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tree plantingDear Editor:

Climate panic is an emerging concern of mine. After a lifetime in procrastinating and minding one’s own business, a large number of early retirees now have time to read up on climate change and global environmental change – and panic. “ACTION NOW!” is something I hear everywhere, currently at the Federal government. Yes, we need to move fast – but in what direction? Our society has lost, or never had, a good compass for finding direction for transitioning human’s role in Earth’s ecosystems. Good ideas, if taken to distant bureaucracies and entrusted into the hands of anonymous corporations, are turning into nightmares.

I’d like to draw your attention to three ongoing nightmares: Biofuels, tree plantations, and conservation. All three seem like excellent ways to curb carbon emissions and draw down carbon from the atmosphere! What happens on the ground, when bureaucrats task corporations to implement that at large scale, is often insanity. Corn for ethanol is turbo-speeding erosion and release of soil carbon into the atmosphere. Adding to the emissions from fertilizer and industrial processing, corn monocultures destroy the soil’s ecosystem functions – as sponge that holds water, creates groundwater, prevents erosion and downstream flooding, as biodiverse habitat, as place that captures carbon. Instead, industrial biofuel farming is freed from most limitations of pesticides and fertilizer use because food safety regulations don’t apply. For the same reason, millions of acres of rainforest were cleared for palm oil plantations. Orang-utans, humans close relatives that have the brains to identify and distinguish hundreds of species of plants, are driven to extinction in the name of climate protection. A new climate ideocracy is tree planting. Yes, we need a revival of forest ecosystems and we need more trees around the world. But what happens if you task governments with planting a billion trees? In Northern China, in Israel, around the Sahara, billions of trees are planted into the desert, irrigated with ancient water supplies that disrupt groundwater aquifers. This is not done by local communities. But large companies fulfill government contracts and bulldoze themselves through traditional communities, planting the largest monocultures that the Earth has seen. Pastoralists are driven away. The result: Neat rows of trees without soil, without a chance to create soil, without animals, without life. That’s not how ecosystems work (for many more examples, read this blog from Allan Savory on tree plantations). The third example is conservation by “leaving nature to itself”. This partly works in our stable Northern climate, but fails in brittle environments where nature relies on large-scale stabilizing ecosystem interactions. In these dry or “brittle” grasslands and savannas, plants and soil dies off if not exposed to grazing action of large ruminants that are herded by predation. In this context, conserving small patches of land just creates deserts – nature would require areas large enough to host large herds and their predators! Instead, in these contexts conservation at too small scale just accelerates ecosystem collapse.

These examples happened because government chose narrow actions (Trees! Bioethanol! Biodiesel! Conservation!) with disregard for larger ecosystem processes and context. Forests are not just trees – forest are an intricate system of soil, microbes, animals, and an abundant variety of trees. In the temperate climate that dominates Europe and much of North America, we get fooled – monoculture tree plantations kinda work here because soils are extremely robust and self-regenerate. Not so in 60-70% of the Earth terrestrial systems where soil is the result of a balanced interaction of low-growing plants (especially grasses), ruminant grazing and predation that induces herd behaviour in the ruminants. Trees do grow in that rich grassland soil – sometimes as Savannah, sometimes as closed canopy. But tree plantations will not create soil and are doomed to die. We must respect ecosystem processes and not let our colonizer ego rule our action. It never worked in the past.

Incoherency has invaded government departments. Did you know that Canada supports Frances 4 per-mille initiative – every year, enhance soil carbon by 0.4%? Canada has signed the France Paris agreement. Did you also know that this was done by the foreign ministry and, hence, only applies for development work outside of Canada, and not to Canada’s own soil? Agricultural ministries across all provinces resist any quantitative goals in regenerating soil. So more tree planting contracts in other countries with our carbon taxes?!? Again, an example how a good idea was turned upside down in the multi-departmental and incoherent maze of our bureaucracies.

To serve the panicking electorate, politicians increasingly call for large-scale silver-bullet technologies that are meant to save us from ourselves. Technologies that appease our collective feeling of guilt. Tree planting! Electric vehicles with Lithium batteries! Let’s Geo-engineer the atmosphere! Let’s build the largest water pipeline of Earth’s history! Carbon removal machines that clean the atmosphere! While all of these actions have virtue in certain contexts, bureaucracies are elevating “silver bullets” into destructive monsters. By throwing tax payer dollars from carbon tax into the hands of large corporations, because only large corporations have the scale to implement mega projects. Be sure- you will never see reporting on failed projects, it’s bad for business. Tax payers need hope and want good news, so people like me – who warn against negative consequences – are silenced.

STOP! We, as people, have to stop our frenzy of panic that calls for blind actions. Large-scale silver bullets don’t exist. Bureaucrats that decide over local communities almost always create more harm than good. Narrow solutions that are not embedded in local contexts will create unintended consequences, where the bad out-does the good. Same with technologies – unless used for a coherent purpose, no technology has ever solved a problem. The coherent purpose is what matters, not the technology! We must take into account the complexity of ecosystem functions, impacts on local communities, as well as the scarcity of our resource base. So beware – if politicians call for “the silver bullet”, make sure to back off. It’s the panic of voters that drives politicians to “do something fast” – almost never successful.

So let’s slow down, and learn about processes, root causes, and unintended consequences. Let’s consult with communities and empower communities to implement what needs to be done locally. Let’s focus on OUR communities, and what has largest impact here. Let’s leave elsewhere to the people who live there. We can support communities, without imposing solutions like Stalin did. Yes, federal guidance and funding is good. We need standardized criteria to assess our impacts, root causes, and we need funding to educate and consult with our local communities. We need solutions that work in our context. There’s plenty of room for federal support. Don’t impose specific actions on us, please. We only have one planet, and we cannot afford another green revolution – our planet will negate its life-sustaining functions for a hundred thousand years. It’s what we call “a fever”.

The human time window is very short. We don’t have time to panic. We must move calmly and purposefully with an understanding of complex ecosystems and human societies. Pause. Please.

Thorsten Arnold




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