Richard Jacobs: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with the future tech and future tech health podcast. I have Peter H. Raven. He’s an American botanist and an environmentalist notable as a longtime director now president emeritus of the Missouri botanical gardens. So Peter, thanks for coming. How are you doing today?
Peter H. Raven: Pleasure. I’m doing great.
Richard Jacobs: Are you working on anything in particular right now? Or is it a recent retirement? What’re your workings?
Peter H. Raven: Well, I just finished an autobiography, but I’m very busy with promoting a number of other scientific projects. And as a board member of the national geographic society,
Richard Jacobs: What are some of the projects you’re working on right now?
Peter H. Raven: A checklist of the plants of India is the most important one scientifically. And then I’m helping in many ways in conservation projects with other people. Whenever they contact me.
Richard Jacobs: All conservation projects take away?
Peter H. Raven: For decades, I’ve been particularly interested in the tropical rain forest, which is going so rapidly, 25% in the last less than 30 years. And which houses far more species than anywhere else on earth. So I have worked pretty tirelessly giving speeches about that and trying to affect the politics on that. People would pay a lot more attention to it because of the consequences to all of us.
Richard Jacobs: So when I spoke to someone else about the tropical rain forest awhile back, and they said there’s a critical side, which you could still have animal habitats. Are you familiar with that? It’s a critical nonbroken area of forest that would be species.
Peter H. Raven: Well, there are two different ways of going at it. I mean in a sense, and even more, the critical matter is how much of it do we need to keep the world’s climate stable and sustainable? And with the speed at which it’s going, many people predict that it will essentially all be gone by the end of the century. We need to preserve the trees and the interactions between them, the storage of carbon in them to prevent global warming and all the species in them, the vast majority of which nobody’s ever seen or named. So we have about the last chance at that in the next, let’s say, two generations. I’ve been very struck by the fact that when my youngest granddaughter reaches my age, it’ll be 2102 Lord only knows what will happen between now and then.
Richard Jacobs: Well, what does the deforestation looks like right now as you could give us sort of patchwork that it’s creating, what is it?
Peter H. Raven: Well, it’s rising, but it’s sporadic. It goes up and down in different places. Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil is releasing all the environmental guidelines that had been protecting the Amazon forest, of which Brazil has a very big chunk and that’s causing a speed up thereafter, a slowdown. Indonesia, on the other hand, seems to be slowing things down. The African rain forest seems to be under very heavy attack and just continuously going. And as I said over a quarter of it, about 1% of it is gone every year over the last 25 years. And so there’s nothing really slowing it down. Everybody thinks they have an economic interest in it. And of course, if you have a lot of it in your country, you do. But unfortunately, it’s only a onetime economic interest and repercussions of cutting it applies to every one of us.
Richard Jacobs: Has there been any attempts to grow it back? Does that even usable? And if so, how long would it take?
Peter H. Raven: Sometimes it can be read, generated or restored and restoration as a method for dealing with destroyed natural communities is growing and becoming more sophisticated year to year. But how fast we can do it, what the will will be, what people want to do about it is very uncertain. One of the major problems in all of this is that the really rich nations of the earth aren’t that deeply concerned about what happens to the very poor ones in places like Africa.
And many of those countries have nothing left to spend on reforestation or anything else. Unless we recognize that this is a kind of a collective problem, it’s definitely a collective problem. We’d haven’t got much chance of helping with it.
Richard Jacobs: Are there a large enough area set aside that could study to see whatever had to reforest it faster than otherwise or more successfully. Is any country created an area that’s truly set off like that?
Peter H. Raven: Well, one of the major problems is that the population is growing so rapidly and consumption is growing so rapidly. If as that happens, people are unlikely to be able to hold those preserved areas very successfully. We would have to cooperate in some kind of general way to do that or find mechanisms and we don’t care much about it as judged by our actions in the past. And we, like many people individually, collectively and nationally, are more concerned with our own immediate benefit by selling stuff off than in protecting things. So as the situation becomes more unstable, we have 7.7 billion people. Now we’re adding another 2.3 billion in the next 30 years. 800 million of the 7.7 go to bed hungry every night.
Eight people control as much wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest people of us worldwide. Six of those are in the US and so the equilibrium doesn’t look very good for future preservation unless we suddenly get religion and begin to care about one another a lot more than we do now.
Richard Jacobs: So what are some of the strategies by which we can make an impact?
Peter H. Raven: Yeah. Well, one of the most important things that we could do is empower women throughout the world. There are about a billion women and children who are given no real power in their societies at all. And even in the US women are not sufficiently empowered to be able to provide equal input as men do. In other places, they’re simply ignored. And of course, everybody’s brain, to begin with, is equal to everybody else’s brain. And when you see a gang of kids carrying firewood in Africa, you have no way of knowing whether one of them has the talent of Beethoven or Shakespeare. They can never express it. The United Negro college fund used to have a motto, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And yet pretty clearly we’re wasting about a billion minds of women and children and around the world at a time when we’re facing environmental challenges, bigger than we’ve ever faced before, that is not only socially unjust and immoral, therefore it’s just plain stupid.
Richard Jacobs: So what would be some of the strategies or tactics to preserve the rain forest?
Peter H. Raven: To preserve the rainforest if women are empowered if we get to know enough about foreign countries by going to see them and by sending our children to see them that we really care. And if we’re willing to rebalance the global economy to a certain extent, then we might get there. But to me, the fundamental question is do we really care about anybody else enough to do it? And there’s not much evidence that we do. There’s not much evidence that we hear very much about the homeless or the very poor people in our own communities. And when it comes to Africa the record is very bleak. We just have never done much except exploiting them for things that we could get from them. Africa below the Sahara desert, Africa has about 1 billion people now. In 30 years, it’s projected to have about 2.2 billion people and by the end of this century, 4.4 billion. And at that point be about 40% of the entire population of the globe. The soil in sub-Saharan Africa is pretty well used up so that all the forests, the soils, the agricultural systems in Africa are in very bad danger of being simply used up unless we care enough to do something about it.
Richard Jacobs: And these countries, I mean, they want that help or welcome it?
Peter H. Raven: On a respectful basis. I mean, no country welcomes anything without kind of mutual respect and without ample discussion about what they consider important and what we could agree on doing. But having said that of course they would if we really were sincere about helping them. Unfortunately what we generally want to do is just get commodities from tropical for us. And that very often does not increase the welfare of the people or their stability or their ability to deal with conservation issues in any particular way.
Richard Jacobs: So what would be an example of one way that we could one of these countries where they wouldn’t be pressured as far as there are all kinds of resources?
Peter H. Raven: Well, obviously one has to begin by dealing with the poor people in countries. India with 1.3 billion people at the present time will be the largest country in the world in 30 years with 400 million people being added more than the present population of the United States in a much smaller country and one that’s much more used up. Environmentally. India has a wonderful culture. And we could do very much to save and honor that culture, but we’re not implying to do that. They’re not exactly asking us. But when poor people in India leave farms, they don’t generally have anywhere to go. And that presents a very serious problem for the country. They have a lot of advanced intellectual activities and organizations and so forth in the country and in every way they’re certainly equal to us intellectually, but the opportunities are going to be very difficult for them to meet for historical reasons. If you studied the history of India you’d see that it’s basically been exploited for a very long period of time. And what they have left with this enormous world-leading population is not very much. And yet the kind of instability that they are generating in a world where we’re using a more than the world is producing every year will make it increasingly difficult for us or Western Europe or anywhere else to stay rich because there’s only so much air, there’s only so much pollution that can go into the air. There’s only so much ability to absorb pollutants. And the situation is looking very rough now. We need to educate our children a whole lot better. We need ourselves to get a grip on trying to understand some of these environmental problems and the rest of the serious challenges that a lot of people who know basically nothing about the problems are just singing happy tunes about how somebody’s prediction in the past went wrong or something really didn’t come to pass. And therefore everything that everybody says now is wrong, which of course makes no logical sense at all. Even though it does give people who fall for it, an excuse for not paying any attention and trying to make the situation better now.
Richard Jacobs: The sessions really come from empowering these countries to help themselves. Or if it’s going to be educating us to not exploit these countries, let them do it their way?
Peter H. Raven: Well, we want to empower them to help themselves. And we want to do that by various things, increasing credit to poor people, being willing to send them agricultural surpluses, but basically get into respectful relationships with all the countries that occupied the world with us. People really succeed only if they’re empowered to do things on their own. And the same obviously is true of countries all around the world. The United States has always been a bit slow in really doing that. But colonial powers have never really wanted to do that or do that very effectively in the past. We can strengthen their universities, we can build roads in them. We can in various ways strengthen their infrastructure and let them get more benefit out of their own productivity. I’m afraid that China is stretching its reach all over the world is putting more emphasis on the extractive side than on the helping side. And that’s a very natural tendency for something that people will try to do. But it’s something that really in the long run, in fact, even in the short run doesn’t work.
Richard Jacobs: Oh, I said, do you think these countries will perceive the handout or help us as help or you think they perceive it as something different than that genuine if it was even offered?
Peter H. Raven: It all depends on how we do it. If we do it in a respectful and reasonable way after a consultation with them. Anybody, obviously who’d be glad to get the help of the 20 poorest countries in the world. Most of them are sinking into what we’ve called an environmental poverty trap where their natural resources are used up where the income per person has been falling and where the future looks very grim. The only one that isn’t is Haiti, only one of the 20 poorest countries in the world that aren’t continuing to sink is Haiti. And that’s basically because of international assistance so it can work.
Richard Jacobs: Well. With the example of Haiti international. What is the country itself doing to already assess the state level?
Peter H. Raven: More we get in there and try to give them opportunities. The better they do. For example, an organization here in St. Louis is called food and meds for kids is manufacturing dietary supplements in peanut butter, which contains various medicines that people need. Now, if you feed those to starving children they will recover. If you don’t feed it to them, they’ll very likely die. And in producing that the organization has built a factory for doing it in Haiti. So employing lots of people, it’s encouraged that cultivation of peanuts in Haiti.
So setting up viable agriculture systems and so forth. The problem is there as in many other places, poverty breeds instability, great differences between rich and pure poor breed instability too. So we’ve got to take this on from a social point of view as well as from a purely financial point of view, it’s simply not handing people checks and then everything’s our ride. It’s caring about people, helping them set up mechanisms via which they can produce things for themselves and find employment. And then if you do that, it tends to spread as it has here and they tend to improve their lot.
Richard Jacobs: Are there any examples of this beyond the early stages where it’s gone full cycle and it’s actually helping people or is it still early days for any of this stuff to be happening?
Peter H. Raven: It’s really still early days and we’re still in the exploitative mode and we’re still in partly on productive agriculture mode and we’re still in the competitive mode. So it’s still early days, but obviously some countries are better off than others, not only because of their own initiative but because of the help they get from outside.
Richard Jacobs: Well, is there a preferred order in which certain countries, it’s hard to say should be helped before others? I mean, how do you even attack this if it’s so massive?
Peter H. Raven: Well, social justice and morality would encourage us to help the poorest countries in the world first. And there are about 20. If you take the 20 poorest countries in the world, about 18 of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously that’s going to be one of the major problems in the world as the population quadruples during this century. And it would, on the whole, encourage us to try to be helpful to Africa in ways that go far beyond just getting commodities, blood diamonds are famous sort of metaphor for that, getting commodities that we want from them. On the other hand, we all feel we’ve got many problems of our own and many things we need to settle here. And to launch into that requires a kind of morality and a feeling about the stability of the world that it’s difficult to achieve.
Richard Jacobs: So you think the ideal way to do it would it be to help the poorest countries in the world, but then what? As soon as they’re not as poor in terms of per capita income, the effort shifts to another country. It seems just like a very difficult thing to figure out what to do.
Peter H. Raven: It is very difficult. And since the United States and Western Europe are living at consumption levels, that would, if they were to spread worldwide take about four to five copies of the planet earth to support them. So the idea of raising everybody up to the consumption levels that we have as a nonstarter and to get this thing really going is going to cause us to pull back a little on our consumption and our demands and not to keep trying to think about how to become truly great again. And consume everything we can get our hands-on. Because if we stay where we are, there’s no wiggle room in the world. Nobody wants to face declining consumption here at all. And yet there are things we can do and there are ways we can do it in our lives. Recycling, consuming less, consuming less environmentally expensive things like beef, living near your jobs, you don’t have enormous con commutes every day. There are many things we could do that would loosen up some assistance if we saw a fit to give it. But the only thing I can see that would get us there would be a kind of a moral argument. It’s the right thing to do. And some of us have that, but not enough of us do yet. We need to keep working on it. Pope Francis in Laudato si’ call this out very clearly about global warming and about the extinction of biological species and laid out a number of things that we could well pay attention to if we want to produce global sustainability. The thing we can be sure of is things are going to get worse before they get better simply because of the way we’re hurdling along with increasing consumption and increasing population. But if we work individually making things better, if we were to believe, which is true, that we’re making a difference. And that’s especially true in a country like the United States, which is so rich or Western Europe, which is so rich. If we do what we can, we will be making a difference. Every single thing we do will make what I see as an impending crash, less forceful and less awful than it might’ve been otherwise. The amount of disruption that can occur if we all simply go on being selfish is a really kind of unthinkable.
Richard Jacobs: So what are some resources for people where they could even begin to open up their minds and think about what needs to be done to help other people in need. What do you recommend?
Peter H. Raven: Many church groups, for example, both evangelical Christians and Catholics are very worried about global warming. They’re worried about it primarily because it affects the poorest. So disproportionately that’s an important resource. People do change their minds and people do get more conscious of the fact that we’re all living on a single planet. Many environmental groups are looking at things like the way global warming unequally affects the poor in our cities. And the way that environmental problems equally affect them. Anybody in any community would probably have resources that would lead them to be able to improve the condition in those parts of the cities and in those ways. And there are then many groups that work on sustainability. All of the major conservation groups, the world resources Institute and so forth work on methods to get to sustainability. And they all could be followed up on and worked with. We need to encourage politicians to take up sustainability because if we don’t do it, we’re simply rushing madly out to the end of the pier, like a bunch of lemmings and we ought to be able to do better than that. There are plenty of resources available to us if we’re willing to take them up and listen to them.
Richard Jacobs: Okay. Well, very good. Well, Peter, I appreciate your coming on the call and spending the time. Thank you very much.
Peter H. Raven: Okay. Pleasure. Hope it’s useful.