One afternoon in early March I flew from Boston to Chicago, returning home from an Ecological Landscape Alliance conference. Cloud cover, white and lumpy as a rumpled hotel duvet, obscured the view, until over western Pennsylvania the plane crossed the edge of the weather system. Our country’s heartland unfurled below. The gently rolling terrain flattened as the plane headed west, divided by roads delineating a grid, with fields, towns, and even woodlots squared into the design.

This tidy, Grant Woods-esque arrangement is the relic of late 18th century surveying expeditions sent out to divide the Northwest Territory into 6-mile square townships, the better to sell off, settle and tame the nearly, at the time, unfathomable expanse. As they worked, the surveyors made detailed maps, including of vegetation; they used boulders, piles of rock or even notable trees as corner markers and confirmed corner placement with nearby “witness trees.” Today, restorationists use these maps to help figure out what kinds of ecosystems they should be restoring to, when embarking on conservation or rewilding projects.

We flew on. Farm building roofs shone in the sun among the fields; only the occasional meandering river gave a hint of how the land had looked in the early 19th century. Though there’d been snow out east, here everything was shades of brown: leafless woodlot trees and tens of millions of acres of empty fields, a mid to dark brown sea of bare earth.

Bare fields full of potential 
For me that landscape was a palimpsest of loss, prosperity and the potential to help mitigate climate change. The ghosts of past cultures—the Adena, the Hopewell, more recently displaced nations such as the Potawatomi and Miami, and a later thriving network of small American family farms—lay below. These successive groups inhabited a now phantom post-glacial landscape comprised of Eastern deciduous forest punctuated by areas of savanna, prairie and wetland that, as a traveler journeyed west, expanded until the prairie dominated.

Today this landscape, tended by a very few farmers utilizing all that technology has on offer, signify an evanescent prosperity precariously balanced on an extremely limited number of commodity crops. This flourishing economy could be upended tomorrow not only by ill-conceived trade wars, or weather catastrophes such as drought, but also by the mounting environmental problems, including but not exclusive to climate change, that are nearly all of our culture’s own devising.

Years ago I might have seen those fields as completely normal, even desirable. But no longer. Because I’m a regenerative gardener and natural landscape manager, when I see a piece of land, no matter the size, I see an opportunity to nurture what biodiversity is there. To me, improving a parcel of land means working with it in such a way as to increase its ecosystem functionality. I highly respect the work conventional farmers do to wrest a living from the soil; I believe that industrial farming methods are not only outmoded, but also actively dangerous.

Those Midwestern fields are losing their fertility along with their world-class topsoil; many now lack the organic matter and important microbial life that not only maintain good soil structure and health but also allow water to percolate properly. Conventional farming practices, such as leaving the earth bare from harvest until planting season, can actively harm the living soil. Fertilizer run-off pollutes waterways and overuse of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides inflict far-reaching collateral damage on living organisms from bumblebees and monarch butterflies to birds to humans, while habitat destruction imperils them further.

But what could that landscape teach about climate change mitigation and environmental renewal? It’s become evident that to hold average planetary temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), global emissions should peak by 2020, and then decline by 10% or greater each year in order to reach zero emissions by 2050. Thereafter, the downward trend then must continue into negative emissions territory. Clearly, technology-based solutions such as ramping up renewable energy while leaving fossil fuels in the ground are fundamental to mitigation. Emissions reductions and increased energy efficiency are essential in every arena, from the global to the personal. For example, if the global top 10% of individual carbon emitters reduced their carbon footprints to that of the average European, greenhouse gas emissions would decline 30%. (This, of course, includes nearly all US residents.)

However, going further means figuring out how to actively remove carbon from the air. Most schemes are in the research stage; existing mechanical carbon capture and sequestration (CSS) is expensive and difficult and only halts emissions at industrial sites. So far, only seventeen facilities, including an ethanol plant in Decatur, Illinois, use the technology to achieve neutral production emissions. Proposed biomass-based CSS systems such as BECCS (Bio-mass carbon capture and storage), with their emphasis on monocultures, have the potential to further damage ecosystems.

Solving global warming requires increasing biodiversity 
Global warming, with its effects of climate weirding, is just one element—a deadly symptom, if you will—of the ongoing, global crisis of ecological destruction that also includes extinction, water scarcity, pollution and desertification. Averting this human-inflicted catastrophe will require multiple, diverse strategies and it has become increasingly clear we cannot accomplish anything without the aid of our planet’s complex natural systems. Solving the greenhouse gas puzzle requires working to help biodiversity increase worldwide and helping the currently disrupted biogeochemical cycles stabilize and recover so that all life might thrive on our beautiful blue and green planet.

This is where large-scale regenerative land management comes into play: it is the most effective tool for carbon sequestration that presently exists. Carbon sequestration through natural means includes not only vitally important conservation and restoration, but necessitates incorporation into all landscape management, from regenerative organic farming and intensively managed holistic grazing to, on the one hand, backyard landscaping with native plants and on the other, toxic chemical cleanup. Managing land along principles that foster soil health and biodiversity not only can sequester carbon on a potentially massive scale (4-12 GtCO2e or even more), but can also help regulate local water cycles, thereby helping avoid both desertification and excessive flooding. It also reduces toxic chemical use and nutrient run-off, all the while promoting biodiversity in plant and animal life, from the microbes in the soil, to pollinators, birds and other animals, to charismatic megafauna and apex predators such as ourselves.

Agriculturalists and other land managers throughout the world are already changing their practices, though it’s been slow to take hold in the Midwest. Regenerative agriculture networks such as ReGenerate IL have sprung up; farmers and scientists have formed partnerships to explore and measure the soil health and carbon sequestration potential of agricultural practices both ancient and cutting edge; farmers are beginning to try methods such as cover crops and waterway buffer zones planted with native plants. In all this, the most innovative practices combine agriculture with landscape management for biodiversity. There’s even an economic case to be made. In this era of falling commodity prices, rising costs of materials and supplies, and potential economic woes, many conventional farmers are already struggling to make ends meet. Farmers are discovering that, while it requires more, different kinds of knowledge and work, regenerative farming can actually be more profitable owing to reduced production costs and higher selling prices. More might go the way of the Nebraska farmer I heard interviewed on the radio recently, who said he is considering moving at least part of his farm out of soy, corn and hogs, and into diversified organics.

A possible future landscape 
What might air travelers traversing the Midwest see ten years in the future? Farms, of course. We can’t return the Midwest to the matrix of woods, prairie and savanna it was 150 years ago. But what if all that land was managed not only for food production but also for soil health, water management, biodiversity and carbon sequestration? There’d be very little bare soil. Instead, there’d be extensive cover crops blanketing fields whose crop production included diverse, multi-year rotations; wide bands of prairie and woods featuring native grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees bordering fields, waterways and roads; areas of intensively managed grazing; alley cropping, silvopasturing and other forms of agroecology; and even expanded natural areas: in short, carbon sequestering, diversified, fertile farmland that would be healthier for farmers as well as the planet.

On the western edge of Indiana, the land changed again. As we descended towards Midway airport, subdivisions, logistics terminals, golf courses and parks replaced fields. Remarkably, amidst the development reposed large, wild areas featuring irregular woods along creeks and streams and the shaggy tan carpet of dormant prairie grasses. We’d entered Cook County: home to the 5.25 million people of the Chicago metro area and the most biodiverse county in Illinois, thanks in part to the nearly seventy thousand acres of carbon-sequestering forest preserve land managed through a unique partnership of professionals and volunteers.

I fastened my seatbelt. I thought about Aldo Leopold, the Midwesterner who both worked with farmers to save and restore their land during the Great Depression and helped invent the art and science of ecological restoration. Leopold might not have known about global warming—very few at the time did—but he had a thorough understanding of the harm unthinking human activities can wreak. He wrote that most modern technologies and practices, “do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” That has become our greatest, most significant challenge in the Midwest and worldwide. Are we up for it? Can we solve the puzzle?

References:

Ecological Landscape Alliance: https://www.ecolandscaping.org/

(4-12 GtCO2e or even more):  “There’s a huge gap between the Paris climate change goals and reality Current pledges are about a third of what’s needed.”
By David [email protected]@vox.com Updated Nov 6, 2017, 10:56am EST https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/10/31/16579844/climate-gap-unep-2017

“Decatur plant at forefront of push to pipe carbon emissions underground, but costs raise questions.”
By Tony Briscoe/ Chicago Tribune /November 23, 2017http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-decatur-plant-carbon-storage-20171024-story.html

ReGenerate IL: https://www.regenerateillinois.org/

Aldo Leopold: “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” “Engineering and Conservation,” The River of the Mother of God.