What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

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What is biophilia?

Where is deforestation happening?

When we think about deforestation, we think about the Amazon rainforest: iconic images of towering jungle trees being cleared to make room for ranching operations, and statistics about how many football fields per minute are being lost.

We may also think about the Canadian boreal forests, huge swathes of which are being leveled so that fossil fuel companies can extract the tar sands oil that lies buried beneath them.

And we may think of America’s Pacific Northwest, where it seems that environmentalists and loggers are constantly at odds over whether old-growth trees should be harvested for commercial use or preserved to provide wildlife habitat and inspire awe in each new generation of humans.

What most of us don’t think about is urban areas. But American cities are losing trees at an alarming rate. One study found that between 1975 and 2006, Minnesota’s Twin Cities region lost 14% of its forest cover. Percentage-wise, that’s actually more tree loss than the Amazon rainforest experienced over an equivalent period.

And a study published this past spring estimated that urban areas of the United States, taken as a whole, are losing 36 million trees a year. That’s net loss – the total decrease in the number of trees after adding back newly-planted trees. Dividing up the data by state, the researchers found that in recent years, only three states have seen a net increase of urban trees, and then only by tiny increments.

As explained in an earlier post, that’s a problem because trees in cities aren’t optional. When there aren’t enough trees around to absorb stormwater, clean air, moderate extreme temperatures, and give people a little relief from the stresses of modern life, providing all of those services through other methods ranges from expensive to impossible. The end result is that we pay more in taxes and get back a lower quality of life.

We can reverse this trend. First, we can demand that our local officials respect and protect our urban trees, instead of damaging or destroying trees that pose minor inconveniences. Second, we can actively work to plant a healthy next generation of trees. No matter how well we care for mature trees, they will eventually die. When that happens, it is too late to plant a replacement tree – it could be decades before the new, young tree is able to provide benefits equivalent to what its adult predecessor was doing. Instead, we need to nurture an urban forest in which every canopy tree has a younger companion nearby, ready to quickly take over the older tree’s duties when its life inevitably comes to an end.

Where is deforestation happening?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?

How can we help plants?

In conventional gardening, plants are treated like yard furniture: inanimate objects that we can arrange and modify to suit our own preferences, and which will quickly fall into a degenerate state if we don’t constantly maintain them. This is, of course, biologically inaccurate. With a few exceptions, even highly cultivated plants are essentially wild creatures that, given appropriate growing conditions, can take care of all their own needs. Plants don’t require our help.

How do we know that this is so? Quite simply, because plants thrived on Earth for million of years before humans appeared on the scene. In contrast, humans literally would not survive for one day without plants.

Some people, in recognition of this fact, truly want to repay plants by helping them out. This is wonderful. However, many of the things that people do – with the best of intentions – to help plants are in fact harmful to plants. Pruning plants robs them of their food-producing ability and leaves them vulnerable to disease. Situating plants in a sea of mulch deprives them of the companions they need to be healthy. And spraying them with pesticides kills the insects the plants rely on for their reproductive processes.

There are some things we can do to help plants, though. Here are three simple actions with real benefits for plants.

Breathe on them. We know that animals take in oxygen and breathe out carbon, while plants absorb carbon and give off oxygen. We usually describe this harmonious dynamic by saying that plants clean the air for us. It is fascinating to realize that from a plant’s perspective, we clean the air for them! By breathing on plants, we can provide them with a little boost of the carbon they need to build their bodies. (It is thought that this is why some people swear plants grow better if you talk to them. It’s not the words we’re saying that benefit the plants; it’s the air we’re blowing on them.)

Relieve yourself on them. As described in a recent post, human bodily waste is full of nitrogen, a nutrient plants need. When we excrete on plants, we deposit nitrogen in a form plants can use. In contrast, when we excrete in modern toilets, we deposit nitrogen into the water supply, where it contributes to harmful effects. (Unless you are way out in the woods, though, don’t literally excrete on plants. Find a happy medium in the humanure process.)

Don’t walk near them. Some plants like to be walked near: for example, those that stick their seeds to our pants and let us disperse their offspring. For the most part, though, walking near plants only contributes to soil compaction and damages the plants’ roots. Resist the urge to hug trees. Instead, tell them loudly, from a respectful distance, how much you appreciate their service. They’ll enjoy the extra carbon more than they would the warm embrace.

How can we help plants?

Do people want lawns?

If you are thinking that you would like to throw out your lawnmower and fill your yard with native plants, you are not alone. The facts – about how lawns waste water, pollute the atmosphere, poison us, trample on wildlife habitat, and take our time and money without giving anything back – are making their way into the public consciousness. Surely there are some people who genuinely like lawns. But, even as lawns continue to be a default landscaping choice in many new developments, as outdated local regulations continue to favor and protect lawns, and as that one turf lover in every neighborhood tries to shame and bully others into mowing their grass, more and more Americans are taking the stance that lawns just don’t make sense. Though not all of those people have yet had the courage to take this stance publicly by changing how they garden, here are three statistics showing that views on natural yards are changing dramatically.

People hate mowing the lawn. In the fall of 2011, CBS News surveyed Americans about their least favorite chores. 20% of the people surveyed said that mowing the lawn was the chore they hated most, making lawnmowing the least popular chore in America. According to this poll, mowing was less liked than other types of tedious yardwork, including raking leaves and shoveling snow.

It’s worth noting that this survey presumably included people who don’t have lawns – meaning that among those Americans who do have lawns, even more than 20% hated mowing above all their other domestic tasks.

People really hate leafblowers. Somewhere prior to 2002, a Learning Channel documentary reported that people named leafblowers as the third-worst invention ever. In a survey about terrible technology, only parking meters and car alarms earned more votes for being awful inventions.

Leafblowers are not needed in natural yards, for the simple reason that natural yards have no “yard waste” that needs to be blown away. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, and other discarded plant parts are recognized as valuable resources that can be either left in place or quietly gathered into a compost pile, to fulfill their destiny and return to the soil.

People want more native plants. In 2008, a survey by Consumer Reports found that a respectable 26% of American homeowners wanted to replace at least some of their lawn with “flowers, rocks, or native landscaping.” More recently, the number of homeowners who want to plant natives in their yards has climbed to a whopping 84%, according to a survey  by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In this survey, homeowners also named planting drought-resistant species and establishing low-maintenance landscapes as changes they would like to make in their yards.

Natural yards are no longer a fringe gardening choice. They are not being adopted by people who “just like plants”; they are being mindfully established by homeowners who recognize the overwhelming evidence that yards that are in harmony with nature are better for the environment, our health, our community, and our pocketbooks.

Put native plants in your yard. Tell people why gardening this way is important to you. You are in good company.

Do people want lawns?

What is blood tea?

If you want to fertilize your yard without supporting harmful manufacturing processes, and if you want to go beyond ordinary composting but are not yet ready for humanure, you may want to try blood tea.

As described in the previous post, nitrogen is important to both plants and animals. There’s lots of it in our bodies. If you weigh 150 pounds, about 4 pounds of you is nitrogen. Where is it?

Some of it is in your blood.

That’s right: bleeding on plants provides them with essential nutrients that they need to grow.

Classic movies notwithstanding, no one is suggesting that we open our veins over our garden beds. But if you happen to be female, you are probably bleeding profusely on a regular basis and wondering if there’s something better you can do with all that stuff.

Enter blood tea.

It is simple to make. First, stop using disposable sanitary products. They contain toxic chemicals, produce an enormous amount of garbage, and cost the average woman $2,200 over her lifetime. Instead, invest in reusable products, such as cloth pads.

Once you have cloth pads, you will need to wash them. In between the time that you use them and the time that you wash them, you will want to throw them into a bucket of water, to prevent the stains from setting. But then, what to do with the resulting bloody water? Your first thought will be to pour it down the toilet.

Don’t. Pour it on your plants instead. This is blood tea.

If a menstrual cup is a better reusable choice for you than cloth pads, the process is similar: empty the cup into a jar, dilute the blood with some water, and feed the result to your plants.

This is not disgusting or unsanitary. It is a healthy way of using our biological processes to nourish other life. “That time of the month” is far more joyful when we use it to produce more plants instead of producing more trash.

What is blood tea?

What is humanure?

Unlike green manurehumanure is actual excrement. As the clever name might lead you to guess, it is excrement that comes from humans. What does this have to do with natural gardening?

Let’s talk about fertilizer.

Fertilizer is substances – often artificial substances – that help to provide nutrients for plants. A key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, an element that is important to both plants and animals. Nitrogen is found abundantly in our atmosphere – when you breathe, you are inhaling much more nitrogen than oxygen. But most plants cannot absorb nitrogen from the air. They need it in a different form.

This alternative form can be artificial fertilizer, or it can be compost. To make good compost, we must put in materials that contain lots of nitrogen. What contains lots of nitrogen? One answer is (recently) dead plants. Another answer is human waste.

Our own urine and excrement – which to us is useless and toxic – is valuable and nourishing to plants. If we relieve ourselves on plants, they will happily absorb that nitrogen.

While it might be fine to do exactly that on a camping trip in the woods, nobody thinks we should fertilize our suburban yards by defecating in them. Instead, we can use the somewhat more refined process called humanure.

We begin with a composting toilet. This device, instead of using clean, drinkable water to move our bodily waste to a treatment center, simply collects our byproducts in a bucket. A seat can be placed on top of the bucket to make it more comfortable, and a handful of sawdust after every use will hide the mess and absorb all the odors.

When the bucket is full, it can be emptied into a compost pile. At this point, it is very important that the compost be managed well. Human waste is full of pathogens, and the compost pile must get hot enough to kill those organisms. (No need for artificial heat: the beneficial organisms in the pile will generate plenty of warmth as they munch their way through all that delicious organic matter.)

Once the humanure is fully decomposed, it is indistinguishable from any other finished compost, and it is safe to use on our plants – even on our vegetable gardens. However, like greywater systems, humanure is severely frowned upon by many local health departments, due to its perceived hazards.

Humanure is a normal and natural way of recycling waste products back into valuable resources. It connects our own bodily processes to the cycles of the earth. However, because it is dangerous if not managed properly, and because it is not yet legal in many places, please thoroughly educate yourself on this topic before attempting to establish a humanure system. There is no shame in planting some native flowers today, and leaving humanure until you are more experienced and confident as a natural gardener.

What is humanure?