I think every politician and business should know how important nature is to the economy and their business; their natural capital.
Having an economy based on growth on a world with finite resources has some serious limitations built in! We need to better understand the role of our natural resources in provisioning our modern lives then adjust to fit in, otherwise, our children and Grandchildren are going to look back and wonder why we blindly decided to rob them of their right to thrive.
What is Natural Capital?
In a healthy global ecosystem, there are certain services and assets that are provided to everyone who lives on planet earth. The air we breathe, the seas that provide food, the water that comes from our taps, healthy land that grows food, the Carbon locked down in forests, soils and seas, and the balance of wildlife that prevent plagues of insects or uncontrollable disease.
These are shared ecosystem services that we have a collective responsibility to manage so humans – or any other animals – can survive.
Some parts of the world hold natural capital that has a larger influence on the global ecosystems; such as the rainforest regions. Some parts of the world undertake activities that harm our natural assets more than others; such as the more ‘civilised’ parts of the world.
Natural Capital Directs The Weather
Large bodies of biomass, particularly dense native forest, influences global weather patterns and helps us to know when, and how much, it will rain so we can grow food and drink water. (1)
In water in plain sight, Judith Schwartz covers the ‘Biotic pump theory’ which is, just that, a theory, but one that makes a heck of a lot of sense if you understand soil and nature. It was first introduced by Russian physicists Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva in 2007 and has been furthered by the Brazilian Scientist Antonio Nobre (see his fantastic Ted talk below), among others, who have been studying the effects of deforesting the Amazon.
Here’s the theory in a nutshell: We’ve known for some time that forests – through the process of transpiration – create their own rainfall. One large tree in a rainforest can suck up 1000 litres of moisture a day and spit it out into the atmosphere above. When this cloud of moisture rises it needs to hit particles to form droplets and fall down as rain. Trees produce particles from their leaves that are perfectly suited to stimulating this ‘bioprecipitation’ process. In the meantime, it has cooled the forest environment like a giant air conditioning unit. The temperatures on rural land are as much as 20 Degrees cooler under forest than exposed cropland areas, a large rainforest tree having the same cooling effect as two air conditioning units yet with no energy requirement other than solar power! This efficient cooling system supports deep carbon-rich soils, enormous biomass, and more wildlife than any other habitat on earth.
But what’s news to me is that when the rain falls back down to earth, a vacuum is created that draws in air from the surrounding areas. In the case of huge rainforests – such as the Amazon or the one that used to cover North Africa – the biomass was so enormous that it may have caused entire weather systems to be drawn in from the coasts, carrying with it water from the sea!
On its journey from coast to forest, all this lovely weather will pass over huge distances and ‘service’ many communities and habitats along the way. But, if the biomass is reduced – through deforestation – to somewhere between 30-50% of a fully functioning pristine rainforest ecosystem then: slam, the pump shuts down. Very quickly your reliable rainfall turns to seasonal rainfall which in turn can’t sustain the thirsty habitats and down the spiral to desertification we go. Pretty scary considering the current rate of Amazon deforestation!
Natural Capital Influences Climate
Carbon’s another issue. Atmospheric CO2 regulates the temperature of our planet, too much and large parts of our planet may become uninhabitable. We humans could be described as CO2 machines, we belch out a lot of it! The Amazon doesn’t just give us rainfall, it’s the largest land-based global carbon sink for our CO2 emissions currently soaking up about 2 billion tonnes per year. (2)
Collectively, however, our soils hold some of the biggest land-based sinks of Carbon. (3) More Carbon’s held in the soil than in the atmosphere and plant life combined; as much as 2,500 billion tonnes of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tonnes in the atmosphere and 560 billion tonnes in plant and animal life.
The world’s cultivated soils are estimated to have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock into the atmosphere through plowing for crops and other human activities. Good management of our soils is critical for allowing our planetary ecosystem to function and provide us with this handy dandy life-saving service. (4)
All land based Carbon stores are dwarfed however by the giant shared resource of our seas and oceans. Of the three places where carbon is stored; the atmosphere, oceans, and land biosphere; approximately 93 percent of the CO2 is found in the oceans. (5) Carbon is stored in the oceans through the action of green plants sucking it out of the atmosphere and returning oxygen in exchange; thank you very much. They will do this forever, for free, if we just do them the courtesy of keeping their home healthy.
The ocean with its 38,000 gigatons of Carbon is itself a delicate ecosystem. (6) The strength and resilience of this natural and international asset is dependent on the diversity of species within it. The interaction between species is simply incredible; the more complex the biodiversity, the less likely the house of cards will fall when one card – or species – is removed.
Trophic Cascades – Diversity Is King.
A great example of the importance of diversity is illustrated in the study of predators.
Otters are predators and live in kelp forests eating fish and sea urchins. Kelp forests are huge CO2 pumps and support thousands of species, each with an important and unique function. For many decades’ otters, have been accused of depleting supplies of fish and have been killed for fur; this should leave more fish us people right?
Sea urchins eat kelp. Without the regulatory feeding of otter’s, sea urchin numbers go nuts, leading to; ZERO kelp. The kelp-dwelling fish die; the kelp forest can’t help regulate our atmosphere, and all the other species disappear.
Here’s another wonderful example of the counter-intuitive effects of ‘Trophic Cascades.’
Hypoxic or ‘dead’ zones are areas in the ocean with reduced oxygen availability where sea life suffocates and dies. One enormous dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico every spring as increased amounts of fertilisers are used to get ready for the crop growing season. Rain washes farm chemicals off the land into the rivers where it flows to the sea. (7)
According to a new study in ‘Science’, the rest of the world isn’t any better. There are 405 dead zones worldwide, a huge increase from just 49 in the 1960s. If natural capital is of no concern to you then what about the cold hard economic argument?
“More than 212,000 metric tons [235,000 tons] of food is lost to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico,” says marine biologist Robert Diaz of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who surveyed the dead zones along with marine ecologist Rutger Rosenberg of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “That’s enough to feed 75 percent of the average brown shrimp harvest from the Louisiana Gulf. ” (8)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which funded the scientists’ research, estimates that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. The impact could be devastating to the Gulf’s seafood industry, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s seafood. Louisiana is second in seafood production only to Alaska. (9)
This is an example of a single dead zone and a single tangible cost implication; what about the incalculable costs like loss of carbon sequestering potential and reduction in oxygen production? Shouldn’t the polluters be paying for that?
The known dead zones throughout the world’s combined area are the size of New Zealand – this is a big expensive problem that’s getting worse FAST. (10) All human activity contributes to these failing ecosystems, but intensive agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels are particularly implicated.
Our Food Systems Can Harm Or Help Our Natural Capital
I find it strange that some environmentalists are calling for a boycott of meat and are turning to plant-based diets as a way of tackling environmental issues. Modern arable (plant food) farming requires vast quantities of fertilisers and pesticides to grow food in bare depleted soils – which are particularly susceptible to erosion and runoff. These ‘inputs’ require huge quantities of fossil fuels and energy to both produce and then apply. Aside from the giant Carbon footprint of these practices, burning gasoline and diesel results in nitrogen oxide fumes, which disolve into raclear when rain washes the nitrogen out of the sky, onto land, then into the sea!
Some of this energy intensive plant food harvest is inefficiently fed to animals in intensive operations (which are themselves a huge environmental risk); this type of agriculture is certainly a large part of the problem. But we eat 60% of this plant harvest. (11) If we switched to eating only plant foods we would need to intensify these arable operations further and plough up even more important carbon sequestering habitats. More CO2 will be released; more toxic inputs required; more toxins will run off.
On well-managed pasture-based meat operations, there’s no requirement for any agricultural ‘inputs.’ Healthy pasture – which is itself a complex ecosystem service that turns sunlight into food – takes carbon out of the atmosphere and locks it underground, gives us oxygen, helps filter toxic runoff and turns manure from a potentially hazardous waste into an organic fertiliser that grows more food. On healthy pasture, even the methane produced by cows has been shown to be entirely utilised by this clever soil-based ecosystem through the action of soil microbes called Methanotrophs. (12)
What’s really worrying is that our current global food system is reliant on a handful of species. Arable monoculture is the opposite of a robust complex ecosystem. In a recent report from the FAO (13) 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species making the global food system highly vulnerable.
Modern humans need food and agriculture it’s the only way of providing the volume of food we now require. Isn’t is better to get our food from agricultural systems mimicking functional ecosystems? This food coupled with some carefully harvested wild foods including livestock managed to mimic wild herbivores could provide a healthy and truly sustainable diet. The leading lights in the regenerative agriculture movement are proving we could feed the world this way if we address the many other issues associated with the food supply chain such as overeating, waste, lack of skills and the globalisation of food markets.
Cut down rainforest to grow cattle; definitely NOT. But, as an environmentalist, if you asked me to swap my grass fed burger for a soy burger, I would politely decline!
Scientists estimate we’re losing between 2000 and 100,000 species a year. Why the big range? Well, we just haven’t had the chance to know what species we have on earth yet; the chances are we never will if we continue this current trajectory. (14)
The global house of cards is ready to fall. If you create jobs by opening coal mines, you’ll lose jobs and potential food from our seas. If you encourage consumerism to drive the economy and increase GDP, you’ll eventually destroy all of the natural capital of our beautiful planet.
The last time I checked you can’t eat money or drink sewerage, and mass asphyxiation sure is bad for business!
I would love your thoughts and feel free to share or link to this article. Thanks Caroline