GREENING OF THE ECONOMY: REGREENING OF THE EARTH
August 18, 2003
Robert M. Dixon, Ph.D
Greening of the economy and regreening of the earth go hand-in-hand because they are mutually creative and interdependent processes. Greening of the economy will depend on nature appreciation in the deepest sense of these two words. Past nature appreciation has been somewhat superficial, much like giving thanks for the appetizing food set on the dinner table. We seem to think that natural resources have been provided for us by a supernatural power and that not to consume them with a great deal of gusto would show disrespect for that power. By all means consume, don't conserve! Thus we have set ourselves (humans that is) apart from nature with nature's only purpose being to meet our consumptive appetites. Acting on this viewpoint, we have mined natural resources as if the supply was infinite. Topsoils have been mined into the subsoil, forests have been cleared for fuel and lumber and to make room for cultivated crops and pastures. Similarly prairies & savannas have been overgrazed by livestock and plowed for growing high yielding annual crops without even considering the value of the natural ecosystems that were degraded or displaced.
Overgrazing and culture of annual crops leaves the soil surface inadequately covered with vegetation and thus vulnerable to accelerated wind and water erosion of topsoil. Soil organic matter is the first casualty of soil erosion. Lacking organic matter, topsoil structure breaks down, the soil surface seals and smoothes under impacting raindrops and rainwater runs downslope (rather than infiltrating) causing flash flooding and excessive sedimentation of the lowlands. Reduced infiltration in the uplands, dehydrates the soil and reduces groundwater recharge; thereby reducing the groundwater discharge to springs and rivers.
Such natural resource degradation adds up to what we now call land desertification or the browning (dehydrating) of the earth as vegetation becomes increasingly sparse because of large losses in soil and water resources. Thus in retrospect our view as being apart from nature has resulted in a brown earth and a brown economy at a time when our need for natural resources is greater than ever, given our 6 billion plus global population. We now need to learn how to become a relatively benign part of nature instead of parasitically foraging off of nature, disrupting natural ecosystems in the process. It's a dumb parasite that destroys its host, its habitat.
We need to develop a deep appreciation for nature and our place in it. How can we become a cooperative (complementary) member of natural ecosystems rather than being competitive or destructive? Once we learn how to adapt to nature rather than adapting nature to meet our needs, we've made some progress.
Natural ecosystems usually have great biodiversity being a product of thousands if not millions and even billions of years of evolution. They are very productive both in materials and services that are of great importance to humans and other life forms with which we share this planet. In greening the economy, we need to learn how to evaluate the products and services of natural ecosystems. We can learn much from indigenous human communities that have lived as a part of natural ecosystems. I think that we will discover that an acre of a natural ecosystem is much more valuable than a corresponding acre of corn, wheat, and soybeans or some other major monocultural crop that are grown on vast acreages around the world, the culture of which have destroyed countless natural ecosystems.
Once we have determined the true value of nature we can instill this information in the minds of our children and we can begin the naturalization (ecological restoration) of vast areas around the earth disturbed by various human activities including agriculture, industrialization and urbanization.
The author has specialized in the development of methods for low-cost restoration of degraded land on a broadscale. As indicated previously, re-greening of the earth and greening of the economy go hand-in-hand. Funds for regreening of the earth will not become available until the world economy is greened somewhat or until we know the true benefits of re-greening or restoring an acre of land. Then the benefit/cost ratio will be so large that to not restore would be economically unjustifiable.
Ranchers in southern Arizona have found the benefit/cost ratio to be favorable enough to justify restoring perennial grasses in their degraded range ecosystems when only the forage benefit was considered. Other benefits, not considered, were infiltration acceleration and reductions in rainwater runoff, water erosion, downslope flooding, sedimentation and pollution; all of which benefit the general public. The ranchers used a low-cost method called land imprinting on more than 50,000 acres since 1980. This is the method we have been developing for the past quarter century.
To summarize: it is becoming increasingly apparent that a sustainable economy will of necessity be a green economy. Among other things, a green economy will require the availability and use of low-cost methods for re-greening the earth or for restoring the natural resource base. Short-term profit makes the regreening process much more feasible, both economically and politically.