DG’s Column

Planet Earth is not a delicately balanced benign Being, but forests and trees can help

Humanity can redefine the Anthropocene
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Fishing on the Congo River between Kinshasa and Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

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During the recent Global Forest Summit, I was asked whether humans were responsible for the various crises we are facing: biodiversity loss; climate change; growing inequalities; unsustainable value chains and food systems.

I was also asked to share my views on the depth of these issues and whether we can change many of the fundamental ways we behave quickly enough to avoid the collapse of civilization as we know it.

This got me thinking and I decided to jot down some thoughts and elaborate on the answers I provided during the discussion.

We humans tend to believe we are special – something also argued in many of our main religions or constitutions. In a sense we are. Humans are the unique super-predator of our world. There is no one species we cannot kill, and while we are a mere fraction of a percent of the living biomass, we have altered and overused our world so much that we have also created a special geological age: “the Anthropocene.”

In our modern, technology-driven era, we believe nature is something tamed that we can manage through the powers of technology. Planes take off and land in all but the most intense storms. Dams hold back powerful rivers, control the flow of water and provide irrigation. Megacities emerge where there was once only desert or dense forest.

Overall, we see Earth as a benign being, quiescent, harmonious, and providing for us. This is a very dangerous mistake built on nothing more than right timing and the vicissitudes of planetary evolution.

Yet, Earth is a wrathful Titan absorbing the equivalent of a billion atomic bombs’ worth of solar energy every day. This activity feeds powerful energy cascades in coupled systems of jet streams, turbulent rivers of air and water, planetary-sized oceanic currents, global photosynthesis. All these titanic systems and the related fluxes of energy appear stable, but this is a wrong impression – they are highly dynamic and very often hover at the edge of a tipping off point.

Tipping points are rapid, brutal changes in Socio-Ecological Systems (SES) triggered by slow variables. They have been mostly local in recent (200-years) history. Classic examples are when rivers or lakes experience eutrophication.  When tipping points are crossed, an SES flips into another stable but different state and it becomes almost impossible or exceedingly expensive and difficult to reverse the process. This is eventually manageable locally.

Unfortunately, in the Anthropocene, which — despite being the subject of some debate — replaces the Holocene epoch, our influence on planetary systems has become global for the first time in human history. These activities over the past 100 years have led to several planetary-wide processes that appear close to reaching their tipping points.

For forests, the increasing aridity of the Amazon and its transformation into savanna is one of these planetary tipping points.

Alas, this is not the only one of these global environmental processes that are on the verge of “tipping” and folding into another stable state.  Where we might be in more trouble than we think – if possible — is through the recent recognition that these planetary tipping points are not independent of each other as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Facing these titanic forces, humans do not matter – we just do not factor. Fossil records tell us 99 percent of the species that existed since life appeared are extinct. The Earth does not need us. We might not survive the sixth mass extinction we are triggering, but life will survive, and the Earth will be there till the sun swallows it when our star finally explodes.

If we want to beat the odds and last a bit more than the average civilization (about 300 years – we are almost there) or species (1 million years — Homo sapiens has existed for 0.75 million years), we need to seriously take matters into our own hands.

Our ancestors did not know about the impending disasters; they lived in local — yet powerful – civilizations. “Natural” selection was more a response to the need for rapid, instantaneous action geared to imminent threat (for example, a jaguar jumping). There was little they could have done even if they knew great danger loomed. We know and we have known for decades; we are the first globalized civilization and for us slow changes in the background are proving to be the most lethal threats. Society has demonstrated the capacity to mobilize, make sacrifices and changes to outdo a rival or to defeat an enemy at the gates.

Fixing one issue will not work if we do not fix the others. Because we are not yet sure of the cascading nature or not of these potential tipping points, it is also difficult to do some triage. Where to start? What to prioritize? Where to let go?

Can we do something about it, and if yes, what can we do?

This is where we need to introduce another concept: social tipping points. Social tipping points are a concept that emerged rather recently (Gladwell 2000). They are based on the same concept of rapid or brutal change that is triggered by an evolution of a set of slow variables acting in the background. “The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”

In the climate agenda, social tipping points are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Possible social tipping point elements that could help with our impending environmental collapse are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Although the current picture is bleak (and see the recent U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change report on the Nationally Determined Contributions delivery by parties to the Paris Agreement) and our collective efforts seem to go in the wrong direction: more greenhouse gases, more diversity loss, etc. we cannot afford to go along with the pessimist views, cover ourselves in ashes and be the prophets of doom! We have a moral obligation to remain optimistic and not resign to fate and Judgement Day.

Scientists should develop better ways of evaluating and regulating the use of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. We must continually call attention to the need to improve the human epidemiological environment (think COVID-19?). We must expand our efforts in understanding how cooperation evolves because avoiding collapse will require unusual levels of it at all possible levels.

At the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) we intend to continue advocating for more research and promoting the role of forests and trees in mitigating or adapting to the crises we are facing.

Why forests and trees? Healthy forests, agroforests, and trees on farms:

  • Maintain biodiversity attributes necessary to the provision of many ecosystem services, from carbon storage to pollination or soil fertility.
  • Slow climate change and increase resilience by sequestering carbon, replacing GHG intensive materials (cement, steel…) by wood-based equivalents, through forest landscape restoration.
  • Create jobs and wealth through various tree-based related value-chains producing wood, cocoa, coffee, rubber, fruits to name a few.
  • Sustain agriculture through pollination, pest control, micro-climate buffering and water regulation.
  • Contribute to the four dimensions of food security: availability, access, use and stability over time.
  • Are an integral part of any One Health approach by sustaining diet diversity, controlling emerging diseases, offering beauty and well-being.

Of course, we are not immune to the external disaster (e.g., the next asteroid or mega-volcano eruption) and there is not much we can do about it. However, we can and must do something about the Anthropocene and shift it from its characterization as the geological epoch where we changed our behavior, transformed the planet and shifted the curve.

This metamorphosis will require more than whatever the science community can do on its own tinkering around the edges.

To quote Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2013): “All nations need to stop waiting for others to act and be willing to do everything they can to mitigate emissions and hasten the energy transition, regardless of what others are doing.”

But we need strong “pressure” applied to do so and we must have our priorities right. As long as we are able to spend annually $1.7 trillion annually in military equipment but unable to secure $100 billion to address the climate crisis, we won’t make it.

Design support for Figures 1 & 2 by Putra Perdana Maulansyah.

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