Jon Foley

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

Hold the Red Herrings, Please

Lately, I’ve noticed how easy it is to get distracted by the small things and miss the big picture. A symptom of this problem is society’s focus on environmental red herrings, or commonly held beliefs that distract us from the real issues.

For example, a lot of people think that expanding urban areas are gobbling up the world’s natural areas and farmlands. But on the global scale, urban areas are tiny—less than 1 percent of the earth’s land surface, to be exact. By contrast, the area devoted to agriculture covers more than 35 percent of the planet’s land surface. Reality check: If you’re concerned with preserving biodiversity and protecting ecosystems, focus on expanding agriculture, not suburbia.  

Thanks to notable writers and activists, there’s also a widespread belief that locally grown food is better for the climate than food grown elsewhere. This stems from the notion that transporting food is a major source of greenhouse gasses, and a significant contributor to global warming. But the numbers don’t add up. Global food transportation represents a miniscule portion of our collective emissions. Given the vast economies of scale seen in large-scale agriculture, the emissions associated with shipping large containers of food may actually be lower than those caused by local producers. Reality check: If you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to agriculture, focus on tropical deforestation, methane emissions from rice fields and cattle, and nitrous oxide emissions from over-fertilized fields. 

Let’s not forget bottled water—an industry that many people blame for global freshwater problems. Yet, while the plastic bottles used in the process may be wasteful, the actual water argument is hard to figure out. To make one bottle of water, it takes one bottle of water. Pretty simple, right? In contrast, to make one cup of coffee, it takes about 140 liters (37 gallons) of water—mostly to grow the beans. To make one hamburger, it can take up to 2,400 liters (634 gallons) of water. And globally, about 85 percent of our water is used just to irrigate crops. Reality check: If you’re worried about the sustainability of our freshwater supplies, focus on irrigation and industry. Bottled water is merely a drop in the bucket.

The list of distractions goes on and on. In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor issues—symbolic, but little more. If we really want to build a more sustainable future, we need to get our priorities straight. We can start by aggressively supporting energy efficiency throughout the economy, followed by substantial investments in real-world renewable energy systems.

We also need to redouble our efforts to slow tropical deforestation (one of the single-biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the main driver of biodiversity loss). Moreover, we must make huge investments in water efficiency, especially where it matters most: agriculture and industry.

In this issue of Momentum, we focus on the people, programs and issues that are making a real impact in the world. We explore solar innovations in northern climates. We tackle the questions surrounding geoengineering, nanotechnology and geothermal power. We spotlight an online learning program that’s engaging students across the globe. No red herrings in here.

Rather than sweating the small stuff, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on the big issues. We don’t have a moment to lose.

Jonathan Foley
Director, Institute on the Environment