisions about how we live, now and into the future, and how we plan in relation to nature.

From source to system — The pipes eventually lead to a water source – a river, lake, well, etc. Human communities share water for the whole range of needs: agriculture, energy, industry, drinking water, tourism, comfort. In order to guarantee water quality, treatment plants remove bacteria, sediment, even chemicals that originated in fields and feedlots, storm drains, and bathroom sinks.

We all live both downstream and upstream.

Of course, this source is not the end of the line — just where the hydrological cycle is turned into a “utility.” Physical infrastructure gives way to green infrastructure, upon which we all rely for natural services for our well-being. Land and water interact in the watershed. Here, too, water and wildlife have coexisted for millennia. Water is habitat, water is life. Humanity’s increasing water withdrawals change the balance of life, especially in local ecosystems.

So what?

This may not be news to you. But easy access and the convenience of infrastructure systems can leave us taking local resources (utilities) for granted.

And the great water crises around the globe can be unfathomable, such that we fail to take away any lessons for our own lives, communities, and watersheds.

As the saying goes, think globally, act locally (or bioregionally). There are many things you can do to reduce water use, from improving efficiency in the home to being more thoughtful about purchases of food and goods — which affect water use wherever the food was grown or goods produced. Calculate your water footprint. Take the bioregional quiz. Understand and appreciate water’s role in everyday life.

Things fall apart

Following the industrial revolution, the practices of urban planning and public health grew out of responses to poor sanitary conditions that made burgeoning urban settlements difficult places to live. These efforts to promote the well-being of communities are now faced with even broader problems. Our great successes now push us towards greater challenges, and humanity is straining at planetary limits.

The US is slowly realizing that physical infrastructure is not a “if they build it” proposition. Constant maintenance of bridges, tunnels, and water mains comes with the territory.

Likewise, the human footprint has expanded such that a corollary for natural infrastructure is greater human responsibility for management and stewardship. And that starts with recognizing the “wisdom” embodied in natural systems and then acting accordingly. We can even choose to remove roads to better preserve natural systems, such as protecting wildlife corridors.

I recently watched a web presentation by the Washington Department of Ecology about the future of the Puget Sound. One of the key lessons was that land use planning needs an ecosystem or watershed perspective. There is great utility in rethinking how human communities coexist (perhaps even culturally co-evolve) with natural systems.

Practices change, and our expanding awareness of the need to maintain and foster resilient ecosystems entail different ways of planning – and living with water.

Check out what other blogs are writing about water at Blog Action Day.

Image credit: Xymox (Flickr/CC)

Looking Back on Climate: “Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study (1977)”

Oil spills. Floods. Heat waves. Water wars. Biodiversity loss.

We live amid a torrent of news and information — including reports and controversies about the environment. It’s helpful to step out of the rushing stream occasionally and take a look back.

Here are two items I’ve been thinking about.

From dust to dust

First, a remark made by paleogeologist Tjeerd Van Andel (who recently passed away) about a quarter century ago in one of my college classes  managed to lodge itself in my (now increasingly addled) mind.

According to Van Andel, the United States benefited from an unusually stable weather cycle for the four decades following the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s. This stability coincided with and facilitated the rapid development of the American agriculture and economy across a period of modernization. This period, which includes the post-WWII boom, often serves as a baseline for comparison (or expectations).

Our still-growing understanding of global geophysical and socio-ecological systems shapes our interpretation of history — and informs planning for an increasingly complex future. Any beliefs regarding national exceptionalism, the causes of economic success, or our recent path of consumerism must be evaluated in the changing ecological or environmental context. Considering increasing climate variability and planetary boundaries, past experience is not a guarantee of future growth….

“People should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

The second item is an article from the Toledo Blade, dated March 13, 1977. Given the past year’s climate controversies, this summer’s heat waves and floods, and Van Andel’s comments, it resonated with me. [I came upon the piece through Google Timeline, but that particular issue seems to be currently unavailable through the Google News link.]

Meteorologists and climate scientists have long been making the case that we should be better prepare for a more variable world. This article from over 30 years ago predates scientific consensus on man-made global warming — although even back then, climate scientists like Stephen Schneider and James Hansen had begun to recognize the warming trend. The National Weather Service meteorologists in this article, however, emphasize the need to build “resiliency” against more extreme weather patterns. The article mentions global population and development pressures and somewhat presciently identifies arid and semi-arid regions as particularly vulnerable; these regions have been in the news recently.

Also of note: the author, Robert Cowen, was the longtime science reporter/editor at the Christian Science Monitor. The world’s population in 1977 was roughly 4.2 billion (now around 6.6 billion). The largest city was Tokyo, followed by New York City. Carter was President. The cost of a gallon of gas was US$0.62 ($2.35 per liter). I was in junior high. Things change.

“Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study”

By Robert Cowen

Don Gilman, chief of the U.S. National Weather Service’s long-range forecasting group, says he as mystified as anyone as to why North America has had such a rough winter.

You can’t see through the complex interactions of the atmosphere and ocean and say “This is the cause of that,’” he explains.

But one thing he feels certain – you don’t have to invoke a return of the Ice Age to account for it. Drought in the West, freezes in Florida, or a snow blitz in new York merely show what the present climate can do. And the hardships this is causing emphasize how vulnerable the United States, indeed the world, has become to what should be expectable extremes of weather.

“People,” Dr. Gilman says, “should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

Years of analysis have produced only disagreement among the specialists as to long-term climate trends. But, on one point, they tend to put increasing emphasis – the recent past has been relatively kind as far as weather extremes are concerned in some important areas, such as the United States corn and wheat belts.

Living patterns evolved during milder years—modes of farming, energy consumption, land use, or transportation – often can’t take it when the weather turns nasty.

On a global scale, burgeoning population and economic development are putting so much pressure on resources that the surpluses of fat years are no longer adequate reserves for weather-related lean periods.

It is this loss of resiliency to cope with rare, but expectable, weather extremes that meteorologists believe to be the real climatic threat now facing the United States and the world.

Developers of arid and semiarid lands should be especially weather-wary. Such lands – for example, Africa’s Sahel, California, and the North American Southwest, or the Soviet Union’s “new” agricultural region – suffer most from unanticipated swings of weather.

“I haven’t seen anything like it since 1917-18,” says Dr. Gilman, adding by way of reassurance: “That winter broke in February, and we may see this one break too.”

Will this turn out to be a “once-in-50-years” winter unlikely to return for a long time, or could its pattern repeat next year? No meteorologist can answer this. But what Dr. Gilman and his colleagues do know is that what has happened can happen again. Moreover, the very fact that they can’t predict next winter suggests this possibility must be planned for.

“What people should do,” Dr. Gilman says, “is to figure it just isn’t safe to use only the past 10, 20 or even 30 years of weather data as a guide in weather-related planning. A much longer record is desirable – just as long a record as they can get.”

Update: I came across this article today: Water Scarcity in American Southwest Gets Serious. Indeed, the arid regions mentioned in the article have become recurring headlines in the news. (h/t @Blackdogworld and @InvasiveNotes)

Image credit: Tim Lindenbaum, Flickr/Creative Commons

Minor revisions: October 21, 2010

Biodiversity and the City 4: What Edward Norton Should Know for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit

Diplomats from around the world are gathering this week in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week. While much discussion focuses on climate change, there is additional pressure during this International Year of Biodiversity to build consensus for the upcoming Biodiversity Summit (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan. A “High level meeting on Biodiversity” takes place at the UN this Wednesday, September 22.

The actor Edward Norton, who was named Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, recently penned an op-ed calling for greater action on biodiversity by world governments, especially the Obama administration in the United States.

In anticipation of the Biodiversity Summit, Marielle Anzelone wrote the excellent piece below for the Huffington Post over the summer. The global loss of biodiversity, which has been compared to rivets popping out of an airplane wing, needs greater public attention.

Anzelone, formerly the plant ecologist for NYC Parks’ Natural Resources Group, is leading tours of New York City’s tremendous biodiversity this week for the visiting diplomats.

I think this is a vital aspect of deliberations. Though undoubtedly informed by solid scientific input, the Biodiversity Summit will ultimately aim for high-level agreements and commitments about valuing and protecting habitat. I expect that virtually all of the diplomats from around the world live in cities and are more accustomed to engaging politicians than to understanding nature where they live.

Biodiversity, like climate change, is a broad concept that invokes somewhat amorphous global systems. But biodiversity is also about plants and animals that live in, or inhabit, places. This wildlife thrives or declines alongside — to varying degrees — human communities. Conservation, therefore, cannot succeed without buy-in and regular participation from local residents. Local biodiversity conservation also supports climate change mitigation and adaptation and human security.

Conservation efforts will have to expand in and around urbanizing areas (a challenging negotiation). There will be a concurrent session in Nagoya called the City Biodiversity Summit. Nonetheless, helping diplomats to recognize the ongoing interplay of wildlife amidst large human populations, like in New York City, is vitally important.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….

- – -

Actor Edward Norton is unhappy. He is miffed because although he had starred as The Hulk in an earlier movie, he was not cast as the great green hero in a follow-up film. Cheer up, Ed! You’ve landed an even greener role: United Nations’ Biodiversity Ambassador. As the former botanist for New York City, I know first-hand the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I’ll be hosting international diplomats on a tour of New York’s nature this fall for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit. Since we’re going to be colleagues, I’d like to help you prepare for your new role. Here are some things you should know.

Urban nature exists. Most people embrace Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Big Apple as a “Skyscraper National Park”. While accurate at 51st Street and 7th Avenue, it obscures the fact that there is bona fide nature in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. New York City has more open space than Los Angeles and Chicago combined. These 53,000 acres include towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows. The world looks increasingly like New York, with more people now living in urban settings than rural areas. The city’s 8 million residents are drafting a blueprint for biodiversity from which global lessons can be learned.

Clean air isn’t free. Local biodiversity provides us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. Humans benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is clearly a price to be paid for their loss. Purifying contaminated water costs money. Recently a study commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that natural ecosystems provided benefits worth $18 billion per year, equal to the state’s construction industry. Continue reading

Biodiversity and the City 3: The consuming city

The last post focused on the surprising lack of conservation research on cities and biodiversity, given the rapid urbanization of mankind. Beyond direct habitat fragmentation, the other significant way in which cities impact biodiversity is through consumption.

The global footprint of cities is growing.

This is partly a function of sheer numbers: most people on the planet now live in urban areas. Three out of four Americans (United States) reside in cities and suburbs; two thirds of Latin American residents live in urban areas. By 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with a million or more inhabitants.

According to a Nature Conservancy study in 2008, urban growth around the world threatens biodiversity.

“While the effects of urbanization are very localized, cumulatively it is a big threat to biodiversity,” says [Robert] McDonald, the lead-author of the study. “Our urban footprint covers much of the globe and is coming closer to stomping out many endangered species and posing new risks to protected areas and parks.”

But it’s not simply population that creates the footprint.

Welcome to the Overshoot

Last Saturday was Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day), which marks when the humanity’s consumption of the world’s resources surpasses the annual productive capacity of the planet. Or as RP Siegel writes:

In a way, it’s a bit like finding out on August 21st that you’re not going to get another paycheck until next New Year’s Day. How would you deal with that?

Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, applies this concern to the state of the planet.

The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Overshoot Day is a useful concept to explain the impact of human society. The fact that “it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year” is pretty sobering. It’s also important to remember that the ecological debt is cumulative: the planet’s resources do not reset every year. Furthermore, the burdens created by the well-off tend to fall on more vulnerable communities elsewhere.

Finally, the rate of consumption is accelerating: this year the human footprint has reached “overshoot” a month faster than the previous year.

What drives the Overshoot?

So does population or overconsumption have the greater influence? It’s not necessarily a simple question. A couple recent items by David Biello (here) and Jonathan Foley (here) thoughtfully address the issues.

What is clear, however, is that cities have a key role in this relationship between humanity and the Earth’s resources.

Consumption driven by cities deepens the pressure on global systems. City dwellers tend to have higher incomes (and greater income disparities) and inhabit new social relationships. This combination fosters new markets and encourages consumerism — a kind of hyper-consumption stoked by advertising.

Supply chains radiate like tentacles from urban areas (themselves sprawling) to the farthest reaches of the planet. Food mile calculations start in distant landscapes and terminate in urban supermarkets and restaurants.

While large cities are notably energy efficient, the gains of urban density can be quickly outweighed by the increase in total embodied energy of goods consumed. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP),

One third of the average US household’s carbon footprint is due to emissions caused abroad producing goods imported into the US market.

Urban dwellers in the US, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations have a much larger footprint that city folk in other countries. Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that

a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land—an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island, Canada—to meet domestic needs alone without even including the environmental demands of industry. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres.

The UNEP study suggested that agriculture and energy are the primary forces of environmental change.

“How the world is fed and fueled will in large part define development in the 21st century as one that is increasingly sustainable or a dead end for billions of people.

“Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.

And it is an urban penchant for consumption that continues to drive resource extraction, manufacturing, and their related impacts around the globe.

A recent study (also here) found that the primary forces driving deforestation are the rise of big cities and international trade. Increasing urban demand for agricultural products and biofuels greatly impact land use.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

This vast shift is now happening primarily in the global South.

But the demand itself is not solely from developed nations. While cities in the developed world have a larger footprint, this pattern is being mirrored in the developing world, as more people funnel into urban areas. The food demands of cities in the emerging economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), in particular, will push agricultural expansion.

Agricultural output in the Bric nations will grow three times as fast as in the major developed countries, the joint United Nations-OECD study said.

And rising incomes and urbanisation in developing states will drive growth.

“Developing countries will provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade,” the report said.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods that will favour livestock and dairy products.

“For virtually all commodities, the projected growth in imports and exports of developing economies [over the next decade] exceeds that of the OECD area,” said the report.

The vast demand encourages agribusiness-driven exploitation. Where the main causes of deforestation were once the cumulative impacts of individual actions, now large-scale land grabs and conversion to agriculture have become a primary concern. Opportunistic agribusiness tends to exploit nations with weak governance structures. So this is not simply an issue of urban-driven demand, but also one of land tenure in the Global South, distribution, and a global food system.

Not just mega-cities

It’s uncertain (at least to me) whether the hyperconsuming mega-cities or the small to medium-sized cities — where most of global population growth during the next few decades will occur — will have a greater collective footprint.

The carbon footprint — and impact on land use and deforestation — of the megacities may be larger given the consumption levels. The sheer number and distribution of smaller cities, however, may end up disrupting more habitat and contributing more to biodiversity loss.

The rapid expansion of cities will test the capacity of urban governance (i.e., haphazard systems, untrained managers, corruption).  Small to medium-sized cities may face the “double whammy” of rapid, unplanned expansion and a “brain drain” of more talented or educated individuals to larger cities. The urban response will determine the scale of social and environmental impacts.

In any case, the future of humanity will be found in cities. As Robert McDonald from the Nature Conservancy concludes:

“Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”