Half-earth, half-baked?

Firstly, apologies for failing to respond to some of the comments at the end of my previous post. For some reason I’ve stopped getting email alerts of new comments. The Small Farm Future technical team are on the case, but frankly they’re a pretty useless bunch so expect delays. Meanwhile, if your comments are stuck in moderation or not getting the attention from me that you feel they deserve maybe let me know via the contact form and I’ll action someone on the team to look into it.

Anyway, onward. I’ve been writing in my book draft lately about the role of livestock in a small farm future, which has led me by a somewhat circuitous but probably fairly obvious route to reading Harvard biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth (W.W. Norton, 2016), in which he argues that we should leave half our planet’s surface as “inviolable reserves” for nature.

I found it an interesting and informative, if also somewhat vague and rambling, little book (still, if I succeed in publishing a book that’s no more rambling than Wilson’s when I’m 87 I’ll be happy). One of Wilson’s key points is that we’re not yet even close to knowing all the species with which we share the biosphere, let alone knowing how they fit into wider sets of ecological relationships. Therefore, from numerous perspectives but not least human self-preservation, he argues that it’s not a good idea to wantonly let species go extinct. Yet this, sadly, is what’s currently happening by the hand of humanity, with an extinction rate now around a thousand times higher than before the spread of humans around the world. This amounts to a sixth mass planetary extinction, which will rival over a few human generations what the last one, the Chicxulub asteroid impact that ultimately did for the dinosaurs, achieved on one bad day – but in geological terms, the time difference is slight.

Wilson deploys his biological expertise to great effect throughout the book in a running battle with Anthropocene theorists, “novel ecosystem” enthusiasts and outriders of the ‘ecomodernist’ Breakthrough Institute like Emma Marris and Erle Ellis who’ve likewise detained me on this website over the years. The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. In practical terms, they raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.

But then, in the penultimate chapter, he lets it all run through his fingers. Take this passage:

“The [human ecological footprint] will not stay the same. The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology….Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Almost all of the competition in a free market…raises the average quality of life. Teleconferencing, online purchases and trade, e-book personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms…” (p.191)

Enough already, Edward…we get your point. After nineteen chapters of amiable good sense, Wilson suddenly goes full ecomodernist, as if some devilish Breakthrough Institute hacker finally figured out how to make him stop his anti-Anthropocene agitating by messing with his neurons like a cordyceps fungus attacking one of his beloved ants.

I won’t dwell here on how wrongheaded all this is – regular readers and commenters on this blog are well appraised of the counter-arguments. I don’t even dispute that there are some aspects of emerging high technology that might help us mitigate some of our present predicaments. But, my dear professor, the ‘evolution’ of the ‘free market system’ is not among them – rather, it’s the ‘free market system’ (or, more precisely, corporate capitalism – which isn’t really the same thing at all, but is the beast that Wilson is implicitly invoking) that has biodiversity in its deathly grip.

Wilson is pretty vague about what a ‘half-earth’ devoted to inviolable nature would actually look like, though he tells us that it needn’t involve dividing off the planet into large pieces the size of continents or nation-states, and earlier on in the book he demurs from the idea that ‘wilderness’ necessarily implies a lack of human residents. He favors a lower human population, but says nothing about urban vis-à-vis rural residence or the nature of the agriculture necessary to support a half-earth world (other than his half-baked half-earth of vertical farming and LED lights). His simple point really is that the number of species going extinct usually varies by something like the fourth root of the area available to them, so if we make half the planet available to wild species we should retain about 85% of them. Of course, things are more complicated than that in reality, but maybe it’s not such a bad place to start – especially if we proceed by trying to ensure that existing wildernesses and centers of biodiversity are protected first.

A quick look at the FAO’s global land use statistics reveals that in fact only about 37% of the planet’s land area is devoted to agriculture, with about 4% devoted to cities, roads and other artificial surfaces. So by those lights Wilson’s half-earth ambitions are already achieved – though it’s doubtless fair to say that we humans have appropriated the nicest territory for our agriculture (about a third of nature’s 60% share is glaciated or barren land). Still, perhaps when Wilson says we should leave half the earth as “inviolable reserves” he means really inviolable – so no chemical pollution of any kind, and perhaps no climate change either, creeping in from the human side of the planet. If that’s so, then the ‘half-earth’ idea is a little misleading because it draws attention to land take, when it should really be drawing attention to human practices like GHG emissions and nitrate pollution (another reason to question the ‘land sparing’ critique of organic farming).

Maybe instead of a half-earth we need a quarter-earth – which would be easily achieved by cutting back on rangeland and arable crops grown as livestock fodder (nearly 70% of global agricultural land is permanent meadow or pasture – yet another inconvenient truth for the land sparers, who illogically obsess over the 1% of organically-farmed land). But I think what we really need is a no GHG emissions and a no pollution earth. How to achieve that? Well, I’m open to ideas but here’s my half-earth halfpenny’s worth: stop fishing in the open ocean, stop extracting fossil fuels, stop making synthetic fertilizer (except as a stopgap measure via special government derogation). Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax, split between practical conservation, farmer support, agroecological research funds and mitigation of the environmental bads caused by the commercial-industrial farming that their old-falutin city-slicking ways would probably bring forth.

I’ll admit that it needs working up a bit more – a few details to fill in, some implementation issues to address. Perhaps you can help me in that task. My starter for ten is that this system won’t emerge by the ‘evolution’ of a free market system increasingly shaped by high technology. Wilson might have realized this, if only he’d consulted an economist biologist…

50 thoughts on “Half-earth, half-baked?

  1. Great post Chris.

    I will once again plug JB MacKinnon’s excellent book, The Once and Future World, in which he discusses shifting baselines, the definition of “nature”, and many other sticky aspects of this issue.

    MacKinnon’s interim recommendation is that we should seek to always increase biomass and increase biodiversity. Want to build a suburb? Fine. How does it increase biomass and biodiversity? A vertical farm? Okay. How does it increase biomass and biodiversity?

    • I think those are great measures with which to judge development of any sort – from building suburbs to new technologies and new agricultural practices

      • Sounds good. The only caveat is that there are problems with the idea of “biodiversity offsetting”: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=biodiversity+offsetting+critique&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

        A personal question I have is whether biomass includes the mass of humans, crops and domestic animals.

        Another question is how do fossil fuels get treated? If I’m pumping locked-up fossil carbon out of the ground to release it into the biologically-mediated cycles of the atmosphere, then in the very long term, I’m increasing the potential mass of life on the surface of the Earth.

        • Joshua:
          Interesting way to post a link… using google.scholar. Will have to remember that approach. One can come back much later, follow the link and find different resources.

          For me, biomass includes all the above – though some authors will make it explicit they are referring to ‘crop biomass’ or ‘marine biomass’ or whatever subset of the overall biomass which concerns their argument.

          Fossil fuels are an interesting resource. One can compare timber resources to fossil fuels… carbon stores of biological origin that are currently banked and out of regular circulation. Carbon stored in a tree trunk will not add to atmospheric CO2 load until the tree is burned or otherwise decomposed. Coal and oil are only slightly further down the line.

          Oxygen concentration has gotten less attention compared to carbon, but to your notion about increasing carbon by burning fossil fuels as a driver for overall biomass… oxygen liberated from water (water oxidation…”burning”) eons ago set the stage for aerobic life. Aerobic life has been increasing the levels of biomass on the planet ever since.

          • Clem:
            To be perfectly honest, the google scholar link is academic laziness on my part. I know there are debates on “biodiversity offsetting”, my colleagues talk about them, but it’s not my area of expertise, so I trusted google to find some relevant papers… It’s even worse than the “I’ve read the abstract, therefore I can reference the paper” mentality!

            I agree with the link you make between timber and fossil fuels, and one could place peat somewhere in the middle. But to me there’s a qualitative difference underscored by a chemical difference (hydrocarbon v. carbohydrate) between fossil fuels that are locked away for millions of years before being re-integrated into biospheric cycles and the others which have cycles orders of magnitude smaller.

            I guess what’s messing it all up is that biological processes (I.e. humans) are undoing geological process (i.e. fossil fuel formation) on two completely different timescales.

            Anyway, it’s really not my area of expertise (which assumes I have one!), but I find it fascinating to think about.

  2. Half baked? In knead of more ingredients is my opinion.

    Are we not men (and women)? At what point did we become the caretakers? If not yet, then at what stage or at what crossroads do we assume the mantle?

    Locked in a cage with a silverback gorilla, when the zookeeper tosses in a bunch of bananas – do you suppose the gorilla will size you up and decide you look pretty thin and need at least half the bananas? “Here cuz, you need some food too.”

    Fine, that is a fairly bonkers scene. But how far, really, from the scenarios outlined here? A suggestion that there be no fishing in the open ocean? Really? So we should post a sign and expect the Orcas, Swordfish, Tuna, Salmon and all the other carnivorous fishes (and carnivorous maritime mammals) to learn to read and obey our rules? Extracting fossil fuels – for this one I’m a bit more sympathetic. Perhaps we might approach our fossil fuel use from the angle that all extractions and uses must be offset by equivalent carbon capture and any other externality associated with the activity. Clean up our messes. And this is somewhat sympathetic with your notion of permitting N fixation as necessary and only with some culturally agreed derogation. But you must realize that as the noose tightens there will be far more culturally agreed derogation. I don’t imagine many Homo sapiens standing at edge of the abyss and offering that there isn’t anything else we can now so we may as well die peacefully.

    Of course I’ve not yet offered my own solution here… my carping isn’t solving anything. Here – what say we call a meeting of all the planet’s extent critters. We negotiate not just a land take for our little species… but carve up all the biological habitats, oceanic, terrestrial, aerial, and so on. Then we negotiate a treaty (of course that will work… we’re so good at making treaties and keeping them) with our fellow travelers and appoint a supra planetary judiciary to enforce the treaty. Maybe Martians could serve. Can’t fail.

    Extinction is a funny business. Not funny – haha; but funny in twisted sense. We need it. Have to have it. Can’t run little planet like ours without it. Oops – did I say “ours”?? As if this third rock from the sun belongs to one species of hominids?? Pretty cheeky, no? But this is where much of the debate comes to rest. There are difficulties and it is up to us to fix ’em. We carve out half the planet for our fellow travelers – ala Dr Wilson. Or we carve out little acreages per person ala Dr Smaje. Dr Silverback just gets to decide how many of the bananas he’s found he’ll be willing to share.

    Ruben tossed a book suggestion up (oh, and howdy Ruben… please come around more often)… and so I’ll take up a little bandwidth to offer another book to have a peek at: Cecilia Heyes’ Cognitive Gadgets [but perhaps one could sneak a peek at this book review first: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/closer-to-beast-than-angel/#!
    Dr Heyes’ take on our species’ exceptionalism is that it arises from our culture (and from cultural evolution). The reviewer takes exception, and offers some other works worthy of consideration. But to Cecilia’s credit there is something in cultural evolution that might work at a pace rather more rapid than genetic evolution (though our humble estimates of genetic evolutionary rapidity could do with some significant refinement).

    Much as I personally dislike leaving matters to ‘culture’ I suppose if we have to wear the mantle of caretaker for this little planet, then I’d further suppose I have to hope for cultural improvements. And we may as well get on with the business of arguing for the changes we feel appropriate.

    • There are difficulties and it is up to us to fix ’em.

      It certainly is up to us, as mandated by the ironclad law, “You break it, you own it”. At least that’s what I have been told many times and seen posted in shops. It makes sense to me; a planet is just a bigger bit of fragile glassware.

      And of course we can “argue for the changes we feel appropriate” all we want and we may even come to some kind of consensus, but I doubt that the folks in the executive suites in London, New York, Beijing and other capitals of commerce are waiting with bated breath for our ‘plan’. People who have been ignoring the obvious for decades aren’t likely to come to their senses any time soon.

      I think it is probably too late to mitigate the planet-breaking very much anyway. If so, we might want to concentrate on adapting as best we can until the planet heals itself. It’s a gloomy prospect, but that healing process might require a substantial relinquishing of ‘ownership’ by humans, which can only happen if most of the ‘owners’ leave the scene and allow the healing to begin. I’ll not ask for volunteers to raise their hands, since my own is firmly down.

      • It certainly is up to us, as mandated by the ironclad law, “You break it, you own it”. At least that’s what I have been told many times and seen posted in shops. It makes sense to me; a planet is just a bigger bit of fragile glassware.

        So what if, as a guest in your home, I break or otherwise abuse a piece of the house? Do I then own it?

        Please don’t misunderstand. I agree in principle… we should clean up after ourselves. We should feel some compunction to pass on to others (and not just to our own progeny) a habitat they can enjoy and in which they might prosper. But I also imagine there has to be some room for failure. Someone spoke of the mass extinction we now witness. Not all extinctions are bad. If after we look to our own behaviors and “footprint” there are species that still disappear then perhaps a card of condolence is sufficient (but to whom would it be addressed?). Where we do need to pay close attention are to matters where our behaviors and footprints are the only reason a fellow species suffers loss.

        I agree there are many in seats of significant power who have no motivation to stir on the matter of a land ethic (ala Aldo Leopold). Their positions of wealth and power may not directly blind them to affects on the ground, but their continued “ownership” of the levers of power are obviously threatened by such change. And I’d also stipulate that change will be difficult given these realities. But I don’t imagine it fruitful to merely observe the wreckage and whine. So even though I don’t believe Home hubris should be knighted with the title of ‘Keeper of the Kingdom’ I do suppose there are behaviors and mores our societies should consider as good stewards. But I cringe at our accepting responsibility for every failure we can find. Sometimes it isn’t our fault.

        • Agreed that humans are not responsible for micro-managing all the species of the earth, even if they could, but we should have little enough impact so that natural processes, including extinction rates, can proceed without being overly influenced by human behavior.

          The litany of ways in which we are overly influencing the ecosystem of the earth is depressingly long and not likely to change soon. There has been at least one success, ozone layer protection, but the shameful failures keep piling up.

          I’m pretty sure that over geologic time there will be no permanent harm done. Evolution works fast, and there have been big changes in the past, like ice ages and huge volcanic eruptions, that life has adapted to well, but humans are an outlier in the typical process of evolution. We are having too much influence for one species.

          Perhaps our level of intelligence is actually maladaptive. If so, there will be corrective feedback working its effects at some point. I suspect that time is coming soon.

  3. Well, I feel that I must speak up for the pastoralists in the new world order. Perhaps we could elect for shares in the non-tillable acres? We do have the capacity to run carbon sinks after all – if our diesel trucks were taken away from us. (It would not be pretty, I think there would be many a cowboy that would give up his guns (!!!!) before his 4×4. Iʻll have to ask next time I run into a true blue specimen that could handle such a question.)
    I have the same experience of Wilson. On the one hand heʻs awesome, on the other hand, just another true believer in the dominant worldview.
    Ruben, I really have had it with you Canadians being so wonderful. We Americans are bad enough on our own terms, but you lot just make us look so much worse in comparison. 🙂
    I am in general agreement with MacKinnonʻs recommendation – increasing the complexity and diversity of life and living systems for their own sake seems like a good overall goal into which many human ways of life – from small farms to carbon-sink ranches to hunter-gatherer villages to green cities – might be fit.

  4. “The basic message of the Anthropocenites to threatened species and to the people who wish to defend them runs something like ‘this is a human planet now – so deal with it, or get out the way’. ”
    I don’t think this attitude is implicit in the Anthropocene discourse. I don’t use the expression very often, but I do think it has some merits (whether it is a “geologically” correct term or not is in my view irrelevant) as it clarifies that human influence on the planet is really big, and in particular on the biosphere. The merit in the perspective is also that almost all “nature” today is heavily influenced by humans, even without climate change, and therefore we have a lot of choices to make with enormous impacts on other species and whole eco-systems. I think your own masterplan is a result of the Anthropocene perspective. My own term for Anthropocene is Garden Earth.

    • Agree. I actually do use the term Anthropocene frequently… have even created a course on the topic. But my context is simply the geologic-ish framework: humans are now the dominant driver of change on the surface of the planet, in all the usual metrics. I take Chris’s use of the term “Anthropocenists” as synonomous with “good Anthropocene-ers” .

  5. Thanks for the comments. Responses:

    Clem/Joe: I’m reluctant to get too embroiled in the underlying philosophical issues (my suggestions were somewhat facetious in any case…though only somewhat). I guess what I’d say is that while I agree with Clem that extinction isn’t intrinsically a bad, when the extinction rate is elevated by orders of magnitude above its normal level as a result of the activities of a single species which is capable of self-reflection, long-term purposive action and prodigious culturally-mediated extension of its phenotype (capabilities that underlie its destructive effects), then there’s a good case for it attending to the feedback it’s getting and engaging in self-limiting behavior in ways that it should probably be willing to exempt orcas or swordfish from. Much along the lines of Joe’s comment, my feeling is that natural selection is a fickle master – it’s permitted humanity to select for ourselves through culture to a prodigious degree, but I suspect that if we don’t soon deploy our cultural skills along dimensions of self-limitation or self-possession, then it will select against us quite rapidly. As Joe says, in the grand parade of life it really doesn’t matter. But from a more anthropocentric perspective, I think it probably ought to matter to us. Perhaps at root the question is what kind of life we want to live, or do we even want to live? I’ve heard environmentalism described by progressivist ecomodernist types as a ‘death cult’, whereas for me that charge better applies to their own philosophy.

    Incidentally, Clem’s fishy examples prompted me to think about the possibility of allowing people to fish in open waters, but only as other predators do – naked and furnished only with their natal hunting equipment. But of course that doesn’t work because our natal hunting equipment is our brains, and otherwise our species would have died out long ago. Then I thought about the fox hunting ban in Britain that made it illegal to hunt on horseback with dogs but still legal to shoot them with guns – an interesting case of low tech inter-species collaboration being a more effective method than high tech solo species efforts…though there’s quite a lot of cultural overlay involved still.

    Michelle – good on you for speaking up for pastoralists. I think you folks (or maybe ‘we folks’ if my flock of four breeding ewes qualifies me) get far too much of a bad press for things that really aren’t your fault. But then again, if we’re seeking ways to trim the human land take then extensive pastoralism (and not organic arable) would unquestionably have to top the list. Maybe a more nuanced perspective would trade-off some extensive pastoralism against intensive arable, particularly fodder arable. But then we’d have less meat, which wouldn’t be popular…

    Gunnar – I agree that ‘Anthropocene’ can be a useful idea and has more flexible interpretations than perhaps I implied in my post. Still, I do think it’s become quite weaponized in the hands of the ecomods as a claim about a certain kind of human technological trajectory and ecological mastery that I reject. Garden Earth is a nice term – a lot of my thinking boils down to the virtues of the garden over the farm. I might have to change my moniker. Though maybe ‘small farm’ is a happy compromise. Incidentally, I enjoyed Andreas Malm’s book ‘The Progress of This Storm’ which is a swingeing sociological and philsophical critique of the ways that social science both exaggerates and downplays human agency in the context of climate change.

    Ruben – thanks for the MacKinnon tip, I’ll try to take a look.

    • Perhaps at root the question is what kind of life we want to live, or do we even want to live? >/i>

      Spot on. The difficulty then moves to the “we”. Who are the we? All of us? Those with enough standing along side those who do not (and perhaps both in the shadow of those who have too much?) How much is enough?

      Really like the notion of a “culturally extended phenotype”. Will keep that nugget to hand and hopefully make some hay with it down the road.

      • Indeed, probably most big global questions boil down to (1) How do we want to live, and then (2) Who is we?

        I’d like to say that ‘we’ is all of humanity, individually and collectively, being able to exercise self-determination and choice. But in practice the choices are made by few, and their outcomes are then more or less locked in for everyone.

        So as to ‘who is we’ I’d say that while of course it’s a bit more complicated than this, ‘we’ is basically five people, maybe six: Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Michel Temer…maybe Angela Merkel – of whom the most important is either Trump or Xi, hopefully Xi. And God help us all for that thought…

        But meanwhile, in a village far, far away from any of them, the supersedure state is starting to form…

        • Interesting that you would pick all politicians for your list. I might have gone a different direction.

          Could I pester you for an explanation of why Temer appears to rank ahead of Merkel on your list?

          Do you suppose other names – say the likes of the Koch brothers, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates… could squeeze onto a list of this sort? Or, going in still another direction – Pope Francis, or the Dalai Lama?

          Here in the States we just laid to rest a most significant statesman… John McCain likely wouldn’t make too many lists of this sort, but he sat pretty far above the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC on my list until last week. He will be missed.

          • Yes well agreed there are different ways you could play it. I suppose the main point for me is that there’s a ‘we’ and a ‘they’, although it changes over time, and sometimes the ‘we’ gets the upper hand. What’s looming largest for me at the moment is decisions about climate change – it feels like the last chance saloon, and most of the characters I mentioned are calling those shots. Temer because of the Amazon – significant in terms of climate change and also the biodiversity foregrounded in this post. Bezos and Gates not so much IMHO – they’re just the predators that will inevitably get in if you leave the gate open. Francis & the Dalai Lama – nah, can’t see it. But I’m open to counter-arguments. It could make a nice parlor game…

          • Yes, a parlor game. I like it.

            Will move Temer up a notch or two on my list for the Amazon angle you’ve illuminated. Will go to bat for Angela in terms of the economic power and population size of her ‘extended’ constituency (the EU). Davos is closer to Berlin than to Brasilia.

            I still can’t place Mr Trump any higher than a second ten finish. Perhaps if he could spell, or string together a relevant argument for some policy matter. Having a pulse and access to the ‘codes’ for nuclear Armageddon shouldn’t pad one’s resume’ sufficiently for the top of this list.

            Religion may not rate at the top of some cultural salon conversations right now, but there remains a mighty cohort of our species who will embrace the thinking of pundits such as the pope. And I’d like to imagine his having penned Laudato Si’ could earn Pope Francis some environmental cred. Even with the current turmoil in the Catholic church over sexual misconduct of many clergy – the environmental message(s) from Rome have been consistently positive from my read.

            Until someone can convince me that the uber rich here in the U.S. don’t have an outsized effect on the political situation here I have to keep the Kochs and several other plutocrats on my short list. Just sayin’

    • I think that pastoralism is a nice example of land-sharing. It is true that extensive pastoralism “use” a lot of land, and that the production of food per area unit often is minisclue. On the other hand, there is plenty of space for other speices on pastoral lands. The pastoralist are often hard on the predators for sure, but still, there are some very rich landscpapes managed by pastoralist. Thinking about Masai and Sami people for instance.

      We could think about it in terms of how big proportion of the primary production that is approriated by humans through different production system:
      In intensive indoor farming etc. almost 100%
      In intensive farming: 80%
      In permaculture and grazing of arable land: 50%
      In pastoralism: 10 %
      just as an example, which means that in pastoral land 90% of the primary production is left to others, which is one of the reasons for why pastoralism is so inefficient in production of food per area unit, the other reason is that it normally takes place on land with very low productivity.

      • Nice comment, Gunnar. I’ve often wondered about exactly this trade-off between biodiversity and farming intensity – do you know of any research studies that attempt to quantify it in terms of biodiversity loss per unit area per appropriation of NPP or some such? I guess the low productive efficiency of livestock is also to do with the jump in trophic level, which maybe isn’t entirely captured by the degree of NPP appropriation, though it partly is.

        • Unfortunately, I am not aware of any real studies on this matter. I guess there are som bio-diversity studies from which you could derive som ideas. In a way I think there are similar arguments to be made re carbon and soil fertility. It is possible to increase organic matter in the soil (and sequester carbon) but it comes with a “cost”, you have to “unharvest” or add some carbon (keep straw, add compost, grow perennial crops that invest in their roots etc).

          Re trophic levels and productive efficiency: that is a good point. However, we should not forget that there is a lot of life in cow dung, i.e. not all energy is “lost”.

        • Photosynthesis isn’t the be-all and end-all to judge an ecosystem by. Animals perform useful services, i.e. moving nutrients around farther and faster than plants or fungi can. Whales bring nutrients back up to the surface of the ocean, breeding salmon bring nutrients from the sea into the mountains, beaver dams slow nutrients flowing back downhill, seabirds bring phosphorous and nitrogen back on land.

          In a roundabout way, I guess I’m questioning the “whole” that Gunnar’s list of percentages refers to. 80% of what? I.e. If the productivity of a meadow is 100 kg of biomass, of which 50% is appropriated for human purposes (seems high to me) leaving 50kg for “nature”, is that better or worse than an intensively managed agricultural field producing 500kg of biomass, of which 80% is appropriated for humans, leaving 100kg for “nature”?

          Or, for pastoralism , what if certain types of management practices increase the productivity of an ecosystem (this is the Allan Savory holistic grazing argument), even after some (or even most) of that increased production has been appropriated by humans?

          • I guess the main issue there is that to get the extra output, you need extra inputs – most importantly in the form of nitrogen and phosphorous, and with these you’ll get more biomass but less biodiversity…which is why courses on making wildflower meadows or wildlife ponds mostly revolve around how to keep agricultural runoff out of the system. I suppose you could question if more biodiversity is in fact better than more biomass, but it’s not a route I want to go down. Vaclav Smil pointed out somewhere that although we tend to focus on the anthropogenic aspects of the carbon cycle, and with good reason, nevertheless only about 10% (I think) of the carbon cycle is anthropogenic, whereas more than 50% of the soluble nitrogen compounds on Earth have anthropogenic origins – it’s a big biochemical experiment, and perhaps we should rein it back a little. That’s where unimproved pasture comes in…but I don’t think it would produce enough to feed us. Not sure about Alan Savory either…

          • more than 50% of the soluble nitrogen compounds on Earth have anthropogenic origins

            Are you sure about that? We have been at the Haber/Bosch business for a bit over a century (indeed, 2018 is the centennial anniversary of one of the Nobel prizes). But still… tis a pretty large planet, and quite a bit of the nitrogen synthesized by humans in the past has made its way through the N cycle and returned to the atmosphere.

            I’d check a Smil ref or two myself – but he has so many I don’t know where I’d begin. Any help appreciated.

            To the larger point that N may be worth more attention than C… OK, I can get there. But 50% of soluble N coming from poor little us??

          • A quick trawl through the Smil section of my bookcase takes me to p.178 of his 2001 book ‘Enriching the Earth’ – “Human interference in the global biogeochemical nitrogen cycle – amounting to anywhere between a third (when the comparison is restricted to fertilizers) to about a half (when all anthropogenic inputs are taken into account) the overall throughput of reactive nitrogen has thus reached a level higher than in the case of carbon or sulfur”.

            …I think I may have had another passage in mind, but I’m hoping that bit of Smil-ology serves the purpose…

          • It serves. I also took a peek through refs I have to hand and found some others that bring up the topic. Am not finding (yet) any showing rates of denitrification on a global scale. Am confident some estimates exist, but have to be onto other matters at the moment.

          • For some reason, I can’t hit “reply” on your replies, Chris and Clem.

            I guess I’m questioning the relativist approach to defining “intensity” taken by Gunnar above, based on appropriated percentages of NPP. My argument is twofold:

            1. It’s important not to conflate the productivity of land, with the proportion of that production that goes to human use. More intensive land management practices generally increase the productivity of land while appropriating a larger part of the production, but the relationship between these two aspects is not linear. First you increase production, then you appropriate a part of the production. So what? Well some forms of intensification simply involve appropriating more of the production without necessarily doing anything to increase it (more intensive fisheries as a most extreme example), while others increase production without necessarily increasing the proportion taken for humans (allowing a controlled increase in weeds – and NPP – in an orchard for example, giving the same yields with less pest and disease problems). Both of these represent to me a form of more intense management of the land, but the remainder that’s left for other species differs, both in absolute and relative terms.

            2. Getting extra output does not always imply extra inputs – or not in the nutrient sense. At the micro-scale, building a polytunnel is not an input of nutrients, but it certainly increases the productivity. Ok, there’s an input of plastic, but even moving rocks around in a field to create a “crub” (https://www.shetlanddialect.org.uk/john-j-grahams-shetland-dictionary.php?word=472) to shelter plants from the wind increases the field’s productivity without any additional input except human labour which could in theory be fuelled by the field in the first place. Likewise digging drainage or irrigation channels and managing the flow of water, or even creating terraces. Ok, I guess even this form of “endogenous” intensification has usually decreased the space available for biodiversity.

            I’m sure I’m just re-hashing arguments from the land-sharing v. land-sparing debate. But I think the useful question from this is to ask ourselves – as small-farm futurists – whether it’s possible to achieve (the holy grail of) eco-logical intensification: giving more space to other species while maintaining yields for us, and if it is possible, how to do it in our particular context.

          • These authors include N fixation by legume crops as human alteration of the Global N Cycle… which might be appropriate in the strictest sense… but lets be real. Are we going to feed ourselves sustainably? Next someone will measure compaction effects of human footprints from walking on agricultural soils… of blame lions for the reduction in antelope biodiversity because genes for slowness are lost due to predation.

  6. Oh come now, I know we are playing parlor games (when was the last time that I darkened the door of a parlor?) but donʻt tell me that you think these hapless individuals (clowns?) that happen to head the leading nation-states of the moment are all that important. Perhaps “we” are our nation-states (all very ephemeral from the Chinese point of view) with their various flavors and competitive advantages, but these “leaders” are empty vessels, mediums for mass projection, pawns of world-historical forces. At best they are parlor-game players themselves.

    Aww, four ewes…I bet they have names and everything. 😉 Iʻve never owned more than two sheep at a time, but I like them, very easy to get along with. As opposed to goats, I donʻt know what we were thinking domesticating goats. Probably was the other way around.

    • I donʻt know what we were thinking domesticating goats. Probably was the other way around.

      And I’d put cats in that category as well. But there may well be a different appreciation of the merits of some of our domesticates. A cultural angle perhaps. You are far more familiar with horses than I, but it seems to me the horse has, over the long millennia it has been at our side, taken different cultures in different ways.

      On the central Asian steppe it is transportation, meat, milk, and beast of burden. In many parts of the US now the horse seems relegated to largish pet. That many here abhor the notion of eating horse flesh stands in stark contrast to the very comfortable access to horse meat in Asia.

      So this realization makes me wonder whether there are cultures more familiar with and fond of the goat. Their meat features prominently in some cuisines, and the milk has a market even here in the US, so I have to suppose there is something in the relationship for us.

      But back to the issue of the moment… you said:
      but don’t tell me that you think these hapless individuals (clowns?) that happen to head the leading nation-states of the moment are all that important

      I do suppose these folks are somewhat important – even as I also imagine them mere mortals (or less in a few instances)… But for me their significance is not so much dependent upon what courses through their noggins, but what their elections reflect back upon their respective electorates. The old saw ‘we get the government we deserve’ is fairly crude and simplistic… but it does cut to the chase.

      So – did we domesticate politicians… or did they domesticate us? That gets my goat.

  7. I guess my brief answer is that, Clem and Michelle, I think you’ve put your fingers on the two key (and somewhat contradictory) legacies of the 19th century that disastrously afflict us today – financialized corporate capitalism and the nation-state. And Clem further invokes an older legacy, namely world-religions, which I agree sometimes seems curiously more in tune with the times today than the aforementioned. I agree with Michelle that the politicians I mentioned are empty vessels (some emptier than others) but I see that as underlining rather than undermining my point. A figure like Trump reflects the growing pathologies of the nation-state and financialized capitalism. He may not be ‘important’ in and of himself, but to the question who is the ‘we’ that decides how we should live, I’d say that those structural realities as they’re invested in him and others like him are the ‘we’ – hence I agree with Clem about the power of the Koch brothers and their ilk, but I don’t consider them to be any less ‘empty’ than Trump et al. The tricky question for me is that with a ‘we’ like that to contend with, what should ‘I’ do? And on the matter of religion, while it’s true that it’s important – perhaps increasingly so – to a lot of people, and while I might agree personally with the pope’s ecological views, I’m still not sure that they’re very important in terms of what ‘we’ as a species do henceforward.

    • The tricky question for me is that with a ‘we’ like that to contend with, what should ‘I’ do?

      That’s easy. You should write a book. Now back to that keyboard!

      But the next question then becomes – what should ‘I’ say in this book? That’s not easy. I’ve seen you provide plenty of data regarding productivity (food production) – and that seems to be well within your wheelhouse. How much is enough? This is an important question… and one that can be pulled back and forth between adversarial discussants. If we aim for the minimum so as to avoid trespass on habitat of our fellow critters we run the risk of adverse conditions hauling us up short. Planned economies fail in this fashion as a regular issue.

      In my own little corner of the planet I regularly face the issue of what should ‘I’ do – and what should those around me who I have the responsibility of guiding or managing… what should ‘we’ do? And I don’t always make the best call. I have biases, I deal with incomplete information, changing markets, changing weather, and with human frailties. It isn’t always easy. But when it works well it is pretty rewarding. When it doesn’t work, so long as the failure isn’t lethal, we get back in the saddle and have another go.

      My own experience is rather limited in terms of historical perspective, or even political situations. I’ve lived my whole life within a democratic republic that has bounced around between two poles of philosophical thought that hardly test the waters of what humanity has dreamt up in the past. Throughout my life the US has held a somewhat superior position on the world stage, and I’ve not suffered extreme poverty or oppression. Even my gender and racial background have proven quite beneficial in matters surrounding access to the necessities of life. So… what should ‘I’ do – and how much is enough? Help.

      I should take advantage of my good fortune, and insofar as I’m able… I should help. And as for deciding when I have enough… my knee jerk method is to discern what is too much… and then stop short of going there. Not a simple solution, I’ll admit. But if it were simple, ‘we’ wouldn’t need your book.

      • Nice comment in several ways, Clem. I’m in agreement with you on the modest cultivation of virtues at the personal level. I’m not sure it’s enough to allay the bad outcomes lying in wait for us, but nor do I think is the immodest cultivation of virtues at the personal level. I liked Oliver Burkeman’s similar take on things here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/aug/31/what-you-might-have-done-in-1930s-germany

        At the back of my mind is David’s recent challenge on here – so what actual politics am I doing? To which my answer would have to be not much, but I feel that the politics I do do by writing, by growing food and by involvement in a couple of organizations is probably more effective than if I lectured business CEOs, stood for election or went canvassing or yelling on street corners. For someone else, the answer of course would be different.

        • Thanks for the Oliver B. link in the Guardian. A nice piece. In large measure I have to agree – though I do think there is value in looking upward when making comparisons to the accomplishments of others. Perhaps the difficulty lies in first knowing oneself rather well, and then carefully choosing who and what we wish to become. Setting the bar too high and failing miserably does little to help. But not challenging oneself at all is sure to place a cap on it.

          If the siren call to action comes from people we do not know personally (from the Twitterverse for example) then I have to agree with Oliver completely. Let it go.

          When friends, family, neighbors… those who know us as intimately as we know them (and we’ll presume care about us as we do them), when these community members ask us for an extra measure it is both easier to offer it and there is likely some reassuring support when the going gets tough. And so for politics. As a former US Speaker of the House once wrote – All politics is local.

  8. While I take Chris’ proposal as a bit of a provocation, or thought experiment ( and humanity is very unlikely to vary from its current path), I am willing to bat it around a bit.

    The Theory of Island Biogeography, as explained in the book by Robert MacArthur and the same E.O. Wilson, points out a key element of any effort to preserve species and the overall biosystem. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Island_Biogeography

    If we consider that most species are specialized to a specific environment ( humans, rats and cockroaches excepted) then determining which 50% of the planet to set aside gets more complicated. It could well be that to preserve a minimal, but still functional complete web of life, maybe only 20% of earth’s surface is needed, providing that it is the right 20%. Or, it might turn out that due to migration patterns, or the complexity of maintaining proximity of the various environmental zones, 50% is not enough.

    Of course, it then gets interesting to find out where this analysis intersects with human needs and current impacted space. I think we know what the answer is likely to be.

    I agree with what others have said, that we cannot take on complete stewardship of every species ( the beetles alone!) it is obvious that we are degrading the ecosphere, and should take steps to reverse the trend lines. Too bad it won’t happen voluntarily.

    • Yes, even though it’s not a technical book, Wilson is disappointingly vague on some of these considerations. I suppose his island work fed into the ‘single large or several small’ nature reserve debates of the 1970s and 80s, which the land sparers have appropriated – I think largely for their own ideological ends – and given the simple/simplistic answer ‘single large’.

  9. Chris wrote, “…Decide on the total human land-take, which gives a global per capita acreage. Then divide it up equally between the people of the world for carbon-free homesteading. Those who prefer not to avail themselves of this generous offer and continue working in the city would be entitled to do so with the proviso that they forfeit, say, 50% of their earnings on top of tax…”

    This seems like an improvement on the feudal system, more like a “reverse-feudal” system, with those who are outside the peasant class paying half of their annual “production” for the privilege. Perhaps it has some aspects of the feudal system that existed in Japan, where the peasants and artisans comprised over 90 percent of the population, and yet were above the lowest class, the merchants (who had less status because they were non-producers).

  10. Thought-provoking stuff, and much to agree with in both post and comments. I was struck by the following though:

    ‘In practical terms, they [ecomodernists] raise the valid point that in an ever-changing and stochastic biota there’s never a baseline point of ‘balance’ to which conservationism can aim its restorative efforts. To which Wilson makes the nice rejoinder that this is a problem that should be formulated as a scientific challenge, not an excuse for throwing up our hands and singing que será será.’

    Perhaps the urge to formulate this as a scientific challenge is part of Wilson’s problem. As you say, our global predicament is a product of our capitalist economy, and ultimately of the quest for profitability that necessitates ‘disenchanting’ the earth and viewing it as a store of resources to be expropriated and exploited. Historically, that disenchantment is bound up with the development of the natural sciences and their particular perspectives on the natural world.

    I don’t want to be mistaken for advocating a general anti-science attitude, but in this case I don’t think we are going to be saved by working with the same perspective that got us into this mess. Wilson’s admission of how much we still don’t understand scientifically is honest, but his instinct seems to be to try to complete the picture (taking up the scientific challenge), and that seems to me to be wrong-headed.

    Increasing our scientific knowledge in this way might enable a more accurate calculation of what fraction of the earth we need to make inviolable, but the very form of such an Answer (say it comes out at 0.6754854) can only be a prompt to large-scale top-down policy making, which will no doubt involve hefty geo-engineering of various different kinds. The earth remains disenchanted, a thing to be governed.

    I also can’t help but notice the religious inflection to some of this too. We are a fallen humanity, who must accept our banishment from inviolable Eden; we can only hope to police our own exile through enlightened use of the products of our own sinful ways. But staying outside Eden just maintains the ‘objective’ perspective on that natural world that promotes its disenchantment. I don’t think there are any easy answers to what forms re-enchantment might take (that’s probably the point), but I do think the ecomodernists are fatally wary of getting their hands dirty…

    • but I do think the ecomodernists are fatally wary of getting their hands dirty…


      IMHO the fear of dirty hands spreads far beyond the tribal boundaries of ecomodernist thought. Or perhaps I’d better suggest ‘soiled’. For one can get their hands dirty in most unpleasant ways (oil spills for example). Soiled – with a clean earthen media capable of sustaining life – this should not induce panic or fear. Earthworms should not frighten, and a little sweat not deter us from grubbing in the field.

    • Andrew, Yes, I think you have put your finger on it for me. I love Chris’ redistribution idea, and more than that, I love that he posed it only partially facetiously. But it will never happen if any of our current regime(s) have anything to say about it, and even then it would only happen because our current system collapses.

      We can hope.

      It is dangerous in nice liberal circles to mention that Science is a product and enabler of materialistic reduction of the world to industrial raw ingredients. I draw a short straight line from that loss of enchantment to our current pathological elevation of greed to be a fine motive for shaping society.

      So we come back to the problematic fact that the people with the guns are the ones owning and operating the factories.

      But even still, I agree with you that the only hope for us as a species living on a planet with myriad other organisms that we are incapable of living without, is to redevelop a deep love of life for its own (and varied) sake.

      I also like your inspired comment about ecomodernists not wanting to get their hands dirty. I usually don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but given mosquitos and chiggers and poison ivy, I find that I am a lot happier right after I wash my hands clean again. These modern conveniences will be hard to give up.

  11. After reading this post the Biblical quote ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ came to mind. Wilson advises restricting human thriving to half Earth’s land mass. Chris posits a quarter-earth with sensible provisos. Spedding, in Agriculture and the Citizen, estimates 700m2 as a minimum land requirement to sustain a person on a plant-based diet. Meek, meeker, meekest? Or, should the prophecy ring true, will the meek be whatever survives after humans flourish into extinction? Will the real meek please stand up.

  12. Thanks for the further comments. I largely agree with Andrew, except to say that his comment seems truer at wider levels of generality and perhaps less so at narrower ones – ie. asking ‘how much of the Earth should we set aside for nature?’ isn’t really a scientific question, whereas asking ‘what are the best options for preserving biodiversity on this particular nature reserve?’ probably could be – and the ecomodernists’ view that it’s all a human artifice doesn’t help formulate the issues any more sharply.

    ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’…well, I think that can be true. It’s just that the strong usually corner the market in self-aggrandizing narratives. Who, over the long haul, has the easier time of it – the antelope or the lion?

      • Beat me to the punch, Clem (or do I mean jab?).
        Actually both species feature on the Red Lists endangered, critically endangered or threatened with … you get the picture. Lions are doing slightly better.

        Nicely put, Chris. In a similar vein, Clive James remarks how meekness in people tends to invite a kicking (Cultural Amnesia).

        On a more positive note I’m looking forward to your book and I know I’m not alone there. Indeed I read a rumour earlier today that you’ve already completed the first few hundred pages of the bibliography (cheeky emoticon here). More power to your elbow.

  13. I read “Half-Earth” a while ago, and I was disappointed by the same things you were. Then later I read Ilkka Hanski’s book “Messages From Islands”, which is sort of the same book, but much better. It does a much better job of conveying the science behind biodiversity and nature conservation than Wilson’s book. When it comes to policy recommendations, Hanski aims lower than Wilson (he has a concept he calls “a third of a third”) but I don’t know that he actually thinks this is enough, rather than just more realistically achievable. I guess it’s the choice between watering down your message yourself, or letting other people water it down for you.

  14. Thanks for the comments. Sorry I’m somewhat in book-writing mode at the moment. But briefly I’d say that yes Joshua’s question on how to intensify without drawing down is important – I think the answer mostly is ‘with difficulty’ but human more or less manual labour is certainly one of the best ways we’ve come up with. On N it seems to me that adding leguminous fixation to the human account is necessary for various reasons – it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, it just means we should count it. And thanks for the Hanski reference Elin – hopefully I’ll get a chance to take a look…

    • Ahh, the human account. I see. We should keep an account of the impacts imparted by our meddling. Better we should eat everything in sight like so many locusts and leave nothing behind but blighted landscape. We are militarily more clever and accomplished than any other species… we are omnivorous… what we don’t already eat we can use to fuel fire and cook the rest.

      Why bother with a small farm future? Too much effort. Eat everything, put nothing back… move toward a no farm future. No ecosystem services provided by this hungry hoard… growing legumes for both a sustainable food source and for the chemically complex nitrogenous compounds they leave in the soil habitat – that could slow our rate of wreckage. What was I thinking?

      Sorry, will try to get on board.

      • Clem, I’m not sure that I get your drift but for the record here’s how I would answer the two questions that seem to be in play:

        1. Should activities undertaken by humans that aim to increase soluble N compounds be described as ‘anthropogenic N fixation’? Yes.

        2. Should humans refrain from all anthropogenic N fixation? No.

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