Exposing Environmental Big Lies
This is chapter 8 of my book, A Natural Language, which exposes the environmental narrative as propaganda and puts bottom-up solutions in front of the actual problem.
This poor land stewardship and the desertification it causes produce enthralling natural calamities. Tales of extinctions, fires, floods, droughts, and other prophecies are fueling panicked urgency among children and young adults, and panicked despair among guilt tripped parents. Scientific scripture says that the apocalypse is looming. Or rather, so says the terrifying version of the scientific scripture relayed by corporate media outlets and philanthropy funded outfits. These outlets convey an impression of inevitability and disempowerment that, bluntly, is unwarranted.
The extinction crisis, for instance, is spurious as a concept. It hinges on authoritarians trying to jam species in a taxonomy instead of looking into their ecosystem functions. Take white rhinos to illustrate. You can introduce new rhinos — any rhinos — where the last two white rhinos are at. The last white rhinos might even try to breed with them. Even if not, the locally born offspring will adapt to their new environment just fine. The ecosystem will shrug and move on. If a key ecosystem function turns out to be lost or if a favorite food is missing, you can introduce other species. If a new species turns out to be invasive, you can bring in a predator. So-called non-natives work for this too. The idea of native versus non-native is as classist and xenophobic for species as it is for people. Conservancy hinges on concepts that only impress authoritarians and inept land stewards. We could reintroduce rhinos in Europe if we wanted.
The extinction crisis doesn’t materialize in the details, either. Polar bears, which are colloquially known to be endangered by global warming, are enjoying a longer feeding season. Their numbers are growing. They’re also mating with grizzlies. That makes the two groups no more different than our human ancestors were from the hominids that they picked up genes from. If anything, rewilding efforts show that species with low member counts from lack of habitat are usually doing fine. Species bounce back when we let them. Nothing tells that story better than the contradictions of a scientist who warns of plummeting insect numbers and then explains how to create a garden that is chock full of insects. The insects just need some poison-free habitat. We don’t need to rewild huge chunks of the planet to give them that — a small corner where nature can have fun on its own terms will do just fine. For the rest, we can simply design species into our ecosystems to get the ones we need where we need them.
In passing, we don’t need authoritarian breeding methods to get the traits we want, either. Breeders who aspire to get what’s best using artificial insemination and genetic engineering create all sorts of lousy consequences. One is that monopolists control the genes that they deem desirable. The other is that low genetic diversity makes unsavory traits more likely. Many dog breeds, for instance, have health issues. Natural breeds like the Africanis don’t. Hunters are not left wanting: no animal on this planet obsesses about trophies the way we do. It weeds out desirable traits and selects the runts. To wit, the size of fish dropped when technocrats saddled fishermen with minimum catch sizes. It’s like the weeds in your lawn that seem to grow closer to the ground every year (where the mower will let them go to seed). It’s more effective to flip things around and mob breed unwanted traits out of the herd instead. You do that by setting a good enough baseline: fit for purpose, docile, pest-free, low hurdle, and so forth. You then keep the animals that meet that baseline. Epigenetics works for this purpose too: keep the animals that shrug off a smaller ration or a colder barn. Plants are more of the same: save the seeds of those that did fine in frost. As to hunting, other animals go after the runts. The idea is the same each time: nature selects good enough, not best. Survival of the fittest is a fairytale that was invented by racists and eugenicists.
Raging wildfires are another class of disasters that captures climate change headlines. There are good reasons to think that wildfires are getting worse, but they are not worth spooking our youths about. One is reporting bias: more people are living near wildfire-prone forests, so more people are affected. Drier landscapes and poorly designed logging roads that channel moisture downhill are another. Loggers that leave too much slash behind instead of selling the stuff to wood pellet makers are yet another. Poorly maintained fire breaks and forests are yet another still. That one is especially egregious in drylands like California. Goats will enthusiastically climb up and down steep hills all day to munch on whatever grows beneath those power lines. They’ll clear overgrowth in fire breaks and forests just fine. They produce milk and meat as a bonus.
The nature of tree plantations also makes wildfires worse. Tree plantations are fields full of trees, all the same age and size, sitting next to other such fields. These are usually fire-adapted forest edge tree species at that. Those are trees whose small branches burn fast to make the fire move on before causing serious damage. (Deeper forest tree species resist fire by being too moist to burn well.) When such a tree catches fire, the trees next to it are similarly sized. The flames spread to other trees, and the entire field goes on to ignite like a match box. This lights up the canopy of the next field, and so on until things turn into an inferno. When loggers offer to clear emergency fire breaks to save their future harvests, authorities don’t always let them citing security concerns. That is fair, but creates even bigger fires. Conversely, loggers routinely offer to clear up burnt areas. That does not help because the result will usually be a new tree plantation, where a burnt landscape would recover just fine.
Floods stand out among these calamities for being the deadliest, most destructive, and most ubiquitous environmental disasters in history. Water is far denser than air. That makes it great to harvest energy from when it is under control, and a violent force to be reckoned with when it is not. Floods are one of the few natural disasters able to cause over a million deaths. Just about every region deals with floods from time to time, be it because of rainfalls, snowmelt, tides, hurricanes, tsunamis, or other. Even drylands and deserts. Especially those, in fact. Drylands can be thought of as drought-prone flood zones. Oases are natural catchments that desert flash floods flow into. Topsoil loss creates water runoffs that create floods, so it makes sense that drying landscapes would make floods more common — with or without more hurricanes.
At the same time, population settlements, governments, and infrastructure make floods a more complex story. People introduce a bias by magnifying the reported damage and effects. Floods would not be as newsworthy if no one lived in flood prone areas, and especially not in areas designed to be floodwater catchments. Government sponsored flood insurance programs and bailouts are the only things that enable this malpractice. This is all confounding, yet still dwarfed by our poorly designed landscapes. Ubiquitous asphalt in urban areas prevents water from soaking in. Roads and artificial waterways channel water downstream faster than it would normally flow. The same goes for fields with poor soil and no features to slow down water. Our landscapes could not be better designed if the goal was to stream water into catchments as fast as possible. It is like pouring water in a tub far faster than it can drain. It can only result in floods once dams are full. Speaking of dams, no one is purposefully flooding the countryside to keep cities safe officially, but let’s not be childish about what is going on, shall we?
These man-made issues are all the more appalling that they are mostly avoidable. Farm fields can be engineered to harvest rainwater. You can strategically place catchments, and use on-contour subsoiling, swales, and hedgerows. Creeks can be engineered to slow down water. You can use heavy boulders or small dams to absorb the kinetic energy and then let the water accumulate in ponds. This gives water more time to soak into nearby fields, while creating habitat for more fish. Landscape infrastructure can be engineered to slow water down, too. like the roads and canals that create accidental forests in drylands. They can also let water flow through towards features that will, like the road accesses in well designed gardens and farm fields. To be clear, this is not to say that we could soak up an atmospheric river like the one that turned California’s Central Valley into a lake for months in 1862. What it means is that countless examples show that pacifying a hurricane worth of rainfall is possible.
In addition, water harvesting activities to avoid floods also rehydrate landscapes and make them more drought resistant. Harvesting water allows the land to carry more plants. In particular, more trees. It creates more inland rain. It fills aquifers. It creates new springs. It revives dried up rivers that are no longer perennial. A good example of this in action is the work of the Paani Foundation in Maharashtra, India. It organized water harvesting competitions between villages that accomplished all of that and then some. Another good example is Al-Baydha in Saudi Arabia, where the astute use of swales is turning a parched desert landscape into a savanna. There is a case to be made that poor land stewardship is behind most floods and droughts. Example after example show that there is no fatality in either. Well designed earthworks are all we need to rehydrate our landscapes and influence the water cycle.