Good Intentions, Bad Ideas

Summary——————–Overview——————–Solutions

We know that the Earth’s living conditions are changing quicker than species can adapt, since that’s something we can measure. We’re able to compile data and track relatively accurately how biodiversity loss has increased in the past decades, and how it will evolve if we don’t change our habits. Right now, data suggests that we’ve ignited the Earth’s 6th mass extinction – which would be the first since the dinosaurs got rocked 66 million years ago [with all 5 of the previous extinctions (that we know of) occurring in the past 500 million years].

Although there’s still much we don’t know, we’ve gotten pretty good at compiling data and stating facts. What’s harder is finding solutions to these biodiversity problems – since there are many examples of ‘solutions’ that actually just delay or displace the issue to another location.

Now, we don’t claim to know everything about how nature works, far from it. However, some people have, and this has created movements in our societies that resulted in more harm than good being done. We’ll outline a few examples of short-term solutions and show how an incomplete understanding of nature can create more problems.

This section isn’t here to make fun of poor solutions; good ones are hard to come by – especially when dealing with nature. It isn’t here to suggest that we’re smarter now that we have hindsight. Its purpose is to denounce movements that have supported incomplete solutions that interfered with nature, while promoting them as 100% eco-friendly. And more importantly, its purpose is to denounce the followers who spread these solutions blindly by calling out anyone who thinks differently.

Although some of these movements started off with good intentions, they ended up creating more problems. That’s why it’s important that we be equipped with knowledge and a rational thought process before voicing opinions as facts. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t apply on actual issues. Instead, we must reason with each other using research, logic, and long-term thinking to truly do good and help natural ecosystems get back on their feet.

Invasive Species

We measure the population sizes of a lot of species to make sure they aren’t headed toward rapid extinction. Historically, extinction has been a natural and unavoidable process, and that was okay. Imbalances in the ecosystem were normal and would just help the ecosystem find a new healthy equilibrium. However, anthropogenic extinctions [caused by humans] of species aren’t natural processes, and they’re occurring so quickly that they’re threatening entire ecosystems. If you’re wondering why protecting species we endangered matters, it’s about more than just cleaning up after ourselves. It’s about preserving natural conditions as much as possible to make sure ecosystems don’t collapse worldwide.

When population sizes get too low, species are added to a few endangered species lists, where they’ll benefit from special measures to help them get back on track. When numbers get too high, it can cause imbalances in the ecosystem – and there’s no surefire way to deal with that.

For example, in Australia, the larvae of cane beetles were ravaging sugarcane roots near the 1900s. This was a problem for Australia at the time, since it was an important sugar exporter [here’s another example in Australia].

In an effort to control the population size of these pests, 3000 cane toads were released in 1930. Remarkably, not only did the toads fail at controlling the beetle population, they also became an invasive species themselves. With now over a million individuals, the cane toad is responsible for the drops in population of both its predators and preys [i.e. poisonous and hungry]. This caused an imbalance to the ecosystem, as many insectivores suffered from reduced portion sizes.

This is an example of short-term thinking. To quickly reduce the beetle population, an invasive species was introduced in a half-assed effort to eliminate beetles. Luckily, introducing species isn’t always bad – especially if we’re reintroducing native species that were previously hunted out of their ‘home ecosystems’.

Ecosystems are incredibly complicated and each one is unique. Meddling with nature is like a playing someone else’s game without the rules. We can study the patterns to try and guess the rules, but we won’t know if we got it right until we don’t.

Wildfires

Wildfires are causing quite a stir at the moment, as the intensity and frequency of megafires have significantly increased in recent years. For example, the area burnt by wildfires in the US has increased by roughly 665% from 1983-2020.

Wildfires occur when there is enough heat, sufficient fuel [trees and bushes], and a spark. The spark can be a natural event [e.g. lighting strike] or originate from human activities [e.g. grid lines falling, baby gender reveals]. With our increasing global temperature and longer periods of drought, it makes sense that we’re seeing stronger and longer wildfires.

The other reason we’re seeing more wildfires is our fault. Wildfires are natural events that allow forests to cleanse themselves from their dead trees. As our cities grew, we started building infrastructure around these forests. To protect the population [and because wildfire benefits hadn’t been discovered yet], many countries decided to suppress wildfires as early as possible. For example, the US had an aggressive fire suppression policy in place during a good chunk of the 20th century.

As a result, forests grew denser and filled with dead trees, which are perfect wildfire fuel [and good food for invasive insects too]. Note that logging the dead trees isn’t a great answer either, as it would leave dry stumps, branches, and roots in the environment. Without mentioning how impractical it would be to survey each tree in a forest to decide whether it’s dead or not.

Now, we are witnessing both factors play a role in the increasing frequency of megafires. The longer periods of extreme drought from climate change mixed with the added fuel from the wildfire suppression policy results in more destruction and emissions than if we had let nature run its course a century ago. Megafires, as opposed to ordinary wildfires, can be so destructive that they can alter ecosystems permanently– from forests to grasslands for example.

This is another example of a good intention, bad idea scenario. We again tried to meddle with nature without a good understanding of how the ecosystem remains in balance. To satisfy our immediate desire of human safety and forest preservation, we actually made things worse. What’s even scarier here is that this solution was presented as the only way of the future. The US Forest Service went as far as creating ‘Smokey Bear’, a cartoonish Uncle-Sam-like icon that encouraged wildfire suppression for decades.

During the peak of the movement, opposing wildfire suppression would have been perceived as nonsensical, as wildfires were only considered forces of destruction. Alas, wildfire suppression wasn’t studied sufficiently beforehand, and the impressive social movement behind it ensured it wouldn’t be put into question for another 2-3 decades [again, no bad intentions].

Deforestation & Forestation

We all know there’s deforestation going on in numerous regions of the world. Between agricultural and urban expansion, our forests and other green areas are the first to go. This isn’t a surprise – we need space to do things – and trees and shrubs occupy roughly half of habitable lands. But let’s not justify the fact that we lost 1.78 million km2 of net forest cover from 1990-2020.

We’ve seen that trees are essential for climate change mitigation and maintaining our biodiversity [remember H.I.C.O.P.], so preserving existing forests is essential. Planting trees to compensate for deforestation can help, but isn’t good enough on its own – since it won’t save the species that depend on the forests being cut down at this moment.

Nonetheless, forestation remains a decent option for GHG-emitting companies to offset their emissions. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten so caught up in offsetting our carbon emissions by planting a certain number of trees, that we’ve forgotten about strengthening ecosystems.

Forestation is the process of planting trees, either on previously/currently forested lands [restoration/reforestation] or on non-forested lands [afforestation].

Large-scaled forestation projects have a few problems. First, it’s estimated that for 79% of all commitments to the Bonn Challenge [restoration/reforestation of 1.5 million km2 by 2020] through 2019, we plan to grow monocultures – or just a few tree types that produce organic materials like rubber, vegetable oil, or fruits. This corroborates the fact that currently, 45% of planted forests worldwide are plantation forests [defined asintensively managed forests, mainly composed of one or two tree species, native or exotic, of equal age, planted with regular spacing and mainly established for productive purposes“]. While 44% of the world’s plantation forests are made up of introduced species.

Additionally, some examples of subsidized forestation have shown that native trees were being cut down and sold by locals – to then restore/reforest for profit, since locals were paid to plant trees.

Both these forestation strategies can create devastating imbalances in the pre-existing ecosystem and induce biodiversity loss. They can even cause overall declines in tree population sizes if the ecosystems are severely affected – which doesn’t sound like successful forestation. After all, it’s biodiversity.

For example, in a man-made ecosystem where monoculture reigns – what would happen if the dominant tree type were hit by a disease or became a bug’s favorite food [which could create an invasive animal species since there’s a forest-worth of food]? We need to diversify our investments, especially when it comes to forestation.

It also doesn’t help that from 2000-2018, we only completed 18% of the Bonn Challenge’s 2020 forest restoration goal – in terms of increases in forest or tree cover. That’s underwhelming to say the least, considering we had pledged to restoring 113% of the 2020 goal.

That being said, forestation is an excellent initiative and many people are doing it correctly. Reducing our carbon footprint [amongst other compounds absorbed by vegetation] while providing a habitat for wildlife is an imperative. However, if we allow companies and governments to half-ass their policies to get their eco-friendly badge – they’ll keep doing what they do and species will keep heading toward extinction.

Conclusion – Tying It Back to Energy

We’re witnessing similar patterns between these examples and green-tech. Although renewables are effective at decarbonizing our atmosphere [with the current metal reserves], it’s currently being sold as a problem-free solution. And this is supported by too many influential people who aren’t experts on the matter – that are ready to rip your head off if you suggest anything might be wrong with ‘clean energy’. The word ‘clean’ is a tough one to hear when mining activity around the world is causing loads of local pollution and emitting billions of tonnes of GHGs through mining and refining processes.

We need to be more conscious of the duality of our solutions, instead of only seeing the good or bad depending on which resource we prefer to exploit. We’re going through coal, oil, and natural gas. Although we’ll likely still use these in the near future, the age of metals is next.

As innovation hubs around the world race to find the next resource we can be dependent on for half a century, we suggest thinking long term. Realizing that this rat race won’t satisfy our increasing energy cravings forever will allow us to prioritize truly sustainable solutions, like reducing our energy and material consumption.

Bonus Examples

A couple other examples [among many more] of bad ideas that started off with good intentions are making concrete river channels [we won’t go over this one] and the current trend of making net-zero carbon buildings [NZBs].

Let’s take a closer look at the NZB example. Although reducing on-site [as opposed to using carbon offsetting] GHG emissions for large buildings is extremely important, aiming for 100% carbon-free isn’t the best use of our time. That’s because it’s relatively easy to implement energy efficient/reducing measures in buildings to get them near 60-80% less carbon-intensive [exact percentage depends on specific building – these values were chosen arbitrarily]. The tough part is getting rid of the last 20-40% [mostly due to costs, since buildings would need on-site energy generation].

While there are clear metrics that show how the cost per tonne of CO2e removed increases as we get into the last 20-40%, we continue to aim for net-zero buildings. Quite simply, a lot of that has to do with headlines to make a public statement against climate change. The public would rather see 1 net-zero building than multiple at 60-80% less carbon-consuming, so governments and organizations keep on making inefficient choices. But if we could reduce more emissions with the same amount of money, shouldn’t we?

Of course, we’re not here to denounce people who want to see greener cities, but if we keep making important decisions based on headlines instead of pure efficiency, then we’re not doing everything we can with our resources.