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Have We Been Doing Conservation Wrong?

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

When I was a much younger garden gnome, the going ecological concern was the loss of the world's rain forests. Deforestation was running rampant, and that worried a lot of us, because trees make the oxygen that we breathe .. and we really like to keep breathing, if at all possible. Campaigns were launched, exhibits made at the museums, and all of the school children were taught about the wonderful diversity of our planet's forests.

All of that attention must have worked, I supposed .. because over the years, the focus shifted to global warming and melting sea ice. Carbon Dioxide A Pollutant! Proclaim the media outlets, meanwhile those of us who were worried about the rainforests, and donated money to preservation charities and the like were wondering .. what ever happened to the forests? Carbon Dioxide is what trees need to make oxygen, after all .. and that is when we discover that the 'rainforest institute' (there were dozens, take your pick) did very little in terms of actual preservation.

It turns out, people are not so interested in paying money to be able to look at a picture of a lush, wild rain forest that they, through their thoughtful donation, have been able to preserve. They would rather look at pictures on small, flat touch screens, made with metals strip mined from beneath one of the last great forest systems left on the planet. With no sense of irony whatsoever, when they see a picture of that forest before the strip mining, they will find a 'like' button to smash.

Its not that we stopped caring about the world's forests .. humans tend to loose their focus quickly, and are always keen on what they are doing now. They like what they can see, touch, taste and experience. Humans also tend to resent others telling them what they should do with their own resources .. So sorry, we already cut down the forests on our continents, so you are just going to have to suffer without that nickel or cobalt, or whatever it is under there that you need to be competitive in the world economy.

Rationalization commences: We need to cut this little bit of forest, to expand our soybean fields, or palm oil plantations, or to get to such and such rare earth mineral. People are hungry, food costs money, what are we supposed to do - let the children starve? And on it goes, little by little, piece by piece. Perhaps we tell ourselves things like "Well, more oxygen is made in the oceans than in the forests anyway, so it will be OK to cut some more here .. we'll just let our oceans provide the air we breathe." - except that is only partly true: Although there is more oxygen being made in the oceans than on the surface, most of that oxygen is used by marine life .. not us.* We still need those forests to keep breathing.

Here we are at the dark side of the global economy. A horticultural civilization would not exist in a place where the people could not readily obtain all the necessities of life from the Earth around them, for themselves. The global economic model works a bit differently: Lets just say that some land is no good for growing corn .. or much else, but it is full of bauxite. A company will offer to move in, and mine that bauxite, and give the landowner money .. The landowner may now use the money to buy corn, or anything else. Eventually, his land will be further spoiled, if it was not completely useless to begin with .. and he will have a large hole to contend with. Perhaps the next business opportunity that he will get - to be able to buy food - will be to fill that hole .. with industrial waste.

I'm going to shift gears now, and talk about marketing. It will likely be dry and tedious, so kindly suffer along with me for a moment. I recall perhaps thirty years ago, there was a company selling little bottles of fruit juice .. mostly white grape or pear juice, with some exotic flavors blended in. It was cheaply made, but fine for quenching one's thirst on a hot day. The company advertised on the bottle that for each unit sold, they would donate one dollar to rain forest preservation. Even though I was paying an extra dollar for an otherwise cheap drink, I bought several of those, and felt the money well spent.

I don't know what became of the money that was supposed to have been donated .. maybe my purchases were enough to buy some Rick Astley CDs for the 'rainforest institute', and somewhere, even now, I am being Ric rolled without being aware of it. A bunch of people on one side of the matter that care a lot, and are even willing to donate some money to the cause is clearly no impediment to progress .. but we are still left with the dilemma: We need those forests to make oxygen for us!

Perhaps there is no fighting 'progress', just delaying the inevitable fall of the Amazon and Congo forests .. in that case, a change of strategy is required: instead of trying to sell the preservation of the existing forest - that I have no custody of, and cannot interact with directly - I will begin planting my own. There is a quirk of human nature that causes us to care more deeply for the things that we have spent treasure or time on .. we invest in an idea, a person, or a place, and when we do, we develop a very intense interest in what we have invested in. If I had moved on to this property, and found a pecan tree, I would be overjoyed, because I love pecans .. but if that tree were to fall ill or suffer injury, I would not be as emotionally impacted as I am when something happens to a tree that I have planted myself.

I think of all of my good friends that have bought land, planted oak trees, clover patches, dug ponds, and stocked them with fish. Out in the country, hunting and fishing is a part of life .. but hunters and fishermen know all too well that if they do not take charge and make sure that the game they are after has adequate food, water and habitat, there will be nothing to hunt or fish for. Serious sportsmen take ownership.

I believe that this concept of ownership is what is needed in conservation. I will sell the trees, the perennial plants, and other components to making horticultural 'mini homesteads', in communities, all across North America. Because my customers have invested in their own food forest, they will have that direct connection to their passion: If one cannot guarantee that the other forests of the world remain intact, one might plant their own. The trend may become contagious. Oh, wouldn't it be a hoot, if it finally got back around to the Congo, and the Amazon?

In case the trend does catch on, I have to let you in on a little secret: I'm just one garden gnome .. and I cannot possibly sell all of those trees, flowers, tubers and seed myself. There is going to be a huge opportunity in this niche for many other garden gnomes .. from backyard suburbia to farm scale: I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the amazing diversity of plants there are to get into .. and that means there is plenty to go around. A person might specialize in a few dozen species, and derive a decent living from propagating them.

*Hat tip to NOAA, for adding an addendum to the title after I brought up that this critical piece if information had been buried in paragraph 3 of their report on oceanic CO2. News media failed to read all the way to paragraph 3, and based upon their bungled reporting on NOAA's report, policy makers have already put the machinery of government to work forcing human beings to comply with bad policy based on ignorance. The report title now includes the factoid that most of the O2 in the oceans does not, in fact get to us on the surface.

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