Who wants to feel less terrible about the environmental problems we face? Who wants to hear some happy stories?
I know I do. Being a scholar of the natural world is not fun, let me tell you. Sure, you might get to go to some cool places from time to time, but the overall story is so bloody depressing. Climate change, ocean acidification, the world’s entire wildlife supply being slaughtered for the Chinese market, overfishing, deforestation, etc. What’s frustrating about environmental degradation is that it is almost all either avoidable errors or manageable problems. Humans often choose not to do the right thing–a form of consumer capitalism that commodifies the natural world but separates us from production processes is the number one reason–but sometimes we figure things out. I think that part of the reason the environmental movement has declined in the United States in recent decades is that it was so successful. We don’t breathe in horrifying smog. Our rivers don’t catch on fire. Banning DDT brought back the bald eagle. People don’t see the environment as affecting their lives negatively so it falls to the back burner, even as climate change causes heat and giant storms. Most of the time, we don’t notice the catastrophic change around us. Still, the U.S. environmental movement shows that we can do a lot of things right if we pressure government and corporations to do so.
The British author Andrew Balmford explores a number of these success stories around the globe, offering readers useful lessons in how we can make things better. Balmford visits each continent for a different example. He visits a park in northeast India where anti-poaching patrols are trying to save the last rhinos. He goes to a North Carolina forest where new management forms give landowners incentive to save red-cockaded woodpecker habitat rather than eliminate it in fear of the birds being found and development ceased. He writes about the amazingly diverse Bosberg Mountains of South Africa, where the government has invested heavily in removing non-native species in order to bring back water supplies and create work. He discusses a Dutch rewilding effort, efforts to limit logging in Ecuador to provide water for farmers and preserve biodiversity, and lauds the corporate effort by Alcoa to restore its aluminum mining sites in southwestern Australia in order to maintain public support for mining. Finally, he explores the idea of sustainable fisheries in the oceans, although it’s hard for anyone to spin any example of that as a real success story, at least at this time.
The overall lesson is that a combination of government, corporate, NGO, and citizen leadership can restore areas, at least in the short term. A lot of places need pretty significant managing over a long period of time. If you are eliminating non-native foxes and cats in parts of Australia, well, they are going to keep coming. Others, such as the fynbos ecology in South Africa could theoretically return to some state of lesser management if you eliminate non-native plants and allow for a more sustainable fire regime. But in all these places, someone or some group of people has to lead and has to either lock down land or motivate changes in human behavior. Big tasks, both.
I agree that people and even corporations can lead on these issues. I’ve been on two of Ted Turner’s giant ranches in southern New Mexico and they are pretty amazing spaces. I’m really glad they are intact instead of turned into the ranchettes that increasingly dot the West and fragment wildlife habitat. Corporate leaders who see legacy as important might do some good work. But both of these are fleeting. As long as the fundamental and increasingly only goal is to maximize profits, what would keep a conversation program going for long? Glad that Alcoa is doing some conservation work in Australia. A new CEO and it ends. A wealthy individual can donate land and leave a strong will, but if heirs really want to develop or sell land, they might have the lawyers to make that happen so long as the land remains in private hands.
Ultimately, these programs need government leadership. For poor nations like South Africa, it makes sense to combine it with an employment program. In the end, the success of the American land reserve project of the past 100 years has come almost strictly through codifying land management under federal law, whether the limited good oft he United States Forest Service or the truly preserving Wilderness Act of 1964. People demanding government action is probably the best way to save and restore ecosystems. Governments themselves can be problematic of course. There’s a lot of land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that is designated as national parks, but the willpower and ability to enforce those boundaries is often nonexistent. In these places, NGOs and wealthy individuals can play a vital short-term role. But in the end, long-term land management for sustainability and biodiversity can only be planned by a centralized state. Or at least it gives such plans the best chance of effectiveness.
A lot of environmental writing comes in two basic forms. The first is the jeremiad that tells us how everything is in dire collapse, but then gives us a message of hope at the end, urging us to make things better. This book follows the second path, providing a lot of great and inspiring examples and then giving us a stern warning at the end that everything is going down the tubes. I’m not really sure which is more effective. The problem with the former is the downer stories could turn people off (a frequent criticism of the genre), while the latter may suffer from false hope. We all have to face the reality that things are getting very bad, very fast. If we could leave climate change out of it, the story would just be depressing. With climate change, it is catastrophic for us and everything else.
But hey, you have to try to make things better. Restoring small patches of the natural world is not always that difficult. We’ve done it before and we can still do it. And when we do, they are amazing to visit. Fighting the good fight is the only alternative to utter depression. Plus it can be fun. Andrew Balmford provides us a useful reminder of these points.