What is low-hanging fruit?

The phrase low-hanging fruit refers to easy and effective ways to begin solving a complex problem.

This phrase is often used in business. If there is some simple process change that your organization could implement to increase efficiency and make customers happier, that is low-hanging fruit.

The phrase can also be used in our daily lives. For example, consider the problem of cleaning your house. Sorting through all the clutter in the attic is a daunting challenge. But maybe, in half an hour, you could straighten up the stuff that has accumulated on the kitchen table, and make the heart of your home feel neater and brighter. That’s low-hanging fruit.

What is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to solving our present environmental crises? America’s greenhouse gas emissions are mostly coming from the transportation sector, but addressing that means changing the whole way we move people and goods, and that’s a complicated problem. The way we produce food is wiping out wildlife habitat, destroying soil, and polluting water sources, but fixing these problems means overhauling our entire farming system, and that’s a huge, thorny challenge.

What can we do, right now, to help slow or even reverse the damage to our environment?

We can change the way we garden in our yards.

Imagine if everyone just stopped doing yard work: no more mowing, no more leafblowing, no more watering, no more spraying of pesticides. As That Blog has documented for three and a half years, this would have rapid and meaningful environmental benefits: less greenhouse gas emissions, less toxic chemicals in our environment, less water pollution, less water waste, less noise, more wildlife habitat, better human health and wellbeing – and, as we sit back, relax, and solve all these problems by simply letting plants do what they naturally do, there is virtually no evidence that some other set of problems will crop up.

This past October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a working group of nearly 100 leading climate scientists from dozens of countries – released a report stating that we have barely a dozen years to take drastic action to protect and restore our environment. Achieving the targets the scientists say we must reach will mean that we must rapidly make massive changes to the way we travel, the way we produce food, the way we build our houses, and many other aspects of our lives.

If we fail to immediately tackle the low-hanging fruit – if we do not stop burning fossil fuels to prevent plants from growing, if we do not stop using disposable items when perfectly good reusable alternatives are available, if we do not stop spraying toxic chemicals to kill harmless insects – there would seem to be little hope that we will make meaningful progress on the actually difficult challenges that we must solve in order to save our civilization and our planet.

What is low-hanging fruit?

What are shifting baselines?

Shifting baselines refers to a change in what people think is normal.

For most of history, the world around us changed very slowly. People didn’t see things becoming different during their own lifetimes, and didn’t realize that their environment was not quite the same as what their great-grandparents had experienced. The slow change in reality, from generation to generation, without a corresponding awareness of the change, is an example of shifting baselines.

Experts now think that shifting baselines are part of the reason for why megafauna – huge animals – disappeared from North America. Our continent used to be populated by mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and other kinds of big wildlife. Now, all of these species are gone. Why?

Experts think that these animals were hunted to extinction by humans, but very slowly. The early human inhabitants of North America probably only killed a few members of each species every year. But, because large animals reproduce so slowly, even this was enough to cause a gradual decline in their populations.

The key word is gradual – each generation of humans saw the number of large animals they shared their world with, and didn’t realize that that number was somewhat less than it had been in the past. By the time it became clear to people that the animals they liked to hunt were heading towards extinction, it was too late for those species to recover.

Today, we notice that we don’t see many animals in our yards. But most of us are not really aware of how many animals we don’t see. Not knowing that the total number of birds in North America used to be a billion more than it is today, not realizing that the total number of wild mammals on our planet is less than half what it was a few decades ago, we take the absence of animals in our neighborhoods as disappointing but not unusual. Our baselines have shifted.

Now, though, things are changing so quickly that we do notice the differences within our own lifetime. People of a certain age recall that the skies used to be filled with monarch butterflies in the fall, but now we see only a few of these beloved travelers during migration season. People remember when there was more nature in our communities. People remember when there were not so many severe storms.

The speed with which damage to our environment is happening is, in a lot of ways, bad news. But the silver lining may be that we can see the changes occurring. This means that, instead of complacently thinking that the world has always been this way and there is nothing wrong, we can point to the changes we don’t like, remind ourselves that things used to be better, and demand that our society stop moving down a dangerous path.

What are shifting baselines?

What happens when big trees are replaced with small trees?

Some people claim that when mature street trees are cut down and replaced with young trees, the urban canopy is just as good as it was before. Others go further, claiming that leveling a whole forest and replanting the area is a smart move, because the young trees will absorb more carbon than the older trees would have. Is this good logic?

No.

The second claim has some appeal to it. Surely small trees, which are actively growing, pull more carbon out of the air than mature trees that are not going to get any bigger. But new research shows that this is not true. Large trees can and do continue to absorb significant quantities of carbon from the air. It’s also important to note that if the cleared trees are burned, or otherwise disposed of in a way that doesn’t keep their carbon safely sequestered, the next generation of trees is just re-absorbing the same carbon that their predecessors were already doing a perfectly good job of storing. That’s clearly no victory.

What about the claim that cutting down a street tree and planting a new one results in no loss to the community? A basic understanding of what trees do shows that this cannot be correct. A young tree cannot filter as much air as a mature tree; it absorbs pollutants less effectively. A young tree cannot take up as much water as a mature tree; it mitigates flooding less effectively. A young tree does not cast as much shade as a mature tree; it moderates temperatures less effectively. A young tree cannot host as many bird nests or produce as much fruit as a mature tree; it provides habitat less effectively.

For all of these reasons, replacing a mature tree with a young tree means a significant loss of ecosystem services over the next several decades, until the new tree catches up to the size of the tree that had already been there. (For the same reasons, when city officials cut down a large tree, replace it with a tree that will never get more than about fifteen feet tall, and say it is just as good, that is also not true.)

Imagine a company that fired all of its employees and replaced them with new staff. Would that company continue to run successfully? Probably not; the loss of experience and institutional knowledge would be too disruptive.

To put it even more starkly, imagine a company that fired all of its employees and replaced them with children. It’s obvious that this company would struggle to continue providing high-quality products and services to its customers.

It’s no different when we destroy mature trees and replace them with young ones. It’s simply not realistic to expect an adolescent tree to do what a fully-grown one can do.

What happens when big trees are replaced with small trees?

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

The neighborhood becomes more attractive.

Urban greenery “doesn’t just beautify the city,” begins an article published in an Italian newspaper last February. And the article isn’t talking about lawns. It specifies that the gardens in question contain trees and bushes, and the feature image depicts drifts of tall grass. Yet the author seems to take it as an uncontroversial fact that these types of plantings are beautiful, listing this virtue of healthy vegetation right alongside “screening out noise” and “filtering pollutants from the air.”

Crime goes down.

The real focus of the article is an experiment in Philadelphia, in which researchers established gardens in small abandoned lots. In the months after the gardens were installed, police records showed that crime in the areas near the gardens decreased markedly, compared to the months before the planting took place. Thefts decreased by 22%, while shootings dropped by 30%.

Some people think that lush plantings create places for criminals to hide, or that they have a neglected look that encourages criminal behavior. But the article specifically contrasts the new gardens with the “broken windows” conditions that contribute to drug dealing, prostitution, and other unsavory activities.

People’s lives are better.

The improvement in public safety was obvious to the residents of the communities that hosted the new gardens. The article reports that people who lived near the plantings felt less fear of moving around the neighborhood, and were able to visit and enjoy the green space in their community. Exposure to green space is known to have a wide variety of positive impacts on human health and well-being, meaning that people living near the gardens received benefits far beyond a reduction in crime.

And these benefits did not come with a steep price tag. The researchers spent only $5 per square meter for the initial installation of the gardens, and $0.50 per square meter for maintenance over the course of the study. Comparing the costs of these urban green spaces to their benefits, the researchers concluded that law enforcement officials and public health workers alike should invest resources in greening our cities.

 

Given all the benefits that healthy plantings provide, we all should be transitioning our own spaces from low-value turf grass to air-cleaning water-filtering community-beautifying crime-stopping native landscaping. Moreover, we should be demanding that our local authorities do likewise on city-owned property, and that they create rules or incentives to move our reluctant neighbors in the same direction. When thriving vegetation provides so many benefits with so few drawbacks, there’s simply no reason to delay.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1

The people responsible for the change win awards.

A few years ago, mainly due to the efforts of one resident, a homeowner’s association in Colorado organized residents to change how they landscaped. The neighborhood converted 250 private gardens from lawn and pruned shrubbery to native plants, replaced turf grass in sidewalk strips with alternative plantings, and added vegetable gardens. After making this change in their own neighborhood, community leaders engaged in advocacy work to persuade homeowners in other neighborhoods to do the same thing.

These leaders, through their homeowner’s association, won no fewer than three awards, including one from a wildlife-focused non-profit, one from a non-profit that focuses on conserving water, and one from Colorado’s state government.

The property owners see tremendous savings on their water bills.

It was actually the water issue – not concerns about wildlife or about sustainability in general – that first prompted these local leaders to do something about their landscaping. By replacing lawn with less thirsty plants, and by watering the remaining lawn through more efficient methods, the homeowner’s association reduced their water usage by a staggering 15 million gallons per year. The residents of the neighborhood, who had been splitting the total cost of the community’s water usage, saw dramatic savings on their utility bills. Plus, the local water company rewarded them with additional rebates for their conservation efforts.

Property values go up.

After slashing water consumption and changing the look of the neighborhood by adding vegetable gardens and native plants, the homeowner’s association noticed that the sale prices of condos in the community were going up. And this was not a coincidence or an unusual experience: a community in Illinois called Prairie Crossing was designed from the outset to incorporate native plantings and other lush vegetation, and people there remain in their homes for much longer than is typical in other communities. When residents of Prairie Crossing do move, it’s often just to a bigger or smaller house in the community as their life circumstances change.

 

Non-lawn alternatives are still unfamiliar to many people, prompting fears about the negative impacts they may bring about. But in reality, people who have given up their lawns find that they enjoy huge financial savings, a more beautiful community, and broad appreciation for their efforts.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1