Stealing the Sun

The energy of the sun, captured by plants and passed on to animals, makes everything possible -- dolphins arcing out of the ocean, geese moving across the sky, and also people, stirring their morning oatmeal, falling in love, or painting a barn.

In this truth lies beautiful poetry -- the realization that in our children's laughter we can hear sunlight laugh with joy. There are days when that simple thought can make the whole world feel like a cathedral to me.

In this truth also lies an unbendable rule -- there is only so much energy to work with on the Earth, and all the interconnected, complicated, essential parts of the living system cannot survive without a share of it. A healthy culture would hold this realization at its core.

A culture like that would be stunned to learn what is now true -- humans co-opt 32 percent of the total solar energy captured by land plants. That's according to a study in the December 21 issue of Science magazine. Ecologists know this because they can measure the plant biomass created each year, something called the Net Primary Production or the NPP. They can estimate how much of it is diverted away from the rest of life by human activities.

We use some of the NPP directly. We eat it, we wear it, we build our homes from it. But this accounts for only a small fraction of our total share. We also influence the productivity of land. Land covered with roads or cities can't contribute to the NPP. Plantation forests and monoculture crops are much less efficient at funneling solar energy into the biosphere than the forests and prairies they replace.

There is plenty of uncertainty in all of this. The human share of the NPP could be as low as 10 percent or as high as 55 percent. No one knows how small a share the rest of nature can get by on. Are we taking so much of the Earth's productivity that we risk damaging something we depend upon for survival? We cannot know that answer. No animal species in the history of life has taken such a large share of the photosynthetic pie, so there is no history to help judge how far we are from crisis.

The most sophisticated global ecologist cannot tell you how dangerous our appropriation of so much of the NPP is, but you don't have to be able to write a treatise on satellite imaging or statistical analysis to understand the prudence of sharing whatever we can with the life-forms who keep the world in working order.

Only a species with incredible creativity and drive could have claimed so much of life's energy stream for its own. The challenge now is to redirect our talents to the work of learning to live on a smaller fraction of the Earth's productivity. Here and there, people are experimenting with this, starting with the conviction that humans can mimic and join into the natural processes that have been developed over billions of years of evolution. People like Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute are learning how to act as partners with a prairie ecosystem to grow grain and also build the soil. Others like John Todd assemble "Living Machines," mini-ecosystems that purify water and recycle nutrients.

Their prototypes are fascinating and will fill you with hope. But what they offer most of all is a question. What might happen if the best minds of a generation adopted this approach and began searching for ways to form partnerships with nature? What might we discover if even a fraction of the time and energy invested in developing technology for extracting from nature were invested in understanding how to work in concert with natural systems?  

On the hill above my house a tree sapling grows on practically bare rock. It came to grow there, I think, because for years moss and lichens grew in that spot, meeting their own needs while creating out of rock, rain, and sunlight enough soil for a tree to sprout. There is some more poetry for you -- a life lived in a way that makes soil from rock. This is a kind of magic we can not accomplish on our own. But by learning from and partnering with natural systems we could begin to share in that magic; we could learn how to meet our needs without degrading the natural riches all around us.

We are used to the idea that livers and gallbladders and alfalfa and oaks function in ways that contribute to larger living systems. But most of us who have grown up in industrial cultures don't consider it our purpose to serve the life of the planet in some similar way. It is hard to find parts of the biosphere made richer by human activities.

Jackson's prairie agriculture and Todd's living machines prove that we could, at the very least, do less harm. Their work hints that we might even find a role in restoring land and water and building up natural capital.

The report on the NPP makes clear the need for this new approach, but in the end I think it will the poetry of it that brings us around.

Elizabeth Sawin writes a regular column on global systems for the Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vermont.

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