Rescuing civilization dirt cheap

October 15, 2020

Other than rock, water, and ice, our world consists entirely of ecosystem products and services, those biologically essential constructions of the ecosphere that keep everything alive and functioning. From our myopic human perspective, we tend to view these as global commons, as human ecosystem services that keep humans alive and functioning. This ignores the fact that they are the very same global ecosystem services keeping everything else alive, that we humans are just one part of a vast interdependent global community. We stand out largely in our demonstrated ability to utterly overwhelm the most complex products and services of the ecosystem at the global scale, potentially destroying ourselves in the process.

An idealized list of the most important ecosystem products and services, our exploitation of which is now making human survival more problematic, includes: clean water, breathable air, a moderate climate; a healthy balance of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen in the atmosphere; an abundance of food from plants and animals with health-promoting concentrations of nutrients and micronutrients; diverse wildlife, fisheries, pollinator, and microbial communities providing environmental stability that moderates disease and pest outbreaks; woodlands and forests to provide building materials and eventually fuels for post-carbon home heating and cooking; flood prevention; drought mitigation; wildfire suppression; an effective soil-carbon sponge feeding evapotranspiration, fostering dependable precipitation and cooling; ground water and deep aquifer recharge; soil stabilization; agricultural nutrient retention and recycling; and most recently, carbon sequestration to mitigate global climate change.

Every one of these critical products and services is directly mediated by and dependent on the health of Earth’s most foundational renewable asset, both nature’s and agriculture’s most consequential crop, its soil carbon sponge, soil organic matter, or humus, the ultimate essential symbiotic resource for all life on land. Regrettably, three-fourths of this resource along with three-fourths of the world’s native forests and woodlands have been eliminated by short-sighted extractive farming, ranching, and forestry practices. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggests the rest could be effectively eliminated in another 60 years.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Every time you see bare farm soil, every time you see a farm with no animals or trees, every time you see a monoculture of corn or beans or wheat as far as the eye can see, every time you see soil being plowed up and turned over, every time you see biocides being sprayed or injected, every time you see synthetic fertilizer being applied, you are watching the degradation of society’s most consequential resource, imperiling the very civilization it once fostered. No civilization has survived the destruction of its soils. We will prove no exception.

Petrochemicals now underwrite over 90 percent of the world’s GDP. Every calorie of food on an American plate is subsidized by 11 calories of petrochemical energy. There is every reason to believe petrochemical availability at affordable cost peaked just before the recent COVID fracking collapse. The future of petrochemicals henceforth will be one of generally rising costs and diminishing availability. The outlook for civilization is ominous. In a post-petroleum world half a century from now, it could be grim.

It doesn’t have to be that way. What we must do is restore the world’s soil organic matter while re-establishing its forests and woodlands and perennially greening its farmland as quickly as possible. Technically, we know how to do it. Just as the world’s farmers flocked en masse in only half a century to the Green Revolution despite its troubling consequences, they must now flock to regenerative farming – except they don’t have half a century to get there … maybe a quarter of a century, maybe less. But we know the way.

Sir Albert Howard said it best 80 years ago in his tribute to nature’s way of farming, “An Agricultural Testament.” His is an aspirational message that both our agricultural community and society needs to embrace with religious zeal:

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to preserve large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Both to mitigate climate change and to conserve as much as possible what’s left of the nonrenewable petrochemicals that have been central to every aspect of civilized human life this past century, a federal tax on carbon is all but inevitable in the next decade. Society must be made aware of the fact that destruction of the world’s soil organic matter is an existential threat to civilization every bit as immediate and serious as climate change or oil depletion. There can be no better way to invest the proceeds of a carbon tax than to pay otherwise reluctant farmers and ranchers to quickly switch to regenerative practices in a program that incentivizes them to continue building and retaining organic matter for the long-term benefit of society as well as their own. Such an investment, whether as part of a Green New Deal, the Rural Green Partnership, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, or any of several other climate initiatives currently under congressional consideration, is the only feasible way to re-provision the world for a survivable post-carbon civilization.

Short of outright military-style conscription, meaningful financial incentives will be required to convert enough farmers in time to pull civilization’s fat out of the approaching fire. The nebulous promise of higher profits in three to five years from reduced crop production costs hasn’t enticed them to any significant degree. Whether paying them up-front by the acre for three to five years for farming in accordance with a regenerative conservation plan, or paying them for each new ton of carbon they sequester, or financially rewarding them for their soil organic matter inventory every fall, the vital legacy we leave in the soil for our grandchildren will be worth whatever we must spend.


Teaser photo credit: By I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=998412

Donovan C. Wilkin

Donavan C. Wilkin is Associate Professor Emeritus, Natural Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson. He is now retired in Illinois.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, regenerative farming, soil health