Humans are a geological force, altering Earth fundamentally. To argue otherwise is an implausible claim contradicted by mountains of evidence.
To understand our impact, let’s first appreciate the impact of another organism: For over 1 billion years after Earth’s formation, our atmosphere contained virtually no oxygen gas (you know, the stuff we breath). Yet, now it makes up one-fifth of the atmosphere.
How did this change? Bacteria, which produced oxygen gas as a waste product. That alone was enough to radically alter the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and rocky skin, and to completely reshape life, down to the way each of our cells derives energy.
If a humble bacterium can change the atmosphere, Earth’s surface, and evolution, it's not that hard to imagine we can too.
Earth’s bad vitals are prominent and ubiquitous, rendered undisputable by robust, multiply redundant multi-instrument observations. This is widely recognized by now, globally and in the U.S., causing considerable malcontent. Across the political spectrum, Americans, therefore, want action. Not phony theatrics by life-long habitual offenders — actual action. Yet, at least at the national level, asymmetrically across the aisle, elected officials stubbornly cling to discredited policies, dragging their feet, or enthusiastically undermining environmental integrity.
These failures are historic. Yet, we can overcome environmental paralysis and inaction. Some of our most vexing environmental dilemmas can be significantly, sometimes dramatically improved by voluntary choices, completely independently of our procured political class.
The key observation that makes individual voluntary action potentially so powerful is that underlying some of the most important ways we humans impact Earth’s environment is a single aspect of our lives: food.
Americans use about one Lake Erie’s worth of water every year, much of it for food production, and much of that in the arid West, where water is in critically short supply. Almost half of all U.S. land area is allocated to agriculture, which profoundly modifies it. Coastal water degradation by algal blooms due to fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi River pits Gulf of Mexico shrimpers against midwestern farmers, benefitting nobody.
Modern satellites reveal a planetary surface wholly appropriated for food production wherever the basic needs of crops or livestock can be met, spanning almost 50 million square km (the combined land area of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico is about 20 million).
Think about this: Among the diverse human experience — of all cities built and occupied, roads paved and traveled, goods produced and traded — a single element repeatedly features in most dimensions of our planetary presence, and dominates many. That element is food production, and its disproportionate dominance over our planetary footprint is key, because changing one aspect of life is a lot easier than changing many.
To be sure, cracking the climate change nut will require far more than voluntary individual action. Eliminating the small yet profoundly important surplus downward radiation warming the surface over upward radiation cooling it, sadly, requires globally concerted political action.
But water pollution? Declining biodiversity? Topsoil loss? Regional-to-local climate change? Food insecurity? All are tractable, potentially significantly ameliorated by our collective impact. Consider some examples.
My research recently showed that if Americans replaced meat in their diet with nutritionally equal or, mostly, superior plant-based alternatives, we will save about 100 million acres of high-quality cropland (as distinct from rangeland). This is like adding four additional Iowas-worth of cropland. Much of this land may be reallocated to producing additional fruits, nuts and vegetables, improving our health and food security while reducing the risks we currently voluntarily accept by centralizing production of most of our fresh produce in the Central Valley of California.
Replacing meat with plant food will also free up nearly all grazed rangelands, about 0.7 billion acres (that’s very nearly the combined area of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado). Because biological complexity and ecological integrity depend strongly on available area, such continental-scale land sparing would mean a renewed lease on life for countless species currently on the fast lane toward extinction.
What if you are a die-hard beef eater? Is activism by dietary choices unavailable to you? Not at all. For example, using no high quality cropland (again freeing those same four additional Iowas for augmented produce production) and grazing cattle on only half of the U.S. rangelands we currently use (i.e., rewilding the less productive half, an area roughly 10 times the size of New England), we can still have over 40 percent of current beef production.
While your or my decision to forgo or reduce beef consumption will not individually redeem us, our collective actions can. Spelling out the potential collective impacts of such individual decisions along with the scope of the challenge and the implausibility of progress under our current broken democracy offers ample impetus for voluntarily choosing to realize this limited yet empowering potential. And the improved nutrition and health benefits can only help.
Given our societal landscape, environmental optimism would appear irrational. Yet, recalling the inexorable long-term progress the nation has made since the pioneering environmental achievements of the Nixon administration, defeatism too is unwarranted. Some dimensions of environmental health can be dramatically improved by concerted individual action.
Gidon Eshel is a research professor of environmental physics at Bard College. He holds a Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia University, and has been a researcher or professor at Harvard, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the University of Chicago. Eshel published numerous scientific papers on geophysics of food. His upcoming book is “Planetary Eating.”