Moving from Conquerors to Stewards
By Patricia DeMarco, Ph.D.
This cold snowy day, the roads are obscured with softly falling snow. In the stark black and white scene, I thrill to hear the mating call of a brilliant red cardinal sitting in the holly bush outside my kitchen door. He sings with confidence in the Spring to come and a long summer thriving in the privet hedge where he and his mate built four nests last season, all successful in fledging new cardinals into this backyard wilderness. The cycle of life forecast with joy, beauty and grace.
I reflect on where we stand in our battle to preserve our life support system in the face of deeply entrenched obstruction. We have lost a strong and steady voice with the passing of Edward Oliver Wilson on December 24, 2021. Ed Wilson sat in my garden and at my dinner table when he was the keynote speaker for the Rachel Carson Legacy Conference on Biodiversity and received the first Rachel Carson Legacy Award in 2008. He was a reflective and gentle man, completely grounded in science as the explanation for human behavior and society’s patterns of behavior. His work in sociobiology was controversial and put him at the center of numerous disputes. As he moved into retirement, he spent more time writing, speaking and advocating for preserving the biodiversity of this marvelous living Earth, our only home. He was realistic about the challenges of climate change and human development but remained optimistic. In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, he said: “I’m optimistic, I think we can pass from conquerors to stewards.”
I’m optimistic, I think we can pass from conquerors to stewards.”
The concept of stewardship to preserve half of the earth as wild natural spaces stands as his legacy and his challenge to us. This shift in concept from using the earth as a source of resources to be extracted for economic products to using the resources of the earth in regenerative and restorative ways lies at the heart of the transformation to a sustainable society.
The first transformation necessary for this major shift in approach to the place of humans in the world begins with a change in attitude. We are facing multiple existential crises, all interwoven, all derived from the basic problem of consuming more of the Earth’s resources than can be replaced. In addressing this problem, we are not facing a technology problem, but rather an ethical problem- a crisis of moral commitment to preserve the life support system of this planet for our children, and for tomorrow’s children. We must infuse consideration for preserving and restoring the ecosystem services of the living earth into all our decisions about land use and resource use.
Regenerative Agriculture. Re-configure agricultural lands to restore fertility to the soil, capture carbon, and create resilience against drought and pests. The demand for food is projected to increase by 60 per cent by 2050. The global food system must be transformed to achieve two purposes. First, it must ensure food and nutritional security and put an end to hunger, once and for all. Second, it must reverse the degradation that human actions have caused and restore ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture is gaining acceptance as large commercial operations suffer from drought, inundation by contaminated flood waters, and crop failures. Regenerative agriculture is a triple-win situation. Consumers can receive healthier foods, farmers can have a more secure and prosperous future and the planet will benefit because regenerative agriculture provides it a better chance to heal and restore itself. Major food companies are increasing commitments to regenerative practice in their supply chains, with significant increases in the acreage dedicated to regenerative practice for both produce, grains and livestock. Only five million acres of farmland are dedicated to regenerative agricultural practices in the U.S. today, however major producers have committed large acreage to regenerative practice: WalMart- 50 million acres; PepsiCo- 7 million acres; Cargill-10 million acres all by 2030. The trend toward regenerative agriculture holds promise as leaders in Europe and the United Nations have developed broad programs to support farmers in converting from mono-culture industrial operations to regenerative practices.
Consumers Demand Sustainability in Products. Millennials are twice as likely (75% vs. 34%) than Baby Boomers to say they are definitely or probably changing their habits to reduce their impact on the environment. They’re also more willing to pay more for products that contain environmentally friendly or sustainable ingredients (90% vs. 61%), organic / natural ingredients (86% vs. 59%), or products that have social responsibility claims (80% vs. 48%). The post-war (WWII) impetus to buy more stuff and use conspicuous consumption as a mark of status is diminished in the millennial generation. With greater awareness of the need for sustainability, there is a surge in interest in recycling, re-use, and refusing unnecessary products. Globally, 85 percent of people indicate that they have shifted their purchase behavior towards being more sustainable in the past five years. Globally, sustainability is rated as an important purchase criterion for 60 percent of consumers. In the US, this number is just over the global average at 61 percent. The challenge in this trend is to make meaningful transparency in sustainability practices, as distinguished from “greenwashing” marketing campaigns. Tech-savvy millennials can access tools easily to check out and verify claims of product sustainability. Consumer pressure is having a significant effect on reducing deforestation and in achieving fair wages for workers at all levels of the supply chain.
Greening Urban Spaces. People resonate with green spaces, whether small parks, treed walkways, or grand forests, being in or near green spaces contributes to a sense of well-being and promotes mental health. Green spaces help to support ecosystem health in urban spaces, and as urbanization continues across the globe, it is essential to incorporate green spaces into growth areas. There has been a history of disparity in green spaces between wealthier neighborhoods and poorer ones. As the move toward green space incorporated into urban spaces continues, assuring ways to green poorer neighborhoods becomes a central part of restoring environmental justice to disadvantaged communities. Community gardens have contributed a tremendous impetus to green space preservation in urban areas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full range of healthy diets. More than 23 million Americans have to trek more than ten miles to get their nearest supermarket. Urban agriculture — in particular, community gardening — has become increasingly popular in the 21st century, with the number of Americans growing food in community gardens rising by 200% between 2008 and 2016. This initiative has emerged in response to food deserts and also to improving the restoration of older industrial cities, like Detroit, where gardens and open green space are becoming permanent parts of restoring abandoned industrial land. Small urban gardens often incorporate pollinator-friendly plantings and reduce heat concentration in paved urban areas. As the benefits of green spaces are better recognized, the dispute over land valuation to preserve gardens and forested areas within urban spaces becomes more acute. Tax base for land with buildings exceeds the tax base for land devoted to agriculture, so far. Too often a community garden established from the rubble of an abandoned building site is cavalierly dismissed when a developer buys the property or takes it over from title transfer without any regard for the community investment in gardening, sometimes over many years. This is one of the areas where transformative thinking about incorporating the value of green space into property value determinations can improve the sustainability of urban areas.
Re-wilding the American Dream. The American dream of a two-story single family house with a two-car garage on a half acre of lawn with one tree in the front yard and a white picket fence around it is so over. The residential lawn takes up 40 million acres of land, 2% of the land area of the US. Americans spend more than$30 billion annually on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and on water to irrigate lawns. Many of the chemicals used on lawns washes into the stormwater system and contributed to endocrine disrupting chemical pollution of waterways. All of this expanse of lawn could be replaced with native plants, grasses, shrubs and trees to provide wildlife and pollinator refuges throughout the country. When neighborhoods combine efforts to create wildlife friendly spaces, entire ecosystems can return to formerly barren expanses of green lawn. Even adding vegetable gardens to uninterrupted lawn has benefits. Placing groves of trees at the inner corner of properties (instead of along the street under the power lines) can break up heat islands and provide unfettered growing space for shade trees. Growing permaculture plantings of perennial berry bushes under larger trees can offer a diversity of habitat as well as a diversity of food sources for birds and small creatures. Allowing lawns to grow clover, violets and other perennial low-growing grasses supports pollinators and if mowed can be sufficient for walking paths and garden living spaces. A creative approach to living in harmony with nature emerges from these initiatives.
Design Complete Neighborhoods. With the end of World War II, the advance of motorized travel in the US surged. The apparatus of war shifted quickly to producing consumer goods – automobiles, appliances, big houses, disposable goods from plastic. All of these trends surged America to a markedly unsustainable way of living so that now Americans have the highest level of greenhouse gas production per capita in the world. If everyone on earth lived the way the average American dies, it would require five and a half planets to support us. We have only on Earth. Re-constructing the American suburban sprawl mode of living to create more holistic neighborhoods conducive to healthy living with green spaces, walkable connections from work, school, home and recreation seams an impossible pipe dream. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced lockdowns and working and schooling from home have become almost normal, new priorities emerge. First, the disparity in broadband access reveals a greater economic divide. 73% of US homes had home-internet access. However, examined by demographic groups, rates of home-internet accessibility show significant disparities based on economic status and race. Just less than half of households with annual family incomes less than $20,000 have home-internet access. Further, 83% of Asians and 81% of Whites have home-internet access, compared to 72% of American Indian/Alaska Natives, 70% of Hispanics, 68% of Blacks. Addressing the inequities in access and infrastructure for smooth connectivity to the internet is now a necessity for modern life. Internet access and speed is not only essential to keep up with many aspects of modern society, and it is crucial in bolstering resilience of individuals, families, communities, broader social networks and overall cohesion. As the federal impetus to increase investment in infrastructure moves forward, it is important to recognize that communities will be more resilient, productive and sustainable if they have infrastructure that allows more holistic designs of development. Investing in micro-grid centers in business districts, safe pedestrian amenities like sidewalks, sheltered bus stops, and bicycle lanes can increase the formation of neighborhood resilience.
Whether we live in a high- rise apartment building in the middle of a city or on an individually owned plot of land, we have opportunities to influence the planning for a greener space. We can make decisions about what we eat, what we use, how we travel, and how we interact with each other. Increasing our quotient of treating the world around us as well as the land with respect and holding the dignity of every person we meet can make space for constructive dialogue. Let us join in the effort to steward our living Earth, live lightly on the land, and restore the resilience of the robust ecosystem services that support our life.