Sightings from the Treehouse: Work with Creation, Not Against It, Part 1
Sightings from the Treehouse is an investigative blog series on climate change and the environment, from GIPL’s Power Wise Director, Bob Donaghue. You can read all the posts from the blog series here.
Creation has evolved over billions of years and has formed ecosystems that contain both living and non-living components that interact as a unit. The late Dr. Eugene Odum, the father of modern ecology, taught at the University of Georgia where he developed the collaborative approach of systems ecology. Systems ecology views the interactions among plants, animals, non-living components and society holistically. Everything is connected by the flow of matter and energy through the ecosystem both locally and globally, and it is cyclical. Decaying organic matter serves as food for the next generation of organisms, unlike man-made systems in which industrial processes are typically linear: “Take, Make and Waste.” Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution highlights closing the loop in industrial processes to reclaim wastes as raw material thus mimicking nature.
The ecosystem (spaghetti) diagram of a city below illustrates the complex interactions between natural and man-made systems fueled primarily by the sun with secondary inputs by man (forcing functions). Creation is complex and decisions about how to use it must consider this complexity, otherwise negative consequences such as global warming, mercury pollution of our environment, dead zones in our oceans are the result.
Ecosystems provide services to our planet and to us. These services are the natural capital provided by nature that sustains society and its businesses. Ecosystem services are not typically evaluated in business decisions. Two examples are greenhouse gas emissions which causes global warming and the impacts of pesticides on pollination. As a result, we waste and degrade the natural capital provided by Creation and damage our world as described below.
Ecosystem services are broken down into four categories:
According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), two-thirds of ecosystem services evaluated globally have been degraded over the past 50 years by exploitation, bad land use decisions, and now climate change. The scarcity of freshwater is growing and currently affects at least one billion people. Mountain and forest ecosystems serve as renewable freshwater sources to over two thirds of the global populations, while seasonal glacial melt water provide drinking water to numerous populations globally.
Worldwide fishery stocks peaked in the 1980’s due to over exploitation, while ocean warming is stressing fish populations further causing some cold-water fisheries to migrate to cooler northern waters. About 35 percent of the world’s mangroves and 30 percent of coral reefs have been lost since 1980, resulting in the loss of their ecosystem services; one being the buffering of coastal areas from violent storms.
Nearly 26,000 plant species, 1,100 mammals, 1,200 birds, 700 freshwater fish and hundreds of reptiles and amphibians are threatened with extinctions according to the World Resources Institute. This represents a huge loss of natural capital and Creation’s creatures. What would Noah think?
The scale of negative human impacts is growing and accumulating to fundamentally affect the ability of Creation to continue to supply these services. Ultimately, we do not know how resilient nature is to absorb this damage, but signs of distress are growing.
Besides providing services vital to human life and society, Creation can also inspire and teach us many of the solutions to radically reduce the impacts threatening its vitality. Biomimicry is the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.
Nature has solved many of the problems facing its existence through billions of years of evolution. Those changes that did not make a species better suited to its environment were rejected generally through extinction, however those traits that succeeded have been passed down from generation to generation of species and contain the secrets of their survival.
Lessons from Creation
Some examples of biomimicry include emulating prairies to grow food sustainably and with resilience. The development of a pain-free needle by understanding how mosquitoes can bite you without your awareness is another. Nature provides many architectural models such as a building in Africa whose internal climate control system is based on the internal structure of termite mounds and their natural cooling ability. These genetic adaptations in nature and the knowledge they provide are also gifts of Creation.
Some lessons are quite clear:
- Derive energy from the sun, wind and water.
- Maintain diversity and redundancy.
- Support symbiotic, cooperative relationships.
- Transition to cyclical, zero waste industrial processes.
- Use renewable or recycled materials.
- Mimic natural biochemical processes that do not require toxic chemicals or heat.
- Design with nature, not against it.
- Design by nature (biomimicry).
- Preserve and restore natural ecosystems.
- Protect and enhance ecosystem services.
These concepts make up some of the 100 technologies, strategies and behaviors, if scaled up and implemented over the next 30 years, could stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and eventually draw them down to safer levels according to Paul Hawken, entrepreneur, author and environmentalist. The next blog (Part 2) will describe a series of approaches that apply the lessons of Creation in Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken.