Part 4: It's a New Era!
“First of all, I’m not crazy about that word,” says Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight presidential chair in global sustainability. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and co-founded Ensia, the University of Minnesota’s digital initiative to showcase environmental thought.
“There’s no real agreement about the best way to even say it.” You could say an-THROW-pa-seen or an-THROP-a-seen. “The notion is that the geologic era that the Earth is in has been the Holocene, and it’s been the Holocene for about the last 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age. We’ve had a nice, stable, pleasant weather forecast for 10,000 years.
“But people are now saying: ‘Gosh, sometime recently we’ve taken the Earth out of that 10,000-year normal into a new normal which is fundamentally different. And this new normal is a new climate, a new biosphere, a new land, new waterways, and new chemicals everywhere. Most of these changes are due to growing food the way we do.”
Is it time to freak out? What with our planet of novel chemicals and toxins leading to mass extinctions? No, say the scientists.
These food-growing changes are no small potatoes. The International Union of Geologic Sciences, the folks who decide the Earth’s timescale, have convened a group of scholars to officially decide whether the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun, meaning human influence is so great we are the single entity most impacting the Earth’s crust. Us and our corn and our cows, explains Foley. “We’ve converted about 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface to growing food,” he notes. An area the size of South America is used for farming, and an area the size of Africa is used for pasture. Just about the rest of the Earth can be accounted for in city, lawn, desert, a little rainforest, and ice. “Almost everybody would accept the notion that we’re now living in a human-dominated planet. That’s simply the most observable fact about Earth today.
“Imagine the aliens come to visit the Earth every 100 years. I’m not a UFO guy, of course, but metaphorically, ET comes by every 100 years, looking down with his digital camera, taking a picture of the Earth. ‘Hey, Mom, look where I’ve been,’ and he posts it on ET Facebook or something. And they come back today after the last visit a hundred years ago: ‘Wow, these people, these humans, have gotten really busy. They’ve cleared most of the planet. They built all these cities. All of a sudden you can see their cities at night. They’re getting rid of the rainforests. They’re over-reaching, don’t you think, Mom?’”
Foley’s eyes narrow when he confronts a problem. He seems concerned I might think his UFO metaphor is a tacit endorsement of X-Files extraterrestrial believers and miss the point that we’ve made a new planet, emptied of many plants, full of new chemicals, which is killing all the pollinators and possibly 70 to 80 percent of all the plants, which includes a good chunk, maybe 30 percent, of the stuff we eat. Goodbye, nuts.
Farewell, fruit. Bid thee well, flowers.
Part 5: Don’t Panic
Is it time to freak out? What with our terraformed planet of novel chemicals and toxins leading to mass extinctions? No, say the scientists. “Freaking out is just not a very good strategy,” Foley says. “I’ve never seen anybody solve a problem by freaking out. If something bad were happening to me and my health, I want the doctor who doesn’t freak out—‘Oh, shit, you’re sick!’ I want the doctor who comes in and says, ‘OK, this is deadly serious. I’m going to calmly think about what we do. Now I have a plan.’”
Karen Oberhauser has thought calmly about these things. She’s a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and director of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.
We could see the same resurgence in bumblebees that we’ve seen with bald eagles. But it requires doing something . . . right away.
“At its base I think this is the tragedy of any problem with many causes,” she says. “Humans are good at solving problems that have one cause: the CFCs, which caused the hole in the ozone layer. Now we don’t use CFCs, problem solved. DDT was one thing. What’s happening to butterflies and bees is many things.” So the first thing we need to do is to stop looking for ‘a Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick’- type answer.
“The biggest problem facing monarchs is the loss of breeding habitat,” Oberhauser explains. But there’s more: “Milkweed, their food, used to be in cornfields, and now it’s not. The insecticides used to kill adult mosquitoes kill monarchs, too. Neonicotinoids are in so much of the nectar that insects encounter.” So the way forward for monarchs is simple, but it’s not one thing; it’s several: Start planting milkweed, start putting back some of the food that was taken away, and make sure it isn’t poisoned.
Oberhauser recently oversaw the establishment of a native plant butterfly garden outside of her lab on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, and she found it remarkably difficult to guarantee that the plants weren’t grown from seeds treated with a neonicotinoid, which would make them generate toxins for their entire lives. But she did it, and today that bee- and butterfly- friendly garden is a riot of life, with bright purple asters, thick stalks of fleshy milkweeds, and dragonflies zipping along the seedheads.
“Inch by inch, we need to do this,” she says. “Inch by inch we need to think about our domination of nature and start shifting it in a deliberate way, or we’ll just be counting things while they go extinct. A yard doesn’t have to look the way it does, low grass to mow, patches of exotic flowers here and there. If lawns were replaced with plants which benefit wildlife, it would add up. It’s been five years since I took out the grass at my house. Most of my neighbors love the way it looks now, the native flowers. One didn’t. She put up a fence.”
Part 6: The Way Forward
Biodiversity is not an aesthetic most people are in tune to these days. “We feel like we should sit on our decks and not be bothered by a spider,” Oberhauser says. “We feel like it should be 70 degrees all the time. But we need to understand that we really are part of nature, and if we destroy everything, it’s not going to be good for us. Our well-being is not the same thing as our being 100 percent comfortable all of the time. I’m not saying we should not have lawns, but I am saying we should not only have lawns. Just that little change in our mindset could change so much.”
Elaine Evans is a graduate student who works with Marla Spivak and spends much of her time trying to count rusty patched bumblebees. Her Midway neighborhood garden in St. Paul is full of mints such as bee balm and wildflowers such as Joe-Pye weed. She has seen rusty patched bumblebees only a few times in her life—and one of those times was in her plain old house garden in the heart of the city. Another time was near the rose garden at Lake Harriet. Why is this imperiled fuzzy bear in those two places? Because bumblebees go where there is bee food.
If you yourself live within a mile or two of St. Paul’s Como Lake or Minneapolis’s Lake Harriet rose garden and you dropped everything and planted bee food, you personally could be responsible for saving the rusty patched bumblebee. And then if someone within a mile of you did the same, well, you can see how it goes; we could see the same resurgence in rusty patched bumblebees that we’ve seen with bald eagles. But it requires doing something, planting something, right away.
“There are 300 native species of bees in Minnesota and 18 different species of bumblebees,” explains Evans. “All the bumblebees are generalists and will travel two miles from their nests for food. If you plant food bees like, without pesticides, that can make a big difference.” Once they have food, they also need shelter. Bumblebees breed and overwinter in nests; the fuzzy fat little critters require bare ground they can burrow into for winter. That black plastic lining so many gardeners put down as a weed barrier indirectly kills bees, too, by limiting their nesting sites. Trees are bee food, also, especially native Minnesota maples, lindens (also called basswoods), and willows. For Evans, the way forward is to plant bee food, short and tall, free of black plastic.
Foley has a way forward, too, and while a lot of it involves marshaling science and presenting it in such a way that big actors, such as corporations and governments, can see things such as how bad use of water can lead to unstable commodity prices or populations, he also takes steps at home. He has what he calls a “nano-orchard” on his standard tiny Crocus Hill house lot, with cherries, apples, pears, gooseberries, and currants. His neighbors all have fruit trees now, too: apricots, peaches, even Russian quince providing pollen and nectar for the local pollinators, who in turn make the trees bear fruit. “We have a bunch of birdhouses and bat houses and stuff, just for fun,” Foley says. For Foley the way forward includes hard science, a refusal to panic, and nano-orchards with neighbors.