A Life on Our Planet | Reflections & Notes

David Attenborough. A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and A Vision for the Future. Grand Central Publishing, 2020. (266 pages)


In publicly educating and communicating about the most critical issue we as a human species are facing–climate change–there are several approaches and tactics that can be had. Drawdown was specifically solutions-centric. The Uninhabitable Earth and Climate Shock were alarmist-leaning. The Climate Casino and Doughnut Economics both approached the challenge via economics. All We Can Save is taking a critical theorist and social approach. All of these are valid, warranted, and welcomed, as the crisis is so large, we truly need all voices.

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough has now become one of my top recommendations on the topic, for in this book he brings together what I perceive to be the very best of all of these approaches. The balance of personal testimony (“My Witness Statement”) and a clarion call to action (“Vision for the Future”) is simply compelling. It is alarmist in what it reports without sensationalizing, simple and accessible in its economic analysis, critical and socially conscious without overt politicking, and most of all, solutions-focused. (It felt a bit similar to Bill McKibben’s Eaarth.)

I appreciated most the linguistic handle that Attenborough gives us in the phrase, “rewilding” our planet. Speaking to the biodiversity needed to reclaim a sustainable Earth, “rewilding” repositions our place within our environment, to “re- place” ourselves within the world in which we live. Attenborough also speaks to our value systems, the things we ultimately care about, rooting our conversation once again past the technological debate into the fertile philosophical soil of what makes us truly human. In the end, as he states–and I fully agree–we need wisdom and the will to save, not just our planet, but ourselves.

I am so deeply thankful to my wife and daughter for the gift of this book. You know exactly how I like to party!


Our Greatest Mistake

This is the true tragedy of our time: the spiraling decline of our planet’s biodiversity. (6)

We live our comfortable lives in the shadow of a disaster of our own making. That disaster is being brought about by the very things that allow us to live our comfortable lives. And it is quite natural to carry on in this way until there is a convincing reason not to do so and a very good plan for an alternative. That is why I have written this book. (7)

My Witness Statement

World population: 2.3 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 280 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 66 per cent

To an evolutionary biologist, the term ‘culture’ describes the information that can be passed from one individual to another by teaching or imitation. …no other species has anything approaching the capacity for culture that we have. (18)

Whereas other (18) species depended on physical changes over generations, we could produce an idea that brought significant change within a generation. (19)

The Holocene—the part of the Earth’s history that we think of as our time—has been one of the most stable periods in our planet’s long history. For 10,000 years, the average global temperature did not vary up or down by more than 1°C. We don’t know exactly what produced this stability, but the richness of the living world may well have had something to do with it. (20)

The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. (21)

At first, the hunters selected males to kill, and protected breeding females, in order to boost the populations. (22)

Farming transformed the relationship betwen humankind and nature. We were, in a very small way, taming a part of the wild world—controlling our environment to a modest degree. (23)

Civilisation has started. … But each generation, in these ever-more-complex societies, was able to develop and progress only because the natural world continued to be stable and could be relied upon to deliver the commodities and the conditions that we needed. The benign environment of the Holocene, and the marvellous biodiversity that guaranteed it, became more important to us than ever. (25)

World population: 2.7 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 310 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 64 per cent

The 1950s were a time of great optimism. (30)

That was before any of us were aware that there were problems. (30)

World population: 3.0 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 315 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 62 per cent

The Maasai word ‘Serengeti’ means ‘endless plains’. It’s an apt description. You can be in one spot on the Serengeti, and the place appears to be totally empty of animals — and then the next morning, there are one million wildebeest, a quarter of a million zebra, half a million gazelle. A few days after that, and they’re gone, over the horizon, out of sight. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these plains were endless, when they can swallow up such immense herds. (33)

cf. Bernhard Grzimek, Director of the Frankfurt Zoo, Serengeti Shall Not Die

Nature is far from unlimited. The wild is finite. It needs protecting. (37)

World population: 3.5 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 323 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 59 per cent

We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth. – Bill, Anders; Apollo 8

We had all simultaneously realised that our home was not limitless–there was an edge to our existence. (43)

World population: 3.7 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 326 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 58 per cent

World population: 4.37 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 335 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 55 per cent

We do not have a special place. We are not the preordained and final pinnacle of evolution. We are just another species in the tree of life. Nonetheless we have broken free from many of the constraints that affect all other species. (65)

World population: 5.1 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 353 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 49 per cent

Rainforests are particularly precious habitats, the most biodiverse places in the world. (70)

The supreme suitability of these places for plants results in the greatest and most vigorous competition for space that occurs anywhere on Earth. (70)

Rainforests are places where evolutionary innovation and experimentation runs wild. (71)

It is the astonishing variety of tree species in rainforests that underpins their great biodiversity. It is also the characteristic that we are removing. (72)

It has been estimated that we now have three trillion fewer trees across the world than at the start of human civilisation. [cf. http://www.globalforestwatch.org, and http://www.gfbinitiative.org] (74)

We cannot continue to cut down rainforests for ever, and anything we can’t do for ever is, by definition, unsustainable. If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates to a point when ultimately the whole system collapses. No habitat, no matter how big, is secure. (75)

World population: 5.19 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 360 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 46 per cent

You and I, and all the animals with which we share the land, are all ultimately descended from marine creatures. We owe the ocean everything. (78)

By the start of the 1980s, fishing globally had become so unrewarding that countries with big fleets had to support them with financial subsidies — in effect, paying the fleets to overfish. By the end of the twentieth century, mankind had removed 90 per cent of the large fish from all the oceans of the world. (82)

Exponential gains are characteristic of cultural evolution. Invention accumulates. If you combine the diesel engine, GPS, and the echo sounder, the opportunities they create are not just added to one another, they are multiplied. But the ability of fish to reproduce is limited. As a consequence, we have now overfished many of our coastal waters. (83)

Ocean food chains operate very differently from those on the land. Chains there may be only three links long — grass to wildebeest to lion. The ocean routinely has chains with four, five and more links. (84)

There are fewer fish in the sea today. We dont realise that this is so because of a phenomenon called the shifting baseline syndrome. Each generation defines the normal by what it experiences. We judge what the sea can provide by the fish populations we know today, not knowing what those populations once were. We expect less and less from the ocean because we have never known for ourselves what riches it once provided and what it could again. (85)

A radical change in the level of atmospheric carbon was a feature of all five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history and a major factor in the most comprehensive annihilation of species — the Permian extinction, 252 million years ago. The exact cause of that change is disputed, but we do know that one of the longest and most extensive volcanic events in Earth’s history had been growing in strength over a period of a million years, covering what today is Siberia with 2 million square kilometres of lava. This lava may have spread through the existing rocks and reached vast beds of coal, igniting them and discharging sufficient carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise the temperature of Earth 6°C above today’s average, and increasing the acidity of the entire ocean. The warming of the ocean put all marine systems under stress and, as the waters became more acidic, marine species with calcium carbonate shells — such as corals and much of the phytoplankton — simply dissolved. The collapse of the entire ecosystem was then inevitable. Ninety-six per cent of the marine species on Earth disappeared. (88)

This was not like destroying a rainforest. It took hard work to remove the trees. Here, we were damaging distant ecosystems across the world without even visiting them — by changing the ocean’s temperature and chemistry with the fallout from our activities thousands of miles away. (89)

Yet, until the 1990s, there was little solid evidence for this approaching catastrophe above water. While the ocean was warming, the global air temperature had been relatively stable. The inference was shocking — the air temperature was not changing because the ocean itself was absorbing much of the excess heat of global warming and that was masking the impact that we were making. At some point soon, that would stop. The bleaching corals were like canaries in a coal mine, warning us of a coming explosion. It was the first unmistakable indication to me that the Earth was becoming unbalanced. (89)

World population: 7.0 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 391 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 39 per cent

World population: 7.8 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 415 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 35 per cent

Our impact is now truly global. Our blind assault on the planet is changing the very fundamentals of the living world. This is now the status of our planet in the year 2020. (95)

Our assault on freshwater systems has reduced the animals and plants that live in them more severely than those in any other habitat. Globally, we have reduced the size of their animal populations by over 80 per cent. (97)

Currently we cut down over 15 billion trees each year. The world’s rainforests have been reduced by half. The top driver of continuing deforestation, which doubles that of the next three greatest cases combined, is beef production. Brazil alone devotes 170 million hectares of its land, an area seven times the size of the United Kingdom, to cattle pasture. Much of that area was once rainforest. The second driver is soy. Growing soy uses some 131 million hectares, much of it in South America. Over 70 per cent of this soy is used to feed livestock being raised for meat. Third is the 21 million hectares of oil palm plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia. (97)

A shifting baseline has distorted our perception of all life on Earth. We have forgotten that once there were temperate forests that would take days to traverse, herds of bison that would take four hours to pass, and flocks of birds so vast and dense that they darkened the skies. Those things were normal only a few lifetimes ago. Not any more. We have become accustomed to an impoverished planet. (100)

| We have replaced the wild with the tame. We regard the Earth as our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world. The truly wild world — that non-human world — has gone. We have overrun the Earth. (100)

I have to remind myself of the dreadful things that humanity has done to the planet in my lifetime. After all, the Sun still comes up each morning, and the newspaper drops through the letterbox. But I think about it most days to some degree. Are we, like those poor people in Pripyat, sleepwalking into a catastrophe? (101)

What Lies Ahead

The forecast catastrophe would be immeasurably more destructive than Chernobyl or anything we have experienced to date. It would bring far more than flooded real estate, stronger hurricanes and summer wildfires. It would irreversibly reduce the quality of life of everyone who lives through it, and of the generations that follow. When the global ecological breakdown does finally settle and we reach a new equilibrium, humankind, for as long as it continues to exist on this Earth, might be living on a permanently poorer planet. (105)

Beginning in the 1950s after the war, our species entered what has been termed the Great Acceleration. … From the mid century, it will show a sharply accelerating rise, a steepening mountain slope, a hockey-stick. Graph after graph, all the same. This runaway growth is the profile of our contemporary existence. It is the universal model of the period of history that I have witnessed on Earth–the great underlying explanation of all the change that I report. My testimony is a first-person narrative of the Great Acceleration. (106)

Microbiologists have a graph of growth that begins with the same form, and they know how it ends. When a few bacteria are placed on a bed of food in a sterile, sealed dish–a perfect (106) environment, free from competition, sitting on abundant nutrients–they take some time to adapt themselves to the new medium–a period called the lag phase. This can last just one hour, or a few days, but at some point it ends suddenly–the bacteria solve the problem of how to exploit the conditions of the dish, and begin to reproduce by dividing, doubling their population as frequently as every 20 minutes. So begins the log phase, a period of exponential growth, the bacteria splitting and spreading in surges across the surface of the food. Each individual bacterium grabs its own plot and seizes what it needs. Ecologists call this a scramble competition — every bacterium for itself!  It’s a type of competition that does not end well in a closed system such as the finite, sealed dish. When the bacteria reproduce to such a degree that they reach the edge, every individual cell will begin to disadvantage every other at the same moment. The food begins to run out beneath the bacteria. Exhaust gases heat effluents begin to accumulate and poison with increasing speed. Cells start to die, tempering the growth rate of the population for the first time. These deaths also occur exponentially due to the worsening environment, and soon there is a moment when the death rate and the birth rate equal each other. At that point, the population has peaked, and may plateau for a period. But within a fininte system, this won’t continue forever–it’s not sustainable. (107)

Earth is a closed system just like the bacteria colony’s sealed dish. (109)

[via: I respectfully say, false. The earth is not a closed system, because we continually get our energy from the sun. Part of the main thesis of this work is that there is a different and more sustainable way to continue to utilize the resources of the earth, and that is, primarily through solar energy, a main argument of this book.]

[Johan Rockström and Will Steffen] found nine critical thresholds hard-wired into Earth’s environment — nine planetary boundaries. If we keep our impact within these thresholds, we occupy a safe operating space, a sustainable existence. If we push our demands to such an extent that any one of these boundaries is breached, we risk destabilising the life-support machine, permanently debilitating nature and removing its ability to maintain the safe, benign environment of the Holocene. (109)

Currently, our activities are committing the Earth to failure. We have already pushed through four of the nine boundaries. We are polluting the Earth with far too many fertilisers, disrupting the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. We are converting natural habitats on land–such as forests, grasslands and marshlands–to farmland at too great a rate. We are warming the Earth far too quickly, adding carbon to the atmosphere faster than at any time in our planet’s history. We are causing a rate of biodiversity loss that is more than 100 times the average, and only matched in the fossil record during a mass extinction event. (111)

The Great Acceleration, like any explosion, is about to generate fallout–an equal and opposite reaction in the living world, a ‘Great Decline’. (111)


…the Amazon rainforest is on course to be reduced to 75 per cent of its original extent by the 2030s. …triggering a phenomenon known as forest dieback. The forest becomes suddenly unable to produce enough moisture from its diminished canopy to feed the rainclouds, and the most vulnerable parts of the Amazon degrade firstly into a seasonal dry forest, then an open savannah. (112)


…thawing the permafrost,… (114) … For thousands of years, the permafrost has locked in an estimated 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon — four times more carbon than humankind has emitted in the last 200 years, and twice as much as there is in the atmosphere. The thaw would release this carbon, gradually, over many years, turning on a gas tap of methane and carbon dioxide that we would probably never be able to turn off. (115)


…carbonic acid… By the 2050s, the entire ocean could be sufficiently acidic to trigger a calamitous decline. (115)


…global food production on land could be at crisis point. (116)

We are only just beginning to understand that there is an association between the rise of emergent viruses and the planet’s demise. (118)


Within the lifespan of someone born today, our species is currently predicted to take our planet through a series of one-way doors that bring irreversible change and commit us to losing the security and stability of the Holocene, our Garden of Eden. (120)

To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiveristy, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world! (121)

A Vision for the Future: How to Rewild the World

We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature. (125)

| All these years later, we need to reverse that transition. A sustainable existence is once again our only option. (125)

…we must immediately halt and preferably start to reverse climate change by attending to greenhouse gas emissions wherever they occur. We must end our overuse of fertilizers. We must halt and reverse the conversion of wild spaces to farmland, plantations and other developments. (126)

A recent review has estimated that almost 50 per cent of humanity’s impact on the living world is attributable to the richest 16 per cent of the human population. … We must (126) learn not only to live within the Earth’s finite resources, but also how to share them more evenly too. (128)

[via: Reminds me of John’s teaching on having two cloaks, and your neighbor is in need, give them one of your cloaks. cf. Luke 3:11]

cf. Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

‘Sustainability in all things’ should be our species’ philosophy; the Doughnut Model, our compass for the journey. The challenge it sets us is simple, yet formidable: to improve the lives of people everywhere, while at the same time radically reducing our impact on the world. And what should be our source of inspiration in trying to meet this great challenge? We need to look no further than the living world itself. All the answers are there. (128)

Moving Beyond Growth

…in a finite world, nothing can increase forever. (129)

For, on a finite planet, the only way to achieve perpetual growth is to take more from elsewhere. What felt like a miracle of the modern age was just stealing. (131)

Environmental economists are focused on building a sustainable economy. Their ambition is to change the system so that markets around the world benefit not just profits, but also people and the planet too. They call these the three Ps. Many among them have high hopes for what they term green growth–a type of growth that has no negative impact on the environment. (131)

The hope and expectation of many environmental economists is that a sixth wave of innovation–the sustainability revolution–is almost upon us. (132)

In the end, though, green growth is still growth. Will humankind ever be able to move beyond its growth phase, mature and settle into a plateau? … The Happy Planet Index, created by the New Economics Foundation in 2006, attempts to do just that, combining a nation’s ecological footprint with elements of human well-being, such as life expectancy, average levels of happiness and a measure of equality. (133)

Switching to Clean Energy

The living world is essentially solar-powered. (136)

Our careless use of fossil fuels has set us the greatest and most urgent challenge we have ever faced. If we do make the transition to renewables at the lightning speed required, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude, for we are indeed the first to truly understand the problem–and the last with a chance to do anything about it. … We human beings are, above all, the most astonishing problem solvers. We have made difficult journeys before that evolve enormous social change throughout our history, and we can do so again. (139)

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle we face is the abstract force we might call vested interests. Change is a threat to any invested in the status quo. (141)

The Swedish government introduced [a carbon] tax in the 199s, and it led to a strong move away from fossil fuels in many sectors. The Stockholm Resilience Centre suggests that a rising price, starting at $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, would be enough to stimulate rapid change from dirty to clean technology, trigger efficiency drives in those practices still dependent on fossil fuels, (142) and excite the sharpest minds to search for new technologies and practices that lower emissions. We should be careful to do this in a way that protects the poorest in society, but studies show that is entirely achievable. A carbon tax would, in short, radically speed up the sustainable revolution we need. (143)

| As the new, clean, carbon-free world comes online, people everywhere will start to feel the benefits of a society run on renewables. Life will be less noisy. Our air and water will be cleaner. We will start to wonder why we put up for so long with millions of premature deaths each year from poor air quality. (143)

Is this fantasy? It doesn’t have to be. At least three nations — Iceland, Albania and Paraguay — already generate all their electricity without using fossil fuels. (143)

What is clear to those of us concerned not only with climate change but also biodiversity loss is that we have a much better way of capturing carbon: the rewilding of the world will suck enormous amounts of carbon from the air and lock it away in the expanding wilderness. When executed in parallel with global cuts in emissions, this nature-based solution would be the ultimate win-win — carbon storage and biodiversity gain all in one. Studies in many habitats have shown that the more biodiverse an ecosystem, the better it captures and stores carbon. Nature-based carbon capture is where governments, fund-managers and businesses should be investing. This is where all our offsets should go — a globally funded and internationally supported drive to revive the wild world. It would work vigorously in every habitat on Earth, halting climate change and the sixth mass extinction at the same time. Some of the swiftest gains could be won within only a few years, most spectacularly within the greatest wilderness of them all. (146)

Rewilding the Seas

By helping the marine world to recover, we can do three things we desperately need to do simultaneously — capture carbon, raise biodiversity and supply ourselves with more food. (147)

At present there are over 17,000 Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, around the world. But these only account for less than 7 per cent of the ocean, and in many MPAs certain types of fishing are still permitted. … No-fish zones allow individual fish to grow older and bigger. And bigger individuals produce disproportionately more offspring. They then, in turn, repopulate neighbouring waters that are fished. This spill-over effect has been shown to occur around strict MPAs from the tropics to the Arctic. Fishing communities tend to resist fishing restrictions when they are first put in place, but, within a few years, they will start to feel the benefits. (148)

The Marine Protected Area of Cabo Pulmo lies at the tip of Baja California in Mexico. In the 1990s this area of sea was extensively overfished, and the fishing community, desperate for a solution, agreed to some suggestions from marine scientists to set aside over 7,000 hectares of their cost as a no-fish zone. The local people describe the years immediately after the MPA was opened in 1995 as the hardest years they had ever faced. The fishing families caught very little in the neighbouring waters and had to survive on food vouchers offered by the Mexican government. Fisherman could see growing shoals in the MPA, and were often tempted to break the van. It was only the faith the community had in the marine (148) scientists that kept their resolve. It was about the ten-year point that sharks came back to Cabo Pulmo. The older fisherman remembered them from their childhood, and knew they were a sign of recovery. After only 15 years, the amount of marine life in the no-fish zone had increased by more than 400 per cent to a level similar to reefs that had never been fished at all, and the fish shoals began to spread into neighbouring waters. The fisherman caught more fish than they had done in decades, and what is more, the community had a tourist attraction on their doorstep. The men and women of Cabot Pulmo found new sources of income — dive shops, guest houses and restaurants. [ The Smithsonian has a detailed report on the Cabo Pulmo MPA success story which demonstrates how important it is to get the local community invested in MPAs and conservation projects in general; see https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/solutions-success-stories/cabo-pulmo-protected-area.] (149)

The MPA model works because it stops us doing something we should never have begun to do — eat into the core fish stocks, the capital of the ocean. When there are no-fish zones within a legal fishing area, we become limited to living off the interest only. Any financier would tell you that that is a sensible, sustainable approach. And since no-fish zones increase the abundance of all fish populations, the capital gets bigger and bigger, leading to more and more interest — more fish for the net. It becomes easier to catch fish and that reduces the amount of fossil fuels expended out at sea, less unwanted bycatch, and the freedom to stay on shore when the seas look rough. Well designed and effectively managed MPA’s are a ticket to a new, healthy fishing relationship with the ocean. Estimates suggest that no fish zones encompassing a third of our ocean would be sufficient to enable fish stocks to recover and supply us with fish for the long term. (149)

Taking Up Less Space

The conversion of wild habitat to farmland as humankind expanded its territory throughout the Holocene has been the single greatest direct cause of biodiversity loss during our time on Earth. … By tearing down trees, burning forests, dredging wetlands and ploughing wild grasslands, we have released (159) two-thirds of this historic stored carbon to date. Removing the wild has cost us dearly. (160)

As we shall see later, addressing the immense amount of food we waste will certainly help, but even so, food industry experts have calculated that we will need to produce more food in the next four decades than all the farmers in history harvested over the entire Holocene. There is a critical question to answer: how can we get more food from less land? (161)

A loss of energy between levels on the food chain also happens between herbivore and carnivore. (167)

This loss in energy as we rise up the food chain explains the numbers of animals we find in the wild. For every single predator on the Serengeti there are more than 100 prey animals. The realities of nature mean that it isn’t possible for large carnivores to be common. (167)

Today, nearly 80 per cent of farmland worldwide is used for meat and dairy production — 4 billion of our 5 billion farmland hectares, an area that would cover both North and South America. Surprisingly, much of this space has no livestock in it at all. It is dedicated to crops like soy, often grown in a different country exclusively as feed for cattle, chickens and pigs. So, the space that livestock actually requires may be unrecognised. Those living in wealthier nations may order meat raised in their country, but some of the feed for those animals will probably have come from tropical nations that are destroying their forests and grasslands (169) to grow feed crops for those animals. (170)

Beef makes up about a quarter of the meat that we eat, and only 2 per cent of our calories, yet we dedicate 60 per cent of our farmland to raising it. Beef production occupies 15 times more land per kilogram than either pork or chicken. It is simply not going to be possible for every person in the future to expect to eat the amount of beef now consumed by people in the wealthiest nations today. We don’t have enough land on Earth to do so. (170)

The universal opinion is that in the future we will have to change to a diet that is largely plant-based with much less meat, especially red meat. (170)

To my mind, this is the second great social change that we will have to undertake over the next few decades. Along with removing fossil fuels from our lives, we will also reduce our dependence on meat and dairy. (171)

At some point, clean meats will be arriving on the shelves. These are products grown from genuine animal tissue as independent cell cultures. (172)

Further ahead still, there is a possibility of advances in biotechnology that will enable us to use micro-organisms to produce almost any protein or complex organic food to order. (172)

Rewilding the Land

At one point, much of old Europe was covered in a deep, dark forest. To the tiny, fledgling farming communities scattered throughout the continent, the forest was regarded as something of an enemy, a barrier to their attempts to establish their meagre fields and feed themselves; a place to fear, haunted by strange spirits and wild beasts. They told fairy tales to their children at night, warning them neer to stray into the forest alone. (174)

Deforestation is something we humans do. It is an emblem of our dominance. The relationship between progress and the removal of the forest is so close, there is a recognised model to define it. A nation’s forest transition describes the deforestation and then reforestation that tends to happen in a developing nation over time. (175)

Most of Europe had entered the reforestation stage of this transition, in which net forest cover begins to increase, by the Second (175) World War. … Between 1970 and today, the Western United States, some of Central America, and parts of India, China a Japan have also done so. It has to be noted that a very significant reason all these nations have been able to reforest is because they are, due to globalisation, increasingly importing their food crops and timber from less developed nations. Hence, it is hardly surprising to find that the tropics is still being actively deforested. … If the forest transition in the tropics runs its course, the loss of carbon to the air and species to the history books would be catastrophic for the whole world. We must halt all deforestation across the world now and, with our investment and trade, support those nations who have not yet chopped down their forests to reap the benefits of these resources without losing them. (176)

The heart of the problem is that, today, there is no way of calculating the value of the wilderness and environmental services, both global and local, that it provides. One hundred hectares of standing rainforest has less value on paper than an oil palm plantation. Tearing down wilderness is therefore seen as worthwhile. The only practical way to change this situation is to change the meaning of value. (177)

cf. REDD+

In theory, REDD+ should work. In practice, however, the complications of land ownership and value have raised difficult issues. Indigenous peoples have protested that REDD+ strips the value of the forest down to nothing more than a dollar sign and encourages a new form of colonialism. The money to be made has attracted so-called carbon cowboys from other nations, who swoop in to secure stakes on rainforest land as it gains value. Others fear that in creating a system in which carbon can be offset in the tropics, big industry will use REDD+ as a way to justify their continued use of fossil fuels. (177)

| It is a sad fact that when something becomes valuable it will bring out the greed in humankind. (177)

The Earth’s last forests, rainforests, wetlands, grasslands and woodlands are, in fact, priceless. They are the carbon stores that we cannot afford to unlock. They offer environmental services that we cannot do without. They are home to biodiversity that we must not lose. How can we come to represent all that in our value systems.? (178)

Perhaps we need to change the currency. The danger with pricing nature purely on the amount of carbon it captures and stores is that carbon then becomes the only thing that matters to us. (178)

cf. Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree

Within only 15 years, [the Knepp Estate] became one of the best places in England to find a host of rare, native plants, insects, bats and birs. 9185)

| Charlie and Isabella’s wildland farm still produces food. Each year, they judge the number of animals that the changing landscape can support and harvest the surplus. They are, in effect, doing the job of a top predator. (185)

| Knepp is not a conservation project, in that it doesn’t have a goal or target species it wishes to benefit. It simply lets the animals be the drivers of the landscape, and they are doing an excellent job. (185)

cf. Wilding by Isabella Tree (2018)

[For Yellowstone National Park’s own account of the wolf recovery and its effect on biodiversity, see https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wolf-restoration.htm.]

The conclusion is clear: to gain biodiversity and capture carbon in a landscape such as Yellowstone, just add wolves. (187)

The return of the wild is becoming a practical policy option for governments which understand the true value of nature and its contribution to stability and well-being. (188)

A study from 2019 has suggested that the return of the trees could theoretically absorb as much as two-thirds of the carbon emissions that remain in the atmosphere from our activities. The rewilding of the land is within our gift, and it is undoubtedly a valuable thing to do. Creating wild lands across the Earth would bring back biodiversity, and the biodiversity would do what it does best: stabilise the planet. (188)

Planning for Peak Human

Increasing slightly, decreasing slightly, the population of each species oscillates about a number that the habitat can sustain indefinitely. This number — the carrying capacity of an environment for a particular species — represents the very essence of balance in nature. (191)

| What is the human carrying capacity of the Earth? Despite reasoned proposals and fearful warnings from great thinkers throughout history, we have never yet met our natural ceiling. We always seem to invent or discover new ways of using the environment to provide more of the essentials — food, shelter, water — for ever more people. Indeed, it is more impressive than that. We effortlessly support far more than the essentials — schools, shops, entertainment, public institutions — even as we increase our population at an extraordinary speed. Is there nothing to stop us? (191)

| The catastrophe unfolding around us surely suggests that there is. The loss of biodiversity, the changing climate, the pressure on the planetary boundaries, everything points to the conclusion that we are finally fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity. each year, since 1987, an Earth Overshoot Day has been announced — an illustrative date in the calendar on which humankind’s consumption for the year exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year. In 1987 we were over-(191)shooting the Earth’s resources by 23 October. In 2019, we were doing so by 29 July. Humankind now uses up the equivalent of 1.7 times what the Earth can regenerate in a single year. Whilst 60 per cent of this figure is the result of our carbon emissions footprint, it gives a clear indication of how excessive our demand on nature has become. … The catastrophe ahead is what happens when the Earth calls in our overdraft. (192)

Demographic transition is a term used by geographers to describe the path that nations move along during their economic development. (192)

…the big question is: when does the world settle into Stage 4? At what moment will the world population do what Japan’s did, and peak? That will be a historic occasion — the day that those who study population, the demographers, call peak human, the moment our population stops growing for the first time since farming began 10,000 years ago. It will be a milestone on our journey to regain our balance on Earth. (196)

However, the reality is that, even upon reaching Stage 4 globally, it will take a long time for our population to get to its summit, due to what Swedish social scientist Hans Rosling called the ‘inevitable fill-up’. Firstly, family size must drop sufficiently for us to reach peak child — the point from which the number of children on Earth stops increasing. Then we have to wait for this largest-ever generation of children to pass through their twenties and thirties–the time in which they will have children–before the population starts to plateau. In essence, it is only when we get past ‘peak mother’ with as low a family size as possible, that the population will stop growing. (196)

It seems that the best way to stabilise the population is to support nations that seek to speed up their demographic transition. In practical terms, this means helping the least developed nations to achieve the ambitions in the Doughnut Model as fast as possible — supporting people as they raise themselves out of poverty, building healthcare networks, education (197) systems, better transport and energy security, making these nations attractive to investment–anything, in fact, that improves the lives of people. Among all these social improvements, one in particular is found to significantly reduce family size — the empowerment of women. Wherever women have the vote, wherever girls stay in school for longer, wherever women are in charge of their own lives and not dictated to by men, wherever they have access to good healthcare and contraception, wherever they are free to take any job and their aspirations for life are raised, the birth rate falls. The reason for this is straightforward — empowerment brings freedom of choice and when life offers more options for women, their choice is often to have fewer children. The faster and more fully women are empowered, the quicker a nation will move through Stage 3 and on to Stage 4. (198)

This is an astonishing revelation–by simply investing in social and education systems, we may be able to reduce the peak of the human population by more than 2 billion people, and bring it about 50 years earlier. Even if there are some errors in the assumptions, this model combined with real-world examples surely gives us a clear path to assist the prospects of all humankind by eagerly improving the lives of those with greatest need. (199)

Raising people out of poverty and empowering women is the fastest way to bring this period of rapid population growth to an end. … Giving people a greater opportunity in life is surely what we all would want to do anyway. It’s a wonderful win-win solution, and this is a repeating them on the path to sustainability. The things we have to do to rewild the world tend to be things that we ought to be doing regardless. (199)

…the decisions we make today are even more critical. We all need to align and work hard to give everyone a fair and decent standard of living as soon as possible. (202)

Achieving More Balanced Lives’

The present habit of throwing everything away, even though, on a finite planet there is of course no such thing as ‘away’, is a relatively new thing. Aside from the fact that waste is waste, when it accumulates it often becomes damaging. The living world faces the same problem, and we will, once again, be wise to copy its solutions. In nature, the waste from one process becomes the food for the next. All materials are reused in cycles, involving many different species, and almost everything is ultimately biodegradable. (204)

cf. Janine Benyus, Biomimicry Institute

She suggests that, sense a city occupies space that was once natural habitat, it should at least equal that habitat in terms of the environmental services it once provided — the solar energy generated, the fertility it added to its soils, the volume of air it cleaned, the water it produced, the carbon it captured in the biodiversity it hosted. Architects appear keen to take on her challenge. The best sustainable buildings being built today our net generators of renewable energy, they purify the air around them, treat their own wastewater, create soil from sewage and offer permanent homes for an abundance of animals and plants. In the future it may be possible for cities to give back rather than just take. (210)

Give-and-take, that is the essence of what balance is all about. … if every nation were to set profit, people and planet targets for itself as New Zealand does, offer a standard of living for its population as high as Japan’s, embrace the renewable revolution like Morocco, manage it sees like Palau, farm plants as efficiently and sustainably as some are doing in the Netherlands, eat meat rarely like the people of India, encourage the wild to return as Costa Rica has, and build nature into cities like Singapore, the whole of humanity would be able to achieve a balance with nature. But it will take every nation, and (210) those with the greatest footprints to make the biggest changes. It won’t work if some countries make the transition and others don’t. (211)

There is some resistance at present. It is all too easy when contemplating sustainability to focus on what we lose and miss what we gain. But the reality is that a sustainable world is full of gains. In losing our dependence on coal and oil and by generating renewable energy we gain clean air and water, cheap electricity for all, and quieter, safer cities. In losing rates to fish in certain waters, we gain a healthy ocean that will help us combat climate change and ultimately offer us more wild seafood. In removing much of the meat from our diet, we can fitness and health and less expensive food. In losing land to the wild, we gain opportunities for a life-affirming reconnection with the natural world both in distant lands and seas and in our own local environment. In losing our dominance over nature, we gain an enduring stability within it for all the generations that will follow. (211)

Everything is set for us to win this future. We have a plan. We know what to do. There is a path to sustainability. It is a path that could lead to a better future for all life on Earth. We must let our politicians and business leaders know that we understand this, that this vision for the future is not just something we need it is something, above all, that we want. (211)

Our Greatest Opportunity

In the end, the question of which version of the Anthropocene is about to unfold is up to us. Human beings may be ingenious but they are also quarrelsome. Our history books have been dominated by stories of wars, of struggles for dominance between nations. But we cannot continue in this way. The dangers that now face the Earth are global and can only be dealt with if nations sink their differences and unite to act globally. (216)

So it is within our power to come together internationally, if we want to. Now, however, we must make agreements that apply not just to a single group of animals but to the whole of the natural world. It will take the labours of countless committees and conferences, and the signing of innumerable international treaties. (217)

We often talk of saving the planet, but the truth is that we must do these things to save ourselves. (218)

The living world has survived mass extinctions several times before. But we humans cannot assume that we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom. (220)

All we require is the will. (220)

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  1. Pingback: Saving Us | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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