11/28/2011 05:13 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

Giving Thanks for Some of the Free Stuff

San Francisco -- Looking at how badly politics and government are treating the future, or even the idea of a future, you might feel fairly gloomy this year. So I'm going to stop and celebrate the resilience of nature, and how many of our mistakes, blunders, and crimes natural systems will make up for -- if we only give them space and work with them.

The Los Angeles Basin, because of water mismanagement and climate chaos, won't have access to as much snow and ice stored in the Colorado River Basin -- but it needn't dry up and blow away because if we just start restoring green spaces, permeable pavements, buildings that harvest water, and other forms of sponges, the water that falls annually on the basin itself, which is now hustled out to mingle with the Pacific Ocean as wastefully as possible, will make up the deficit.

In the Northwest, just leaving our forests alone will give us a lot less of what we don't want -- atmospheric carbon -- and a lot more of what we do -- water storage. 

South Florida is faced with twin threats from human-induced sea-level rise -- flooding, against which restoring beaches and mangroves will make a significant hedge, but also saltwater intrusion into the Florida aquifer. We need something heavy -- really heavy -- to counteract saline water pressure from higher sea levels. What's heavy enough?  A big wetland, like the Everglades, with restored water levels and gradually accumulating muck from plant decay, which will also store carbon and help restore the climate. So restoring the Everglades, the natural way, by allowing its water to flow again, not only helps critters -- it saves Miami!

We've stripped our Midwest prairie soils of billions of tons of carbon by dousing them with artificial fertilizers. These fertilizers destroy the carbon-sequestering organisms that made prairie soils rich and black in the first place. (Now, most are a kind of dun red.) But if we start managing them using natural nitrogen sources like legumimous winter cover crops, those soils will do what soils do -- grab out and start fattening themselves with atmospheric CO2, at a rate that may be as great as three tons an acre a year.  (Illinois alone has 36 million acres that could store up carbon.) 

And if we stop dousing the Midwest with too much nitrogen fertilizer, we will also solve the problem of the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps of Engineers hasn't done the job once promised -- making New Orleans safe from hurricanes -- because, really, dikes and levees alone can't do that. They mostly just shift the damage somewhere else.  But if we took the silt that we currently lock up behind dams on the Missouri River, and let the Big Muddy be muddy again, that silt, along with mangroves, could restore the coastal wetlands that once shielded New Orleans from storm surge and hurricane.

And more coastal wetlands also means more marine nurseries, and the ability for the depleted and oil-ravaged fishing stocks of the Gulf of Mexico to come back, bringing the jobs and the food supplies we have devastated by turning the Gulf into an oil field. 

Incidentally, badly as pollution and overfishing have depleted marine fishery after marine fishery, we are learning that if we just set aside a reasonable share of the ocean as marine preserves, fisheries come back with astonishing speed and vitality. 

And if we really want to protect our communities from flooding, our estuaries from pollution, and our dams from siltation -- well, just opening up the artificial walls within which we have locked our rivers, and letting natural wetlands take back their historic function as regulators of water levels, storage against drought, buffers against flood, and filters against pollution is free, or close to it -- if we'll just make a little more space for rivers to do what they do best.

So give your thanks this year for the trillions of unsung organisms, and the billions of complex atmospheric interactions, that work for us, for free, 24/7, 365 days a year. Natural systems don't take holidays or send us a bill. And they are the only force on the planet strong enough and resilient enough to make up for human folly and shortsightedness -- if we let them.