Act: Inspiration

From Despair to Repair

May 16, 2019

I belong to an online climate discussion group that today asked three questions: what is the state of the movement, do we need climate change or system change, and do we need a meta-movement? Keying off the insights from the Earth Repair Conference, I wrote the following – and have added a post-script to include a week of research on the state of the movement for Earth Repair:


Last weekend I attended the Global Earth Repair conference and this workshop (long) where a new context clicked for me, though I’ve had all the pieces collected over all these years of low to the ground innovations.

The cumulative impact of the event revealed this: the Climate Movement is missing a crucial, essential element. It offers resistance but not repair. It is clear about the against, but largely mum on an equal scale restoration project. The anti-war movement allied with the Peace Movement had moral and spiritual power. In the Climate Movement we are shown pictures of the beauty of the earth and the losses of the world we and our kin were born into, but mostly to awaken individuals to act. If you love this earth… you will change your habits and join the resistance. Habit change is under the banner: if we all do a little we can do a lot.

With the Climate movement solely a resistance movement and an energy transition movement, we are missing this: the self-nourishing, self-healing, self-restoring, self-generating ecosystems of the earth herself. We are fighting symptoms without an equally massive movement for restoring health where we can – which is immense considering degraded and degrading landscapes. We may be choking the fossil fuel economy and heading into the lair of late-stage capitalism, but what are we building or growing or repairing at an equal level of scale for restoring the very living earth our lives depend on.


Yes! But notice that most system change has to do with human civilization, human inventions gone awry – democracy, justice, infrastructure, food production, finance. Our actions come from fixing our civilizational future. Now our grief is overwhelming: almost everything is too little too late… but if we stop CO2 we may save a remnant of the beauty, intelligence and glue of our human presence on the planet.

I am not saying this is wrong!!! I want to do all of this as well, and work daily locally on it. It’s just missing the true heart of the matter – that we as humans act upon the earth for our benefit but we do not act with the earth at any level of scale for healing all life. As Bill McDonough said:

“We believe the things we make should generate health and well-being for all the children, of all species, for all time.

What is the earth healing path? John Liu, for example, worked with a degraded plateau in China and brought it back to life with essentially permaculture/ agro-forestry methodology. Now he’s talking about a global scale ecosystem restoration action at a man on the moon scale. No more discussion: doing. Geoff Lawton as well has been applying permaculture techniques for over 30 years on 6 continents in over 50 countries.

They both offer methodologies, yes, but also they offer a global scale restoration context that can link together the hundreds of thousands of smaller scale application of the science and practices that heal landscapes and thus weather patterns, and the climate consequences of industrial growth.

Take Standing Rock for example. It was a resistance movement with a prayerful, spiritual methodology to protect not just one river but a way of life for a people historically and spiritual woven into the landscapes that literally are them. The hundreds of thousands of people who participated – either by going there or by massive financial, spiritual and political support – were transformed spiritually by a welcome into the Lakota way. The reward was participation in something noble, intimate, relational and morally fitting. They were healers as well as the resistance.

The Lakota, and most Indigenous and land-based peoples, are not natural activists. The methodology is to include all life, not impose on others.  While there are growing kick-ass Indigenous lead movements now and I pray for more, movement building at a global scale is not their forte.

The Climate Movement has the numbers and momentum and movement building mojo and inspired unto inflamed youth – and we are winning the stopping game.

I call for the Climate Movement to adopt Earth Repair as an integrated complementary focus and action. Take to the streets and then take to the degraded hills and valleys coordinated and informed by global scale projects like Geoff’s and John’s and many more I don’t know about.

The Climate Movement has attracted attention and financial support which is being burned through for resistance (and hallelujah). What if equal support – financial, movement building, system repair knowledge like permaculture and agro-forestry/ ecology – could be generated for Earth Repair? What if we scaled repair along with resistance?

Water is Life. Soil is life.

Keep it in the ground isn’t just fossil fuels. IT’S CO2 AND WATER (retention landscapes). KEEP WATER IN THE GROUND. KEEP CARBON IN THE GROUND. Adding this meme to the existing resistance movement may not save the generations now living from the severe challenges ahead, but we can plant the gardens again that we will never see ourselves.

So my vote is to include the living systems of the earth – and Earth Repair as our common healing north star – in the systemic human systems we want in an inclusive climate movement.


Absolutely. Earth Repair needs to happen at scale, millions of hectares conserving water, cooling the air, drawing carbon back into the soil. It’s not going to happen only through one garden or farm at a time. Enough demonstration projects are now in our library of solutions. We need scaling up (more money, visibility, laws, organization) and scaling-sideways (working on specific landscapes with specific plants, soils, water flows that are linked within the movement.) We need systems we don’t have to make it happen, and this work can employ millions of people across all continents who would gladly stay on their ancient landscapes if they were restored.

Earth Repair is inherently a justice movement as degraded landscapes drive migrations and limit economic opportunities for the poor of our species. When we talk of justice we talk of jobs – but that is an old context for people everywhere having enough. The jobs-context assumes the economy can sustainably and consistently provide jobs (insert conversations about AI, Robotics, Universal Basic Income here), whereas people on the front lines of earth repair just need some support to do the work of restoration so their landscapes will support them and future generations.


PS: I am including you all in my evolving thinking. I don’t think I’ve been so energized by an idea since I learned, at a conference 30 years ago on the Brundtland Commission Report, that consumption is the biggest driver of environmental degradation. Out of that came Your Money or Your Life, an effort to address over-consumption at the largest scale possible through a process that also makes the lives of individuals doing the program so much better. I’m not sure where this KEEP CO2 AND WATER IN THE GROUND is going, but the energy is similar. This time, though, I am not skipping internalizing and grieving the immensity of the problem and the lateness of the hour. Nor do I think even a turn on a dime, man on the moon mobilization will save us. The Sixth Extinction is underway. Every day more coral reefs die, as do more members of more endangered species. Everyday more land is degraded.  Ice is melting. Oceans are warming. But we can grieve these losses while engaging in earth repair that brings life back to landscapes in a year or two, and restores ecosystems in less than a decade. We may not bring CO2 below 350 ppm in our lifetimes, but the journey will be full of joy and camaraderie.

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit. ~~ David Elton Trueblood


Since writing this a week ago, I have begun research on the state of Regeneration practices in forests, agriculture, landscapes, water and soil to discover whether there is a movement hidden in plain sight. I know of excellent books on soil, on permaculture, on landscape restoration. Two that woke me up to the role of soil and restorative farming practices are Kristen Ohlsen’s Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet and Judith Schwartz’s Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth. A 2018 book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture by Gabe Brown  is #1 on Amazon in soil science.  I see speakers – often with books – who blow your minds and make you want to farm, like Joel Salatin and Wes Jackson to name just two. I see organizations building audiences and intelligence, Food TankOrganic Consumers OrganizationSoil4Climate, and policies being developed. Equally important but with less movement building is Keeping Water in the Ground. Elemental Ecosystems has a road map. American Society of Landscape Architects is working on policy

Yet all of this is not yet woven into a narrative equal to the climate crisis of CO2 in the atmosphere. That returning CO2 to the soil – at an unimaginable scale, can save our lives. Perhaps it’s because we are linear thinkers – this causes that – rather than systems thinkers – all of this is in relationship and we need to understand the complexity and intervene holistically. IOW, humans have been rendered too simple-minded to grapple with our reality.

The story of soil and water and regeneration is also our story. It is a story of humans as a beneficial stewards rather than destructive consumers. It is a story of cooperation rather than domination. It is a bi-partisan issue if framed correctly, because healing ecosystems and healthy ecosystems make us richer. Intelligence and demonstration is growing. Cross-pollination across issues and organizations is growing. Likely inside each organization or field of study, there are stories of increase in knowledge and influence. There is even a resistance movement against Monsanto and glyphosate, but still the “against” drowns out what we are for.

Somehow, though, this restorative story is not reaching the ears of a sorrowful world that is desperately trying to employ linear solutions (replace gas cars with electric cars but don’t redesign cities or life for sharing and walking and bicycling and picnics instead of freeways) or technological solutions, like carbon capture and storage.

As a story teller and pot-stirrer and social innovator I am now on the hunt for what will put the soil and water and regeneration story on everyone’s lips, to have teenagers to grandmothers march for healthy soil, to have policies that transform degraded land into garden landscapes. Movement builders, story tellers, framers, wonks, famous people wanting to make a difference, rich people wanting to invest in other kinds of green stuff, let’s do this! Tell me the stories that inspire you. Show me what I am not seeing. Be in touch.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: carbon sequestration strategies, climate change responses, Earth repair, regenerative agriculture, regenerative systems