The Awkward Relationship Between Homo sapiens And Planet Earth

I, as do so many of you, present lectures and workshops to a wide range of people in which we are encouraging them to become familiar with the local flora, to plant native plants that require less water, to plant and conserve those species that are important to insects, birds and other animal species, a wide range of questions come from this very heterogeneous audience. The central theme of these comments and questions centers on basic information concerning what plant species to plant, requirements for local plant growth and development, and where to acquire local plants. Either I have answers to these questions or members of the audience can provide solutions and sound suggestions. But with some regularity there are several deeper questions that are challenging and at the same time demand more serious thought.

Some people seem to want to delve into my personal belief system and want to know how I can continue to be so concerned about planting and caring for the local native plant species, while the biological diversity of the earth is rapidly being destroyed. Recently one of these questions stuck with me, not only because of its directness, but also the “take no prisoners” attitude of the questioner. It seemed to me he was asking, “What are you doing beyond encouraging the planting of native trees to conserve the long-term future of planet earth?” To say it another way, “What are the major issues in society to which we must attend if this earth is going to continue to be a place where large destructive mammals like Homo sapiens can survive?”

Following on the more challenging questions, I recognized I literally do have two sets of ideas or concepts on which I operate. One is a list of recognizable, close to home, environmental problems that allowed me to write and publish Trees and Shrubs of Colorado, and directly encourage the correction of serious environmental problems we face right here in Denver and throughout Colorado. At this level, I am able to suggest we plant and care for local native plant species, protect the national and state parks, conserve water, reduce carbon dioxide, reduce erosion, and reach out to people of all ages encouraging them to protect the environment that surrounds them.

But, as with most of you, I do hear another drummer and I have been hearing a number of drummers for a good part of my life. I am not a self-made person. The challenge came from my teachers, professors, and my environment for more than eighty plus years to read, study and listen to a much larger array of scholars and scientists who have made the case for protecting the only earth we have. Reading the works of such people as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Edward O. Wilson, David Ehrenfeld, Garrett Hardin, Lester R. Brown, Eugene Odum, E. F. Schumacher, Carl Sagan, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, William deBuys and many others, has allowed me to develop a list of much larger concepts that I could not address in a single lecture or workshop. I have developed my own person, and beliefs, through these powerful authors that I can almost consider personal friends. They have challenged me to attend to environmental issues not only close to home, but at the same time recognize that every organism that makes up each ecosystem must be protected. And that terms like kindness, conservation, carrying capacity, and limits must be understood first by humankind, before stocks, bonds, and derivatives can be of any value on a small, crowded, and mistreated planet.

In recent weeks, since the powerful winds and rain off the Gulf of Mexico swept over south central Texas and portions of Louisiana, literally destroying hundreds of communities, thousands of homes, and bringing total havoc to thousands of lives, I could not believe what was taking place right before my eyes. Television almost demands you watch this terrible sight and hear the frustrated and hopeless voices of those confronted with this horrible dilemma. For me, this is so painful because I am familiar with that beautiful coastline, and having enjoyed taking many plant geography and field botany classes to that area to study the flora and birds of the wetlands.

But the real shock for me is that so many of the individuals interviewed were also quick to say they are returning to that area as soon as possible, after being driven out two and three times under such horrible conditions. Perhaps it is my science background, but what I have been observing is just totally impossible to comprehend. The only place on earth where I have observed and heard a similar story was in Bangladesh on two separate occasions. Are Homo sapiens just shortsighted, or is there something more I don’t understand? It appears to me this one species is crowding itself into horrible conditions, and that we are reaching limits on earth that this species fails to understand. Twenty-five years ago, I read Garrett Hardin’s Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, and it challenged me to listen and study a wide range of other drummers. The earth has become a very crowded place.

1 – What are some of these larger concepts that demand that we protect biodiversity, improve the quality of environmental education, and reduce the human population over planet earth? These concepts have been around hundreds of years, but they have not become a reality for humankind. Here are just a few of my best examples.

  Our present economic system is destroying the earth’s natural environments and at the same time, destroying the lives of millions of people. We must restructure our economic system to the point where it is compatible with the earth’s limited capacities. Every person who identifies him or herself as an economist or has plans to run for a major political office must first be educated to the point of understanding basic ecology and earth science. I continue to be amazed when I hear some economists, and most elected government officials, who have never studied ecology, continue to make long-term decisions that place the earth in jeopardy and at terrible risk. In fact, these uneducated citizens continue to draw a large part of the population along with them as they make literally horrible decisions concerning the future of planet earth and all living things. It is time to make “Earth First” much more than a bumper sticker. It must become a way of life for all living things, including humankind.

2 – Comprehending and living with climate change over planet earth is just one more lesson we must come to understand and respect. We often hear people say, “We all talk about the weather, but we can’t do anything about it.” Not true! Humankind has done a great deal about the climate on planet earth and much of it is extremely bad for human health and the health of many other living organisms. For me it all started during the drought in the Midwest, during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I saw the clouds of dust that destroyed the central states, small communities and the national economy. Drought in the Southwest is real and will continue to destroy the lives and livelihoods of many living things. Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Albuquerque without water will take human lives, right along with thousands of other plant and animal species. Inexcusable ignorance, greed, and denial do not bode well for the future of the Southwest.

3 – Stabilizing and reducing the human population needs to take place. Earth economics isn’t working for millions of Homo sapiens and every day the problem becomes greater. This very real problem will not be cured by simple good will. We are on a path to continue starvation, with the ensuing destruction of the lives of millions of people over the earth each year. As responsible humans, we need to take a serious look at our numbers and determine what actions we can take to prevent the perpetuation of this problem – we need to do this for our own benefit and for the benefit of the plant communities we know and love.

4 – There are intricate relationships among plants, animals, photosynthesis, CO2, oxygen and respiration that humankind continues to overlook, ignore, or perhaps simply does not wish to understand. Most people fail to conceptualize the connections that exist among these basic aspects of biology that allow the earth to persist in its basic form. I am afraid most adults would have serious difficulty writing a paragraph describing the connections among these terms that are so important to living systems.     I am amazed at how little knowledge people have of the flora in relationship to the fauna that surrounds them, and the limited knowledge they have of the plants growing on their property. When it comes to selecting even a few native plants that are appropriate to the ecosystem in which they live, they seem to have no idea where to begin this task in basic biology. Humankind fails to recognize the homeostasis and sharing that must go on among all living things over planet earth. It is as though the vast majority of people never completed a single course in life sciences or ecology.

5 – Eliminating landfills in favor of an economy that is totally recyclable is an idea poorly understood by many people, but at the same time in nature there is no need for a landfill. Nature depends on cycles to maintain life and there are no systems where raw materials go in and garbage comes out, except those created by humankind. As long as there are landfills we are continuing to produce an earth that is less and less inhabitable and at the same time drastically reducing natural resources at the expense of future generations. There is no excuse for landfills. Every single thing that goes into the landfill is recyclable. If we are serious about strengthening our economy, creating new jobs and extending the life of humankind on earth, we will start today, if not sooner, cleaning up the mess we call landfills. Once this is understood, the price of every single item we purchase will include the cost of recycling.

6 – Contributing our time and personal wealth to those conservation and environmental institutions that are most important to the long-term future of planet earth are the greatest gifts we can give. Also, there is tremendous power in numbers when we join together with others to make our voices heard. Several years ago while president of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, I pulled together the information available on plant sales from six chapters of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico in one growing season. These chapters sold and made available to their membership and other friends living in their communities more than 1,300 native plants. These species went into the soil over the state and immediately started drawing carbon dioxide from the air and pumping oxygen back into the environment. That is progress on a small scale, but think of the potential of this many trees and shrubs planted each year over twenty or one hundred years.

I am now preaching to the saved. Best I stop.

Finally the best advice I can give is that we all read, study, and think on these things, and then apply ourselves in the way that best fits our background and experiences.

by Jack Carter
Reprinted with permission from the Colorado Native Plant Society newsletter Aquilegea, Volume 41 No.5 Fall 2017

Scott's Run , a VNPS Registry site. Photo: Laura Beaty

Scott’s Run , a VNPS Registry site. Photo: Laura Beaty

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