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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of the Ecological Landscape

Air Date: Week of

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Jared Diamond (Photo: University of California at Los Angeles)

Host Jeff Young looks at the next decade of our planet. Jared Diamond, author of "Collapse," says our “present consumption rates just can't be sustained.” But urban farmer Will Allen suggests that mounting food demands can be met by growing food everywhere – in vacant buildings, on rooftops, asphalt, and on concrete. And Camille Parmesan, biology professor at University of Texas-Austin, suggests that the survival of wildlife may depend on our willingness to transport creatures out of the path of climate disruption.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. We’re looking ahead to the coming decade, the environmental trends and challenges that will shape our trip to 2020. By that year, the planet will probably add about another billion people – up from our current six point eight to about seven point seven billion. Pulitzer Prize winner and UCLA Geography Professor Jared Diamond has been thinking about how all those people will eat, live, work and move around – and the resources we will consume. His book “Collapse” looked at what happened to past societies when they exceeded resources. (Spoiler alert: things did not end well for them.) Professor Diamond, welcome to Living on Earth!

DIAMOND: Thank you, and it’s good to be with you.

YOUNG: Is that our big challenge: population growth?

DIAMOND: It’s not our biggest challenge; it’s an indirect challenge. What counts is not the number of people, but it’s how much those people consume. If we add a billion people and everybody decreases their consumption rates on the average by 30 percent, then we end up in a world that’s less stressed than the world today. Whereas if we add a billion people and everybody around the world ratchets up their consumption rates, then we’re in even a bigger pickle than we are now.

YOUNG: Hmm, well, I don’t know if you visited a shopping mall in the weeks before Christmas, but somehow it doesn’t seem to me that reducing our consumption is terribly likely.

DIAMOND: I would say that in the long run, reducing our consumption rates not only is likely, but it’s a dead certainty. The reason is that our present consumption rates just can’t be sustained; we’re already running out of the world’s fisheries, we’re running out of the world’s not-yet-exploited fresh water. And so for sure a few decades from now our consumption rates are going to be lower. The only question is whether they’ll become lower in nice ways that we designed ourselves, or whether they’ll become lower in nasty ways that have been forced on us by running out of resources and by wars.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Jared Diamond (Photo: University of California at Los Angeles)

YOUNG: Let’s talk for a moment about China because it is such a rapidly growing economy. What would our world look like in 2020 if China were to reach or approach the level of consumption that the United States has?

DIAMOND: It turns out that just China catching up to the U.S. in per person consumption rates means that world consumption of oil will double, and world consumption of metals will approximately double. That’s China alone. Then let’s think of some other countries: there’s India with a population nearly as large as China, and then there are all those countries of Africa, and South America, and Latin America, under-developed countries of Asia.

If everybody else, not just China and India catches up to American per person consumption rates, then consumption around the world increases by a factor of 11. That means we’re consuming oil 11 times faster that we are now. Well, at present we are consuming oil at a rate such that it’s guessed that in 30 or 40 years we’ll have exhausted readily accessible, cheap environmentally clean oil. If we’ve increased our consumption rates by a factor of 11, then it’s going to take us not 44 years to do that, it’s going to take us 44 divided by 11 – that’s to say 4 years, if everybody else catches up to us in consumption rates.

YOUNG: You have spent so much time looking closely at past societies that, you know, didn’t make the cut in history; made the bad choices. Is there one from history that you think we today most closely resemble?

DIAMOND: Ask me that question ten years from now because I’ll tell you whether we closely resemble these spectacular failures like Easter Island, and the classic lowland Maya, and Great Zimbabwe, and Axon, or whether we resemble the success stories.

There are success stories from the past. Japan has been going strong for something like 14,000 years without any collapse except for their military defeat at the end of the Second World War. Ticopilla Island in the southwest Pacific Ocean – Ticopilla Island has been operating sustainably for 3,200 years.

My friends in the New Guinea Islands have been operating for 46,000 years and there’s no sign of collapse in the New Guinea Islands. So, the United States, if we make the good decisions, we’ll resemble Japan, and Ticopilla, and New Guinea Islands, and if we make the bad decisions, we’re going to resemble either Easter Island that underwent a collapse and a civil war, or we’re going to resemble Norse Greenland where everybody ended up dead around the year 1440.

YOUNG: And summing up, are you an optimist or a pessimist looking ahead to 2020?

DIAMOND: Summing up, I’m not an optimist; I’m not a pessimist. I would describe myself as a cautious optimist, and by that I mean that the problems that we face are all problems that we are causing, and so if we decide to solve the problems, we can solve them.

I’m not worried about some asteroid that we can’t stop crashing into the Earth – that would be a hopeless problem, an unsolvable problem. Instead, I’m concerned about what we people, ourselves, do with our water, and our forests, and our fish and our topsoil. We already know how to manage forests, and fish, and waters sustainably and we do it in some cases. All we have to do is do it in the other cases, as well, and we’ll be sailing off into a happy future; my children will end up in a world worth living in.

YOUNG: Author and geographer, Jared Diamond, thank you very much for your time.

DIAMOND: You are welcome.

YOUNG: Organic Farmer Fred Kirschenmann says if we don’t want to follow the footsteps of the Maya or Easter Islanders we will probably have to change our agriculture. Kirschenmann’s President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, and a fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Here’s how he sees farming 10 years from now.

KIRSCHENMANN: Our current agriculture system is based on several resources that we’ve been able to depend on now for the last 60 years when we’ve developed industrial agriculture. Those resources are cheap energy, surplus water, stable climates that we’re not going to have in the future.

So the thing that we have to imagine, I think, is what kind of food system will work when crude oil reaches say 300 dollars a barrel? And what kind of food system will be productive, and productive even with an increasing human population under these new circumstances? And I think it’s going to be a food system that is based much more in resilience than it is in just productivity, and that’s going to mean a much more diverse food system than we have now.

Organic farmer and agricultural thinker Fred Kirchenmann.

YOUNG: Organics expert, Fred Kirschenmann. Pro-basketball star turned urban-farming pioneer Will Allen thinks he has a sustainable agriculture solution for the coming decade: bring the farms closer to the forks. Allen won a Macarthur Genius grant for the ideas behind his Milwaukee farm, Growing Power.

ALLEN: Growing Power is a not-for-profit organization and we’re producing enough food to feed about 10,000 people with our ten farms. I do this work because my personal goal is to be a part of ending world hunger. And I don’t think we can end world hunger with our industrial model that hasn’t been working, so I think it needs to be a combination of things.

I see food being grown all over the place, whether it’s in vacant buildings, rooftops, on top of asphalt concrete. And just think about it, if we can go from, like most cities, less than one percent of local food production to say five to 10 percent that’s going to improve our environment. That’s five or 10 percent less trucks traveling into our cities, the money will stay in local communities and circulate, and that’s very important. We can create thousands of jobs.

So, it’s a new kind of farming, not looking at acreage, but looking at square footage. So, we’re going to build the nation’s first vertical farm, a five-acre glass building in the next year, year and a half. If you could imagine if you would take five greenhouses and stack them on top of each other, so it’s using vertical space. Because inside some cities, like New York and San Francisco where there’s not a lot of vacant land we’re going to have to go up in the air. You can imagine inside a vertical farm, lets say there’s 8,000 square-feet of space and then inside each one of those stories you’re able to grow vertically and increase the square footage to say, 12,000 square-feet by using that vertical space by hanging baskets and so forth. Well, we’re going to do a little tour here of the farm.


ALLEN: In this greenhouse, we have plants that are not on the same plain, but we have hanging baskets above the benches, so we’re able to increase the square footage from about 3,000 square-feet to about 5,000 square-feet.


ALLEN: Down the center greenhouse, a 10,000-gallon system that’ll grow 10,000 lake perch – this is called aquaponics. Above that are two beds with watercress and the water is being pumped up, gravity brings it to the other end; it’s a closed system and it’s the symbiotic relationship with the fish that give off ammonia and the plants take out nitrate in the water, and therefore the fish survive because the water is being cleansed. And the water quality is very important, especially when you talk about raising lake perch that are mercury-contaminated in the great lakes and we can’t commercially fish for them in Lake Michigan anymore.

I’m actually going to pull up some lake perch.


ALLEN: I just pulled up about ten lake perch – they’re delicious.


ALLEN: You can probably hear the fish flopping around here. Let’s put these back in.
We’re going to move on to greenhouse number eight. And this greenhouse is an example of how we use compost. To heat this greenhouse, with a 150-degree temperature coming out of these piles, that’s what helps keep the plants viable throughout the winter. As I walk by, you can see the steam coming as I dig down into this bin.

I think you’re looking at 2020 when you come to Growing Power because this is the way I think food will be raised: very intensively. Going back to a very hands-on way of growing food. It will be not your traditional farmers operating these farms, there’ll be folks that come from urban areas and didn’t grow up on farms. We need about 50 million more people producing food to fundamentally change the system. We know how to do it, now we have to scale it up; we have to involve everybody in a very multi-cultural, multi-generational way.

It’s to everybody’s benefit that we start eating healthy- we know that if we don’t, diabetes is going to increase by 50 percent over the next 25 years. Food should not be making us sick. I don’t think it’s a movement anymore, I think it’s a revolution, that’s why I call it the Good Food Revolution. And that’s what the future looks like I think.

YOUNG: Growing Power CEO Will Allen. You can learn more about his urban farm, that and much more, at our website, LOE dot org.


YOUNG: Climate change and biodiversity loss will not only remain major challenges in the next ten years, in all likelihood they will accelerate. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says some 17,000 species are in danger of extinction. And shifting precipitation patterns and rising sea levels will further stress many ecosystems as the planet warms. University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan says that will bring some tough choices for conservationists.

PARMESAN: A lot of people ask me, well won’t species just adapt, won’t they just evolve? And to some extent, yes, in populations we’re seeing changes in gene frequencies that make that population better adapted to say hotter conditions – we call that micro-evolution. But those are very, very minor genetic changes. What we’re not seeing is what we call macroevolution; we’re not seeing any new genes emerge. So, new mutations that would allow that species to survive in a climate space that that species has never lived in before. And when we’ve had past major climate shifts we do see a lot of species extinctions. And what we’re shifting into is a warmer regime that we haven’t had for some three million years. What we’ve seen are that something like 52 percent of all species are showing responses to climate change, which is a huge proportion.

So we’re having to start thinking out of the box. And a group of us have been promoting a concept called assisted colonization or assisted migration or assisted translocation – many names. The idea is that we’ve always moved species around in conservation, but what we’ve done is we’ve moved them back into areas where they used to occur. But, with climate change, perhaps we need to be thinking not of moving them where they used to be, but to where they should be in the next hundred years, as climate shifts.

Biologist Camille Parmesan. (Courtesy of the University of Texas-Austin)

Now, this is very controversial because it means moving species out of their historic range, and a lot of conservation biologists are extremely worried that we’re going to start invasive species. [Laughs] Which is one of the reasons why species have become endangered in the first place. We certainly don’t want to do that, we need to do it carefully, but my counter argument is that if we do nothing we’re going to see an awful lot of what we care about and what we’ve worked all these decades for just go extinct.

I mean some of them I don’t think we have any hope of saving. I really don’t think the polar bear can survive the next century or two, but other species like if we have mountaintop species that are in southern California, we could imagine moving them a few hundred miles north to northern California, and perhaps allowing them to persist when otherwise they would go extinct.

There are a lot of species that we can already imagine would be good candidates for this kind of assisted colonization. Species that are fairly innocuous, they’re not very competitive and we know we can easily translocate them. And some of those species are butterflies, which happen to be my study organism. So, we’re seeing – already seeing many butterflies declining, the mountaintop species definitely. But even some temperate, lowland species because what is happening to many of them is they can’t just shift north because you’ve got Los Angeles and San Diego in the way. And so it’s really our duty to assist them.

Well, you don’t want to do this for a big predator. I would not think of moving tigers around, I would not think of moving polar bears to Antarctica – nothing of that extreme. We’d be talking about moving species just a few hundred miles, or a few hundred meters up, to the next mountain range, to somewhere just a little bit further north. So, fairly small shifts to the next good habitat patch.

So, rather than thinking, here’s my little patch of land, I’m going to put a fence up around it, and I’m going to make sure nothing gets in – what we need to think of is how to preserve biodiversity globally. So, maybe your little preserve will lose a lot of what that preserve was set up for, but then new things will come in as species are shifting around the globe.

People do claim that we’re acting as gods when we start doing this, and my response is that is such hubris because humans are fiddling with Nature all the time. I mean, if you’re going to say that one different kind of fiddling is suddenly a god-like act when none of the other things we’ve done – we’ve caused the extinction of just hundreds to thousands of species without even blinking an eye. And to say that the act of trying to save one is suddenly god-like is just hubris. The geo-engineering schemes I think are even more radical than the biological engineering schemes because I think we know a lot more as biologists about the systems we’re studying. Whereas, the geo-engineering schemes really, once we start doing those it’s one shot, it’s one experiment. [Laughs] I mean, I would be horrified at imagining taking action on a theory that we’ve actually got no experimental back up that that theory is going to work.

Even if we have mass species extinctions in another few million years new species will evolve. Life will continue. But humans, as a species, are really very vulnerable and I don’t think humans realize just how vulnerable they are. We haven’t really been around all that long. I mean much of our history is in an earth that’s as it is now or colder. And if you look at our culture, art, writing, agriculture. A lot of these things didn’t emerge until about 10,000 years ago when the climate stabilized. It’s very difficult to have agricultural areas, urban areas, societies when you have a very variable climate, a very shifting climate. And so what we’re talking about is really fundamentally different from the kind of conservation issues that we faced in the past.

YOUNG: University of Texas biology professor Camille Parmesan.



To learn more about the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture, click here.

Click here for more on the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

To learn more about Fred Kirchenmann and his 3,500-acre certified organic family farm in North Dakota, click here.

Jared Diamond’s page at UCLA’s Department of Geography.

Learn more on Camille Parmesan and assisted migration here.

To Hear a Longer Interview with Camille Parmesan Click here

To Hear a Longer Interview with Jared Diamond Click Here

To Hear a Longer Interview with Fred Kirchenmann Click Here

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