Doomsday thinking about the environment has been popular for decades. A rational optimist lays out the many reasons we can be hopeful about the future of the planet.
In 1980, the year that PERC was founded, I spent three months in the Himalayas working on a wildlife conservation project.
The purpose was to do wildlife surveys on behalf of the Indian government in the stunningly beautiful valleys of the Kulu region in northern India, among forests of deodar cedar and evergreen oak.
One species of particular interest was a bird called the western tragopan, a large, spotted gray forest pheasant with red plumage around the neck and bright blue skin on the male’s throat. The bird was found only in a few places and thought to be teetering on the brink of extinction.
Though we saw other pheasant species, we never saw a tragopan that year, but some of the people we met knew of the bird, and one even handed me the remains of a tragopan that had been shot for food.
I feared it might be the last one. I wanted to come back in the spring when the birds’ mating calls might give them away in the deep bamboo thickets they preferred, but work prevented me.
If you had asked me in 1980 to predict what would happen to that bird and its forest ecosystem, I would have been very pessimistic.
I could see the effect on the forests of growing human populations, with their guns and flocks of sheep. More generally, I was marinated in gloom by almost everything I read about the environment.
The human population explosion was unstoppable; billions were going to die of famine; malaria and other diseases were going to increase; oil, gas, and metals would soon run out, forcing us to return to burning wood; most forests would then be felled; deserts were expanding; half of all species were heading for extinction; the great whales would soon be gone from the oil-stained oceans; sprawling cities and modern farms were going to swallow up the last wild places; and pollution of the air, rivers, sea, and earth was beginning to threaten a planetary ecological breakdown.
I don’t remember reading anything remotely optimistic about the future of the planet.
Today, the valleys we worked in are part of the Great Himalayan National Park, a protected area that gained prestigious World Heritage status in 2014.
The logo of the park is an image of the western tragopan, a bird you can now go on a trekking holiday specifically to watch. It has not gone extinct, and although it is still rare and hard to spot, the latest population estimate is considerably higher than anybody expected back then.
The area remains mostly a wilderness accessible largely on foot, and the forests and alpine meadows have partly recovered from too much grazing, hunting, and logging. Ecotourism is flourishing.
This is just one small example of things going right in the environment. Let me give you some bigger ones.
Far from starving, the seven billion people who now inhabit the planet are far better fed than the four billion of 1980. Famine has pretty much gone extinct in recent decades.
In the 1960s, about two million people died of famine; in the decade that just ended, tens of thousands died—and those were in countries run by callous tyrants.
Paul Ehrlich, the ecologist and bestselling author who declared in 1968 that “[t]he battle to feed all of humanity is over” and forecast that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death”—and was given a genius award for it—proved to be very badly wrong.
Remarkably, this feeding of seven billion people has happened without taking much new land under the plow and the cow. Instead, in many places farmland has reverted to wilderness.
In 2009, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University calculated that thanks to more farmers getting access to better fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnology, the area of land needed to produce a given quantity of food—averaged for all crops—was 65 percent less than in 1961.
As a result, an area the size of India will be freed up by mid-century. That is an enormous boost for wildlife. National parks and other protected areas have expanded steadily as well.
Nor have these agricultural improvements, on the whole, brought new problems of pollution in their wake. Quite the reverse.
The replacement of pesticides like DDT with much less harmful ones that do not persist in the environment and accumulate up the food chain, in addition to advances in biotechnology, has allowed wildlife to begin to recover.
In the part of northern England where I live, otters have returned to the rivers, and hawks, kites, ospreys, and falcons to the skies, largely thanks to the elimination of organochlorine pesticides.
Where genetically modified crops are grown—not in the European Union—there has been a 37 percent reduction in the use of insecticides, as shown by a recent study done at Gottingen University.
One of the extraordinary features of the past 40 years has been the reappearance of wildlife that was once seemingly headed for extinction.
Bald eagles have bounced back so spectacularly that they have been taken off the endangered list. Deer and beavers have spread into the suburbs of cities, followed by coyotes, bears, and even wolves.
The wolf has now recolonized much of Germany, France, and even parts of the heavily populated Netherlands. Estuaries have been cleaned up so that fish and birds have recolonized rivers like the Thames.
Here’s a question I put to schoolchildren when I get the chance: Why is the wolf population increasing, the lion decreasing, and the tiger now holding its own?
The answer is simple: Wolves live in rich countries, lions in poor countries, and tigers in middle-income countries. It turns out that we conservationists were wrong to fear economic development in the 1980s.
Prosperity is the best thing that can happen to a country’s wildlife. As people get richer, they can afford to buy electricity rather than cut wood, buy chicken rather than hunt bushmeat, or get a job in a town rather than try to scratch a living from a patch of land.
They can also stop worrying that their children will starve and start to care about the environment.
In country after country, first in Asia, then in Latin America, and now increasingly in Africa, that process of development leading to environmental gains has swiftly delivered a turning point in the fortunes of wild ecosystems.
Overall, therefore, the number of trees in the world is steadily increasing. A studypublished by NASA and the University of Maryland in 2018 examined satellite data and found that global increases in tree cover have more than offset losses in tree cover over the past 35 years.
This is not just because of growing plantations of timber crops; most of it is natural regeneration. Nor is this happening only in the cold woods of the North; tropical countries are reforesting as well.
If you had told me in 1980 that this would happen, I would not have believed you.
In 2013, I caught wind of an interesting study being done by NASA in conjunction with Boston and Beijing Universities.
A team of researchers had found a way of measuring the quantity of green vegetation on the surface of the planet using satellite data. It was increasing:
There were more green leaves each year. I published an article on this phenomenon of “global greening” and was immediately vilified for my impertinence in departing from the pessimistic script.
But in fact, it had been clear for some years that the carbon dioxide levels measured on top of a mountain in Hawaii, though increasing year over year, were also rising and falling with the seasons more than they once did, implying there was more growth of green leaves in the northern hemisphere summers.
In 2016, the same team published a paperconfirming that global greening was occurring and speculating about the cause.
Although the press release that accompanied the paper preemptively admonished me—by name!—for taking any comfort from this fact, it quoted the lead author, Zaichin Zhu of Beijing University, saying that the greening over the past 30 years was equivalent to adding a new continent covered in green vegetation twice the size of the United States.
Global greening is occurring in all ecosystems, including rainforests, tundras, and croplands, and it is particularly strong in the arid areas of the planet.
By analyzing the patterns of this greening, Zhu and his colleagues were able to tease out why it was happening. Some of it was due to the use of fertilizer, some to increased rainfall caused by the slight warming of the seas, and some to reforestation.
But the greatest cause, responsible for 70 percent of the greening, was the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is the raw food that plants use, with water, to make carbohydrates and thence proteins and fats.
This CO2-fertilization effect was well known in principle, thanks to thousands of experiments in laboratories, greenhouses, and the open-air over many years. Indeed, commercial greenhouses purchase carbon dioxide to pump over tomato plants to encourage them to grow faster.
But this was the first time it had been measured on a global scale. Another studypublished this year confirmed, “the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration as the dominant driver” of a 31 percent increase in global terrestrial gross primary production since 1900.
Global greening means that there is more food every year for caterpillars, antelopes, woodpeckers, and countless other species. It also means we need less land to feed ourselves than we would otherwise have needed by now.
Of all the things that I did not expect in 1980, this is surely one of the most remarkable.
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