There is no shortage of stories about how climate change is affecting us now, rather than in some distant future. It can seem overwhelming to watch the news about extended droughts, extreme weather events, melting ice caps and not feel overwhelmed and hopeless.
In the following Q&A, Courtney White, author of Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country, talks about the hope he found as he researched a wide variety of simple strategies that anyone can undertake to help create a more sustainable future.
Shay Totten: In the foreword to the book, Michael Pollan writes that your book “asks us to reconsider our pessimism about the human engagement with the rest of nature. The bedrock of that pessimism is our assumption that human transactions with nature are necessarily zero-sum: for us to wrest whatever we need or want from nature—food, energy, pleasure—means nature must be diminished.” What are some examples from your experience?
Courtney White: From its inception, the environmental movement employed a variety of strategies all with the same goal: to shield nature from human activity. The early environmental philosophers, especially George Marsh and John Muir, argued forcefully that since human use of natural resources almost always resulted in the destruction of land and wildlife the only effective counterbalance was a ‘hands-off’ approach that emphasized parks, wilderness and (to a smaller degree) tourism and recreation. It was an early version of the zero-sum equation: the protection of nature could only advance if human use receded. Of course, they were responding pessimistically to the intense destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution and it made a lot of sense at the time. However, when I became active with the Sierra Club in 1994, it became clear to me that this hands-off paradigm was out-of-date. The world had moved on. Ecological science gave us a new way to measure land health – by ecological function rather than categories of human activity – and win-win models of sustainable use of the land had risen rapidly. In particular, new ideas and practices for the management of livestock had emerged that demonstrated large amounts of compatibility between ecology and food production. The environmental movement, however, refused to budge from its zero-sum ideology and continued its campaign to eliminate ranching as a viable economy in the West. Not only did activists refuse to acknowledge innovation and change going on all over the region, their relentlessly negative energy begat an equally negative reaction from people who depend on the land for a living. Round and round we went. This endless loop of negativity is destructive ultimately for all involved, including the land. As Pollan, says, breaking this zero-sum paradigm is essential for all of us if we’re going to meet the rising challenges of the 21st century.
With the ongoing, and often increasing concern, about climate change, we’ve been led to believe that carbon, and specifically carbon dioxide, is “the enemy.” You disagree. Why? What is it about carbon that makes it such a useful tool for building sustainable ecosystems?
Everybody loves a good story, and in a good story there’s almost always a bad guy. Climate change is a complex, difficult story to tell and it helps a lot if there’s a clear bad guy to target, in this case carbon dioxide and the corporations and industrial activities that produce it. It’s an effective strategy – and one that makes a great deal of sense – but it has the unfortunate side effect of tarring all carbon with a negative image. In reality, as I say over and over in the book, carbon is a good guy – the essential element of life, in fact. By stigmatizing carbon, however, we overlook its vast potential to do good – and not just in the climate context. Increasing the carbon content of our soils can sustainably increase our capacity to produce more food, retain more water in the ground, and sequester carbon dioxide. A good analogy is a hammer – a hammer can be used to build a house or hit someone on the head. Same tool, different purposes. Carbon has the potential to do huge amounts of good – but we have to change the way we think about it first. Of course we need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but at the same time we need to increase its content in the soil. We can’t do that, however, with negative thinking.
You’re a big proponent of no-till agriculture, but a lot of farmers would say it’s just not worth the effort. Are the advantages of no-till farming worth the effort and risks?
More and more farmers are moving into no-till systems, largely because they can see its benefits to the land (good productivity, reduction of erosion, improved soil health), so I’d argue that many farmers do see it as worth the effort. However, we need to be clear that there are two types of no-till farming: the type that uses pesticides and herbicides and the type that uses organic methods. Both approaches have a common benefit for the land: they use cover crops to keep the land from being exposed to wind and water erosion while building soil carbon. We know now that tilling is terrible for soil health (biologically-speaking) in a wide variety of ways, which is why no-till is a preferable alternative. The challenge, however, is weeds. That’s why many no-till farmers use chemicals to hold down the weeds. The organic process developed by the Rodale Institute, on the other hand, tackles the weed problem without chemicals, which is why it’s the “holy grail” of agriculture, as one farmer put it. Has it been widely adopted yet? No. Will it be? I hope so. What’s the alternative – keep on using pesticides and herbicides? The risk in that approach is obvious – or ought to be anyway.
Ecologically speaking, a sweet spot is a place where “big things can happen in small place in a hurry.” Why is this an exciting prospect when it comes to reworking our relationship with the land? Is it safe, just this once, to be optimistic?
There are two reasons to consider sweet spots: first, you can get a lot of ecological response in a hurry. Wetlands are a good example. They’ll recover quickly, thanks to the life-giving power of water, if you give them a break, or set out to restore them to health. Wetlands do all sorts of good things for us and for nature, such as provide a filtering service for water supplies, and they can do them on small, bite-sized scales too. They can build soil carbon fast as well. Second, it’s human nature to try to fix the biggest, ugliest mess first and overlook the easier – and more often more responsive – areas instead. Why pour a lot of time, energy, and money into trying to fix a nasty problem on the land that may or may not work ultimately when you could get big returns in lots of small areas instead? We like to think big – and sweet spots can be a way accomplishing big things for small investments.
In terms of solutions, you note that we don’t really have to invent anything. What are some things people — regular folks, farmers, ranchers, and whole communities — already doing to be part of the solution, perhaps without knowing it?
A lot of solutions are actually re-inventions, a rediscovering of practices and attitudes toward the land that are time-tested and sustainable, at least until they were blown away by the Industrial Revolution. These include: animal herding, grassfed meat, organic farming, cooperative behavior, careful water use, the role of beavers in landscapes, etc. The difference is we now have a great deal of science to back up what were previously only validated by experience. The vast biological universe under the ground, for example, has opened our eyes tremendously to the benefits of good land management practices. Basically, anything that increases the carbon content of the soil is good for the planet.
Second, the wedding of new technology to old practices has added a bunch of great tools to the toolbox. Solar energy, for example. Monitoring technology. Computing power. The Internet.
You profile a number of carbon “visionaries” as Michael Pollan notes in his foreword. Who are some of them who people might not know about, and what are they doing that is unique and pushing people to re-think their connection to carbon and the environment?
It runs the gamut. From landowners like John Wick, who is using cattle to reinvigorate the soil health on his property in northern California, to agroecologists like Jeffrey Creque who can chart the progress of soil carbon build-up underground, to farmers like Dorn Cox who is using complexity theory and the Internet to help him manage his land, to agricultural pioneers in Australia who have employed innovative management methods to improve the carbon contents of their lands, to scientists like Sarah Mack, who is trying to restore the coastal wetlands of Louisiana with a combination of scientific data and business entrepreneurialism. At the core of each approach is a common concern: how do we increase the carbon content of the land, and thus create a brighter future for everyone. Another commonality: these innovators largely work at the margins of their disciplines, which is where innovation can usually be found. They are outliers – but not for long hopefully!