The Return of Nature
How Technology Liberates the Environment
In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.
Five years earlier, the state of New Jersey had restored its bear hunt. In 2010 wildlife ecologists estimated that 3,400 bears were living in New Jersey. After five years of hunting, experts now estimate that the population has fallen to 2,500. During the six-day 2014 season, hunters killed 267 bears. Protesters have picketed and petitioned to stop the annual hunt.
Should the rewilding of New Jersey shock us? I answer “no,” because by about 1970 a great reversal had begun in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature — first relatively, and then more recently in absolute amounts. A series of “decouplings” is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking. This is not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers have changed consumption, and because producers changed production. These changes in behavior and technology are today liberating the environment.
Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in about 1940, acreage and yield decoupled in the United States. Since then American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land (Figure 1). Corn matters because its production towers over other crops, totaling more tons than wheat, soy, rice, and potatoes together.
Figure 1: Decoupling of US corn production from area farmed. Data source: US Census Bureau (1975, 2012).
Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water (Figure 2). A recent meta-analysis by Wilhelm Klümper and Matin Qaim of 147 original studies of recent trends in high-yield farming for soy, maize, and cotton, funded by the German government and the European Union, found a 37 percent decline in chemical pesticide use while crop yields rose 22 percent. This is the story of precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons.
Figure 2: Absolute US consumption of five agricultural inputs. Note: while the x-axis is a linear scale, the y-axis is logarithmic, so the spacing is proportional to the logarithm of the number. Data source: USGS (2013); USDA (2013).
The average yield of American farmers is nowhere near a ceiling. In 2013, David Hula, a farmer in Virginia, grew a US and probably world record: 454 bushels of corn per acre –– three times the average yield in Iowa. His tractor cab is instrumented like the office of a high-speed Wall Street trader. In 2014, Hula’s harvest rose 5 percent higher to 476 bushels, while Randy Dowdy, who farms near Valdosta, Georgia, busted the 500-bushel wall with a yield of 503 bushels per acre and won the National Corn Growers Contest.
Now, one can ask if Americans need all that corn. We eat only a small fraction of corn creamed or on the cob, or as tortillas or polenta. Most corn becomes beef or pork, and increasingly we feed it to cars (Figure 3). An area the size of Iowa or Alabama grows corn to fuel vehicles.
Figure 3: Uses of corn in the United States. Note: includes production of high-fructose corn syrup, glucose and dextrose, starch, alcohol for beverages and manufacturing, seed, cereals, and other products. Data source: USDA Economic Research Service.
Unlike corn that becomes beef, or soybeans that become chicken, potatoes stay potatoes, and they conserve the scarce input of water in Idaho or California’s Kern County around Bakersfield. Potato growers have also lifted yields, but their markets are saturated, so they remove land from production (Figure 4). This sparing of land — and water — is a gift for other plants and animals.
Figure 4: US potato yield, production, and harvested area. Data source: USDA (2013).
Steadily, the conversion of crops, mostly corn, to meat, has also decoupled. The meat game is also one in which efficiency matters. From humanity’s point of view, cattle, pigs, and chickens are machines to make meat. A steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60. Statistics for the United States and the world show that efficient chickens are winning the race to market (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Chicken wins market share in US meat consumption. Data source: USDA.
High grain and cereal yields and efficient meat machines combine to spare land for nature. In fact, I have argued that both the United States and the world are at peak farmland, not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories. To prosper, farmers have allowed or forced Americans to eat hamburgers and chicken tenders, drink bourbon, and drive with ethanol, and they continue to export massive tonnages abroad.
Wasted food is not decoupled from acreage. When we consider the horror of food waste, not to mention obesity, we further appreciate that huge amounts of land can be released from agriculture with no damage to human diet. Every year 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away globally, according to a 2013 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That equates to one-third of the world’s food being wasted.
Some food waste results from carelessness, but laws and rules regulating food distribution also cause it. Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries are changing rules to reduce food waste. In California, the website Food Cowboy uses mobile technology to route surplus food from wholesalers and restaurants to food banks and soup kitchens instead of to landfills, and CropMobster tries to spread news about local food excess and surplus from any supplier in the food chain and prevent food waste. The 800 million or so hungry humans worldwide are not hungry because of inadequate production.
If we keep lifting average yields toward the demonstrated levels of David Hula and Randy Dowdy, stop feeding corn to cars, restrain our diets lightly, and reduce waste, then an area the size of India or of the United States east of the Mississippi could be released globally from agriculture over the next 50 years or so (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Global arable land from 1961-2009 and projections to 2060. In the alternative scenario, several favors (rising yields, diet, waste reduction, cessation of using land to fuel cars) sum to a higher total. Data source: Ausubel, J. H., Wernick, I. K. and Waggoner, P. E. (2013), Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing. Population and Development Review, 38: 221–242.
Rebound is already happening. Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has released at least 30 million hectares and possibly as much as 60 million hectares to return to nature, according to careful studies by geographer Florian Schierhorn and his colleagues. Thirty million hectares is the size of Poland or Italy. The great reversal of land use that I am describing is not only a forecast; it is a present reality in Russia and Poland as well as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In America alone the total amount of corn fed to cars grows on an area equal to Iowa or Alabama. Think of turning all those lands that are now pasture for cars into refuges for wildlife, carbon orchards, and parks. That would represent about twice the area of all the US national parks outside Alaska.
Foresters refer to a “forest transition” when a nation goes from losing to gaining forested area. In 1830, France recorded the first forest transition. Since then, while the population of France has doubled, French forests have also doubled. In other words, forest loss decoupled from population.
Measured by growing stock, the United States enjoyed its forest transition around 1950, and, measured by area, about 1990. The forest transition began around 1900, when states such as Connecticut had almost no forest, and now encompasses dozens of states. The thick green cover of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York today would be unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, who knew them as wheat fields, pastures mown by sheep, and hillsides denuded by logging.
The forest transition, like peak farmland, involves forces of both supply and demand. Foresters manage the supply better through smarter harvesting and replanting. Simply shifting from harvesting in cool slow-growing forests to warmer faster-growing ones can make a difference. A hectare of cool US forest adds about 3.6 cubic meters of wood per year, while a hectare of warm US forest adds 7.4. A shift in the US harvest between 1976 and 2001 from cool regions to the warm Southeast decreased logged area from 17.8 to 14.7 million hectares, a decrease of 3.1 million hectares, far more than either the 0.9 million hectares of Yellowstone Park or 1.3 million of Connecticut.
Forest plantations produce wood more efficiently than unmanaged forests. They meet a growing fraction of demand predictably and spare other forests for biodiversity and other benefits. The growth in plantations versus natural forests provides even greater contrast than the warm versus cool forests. Brazilian eucalyptus plantations annually provide 40 cubic meters of timber per hectare, about five times the production of a warm natural forest and about 10 times that of a cool northern forest. In recent times about one-third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to rise to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop by half. It is easy to appreciate that if plantations merely grow twice as fast as natural forests, harvesting one hectare of plantation spares two hectares of natural forest.
An equally important story unfolds on the demand side. We once used wood to heat our homes and for almost forgotten uses such as railroad ties. The Iron Horse was actually a wooden horse — its rails rested on countless trees that made the ties and trestles. The trains themselves were wooden carriages. As president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in their largest expansion, Leland Stanford was probably one of the greatest deforesters in world history. It is not surprising that he publicly advocated for conservation of forests because he knew how railroads cut them. The US Forest Service originated around 1900 in large part owing to an expected timber famine caused by expansion of railroads.
Fortunately for nature, the length of the rail system saturated, creosote preserved timber longer, and concrete replaced it. Charting the three major uses of wood — fuel, construction, and paper — shows how wood for fuel and building has lost importance since 1960 (Figure 7). World production has also saturated. Paper had been gliding upward but, after decades of wrong forecasts of the paperless society, we must now credit West Coast tycoons Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos for e-readers and tablets, which have caused the market for pulp and paper — the last strong sector of wood products — to crumple. Where are the newsstands and stationers of yesteryear? Many paper products, such as steno pads and even fanfold computer paper, are artifacts for the technology museums. Email has collapsed snail mail. US first-class mail fell a quarter in just the five years between 2007 and 2012. As a Rockefeller University employee, I like to point out that John D. Rockefeller saved whales by replacing sperm oil with petroleum. ARPANET and the innovators of email merit a medal for forest rebound.
Figure 7: Global forest products consumed per dollar of GDP. Data sources: FAO (2013); World Bank (2012).
Bottom-up land-sparing forces relating to farms and forests and top-down forces are collectively causing global greening, the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more. Researchers are finding the evidence weekly in places ranging from arid Australia and Africa to moist Germany and the northernmost woods. Probably the most obvious reason is the increase of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In fact, farmers pump carbon dioxide into greenhouses to make plants grow better. Carbon dioxide is what many plants inhale to feel good. It also enables plants to grow more while using the same or less water.
Californians Charles David Keeling and Ralph Keeling have kept superfine measurements of carbon dioxide since 1958. The increasing amplitude of the seasonal cycle from winter, when the biosphere releases carbon dioxide, to the summer, when it absorbs the gas, proves there is greater growth on average each year. The increased carbon dioxide is a global phenomenon, potentially enlarging the biosphere in many regions.
In some areas, especially the high latitudes of the Northern hemisphere, the growing season has lengthened, attributed to global warming. The longer growing season is also causing more plant growth, demonstrated most convincingly in Finland. Some regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, report more rain and more growth. Satellite comparisons of the biosphere in 1982 and 2011 by Ranga Myneni and his colleagues show little browning and vast green expanses of greater vegetation.
In addition to peak farmland and peak timber, America may also be experiencing peak use of many other resources. Back in the 1970s, it was thought that America’s growing appetite might exhaust Earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. But a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before — not just the relative but also the absolute use of nine basic commodities, flat or falling for about 20 years (Figure 8). By about 1990, Americans even began to use less plastic. America has started to dematerialize.
Figure 8: Use of nine basic commodities in the United States from 1900-2010. Note: Uses five-year moving average; legend is ordered top-down by value in 2010. Data source: USGS National Minerals Information Center (2013).
The reversal in use of some of the materials so surprised me that Iddo Wernick, Paul Waggoner, and I undertook a detailed study of the use of 100 commodities in the United States from 1900 to 2010. One hundred commodities span just about everything from arsenic and asbestos to water and zinc. The soaring use of many resources up to about 1970 makes it easy to understand why Americans started Earth Day that year. Of the 100 commodities, we found that 36 have peaked in absolute use, including the villainous arsenic and asbestos (Figure 9). Another 53 commodities have peaked relative to the size of the economy, though not yet absolutely. Most of them now seem poised to fall (Figure 10). They include not only cropland and nitrogen, but even electricity and water. Only 11 of the 100 commodities are still growing in both relative and absolute use in America. These include chickens, the winning form of meat. Several others are elemental vitamins, like the gallium and indium used to dope or alloy other bulk materials and make them smarter.
Figure 9: Absolute use of peaked commodities in the United States from 1900-2010. Note: Uses five-year moving average; legend is ordered top-down by value in 2010. Data source: USGS National Minerals Information Center (2013).
Figure 10: Absolute use of likely peaking commodities in the United States from 1900–2010. Note: Uses five-year moving average; legend is ordered top-down by value in 2010. Data source: USGS National Minerals Information Center (2013).
Much dematerialization does not surprise us, when a single pocket-size smartphone replaces an alarm clock, flashlight, and various media players, along with all the CDs and DVDs.
But even Californians economizing on water in the midst of a drought may be surprised at what has happened to water withdrawals in America since 1970. Expert projections made in the 1970s showed rising water use to the year 2000, but what actually happened was a leveling off. While America added 80 million people –– the population of Turkey –– American water use stayed flat. In fact, US Geological Survey data through 2010 shows that water use has now declined below the level of 1970, while production of corn, for example, has tripled (Figure 11). More efficient water use in farming and power generation contribute the most to the reduction.
Figure 11: Total US water withdrawals: absolute (ABS) and relative to GDP (IOU). Data sources: USGS (2013); Williamson (2014).
Americans have also been doing a good job of decoupling growth and air quality. We already see not only decoupling but also absolute falls in pollution. Emissions of sulfur dioxide, a classic air pollutant, peaked around 1970 because of a blend of factors including better technology and stronger regulation (Figure 12). The arc of sulfur dioxide forms a classic curve in which pollution grew for a while as Americans grew richer but then fell as Americans grew richer still and preferred clean air. American emissions of carbon dioxide appear to have peaked around 2007 (Figure 13). Emissions in 2014 dropped to 1990 levels. It does not take a rocket scientist to project a falling trajectory.
Figure 12: Decoupling of US economic growth and sulfur dioxide emissions. Note: the grey environmental Kuznets curve of sulfur emissions, which peaked in 1970, contrasts with the black straight line of growth of GDP. Economic slumps as in 1929 and 1944 reverse growth for 5-10 years, but do not affect the longer-term trends for GDP or emissions. Data source: EPA. Credit: Waggoner and Ausubel (2009).
Figure 13: Decoupling of US economy and carbon dioxide emissions. Emissions in 2013 were 10% below 2007. Data sources: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, EPA. Credit: Waggoner and Ausubel (2009).
Beyond farms, forests, and materials including water and meat, one must also consider human population. Beginning in 2008, the US fertility rate declined for six years in a row, falling to 1.86 births per woman in 2013, well below the replacement level of 2.1. Immigration will continue to keep the US population growing, but globally it appears that Earth is passing peak child. Swedish statistician and physician Hans Rosling estimates that the absolute number of humans born reached about 130 million in 1990 and has stayed around that number since then. With birth rates declining all over the world, the number of newcomers should soon fall. While momentum and greater longevity will keep the total population growing, technical progress can counter the likely number of mouths to feed. A 2 percent annual gain in efficiency can dominate a population growth of 1 percent or even less.
If only everything were trending in the right direction; ocean life is getting a raw deal. Consider the change in the catch of a charter boat out of Key West between 1958 and 2007 — no more large groupers. Or take a trip to the Tokyo fish market. Sea life is astonishingly delicious and more varied in markets than ever, owing to improved storage and transport. An octopus from Mauritania ends in Japan. Before the advent of refrigeration, fresh sushi was a delicacy for the emperor of Japan. In January 2013, a 489-pound bluefin sold for $1.76 million. We may say that the democratization of sushi has changed everything for sea life.
Fish biomass in intensively exploited fisheries appears to be about one-tenth the level of the fish in those seas a few decades or hundreds of years ago. The total population of cod off Cape Cod today probably weighs only about 3 percent of all the cod in 1815. The average swordfish harpooned off New England dropped in size from about 500 pounds in 1860 to about 200 pounds in 1930. To survive wild in the ocean, an unprotected species needs to enjoy juvenile sex and spawn before capture.
How does world fish consumption that depletes the oceans compare with the 800 million tons of animal products that humanity eats? Fish meat is about one-fifth of land meat. In 2012, about 90 million tons of fish were taken wild from salt and freshwater and a fast-growing 66 million tons from fish farms and ranches.
Americans eat relatively little sea life — only about 7 kilograms per person in a year. Much of that 7 kilograms, however, is taken from the wild schools of the sea, and that fraction of total diet, though small, depletes the oceans. The ancient sparing of land animals by farming shows us how to spare the fish in the sea. If we want to eat sea life, we need to increase the share we farm and decrease the share we catch.
Fish farming does not require invention. It’s been around for a long time. The Chinese have been doing very nicely raising herbivores, such as carp, for centuries. Following the Chinese example, one feeds crops grown on land by farmers to herbivorous fish in ponds. Much aquaculture of catfish near the Gulf Coast of the United States and of carp and tilapia in Southeast Asia and the Philippines takes this form. The fish grown in ponds spare fish from the oceans. Like poultry, fish efficiently convert protein in feed to protein in meat. And because the fish do not have to stand, they convert calories in feed into meat even more efficiently than poultry: let’s say 80 miles per gallon.
All the improvements such as breeding and disease control that have made poultry production more efficient can be and have been applied to aquaculture, improving the conversion of feed to meat and sparing wild fish. In most of today’s ranching of salmon, for example, the salmon effectively graze the oceans, as the razorback hogs of a primitive farmer would graze the oak woods. Such aquaculture consists of catching small wild fish, such as menhaden, anchovies, and sardines, or their oil to feed to our herds, such as salmon in pens. We change the form of the fish, adding economic value, but do not address the fundamental question of the tons of stocks. A shift from this ocean ranching and grazing to true farming of parts of the ocean can spare others from the present, ongoing depletion. So would persuading salmon and other carnivores to eat tofu, which should happen very soon.
Cobia, sometimes called kingfish, which are widespread in the Caribbean and other warm waters, grow up to two meters long and 80 kilograms favoring a diet of crab, squid, and smaller fish. Recently, Aaron Watson and other researchers at the University of Maryland Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology turned this carnivore into a vegetarian. A mixture of plant-based proteins, fatty acids, and an amino acid-like substance found in energy drinks pleased the cobia and also another popular fish, gilt-head bream. Conversion of these carnivorous fish to a completely vegetarian diet breaks the cycle in which fish ranchers plunder the ocean’s small fish to provide feed for the big fish.
The same applies to the filter feeders: the oysters, clams, and mussels. With due care for effluents, pathogens, and other concerns, this model can multiply sea meat many times in tonnage. Eventually we might grow fish in closed silos at high density, feeding them proteins made by microorganisms grown on hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon. The fish could be sturgeon filled with caviar. In fact, much caviar now sold in Moscow comes from sturgeon farmed in tanks in Northern Italy.
High levels of harvest of wild fishes, and destruction of marine habitat to capture them, need not continue. The 40 percent of seafood already raised by aquaculture signals the potential for reversal. With smart aquaculture, life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity and restoring nature.
In a world of 7 billion human mouths, aquaculture must largely replace hunting of the wild animals for many, maybe all forms of marine life. We are accustomed to the reality that even vast America does not produce enough wild ducks or wild blueberries to satisfy our appetite.
We depend on the hydrogen produced by the chlorophyll of plants. As my colleague Cesare Marchetti has pointed out, once you have hydrogen, produced, for example, by means of nuclear energy, diverse throngs of microorganisms are capable of cooking it into the variety of substances in our kitchens. Researchers for decades have been producing food conceived for astronauts on the way to Mars by cultivating hydrogenomonas on a diet of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and a little oxygen. They make proteins that taste like hazelnut.
A person basically consumes around 2,000 calories per day or 100 watts. California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power park operates two 1,100-megawatt electric power plants on about 900 acres, or 1.5 square miles. The power of Diablo Canyon, a couple of gigawatts, is enough to supply food for a few million people, more than 2,000 per acre, more than 10 times what David Hula and Randy Dowdy achieve with corn.
A single spherical fermenter of 100 yards in diameter could produce the primary food for the 30 million inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico. The foods, of course, would be formatted before arriving at the consumer. Grimacing gourmets should observe that our most sophisticated foods, such as cheese and wine, are the product of fine-tuned elaboration by microorganisms of simple feedstocks such as milk and grape juice.
Globally, such a food system would allow humanity to release 90 percent of the land and sea now exploited for food. In such places as Petaluma and Eureka, both in California, humanity might maintain artisanal farming and fishing to provide supreme flavorings for bulk tofu.
In a time of Lyft and Uber, it is valuable to look at petroleum and mobility too. Until about 1970, per capita petroleum use in America rose alarmingly. Most experts worried about further rises, but Figure 14 shows what actually happened — a plateau and then a fall. Partly, vehicles have become more efficient. But partly, travel in personal vehicles seems to have saturated. America may be at peak car travel. If you buy an extra car, it is probably for fashion or flexibility. You won’t spend more minutes per day driving or drive more miles.
Figure 14: Rise, saturation, and decline of US per capita petroleum consumption, 1900-2012. Data source: US Energy Information Administration.
The beginning of a plateau in the population of cars and light trucks on US roads suggests we are approaching peak car. The reason may be that drone taxis will win. The average personal vehicle motors about an hour per day, while a car shared like a Zipcar gets used eight or nine hours per day, and a taxi even more. Driverless cars could work tirelessly and safely and accomplish the present mileage with fewer vehicles. The manufacturers won’t like it, but markets do simply fade away, whether for typewriters or newsprint.
Moreover, new forms of transport can enter the game. According to our studies, the best bet is on magnetically levitated systems, or maglevs, “trains” with magnetic suspension and propulsion. Elon Musk has proposed a variant called the hyperloop that would speed between Los Angeles and San Francisco at about 1,000 kilometers per hour, accomplishing the trip in about 35 minutes and thus comfortably allowing daily round trips, if the local arrangements are also quick.
The maglev is a vehicle without wings, wheels, and motor, and thus without combustibles aboard. Suspended magnetically between two guardrails that resemble an open stator of an electric motor, it can be propelled by a magnetic field that runs in front and drags it.
Hard limits to the possible speed of maglevs do not exist, if the maglev runs in an evacuated tunnel or surface tube. Evacuated means simulating the low pressure that an airplane encounters at 30 to 50 thousand feet of altitude or higher. Tunnels solve the problem of permanent landscape disturbance, but tubes mounted above existing rights of way of roads or rails might prove easier and cheaper to build and maintain.
Spared a motor and the belly fat called fuel, the maglev could break the “rule of the ton,” the weight rule that has burdened mobility. The weight of a horse and its gear, a train per passenger, an auto that on average carries little more than one passenger, and a jumbo jet at takeoff all average about one ton of vehicle per passenger. The maglev could slim to 300 kilograms per passenger, dropping directly and drastically the cost of energy transport.
Will maglevs make us sprawl? This is a legitimate fear. In Europe, since 1950, the tripling of the average speed of travel has extended personal area tenfold, and so Europe begins to resemble Los Angeles. In contrast to the car, maglevs may offer the alternative of a bimodal or “virtual” city with pedestrian islands and fast connections between them. Maglevs can function as national- and continental-scale metros, at jet speed.
Looking far into the 21st century, we can imagine a system as wondrous to today’s innovators as our full realization of cars and paved roads would seem to the maker of the Stutz Bearcat. Because the maglev system is a set of magnetic bubbles moving under the control of a central computer, what we put inside is immaterial. It could be a personal or small collective vehicle, starting as an elevator in a skyscraper, becoming a taxi in the maglev network, and again becoming an elevator in another skyscraper. The entire bazaar could be run as a videogame where shuffling and rerouting would lead the vehicle to its destination swiftly, following the model of the Internet. In the end, a maglev system is a common carrier or highway, meaning that private as well as mass vehicles can shoot through it.
While the expectation that 90 percent of exploited nature will be spared may be far-fetched, I do think that humanity is moving toward landless agriculture, progressively using less land for food, and that we should aim to release for nature an area the size of India by 2050. Overall I think the next decades present an enormous opportunity for what Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan call “Revive and Restore.”
People will object that I have spoken little about China and India and Africa. I respond with a remark from Gertrude Stein, who said in 1930 that America is the oldest country in the world because it had been in the 20th century longer than any other country. In fact, as early as 1873 America became the world’s largest economy, and since then a disproportionate share of the products and habits that diffuse throughout the world have come from America, particularly California. My view is that the patterns described are not exceptional to the United States and that within a few decades, the same patterns, already evident in Europe and Japan, will be evident in many more places.
Rebound is not without challenges. Consider the black bear and the college student, but also consider the fox. Fox experts now estimate that about 10,000 foxes roam the city of London, more than the double-decker buses. Foxes ride the London Underground for free. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, became enraged when his cat appeared to be mauled by a fox, and perhaps because of the fare-beating too. English snipers charge $120 to shoot a fox in your city garden. Meanwhile in rural England, badgers are causing an uncivil war between farmers and animal protection groups. Rich countries are in the midst of what journalist Jim Sterba has chronicled in a great book titled Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.
So why do we want nature to rebound? And why do we care about the achievements of farmers like David Hula and Randy Dowdy and aquaculturist Aaron Watson and their counterparts in forestry and water resources? Because the incipient rewilding of Europe and the United States is thrilling. Salmon have returned to the Seine and Rhine, lynx to several countries, and wolves to Italy. Reindeer herds have rebounded in Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, bison have multiplied in Poland. The French film producer Jacques Perrin, who made the films Winged Migration about birds and Microcosmos about insects, is working on a film about rewilding. The new film, The Seasons, scheduled for release later this year, will open millions of eyes to Europe’s rewilding.
The image of a humpback whale in New York Bight with the Empire State Building in the background was the most significant environmental image of 2014. Humpback whales and other cetaceans, perhaps even blue whales, are returning in large numbers to New York Bight. Recall the whale despair of the 1970s and consider that the Bronx Zoo has just announced a program together with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to monitor whale numbers and movements in sight of New York City. Many decades without hunting, and improved Hudson River water quality, have made a difference.
Whether into the woods or sea, the way is clear, the light is good, and the time is now. A large, prosperous, innovative humanity, producing and consuming wisely, might share the planet with many more companions, as nature rebounds.
Thanks to Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan and the Long Now Foundation for the opportunity to write this essay, first presented as a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT talk) January 13, 2015, at the SF JAZZ Center. This work is a collective effort with my friends and colleagues Alan Curry, Cesare Marchetti, Perrin Meyer, Paul Waggoner, and Iddo Wernick. Thanks to Andrew Marshall for encouraging the work on peak use. Thanks to Dale Langford for editorial assistance.
Photo Credit: Artie Raslich / Getty Images
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