Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

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The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973

 

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

The Wisdom of Sea Urchins

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Black sea urchin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Lucen.

By Frances Hall

Sea urchins are almost comically unlovable: covered with spines that are known to break off within an unwary wader’s foot, eyeless and faceless, a mouth that looks like a jagged abyss, difficult to empathize with, distinctly un-cuddly. However, new research suggests that, when it comes to solution to climate change, we should have gone to them first.

For those few of you who haven’t yet heard: climate change, a process that experts from every natural science agree is caused by human activity,  is due to a collection of emissions known as greenhouse gases. The effects of these include global warming, ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and, possibly down the line, a new ice age in Europe. Arguably, the most insidious greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is produced by a number of processes, from heavy industrial process and driving most cars to the unavoidable pastimes of breathing and volcanic eruptions. What’s Your Impact? estimates that 87 percent of all human-produced emissions, which total an average annual 33.4 billion metric tons, originate from burning fossil fuels. Several countries, despite the political rigmarole and pervasive ignorance that surrounds the entire issue, have signed treaties or laws agreeing to limit their carbon emissions. The fact that many (but not all) of these countries ultimately put off reducing carbon emissions for the sake of the economy remains discouraging. There are a number of ways to slow this process, many of which a single person could elect to do: relying on solar panels or windmills instead of coal, taking the bus, even just eating less meat.

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A dissected sea urchin with visible eggs. Photo courtesy of Achim Raschka.

Unfortunately, none of those steps are going to eliminate the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. Several natural processes, such as photosynthesis and carbon fixation, can, and do reduce atmospheric CO2. However, they simply cannot keep up with the rate of human emissions. One proposed solution is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). According to the Global CCS Institute, this involves the separation of CO2 from other gases at the source, such as steel mills and coal plants. The CO2  is then compressed and transported to a more suitable site. Finally, it is injected into underground rock formations, often at least 1 km below the surface. The idea is that the  CO2 will remain there indefinitely. However, this is just as expensive as it sounds and there is always the possibility that the CO2 will leak out at some later date.

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Chalk quarry in Crete. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Wouterhagens.

Sea urchins may be showing us an alternative. Physicist Dr. Lidija Siller was studying the reaction that combines gaseous CO2  and ocean water into carbonic acid, the process that leads to ocean acidification and all of its diversity-crushing side effects. She was also investigating how sea urchins convert CO2  into calcium carbonate shells. When her team analyzed the surface of sea urchin larvae, they found a high concentration of nickel nanoparticles. When tiny particles of nickel were added to a carbonic acid solution, the result was a complete removal of CO2  with only water and calcium carbonate, also known as chalk, as products.

The team has patented this into a process where waste gas from industrial processes is passed through a water column rich with nickel particles where the chalk will gather at the bottom. This appears to be a nearly ideal solution: chalk is a stable material widely used to make products as varied as cement and plaster casts the nickel particles could theoretically be reused indefinitely. It wouldn’t be possible to attach one of these to every bus and truck, but these could be used to reduce carbon output from most major source. According to Dr. Lidija Siller via BBC news, “It seems too good to be true, but it works.”

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Water melon sea urchin. Image courtesy of Marco Busdraghi.

FSC products–another action against global warming

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By Neva Knott

All photographs courtesy of the Forest Stewardship Council and used with permission.

Forest Stewardship Council certification guarantees that—from forest to end product—the wood used is grown and harvested sustainably. In a sustainably managed forest, trees ready for harvest are cut and those too young are left standing. This alternative to clear-cutting is important to the planet’s overall ecosystem in that trees cover 30 per cent of global land area, and are the lungs of the earth. Leaf systems clean the air, tree canopies regulate temperature, and root systems moderate water flow. Sustainably managed forests are an important strategy against global warming in that they store carbon emissions.

The certification process guarantees that FSC wood is not illegally harvested, or harvested in violation of indigenous or civil rights, nor is it harvested in forests where conservation values are threatened, or from genetically modified trees. FSC certified logs do not come from rare old-growth and have not been treated with hazardous chemicals.

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While the story so often told is one of a choice between the environment or the economy, the Forest Stewardship Council provides a welcome alternative. In economic terms, sustainable harvesting creates a steady source of revenue for loggers and woodlot owners. In a clear-cut harvest system, once the trees are down, there are no jobs, no money to be made, and no forest left for local use. In addition, FSC makes sure the rightful woodlot owners are making the profit. As is too often the case in many developing countries, large corporations take over forests from indigenous groups or other unknowing peoples, pay a low wage to workers, and take all the profits with them, leaving a clear-cut landscape and a clear-cut economy. Illegal logging is also a problem on a global scale.

Sustainable forestry is one of the best defenses against climate change—global warming. One of the primary functions of trees is to pull carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that causes global warming—from the air. Trees then store the carbon so that it does not escape to the atmosphere. An FSC certified forest ensures fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, in addition to protection of water sources and forest-dependent economic systems.

The Forest Stewardship Council certifies public forests, commercial forests, and private, family-owned forests. As of January 2014, 36,156,297 acres of forests in the US are FSC certified. Not only are wood products certified, but paper products as well carry the FSC label. Just look for the FSC symbol:

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Humans are a forest-dependent species and will continue to harvest trees as raw material for many uses. When you as a consumer buy FSC certified products you participate in ensuring there will be forests left standing to function as part of the larger ecosystem, that habitat will remain intact. You will be promoting local economies, and will be making a stand against corruption and pollution. You will be actively working against global warming.

 

Thinking about climate change

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By Neva Knott

I think about climate change daily. It saddens me, to a grave extent, that humans have done so much damage. Now, our way of life is such that it seems we are stuck. But, I don’t buy into that lazy fantasy that we’ll just keep keeping on. Each one of us is a citizen of the world, and with that right comes responsibility. I’ll shoulder mine, and I hope you’ll shoulder yours.

Here are my thoughts today on climate change (by the way, there’s no new information here–but, as a teacher I know people have to hear things over and over again to get the message):

The US is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, yet our national policy about adapting for it is one of the weakest.

Yesterday’s New York Times article was about the reality of it, and that the work now is for society to adapt. Society is people… that’s us, you and me.

Much is being done, but the time of it’s not real, I can’t do anything because it’s such a big problem, I’m not an environmentalist, it’s not that bad, what do I care is over—even if you haven’t yet committed to change.

And I hate to be this blunt, but the cause of climate change is greed. Human greed that manifests in unrestrained consumption.  Since the start of the industrial revolution humans have managed to disrupt the natural systems that keep this planet and its inhabitants alive.

Climate change is the result of unsustainable use of natural resources.  When scientists look at sustainability in a system, they look at sourcing of raw material, energy use in production, and the waste stream—what waste is created in the process, and what waste is created in the use of the end product.

Changing our ways to adapt comes on three levels: the personal, the industrial, and the political. So what can each individual do? There is much you can do. Just change one habit. Then another.

1. Stop drinking bottled water. This is a significant positive step to make because trees are cut down to get to the water that is bottled. The bottles are made out of petroleum bi-product which increases the demand for fossil fuel extraction, the water it then trucked to a processing facility, a lot of energy is used to create the product and bottle it, and it is then trucked to the store for you to buy. You then drive to a store to buy it, drink it quickly, and have a non-biodegradable little bottle to throw away. Much of this type of plastic ends up in the ocean, where it does great harm. In this whole process, not only are forests destroyed—and trees store carbon so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere as a green house gas—but habitat is destroyed for other species and water is polluted in the process. Yes, water is polluted when the forest is trampled for the spring water to be extracted.

2. Drive less. We’ve all heard this a million times. I was a little girl during the 1970s gas crisis. TV ad even urged people to combine trips and to take other drive-less measures. Today, our mentality is to drive, drive, drive. The American way of life is oriented around the car, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk a little more or make better choices about why and when we drive. Today’s article in Grist documents that this change is happening, in America’s biggest cities.

3. Eat less meat, especially factory raised beef. Much of the deforestation around the world is caused by agriculture. Of course, we need agriculture, but not on a large and destructive scale. There’s a secondary issue with beef ranching—the amount of methane generated, which is also a greenhouse gas. Americans eat far more protein than is necessary in a day. Smaller burgers and fewer steaks will help the planet, quite a bit actually, and might help with our nation’s obesity problem

4. Eat organically grown fruits and vegetables. The pesticides used in non-organic farming are mostly derived from petroleum and are quite harmful to the earth, the atmosphere, and you. Organic doesn’t cost that much more, and the quality of the food is greatly better.

5. Stop buying too much stuff, especially cheap stuff made in China. Overconsumption is a huge contributor to climate change. Our buying patterns are an opportunity to think of the source-energy-waste cycle, and an opportunity to consume more sustainably.

A week or so ago I was listening to the NPR report on Amazon’s contract with the US Postal Service for Sunday delivery. The commentator made the point that all these companies–the big money companies like Amazon–are simply reacting to what consumers want. That idea alone signals the power we all have in creating change. Even when the problem is as large as climate change, we can vote with our dollars, create change with our expenditures, and make the big industry polluters change.

Thanks for doing your part.

Portland’s Urban Foresters

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By Neva Knott

It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm church basement that is abuzz with caffeinated chatter. I’m surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat, all of us drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine, a pair of two-by- two stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder, a hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose—to plant trees.

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Friends of Trees, here in Portland, Oregon, is an urban forestry program designed to increase tree canopy cover over the city.  With these shovel-in-hand efforts weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy. In fact, Portland has the only increasing urban canopy in the nation, a statistic that is colloquially known as the “Friends of Trees effect.”  As awareness of Portland’s model grows, city dwellers elsewhere are beginning to realize the importance of the interface between developed areas and natural spaces. According to the US Forest Service, “in an effort to maintain and improve the public benefits of trees, more and more cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Washington DC—are setting tree canopy goals.” Trees are no longer simply aesthetic adornment to homes, but are considered part of the sustainable, green infrastructure of urban development.

A couple of hours are spent sitting inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the volunteer planters arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Friends of Trees works build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside.  Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. At each site, trees have been delivered and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant, we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

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Urban forestry is a blend of social and scientific necessity. With 80 per cent of the US population living in cities, use of city trees as natural resources takes on a much broader context. It includes safe-guarding against tree loss during development; treating trees as part of the infrastructure of the city; putting in place codes and policies to maximize tree preservation; expansion of private and public urban forestry programs; removal of regulatory obstacles; reduction of the heat island effect caused by development. This, for sure, is a new way of thinking. It’s a fresh approach, and aligned with the science of climate change as well as the ideas behind livable cities.

Portland’s Grey to Green Initiative works in partnership with Friends of Trees. Its concern is the use of the city’s trees in the control of storm-water run-off. The canopy of leaves of the 50-foot-tall buckeye in my yard catches rain as it falls; a mature tree can capture up to 700 gallons a year. The paperbark maple planted on Saturday, not yet as leafy and large as the buckeye, holds onto water that falls to the ground and uses it for root growth. A tree’s root system holds soil in place. In turn, some of the captured water is stored in the soil to replenish the ground water supply.  As well, much of run-off water in cities contains chemicals like car oil and other debris—that gunk you see in the street drains during a downpour. When that water moves through the soil, some of the debris is filtered out.  With water held in tree fiber and the soil, and with the soil stabilized and working to filter out toxins, significantly less run-off makes it into the city sewage system, to the nearby Willamette River, and out to the sea. A healthy urban forest, one composed of the newest to the oldest trees, slows run-off by about 35 per cent; in Portland, this amounts to 500 million gallons of storm water a year. Trees also allow the city to spend less building and maintaining sewage systems. Portland saves $58 million dollars—or 40 per cent of traditional sewage repair costs—per year because of its street trees. Deciduous, or leafy, trees aren’t doing all the work; evergreens actually help even more with storm water run-off, because they have needles year-round. By providing ecosystem services such as storm-water control, urban trees can be used as a cost-saving component of a city’s infrastructure.

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Trees breathe carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gases, most of which—in the city—comes from vehicles. Other sources of the carbon that is emitted into the air by industry, fires, fuel burning, agriculture, and all kinds of human activity. As trees take up COand other pollutants they filter the air—at the rate of 25 million pounds a year here. It takes about 20 trees to offset driving one car for 60 miles each day. The larger and healthier the tree, the more filtration. Think of the old neighborhoods full of maples, cherries, and tulip trees, working hard to help us breathe. And interestingly, researchers have discovered that urban trees begin to store carbon at an earlier age than do rural or wilderness trees.

The economic aspect of air filtration, mainly that of carbon storage, comes in the form of carbon trading. More and more, industries that send the pollutants into the air pay tree growers for the air-cleaning capacity of their trees. Cities are now able to compete in this market. In fact, buyers often pay more for credits that are attached to sustainable projects with local, social benefits, such as urban tree-planting programs.

A full tree canopy provides shade and lowers the overall temperature of a place. In the city, this is important socially—ever step into the shade of a tree on a hot day? Such cooling also works to against global warming. Cooling is particularly important in cities where heat islands occur. The lack of trees and other vegetation combined with pavement, buildings, and other human-made, sealed structures disallow the flow of energy and air. Think of walking on a sidewalk at sundown on a hot day, and passing by a brick or cement building. You can feel the heat wave bounce of its walls. That’s the heat island effect working. A 2006 study of Portland’s July temperatures reported a 20-degree difference between the well-treed Northwest quadrant and an area designated as an urban heat island.

Wildlife fare better in the city when trees provide food and shelter for them. Salmon swim our creeks on the way to the big rivers—Willamette and Columbia and coyotes roam through town. If you live here you are no stranger to the crows, squirrels, and raccoons. The tree canopy keeps river water clean for the fish and helps to moderate water temperature so they can flourish. Fruit and nuts feed many of the 200 species of birds call this city home. Squirrels live in the leafy high-rises. Travel corridors provide safety for larger creatures hoping to sneak from tree patch to tree patch for cover. These habitat resources lower incidents of wildlife encroaching on human habitat; in turn, the city is safer for all species—humans and those with scales, fur and feathers.

All of these ecosystems services add up to a boon for the city. Homeowners also cash in on street tree value. When you drive down a street under its lush canopy with boughs that reach across to make an arc overhead, know that the shade these trees provide lowers energy use, and increase property value by $14,500 per street tree. Storm-water Management credit and Clean River Rewards credit are available on your sewer bill for efforts made on the home front. Crime is lower where there are trees. People walk more in tree-dense areas. Overall livability increases when a city’s canopy is dense.

Forests in the United States are being converted for non-forest uses such as urban development and agriculture at the rate of 1 million acres a year, yet humans need trees to live. City trees provide opportunities. They provide another way for trees to work for us by shaping new economies and new types of forestry jobs. City trees significantly lower the costs of running a city. A tree-planting program costs about $5 per capita. What enthuses me about urban forestry and tree-planting programs is the opportunity for individual empowerment. In all the talk about climate change and environmental degradation it is easy to feel helpless. I have been studying conservation biology for the last two years, during which I’ve come to believe that trees can assuage many of the world’s problems. I volunteer for Friends of Trees and I am hooked.

Saturday morning, and it’s 7 AM. It’s early, but I can’t get my rubber boots on fast enough and get out the door—rain, sun, or freezing cold. I can’t stop global warming, but I can plant a tree.

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The next Crew Leader Training is on November 9, 2013. See the Friends of Trees website for details.

The Link Between Methane and Global Food Security

By Jonathan Cohen

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Atmospheric CO2 generated from human sources, called anthropogenic CO2, include many industrial and consumer level sources but one large source is the combustion of methane for energy.  One is tempted to believe that if methane was no longer required as a source of fuel for energy then this enormous source of anthropogenic CO2 would be completely eliminated but this would be a simplistic assumption.  Methane serves as an important precursor for the generation of hydrogen gas used in the chemical industry.  One key example is in the production of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and subsequently the production of ammonium nitrate from ammonia for use as fertilizer.  In fact, the world’s population growth over the last century is inextricably linked to the availability of methane for the production of ammonia.  However, research into alternative methods for producing ammonia that does not require fossil fuel precursors is an area of very promising research.

At the start of the 20th century the world was approaching a crisis in food security.  Farmlands, especially in the developed world, were becoming depleted in ammonia, necessary for the formation of proteins in plants.  Modern techniques of crop rotation, application of nitrogen-fixing organisms to convert nitrogen to ammonia in soil, and the application of organic fertilizers were already well understood by this time but could not keep up with the need for higher crop yields on an increasingly finite amount of arable land.  All that changed in the early years of the 20th century when the German chemist Fritz Haber developed a small laboratory reactor to synthesize ammonia directly from nitrogen and hydrogen and he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1918.  Later, another German chemical engineer named Carl Bosch and others would develop the equipment and methods to ramp up the reaction to industrial scale and he’d get his Nobel in 1931.  Today, this is known jointly as the Haber-Bosch process and by the year 2000 the world would collectively make more than 109 million metric tons of ammonia per year, making ammonia one of the most synthesized molecules in the world. It is estimated that as much as 3-5 per cent of the world’s methane is consumed in the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Nitrogen gas is an extremely stable molecule that is notoriously unreactive.  As a result, the Haber-Bosch process will only produce useful amounts of ammonia at temperatures approaching 300-550 degrees Celsius and pressures up to 110 atmospheres on a metal surface acting as a catalyst.  Heating and pressurizing the hydrogen and nitrogen does not come free.  That energy needs to be generated by a separate power plant.  More importantly, while nitrogen can be obtained directly from air, hydrogen gas must be synthesized.  Hydrogen used in the Haber-Bosch process today is generated on-site by heating methane with steam, again at very high temperatures and pressures, to create hydrogen gas and generating CO2 as a waste product.

There is hope that researchers can eventually develop a better recipe for making ammonia.  Last month, John Anderson, Jonathan Rittle, and Jonas Peters, at the California Institute of Technology, published a paper in the British journal Nature that represents a significant breakthrough in the field of ammonia synthesis from nitrogen.  Scientists have known for many years that certain micro-organisms have evolved nitrogen-fixing enzymes, biological catalysts that can convert nitrogen to ammonia at room temperature and pressure using hydrogen ions in solution and electrons from other proteins rather than hydrogen gas.  Like the Haber-Bosch process, these enzymes rely on metal atoms at the site of catalysis but can convert nitrogen to ammonia at room temperature and pressure.  Anderson, Rittle and Peters synthesized a small, iron-based catalyst capable of generating small amounts of ammonia from nitrogen using hydrogen ions obtained from acids and electrons from other donor molecules under milder temperatures and pressures than Haber-Bosch.

The reaction requires a lot of improvement before it will be ready to ramp up for industrial use.  However, the goal of their work was not to develop a plug-and-play replacement for the Haber-Bosch process but rather to provide more insight into the physics and chemistry required to convert N2 to NH3 catalytically and under conditions that more closely resemble biological nitrogen fixation.

This line of research should be encouraged.  If an alternative catalytic system can be developed to convert nitrogen to ammonia, one that does not require fossil fuel based reactants or extreme reaction conditions, this will go a long way to eliminating a significant source of anthropogenic CO2 while simultaneously reducing the overall energy demands of the planet.  Those 109 million metric tons of ammonia produced in the year 2000 required 46.7 million tons of methane and resulted in the production of 128 million tons of anthropogenic CO2 that year alone.  That’s equivalent to approximately 0.5 per cent of the global CO2 production that year.  While 0.5 per cent seems like a small number the effects of added CO2 are largely cumulative, and in a world where even a fraction of a percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by any country seems a herculean political task, the prospect of a 0.5 per cent reduction is significant.

Many environmentally conscious readers might be led to question the value of this research if nitrogen-fixing microorganisms can do the job so much better. Unfortunately, there is tremendous resistance to the introduction of foreign genes into food crops, and the genetic expression and regulation of nitrogen fixing genes in bacteria remain under study.  Even if a crop plant containing nitrogen fixing genes from another organism could be produced, the sociopolitical barriers to introduction would likely take decades if ever to overcome.  The introduction of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil and the wider use of organic fertilizers should continue but these efforts alone will not be enough to meet the coming food demand of the up to 10 billion people expected to occupy the planet by the end of the 21st century.  The resources of the developed world must continue to pursue all methods available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of the source.  This work will require more than the search for alternatives to fossil fuels for energy but also alternative ingredients and recipes critical to ensuring global food security.

(Photo Credit: Robert Barossi)

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Jonathan Cohen received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Oregon Graduate Institute, Oregon Health and Science University. His work studying nitrogen molecules bound to inorganic metal complexes have been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the Journal of Inorganic Chemistry.