Dr. Reyes Tirado is a plant ecology, climate and biodiversity researcher, who earned her PhD at the University of Almería in Spain, studied fire/plant interaction at Stanford and Berkeley, and until recently worked with the Greenpeace Science Unit through the Innovation Centre at Exeter University and currently with Climate Bonds Initiative. 

In October, I talked with Dr. Tirado about bringing an ecologist’s perspective to the larger environmental movement. The following is our interview:

Rex Weyler: Thank you for talking with me. I don’t know about you, but I’m concerned about the slow pace of ecological change, and I’m wondering what we’re missing, what else we need to do. 

Reyes Tirado: I understand. Having hope or a positive outlook is not enough. 

Sampling Ground Water in Bihar. © Swapan Nayak / Greenpeace
Dr. Reyes Tirade collects water samples in Barchhibigha village in Giriak Block, Nalanda District in 2012. © Swapan Nayak / Greenpeace

RW: So what are you working on now?

RT: Through Climate Bonds Initiative, I’m working with the financial sector, like Asia Development Bank and other international banks to devise a green investments strategy, how can we get investors to support ecological progress. Climate Bonds is one of the ideas, trying to work with the financial markets and government policy to establish meaningful metrics for ecological progress. 

RW: What is your experience with the greenwashing among corporations and governments?  

RT: Yes, that’s a problem we’re trying to solve. On the climate issue, for example, we’re not making serious progress, partially because of all the greenwashing and lies. If we look at the commitments made in Kyoto in 1997, or the promised Green Climate Fund in Cancún in 2010, or the pledges in Paris in 2015, and throughout the COP process, the promises are not enough, the pledges are not real, and the actions come too late. 

RW: This year was the 36th international climate meeting since the first gathering in Geneva in 1979, and during that time human carbon emissions have doubled. Is something wrong with the process and with the strategies? 

Youth Delegation COP28. © Marie Jacquemin / Greenpeace
Youth Delegation at COP28 © Marie Jacquemin / Greenpeace

RT: I’m trying to establish some clear definitions of what real ecological commitments are, what is real green. Some investors in climate industries are losing confidence because of the slow pace, so the capital is not moving. Green investors want real progress. We’re trying to change some of the rules of the market, change the policies that are disruptive or counter-productive. 

RW: What is an example?

RT: Companies claiming that commodities are “green” or “climate friendly,” when these claims don’t mean anything. For import/export commodities such as soy, we’re setting standards to prove that these products are really deforestation-free, for example, so companies cannot source and trade soy if the land has been recently deforested to create the farmland.  

RW: I suspect there is resistance since nations do not like to restrict trade. 

RT: Yes. It is difficult. Beef in Brazil, for example, is unknown how much is deforestation-free, and it is difficult for the consumer because certified beef demands a premium price, and then if the beef gets all mixed together, consumers may not have confidence in “green” products. With a Deforestation-Free Standard, we are aiming to certify the good players, entities that we can be sure source products from land that has not been deforested or converted from other ecosystems since 2020.

Deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil  © Paulo Pereira / Greenpeace © Paulo Pereira / Greenpeace
Deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil © Paulo Pereira / Greenpeace

RW: I sometimes wonder if the environmental movement has somewhat lost the thread of real ecology, the more humble place for human identity in Earth’s ecosystems. I wonder sometimes if we need to bring the deeper ecology perspective back to the larger environmental movement.

RT: Yes, if we go back to the meaning of ecology, “eco” means “the house,” taking care of our household, where we live. When I talk to my daughter about this, I explain that all the life forms — plants, animals, even bacteria — are equal in ecology, they all participate and have an ecological role. We talk about animal welfare, but we should also consider plant welfare, and bacteria and fungi welfare. In ecology, nothing is superior, all life forms have intelligence. We’re all recycling the same molecules. My daughter doesn’t love the compost toilet, but I try to explain, we’re recycling the essential molecules back into the soil, for the fruit trees, and we eat from the trees. That’s living as an ecologist.

RW: Will your daughter follow in your career path?

RT: Not exactly; she wants to study astrophysics, stars, and galaxies. She also loves the arts and music. She’s very artistic.

RW: I believe the arts are very important, the real arts, letting life speak through the artist’s work, which can bring us closer to a deep ecological way of being. You talked about deforestation-free beef, but what about less meat, or no meat, vegetarianism? 

RT: Yes, analysis shows that reducing meat and dairy for humans is necessary for a healthy planet, a stable climate, and for more biodiversity. Also, if we’re going to produce enough food for all, we’ll have to rely on less meat and dairy. Some regions — Africa, Asia — could increase meat and dairy consumption, but for a healthier environment and more equitable future, the rich countries will have to consume a lot less meat and dairy. 

RW: We’ve passed 8-billion humans, and over the past decade we’ve been adding, on average, about 80-million a year. This year I believe we’re on track for about 73-million. That’s the total population of Delhi, Mexico City, and São Paulo. What will it take to feed everyone?

RT: Not only 8-billion people but 80-billion domestic animals. To feed those hungry today plus increasing population, we need to produce about 50% more food, and to do that we will have to consume a lot less meat and dairy. Those in the rich countries will be better off if they consume a lot less meat and less food in general. They’ll be healthier. Eating more than our bodies need leads to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other ailments. Most Europeans and Americans could eat a lot less and be a lot healthier. 

There are healthy vegetarian options. There are some excellent projects for ecological farming in Asia, Cuba, Mexico, and elsewhere. So in some places we are making progress. 

RW: The disruption of Earth’s nitrogen and phosphorus cycles is one of the critical global ecological boundaries that we have already exceeded, due to concentrations of people and chemical fertilizers.

RT: I wrote a couple of reports on ocean dead zones, eutrophication from fertilizer pollution. In 2006, there were about 200 dead zone sites in the oceans; then in 2016, 10 years later, there were close to 600! Nitrogen and phosphorus run-off is affecting the health of our coastlines and fisheries. The fishing Association in Spain is complaining about the increase in blooms and damage to the coastal fisheries and the shellfish. Most of the nutrient run-off comes from big beef or pork operations, nutrients leaching through the water tables into aquifers and wells. 

In India, government subsidies for nitrogen fertilizer had a bigger budget than the military at some point. The overuse of fertilizer affects lakes, rivers and marine systems. The fertilizer is a big expense for farmers, and then it contaminates the water they are drinking, so there is more government expense for health care. There has been a serious problem of eutrophication in Thailand and the Philippines, where an asparagus farm in Thailand alerted the government and are working to reduce fertilizer use. Awareness of this is growing around the world. We need to produce more food with less fertilizer. 

RW: The updated Census of Earth’s Biomass shows that Humans and our livestock now comprise over 96% of all terrestrial mammal biomass on Earth; so wild mammals comprise less than 4% of land mammal biomass.

RT: Yes, we’re out of balance. As we said, ecology is about taking care of our home. Earth is our home, a living system, but the system is out of balance. It has been heading in this direction since humans learned how to get external energy by making fire. Now we burn oil, and we’ve dominated all habitats on Earth, but we have to change our values. For most of human history the balance was fine, but now our drive to speed up, to harvest more resources, has broken Earth’s balance, not just with our climate, but biodiversity, the nutrient cycles, toxins, and so on. We have compromised the system, and the system will respond. We should understand that the system doesn’t care,  evolution doesn’t care who survives. We had the chance to create a balanced life on Earth, but we keep making the wrong decisions.

RW: There was a recent article in Science Advances, “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries,” that shows not only the nutrient cycle disruption, but that we’ve passed the safe boundaries for freshwater depletion, land system change, biosphere integrity, climate change, and the so-called novel entities, the microplastics, endocrine disruptors, organic pollutants, radioactive materials, genetically modified organisms, and so forth, human activity that disrupts evolutionary processes. 

RT: Life will continue, even without us. There is hope in that, but it is also sad because we are wonderful creatures. It is still possible that we could live as an ecological civilization. We still have a chance to get it right. I feel sad for my daughter’s generation. There are more hungry people this year than last, more poor people. But even if this civilization fails, humans may survive. It’s like the strength of biodiversity. A fire can destroy a forest or grassland, but some things will bloom and thrive after that. There is a post-fire ecosystem, a blooming after disaster. Humans may suffer, but some will survive, and we don’t know what they might achieve. 

RW: I agree with that. I also find hope in the natural process. Nature is resilient. Humans also; we’re strong, resilient animals. 

RT: I agree, and we could actually live better lives with less consumption. We can find our happiness in living with community, with nature. We don’t need all the stuff we buy, and it doesn’t bring happiness. Like fashion, fast fashion, all this consumption causes damage. Now we have ultra-fast fashion, which is even more damaging. And advertising is designed to create the desire for more, which drives us to reinvent something bad, like fast fashion, and make it worse, ultra-fast, more pollution, more plastics in the oceans, more toxic waste.

Plastic trash around Freedom Island at Las Pinas, Philippines. The amount of plastic trash here does not stop even with the continuous shore clean up by various groups.
This wetland part of Manila bay called Las Piñas – Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA) in the Philippines is a 175 hectare protected area. The amount of plastic trash here does not stop even with the continuous shore clean up by various groups. © Jilson Tiu / Greenpeace

But the stuff doesn’t make people happier. I saw this during Covid as our lives got simpler. We moved out of town to a little piece of land, growing food with my daughter. We still live this way. We live with so little now. I haven’t gone to supermarket for two months. 

RW: Reminds me of Arne Naess’ ecological advice: “Less stuff, richer lives.” 

RT: Right. The revolution will come from those who are content with less. We can focus on what is functional and joyful. 

RW: That’s a heartwarming image. It has been such a joy to talk with you. 

RT: It was a pleasure talking with you. Sometimes it is difficult to find the time to just have a good, nice, relaxed conversation about the world around us.

To learn more:

“Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries,” in Science Advances, by Katherine Richardson, University of Copenhagen; Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, et al. (19 authors).

Biomass Study, Bar-on, Phillips, Milo: Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, May 21, 2018; Article #17-11842; PNAS