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Peter Raven on Plants and the Planet

Eminent botanist and ‘Hero of the Planet’ wows crowd at UCSC Arboretum.

by L. Clark Tate

Listening to Dr. Peter Raven, the plant biologist, environmentalist and author whom Time magazine named a “Hero of the Planet,” I found myself laughing in the face of calamity.

He seemed so nice. Willing to elbow-bump “hello” to avoid my cold-contaminated handshake. Saying, “that sounds like fun,” when I told him I wrote for Hilltromper. “We write about outdoor recreation and environmental science,” I said. “What else is there?” he deadpanned, followed by a swift grin. We bonded.

Next there were the introductions. Brett Hall, the UCSC Arboretum’s director of collections and conservation, and Jean Langeheim, professor emerita of ecology and evolutionary biology, addressed a surprisingly boisterous crowd. Charming stories of funny first meetings and longtime friendships stretching back to the ‘50s. It was obvious that their guest delighted the UCSC Arboretum staff as well as the audience of science and nature geeks.

The lecture began tamely enough. Energetic, funny, and affable Dr. Raven discussed his early love of nature (nurtured by trips to the Santa Cruz Mountains) and told tales of the amazingly diverse ecosystems of Madagascar and New Caledonian. But somewhere after his introduction to early agriculture things began to go horribly wrong. There was no turning back, for the room or the world: the hits just kept coming.

Then I understood. The longtime president of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, holder of the U.S. National Medal of Science (the highest honor the nation can bestow on a scientist), member of National Geographic Society board of trustees and MacArthur genius-grant winner, Dr. Peter Raven is simply the most likeable harbinger of doom imaginable.

The lecture—part of a series to honor the Arboretum’s late founding director Ray Collett—began very promisingly: the man compared himself to Barbara Streisand and got three laughs within five seconds of turning on the mic.

He said he wanted to put things in a broader context and—touching on the Garden of Eden, the dawn of agriculture (and resource wars), the population bomb, overconsumption, technology, food production limitations, climate change, sea level rise, the urban/rural cultural disconnect, and eco-social justice—he most certainly did. And every new, brilliantly framed and delivered topic was a fresh slap in the face.

We gain 250,000 more people every day. That’s one million new faces, hearts, and minds every four days. Africa’s population is expected to boom from 950 million to 2.2 billion by 2050. How do we find that much more food, in Africa, in 37 years? And population isn’t the only factor.

To calculate a nation’s resource demand you need to multiply population numbers (P) by affluence, i.e. consumption rates (A), and by technology use (T). Guess who’s at the top of that list? The U.S. has the highest standards of living and resource demand—way out of the range of sustainability—in the world. (Sierra Leone has the lowest, and therefore most sustainable, rate of resource use.) Each U.S. resident requires about eight hectares (80,000 square meters) of land to meet our demands. For comparison, each person in “polluting” China requires about two hectares. Interestingly, Cuba has a standard of living comparable to the U.S., but falls into the sustainable spectrum. Field trip, anyone?

In 1961 only a few places, such as India, Western Europe and Japan, were net consumers of food (eating more than they could grow). Now the countries eating more than they produce create a band from the tip of southern Mexico to the top of the U.S. that rings the globe, bright red in Raven’s maps. That’s right, we’re included.

In 2013 humanity used 156% of our biocapacity, or the Earth’s ability to produce basic resources. In 1970 (right before the big population boom) we were at 70%. In financial terms, we’re drawing on the principal, and as Raven notes, “there’s little future in that.” Right now we need 50% more planet. By 2050, if we don’t change anything, we’ll likely need 1.2 more Earths to continue.

Botany as Destiny

All of our food, and a lot of our medicine, comes from plants. We eat them or we eat something that eats them. And we are killing them, in all sorts of ways. Stresses like habitat loss, climate change, and the competition of introduced plants species are taking their toll.

Right now we are losing about 1,000 species each year. By the end of this century, when the grandchildren of Millennials are hitting their stride, half of all land-dwelling species could be gone.

That’s one reason UCSC’s remarkable Arboretum, and institutions like it, are so important. They preserve and conserve plants, they study plants, and they could help us figure out how to help plants adapt to a changing climate. Dr. Raven notes that the UCSC Arboretum is uniquely poised to do so, as Santa Cruz’s mild climate allows for a wide range of species to thrive. “This garden has a championship role to play,” Raven stated earnestly.

None of this was new to me. What was startling about Raven’s presentation was its simplicity and clarity in trend. In contemporary political or journalistic discussion, these issues are discussed one at a time—disconnected, with doubt factored in, and “fairness”—the need to hear everyone’s opinion, no matter how ill-informed—always considered: all issues with our society’s conversations that Raven pointed out and skewered regularly.

Yes: Though his heart is obviously engaged, Raven’s condensed our environmental conundrum into simple math: P x A x T = Doom (or, at the very least, some serious gloom). Near the beginning of his lecture Raven commented that he knew he was preaching to the choir and he was okay with it, “because that helps them get out of their seats and do something about it.”

To start, consider joining the UCSC Arboretum. Drive less, buy less, recycle more, support responsible companies, politicians and policies, and consider the impact your consumption has on the entire world. ☺ Okay breathe. Then, just like anything else, take it one day at a time.

Check out the Global Footprint Network for ideas and handprinter.org> for encouragement. As Dr. Raven says, “Act, vote, teach.” Shall we?

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