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  • Writer's pictureAndy Clark

"Nature Is Healing"... But It's Still In A Critical Condition

Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, numerous stories have emerged along the lines of "Nature is Healing" - largely demonstrating wildlife seen wandering about urban environments, some relating to reduced air or water pollution (some utterly bogus, others thankfully more legitimate).

In the wake of a series of ongoing natural catastrophes (and everything else going on in the world), such stories have been a bit of light-relief to many, and indeed prominent conservation biologists have been keen to actively study the (presumably positive) impact of the lockdown on nature.

Overall, it's left many wondering if this (in many ways disastrous) period for humanity could be a catalyst of positive change. 85% of Britons recently polled don't want to go completely back to life-as-normal once this is all over (though we should take that with a pinch of Brexit salt...). But could this turmoil allow people to re-prioritise, to re-discover some of the most important things in life? To re-discover the joy of nature, and re-evaluate our commitments to it's protection?

If that is the case, it's sorely needed. The Earth is rapidly reaching a tipping-point beyond which there will be no turning back and no hope of continuing life [even remotely] as we know it - as exemplified by the obvious and increasing number of natural disasters over the last few years.

But I just let some jargon slip in there - the old "tipping-point" analogy. While everyone kind of knows what's meant by the clichéd term as it's applied to so many new stories, do people really understand what climatologists are talking about when they say the Earth is approaching a tipping-point?

I believe that most people don't know what's being referred to when they hear the "global-tipping-point" jargon. And I believe that because I do know the story behind the jargon; and everyone else who does fully appreciate what's being talked about, it makes me sick with fear.

The IPCC have been quite clear about the importance of preventing global heating beyond 1.5º. Our governments have (sort-of) taken this on-board with commitments alluding to carbon-neutrality by the middle of the century (which many, myself included, argue are not proactive enough). In so doing, there is at least the agreement of this central fact that we will only get one chance to prevent catastrophic change. But it's still intangible... the change in this narrative is still as vague as what we're actually going to do about it... it's "one shot - or what?"

Herein, I'll explain the "or what".

[But first, queue the music. It's still important to me that this doesn't come across too hopeless.]

Last Autumn, after a few months of reports of wild-fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest, headlines emerged that the Amazon was approaching one of those "tipping-points". (That's a bad thing because - what's the Amazon? The "lungs of the Earth", to use another cliché.)

When we talk about environmental tipping-points, we're referring to a very specific ecologic process - one called "Alternative Stable States". (For the sake of blow-softening, I'll use the acronym, ASS).

ASS-theory tells us that, for a given biome (area), there are more than one possible ecosystems, depending on various factors. This is grounded in the idea that an ecosystem is somewhat self-regulating.

In this case we're talking about the Amazon rainforest. It, and other rainforests, are known to be self-regulating environments, as the sheer amount of trees there, all 'breathing out' water vapour in a process called 'transpiration', directly causes more rainfall in that area. So you get more groundwater, more trees grow, it rains even more, until it reaches a peak of rain and trees and we call it a 'rainforest'.

We can see, from looking at other areas of the world at similar latitudes but without the abundance of trees (and scientific models show us even more precisely), that if you took the trees out of the Amazon it would become a dry savannah. That is the Amazon's ASS (Alternative Stable State).

(Literal example: Madagascar. A rainforest still standing (above) in Western Madagascar, while dry savannah is all that remains after deforestation in the centre of the island (below).

(I acknowledge the intense regional diversity Madagascar presents, but it's still a working analogy)).

The Question is - how many trees are needed to maintain the 'rainforest' state? How many trees could we lose before the rainforest becomes a savannah?

It's not as straightforward as "all the area without trees becomes savannah, and all the area still with trees continues to be rainforest" - and that's because of the self-regulating nature of the rainforest. It needs a certain amount of trees providing enough moisture through transpiration to actually be a rainforest. At some point, there will no longer be enough trees to maintain the rainforest ecosystem, and everything that's left will collapse into savannah.

The Trouble is - we don't exactly know the answer to the question. We don't know how many trees is 'enough trees' to maintain a stable 'rainforest' state. And then, when we lose that, what we get is an Alternative Stable State - the savannah will be similarly self-regulating because that's what ecosystems do.

So it's not as simple as X is the number of trees to make a rainforest, because each ecosystem, once established, fights for it's survival.

But for the sake of example, say we fell nearly all of the Amazon and then, the as soon we go from 100 trees to 99 trees left standing, the ecosytem crashes and it becomes a savannah. One might initially think "100 is the answer, and if we put one tree back it'll be a rainforest again." But no, that's not how it works. In such a scenario, it's more likely that we'd have to put back 10,000 trees in order for it to re-establish into a rainforest.

This resilience of ecosystems to change is called "Hysteresis", and it was the subject of my undergraduate thesis (back in the day!).

And it's not just trees, there are of course other variables too - like how much water enters the system from rainfall in the first place, whether it's a particularly hot or cold year (see El Niño and La Niña years), and so on, that will effect the stability of a 'rainforest' state.

So we know that we're heading for a metaphorical cliff-edge, and we know that once we go over it there will be no climbing back up. And we don't know how far from the edge we are at present, though our feet do seem to be starting to slip.

And that's *just* the Amazon. There are countless other similar occurrences going on all over the planet in other ecosystems with their own ASSs, and they're all important, and their destruction is contributing to the general mass extinction of species as habitats irretrievably disappear.

But the Amazon is really quite important. "It's the lungs of the Earth" after all. But it's rather more than that. It doesn't *just* provide us in the rest of the world with a lot of oxygen to breathe and carbon-sequestering capabilities. The self-regulating effect of the Amazon is so significant that it helps regulate the climate of the entire planet.

The Amazon plays a vital role in the global carbon cycle and directly impacts global heating and climate change in that way, but in the way that it is also self-humidifying and self-cooling, it impacts global weather patterns. The stable state of the Amazon and it's place in the global environment is an example of how all ecology on this planet is intrinsically interconnected.

If the Amazon is lost it will cascade into a savannah, but that cascade of ecological change won't stop there.

In James Lovelock's Gaia theory (pretty well established fact now), the biosphere of the Earth is recognised as one big self-regulating system. Our planet will have Alternate Stable States, just as the Amazon basin does, and similarly we don't know what the tipping point for the planet will be in the end... but it's very likely linked to the stabilising effect of the Amazon rainforest.

That's why the idea of an Amazon 'tipping point' causes my stomach to drop with dread.

That's why I feel a sense of panic when talking about the restoration of nature - because we have to get away from that cliff-edge as fast as bloody possible.

There are many ways that conservationists set about trying to fix the threat of environmental collapse - from simply protecting large areas, to only protecting very specific important areas, to very targeted approaches for climate - but at the end of the day just one of these ideas isn't going to be possible everywhere. What's important is that we do as much of what we can as possible.

To most people, day-to-day, beyond generally supporting conservation, the most impactful thing we can do is consume less. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and shop locally as much as possible (as in locally-sourced, not just from a shop near you that itself carries a large carbon footprint).

To be frank, what we're experiencing at the minute in this lockdown is a taste of what's going to be necessary to combat the climate crisis. We all have to use fossil fuels to travel much less. We have to re-evaluate which journeys are even necessary. We all have to be more thoughtful in what food we purchase. We have to be more reserved with frivolous spending (ie. frivolous consumption).

The wonderful thing that the present situation is showing us, is that when we truly appreciate that we are a part of something bigger, and that by making sacrifices in our habits we can do good for ourselves and for others, we are actually capable of enthusiastically rallying to the call.

The even better thing is that while our habits are going to have to chance to a similar degree of severity to what we're doing right now in order to resolve the climate crisis, we don't necessarily have to sacrifice the things we love to change the world for the better.

To establish a better new world, one moving away from ecological collapse, we can still travel - by using alternatives to fossil fuels in the process. We can still have abundant access to food, if we re-think our agricultural system and re-evaluate our dietary habits. Business can still function and we can reap rewards, as long as sustainability and responsibility are at the heart of practice.

In the case of the Amazon, a letter to Science in December states that

"A new vision of the Amazon will require a biologically based view of economic development..."

In my mind that conjures an image of Stefano Boeri's planned smart jungle city, but we'll see what actually comes.

We can change to something that is better in every way.

An alternative stable state will soon be forced on us, as a result of our actions to date and what we do in the very near future. We simply cannot continue as normal, what used to be normal is gone, the road doesn't go that way. We are either going to crash into catastrophe, dragged down by the ecosystems that we have crippled; or we will achieve a new positive state of being, in which we actively restore the biome that supports us, and come into something better in ourselves.

So what's it going to be? There could be a fork in the road before the cliff-edge ahead. We can't continue the way we're going, but we can choose another option.

Are we going to make an ASS of ourselves? Certainly. But if we act quickly, we can decide what kind of ASS it'll be.

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