Plant a Tree, Harvest the Rain

Water.  That delicious ubiquitous substance that sets our emerald green and aquamarine planet apart from the every other planet in the known universe.  Earth’s oceans hold 97% of all the water found on our planet, but only 2.4% of all water found on Earth is freshwater, of that small margin over 87.2% is tied up in frozen glaciers, ice and snow.  The presence or absence of water is the only difference that distinguishes a lush tropical rainforest from a dry desert, an oasis from certain death.  Our own bodies are made up of 60% water, our brains 70%.  Without, where would we be?

According to UNICEF/WHO, 2 billion people lack access to safe water supplies (2012).  Globally, that’s approximately one in eight people, or three times the population of the entire United States.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year a population the size of Los Angeles, 3.575 million people, die from water-related disease (2008).  Traditional forms of water collection from rivers, streams, and ponds are no longer safe for the 2 billion people who rely upon available surface water sources for their daily drinking, washing, and bathing needs.  As human populations increase, agricultural production increases, which leads to an increase in both use and contamination of water sources.  This especially affects surface water, where agri-chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides wash into rivers, streams, and ponds, and percolate down into groundwater sources, the largest source of available fresh water on the planet (12%).

While rainwater catchment on personal homes is the first step to increasing accessibility to fresh water for personal use, less than 0.001% of the total world water supply is actually found in the rain clouds.  Of the largest source of fresh water, groundwater is tapped increasingly by large agriculture, which extracts the precious resource as readily as oil is pumped from resevoirs.  Indeed, water is the new oil, and Big Ag is the largest consumer, irresponsibly irrigating crops:  flooding swaled beds or utilizing sprinklers that spray water into the air, losing much of the precious resource to evaporation by wind or sun.

To increase water supplies, agroecology can provide solutions proven by nature.  Planting native perennial species, such as fruit or nut trees, not only reduces water dependency from thirsty non-native species, but can also encourage the stabilization of weather patterns as plants absorb groundwater and pump it back into the atmosphere to form clouds (and eventually rain) through the hydrologic cycle.  So plant a tree today, harvest the rain tomorrow, and rest assured your children’s children will have an abundant Earth of plentiful water and food.

References

UNICEF/WHO. 2012. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation.

World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.

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Anthropogenic Climate Change calls for Anthropogenic Solutions

“I am speaking from an area of water that has never been water before. It has always been frozen solid. It is uncharted. There are no depth readings on the map because no ship has ever been able to measure them. No one has ever been anywhere near where we are now. We have sailed for the last 100 miles through open seas in an area that in the past would have only been accessible to the biggest ice-breakers.

Now it is clear water.”

–  Sir Peter Blake, Independent, 2001

Talking about climate change with western society is like talking to an alcoholic who just refuses to admit he has a problem, though his breath stinks and there are a pile of empty bottles surrounding him.  There is undeniable evidence all around us, in every corner of the Earth, that the climate is changing.  From the unseasonably warm March in Wisconsin (Monday, March 19th, Milwaukee, WI was shockingly enjoying weather warmer than Honolulu, Hawai’i and its early spring has seen temperatures remain at nearly 80° F over the previous two weeks), to the relentless rains throughout the tropics that has extended the rainy season far into the dry season (ruining corn, bean, and squash crops in subsistence farming cultures such as those in Guatemala), a changing climate is a phenomenon increasingly difficult to deny.  Speak to any farmer, gardener, or beekeeper, or wildlife ecologist with their feet firmly planted upon the earth, and you will hear strange tales of early blossoms, early bee activity, early mosquito activity, or depending on where you are:  late rains, late dry season, late cultivation, late harvests.

In fact, I was just in the highlands of Guatemala at the end of February, and the villagers of a small remote pueblo called La Pila, southeast of Patzún, pointed to their powdery mildewed corn stalks and snow pea plants and explained to me that their crops had failed because of climate change.  They can no longer plant their crops at the end of the rainy season as they used to because the rainy season has not stopped to give them an opportunity.  This means that annual plants that are susceptible to molds and mildews when exposed to excessive moisture are in danger of dying from too much rain.  For a culture who lives directly off the harvests of their annual crops, this means their families have no food and as a result, the men of the village have to leave their villages to find work to buy food that has been shipped in from afar.  For those considered “lucky”, some men are able to find enough work to earn as much as Q25.00 ($3.20 USD) a day, but this is not nearly enough to feed a hungry family.  What struck me the most was the tone of this dignified Kaq’chi’kel Mayan man, as he spoke intelligently of climate change as both an obvious phenomenon and the greatest challenge facing his people.  In this moment, I was newly astounded and ashamed at the arrogance of western culture, those privileged few who refuse to acknowledge the changing climate or the impact that human industry and their own consumption has had in accelerating the changes.

 “Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

-John Muir

Geologists and climatologists and even anthropologists have long understood that the Earth’s climates shift throughout the centuries.  Arctic and Antarctic glaciers have provided scientists with a clear idea of our global climate history:  by drilling deep into an ice sheet, scientists can analyze the air bubbles that have been long trapped between the layers of ice and begin to put together a time line that includes CO² variance, volcanic eruptions, and temperature changes as indicated by oxygen isotopes.  The UN Environment Programme has provided a record reaching back over 800,000 years through the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), and has seen that extreme climate changes have indeed occurred over the course of history.  There is good reason to believe that our Earth is currently experiencing, in part, a natural cycle of climate change.  Changes such as the amount of energy received from the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit and changes in the way the ocean and atmosphere interact with each other occur regularly throughout the history of the Earth.  However, these natural changes are being compounded by anthropogenic changes in land use, deforestation, a growing world population, and an increase in greenhouse emissions.  In 2005, for example, burning fossil fuels released approximately 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.   EPICA’s analyses of ice coring in the Antarctic indicates that the climate is warmer now than it has been since the beginning development of civilization, agriculture, and urbanization (J. Bouzel et al., 2007), a trend that coincides precisely with the development of the industrial revolution.

Despite the controversy surrounding human-caused climate change, this idea is not new.  In the years preceding his Nobel Prize in 1903, Swedish chemist and physicist, Svante August Arrhenius, introduced the connection between CO² levels in a warming atmosphere and human activities that increase CO² levels, such as coal burning (Nobel Lectures, 1966).  Arrhenius’ hypothesis wouldn’t be demonstrated scientifically until David Keeling, from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i, produced annual measurements of CO² concentrations that indicated a substantial rise from 315 ppm in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011 (NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011).  In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to review scientific evidence on the causes and effects of human-caused climate change, and is comprised of scientists and government representatives from over 130 countries worldwide.  In 2007, the IPCC published an extensive report representing over 6 years of research by over 2,500 scientists, stating that there is a 90% probability that recent rapid climate changes result from human activities (AR4, 2007).  Some changes, such as the increased size of the hole in our protective ozone layer, are referred to as having a 99% probability of being caused by humans and carbon emissions (2007).  The report indicates effects of these climate changes such as a global warming of the climate by conservative estimations of  3°-8° F (1°-6° C), resulting in rapid arctic glacial melting and flooding of global sea levels by 3-6 ft. (1-2 m), putting cities such as London, Mumbai, Boston, Miami, and New Orleans under water (2007).

In 2011, NASA’s Earth Observatory reported: “before the industrial age, the ocean vented carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in balance with the carbon the ocean received during rock weathering. However, since carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased, the ocean now takes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Over millennia, the ocean will absorb up to 85 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but the process is slow because it is tied to the movement of water from the ocean’s surface to its depths” (NASA 2011). Draft diagram of the carbon cycle.(Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov)

Already we are seeing these changes faster than even the IPCC report estimated.  In 2009, government officials of Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific that is located between Hawai’i and Australia, spoke with the UK about the very real threat of rising ocean levels submerging their small island, and the prospects of “climate refugees” : people displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters.  The prospects of mass global migration in an already compressed world brings certainty to future conflicts along political borders.  According to a documentary entitled, Climate Refugees (2010), “for the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.: (2010).   Indeed, for the first time in history, these natural disasters and projected political conflicts result from rapid ecological changes that are largely anthropogenic, changes such as   “increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes” (Climate Refugees, 2010).  

You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem

–  Albert Einstein

It is clear to me that we cannot begin to address solutions to climate change with the same degree of denial that has contributed to its anthropogenic acceleration.  Like an alcoholic struggling to come to terms with his addiction, before we can begin to undo all the harm we have done, we must first understand the depth of our involvement and admit our part in it all.  With this in mind, Cape Farewell, an innovative non-profit organization has begun to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” Since 2003, the organization has worked in partnership with scientific and cultural institutions to deliver a climate program centered around engaging the public, “using the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation of climate focused art which is disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, digital media and film” (2003).  All this is to begin the dialogue that challenges our communities to look at how they interact with each other and with the Earth and its resources in a new way.

My hope lies with the young creative minds, who see the ecological and social profit in planting trees that bare fruit while they cycle carbon emissions back into the soil, in areas where massive deforestation has led to desertification and food insecurity.  My hope lies with the solution-oriented minds who look to Nature’s pattern of resiliency for clues as to how science and engineering can reintegrate with cycles of renewable energy and waste cycling.  My hope lies with those social entrepreneurs who see that economic abundance is only possible when the Earth’s natural ecological abundance is intact.  Climate change has been accelerated in just a few generations by models of industry that are incompatible with the very Earth it stands upon.  The future of how humans live upon the Earth, how we design our homes, food systems, energy systems, waste cycling, and ecological restoration depends on creative, innovative minds that are unbound by traditional forms of thought that have led us down this path of ecological, economical, and cultural destruction.

Resources

Cape Farewell.  http://www.capefarewell.com/climate-science/the-science.html. 2003.

Climate Refugees. http://www.climaterefugees.com/, 2010.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Assessment Report 4 (AR4), 2007.  http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/

J. Bouzel et al.  EPICA Dome C Ice Core 800KYr, Deuterurm Data and Temperature Estunares.  UN Environment Programme, 2007.

NASA Earth Observatory.  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/printall.php, 2011.

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011.

Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966.

Biological Communities and Species Interactions

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system.”

~Wangari Maathai

Clear cutting in Amazon, Brazil

When seeking to find solutions to the problems of how we manage our natural resources, one need only look to Nature for wisdom and inspiration to find millenia-worth of infallible ecological design.  Agroecology utilizes this  by observing and understanding the relationships between organisms and their environment can teach us how to better care for the ecosystems that support us.

Two words that spring forth immediately when one thinks of a pristine natural environment, such as a virgin rainforest or an estuary or coral reef, are abundance and diversity.  But what do these words mean?  And how are they related to each other? According to William P. and Mary Ann Cunningham (2012), these two concepts are closely interlinked.  “Abundance is an expression of the total number of organisms in a biological community, while diversity is a measure of the number of different species, ecological niches, or genetic variation present” (Cunningham 2012).  When an ecosystem has an abundance of a particular species (such as an redwood forest) the diversity of the total ecological community present tends to be limited to a few species.  Conversely, when an ecosystem has great biodiversity (such as a virgin rainforest), the abundance of one particular species is usually limited in population due to the sheer number of other species sharing the same available resources.

                  

In 1927, British ecologist  Charles Elton observed what indigenous people have always known:  that each individual species had a specific role within a community of species, or ecological niche which determines the way it obtains food, the relationships it has with other species, and the ecological services provided to its community (Cunningham 2012).  In fact, as American limnologist G.E. Hutchinson would later observe, “every species exists within a range of physical and chemical conditions (temperature, light levels, acidity, humidity, salinity, etc.) and also biological interactions (predators and prey present, defenses, nutritional resources available, etc.)”(Cunningham 2012).  As each species habitates their ecological niche, a closely interconnected community emerges, or guild of species that mutually benefit or support each other.  This highly interconnected community has the potential to form a very elaborate food web, greatly increasing the resiliency and stability of an ecosystem.

        

Modern agriculture is a far cry from this symbiotic relationship and bases its simplistic designs on what is referred to as the competitive exclusion principle, which states that “no two species can occupy the same ecological niche for long. The one that is more efficient in using available resources will exclude the other” (Cunningham 2012).  Therefore, with this mentality, one cannot plant two different crops together as one’s yield will be greatly reduced due to the out-competition of available resources.  However, what modern agriculture does not take the time to observe is that resource partitioning “allows several species to utilize different parts of the same resource and coexist within a single habitat” (Cunningham 2012).  This is to say that if one plants two species with similar root structures and nutritional needs, one species will certainly out-compete the other for available resources.  However, if one plants two species with complimentary root structures, growth habits and nutritional needs (such as corn with beans and squash) a symbiotic relationship often enhances the survival of one or both species.

                           

Squash covers the ground to prevent weeds,and the corn provides a trellis for the beans.  This technique, called the Three Sisters method, has been used by indigenous populations in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.

                     

The propensity for mutually beneficial relationships in natural ecosystems is seen in many different contexts.  In Central and South America, acacia trees (Acacia collinsii) and ants (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea) hold a well-known close relationship with each other.  The acacias provide shelter and food for the ants, who in turn fiercely defend their territory, driving away herbivorous insects that would feed on the acacias.  

Ants and acacia; Source:  http://science.kennesaw.edu/~jdirnber/Bio2108/Lecture/LecEcology/EcologyComm.html

Another commonly seen example of ecological symbiosis is the relationship between over-story trees that also fix nitrogen in the soil (Erythrina sp.) and under-story species that produce fruit or nuts (i.e. Coffea sp.).  The overstory tree provides key nutrients for the plants below, while providing shade and organic  material that decomposes to fertilize the soil.

Commensalism is yet one more type of symbiosis commonly found in natural ecosystems, in which “one member clearly benefits and the other apparently is neither benefited nor harmed” (Cunningham 2012).  Mosses and epiphytes, such as bromeliads and orchids, that grow on trees in the moist tropics are perfect examples.  The production of vanilla in agroforestry systems utilizes this relationship without harm to its parent tree.  In addition, the incorporation of this species in a fruit or nut orchard in the tropics greatly diversifies the harvest available throughout the year.

 What is most interesting to observe as a global ecological pattern is that as we move from the equator toward either pole, “diversity decreases but abundance within species increases” (Cunningham 2012).  The rich, complex diversity of the forests of the Equatorian Amazon gradually becomes simpler as we move North and find ourselves in thick Pine forests or ancient Oak forests or coastal Redwood forests, with but only a handful of species cohabitating.  Even desert ecosystems, with the limited resources available, hold a dominant species (i.e. cactus) with limited bio-diversity.  And yet, one may travel the world over and find an increasingly mono-cultural form of modern agricultural technique producing human food that defies all ecological rules.  The rich diversity of highly elaborate symbiotic native rainforests are plowed to make room for acreage of palm oil or sugarcane or banana monocrops.  The brittle tropical soil, unprotected by the plethora of root forms, dries quickly in the tropical heat and is easily blown away by winds and rains.  This massive erosion creates a need for increased nutrition to feed the mono-crops, and modern agriculture has declared it necessary to pump the soils and foods we eat with high doses of chemically produced fertilizers rather than enjoying the natural accumulation of biomass that decomposes to provide rich compost for the understory plants.  When the monocrop weakens due to the harsh environment they are being forced to grow in, pests and diseases plague the crop and take advantage of their inability to fight off with immunity.  In a natural ecosystem, the complexity of the food web creates a strength that enhances each organism as a stronger whole.

When modern agriculturists argue that massive mono-cropping increases their productivity, they are erroneously combining industrial business terminology associated with profits with living ecological systems.  Productivity within a factory setting indicates a high quantity of product in a short amount of time, yielding a net profit.  In ecological terms, primary productivity is “the rate of biomass production”, which directly indicates the rate of solar energy being converted to chemical energy in photosynthesis (Cunningham 2012).  Any energy left after the respiration of the plants is considered net primary production.  Ecosystems with high productivity are tropical forests, coral reefs, and estuaries, because of their abundant supplies of all these resources.  Deserts, on the other hand, lack water which limits photosynthesis and reduces plant growth, as do the low temperatures experienced in the  Arctic tundras or high mountainous environments.  High yields from any plant in these conditions can not be sustained for long.

Ecological complexity within plant communities and species interconnectedness are important ecological indicators of a productive environment. Our modern agricultural systems base their production on man-made industrial concepts and create unsustainable ecological deserts where once diversity reigned strong.  As humans continue to experience increased destruction of precious resources we rely upon, such as virgin forests, estuaries, and coral reefs, our very survival is being challenged with each diminishing species.  Survival of the fittest may no longer refer to the domination of the strongest species, as was once assumed, but it is increasingly evident that the survival of organisms (including humans) relies upon those who can live cooperatively together.

Work Cited

Cunningham, William P. and Mary Ann.  Environmental Science:  A Global Concern, Twelfth Edition.  New York:  McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012.  76-93. PRINT.

Whole Ecosystem Design

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Agro-ecology is a methodology of producing food, fibers, fuels, or pharmacopeia (agro-) in a symbiotic manner, supporting both the local environment and its interdependent organisms, as it mimics a natural ecosystem (-ecology).  Rather than combating natural phenomenon such as topography, annual rainfall, climate, and the propensity for nature to fill spaces with plant matter (i.e. “weeds”), agro-ecology recognizes these natural patterns as assets to the local environment and seeks to nurture and produce an abundance of resources in a whole-system design that maximizes the utility of a unique growing environment.  Just as a virgin forest contains a myriad of levels of productivity (large canopies protecting smaller shade-loving trees below, shrubs and bushes tucked beneath the smaller trees, low-growing grasses or groundcovers, ephiphytes and orquids tucked into branches, vines  connecting the overstory to the understory, mycelium running between tree roots, etc.), an agro-ecological system designs its’ production to maximize vertical growing niches, with every season bringing a perennial abundance to harvest.  Each element of a successful agro-ecological system supports and interacts with every other element in symbiosis and requires very little external inputs to the system, demonstrating true sustainability.

According to Professor Stephen R. Gleissman, of the University of California-Santa Cruz,  the ecological practices that sustain traditional agriculture are benefits to both the natural ecosystem and the producer.  Traditional agro-ecology has been utilized by our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the world, and the wisdom of its ways has nearly been lost in recent years to industrial agriculture’s maxim, “Bigger is better”.   The benefits of traditional agro-ecosystems are that they:

  • “Do not depend on purchased inputs.
  • Make use of locally available and renewable resources.
  • Emphasize nutrient recycling.
  • Are beneficial for both on- and off-farm environments.
  • Are adapted to local conditions.
  • Take full advantage of micro-environments.
  • Maximize yield while sustaining productive capacity.
  • Maintain spatial and temporal diversity and continuity use production to meet local needs first.
  • Rely on and conserve local genetic diversity.
  • Rely on and conserve indigenous knowledge and culture” (Gleissman).

In an article highlighted by the Sierra Club, “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It” (Spinks, 2011), agro-ecology systems design is quickly gaining recognition for its ability to address a multitude of diverse problems.  In addition to “shifting the view of agriculture’s and natural systems’ roles in our lives — from one of dominance to coexistence, ” agroecological food systems also offer a solution for the dependence our industrial model of agricultural production has on carbon-based fossil fuels (Spinks 2011).  In a world where imminent depletion of fossil fuels plays a huge role on global economics dependent upon the fossil fuels, this solution is a welcome sign of hope the world over.

In fact, according to a United Nations’ Human Rights Council report submitted on “The Right to Food,” by Olivier De Schutter (2010), which was drawn upon extensive review of five years worth of published scientific literature:

 “[The U.N.] identifies agroecology as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties, [a]nd it strongly contributes to the broader economic development” (De Schutter, 2010).

Agroecology not only raises productivity at the field level but also has a far-reaching effect on local economies by increasing accessibility to a diversity of food and production across socio-economic levels, thereby reducing rural poverty.  Not only does it improve local nutrition through diverse food production, addressing food insecurity at the local level, but agroecological design also generously contributes to the sequestration of carbon, crucial in our increasingly important adaption to climate change.  The transformation of our industrial-modeled agricultural systems to whole ecosystem design for food, fuel, fiber, and pharmacopeia production has far-reaching beneficial local solutions to our global problems.

Works Cited

De Schutter, Olivier.  “The Right to Food,” The United Nations Human Rights Council:  2010. http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf.

Gleissman, Stephen R.  “Sustainability in Traditional Agroecosystems:
Ecologically sound practices that sustain traditional agriculture.” University of California- Santa Cruz. http://www.agroecology.org/Principles_Trad.html

Spinks, Rosie.  “Agroecology: How to Feed the World Without Destroying It.”  Sierra Club,  2011. http://sierraclub.typepad.com/greenlife/2011/03/real-food-can-feed-the-world.html.

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Introduction

‎”The future of humanity will depend on how we steward the resources of land, of soil, of water and seeds, and pass them on to future generations.”

-Vandana Shiva

We live on a stunning planet, unique in its abundance of water and the rich biodiversity of its’ creatures.  Our Earth is a perfect symbiotic biome, providing for and protecting the vulnerable plants, animals, and micro-organisms from a harsh inhospitable environment outside our fragile ozone-layer.  Protected, we rely upon the perfect balance of the seasonal cycles to regulate our water, temperature, length of daylight, and nutrient build-up in our soils.  Without such symbiosis, where each part relies up and mutually benefits from every other part in the biome whole, our precious Earth is thrown out of balance and the elements we rely upon become scarce.

We are now in a time of great survival, as we witness our climate changing in extreme ways, our waters receding, our soils eroding, and the rich diversity of our animal and plant kingdom going extinct, all due to increasing pressure placed upon them by human activity.  Without these other beings in our lives, humans’ cannot survive for long.  But there is good news:  the Earth and her systems are resilient.  In but one generation, with careful management of the remaining resources and insightful planning for human development accompanied with regenerative landscape design, humans can play an active role in nurturing our ailing planet back to health.

This blog will examine the most pressing of environmental and social problems facing us today:  massive deforestation, climate change, food insecurity, and water shortages, and will identify how a single change in the systems of food production can reverse these negative trends back into symbiosis.  Simply by using agro-ecology to apply natural ecological principles to the sustainable, and in fact regenerative, production of food, fibers, fuel, and pharmacopeia, humans can reverse the consumptive destruction of the very planet we rely upon.   As we will see, by identifying the problems of human management and where human activities stray from Earth’s natural patterns of abundance, the problem will inevitably indicate the symbiotic solution being called for.