BiodiversityDeforestationDemonstration SitesFood ForestsGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeLandNewsRegional Water CycleSoil RehabilitationTrees

It’s Time to Colonise Earth!

Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic (source)

It seems Darwin was a permaculturist!

In his days globetrotting aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin set in motion the transformation of a dead, volcanic island rock – Ascension Island, described by nearby islanders as "a cinder" – into a green, rain-creating oasis. How did he do it?

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens – where Hooker’s father was director – shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot. – BBC

And he did it by breaking what is to some a cardinal rule, the rule of not using non-native plant species. (This island never had any ‘natives’, as it came into existence from being vomited up out of the ocean through volcanic activity.)

Dr Dave Wilkinson is an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who has written extensively about Ascension Island’s strange ecosystem.

He first visited Ascension in 2003.

"I remember thinking, this is really weird," he told the BBC.

"There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened," he said.

Dr Wilkinson describes the vegetation of "Green Mountain" – as the highest peak is now known – as a "cloud forest". The trees capture sea mist, creating a damp oasis amid the aridity.

However, this is a forest with a difference. It is totally artificial. – BBC

Imagine what could happen if people could see the earth-transforming potential evidenced here – and take up the urgent challenge and joy of utilising intelligent plant assembly to create productive food forests everywhere!

Dr. Wilkinson seems to be excited:

"What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error."

In effect, what Darwin, Hooker and the Royal Navy achieved was the world’s first experiment in "terra-forming". They created a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem in order to make Ascension Island more habitable. – BBC

Have you ever tried to instill a concept in a child or adult, and got excited to observe an apparent spark of realisation in their eyes, just to see your excitement suddenly dissipate when the person speaks… when you realise that ‘spark’ was totally off base? Unfortunately Dr. Wilkinson appears to have come to a remarkable conclusion – the island’s cobbled-together eco-system should be studied, not for re-greening all the dead spaces we’ve created on the Earth, but for colonising Mars instead.

Wilkinson thinks that the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, rather than trying to improve an environment by force, the best approach might be to work with life to help it "find its own way".

Believe me Dr. Wilkinson – if you got out the gardening gloves and put a thousand spaceship loads of mixed plants on the red rock, you will not a habitable planet make.

How about people take more notice of such discoveries to do something real and viable, right here on terra firma? And to the BBC – please… for everyone’s sake – get with the program….

Further Reading:



  1. It’s true that the application of these principles has more relevance here on Earth than on Mars, but then if he’d suggested we do this on Earth we would never have heard about it. It’d just be the rantings of another crazy greenie.

    Perhaps the Mars reference was just a way of sensationalising the idea to get it more media coverage?

    Or perhaps I’m just an optimist? :-)

  2. Talking about Darwin….I wonder how long it will take to “evolve away” this point-missing plot of colonization-of-Mars type thinking? How funny !

  3. David,

    two thoughts on that. (a) Stephen Hawking is a major force proposing such ideas. And unfortunately, many consider him a smart guy who has genius insights into pretty much anything. But that’s not how it is with physicists. In physics, all that counts is your best ideas. In contradistinction, in chess it’s all abour your biggest mistakes. (b) If you read literature from the 70s, you will find that quite some evolution of ideas already has happened. There were way more stupid things proposed back then. But somehow, dialogue and improved access to information has helped a lot.

  4. I thought you were going to say that Wilkinson wanted to “eradicate all the invasive species and return the rock to its native barren splendor.”

  5. Escellent example of positive tampering. The build up of humus etc was vital and any unwanted flora can always be removed. Likewise the deserts of the world can benefit from similar actions, even if they are termed ecological vandalism. Bamboo in the desert? Agave, Aloe?

  6. I love this article, except for the conclusion. Yes, I agree that, first and foremost, let’s focus on greening the Earth! But, I don’t see why it needs to be either Earth or Mars. Why not colonise both? And nobody is suggesting starting off with trees on Mars. You start with bacteria. Maybe, in a millennia or two, it will be habitable. Which would be fantastic. On Earth, of course, things could happen a lot more quickly. But while I think greening Earth is more important than greening Mars, I refuse to choose between the two. I want both things to happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button