Former National Geographic editor, photographer to speak at K-State
Dimick’s talk on food, climate issues is part of the Henry C. Gardiner Lecture Series
August 21, 2019
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Dennis Dimick, the former executive environmental editor for National Geographic, where he worked for 35 years, is the sixth speaker in Kansas State University’s Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture, which will take place on Oct. 14.
Dimick will present “Living in the Human Age,” a fast-moving slideshow which explains the challenges of living in the modern human era. The public talk begins at 7 p.m. in K-State’s McCain Auditorium. Admission is free.
While at National Geographic, Dimick led the 2011 creation of a year-long magazine series on world population, which is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050; and in 2014, he conceived and led a multi-year series titled “The Future of Food,” on global food security.
He also worked on more than 90 other National Geographic projects that addressed climate change, public lands, freshwater scarcity, coal and natural gas as energy supplies, and the effects on water supply from drought and snowpack loss in the United States. He was involved twice in magazine stories on the High Plains Aquifer, a major source of groundwater in western Kansas and parts of seven other states.
Dimick and National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson will also speak to students and other campus groups about how they have helped bring attention to these issues through their work, and how students can be the next generation of storytellers.
In this interview, Dimick and Richardson give a preview of what they will be talking about on Oct. 14.
Kansas State University: What do you mean when you refer to “The Human Age?”
Dennis Dimick: About 20 years ago two scientists, Paul Crutzen a Nobel-Prize winning Dutch chemist, and Eugene Stoermer of the University of Michigan, coined the word and idea “Anthropocene,” which means “The Human Age.” They said that we have entered a new era of geologic history where humans have become the dominant species on Earth, and the impacts of our expanding activities can now be observed in the geology of the planet.
This talk focuses on the idea that, since about 1950, we have seen what is called the “Great Acceleration,” a tripling of human population, a dramatic rise in energy use primarily from coal, oil, and natural gas for electricity, industrialization and urbanization – and vast land-use change for agriculture and urbanization. We have cut forests and plowed up grasslands to grow more food for this rising population, and to give us places to work and live.
Modern society depends on fossil fuels to work, and agriculture itself is deeply reliant on fossil fuels to grow crops, as oil is needed for tillage, harvest, transportation and chemicals. And natural gas is used to produce nitrogen crop fertilizer.
K-State: So, are we talking about climate change?
Dimick: In a way yes, but my goal here is to create a larger framework for us to consider and discuss our modern situation. One result is that we are witnessing changes in climate as a result of these expanding activities. Essentially climate change is one symptom or result of the Anthropocene, or Human Age.
The same holds for other symptoms like deforestation, declining aquifers, species extinctions, air pollution from engines and industry, and accumulating hypoxic, or “dead zones” in coastal waters from nutrient runoff from urban and agricultural landscapes. These are all results of expanding population, energy use, and land use changes.
Jim Richardson: The advantage of re-phrasing this in terms of the Human Age is that it gets at the multitude of ways that humans have expanded their use of the planet. Fuel and energy is certainly one of them. But things like the use of concrete and the rest of the ways that we transform the planet come into it, too.
Climate change is just one of the implications related to how we’re using the planet’s resources, but even if we weren’t facing climate change, we would still have a multitude of other challenges we would have to face. And that’s one of the advantages here is that this sort of decouples climate change from being the only implication. That means that politically you can broaden the base because even if you’re not convinced by climate change, you could be convinced by the need to feed a growing population in an increasingly unstable environment.
K-State: In the urgency to produce more food, what effect is that having on our environment?
Dimick: We have converted natural plains and grasslands into vast fields of industrial-scale monoculture crop production. Nearly 70 percent of world freshwater is used for irrigation, (so) we are depleting aquifers. We have cut forests all over the world to grow crops to feed people, to grow crops to feed animals that we eat, or even grow crops that we turn into fuel.
While there are great benefits to humanity in the crops and food produced, the loss of biologically diverse forest and plains landscapes also comes at a price, such as loss of carbon storage in soil, and species extinctions.
These impacts add up. One effect is that we are altering atmospheric chemistry, as fossil fuel burning and land-use change produce the heat-trapping gases carbon dioxide and methane, and global temperatures are rising. The warmest five years since modern weather records began have been the past five years.
We also extract nitrogen from the atmosphere using natural gas in a process called Haber-Bosch to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that has become the primary plant food for grain production. This easily available nitrogen plant food has created a dramatic rise in food supplies, but we also disrupt the planet’s nitrogen cycle as surplus nutrient runoff from landscapes pollutes groundwater and coastal waters.
We are deeply intertwined with coal, oil and gas, as these essential energy sources make possible the civilizations and economies in which we live. But what we now witness are changes in the behavior of several of Earth’s major cycles, such as carbon, nitrogen and water.
K-State: So, then, that is why framing this within “The Human Age” brings greater context to the concept of climate change, right?
Dimick: Climate change results from disruption of Earth’s carbon cycle, as we put more carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and land-use changes than can be taken out by natural carbon sinks like soil, forests and the oceans. Using the Anthropocene, or Human Age, framework as a way to contemplate these changes offers a broader context and helps us understand why Earth’s climate is changing, not just that it is.
Essentially these changes – as seen in more frequent and extreme rainfall events and droughts, snowpack loss, and increased ice-sheet melt that drives the rise of sea levels – these effects can be seen as results or outcomes of expanding human economic activity. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are just a measure or result of the vast scale and range of human activities across the planet.
Scientists can measure carbon dioxide embedded in ice, rivers flow differently because of dams and land-use changes such as urbanization and highways, and residues from nuclear explosions can be measured in tree trunks and in rocks. The Anthropocene, or Human Age, is seen as a new age where we are changing the geology of the Earth, and these signs are embedded in Earth’s geology that indicate we were here.
K-State: Is it simply an idea of reducing the use of fuels and the things that are causing damage, or are there other things we can do in this Human Age?
Dimick: Carbon fuels and the industrial processes that come with them play a big role: the digging and drilling, burning and disposing of residues. The main issue is that we just put exhausts from burning carbon fuels into the sky without limit. We also must not forget that we have benefited greatly from these fuels. Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil estimates that half the people on Earth are alive because of crop yield increases resulting from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
In terms of what we can do, de-carbonizing energy is a top priority. We need to find energy sources that power the economy and provide services that do not emit carbon – and the heat-trapping air pollution burning carbon produces – as soon as possible. What this looks like can be electrical energy from windmills and solar panels that power our homes and cars; it also can mean farm fields where a diverse mix of cropping systems soaks up more carbon as possible from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.
We must be realistic that some activities like flying, ships, and heavy equipment operation may need oil for fuel for a long time. Oil is a very powerful fuel, its energy is dense and portable, and finding comparable substitutes is not easy. The goal is to cut carbon emission, yet global carbon emissions keep going up each year.
The rub is that it took centuries to create a carbon energy-based economy and it’s going to take a long time to get out of it. There are those who don’t want to see this change because fossil fuels are very profitable, and there is a lot of money to be made from producing and selling them.
And yet, the impacts we see – whether it’s devastating fires in Paradise, California, or “bomb cyclone” storms and floods in eastern Nebraska that destroy dams and levees, flood farms, and make landscapes uninhabitable – these are the kinds of extreme events resulting from rising temperatures that are tied, as scientists study and report over and over, to rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The longer we wait to decarbonize our energy supplies the greater risk we place on the future stability of our society and economy.
In the meantime, we also need to create resilience in our food production systems as a way to build margins against extreme weather events, floods and drought. This could mean increased diversification of crops, planting crops that are more tolerant of heat and drought as the climate warms, and even increasing pasture lands and grazing in a mix of farming approaches as ways to reduce soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and improve carbon storage in soil.
K-State: So, explain how you’ve been involved in communicating this message over the years.
Dimick: Beyond magazine projects, I’ve presented slideshow lectures on these issues for 15 years in public forums, at conferences and universities. Last year, I spoke to the Institute of Food Technologists; to the Wisconsin Science Festival in Madison; in 2016, to the annual meeting of the Soil Science Society of America; and in 2017, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture honored my work in communicating agricultural issues with the Seaman A. Knapp lecture, named after the founder of the Cooperative Extension Service.
K-State: Do you consider raising these issues to the profile of National Geographic as a positive step?
Dimick: We published a multi-story issue in September 2004 called “Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warming World.” We knew we likely would lose readers and we lost about 75 subscribers, but we had many other subscribers sending us money in support of the work.
One government scientist thanked us for raising these issues, saying, “Now it’s OK to talk about climate change in the United States.” Our goal was to create an atmosphere of receptivity to ideas, to describe what’s happening and why, what’s at stake, and explain choices we have, that maybe this work could open the door to more fruitful discussions in later years.
K-State: So, it sounds like it took a bit of courage to put issues out there that people were hesitant to talk about?
Richardson: Yes, that’s true. Dennis was pushing for National Geographic to do a story on the carbon cycle long before anybody knew what it was. Even within National Geographic, there were people scratching their head asking, “What is this carbon cycle story?” Now, of course, it’s everyday language.
The advantage of this balance of knowledge is that Dennis understands that agriculture is part of the carbon cycle. He understands that intimately in terms of soil, and can make forceful arguments, as he did in National Geographic.
Dimick: The carbon cycle story became the centerpiece. Other stories about global environmental change are linked to the idea that the carbon cycle makes life on Earth possible, and that we are in the process of changing and disrupting it. Effects unfold across the planet through changes in climate, changes in the hydrological or rain and snow cycle, changes in glaciers and ice caps, and changes in landscapes from expansion of human activities like industrialization, urbanization and food production. A key challenge in years ahead is growing enough food for nine or 10 billion people without further damaging Earth’s systems that support all of us.
This all comes back to the role of carbon in the environment. All living things, people, plants, and animals are about 50% carbon. The carbon fuels we dig up and burn are just fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived about 400 million years ago. The carbon cycle is one of Earth’s primary “biogeochemical” cycles,” just like the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and the oxygen cycle. Once you understand that the carbon cycle is a basic equation that allows for life on Earth, then you understand how tinkering with it can create risks for the stability and future of the modern world we all inhabit.
K-State: Is your lecture message one of awareness, hope, or maybe doom?
Dimick: Primarily the idea is to bring a message of context and awareness, to help us understand where we fit into the world now and help us contemplate the trajectory we are on, not just where we are at this moment. Then it’s up to each one of us as individuals, communities, institutions, and society to make choices on how we want to live, what goals we want to achieve, what trajectory society takes.
For individuals it’s not just how we want to live, it’s what we want to pursue in our life’s work, what difference each of us wants to make. It’s never too late. Maybe we should have started decarbonizing the economy 20 years ago, but then the next best day is today. By discussing these looming challenges within the Anthropocene, or Human Age, idea, it’s my hope we can begin to think, discuss, and act in fresh ways to address a future that is changing and coming at us faster than we think.
Learn more about the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture series at https://www.k-state.edu/research/global-food/lecture/lecture-series.html