Author and climate activist Bill McKibben has published a manifesto to “declare war” on climate change. While I agree about the urgency, I question the wisdom of invoking warfare. For one, how well have our battles against vast, multifaceted problems worked out? (Think: the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, the war on poverty.) Equally important, the language of combat is exactly wrong for addressing climate disruption. Rather, we need to wage peace with nature: to understand how natural systems regulate climate and to ally with the processes that maintain those functions.
But we’re running out of time.
"Increasingly, people are ready for a peace footing with nature."
Shifting to renewable energy—the core of McKibben’s mobilization—is essential. But this alone won’t avert climate disaster. Even if we stopped fossil fuel emissions this minute, it would take centuries to bring CO2 down to appropriate levels. Plus, what remains unspoken: We could suck all the CO2 we want out of the atmosphere and still suffer the droughts, floods, heat waves and wildfires we now associate with climate change. We’re blind-sided by carbon, as if breaking our fossil fuel addiction were all that’s needed to restore climate dynamics. Climate is too complex to be reduced to a single variable.
Many ecological processes that influence climate reflect the movement and phase change of water. While carbon dioxide traps heat, water vapor acts as conveyer of heat, retaining and releasing heat as it circulates. Consider transpiration, the upward movement of water through plants. This is a cooling mechanism, transforming solar radiation to latent heat embodied in water vapor. According to Czech botanist Jan Pokorny, each liter of water transpired converts 0.7 kilowatt-hours of solar energy, an amount comparable to the capacity of, say, a large room air conditioner. A single tree can transpire upwards of 100 liters of water in a day. That’s a lot of cooling power—not to mention the shade, the drawdown of carbon, and everything else a tree does for us.
We may see a denuded landscape as a sign of climate change, but it’s also a cause. When we strip away vegetation, we lose the temperature modulation those plants provided. Sunlight beaming down becomes sensible heat—heat you can feel—as opposed to being captured and transformed by plants. Peter Andrews, an Australian maverick farmer and author, emphasizes the extent to which plants direct and manage water. He adds: “Every time a plant manages water, it manages heat.” He estimates that a quarter of earth’s land has lost plant cover.
The best tactic for reconciliation with nature is regenerating ecosystems. What’s crucial is to know that it’s possible: we’ve grown so accustomed to diminished landscapes we’ve lost sight of how lush they can be. In my reporting—from Mexico to Southern Africa and across the U.S.—I’ve found numerous examples of people restoring land to reduce poverty, support wildlife, store carbon, and hold moisture. The strategy depends on the setting but may entail building carbon-rich, living soil; slowing the flow of water; promoting the growth of trees; and managing grazing animals in a way that restores land. In grassland regions, many of which are desertifying, ruminants like cows and sheep are managed to serve as a proxy for the vast animal herds that helped create and maintain these environments.
"An astounding level of cognitive dissonance is built into our economic model as one is rewarded for extracting wealth from nature in a way that diminishes the natural systems upon which that wealth is built."
One barrier to our peace offensive is an economic system that treats nature as spoils of war. Look at how we measure value. Per the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an intact forest is worth zero; its contribution to biodiversity, water regulation, area cooling and human wellbeing is treated as irrelevant. If someone takes a chainsaw to it, the sale of wood goes in the plus column. This is “growth.” An astounding level of cognitive dissonance is built into our economic model as one is rewarded for extracting wealth from nature in a way that diminishes the natural systems upon which that wealth is built.
At the very least, “externalized” costs—with our lumber sale, this includes soil erosion, lowered water quality, loss of recreation—should be on the balance sheet. Filmmaker and researcher John D. Liu believes our economic structure needs more fundamental change. In 1995 Liu filmed the rehabilitation of China’s Loess Plateau, a chunk of degraded land the size of Belgium, for the World Bank. Upon documenting this and other areas brought back from the brink, he’s become an advocate of valuing ecological function over products and services, which he calls “derivatives” of nature.
Increasingly, people are ready for a peace footing with nature. Restorative grazing is finally gaining mainstream acceptance and training “hubs” are being deployed worldwide. Regenerative agriculture is now a trend, so consumers can seek food—and even clothing—produced via practices that improve the land. We even see inklings on Capitol Hill: Congressman Jared Huffman (D-California) has introduced the Healthy Soils and Rangelands Solutions Act to promote capturing carbon on public lands.
The vocabulary of war pervades in part since it reflects how we see the world. We learn it’s a dog-eat-dog world, a zero-sum game in which only the strongest survive—so it’s imperative to “destroy” enemies and “vanquish” rivals. Darwin’s take-home message has been that competition drives evolution. However, recent research suggests that symbiosis—shared beneficial relationships—is even more important in providing the opportunity and impetus to evolve.
The world we aspire to, with its verdant vistas and benevolent climate, is marked not by strife and struggle but interdependence, integration and cooperation. Nor is the route to climate equilibrium through technology alone—there are always unintended consequences—but in partnership with plants, animals and microorganisms. It’s time we shed the martial chatter and to start detonating some peace grenades. The sooner the better.