Amid a million coming extinctions, some reasons for hope: A Q&A with the U of M’s Kate Brauman

corn field
REUTERS/Jim Young
How do our current-day farming practices affect our water; and how can we create a system that’s good for food and for water?

A million animal and plant species are on the path to extinction, accelerating toward nonexistence at an unprecedented rate in human history. That’s one of the key takeaways from a landmark report summary released by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) last week, the culmination of a three-year effort to review thousands of scientific and government sources.

One of the coordinating lead authors of the global report is the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Kate Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative at the Institute on the Environment. For the IPBES assessment, Brauman was part of a team that tackled the topic of nature’s contributions to human lives.

“We looked at 18 different benefits that nature provides,” Brauman said. “We had a really diverse group of experts, both in terms of their expertise and in terms of where they were from, a really international group.”

The full report — expected to be more than 1,500 pages — will be published later this year.

MinnPost spoke with Brauman about her work on the assessment, what she finds troubling, and why she’s hopeful. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: For you personally, what piece of this assessment sticks with you and maybe cuts deeper than the rest?

Dr. Kate Brauman: What to me was really cutting was, nature is so important. I’m standing here in my house looking out my front window at my tulips that are in bloom, and I was so excited to come home and see my garden growing. That’s incredibly important, and it’s important to a lot of people in a lot of different ways. We are seeing evidence of decline in the way that people interact with nature, and to me that feels sad and scary. That feels like something we need to make an effort to do something about. The other thing, which was not part of the work that I did in this, but I really got a chance to dive into while we were in Paris, is that, there actually is a lot of hope.

MP: What about the report make you feel hopeful?

KB: That there’s not a [single] solution, but that there are many solutions and that we have to do all of them. Everything from what we do at home and with our own personal lives, to pushing governments to change the way we manage natural resources, and change systems of production, and change the food system so that we produce the food we need in ways that are more sustainable.

MP: Someone could see that as more daunting, because there isn’t one solution; we can’t just flip a switch to fix this. Why do you see that as a positive?

KB: Part of why I think it’s positive is that it gives us permission to start small and to do things that won’t be perfect. And to try things out. We can’t sit around and wait for some technology or bolt of inspiration that’s going to change everything. Instead, we can start taking action now.

MP: Are there specific conclusions from this report you think Minnesotans might feel the impact of in a more prominent way compared to other findings?

KB: Obviously a lot of the food-related stuff resonates here. That’s everything from declines in pollinators — which is something people are absolutely already talking about and noticing here — to how do our current-day farming practices affect our water; and how can we create a system that’s good for food and for water?

One of the things I also think is exciting is, in Minnesota, because in many ways we’ve got it good, we’re actually in a really great position to think about innovation, to think about change and to build the systems that we want to see.

MP: What puts us in a good position?

KB: Again, when I’m thinking about food systems, we’ve got great soils. The winter, harsh as it may be, gives way to some pretty spectacular growing conditions. And we’ve got a lot of water. We’ve also got a lot of people who really care about the environment, about stewarding the land, about being able to get outside and take advantage of it.

Dr. Kate Brauman
Dr. Kate Brauman
MP: This assessment is all based on existing research. You’ve said signs of the climate crisis have been there for a long time. Yet we’ve reached a point where experts say we need to take drastic action immediately. Why did we reach that point when there were all these signs?

KB: I do think — less so with climate but definitely with biodiversity — we have often talked about nature as being something that’s “Out There.” It’s nice if you protect it, but you have to take care of yourself and your home, and make sure you have food and shelter.

One of the things we made a real effort to do in this report, and I’ve made a real effort to do in my research, is to very explicitly tie these changes in nature back to changes in human well-being. I want people to understand how changes in nature affect them, because I want people to live better lives and have clean water. And nature needs to be part of that.

MP: Is any part of it frustrating? To be one of the people sounding an alarm, and watching people say “Yep, that sounds bad,” then not doing anything?

KB: Yes and no. One of the things that I love and hate about my job all at once is that I can’t predict the future. I can tell you what the likely to almost-certain outcomes of different actions on the landscape are. But it’s not my choice whether or not we want to respond to these things.

My science tells me that when you put stuff in the water, you end up with stuff in your water. My values tell me it’d be way better not to put that stuff in the water. Then we wouldn’t have to take it out.

Sometimes we have different values, and that’s OK. What frustrates me is when people say, “No, the science is wrong.” Because we’re actually really good at a lot of this science. The water cycle is going to keep working whether we believe in it or not, the same way the climate system is going to keep working whether we believe in it or not. I get frustrated when we’re not honest about that part of it.

MP: Do you think about how to break through to the people that are ignoring or denying it?

KB: I do a lot, and that’s a big part of why I’m talking to you, right? Because the answer is, scientists need to be better communicators. We need to explain how it is that we know these things, and what it is that we know and why it’s important. That doesn’t mean scientists should tell people what to do, but I can definitely tell you why you probably don’t want some of this stuff in your water.

We actually have to explain what we know and what it means, and why people should care.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 05/22/2019 - 01:57 pm.

    Why do all these articles have a doomsday twist. What about new species that are evolving to take advantage of the changing climate to replace the species that are disappearing. The last great natural die off that resulted in the end of the dinosaur era resulted in the explosion of mammals around the world.

    As Jurassic Park stated, nature will find a way.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 05/23/2019 - 08:15 am.

    All my adult life, for thirty years, I have told people this is coming. Most of that time I have been planting wildflowers, fruit bearing trees, shrubs, vines and canes, for myself, for birds, for pollinators. I have watched as this society embraced monoculture to the point of pathology, even the Monarch butterfly nearly on the verge of extinction before even a few of us sit up and question Progress and Growth.

    It must be said, few institutions have embraced industrial, monocultural, monopoly agriculture, in the zeal to “feed the world”, than the University of Minnesota. Nothing in America has been more devastating to species generally, the land, waters and “climate” than industrial agriculture.

    Minnesota is more polluted than it has been in my entire life, likely more than ever. Pollinator numbers including Monarch have collapsed in my urban garden, the past ten years. Yet I hear few people seriously questioning corporate, industrial agriculture. The impetus seems to be entirely on the “consumer”, as if pollinators will survive in sustaining numbers because a few people in the city gain an ecological consciousness and plant a tiny island of wildflowers in their sheet of turf grass.

    Until I hear the UofM start seriously questioning corporate, industrial, increasingly monopoly agriculture, than I am going to assume for society it is business as usual, Progress and Growth as a path of ecocide.

    We exported this model to the world. It is time to export something new. Something healthy for the earth, for the land, waters, pollinators and people.

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