What is an umbrella species?

Plants and animals are in big trouble. All over the world, wild species are vanishing, becoming first rare and then extinct, at an unprecedented speed. As a matter of our own survival, it is crucial that we begin to turn this around. But amid all this loss of life, even a committed conservationist might be defeated by the question: Where should we start?

In other words, what should we protect first? We might start with species that are known to be of great usefulness to humans, like pollinators. We might start with species we find awe-inspiring, like tigers and giant sequoias. We could start with the species that are in most imminent danger of extinction, or we could write off these vanishing creatures as lost causes and start with the species that we still have a real chance of saving.

Another idea is to start with umbrella species.

Here’s how it works: First, we identify a species that requires a large range, that has a wide variety of needs, that lives in an area packed with other kinds of life, or that is easy to rally support for. Then, we protect that species. In doing so, we go a long way towards also protecting all the species that live in the same area, that rely on similar resources, or that are closely connected to the species getting the special protection. The species that is directly being protected is called the umbrella species, because it acts as an umbrella, or a shield, for other plants and animals.

The umbrella species approach has some advantages. First, it’s easier to create and enforce a conservation plan for a single, well-studied plant or animal than to try to do the same for the hundreds or even thousands of species that are actually living in a given area. Second, it can be easier to build the political will to protect one iconic species – like whales or polar bears or Joshua trees – than to rally people to demand action to save the salamanders and the beetles and the pupfishes and the mosses and every other kind of living thing.

On the other hand, the strategy of focusing on a single species – usually a large mammal – can reinforce the idea that less majestic creatures are not important or not worth protecting in their own right. And, while protecting smaller creatures through protecting their umbrella species is better than not protecting them at all, it’s likely to be less effective than enacting conservation plans specifically tailored to each species.

How we think about this question influences how we garden in our yards. If we decide that we want to focus on protecting monarchs, all we really need to plant is milkweed. But that doesn’t do much to help other species. If we also want to protect swallowtails and fritillaries and atalas and commas and mourning cloaks, we need to plant pipevines and violets and coontie and elm trees and willows. Then we’re starting to build a thriving ecosystem that makes room for lots of other species as well.

What is an umbrella species?

What is a keystone species?

Three years ago, That Blog wrote about functions – useful things that plants and animals do. Normally, in nature, each type of plant and animal performs many functions, and each function is performed by multiple plants and animals. This is why we see complex, thriving ecosystems, in which all the members are involved in a web of interactions.

But within an ecosystem, some members are especially important. Often, this extra importance comes from the fact that the plant or animal performs a function that isn’t duplicated by another plant or animal in the system. These critically necessary members of ecosystems are called keystone species.

Keystone species can be important for many reasons. Maybe a certain kind of small animal is the only prey of a larger animal. If the small animal disappears, the larger animal will too, because it has nothing to eat. Because the fate of the larger animal depends entirely on the fortunes of the smaller animal, the smaller animal would be considered a keystone species.

Conversely, if a large animal was the only predator of a smaller animal, then the large animal would be the keystone species, since without it, the smaller animal would multiply prolifically, decimate its own food sources, and unbalance the entire ecosystem.

As another example, an insect could be a keystone species, if it is the only animal that pollinates a certain plant. The disappearance of that insect would then spell trouble for the plant, as well as for every species that relies on the plant.

The name keystone – a reference to the single wedge that holds an entire arch together – might make it sound as though each ecosystem has only one centrally important species. But this is not the case. An ecosystem can have many crucial members. In fact, the more scientists learn about ecosystems, the more they think that every species can be described as a keystone species.

Plants and animals do all kinds of things – for each other, and for us – and we still don’t know how all of these interconnections work. Rather than treating uninteresting species as disposable, we should take the more cautious approach of assuming that every kind of plant and animal is important. We just don’t know which species, once it’s gone, will turn out to have been holding the whole system together.

What is a keystone species?

What is anthropocentrism?

When someone thinks their own needs and opinions are more important than everybody else’s, we call that egocentrism (or self-centeredness). We generally don’t find it very flattering to be described that way.

Anthropocentrism is the idea that the needs and opinions of humans are always more important than the needs and opinions of other species. Put another way, it’s the idea that plants and animals are really just here for human use, and that their basic survival requirements can be ignored in favor of satisfying any small desire that a human might have.

When we end the lives of trees so we can print and mail more department store catalogs, that’s anthropocentrism.

When we destroy wildlife habitat to build another golf course, that’s anthropocentrism.

When we think that the most important thing about our yards is how they look to human eyes, that’s anthropocentrism.

The opposite of anthropocentrism is biocentrism. Biocentrism does not mean believing that plants and animals are always more important than humans. It does not mean that humans are bad and should be eliminated from this planet. Rather, it’s the idea that the needs of humans and of other species can be balanced against each other in a way that honors all forms of life.

Biocentrism makes sense for two reasons. First, the needs of humans and of other species are often not at odds with each other: we all need clean air and clean water. Humans do better when nature is thriving, and when we destroy nature to make more room for people, we cause a lot of harm to ourselves as well.

Second, respecting the needs of other species is simply the right thing to do. Many people today think that something is wrong when CEOs pay their employees starvation wages in order to further increase their own salary so they can buy a baseball team, a yacht, or a fourth house. Similarly, it is wrong to deny the basic needs of other beings so that we can have more stuff that we don’t even really want.

When we simplify our lives, our world has enough for everyone – ourselves, other humans, and all the species we share this miraculous Earth with.

What is anthropocentrism?

What is zero waste?

The average American throws away four and a half pounds of garbage every day. We put that garbage at the curb to be taken “away”, to landfills that are rapidly overflowing. Garbage litters our cities, rolls around our national parks, and floats in the ocean, forming huge gyres that are set to outweigh all the remaining fish in the not-so-distant future.

Garbage is a problem.

To address this problem, some people have adopted a lifestyle known as zero waste. While practitioners typically don’t achieve a total elimination of garbage from their lives, some have famously produced only a single mason jar worth of trash over the course of several years.

There are some obvious ways that we can all reduce our garbage. We can give up single-use items such as plastic silverware, disposable straws, and styrofoam cups. We can stop buying things that come wrapped in excessive packaging. We can wear clothes until they are threadbare rather than merely out of fashion. We can borrow items from friends instead of buying our own. We can take care to divert our waste to our compost pile or our recycling bin, rather than sending things to the dump.

But where should we start? One way to answer this question is by conducting a garbage audit.

Strictly speaking, a garbage audit is a scientific study that involves laying out the entire contents of your trash can, and weighing and categorizing everything you find. For most of us, though, a more informal “garbage survey” is enough to answer the question: What am I throwing away a lot of? Once we have that piece of information, we can think up ways to dispose of less of that thing.

We may find that we produce a lot of food waste, or that we throw out lots of everyday items that could be replaced with reusable alternatives. Or, we may notice that we drag a lot of grass clippings and raked-up leaves to the street. The solution to that type of waste is simple: Leave the leaves where they fall, to insulate plants over the winter, add nutrients to the soil, provide places for pollinators to hibernate, and suppress the germination of weeds in the spring. And let the grass grow, to absorb carbon, provide structural support for flowering plants, and ripple beautifully in summer breezes.

When we begin to recognize yard “waste” as valuable resources, it’s easy to reduce our trash.

What is zero waste?

What are co-benefits?

co-benefits

What if climate change turns out to be a hoax, and in our efforts to prevent dangerous global warming we instead end deforestation, create good jobs, and reduce air pollution for no reason? That is the question posed by the audience member in this cartoon. Clearly, this person does not understand the value of co-benefits.

Co-benefits are the additional positive outcomes created when we address some problem. For example, if we decide to eat out less often because restaurants are expensive, the primary benefit is that we save money. The co-benefits might be that we eat healthier food and discover a passion for cooking.

There are plenty of co-benefits when it comes to sustainable gardening. Whatever our reason is for shrinking our lawns and putting more native plants in our yards, we enjoy all kinds of positive outcomes in addition to the one we were aiming for.

If we plant natives because we don’t want to contribute to the climate crisis by running a lawnmower, we also enjoy cleaner air in our neighborhoods.

If we install water-wise landscaping to help conserve limited water supplies, we also save money on our utility bills.

If we stop blowing leaves into the street because we want to use that organic material to build soil, we also experience more peace and quiet in our community.

If we stop spraying pesticides because we don’t want to expose ourselves and our neighbors to carcinogens, we also gain the opportunity to observe more life in our yards.

 

We all have different reasons for choosing to switch to more sustainable gardening practices. But whatever our entry point, we can hardly help bringing about a whole host of additional advantages for ourselves and others. That is the power of co-benefits.

What are co-benefits?

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