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Following the human footprint

J. Michael Fay traversed Africa by land and by air, chronicling vanishing ecosystems and a planet in distress, but there’s still hope — if we change the way we think about resource management.

Following the human footprint

J. Michael Fay traversed Africa by land and by air, chronicling vanishing ecosystems and a planet in distress, but there’s still hope — if we change the way we think about resource management.

We’re dealing with a human species that’s on the march: ever-increasing populations, ever-increasing use per capita. As time goes on, people are slowly coming to realize that we have to do something.

If you look at the situation worldwide, certainly in Africa, I can say Africa has lost 60 percent of its wildlife in the last 30 years, and that’s an easy estimate to make. It may be as much as 80 percent, 90 percent — much more significant than anybody knows. That’s an indicator of where humans are going from an ecological perspective, with all of the fossil fuel inputs that we’re putting into the equation. If you add it all up, it’s a real dilemma. It’s something I grapple with every single day.

The environment
There is no silver bullet. Humanity is what it is; it’s got the population that it has; and everyone on earth wants to live like we Americans do. If you look at the world powers’ objectives and what they talk about for the Third World, poverty alleviation is their primary goal. Well, poverty alleviation doesn’t mean anything other than “let’s bring this population of people or this individual to a place where he’s consuming as many resources as the West.” You can’t really conceal that in some other language. That’s what it translates into.

If you’re living in the Congo and your poverty is alleviated, it means that you’re burning a lot more fossil fuel; you’re consuming a lot more products from the world’s factories; you’re contributing a much heavier human footprint than you were five years ago, 10 years ago.

How do you reconcile those things and say, “Well, do we really want to go on living on this planet like we do?” How do we factor in the reality of global change and increasing temperatures because of fossil fuel consumption (which is only going to grow exponentially)?

Efforts like Kyoto start to try to address that question, but at the same time, everybody’s still talking about poverty alleviation. We haven’t discovered that panacea, that perpetual motion machine that will give us that lifestyle but not use up the natural resource base.

So what can humans do? Well, they can start to conserve resources and they can start to manage their resource base without wasting. It’s a way to start to change things without having to find this panacea.

Conservationists are always told, “How can you keep people from eating wildlife? How can you keep people from cutting trees? How can you deprive them of this development? How can you deprive them of what we have and what we do?” People who think like this are living a century ago. They have to get real about what’s happening on this planet.

Take soils, for example. Do you think countries should mine their soils? Do you think they should allow all of their topsoil to erode into the ocean? And everybody says, “No, of course not.”

But other types of conservation are the exact same thing. Conserving trees or conserving wildlife or conserving fossil fuel or conserving water: They’re all part of the same equation, which is, there’s only a finite amount of resources on this planet. If everyone consumes these resources at the rate the West consumes them, there will not be enough to go around.

Conservation
During the flyover, I identified what I’m calling the conservation black hole in Africa. It spans southern Sudan through northern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali and across the Sahara Desert.

Since the flight ended, I’ve been working with various entities to implement conservation projects in all of these places. I’m working with a variety of European and American institutions to make sure that by the end of 2007 we have adequate conservation programs going on in about 10 focal protected areas.

The most recent aerial survey I did was in northern Chad, covering a very large area to the northern Sahara, seeking places that would be appropriate to implement some kind of conservation strategy. We were looking for wildlife indicators: addax, barbary sheep, goats and a few others like dama gazelle, dorca gazelle and scimitar-horned oryx. Scimitar-horned oryx is probably extinct already in the wild. Addax is probably down to fewer than 100. Dama gazelle is probably also fewer than 100.

Wildlife is an indicator. If wildlife exists in an ecosystem, then the function of that ecosystem is probably still close to what it was 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago. If you can get a nation to conserve wildlife, if you can get a nation to create protected areas, if you can get a nation to implement forest conservation programs, then you start to shift the balance.

Conservation of a protected area or a species is not perhaps even the primary objective. The real primary objective is to get nations thinking about natural resource management and acting on natural resource management.

In this country, when you have a protected area — say, a park — in a particular location, then all the land use management that occurs around that location takes the park into account. If somebody wants to go into the area and cut trees, people who live near that park will be at the meetings, putting their two cents in. And they’re going to be talking about the ramifications, not just for the park, but for the ecosystem.

If you didn’t have those people in the equation, the exploiters would just be talking among themselves. It shifts the balance. It shifts the discussion. It’s kind of like the counterbalance in the seesaw. It starts to become a discussion rather than a foregone conclusion about what we’re going to do.

The American mind-set
This isn’t left-wing liberal politics. This is reality. It has nothing to do with being green or being a hippie. It has to do with practical reality, and conservation is one of the most conservative things you can do.

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt recognized that, and he acted on it and made a huge amount of change in this country that has benefited us more than anybody knows. One of the first things he did was travel by train all over the United States. It was kind of like his State of the Union, and he wasn’t just making an address. He wanted to give an assessment just like our flyover.

One of the things that really struck him, like traveling around Africa strikes me, is the waste. The abuse of the natural resource base shocked him. He was absolutely shocked that America was paying no attention to management of natural resources, and he saw unbelievable erosion. He saw forests and water and all the resources that people think about being used and abused. He saw populations of wildlife that were being exterminated.

When he did his trip around the United States, by some estimates there were 200,000 white-tailed deer left in the country. When he made that declaration there were zero deer left in Virginia — not a single one, completely extinct.

Today there are about a million deer in Virginia. Here’s a great indicator, a great testament to what happens if humans just put their mind to managing natural resources.

You can do that with trees. You can do that with water. You can do that with soil. You can do that with your atmosphere. You can do that with a fluid that’s going into our rivers. You can do that with anything. We’re capable of doing anything we want to. I mean, look at what we do. We’re capable of doing amazing things.

But we haven’t had a president like that since. If the current president had five years ago made some very critical decisions and started talking to Americans about what we need to do as a nation — nationally and internationally — things would be very different. The world would be thinking in a completely different way about natural resource management, and oil might well be $20 a barrel instead of $65 a barrel. And we could be on a whole new trajectory from a human perspective.

Fay usually slept next to the plane.

Katrina should have been a wake-up call for this country. Katrina cost us X number of billions of dollars. Why did it happen? It happened because temperatures are rising in the Caribbean, which creates a convection. We’ve got these storms that are developing. They’re getting more and more violent as time goes on. So there’s a cost associated.

You have to factor these costs into your nation’s health. Some people say that we’ll just deal with the cost of global warming because there’s very little we can do about it. They may be right, but if you bring in this whole factor of waste and our ability to conserve, we haven’t even started exploring that potential yet.

What we can do about it
We need to start making changes seriously and quickly. One of the things that is absolutely clear is we’re going to need a source of energy that does not emit carbon. We’re going to have to do that by injecting the emissions of carbon back into the planet or by sequestering those emissions in filters that we bury, or by using a new source of fuel like hydrogen.

Every individual in this country needs to be driving a car that gets 50 miles a gallon like they do in Europe. If the demand is there, and the government incentives are there, that would happen. It could happen in five years. It happened when we had our first oil embargo in 1974. We actually decreased the amount of oil that we consumed. We can do it.

The average American citizen living in Texas should think very seriously about his energy consumption and ways he can reduce it. Shut down those three rooms in your house that you only use 2 percent of the time. Keep those rooms 10 degrees colder or 10 degrees warmer, depending on the season. Get one of those new hybrid cars and double your gas mileage. You can still have a Highlander SUV that looks almost like your Expedition, but it gets twice the mileage. What’s wrong with that?

If you live where it’s sunny most of the time, you should think seriously about putting solar panels on your houses. Yes, it takes nine years to monetize those things, but they last 15 years.

Let’s think about it and let’s make some decisions and urge our local and national leaders to encourage this through tax incentives or subsidies, which they’re doing in California. They’re saying that we need to put at least a million houses into solar energy in the next few years. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying. He’s making changes. He’s putting a hydrogen pump and a hydrogen pipeline throughout California. He’s doing all these things that we can do as a nation.

We all consume energy, but everybody can conserve energy tomorrow, easily, while having hardly any impact on quality of life — in fact, improving the quality of life. It’s not like we have to send our economy into a tailspin because we’re not buying fuel and oil companies are suffering.

Why is it that GM doesn’t make a single hybrid car? It doesn’t make any sense. And who’s winning? The Japanese are. Is that good for us? Is that smart?

I don’t think it’s smart.

I think it’s dumb.

To see a map charting Fay’s travels, his travel diaries and thousands of photos, go to www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/megaflyover/.

Arial photos by J. Michael Fay, photos of Fay by Peter and Hannellore Ragg.