The global mass extinction threatens our existence in a much more immediate way than climate change. In this episode, we’ll explore how our relationship with the environment is causing this problem, and the ecology of solving it. This constrains sustainable city design to an almost unimaginable degree. But it also provides a glimpse of the stunningly high quality of life that edenic cities could offer.
Do we fear the right things?
I mean, when we're kids, that measles or flu shot can look terrifying. It's this huge harpoon headed straight for our arm, but a century ago, these were killer diseases. I mean, the Spanish flu killed something like 50 million people. So when we're little, we're just plain wrong to be afraid of a little needle stick.
What about flying or taking a train? It's amazing how many people would rather drive. Well, CNN Business looked into this in 2015 and what they found was startling. It turns out that commuter rail like Amtrak, which had a horrible crash that year, is 12 times safer than driving a car. Subways are 24 times safer, and flying is 96 times safer than driving.
We’re wrong to fear flying. By the time you reach adulthood, most of us know somebody in our social circle who died in a car crash. But almost none of us know anyone who died in a commercial airline crash. So we're wrong to fear flying. And we're wrong to fear taking the train. Well, what about other things like, say, climate change? Is it really the number one problem we have to solve in the world? Or is it just a symptom of something much bigger and worse, something that requires us to think really differently about how we live?
Sustainability through massive abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity. Welcome to Episode two, where I discuss the edenicity of mass extinction.
Our relationship to plants
Let's start with our relationship to plants. I mean, think of the plant world. Grass, dandelions, roses, sunflowers, peaches, giant sequoias, Mosses, algae. Have you got a favorite plant?
I once was sitting in a grove of eucalyptus with a friend, and she asked me what my favorite tree was, and that eucalyptus smelled great. I thought, Wow. Yeah, you know, I really like eucalyptus, so that's what I said. Then I asked her, and she said, "Well, I'm from Japan And so I'm partial to cherry trees because in the spring the blossoms are just beautiful. But that beauty is absolutely ephemeral. And this is central to the Japanese character to understand that beauty is fleeting. And so to me, my favorite tree is the symbol of fleeting beauty. The tree that brings us the cherry blossom."
So what's your favorite plant? How would you feel if in your lifetime that plant went extinct, I missed the American chestnut. There was a beautiful chestnut tree that grew close to where I lived. When I was a young child in Michigan in the fall, we would take walks. It was just this wonderful welcoming shade tree. Of course, we had to watch out for the prickly chestnuts, and I miss it. It's gone now, as are almost all of the American chestnut trees. They got a blight, they're now critically endangered, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which assessed 20,000 plant species, has found that 55 to 65% of all plant species are threatened or worse.
The mass extinction
Extinctions of plants and animals are now happening at 1000 to 2000 times the natural rate. This is the worst extinction since the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, according to National Geographic. And according to the American Museum of Natural History, this is also the fastest global mass extinction that's ever occurred. And it's entirely our fault.
Solving climate change is not enough
And the worst part about it is that the extinction problem will not go away even if we solve climate change. I mean, if you waved a magic wand and could sequester all of the carbon in the atmosphere, all the excess carbon overnight, we would still be facing a serious problem with extinction. And I will maintain that that's actually at least as damaging a problem, if not more, than climate change.
And that's because extinction is caused by three things: Habitat destruction, climate change and moving species around. So let's break that down.
Habitat destruction accounts for something like half of the mass extinctions. So this is deforestation, housing, pollution, mining. Basically anything that we do to use the land and kick other species out, or to simply wipe them out, is leading to extinctions. One of the biggest problems that we face is simply road building. I mean, I think everybody has seen roadkill on a long car trip, but it's worse than that. It's that the roads themselves chop up the habitat, and so it creates a lot more edge to habitats that were previously large and connected. And so this leads to problems with trees that are large climax species, meaning that these are trees that you find in a very mature forest with many previous generations of trees that have prepared the soils for the larger trees. And what happens is as you chop up their habitats, you end up with more and more of these climax species near the edge of the forest, and that's not really their niche. And so what happens is all of the different tree diseases start to manifest, and the trees with the largest canopy tend to get sick first: something that Bill Mollison, one of the co founders of permaculture, noticed many years ago.
There's been a lot of focus on things like the emerald ash borer and other tree diseases. But understand that even though in some cases these are introduced species, they're just basically doing their job in the ecology. And they're dealing with stressed trees, and their job is to take out the stressed tree. And so the tree is stressed because its habitat has been chopped up. And that's one of the things that's going on with American chestnuts and other big trees. Now, in the case of the American Chestnut, the immediate cause is the Criphonectria parasitica fungus that was introduced from Southeast Asia, so species introductions, mostly unintentional, are just absolutely catastrophic. I mean, there's the kudzu in the American South that just wipes out large amounts of native forest. And by the way, permaculture does not acknowledge the depth of that problem. So climate chang is maybe 35% of the problem species introductions or maybe 15% of the problem.
And in most cases, all three -- habitat destruction, climate change and species introductions-- play a role in the destruction of species.
How extinction affects us
Sooner or later, this process of extinction is going to affect major food crops. And sooner or later, if we do nothing, this will kill millions and eventually billions of people. And this is a certainty.
We depend on very few crops. For most of our nutrition, honey bees pollinate 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world's food. But last year, last winter, 2018 2019, 30% of the bees were wiped out, according to the Guardian newspaper. This is a level of destruction that is worse than anything that we've seen historically. I mean typically over winter, you lose about 5% of the bees now we're losing six times that. This is very scary. So habitat destruction plays a big role in this. In the United Kingdom, 97% of flowering meadow habitat has been lost in recent decades. So this destroys the habitat of competing pollinators. And so the bees are subject to all of the parasites that used to feed on other species. The other thing that happens is that we now depend on just a few bee species to service vast monocrops such as almonds in California. This is reportedly like sending bees to war. It's very difficult on the bees and stresses them, and again, under stress, they are much easier targets for the parasite.
Now extinction can happen fast. You've probably heard of the passenger pigeon. It is a very famous extinct bird. It went extinct in the late 1800's, and it went from so profuse and massive in 18 71 that was hunted in really large numbers to extinct by 1900 just 29 years later.
And what was happening with the passenger pigeon is absolutely a textbook case of habitat destruction. They were forest dwelling birds, and there was so much deforestation in North America in the last few centuries that they were having a harder and harder time finding a place to live. And they were migratory, and so they migrated in giant flocks. And as they migrated to forests that used to exist and couldn't find a home, they would land in farm fields. And I mean, they would just be seen all over the landscape. So people hunted them ,a little bit with a sense of alarm -- there were so many of them, -- also a bit of glee. They were so easy to hunt. So basically, the habitat destruction and then direct interactions with people brought them down.
Now, I was thinking about extinction when I was writing a book about living in space. Because the big question when you're building a terrarium are any kind of sealed habitat for many different species is: what share of the resources can any one species claim for itself before basically, the whole thing falls apart?
There's a number of metaphors that people have used for ecosystems. There's a classic exercise that you do with school groups, where you take a ball of yarn and you have everybody in a circle, and you kind of randomly pass the ball of yarn from person to person, and they're holding onto the yarn and it eventually kind of makes this big Web. And what happens is somebody comes along with a pair of scissors. By cutting individual strands here and there, they show that you can lose about 40% of the connections before the whole thing really starts to fall apart. And that shows the strength of an ecological web compared to just having two groups of students holding just a single string. And when you cut it all, connection is lost. And so it's a way of showing that interconnectedness can give you a more robust system.
What's our fair share?
So the question is: how many species does it take and how much sharing of the resources can any one species claim for itself before it's just too much? Now, Admittedly, I was driven by a misunderstanding of the permaculture ethic of fair share. The idea of fair share in permaculture is very specific. In fact, the fair share ethic didn't even used to be called that. It used to be just the ethic of setting limits to population and consumption, so that by governing our own needs we can set resources aside to further the other principles, namely Earth Care and People Care. I misunderstood it as staying within some sort of a limited, fairer chair of the resources that each species could claim, and it's really not with that ethic's about. But in my searches, I came across an article by Howard T. Odum in The American Biology Teacher way back in 1963. Now he was writing as part of a conference on living in space that was put on by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And he made a very interesting point. He talked about net primary productivity, primary productivity measures, the total energy budget that life has to work with. And so it's an accounting of the total amount of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that's made available to life by plant photosynthesis. And that's our energy budget. That's what we have to work with. And in Odom's view, when you're creating a large complex terrarium, you need to be sure that no one species is using more than 0.2 to 2% of the net primary productivity, and he said, across the whole wide range of scales, you will notice that ecosystems start to unravel when any one species consumes more than that.
Now I think there's a few caveats. One is that in the ocean, tuna ends up appropriating some 40%. But that's because it's sitting at the top of the food chain. And there's plenty of other animals that are consuming that primary productivity before it ever gets to the tuna. So it all does end up in tuna, or about 40% of it does (actually think it was higher than that:70%?) Anyway, what we're talking about here is if the species excludes others from being able to use it at all. Back in 1992, Al Gore cited a study in his book, Earth in the Balance. The original study had appeared in the journal Bioscience in June of 1986 but basically what Ah Al Gore had come up with was that at the time of writing, humans were consuming some 40% of the net primary productivity way back in 1992. Now, with the industrial world expanding and populations increasing, we're using even more natural resources and even more land worldwide. According to a GSA article Back in 2012, we have cleared 51% of the land area of the Earth for human use. And again, that's way, way, way beyond the 0.2 to 2% that you can get away with before things really start to unravel.
So okay, let's take that number. Let's take Al Gore's number. Let's just make this as easy for us as possible and estimate our fair share. We are using 40%. We need to use 2%. 40% divided by 2% is 20. That means we are using 20 times too much land and too many resources, and so we need to shrink our land use and resource use by 95%.
Does that figure seem extreme to you? It should. It's much more extreme than what pretty much anyone else is saying on this topic. If you have Googled ecological footprint and gone to one of the many calculators online and answered the questions, you probably got a result that was not as extreme as what I have to say by like a factor of five. So basically what it comes out to is it says "look, if everybody lived the way you do, we would need five Planet Earths." And what I'm saying is, no, we need more like 20 Planet Earths to live the way most of us live.
So the question is: why is my result so different from the ecological footprint? Well, they're measuring different things. Ecological footprints only look at how much land it takes to meet our needs and absorb our waste products. It neglects extinction. It neglects how much disturbance it takes to break an ecosystem.
Now I could be wrong in the wrong direction. It could be 10 times worse than what I'm saying, but I believe it's at least as bad is what I'm saying: that we need to actually reduce our physical footprint on the land to 2% of the Earth's surface. And our total consumption of resources to like 2% or we're gonna be in serious trouble. And we're already in serious trouble, again due to the extinction rate, which is orders of magnitude more than it has been historically.
So if the problem is orders of magnitude worse, then the solution is probably going to be orders of magnitude more intense than what we're experiencing right now. This is a really tight design constraint. Paradoxically, what I've found with design is that when you have extreme design constraints, the creativity of the solutions goes way up. I'm designing to something that is more extreme than many other people are saying. For example, if you look in the National Geographic cities of the future issue -- I think this was last year, in April of 2019 -- they mentioned E.O. Wilson's initiative to set aside half of the Earth's land surface in conservation. That's a really good idea, but I'm saying, actually it should be more like 98% And that's what I'm designing to and again there are gonna turn out to be some amazing advantages to designing to that point rather than just 1/2.
Strong design choices
So we need to shrink our land use and resource use by 95%. Is that even possible? Amazingly, yes! How? By making strong design choices.
This involves, first of all, making trades, not compromises. We need to get rid of cars at the level of city design, and this is actually a trade of a very destructive cultural identity, for much greater health, safety, mobility, wealth in habitat restoration. Look, getting rid of cars is a big deal. Literally many, many billions of dollars have been spent on making us identify ourselves our very selves with cars. I mean, what happens when somebody gets a really good job or a big promotion? Almost always in American culture, what happens is they buy a car that more directly reflects who they think they are. I mean, I'm not even immune to this. I picture myself, you know, when I've made it: "Someday I'm gonna own a Tesla!" You know, I'm actually working really hard to make sure that what I really put my energy into owning as a Brompton, which is a fold up bike. But it's very tempting to identify with cars in our culture. And so the design trade is very deep cultural identifier for the much subtler gains of greater health, safety, mobility, wealth and habitat restoration.
The next strong design choice we need to make is to aggregate rather than separate functions, and I'm gonna get into more details in a few episodes. But a reference design which you can download in the show notes has bike paths that are covered for year around use. Now the way that I suggest we cover the bike paths is to use photovoltaic cells. And there's a lot of advanced technologies coming down the pike that might make this interesting. So, for example, there's thin film, photovoltaics that could actually be embedded in glass or plastic to provide semi transparent covers that you could ride under a seemingly open sky with some ultraviolet protection and total rain protection that's also generating solar energy. And, of course, there's plenty of off the shelf technologies that would do the job quite well also today.
Now, as an aside with energy generated close to home, you're gonna lose a lot less of it in power lines. Do the line loss and you might wonder. Well, hey, that's well and good, but what about when the sun sets? What do you do for power then? And it happens that city scale energy storage is getting pretty easy to come by. There's some high capacity thermal energy batteries that seem to be very simple to implement. Very inexpensive. See the popular Mechanics April 10th 2019 issue for details on that. So, basically, by bringing functions together by making covered bike paths that are also your energy generation and also provide health benefits, you're bringing many functions together in one design, and this is part of the power of edenic design.
The next strong design choice you want to make is to ride the right trends. So, for example, a lot of young people these days in the U. S. and much of the industrial world, a lot less interested in owning a house than the preceding generations. So there's a real push for renting rather than owning and in general, for access rather than ownership. So there's a lot of sharing going on. There's tool libraries springing up all over the place, maker spaces all over the place. People are beginning to see the downside of ownership, which includes storage and disposal and security, and they just don't wanna handle it. And so if you design in harmony with that trend, then of course, you can drastically shrink your resource demand and the costs and provide access to much higher quality items and experiences for many more people than would previously be possible. Another trend that you see in that same generation is that people are just not cooking at home as much anymore. And that might be a good thing. There's a lot of waste, a lot of household waste involved in home cooking, because there's a lot of packaging waste, which in Edenicity's farm-to-table culture, wouldn't have to exist it all. You basically just bring your produce in from the fields and cook it up right there in your cafe farm kitchens, and that would be very little storage waste. So this is how choosing carefully among the many trends which ones to design into your city can meet your environmental and quality of life goals at the same time.
Something that I'll get into in episode nine will be factoring redundant elements. And this is huge. This is basically what I used to do in software. It's what they're doing a lot in Tesla and Elon Musk's other companies SpaceX. And it's something that no one's really done in real estate. In fact, quite the opposite. And that's a field that's just ripe for disruption. That's as big as, like, Apple Computer in 1976 or Tesla in 2008
And the final strong design choice that's gonna help us is to use and learn from natural ecology. So, for example, garden and farm soils are 99% sterile. According to an article in the August 26, 2005 issue of Science magazine. Gans, Wolinsky and Dunbar compared the biodiversity of farm soils to forests, soils and what they found was in a handful of garden soil. You'll find, of course, billions of individual microbes of one sort or another, but about 10,000 different species of them. Now that may sound like a lot, but in the same handful of forest soil where you have a healthy climax forest, so it's a well established forest, you're gonna find, like, a 1,000,000 species. So there's 100 times more biodiversity in that soil and that greater diversity increases the retention of nutrients. That's why forests don't need as many inputs such as fertilizers, minerals, mulch, even water as compared to a farm or a garden. And we can use this in designing cities.
The urban theorist Jane Jacobs commented that local economies are similar to healthy ecosystems in this respect. A greater diversity of local businesses, she argued, tends to keep money circulating longer in the neighborhood. So by bringing our food system, our food production system much, much closer to home, we've activated that cycling of economic resource is on a much smaller scale, and that's ecologically efficient. And Jacobs and I would argue it's also economically much more efficient as well.
We'll talk a lot more about design and design choices in Episode five.
To sum up from today, climate change is scary, but the global mass extinction should scare us a lot more. The challenge is probably much worse than most experts say. We have to reduce our land and resource use by 95% or more. This requires strong design choices, and Edenicity meets this criterion. It can shrink our land used to less than 2%, even in a world of 10 billion people or more, and it will make us richer.
Imagine waking to birdsong rather than traffic noises. Eating pesticide-free produce picked fresh same day. Clean air as fresh as a forest. Clean water as crisp as a spring, and having all this with the social richness of a city where there's always so many things happening. Concerts, art exhibits, cultural events of every description, an endless variety of dining possibilities. Universities. Institutes. Daily chance encounters that lead to innovation. Entrepreneurship. All made possible because your city was designed along sound ecological principles.
Can you sense the health advantages? We'll talk a lot more about that in Episode four. Can you sense the huge wealth advantage to this way of life? That's gonna be our topic for Episode six.
I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity. If you enjoyed Episode two, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode, and rate it on iTunes or Google Play. To get a copy of a reference design, visit edenicity.com and click the news link. And please join me next week when I'll introduce you to some actual Edenicity city projects.
30% of bees were wiped out (Guardian) in the winter of 2018-2019
Roger LeB. Hooke1 and José F. Martín-Duque, Land transformation by humans: A review. GSA Today, Vol 22 #12, Dec 2012, pp 4-10. Accessed Apr 14, 2017.
Jill Kiedaisch, Thermal Battery Holds 1.2 Megawatt-Hours of Energy in a 20-Foot Box, Popular Mechanics, April 10, 2019
Gans, Wolinsky and Dunbar, Computational improvements reveal great bacterial diversity and high metal toxicity in soil. Science, August 26, 2005