What if you had to give up twenty percent of your life? that is one-fifth. If you get the recommended eight hours of sleep every night, that’s thirty-three percent. Would you give up almost five hours of sleep? What else could you give up? eating? drinking? How about breathing? Breath is the most essential action we take. Most of us do it most of the time without giving it a second’s thought. We need not think about breathing because our bodies do it without conscious effort most of the time.
Trees, ferns, bromeliads and mosses and all other plant life of the Amazon breathe in carbon dioxide. They then breathe out oxygen every animal, including humans, needs to live.
The plants of the Amazon basin exhale twenty percent of that oxygen we breathe. The air that swirls through the tissue paper thin gauze of atmosphere carries the sweet breath of the rain forest to all of us.
About 20% of the Amazon has already been destroyed, and that’s what scares Sizer (Nigel Sizer, tropical forest ecologist and chief program officer with the Rainforest Alliance). “The newest science now says if we deforest, if there’s a clearing of more than about 30% to 40% of the Amazon rainforest, it will start to dry out. We’ll pass an irreversible tipping point.”
So where does the remaining eighty per cent come from? If you have ever taken any business management or time-management classes you may recall the 80-20 rule. The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
If we applied the Pareto principle to breathing, we would get eighty percent of our oxygen from 20 percent of the air. It’s hard to imagine applying this principle to life itself. Although Pareto was an economist, he was not an ecologist, nor was he a physiologist. Some natural events may not fall neatly into his model.
Every Breath We Take
For example, breathing. The air we inhale is about 78% nitrogen. Hmmm that sounds mighty close to 80% you say? So are we functioning on 20% of the air we breathe in? Not so fast young person. While the air we breathe in is about 20% oxygen, we only consume five percent of that oxygen in each inhalation. However, of that five percent, we are removing twenty-five percent of the oxygen that entered our lungs. We then replace it with carbon dioxide exhaled from burning the fuel we take in when we eat. Think of it as similar to the smoke and steam released from a wood fire.
So could we still extract the oxygen we need to sustain our lives if we had 20 percent less oxygen in the air?
The percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased in our lifetimes from about 330 parts per million, or about three one hundredths of one percent, to over 400 parts per million, or about four one hundredths of one percent. That may sound like not much of a shift. Just as a degree or two difference in global temperatures may not cause you to more than shrug your shoulders. Heck the temperature each day rises and falls more than two or three degrees. But that is confusing weather with climate. A little like confusing the cars passing in front of you at any given moment with the increase in the total number of cars everywhere in the world.
A Matter of Time
More than half of the carbon all of humanity’s activities have exhaled into the atmosphere in our entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades. Since the end of World War II, that figure is 85 percent.
I just watched Cast Away, the movie where Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee obsessed with time and punctuality. He is cast onto a mid-Pacific island when the plane he is riding in goes down after a mysterious explosion. His most clung to possession during the more than four years he spent surviving on the island was a watch. Not because it kept track of time. It became waterlogged and stopped functioning as a time piece before he landed on the beach. The watch became his beacon of hope for survival because it contained a picture of his fiancee, the woman he loved, the one he hoped to be re-united with. Even that became something he was sure he had lost. In the end he realized the only thing that kept him going was to keep breathing.
The four years Chuck spent cast away would have been about 20 percent of the time he had lived, had he been only 20 years old when he was rescued. He was clearly older than twenty. Therefore, he lost less than twenty percent of his life to being cast away. That less than twenty percent made an enormous difference for his life.
What a difference losing twenty percent of anything could mean, but when it comes down to the person we love? or the air we breathe? as the credit card ad says, “priceless.” That is what the Amazon is to we humans. Priceless. And that is why it becomes imperative we do everything we can to keep it healthy, to prevent the loss of any more of it, especially to destruction by logging and oil exploration, both of which speed us towards catastrophe.
You might say, but wait, if we apply the 80/20 rule to air to breathe, what about the remaining 80 percent not provided by the Amazon? Could we not find a way to make use of the remaining 80 percent and manage without the Amazon? The problem is: “…ocean phytoplankton are responsible for 70 percent of Earth’s oxygen production. However, some scientists believe phytoplankton levels have declined by 40 percent since 1950 due to the warming of the ocean.” Ooops, there goes that chance.
Then there is the issue of plastics in the ocean. Plastics harm organisms we rely on for that darn air we need to breathe. If we could figure out a way to live without air, we would solve the biggest problem of space colonization. But what does that have to do with the beautiful blue planet we love? Does our attachment to home have any bearing on the decisions we make about how much of it we are willing to do without? What matters most, our need to breathe? or our love of the planet that gives us life? What twenty percent part of your life are YOU willing to give up?
So much to think about, Lora. Well dine.
It is a lot to wrap a brain around Seán. Dining is one way to do something about the catastrophic changes to the rain forest, in large part brought about by clearing land for cattle. Want to do something to help keep the Amazon viable? Dine well on a vegetarian diet!
And then I learn China has turned to Brazil for soybeans since tariffs were imposed on their USA grown supply. So Brazil is now clearing more land to grow soy beans for China. Does that mean we need to stop eating edamame and tofu?
We can each pick something and speak out, share idea, support anything we can.
When I was writing this blog prior to publishing it, I had not yet read the news about the fires now raging in the Amazon. Here’s a post about what each of us could do to help stem the damage. https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/us/iyw-how-to-help-amazon-forest-fires-trnd/index.html
“About 20% of the Amazon has already been destroyed, and that’s what scares Sizer. “The newest science now says if we deforest, if there’s a clearing of more than about 30% to 40% of the Amazon rainforest, it will start to dry out. We’ll pass an irreversible tipping point.”
one more tipping point after another.
What are you willing to do?
Stop eating red meat?
Pick one day a week to not drive anywhere? then another day? … maybe get your driving down 20%?
I am willing to commit to everything I can do to stop climate change. The problem is that this change must have many, if not all humans participating. I don’t think anyone I know willing to commit to the changes necessary. What difference can I make if no one else is trying? I worry, worry, worry about this. Just like another contributor posted about Americans thinking that Amazon is something so far away it doesn’t affect us….
I believe people need to be educated before any real change can be made. How to educate them is a huge question.
Janice, I hear your frustration and dismay. It can be achingly lonely to feel the grief and fear over the losses and unknown future. I keep reminding myself, if not me, who, and if not now when, and go ahead and do what I feel I must anyway. I may be a lone voice, taking small steps, but every great change has to start somewhere. One of the ways to educate others is by your own actions. Then you can set an example and help others understand why you are making the choices you are and how they might be able to as well. It is good to have opportunities such as these posts to support each other and feel less alone. Thank you for commenting.
Janice- just do the best you can. Be a radiant exemplar, and let your example shine through. If each person did just one small thing, today, think what a wonderful impact that would promote.
It isn’t hopeless. Just keep going. Your efforts are noticed, appreciated, and important.
PJ, Thanks for your thoughtful response to Janice. I remember when recycling first became a “thing” and required time consuming sorting and hauling to a recycle center. Many people made the same argument for why not bother.
I agree, we have to start somewhere and each small action taken is one less action not taken. The momentum will build and some of us may have to do more initially. When we do others will follow if they can see us providing an example.
I just found this most profound and moving opinion piece by Eliane Brum in The Guardian:
“The fact that the Amazon is still regarded as something far away, on the periphery of our vision, shows just how stupid white western culture is. It is a stupidity that moulds and shapes the political and economic elites of the world, and likewise of Brazil. Believing the Amazon is far away and on the periphery, when the only chance of controlling global heating is to keep the forest alive, reflects ignorance of continental proportions. The forest is at the very core of all we have. This is the real home of humanity. The fact that many of us feel far away from it only shows how much our eyes have been contaminated, formatted and distorted. Colonised.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/23/amazon-rainforest-fires-deforestation-jair-bolsonaro
Lora, If we apply the 80/20 rule to life, to everything… wow! Thank you for these reflections. Great post.
Right in line with ZooFit’s thinking. I’ll share this quick story to hopefully give more hope to our cause.
Once there was a great fire which caused all the animals in the forest to flee their home. As they watched the flames engulf the trees, the animals noticed Hummingbird flitting back and forth. She was dipping her beak into the lake and dropping the water onto the fire. The other animals looked in disbelief. “What are you doing?” they asked. “You are too small.” The Hummingbird replied “I am doing all that I can.”
Anne-Marie Bonneau, also known as the Zero-Waste Chef also tells us “We don’t need a few people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
There are many things we can do. Some are harder than others. But if we apply the 80/20 rule to saving the earth, think how amazing the results would be!
Thanks, PJ for this story. I have heard it before although not Anne-Marie Bonneau’s quote. If we expect perfection from ourselves before beginning anything, we are bound to fail. Trying something new is always going to include mistakes. Some of those mistakes can be learned from. And 80/20 is so much more than what we are doing now.
Also everyone has something different to add to the mix. We each can choose what works best for us. Sometimes, too, “giving up” something in these days of excess for some and insufficiency for others means maybe what one person needs can be provided by someone else sharing. Sometimes, too, what we think we gotta have leads to discovery. The old adage “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or do without.” comes to mind.
If 20 percent of what we have could provide enough to fulfill 80 percent of the need.
If we apply that to things like oil, coal, beef, gasoline, then we might restore or regenerate the loss.
I’m not seeing the comment box for the original post, so I will piggyback here. PJ’s hummingbird story makes me think of small in another way. I’ve found over the years that I’m more apt to fail if I try to make a big change all at once. But when I start with small changes, baby steps, even, more quickly than I imagined would happen, the larger goal was met. Thanks, Lora, for starting this blog and giving us a reason to aim for the big goal and a forum for discussing the small steps we each might consider.
Thank you, Saskia, for chiming in with your thoughts. The main comments box is at the bottom of ALL the comments. I just realized that often when I am reading posts on the web, the comments box is immediately below the content. Not so in these. It may be a good thing to scan through the rest of the comments on the way to posting a new one. Somebody else may have said something similar and replying to their comments t instead of starting an all new thread may be a way to keep this a conversation.
Thanks for the reminder that with small steps we may have a improved result in the long run.
I read Brum’s article in the Guardian and concur. The destruction of the Amazon or melting of the Artic tundra isn’t a crisis until you experience it and realize the connection of that faraway disaster to the change in weather patterns and toxicity of the environment. I saw firsthand the destruction of the Ecuador rainforest by oil companies and corporate agriculture. And having worked in Alaska the last two years, some of it with schools on the North Slope, I could see from one year to the next, the recession of sea ice and melting of tundra. Urban living has made us immune to environmental destruction. We build more highways to carry more vehicles, plow down forests to build more housing developments and our recycle bins make us feel less guilty about our consumption patterns. Where people live on the edge in the extremes of the enviroment – rainforests and the Artic – they have learned over eons to live gently on the land.
Ann, I agree. This summer local neighbors have confessed they feared another summer of smokey air. We have been spared, here, so far. Now I hear them mostly commenting on “missing out on summer” because we have had a relatively cool and occasionally showery summer. I remind them the rest of the country and the Northern Hemisphere have not been so lucky. It’s true. For the most part people respond to the circumstances at the moment where they live. How do we break that narrow perspective to raise the alarm of necessity to respond to what is no longer merely looming as a crisis on a distant horizon, but an emergency, a disaster we need to respond to now. There are genuinely caring people who think nothing of sending off a substantial donation to the human crisis du jour. Yet these same caring individuals cannot step back to see the big picture. Then there are others, including some who are commenting here, who see the big picture and feel powerless to make a difference with the limited actions we feel we can take.
I am working on completing a memoir about just what you speak of, living close to the impact and learning to live gently WITH the local environment.
Thanks for lending your voice to this conversation.
Why wouldn’t we want to make a difference in this world with how we live our lives? Simplifying, recycling, making healthy decisions and choices for ourself and the environment, using public transportation, being both kind and outspoken just become normal, everyday life.
My parents were fantastic stewards, teachers and caretakers of Creation. For them it was a matter of faith in action beginning in the 1970’s. That’s been my inspiration 5 decades on. It is life-giving to me ~ but not so much really in influencing others.
Jana, My parents also were dedicated stewards and servants to the well-being of nature and justice for all people. Caring for the environment extends to a greater justice for people impacted by the damage we do to nature, since we are not separate from our environment. I agree, once you experience the joy of giving back to the planet that sustains us, living out of kindness instead of greed, it is easy to know how fulfilling that way of life is. Far more difficult to get others to make changes. For us, it may seem natural and self apparent to live conscientiously, being raised that way. Others may have a more difficult time shifting to an unfamiliar way of living. All we can do is continue to live by example and bring others along as we can.