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Filmed on Tuesday January 13, 02015
Jesse Ausubel is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University in New York, co-founder of The Encyclopedia of Life, co-organizer of the first UN World Climate Conference in 01979, co-founder of The Barcode of Life, co-organizer of the Census of Marine Life, and former Vice President of Programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
In the field of environmental progress the conflict between anecdote and statistics is so flagrant that most public understanding on the subject is upside down. We worry about the wrong things, fail to worry about the right things, and fail to acknowledge and expand the things that are going well.
For decades at Rockefeller University Jesse Ausubel has assembled global data and trends showing that humanity may be entering an exceptionally Green century. The most important trend is “land-sparing”—freeing up ever more land for nature thanks to agricultural efficiency and urbanization. Ausubel notes that we are now probably at “peak farmland“ (so long as we don’t pursue the folly of biofuels). Forests are coming back everywhere in the temperate zones and in many tropical areas, helped by replacing wild logging with tree plantations. Human population is leveling rapidly and we are now probably at “peak children.” Our energy sources continue to “decarbonize,” and a long-term “dematerialization” trend is reducing the physical load of civilization’s metabolism.
In the ocean, however, market hunting for fish remains highly destructive, even though aquaculture and mariculture are taking off some of the pressure. In this area, as in the others, rigorous science and inventive technology are leading the way to the mutual flourishing of humanity and nature.
Over the last 40 years, in nearly every field, human productivity has decoupled from resource use, Ausubel began. Even though our prosperity and population continue to increase, the trends show decreasing use of energy, water, land, material resources, and impact on natural systems (except the ocean). As a result we are seeing the beginnings of a global restoration of nature.
America tends to be the leader in such trends, and the “American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production.“
Start with agriculture, which “has always been the greatest raper of nature.” Since 1940 yield has decoupled from acreage, and yet the rising yields have not required increasing inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, or water. The yield from corn has become spectacular, and it is overwhelmingly our leading crop, but most of it is fed to cars and livestock rather than people. Corn acreage the size of Iowa is wasted on biofuels. An even greater proportion goes to cows and pigs for conversion to meat.
The animals vary hugely in their efficiency at producing meat. If they were vehicles, we would say that “a steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60.“ (In that scale a farmed fish gets 80 miles per gallon.) Since 1975 beef and pork consumption have leveled off while chicken consumption has soared. “The USA and the world are at peak farmland, “ Ausubel declared, “not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories.” Much more can be done. Ausubel pointed out that just reducing the one-third of the world’s food that is wasted, rolling out the highest-yield techniques worldwide, and abandoning biofuels would free up an area the size of India (1.2 million square miles) to return to nature.
As for forests, nation after nation is going through the “forest transition” from decreasing forest area to increasing. France was the first in 1830. Since then their forests have doubled while their population also doubled. The US transitioned around 1950. A great boon is tree plantations, which have a yield five to ten times greater than logging wild forest. “In recent times,” Ausubel said, “about a third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to increase to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop in half.” Meanwhile the consumption of all wood has leveled off---for fuel, buildings, and, finally, paper. We are at peak timber.
One byproduct of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the longer temperate-zone growing seasons accompanying global warming is greater plant growth. “Global Greening,“ Ausubel said, “is the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by two billion tons or even more.”
Other trendlines show that world population is at peak children, and in the US we are peak car travel and may even be at peak car. The most efficient form of travel, which Ausubel promotes, is maglev trains such as the “Hyperloop“ proposed by Elon Musk. Statistically, horses, trains, cars, and jets all require about one ton of vehicle per passenger. A maglev system would require only one-third of that.
In the ocean, though, trends remain troubling. Unlike on land, we have not yet replaced hunting wild animals with farming. Once refrigeration came along, “the democratization of sushi 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 hundred years ago.“ One fifth of the meat we eat comes from fish, and about 40 percent of that fifth is now grown in fish farms, but too many of the farmed fish are fed with small fish caught at sea. Ausubel recommends vegetarian fish such as tilapia and “persuading salmon and other carnivores to eat tofu,” which has already been done with the Caribbean kingfish. “With smart aquaculture,“ Ausubel said, “life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity.”
When nature rebounds, the wild animals return. Traversing through abandoned farmlands in Europe, wolves, lynx, and brown bears are repopulating lands that haven’t seen them for centuries, and they are being welcomed. Ten thousand foxes roam London. Salmon are back in the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine. Whales have recovered and returned even to the waters off New York. Ausubel concluded with a photo showing a humpback whale breaching, right in line with the Empire State Building in the background.--Stewart Brand
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