Reading Lion Tracks: New York Times' Friedman on Vacation in the Bush

We were encouraged when we started reading Thomas Friedman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times this Sunday. We’ve used this blog to agitate about how little attention politicians and newspeople pay to biodiversity loss, relative to the (admittedly sobering) challenges of minimizing climate change and its impacts. This week, Friedman is on safari in Botswana, and the experience—lions, etc.—seems to have inspired him.

The first half-dozen paragraphs are an extended analogy: Friedman out with his nature guide, “reading the morning news”—that is, the tracks and signs of the previous night’s animal activity. The last third of the column is nominally about the need to devise “integrated” solutions to the interwoven problems of poverty, food security, climate change, and biodiversity (the latter word appears six times).

An important goal, and we appreciate Friedman's shining his powerful light on it. But he misfires on an important point towards the end. In outlining his view of an integrated solution, he writes that in addition to preserving forests and other ecosystems as carbon sinks, “we also need to double food production to feed a growing population.” On the same amount of land. With less water.

Sorry. You can’t integrate a bull with a china shop.

In the 1960s and 70s, environmentalists learned what politicians have always known: people hate being told that they can’t always get they want. Unless you’re Mick Jagger, that message won’t sell. Especially when it involves telling people that they can’t have 6.5 billion more babies and still have a pleasant planet to raise them on. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich explained—correctly—that the notion of an infinitely expanding population and economy was an absurdity, and it ignited such a shitstorm that today, more than 40 years later, he and his colleagues continue to be the subject of spittle-soaked and error-saturated polemics on both right- and left-wing websites (not to mention the conventional media).

As a result, many of us have soft-pedaled this essential truth, emphasized the synergies, and inadvertently created a popular belief that we can have our forests and eat them too. Which, luckily, is not entirely false—there are definitely some win-win scenarios out there of the type that Friedman envisions. But we have to dispense with the notion that we can have it all forever if there are 13 billion of us. Or even nine billion. So no, we do not need to “double food production” for a doubled population—and we cannot if we’re going to solve all of the problems that Friedman wants solved.

We also cannot solve the problem of biodiversity loss as long as the ability to “read the morning news” in nature is a luxury that few people can afford and even fewer people ever actually do. As our friend Dan Janzen pointed out, Friedman is not reading the New York Times in the bush. He is hearing the local celebrity gossip—the Okavango equivalent of Us Weekly—and paying $1,000 per night to have somebody read it to him. Is that sustainable?

Don’t get us wrong. We’re the last two people on Earth who would begrudge anybody their luxury safari. But the prognosis for biodiversity will be bleak until biodiversity becomes something that everybody can and does read. As long as we remain a bioilliterate populace of which only the wealthiest 0.1% can afford to have an expert interpret the hieroglyphics, and only lions and other celebrity species attract our interest, then we will continue to turn the dazzling diversity of life into cannon fodder.

Thoughts on what to do about it in a forthcoming piece. Meantime, enjoy your visit to the Huffington . . . Ooh, check it out—Brad and Angelina went gerbil shopping!!

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