Ecosystems—systems, mind you—are as much interconnected and interdependent on us as we are on them. It's a simple premise, but understanding how to mitigate and undo the harm done to the planet by humans is another matter. Caroline Fraser, author of the recently released Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, says it very simply: "Lose the animals, lose the ecosystem. Lose the ecosystems, game over." It isn't just pollution that can be solved by riding a bicycle; exponential population growth, destructive agricultural practices, and the widespread extinction of countless species of native animals are all critical environmental issues that demand the attention of young activists, perhaps moreso than any other issue. And yet, there are so many hopeful examples of people doing just that: responding with the determination and clarity needed to address the growing list of problems our generation faces.
You've really got to read Caroline Fraser's book to get the full scope of the problem—and the myriad solutions—so hopefully this will whet your appetite for more. An extraordinarily gifted writer and thinker, she recently spoke with me about rewilding, biodiversity, and the pitfalls of modern agriculture.
How has modern agriculture and livestock breeding disrupted natural habitats?
The conversion of land to industrial-scale farming and livestock breeding has probably done more to destroy ecosystems than any other form of human land use. To take just a few examples: the Great Plains of North America have largely fallen to huge monoculture farms and cattle ranching, and the same fate recently befell the unique tropical grasslands of South America, as Brazil converted over eighty percent of that ecosystem to soybeans, cotton, sugar, and other crops. The Amazon is now meeting that same fate. In Australia, huge areas of the western third of the continent were plowed under to grow wheat, despite the fact that the aridity of the region—and salt deposits in the soil—argued against it.
While people have benefited from lower prices and easier access to food, researchers are now discovering that we pay a steep price for monoculture and industrial meat production: climate stability has been undermined by the shift from native vegetation (proven to encourage cloud formation in some areas) to non-native crops; dead zones have appeared in the oceans caused by a heavy reliance on fertilizers and pesticides; and water quality and availability has been drastically affected, both by run-off of pollutants and diversion of water to agriculture.
It was astonishing to see the ancient, traditional forms of agriculture still being practiced in Romania, at least in villages like Şinca Nouă, where I visited biologists who are trying to encourage farmers to stay with the old ways. While the lifestyle is physically demanding, the villagers I met scything in the hay fields and pasturing their cattle seemed to be enjoying their lives, and they seemed connected to a place in ways that few Americans are. They've had to change relatively little to bring their agricultural methods in line with organic EU standards. Now they're receiving higher prices for their produce while benefiting from cultural tourism and ecotourism. It seemed like a model that might well prove successful in other towns in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
What are some of the challenges at the intersection of poverty relief and biological conservation?
A Kenyan biologist named Joseph Kirathe once told me, "Working with communities is very tricky." Conservation hasn't always done a good job of combining its own goals with human aid. But I think a lot has been learned over the past decade or so. Some projects seem to be turning a corner, finding ways to respect the rights and autonomy of native people while offering them real incentives to practice land management that achieves conservation. Finding ways to reduce poaching—the multi-million illegal trafficking in wildlife products that has nearly wiped out rhinos in Africa and tigers in Asia—has been particularly difficult.
One country, Namibia, has found a way to attack the problem by granting communities the right to form wildlife "conservancies," legal entities that grant rights and responsibilities. The conservancy members themselves act as law-enforcement on their own land; in return, they receive the limited right to hunt for meat, harvest native plants, and sell lucrative hunting permits, reaping the rewards of ecotourism. So far, communities have seen significant tourism revenues, and some species—including black rhino—have bounced back.
What are some of the ways everyday people can be involved in conservation?
People can contribute enormously to conservation. Here in Santa Fe, where I live, volunteers are helping local groups plant native species of cottonwood and willow trees along the banks of the severely-degraded Santa Fe River, kids are helping to remove invasive species, and we're seeing incredible gains in some areas: beavers are returning, the riverbanks are stabilizing, and people are starting to see the potential recreational and tourism benefits. And it looks so much better—like a living river instead of a dead ditch!
In the UK, one university is encouraging gardeners to form interconnected habitat networks out of their backyards: planting native species, putting in nest-boxes, and tending backyard ponds. Backyard gardens and hedgerows provide valuable connectivity for wildlife and stopover-spots for birds; in the British city of Leeds, private gardens cover some thirty percent of the urban area.
When it comes to predators, try to calm irrational fears and phobias: do everything you can to support predator reintroduction and protection. Those top species—wolves, bears, mountain lions—are critical to maintaining functional ecosystems for everyone.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is realize how important ecosystems are and how dependent we are on them. We cannot live without them: ecosystem services are now estimated to be worth $2-5 trillion dollars a year. In the film Avatar, the researcher played by Sigourney Weaver says slightingly of Earth, "There's no green there. They killed their Mother." We have every reason in the world—economic, political, aesthetic, moral—not to let that happen.