Just like millions of people, young and old, all around the world, I see the devastating results of the past two centuries of industrial activity on our natural habitats and I feel saddened and concerned for the future. A brief look at the causes of most environmental destruction leaves us with a sense of despair at human stupidity and shortsightedness. But this very insight also contains the key to hope, and a better way forward. The obvious lack of design and systems thinking that is at the root of much of the destruction we have witnessed can be addressed by correcting the design (or lack thereof), at the process level. As a species, we now have more power and information available to us than at any other time in our known history. It is time to design the future we want!
Prairie land around the world is fast disappearing, but demand for the meat products of large ruminants keeps growing. The vast grasslands where American cowboys, Mongolian nomads and Argentinian Gauchos alike tended large herds of cattle are being taken over by industrialized agriculture, hydroelectric dams, mines, urban sprawl and creeping desertification.
Many have raised the battle cry for a shift to a plant based diet, eschewing the meat industry largely because its clear links to environmental destruction, unethical treatment of animals and greenhouse gas emissions. But the proposed alternative of relying on grains and legumes almost exclusively also creates destructive pressures on landscapes and communities, and is likely not the solution that many might idealize it to be.
Among the problems created by planting enormous fields of annual crops is quickly degrading soil fertility leading to further desertification. In the United States alone, millions of hectares of native prairie have been destroyed to make way for vast plantations of corn, soy and sorghum which all rely on on intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, turning the iconic prairie paradise into what is essentially a nutrient strip mine. While it is true that a large portion of these grains go to animal feedlots, which are major contributors to greenhouse emissions, groundwater contamination and environmental destruction, the mass production of “meat alternative” grains and legumes is no different.
The world cannot be fed sustainably through concentrated animal feedlot operations, but it is also questionable whether 8 or 10 billion people can rely on mass industrial farm production without devastating what forest and prairie ecosystems we have left.
Human societies have evolved and organized around a diversity of food sources, which include hunted, gathered, farmed and pastured nutrients. Almost invariably throughout history, large ruminants and grassland ecosystems have been a part of our cultures and diet. In addition to grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, ready access to pasture or prairie, and the animals in them, have been essential to our development. Studies of paleolithic anthropology even suggest that our large brain development is directly linked to the availability of concentrated protein in the form of meat.
In the same way that the forests of the world have been tended to and used by human groups in sustainable ways during thousands of years, so have the prairies, steppes, savannas and grasslands of the world – organized around management of animals that roam and graze. Industrialized animal farming is wasteful, cruel and environmentally destructive, but this does not mean that abandoning our millennial relationship to grazing animals and their ecosystems is a solution to out current ecological crisis.
A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognizes the importance of diversified farming practices for climate change mitigation. The report highlights the need to meet human dietary requirements with sustainable and low-emission technologies, and recognizes the important role of sustainable pasture and livestock within these integrated systems.
In this case, technology does not mean more tractors and designer chemicals, but rather a re-evaluation of traditional and sustainable farming practices, as well as ongoing research and integration with regenerative techniques that can sustain the varied dietary needs of our still growing population.
Currently, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change. This is mostly due to a focus on scaling and industrialization of food production. If instead we focus on scaling integrated, diversified and regenerative farming methods – ones that don’t focus on single cash crops but combine food forests, annual and perennial crops, farm animals, grassland ruminants and nitrogen fixing forage – farming could become one of the most effective tools for carbon capture, in addition to feeding the world.
Even on large farms, grazing animals can be incorporated to produce not only meat and dairy, but also manage soil fertility, control pests and even provide gas for cooking and powering motors.
And what about those rapidly disappearing expanses of prairie, savanna, and grassland? Restoring these ecosystems is a major challenge for our future, but the science is clear: a rich and healthy grassland captures more carbon, cycles more nutrients, retains more water and is more drought resistant than pretty much anything aside from a mature and diverse forest. In many cases, restoring degraded environments to pasture or prairie is a necessary first step towards regenerating a forest, but as has been demonstrated in the great American prairie, stable grasslands can harbor rich biodiversity and be important carbon sinks in and of themselves. Large ruminants play an essential role in maintaining the ecosystems and the myriad species that within them.
A large scale shift towards regenerative agriculture is the challenge we now face, integrated farms must replace industrialized mono cropping, and vast expanses of restored prairie must be managed collectively to allow for herds of bison, yaks, or whatever ruminants are native and appropriate to an area, to roam and cycle through the territory in managed ways.
It will not suffice to sit in our urban environments and think that by choosing a processed meatless burger we are in any way contributing to climate change mitigation or environmental restoration. We must become involved in our food production systems, and understand there is no on-shot solution.
If we are to restore balance in our relationship to nature, the prairie, as well as the forest, must return to its central role in our productive lives, livelihoods and culture; There will not be a significant grassland restoration unless it contributes to meeting an essential human need. The valuable nutrient concentration, as well as the environmental services, that ruminant herds provide are the key for grassland ecosystems to once more become a priority.
It is no secret that industrialized agriculture causes a sharp decline in soil fertility. With ever larger and more efficient tractors to plant and harvest, fields have grown to massive sizes in the past century, farms have consolidated into large corporate operations, and the allure of focusing on one or two cash crops has grown on par. The lack of diversity in monocrop plantations means that important plant nutrients used by crops to grow are not replenished in the soil, and the technological solution to this problem is to simply spray the required nitrogen or other “fertilizer” onto the fields, creating an industry that borrows heavily from technologies of war developed from the 1940’s onward.
The problem is that in spite of continuous and ever growing amounts of “fertilizer”, the productivity of the soil continues to decline. Purchased nutrients and chemicals added to the soil eventually concentrate into serious contaminants, affecting human as well as ecosystem health – not to mention negative impacts on productivity as fields must be “rested” for ever longer periods to become viable for cultivation again, and eventually becoming desolate dust bowls.
In the short term, industrialized agriculture seems like a good way to producing large amounts of cash crops to sell in a commodity market, but over time it is proving to be a path to desertification, as well as the engineered downfall of small hold and cooperative farmers.
It seems agricultural engineers forgot that production must not destroy productivity, and maybe did not have it all figured out after all. One of the most damning examples of their shortsightedness is a complete disregard and ignorance of the soil microbiome. This factor alone is enough to demonstrate that industrial agriculture in not a viable solution for feeding humans on earth in the long term.
The bacteria and fungi that thrive in biodiverse and well-covered dirt are in fact the foundation of the food chain. The rich mulch one finds in ancient forest floors or the earthy loam of robust prairie ecosystems are homes to millions of microscopic organisms which perform essential biological functions that help create healthy, productive soil.
Bacteria do things such such as fix nitrogen to soil and oxidize sulfur, making these important nutrients available to growing plants. They can also prevent disease and pests, and play an important role in early decomposition of organic matter.
Fungi develop mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships with plants at the root, allowing the plant to better absorb nutrients and water. They also protect plants from pathogens and pests, and can also produce fruiting bodies of their own which are edible or medicinal to humans.
Of course there are some bacteria and fungi which can be detrimental to plants, and these often dominate in disturbed environments such as intensive monocrop fields, a process which in turn leads to the application of toxic fungicides and quickens the desertification process.
Modern industrial agriculture has missed the boat on understanding the importance of soil ecology and will have a lot of catching up to do to maintain fertility and crop yields in the future. Another area where an understanding of the secret life of roots and bugs can yield promising results is ecosystem restoration.
From farms to forests to urban parks, a new generation of environmentalists with a mandate to mitigate impacts of climate change by capturing carbon in soil and forests, through a process of restoring thriving ecosystems, are leading the charge – and recruiting help from the smallest of organisms: the single cell bacteria and fungi that create the conditions for their initiatives to thrive.
The work of Shubendu Sharma and the Afforestt company, is a good example example. They offer to grow a 100 year forest in only 10 years in degraded landscapes. Sharma’s company offers consulting and direct restoration services and have had considerable success is growing small, biodiverse forests in a variety of environments using local species. Their secret? Among other techniques, the liberal application of thick mulch and organic cover is essential, allowing for soil ecology to develop and sustain the growing successions necessary to develop healthy forests.
Soil4Climate is another initiative where farmers, environmentalists and academics converge to promote an understanding of the critical importance of soil ecology to the future of our planet, and are leveraging this shared knowledge to transform their corners of the world.
Soil4Climate is made up of people like Timothy Kercheville, a farmer in Kentuky who has transformed his acreage into restored prairie. His experience has lead to an understanding of the import role of grassland ruminants to his local environment. He is advocating for responsible meat production as part of restorative agriculture in the parries. Kercheville proposes that annual crops should be limited to a small fraction of the millions of acres currently being tilled, in favor native grasses, woodlands and biological diversity.
Similar examples can be found around the world, as individuals and communities grow in their awareness of the invisible living webs that make plant growth, and by extension all life on earth, possible.
More good news is coming, as the scientific community continues to look into the importance of soil biomes in everything from forestry to agriculture to carbon capture. Large intergovernmental organizations such as the IPCC and the IUCN are also taking note, and developing their own policy positions.
As awareness of the secret life of roots and bugs continues to grow, we can only hope we will see the ongoing rise of more conscientious and careful agriculture, livestock farming, forest management and restoration efforts. It is also important to keep pushing these issues into the public spotlight, holding leaders and political actors accountable for policies that have an impact on the smallest (but enormously important), living things.
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another:” -Mahatma Ghandi
This jewel of Ghandean wisdom is the inspiring principle of the Brain Youth Group, an ecosystem restoration and awareness initiative in Kenya and the brain child of Mbaarak Abdalla.
The mangrove restoration work they do is a showcase example of what may be the cutting edge in the battle against climate catastrophe: Community led restoration initiatives that include livelihood initiatives for local people.
Mbaarak Abdalla is a young man from the outskirts of Mombasa, Kenya, who has overcome many challenges to embark on a career that has lead him into landscape management, small business and even international organizing. “It’s just talent!”, he laughingly comments when I ask him how he became a community leader despite a lack of access to higher education and other opportunities many take for granted.
Tudor Creek is one of two main water bodies separating Mombasa Island and city from the mainland. The fertile inlet was until recent times the site of around 1,700 hectares of mangrove forest and an important site for fish reproduction and sensitive species. In addition to the local biodiversity, traditional livelihoods and culture have revolved around this ecosystem, and both have been severely impacted by the loss of the forest, of which less than 200 hectares remain.
Mbaarak has faced the impoverishment that inevitably accompanies ecosystem destruction; From loss of income sources, malnutrition, social fragmentation and even the HIV epidemic, he has witnessed what happens to people when the forest is destroyed, and understood that people who inhabit a rich forest are never truly poor.
The Brain Youth Group began organizing in 2011 with the specific goal of bringing back the mangroves at Tudor Creek. A mangrove nursery was built along with fish ponds and beehives to provide revenue streams for local people and incentivize further reforestation efforts. The group has now planted over 100,000 mangrove trees with a reported 84% survival rate.
Mbaarak and the BYG have a long road ahead if they are to meet the goal of fully restoring the mangroves at Tudor Creek, but as the mangrove trees mature along with the wealth of the forest many more communities, organizations and even governments may take notice. Hopefully the next 100,000 trees at Tudor Creek will be planted in a fraction of the time.
Restoration is the future of environmentalism, and the leading edge in the fight for a livable planet. The BRG is one link in a worldwide network of ecosystem restoration initiatives that are becoming increasingly visible, interconnected and recognized. As the value of healthy ecosystems and the benefits of nature to humans become more explicitly understood and accounted for, pioneers like Mbaarak will be hailed and recognized as the heroes they are.
To support the BYG get in touch with Mbaarak at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ecological conservation will always be important as long as there are ecosystems left to conserve, but the future of biological diversity – and by extension the viability of a planet habitable for humans – will hinge on our ability and willingness to reforest, rewild and restore landscapes, transforming them from devastated and often toxic deserts into self sustaining and self cleaning forests.
In order for reforestation and ecosystem restoration efforts to be effective on the scale required to curb the worst effects of climate change, these cannot rely on donations and government programs. Non-profits and NGOs have undoubtedly done great good in many places and contributed to ecological restoration and human livelihood, but this model is simply not scaleable to the degree our current predicament requires.
Fortunately, the value of biodiversity and Nature’s contributions to people are becoming better understood each day. Agreements being made at the inter-governmental policy level around this new understanding of the value of Nature. In addition, public awareness and “ecological malaise” are building pressure to address the accelerating decline of our natural environment.
The impetus for re-greening projects provided by carbon tax and trade initiatives has yielded results in many areas that have led to improved livelihoods and quality of life for local and Indigenous communities. As the tangible benefits of diverse landscapes become apparent, investors looking for opportunities in a rising green economy are taking note.
From productive mangrove regeneration projects along the coast of Kenya to coffee and cocoa forests in Southern Mexico, examples of ecologically and economically successful ecosystem restoration efforts are growing. The tide is shifting away from an aid mentality towards one of investment and collaboration.
This is a crucial time when the biological expertise of long-ignored environmental practitioners such as permaculturalists and food forest gardeners is rapidly gaining recognition. It is a time to organize new guilds and write business plans. It is a time for new accounting practices that measure and manage ecosystem services.
Beyond carbon capture, accurate measurements for water retention and purification, soil fertility, oxygen generation and the productive yields of biodiverse landscapes must be developed and included in planning and design stages for all development projects.
By the same token, the risks and costs of degrading and disrupting these ecosystem services must owned by the entities profiting, and a full account of environmental injuries must be made.
The days of corporate profits being subsidized by wholesale ecosystem destruction are coming to an end. Smart investors are beginning to see that sustainable returns based on sound ethics are the way forward.
Organizations and communities already working on ecosystem restoration should not be afraid to put themselves forward as service providers, with full confidence in the value and marketability of their expertise.
Ecosystem restoration and the productive opportunities this creates are without a doubt the future of environmentalism.
The nutrient and calorie density of the red palm fruit makes it a true wonder of Nature.
Of the innumerable contributions of Nature to people, the oil palm stands out for it’s power. This power is exemplified by the cultural and religious importance given to this tree (and more specifically its fruit and seed), in it’s native West Africa.
In Brazil, where many West Africans were taken as slaves who brought their religion and the red oil palm with them, dende (the name for the oil pressed from the fruit of the African palm) is synonymous with power, flavor and spiritual presence. The fact that it was likely the single most important calorie source for hard working slaves contributed to it’s importance in northeastern Brazil to eventually rival and even surpass the central place this product holds in West African cultural practice.
Today, different versions of African palm oil are omnipresent ingredients in industrialized food, largely because it is one of a handful of highly saturated fats that is solid at room temperature, and of those by far the easiest to obtain in large quantities. In addition, its use for the production of biodiesel has been growing exponentially in recent years. Its just that good a source of energy.
The industrial monocroping of African palm in tropical landscapes is currently one of the major culprits for rainforest deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The virtual extinction of Malasian and Indonesian populations of orangutans and tigers are probably the most publicized impacts, but the entirety of losses far greater and very likely irreversible.
The problem is so bad and has received enough attention to prompt the creation of intergovernmental organizations like The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries. These organizations espouse the goal of promoting the economic well-being of palm oil producing countries while seeking sustainable solutions, but have fallen well short of addressing the devastation. The Roundable has been criticized widely for a lack of commitment to sustainability and everything from child labor to corruption.
The oil palm is just too tempting, too rich, too powerful to not concentrate, refine and commercialize to scale. Industrialized palm oil use stands in stark contrast to its West African and Afro Brazilian origins, and in many ways is the poster child for how current capitalist productivity fails to account for the tangible and intangible wealth of nature – and its linkages to human culture.
In the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, dende was produced and consumed following centuries-old cultural practices. The power of dende was acknowledged and respected, but it was produced and used alongside all the other needs of the population, with an eye to sustainability. In a traditional Bahian farm, and perhaps even more so in a traditional West African village, the oil palm was but a single piece of an interlocking mosaic of relationships that brought health, wealth and happiness to the ecosystems and communities that co-created them.
More than a metaphor, the story of the African palm showcases the folly of considering the pursuit of immediate economic gain at a large scale without accounting for the real loss of wealth that the destruction of the forest habitat represents. The world is in fact subsidizing the quick fortunes of palm oil kingpins, not only with the sacrifice of the Sumatran tigers and orangutans, but with harsh impacts on our planetary health and quality of life as humans on Earth.
A return to The Commons is in order, but on a different scale and with more focus than ever before.
The Commons is defined as the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, and which are not owned privately. This vast definition encompasses all kinds of tangible and intangible assets throughout history and different contexts, but invariably includes the bulk of the ecosystem inhabited by a given human group and by extension the services provided by the ecosystem (have a look at the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service’s list of Nature’s Contributions to People for the specifics on what these are). https://www.ipbes.net/news/natures-contributions-people-ncp-article-ipbes-experts-science
With the contemporary push towards privatization, land and resources that have historically been part of The Commons, continually managed and enjoyed by local populations in constantly negotiated ways that have tended to integrally serve the needs of the community, are now being exploited by private enterprise for their economic gain – to the detriment and exclusion of traditional stakeholders.
As communities and capitalists themselves question and reflect on (and often react to), the ethical implications of this trend, opportunities arise to redefine our relationship to The Commons and our very notion of what they are.
Miniature examples of what might be possible are found in community food gardens literally sprouting up in every European and North American city. More robust examples exist in countries like Mexico and Brazil, where agricultural cooperatives are managing large landscapes to produce benefits not only in the economic realm, but also in quality of life, ecosystem services, and community and cultural health.
Communally managed landscapes can foster livelihood and business opportunities for local populations who are invested in the sustainability of their environment. The challenge lies in creating legal frameworks that empower local communities to manage their environments communally, without facing the risk of having their territory sold from under their feet.
If we are to meet the reforestation targets necessary for mitigating the destructive impacts of climate change and global warming, we will need to look beyond carbon taxes and protected areas. Perhaps a return to The Commons could have a positive impact.
Community management of natural landscapes is our best and maybe only hope.
Community and culture have thrived in the days and territories where humans have taken their livelihoods directly from their environments.
We seem to do very well without the complex markets, commercial trade routes and value added commodification that our current technology allows for, but rather with the immediacy of the need to work together for survival and the shared joy of accomplishing it.
Now some may argue that our life expectancy is better with modern technology, that we don’t need to work as hard now with all our gadgets and automation, and that we are more free now to explore our surroundings, our minds and the boundaries of possibility.
All of this may be well and true, yet we also suffer from deadly diseases of modernity. Our life expectancy is longer, but is our quality of life actually better? We certainly perform less physical labor, walk less and don’t often need to worry about running or fighting for our lives – but because of these very comforts we suffer from high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension… the list goes on.
It would seem that our Culture has taken a decidedly different path, one that leads directly away from our Nature. But Nature is sending us the bill for this departure in grim and painful ways. This human quest away from living as part of an ecosystem is deeply rooted in our history, and it may be argued that the impetus of human civilization may in fact be the escape from our inevitable and final Nature.
But is it inevitable that we live in opposition to the natural environment that provides us with everything from our first breath of air to the very organisms that recycle our bodies back into the earth when we die?
80% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity is on lands inhabited and managed by traditional or Indigenous cultures. That is to say, what little is left of Nature is reserved to areas where the humans and their culture have not chosen the path of departure. This is no coincidence.
Traditional knowledge around surviving in the forest and managing its resources represents an integral and time-proven way to survive and thrive. Living in the forest fosters health at the individual, community, ecosystem and some would argue the spiritual levels.
As we become more aware of the need to bring back the forest, we also have to understand that this means going back to live in the forest. Yes, technology may help us on this return journey, but the most powerful and useful technology we have may be the surviving knowledge of how to live in Nature.
Conservationist are set on the idea that to preserve nature is to remove humans form the equation and leave habitats alone. But is this even possible in today’s world? And has it ever been that way?
It seems that in every corner of the globe, animals not only inhabit an ecosystem, but shape it and define it in important ways, and the human animal is no exception.
With the Green Revolution and the environmental movement came an effort to create designated conservation areas as the main strategy in preserving biodiversity. As of 2010, there are 161,000 protected areas in the world, covering about 15 percent of the land. Evidence seems to suggest that these have had some success in slowing down biodiversity loss, and even bringing back some species from the brink of extinction.
For the most part these designated conservation areas limit human activity and access, which is a very logical thing to do – especially since it is mostly human activity causing the destruction and biodiversity loss.
But could it be that this very same logic is limiting our potential to thrive in nature and achieve sustainable conservation? Could our notion of conservation in fact be misguided? Maybe instead of merely trying to save nature from ourselves we should seek to understand and address why we are in this contradictory predicament in the first place.
The main challenges to protected areas give us some clues as to what questions we need to be asking. Enforcement of boundaries in vast wilderness areas is challenging and expensive requiring a dedicated force with uninterrupted training and funding. Political will must be steadfast, as well as the cooperation of the local population.
The pressure to reduce or compromise protected landscapes is often overwhelming. Urban growth and development eat away at the margins or buffer areas, as can be seen by the rapidly increasing contrast seen in aerial photos of pretty much any piece of land in conservation.
Many protected areas actually become a no-mans-land where criminal activity and unregulated pillaging of natural resources run rampant. Local communities, which have been stewards and co-creators of the landscape for generations, are often not consulted and even pushed out under some conservation policies.
It would seem that these legislated pockets of preserved nature do not fit the narrative of the society and landscape around them, and become a source of conflict. But why? Is it possible to preserve and foster natural ecosystems in a way that is congruent with human needs and activities?
Indigenous and local communities that have lived within ecosystems for generations can provide knowledge and important examples of how this can be achieved. Forward looking ideas of how to include the Value of Nature and ecosystem services in financial plans can also inform this process.
Protecting and policing vulnerable habitats is of course important, but it really is a last gasp effort in the face of rapid biodiversity loss. If we are to find our place in Nature again and live sustainability, we need to go much further that our traditional notion of conservation.
The above graphic shows implemented or scheduled carbon tax and emission trading schemes worldwide. Source: World Bank (“State and Trends of Carbon Pricing, 2016”).
It is immediately obvious that more developed and industrialized nations, the ones that pollute the most, also have made the most progress in implementing carbon tax regulations. This is hopeful sign, and means the trend towards pollution taxes, cap and trade mechanisms and environmental offsets is likely to continue worldwide.
The Carbon Tax Center calls carbon taxing the fairest, most effective and most efficient single policy tool in the fight for a habitable climate.
The 2016 World Bank report showed a reduction for some carbon emissions in countries where carbon taxing has been in place the longest, but it is not clear whether this was not causing more emissions elsewhere by the importation of dirty energy and other carbon heavy products.
It seems that carbon taxing as a means of regulating industry change to force reduced emissions is far from perfect, and it is unclear where that specific strategy may be headed in the future as technologies change.
The fact that an economic value is being placed on carbon not burned into the atmosphere, however, opens the door to direct payment for ecosystem services in the form of carbon sequestration in biomass and fertile soil. This is essentially the idea behind carbon offsets, although implementation of this concept has been clumsy and problematic.
In terms of net positive impact, payment for carbon storage as biomass in healthy landscapes may hold more long term promise than a carbon tax on pollution, especially as the inevitable (although sadly delayed), shift towards renewable energy and clean transportation continues.
The concept of carbon offsets was introduced as a way to mitigate economic impact for industry, allowing for sustained high carbon emission levels as long as money is invested in conservation and mitigation efforts elsewhere, although it is not very clear whether payments made though mechanisms like the “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) and “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD) actually impact global emissions positively. The current system is just too easy to fudge, the metrics are not clear, and the economic stakes are obviously high.
There is also a sustainability factor, as a community or land owning individual can be paid one year for not cutting down a forest, but clear cut it the very next. The priority is simply balancing the offset and carbon-washing the industry on paper.
Nonetheless, specific legal recognition of the economic value in preserving and restoring biodiverse landscapes is an opportunity that must not be missed, and may hold the key to bringing Nature into the balance of our global capitalist market. It represents the most tangible initiative for quantifying in financial terms the importance of natural environments, and creates much needed bridges between stakeholders, landscape stewards, conservationists and capital investors who have historically been mostly deaf to environmental or local concerns.
It should never be forgotten that 80% of our planet’s biodiversity is in territories inhabited by Indigenous people and traditional communities. As economic and development pressures mount on these populations and the ecosystems that they form an integral part of, we must develop language and policy to allow for their ongoing stewardship of the land. Evolving and broadening the concept of carbon offsets is a good starting point.
Why do we feel a deep sense of calm when we spend time in a mature forest? Brain science is confirming that Nature is a strong medicine against depression and anxiety, but how have we drifted so far from our natural habitat? What has driven us to destroy it and live in an unhealthy and artificial world while yearning for something else? Is it time for us to go back to the forest?
In the Mayan highlands of Southern Mexico and Central America gnarled old oak trees rule the mountain environment. Their twisted and irregular branches tell us of ancient and laborious growth. Many scars and burls mark their trunks, with bromeliads and mosses growing thick in every available crevice. The ground underfoot is thick with layers of leaves and countless other plants that thrive in the rich mulch.
We may think of this as a pristine and untouched environment, but what is not immediately apparent is the influence of thousands of years of human habitation on the richly diverse ecosystem. Anthropologists and human ecologists tell us that a majority of species in the Mayan forests, both in the temperate highlands and the tropical lowland jungles, are of human interests and have been an integral part of traditional Mayan economy and society. This is no coincidence, as these forests have been fostered and managed according to traditional knowledge, religion and culture since humans first inhabited the area. Far from being untouched, the Mayan environment has been a painstakingly managed forest garden, market and apothecary for many generations.
On closer inspection, the highland oaks show signs of careful firewood harvesting, which allows for the healthy growth of the tree and forest while providing sustainable fuel to the human groups living there. The mosses and bromeliads are harvested and managed too, as are mushrooms, medicinal plants and animal species. Of course cutting the entire tree down, or even the entire forests grove for that matter, would provide a larger immediate return for the effort. But ancient and modern Mayans demonstrate and understanding that such a mentality is shortsighted and ultimately unsustainable.
Similar care is taken by Mayan peasant farmers when clearing areas of forest for crop production, which they do in rotations of 20 years or more, allowing for the forest to regenerate continuously for generations, continuing to provide material, food and medicine while maintaining a healthy living environment for people, animals and plants.
This example is not unique to traditional Mayan communities. Local and Indigenous groups around the world demonstrate a profound respect and understanding for and of their natural environments, organizing industry, culture and stories around the forest and the species that conform it. Individual and short term gains are consistently compromised in favor of sustainability. Ecosystem health is ingrained in the social and cultural fabric, and actions that destroy it for personal gain are beyond taboo, and could even be considered signs of a mental or spiritual illness.
As we stare into a grim future, anticipating a total collapse of the ecosystems that sustain us, can we look towards the remaining holders of traditional knowledge and wisdom for solutions? Is it possible for 8 billion humans to regain a deep and practical respect for Nature and restore some kind of balance? Can we incorporate this knowledge and respect with our scientific advancements and resilience to become stewards of a healthy planet? Can we return to the forest?