Act: Inspiration

The Essential Element: Carbon is Key to Life and Hope

December 13, 2019

News Item: Here’s a fascinating story from Politico this week about the shifting attitude among farmers and ranchers toward regenerative agriculture as the effects of climate change become increasingly troublesome. It demonstrates how fast things are changing! (see)

In the previous issues, I discussed the promise of regenerative agriculture, overcoming entrenched beliefs, and working collaboratively in the radical center. In this issue, I’ll discuss the essential element needed to do all these things: carbon. Understanding carbon’s role as part of a natural, planet-wide cycle is the key to hope, in my opinion.

Carbon is the most important element on Earth and the best way to explain its significance is with the terribly essential carbon cycle. The trouble is whenever I see the word ‘cycle’ my eyes start to glaze over. It doesn’t matter if it is the water, mineral, energy, nutrient, or some other cycle critical to our existence, for some reason my attention begins to wander the instant I see the word.

I remember attending a conference years ago where a speaker displayed an image of the nitrogen cycle on a farm he was studying. It had something like sixty-four separate arrows flowing in every possible direction, including in circles. I took one look at the image and immediately put my pen down. No amount of note-taking was going to make sense of this cycle if I tried to explain it later.

Years ago, when I helped our daughter Olivia with a homework assignment in elementary school about the hydrological cycle both of us struggled to stay focused. She enjoyed drawing clouds and rain and squiggly lines flowing upward from the ocean into the sky but when it came time to explain it the fun disappeared as fast as water on a hot sidewalk. Let’s be honest, ‘evapotranspiration’ is hard to say much less describe in simple terms.

The problem is there’s usually no story to go with these big ideas. Take this image of the carbon cycle produced by the Quivira Coalition for one of our publications:

As a depiction of the never-ending cycle by which carbon dioxide (CO2) flows out of the atmosphere into the soil as carbon via photosynthesis and green plants and then back out again, round and round, sustaining nearly life on the planet, the image does a great job. I especially like the way fossil-fueled factory sits off to the side, pumping three hundred million year-old carbon, previously buried as coal, oil or natural gas, directly into the atmosphere as CO2. No cycle there – just a straight line up.

While I like this image of the carbon cycle, it’s boring. That’s because it doesn’t tell a story. What’s up with the cow, for instance? What is it doing there? Did a visitor leave a gate open allowing the animal to wander in? And what about that factory? What’s it making? Electricity? Cement? Artificial fertilizer? Is it Chinese? American? Brazilian? Does its owner hire undocumented workers? Is up to code?

I’m being facetious – sort of. Carbon is essential to life but it’s also rather abstract, which is one reason why we’re having a hard time getting our minds around CO2 pollution. Carbon needs a story. Or rather, lots of stories. It isn’t enough to wave our hands in the air and say “if we damage the carbon cycle all sorts of bad things will happen!” Instead, I look at this image and think “Will someone get that lost cow back to its herd!”

That’s the rub – how do we get important concepts across without the eyes-glazed-over effect? It isn’t easy. But it’s important to try because the issues involved are increasingly critical. I’ll start with a different image of the same carbon cycle that I took on an organic, family-run dairy farm in Vermont:

These animals have a home! They look happy too. Let’s call this the ‘happy carbon cycle.’ Here’s the story: one sunny day a bunch of random carbon dioxide molecules get absorbed into the leaves of the grass where the carbon is separated from oxygen and transformed into nutrients that feed the plants which feed the cows who make lots of organic, grassfed milk which is sold to grateful local customers by the farmer who makes a profit and supports his or her family who are part of a vibrant community. Round and round. Yay!

It gets better. Some of the carbon molecules make it to the plant’s roots where they are transferred into the soil to feed hungry microbes in exchange for minerals essential to the plant’s health and growth. These microbes are part of a thriving underground community (which includes beneficial fungi) that helps many forms of life go and grow. As any gardener knows, carbon is the key ingredient to the dark, rich soil that is called tilth.

The story gets even better! Since all that carbon in the ground below our feet originated in the atmosphere, the potential exists for soils to ‘soak up’ lots and lots of the excess CO2 contributing to global warming. In fact, degraded and carbon-depleted soils – which describe the majority of agricultural lands in America – could be ‘recarbonized’ to their original, pre-tilled levels which could have a huge impact on climate change.

That’s where regenerative agriculture comes in. As I described in the previous newsletters (#1 and #2), one of the main goals of regenerative agriculture is to increase the carbon content of the soil, creating multiple benefits for life at all levels. It’s not a theory – it can be done! Thanks to the hard work of many people in many places, we know how to fix damaged carbon cycles.

Most importantly, there are lots of good stories from around the world about ongoing efforts to accomplish these goals. I’ll cite some below and write more about carbon in future newsletters.

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.


Here’s a trio of books published nearly simultaneously on soil and carbon:


  • Here’s a quick 4-minute TED talk about the carbon cycle (see):
  • Here’s a fun 5-minute video about soil organic carbon from the UN’s FAO (see):
  • Here’s a great 12-minute documentary by Peter Byck focused on three ranchers who are healing the carbon cycle (see):
  • Here’s an entertaining TEDx talk by regenerative farmer extraordinaire Joel Salatin titled Cows, Carbon, and Climate Change (see):

Web Sites:

  • For many of us, there wouldn’t be a story of carbon without the pioneering work of Christine Jones. Check out her writing:


I had the honor this week of being interviewed for an hour by Seth Itzkan, a founder of Soil4Climate. We cover everything from the founding of the Quivira Coalition to the radical center and the hope presented by soil carbon. It’s available on YouTube. Take a peek (see):

A reminder: Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy written by Rebecca Burgess and yours truly is now available. See:

And I’m working on the sequel to my mystery The Sun!

Here’s my selected Terra Firma photo of the week – the Flint Hills of Kansas:



Ed. note: This piece is excerpted from Courtney’s weekly newsletter Terra Firma. You can subscribe to it here.


Teaser photo credit: By 4028mdk09 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, carbon cycle, regenerative agriculture