Thursday, October 22, 2020

A life on our planet - review

I watched David Attenborough’s film A life on our planet the other evening. The first, and largest, part of the movie was very well made. Perhaps not much new, but very well presented and with excellent footage and narrative. Some images are very strong, even brutal, such as a lonely orangutan sitting on a tree trunk in a devastated landscape. I think most viewers got the message: this has to change! And let me underline that this is a film worth watching.

Because the film is so compelling and Attenborough such a sympathetic person, viewers may accept all of its statements and arguments. This would, however, be a mistake in my opinion. 

Photo: Gunnar Rundgren

What I missed in the first part was a lack of analysis of the underlying drivers causing the threatening sixth mass extinction. This is also reflected in shortcomings of the much shorter and optimistic second part of the film. The processes and technologies he claims will save the wilderness and human civilization are renewable energy, intensive farming methods, diet transformation, rewilding and reduced population growth.  

I totally agree with Attenborough that human population needs to stabilize. And it is true that, as far as we know today, birth rates falls when countries get richer (or vice versa). The problem is that lower population growth in one country is associated with increasing total resource use rather than the opposite. At least in the short term and with current consumption patterns, there is no relief for nature from lower population growth.

His claim that renewable energy will make energy everywhere more affordable (than now) is wishful thinking with no evidence in reality. While we need to stop using fossil fuels, an energy system based on sun, water and wind will not at all be cheaper. That solar panels now deliver cheap electricity at the point of production doesn’t mean that it can power a modern industrial civilization at a very low cost. And cheap energy is the lifeblood of the modern global industrial civilization. What is more: if it were true we would head for an even worse disaster as energy is used to extract, transport and transform stuff; more energy leads to higher pressure on nature rather than lower. 

Attenborough claims that we should, once more, become part of nature. I certainly agree, but he fails to draw the conclusion of that when it comes to farming. The main examples he discuss are indoor farming and the very intensive farming in the Netherlands. It is true that the Dutch farming is very productive and that the Netherlands is the number two food exporter in the world, but it is equally one of the biggest importers of food raw materials. To a large extent the Netherlands imports feed and other cheap commodities and turn them into more valuable products for exports, or just re-export them, a pattern with many hundred years of history. The very efficient greenhouse industry is based on fossil fuels for heating as well as for fertilizers. Vertical farms as well as traditional greenhouses are useful for the production of high value luxury crops such as tomatoes or basil, but are largely irrelevant within the context of feeding the world. No wheat, potatoes or oil crops, crops that do “feed the world”, are grown in greenhouses. If you consider their total footprint, i.e. all resources needed for their production, including the energy needed, they normally save neither land nor water.

The section about diet starts off with an analogy of predators; for each large predator in nature there is a need for hundred large animals of prey. A dramatic figure supposedly proving that there is simply not room enough on the planet for so many animals for us to feed upon. Clearly Attenborough has a point, diets matter, and a carnivorous diet requires a lot of resources.

But he also misses the huge difference between a carnivore and omnivores. Humans are omnivores. The human trophic level is not the same as for a tiger or a cheetah. We are more like pigs or anchovies than top predators. The average human get less than 20 percent of her calories from animals and even in high consumption countries the average is more like one third (36 percent in the US). That the analogy of the cheetah is false could the film researchers easily have determined by just checking the number of cattle and pigs eaten by humans. More than 7 billion humans eat 1.5 billion pigs, 1 billion sheep and goats and 300 million cattle annually. A mindboggling figure - but not even a half “large animal of prey” per person.

The statement that we could use only half of the land we currently are using by eating less or no meat, is only true if grasslands are included in the calculations. Little arable land would be saved by a full vegan diet compared to a diet with global average consumption of animal products.  Many of the grasslands of the world are not only habitat for domestic animals but are also very important habitat for wild life. In Europe, semi-natural grasslands are hotspots of biodiversity and under severe threat by abandonment according to the latest The state of nature in the European Union report.

In some cases we could or should replace sheep or cattle with wild herbivores which we can hunt. Attenborough recommends that approach for fisheries. By protecting some areas very well we can restore fish stocks and make fisheries sustainable. Sounds reasonable to me and I am all for rewilding as an idea. In reality it is a bit more complicated. You just has to listen to the debate about wolves, moose or wild boars in my neighbourhood to realize that there are many conflicts and trade-offs between wilderness and human nature resource management. Gone are the times when central governments or colonial powers could mass migrate people by force to create nature reserves. Also here, there is tension between managing nature with humans as an active part or trying to exclude humans from the landscape.

The call for a halt to deforestation is equally good – but there are trade-offs and conflicts which the film avoids. England, where David Attenborough lives, was already deforested at the time of the Doomsday book. Even though my own country, Sweden, is covered to two thirds by trees it is functionally deforested from a biodiversity perspective and has almost no primary forest left. Who am I or David Attenborough to demand that people in poor countries should set aside most of their land mass to wilderness when our own countries haven’t done so? The example of Costa Rica’s afforestation is good, but it is also linked to a growth in ecotourism. While ecotourism has some merits in order to create incentives for nature protection, tourism, including eco-tourism, is a very resource demanding and not at all a sustainable sector. In addition, a small fraction of the world’s wilderness has the potential to be saved by tourism revenues.

How we use and live in nature is an integral part of human society and culture and both the analysis of why it is like it is and how we should proceed in the future can’t discuss “nature” as an object separate from our social systems, including the economy. We have built an extractive and expansive economy, which has many inherent drivers to keep running and a strategy for transformation must address all those drivers to really make a difference.

Still, by all means watch the film. I let David Attenborough have the final word:

“We need to rediscover how to be sustainable, to move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature.“


PS. I watched the film with Swedish sub-titles and the translations suck, shame on Netflix


Monday, October 12, 2020

Of mice, men and elephants

In most prevailing sustainability narratives, increased efficiency is a prominent component. It is a prerequisite for the supposed possibility to combine decreasing pressure on natural resources with economic growth. Through improved resource efficiency we can continue to consume as before, without harming the planet, the story goes. That this story is dubious to say the least is ascertained by a massive body of evidence. Rebound effects will in most cases not lead to absolute reduction in resource use. 

In this article, I want to take the discussion a step further by discussing how scale impacts resource use, because I believe this has not been sufficiently considered. In a recent paper by Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis write:

“Another fundamental reason why efficiency might be coupled with scale is that as we know from biology and ecology, the metabolism of a larger organism, say an elephant, is more efficient than that of a smaller one, say a mouse, but this is because the elephant is bigger… It is true that relative resource or energy decoupling often accompanies the growth of an economy – but this might simply be an artifact of scale.”

An elephant weighs more than 200 000 times than a mouse, but needs only 10,000 times more food per day.  An elephant’s metabolism is thus some 20 times more efficient.  But clearly the elephant is not better adapted to its environment than the mouse and a mouse is more adaptable to shifting environments than an elephant. In a wider sense, being a mouse is more sustainable than being an elephant, despite its lower metabolic efficiency.

In the following I will continue to discuss energy use. Energy is a powerful proxy for resource use. After all, most energy under human command is used to extract, move or transform resources into things.  There are examples of that the use of one resource shrinks despite increasing use of energy, but mostly that is a result of substitution for another resource. By and large there is strong correlation between energy use and use of other natural resources.

Following the mouse and elephant track, I came across The Metabolism of a Human-Dominated Planet (a chapter in the book Is the Planet Full?) wherein Yadvinder Mahli describes the development of human civilization in the framework of societal metabolism, expressed in energetic terms. While hunter-gatherers used just a tiny fraction of the total biome metabolism, agricultural civilizations used between 3-6 percent of the biome metabolism and biomass still supplied almost all energy use. Modern industrial society expanded the metabolism at least four times per person, mainly through the use of fossil fuels. As the population grew at the same time the total metabolic rate of the modern industrial civilization is now some 50 times bigger than during the agricultural civilization. While the share of biomass in the metabolism has been reduced the total use of biomass has increased eightfold.

In terms of energy use each human now use more energy than an elephant. Of course the energy use is not equal for all humans. There is a huge divide between the poor and the rich countries and people. But there is also a giant divide between different trades and industrial sectors. One single large container ship can use 200 ton of diesel per day. With a crew of twenty, this means that the daily use of fossil fuels (and this emissions) per sailor is more than the yearly use of two average Americans. This is probably the most extreme example, but farmers, loggers, truck drivers, miners and construction workers all command energy resources which are very big compared to averages.

Energy use is also very closely linked to the labor efficiency, often called productivity. In most processes, increased labor efficiency is accomplished through the use of technologies of various sorts. All of them are powered by energy resources, one or the other. In many cases, labor efficiency and resource efficiency go hand in hand, when measured per unit produced. When measured per man-hour, things look a different, however.

The modern farmer is incredibly efficient in man-hours per unit of production. When farms get bigger, tractors and combines also get bigger. They have, normally, much higher labor efficiency than smaller machinery. In addition, they are almost always more energy efficient than earlier smaller models. So by and large they result in “saving energy”. This is correct, but only if you limit the analysis to the use of energy per kg produce or per hectare. Meanwhile, energy and resource use per man-hour has increased tremendously. One person can almost single handedly run a 500 hectares of grain farm, but she will use some 50 tons of diesel per year, roughly the same amount of energy needed to power 25 elephants. In addition she uses energy resources embedded in artificial fertilizers, machinery, buildings, roads etc. Essentially the farmer has gone from being a metabolic horse to fifty metabolic elephants. Apart from energy our 50-elephant farmer also use much more steel, water, concrete, ecosystem services and minerals than her predecessor.

Palm oil plantation Riau, Indonesia, photo:Gunnar Rundgren
Does it matter? It certainly does. This is precisely why scale is inherently linked to resource usage.

To understand how and why, we need to expand our analysis from the single farm to the whole economy wherein our gargantuan elephant farmer is operating. The farmers that were left over in the mechanization of farming are now busy in other trades; some have become sailors on a container ship, others industrial workers, nurses or order pickers at Amazon, cogs in the huge metabolic system which we call society. And in most occupations similar economies of scale apply. Increasing efficiency is harder in services which also mean that they do not demand as many resources as manufacturing, but this is also the reason for why scale isn’t so important in services or why services often are organized in franchises or other kind of networks and in decentralized structures. On a system level, one can’t really separate most services from the flow and production of goods as they are part of those flows, which makes the talk of a service economy into a smokescreen, hiding its material basis.

The net result is that the industrial society will, simultaneously, use less resources per unit produced; produce more units per hour worked; and in total increase resource use as we all become obese elephants. A solid link exist between increased labor productivity, increased scale and total resource use in the economy. That would perhaps be fine if we simultaneously reduced our numbers to those of large mammals. But instead, we are approaching the total number of mice on the planet. And I do believe most people will understand that a landscape can support many more mice than elephants.