This week I attended the Miller Memorial Lecture by the esteemed botanist and conservationist Dr. Peter Raven, President emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was captivated from the beginning to the end. Held on the University of Washington campus, the lecture lasted just over an hour. The title was ‘Conserving Plants in a Changing World’, but this dialogue was less about plants and more about our changing world. I was expecting more plant information, like when he spoke about the changes in plant growth in Missouri over the last several decades due to global warming. Hibiscus that used to die back, are now growing into trees, etc… Nevertheless, I was fascinated with his well-spoken words and profound message: The world is changing and we need to do something to slow down the negative impact our species is having on the environment.
He said that the inequalities between the western world and less developed countries are serious. He showed a photograph that I’ll never forget. A typical family, like you would find in America or Europe, and how much food they eat in a week. It was all spread out on a table and benches, filled with fruits, vegetables, breads, meats, cheeses, pizza….an abundance. Then he showed a picture of an African family and the food they consume in a week. A few sacks filled with grain, some fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t much, it was surprisingly little. The disparity between the two families was startling. It was a stark reminder of how much I use, how much I take and how much I think I need. Suddenly I didn’t feel like complaining about my small house and lack of resources. They suddenly seemed plentiful. Here are the images from the book The Hungry Planet.
He stated that of all the living species on the earth, humans use 45% of the photosynthetic productivity and 55% of the fresh water. He joked that if one species would disappear (ours) extinction wouldn’t be so much of a problem! He discussed our ecological footprint, or the measure of humanity’s demand on nature. Our current footprint is over the earths bio-capacity, or we are using four times as much productivity as the earth has to offer. One site he referenced with further information is footprintnetwork.org whose opening page states, Do we fit on our planet?
Dr. Raven spoke about our dependence on biodiversity. All of our food and many of our medicines come from plants, yet in the United States 90% of our food comes from only 103 kinds of plants. There are many others that are not being utilized or haven’t yet been discovered. He stated that every species matters. Two thirds of the people in this world use plants for medicine. Willow was developed into aspirin, warfarin was first isolated from moldy sweet clover and is used as a blood thinner. But as we all know, besides helping us survive, plants also offer us simple beauty and spiritual refreshment. We need them!
Why are so many species disappearing so fast? Habitat loss, spread of invasives, hunting and gathering, global warming and deforestation, to name a few. Many of these have consequences that we never imagined, like droughts and wildfires from global warming and destruction of our forests from pests such as the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer is an invasive pest from asia which has killed between 50 and 100 million trees in North America since it’s accidental introduction only twenty years ago. He said that our nation has allowed science to become political, such as the discussion over global warming. Science simply presents the facts and tells what is happening.
Dr. Raven disclosed that there are 375,000 plant species named and 75,000 awaiting discovery. I’m not sure how scientists came up with that number, but I believe it. There are many living things in this world still undiscovered, terrestrial and in the oceans. To help preserve biodiversity and save plants there are many things that we can do.
- Set aside natural areas as reserves, especially those with altitude changes.
- Go out in the field and learn more.
- Preserve endangered botanical species. Traditionally we would grow plants and put them out in nature. Now seed banks are becoming popular because of climate change. Seattle has the Miller seed vault.
- Conserve energy and consume less.
- Teach children about the wonder of nature and biodiversity.
- Limit global warming.
- Use alternative energy.
Even though I have heard this message before, Dr. Raven spoke with such intelligence and passion that I look at the world differently now. I’m ready to pick a few of the suggestions above and make a few changes in my life. Which ones will you pick? He closed with this quote:
The world provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed. —Ghandi