December 1, 2020
Judith D. Schwartz is an author who tells stories to explore and illuminate scientific concepts and cultural nuance. She takes a clear-eyed look at global environmental, economic, and social challenges, and finds insights and solutions in natural systems. She writes for numerous publications, including The American Prospect, The Guardian, Discover, Scientific American, and YaleE360.
Bringing insights from her latest book, “The Reindeer Chronicles”, Judith addresses the question of What Could Possibly Go Right? including:
- That “we are a part of nature and to keep ourselves separate from nature is really causing our own demise, as well as the demise of all that we love around us.”
- That increased interest in home gardening is a gateway to larger engagement in the natural world and environmental restoration.
- That mainstream news highlights when things go wrong, but “when something goes the way it’s supposed to go, it isn’t news, so we’re never paying attention to how the natural world works or how communities function when they’re going well and serving the people in them.”
- That slowing down and staying in one place during the pandemic has encouraged us to pay attention to smaller things and gives “permission to love where I am in a very different way, as opposed to that being the backdrop and then real life happens elsewhere when I leave.”
- That there is opportunity in the degraded landscapes throughout the world, including restoring the heartlands and rangelands of US.
- That regenerative agriculture projects, such as by Commonland, give people reasons to stay or come back to the land. These include 4 Returns: of finance, of nature, of social capital or community well-being, and of inspiration.
- That a connection to nature can happen anywhere, even a permaculture lesson around a city tree by a New York City sidewalk.
- Book: “Cows Save The Planet” – Judith D. Schwartz (2013)
- Book: “Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World” – Judith D. Schwartz (2019)
- Book: “The Reindeer Chronicles” – Judith D. Schwartz (2020)
- Commonland, Netherlands – restoration projects www.commonland.com
Judith D Schwartz
We evolved in the context of natural systems. Once you start connecting, once you start feeling the love of what’s around you, you’re in. So that’s engagement.
Welcome to “What Could Possibly Go Right?”, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve others, so that they can help us see more clearly, so we can act more courageously in these crazy times. I’m Vicki Robin, your host. Today you’ll meet Judith Schwartz. I met her at a conference many years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, on sustainable agriculture and healthy food. She had just written her first book on “Cows Save the Planet”. I was working on my book on local food, recounting my efforts to eat within 10 miles of my home, and also to understand what it will take to have a thriving local food system. One of my insights that was sort of hidden in plain sight is that animals and plants are symbiotic in the landscape. We need animals on the landscape to keep our food healthy. Judith is an author who tells stories to explore and illuminate scientific concepts and cultural nuance. She takes a clear-eyed view of global environmental, economic and social challenges and finds insights and solutions in natural systems. She has a B.A. from Brown University, and an M.S.J. from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and an M.A. in Counselling Psychology from Northwestern. She writes for numerous publications, including The American Prospect, The Guardian, Discover, Scientific American and YaleE360. Here’s Judith.
Hi, Judy. So good to see you.
Judith D Schwartz
Great to see you.
Yeah, I’m thinking about last time I saw you was at my Zoom birthday party. And the first time I saw you was easily a decade ago, I think, when you’d just written “Cows Save the Planet.” And in a way, I think you’ve been pursuing the question that this series pursues. You have been pursuing in your professional writing career, the question “What could possibly go right?” in a way. You know, with the “Cows Save the Planet”, it was working with soils and animals and landscapes. In “Water In Plain Sight”, it’s working with the water cycles. All of it is about revealing that there’s ways to work with the cycles of nature, in a way that produces a flourishing abundance for everyone and everything. Yet, here we are, suffering the consequences of precisely the opposite of the grid of modernity being put over the natural cycles of the planet, and right now we’re in the – hopefully, I don’t know if we’re in the beginning or middle or where we are – but in the literal pushback from Mother Nature on this. So I’m not asking for your analysis or anything on what we ought to do, but just through your eyes, putting on your headlamp of having peered into this issue for so long, I’d love to see what you see when you think about this question in this moment, of “What could possibly go right?”
Judith D Schwartz
Well, first of all, I want to speak to the brilliance and importance of that question, because it’s a question we tend not to ask. Yet we need to ask that question, perhaps more now than ever, because if we can’t envision what we want, what we wish for, what we aspire to, then how are we ever going to get there? So I think that what we have been dealing with, to a large extent, is a lack of imagination and creativity. So let’s open up that creativity.
Let’s say we do ask that question, “What could possibly go right?” and then we come up with an answer. Okay, I’ll toss out an answer, because it’s the topic of my current book, which is, we could all decide and put an effort towards restoring the world’s ecosystems. Okay, so we’ve got a vision of what could go right, then we can ask the question, Well, what would that be like to get that there? What would that look like? What actions, what behaviors, what attitudes would get us there? But we need to get started by asking what we want, what it might look like, and how can we help make that happen?
So that is what we could be doing and perhaps should be doing. And it’s an opportunity, it’s an invitation. People like you and me have just been chomping at the bit around this. But right now, as things are crashing, do you see openings that weren’t there before for people? What openings do you see for people actually leaning into taking this on, realizing that they don’t want modernity anymore; they want something else? Where do you see that bubbling up?
Judith D Schwartz
I see that everywhere, from people who live in cities, who during the early part of the pandemic, started to notice the birds outside, started to notice that, that evoked something in them, some sense of connection to nature. I see a lot of people expressing the notion that we are a part of nature and to keep ourselves separate from nature is really causing our own demise, as well as the demise of all that we love around us. It can be hard to see this, in part because of the nature of news. I mean, believe me, there’s plenty to be concerned about, you know, and I’m totally there with you.
But I think about this a lot, that the nature of news is such that when something goes wrong, it’s news. When something goes the way it’s supposed to go, it isn’t news, so we’re never paying attention to how the natural world works or how communities function when they’re going well and serving the people in them. I just think it’s really important to keep a lens on how things work. One reason that I wrote this book is that there are so many efforts, there are people all over the world as we speak, quietly restoring the ecosystems in which they live. Often, we don’t hear about them, because they’re not checking in on social media, but often they are long duration projects that are underway. And because I knew this was happening, and I knew that so many of these projects have gotten such fabulous results, I felt compelled to put that out there; because if people didn’t know that we can restore large scale damaged ecosystems, it’s not within the realm of what could possibly go right, then how is anyone going to get involved in this work?
So I felt a disconnect between the hope and excitement of people who are engaged in regenerative agriculture and different kinds of ecosystem restoration projects, and people who don’t know that this is going on, who say we’re doomed and don’t know where to put their energy. So I wanted to make that connection to say, Hey, we are where we are, and we need to accept that, and accept that we don’t know where things are going. But let’s look at where we do have agency. In particular, let’s look at where we have more agency than we think we do, and that is with the health of ecosystems, which connects to climate, because one area where we have really not been talking about is the role of functioning ecosystems in climate regulation, okay? That’s like how nature works. So we do have a lot of agency there.
Part of this is, people when they say, Oh, what can I do? You’ll go like, Oh, what I can put my hands on is my garden. What I might be able to put my hands on is a school garden or community garden. We just don’t have daily experience of thinking in ecosystems. So besides these projects, do you see that there’s an emergence of people starting to realize, Oh, it’s a system. It’s not a thing. I don’t live in a thing. I’m not a thing. It’s a system. I live in a system, I’m part of a system. How do people start getting out of the sort of immediacy, not just of the news cycle, which is, of course, you said that the nature of news is very fast and problem-oriented, and the news of nature is very slow. The news of nature is a very different pace. So, is that part of what you’re seeing, is that there’s a feeling somewhere that people are starting to orient toward ecosystems rather than individual projects? Where do you see the world that you have been pointing to starting to come into being right now in the middle of this pandemic? And maybe even in some way because of what we’re going through?
Judith D Schwartz
Yeah, well, first of all, I would say that working in a garden is part of the solution. For many people, it’s the kind of gateway drug to larger engagement in the local watershed, in taking a course in herbology or permaculture, and also sharing with neighbors. So I live in Bennington, Vermont, and there was a webinar on gardening, and, you know, it broke their expectations because so many people were interested. I understand that locally, seed garlic is impossible to get because everybody’s growing. So that’s engagement. When you’re out in the garden, you are seeing the pollinators, you are seeing and hearing the birds, and that evokes… I mean, we evolved in the context of natural systems, and once you start connecting, once you start feeling the love of what’s around you, you’re in. And that can be very local. It can connect to the local watershed. I’m seeing a lot of people are, I’m taking a permaculture design course right now. People want to learn, and there’s been incredible learning online. In fact, I think it’s amazing how much has been accomplished. And people not only looking for distraction, but tuning into what they’re feeling, and a lot of what they’re feeling is a desire to connect with something real, which is the natural world.
Right. The desire to connect to something real. Exactly. And even though we’re relegated to sitting in our chairs on Zoom, somehow or another, we’re getting more real. I mean, I know I’m in Zoom calls with people from all over the world. It’s really delightful. Sometimes it’s not, because I have to get up at six in the morning. But it’s this definite feeling of we’re all in this together. From what you’re saying, this whole thing about going outdoors, contrary to just sitting on Zoom, but the fact that we do feel safer, we need to go outdoors, to not be indoors. And then going outdoors reminds us of our connection with nature, and just even walking in your neighborhood, just even walking; you’re sort of an integrated system moving through a landscape. All the things of just being outdoors is part of the healing, that could be coming from this in a strange sort of way.
Judith D Schwartz
Definitely. I mean, one concern that needs to be noted is that not everybody has the same access to the outdoors. Let us hope that we can do what we can to ensure that that people do. But I think that the lack of our ability to move in and out that we had grown accustomed to, has left us in a place where we pay more attention to smaller things. So, for myself, I can say that the slowing down, the not traveling, the not reporting on site, has kind of given me permission to love where I am in a very different way, as opposed to that being the backdrop and then real life happens elsewhere when I leave, and then I come back. So that is different.
Yeah, you brought up the justice component, and that’s another major piece of what we’re living through. It’s almost like the apocalypse, the revealing of the dark consequences of modernity, and how many things in people, how much life is moved to the margins, in order to create this sort of clean surface on which we’re going to place our grids of our human future. So where do you see, in relation to the work you do on ecosystem restoration and noticing the natural cycles… Talk a little bit about where you see that happening in relationship to these big issues of justice, where people don’t have access to the outdoors. They may not even have access to indoors, that they’re in degraded landscapes. What are you seeing? Are people starting to take hold of their own landscapes, even as degraded as they are? What are you seeing about that?
Judith D Schwartz
Well, one thing I do look at is the opportunity inherent in all of the degraded landscapes throughout the world. So if we look at this country, for example, there are huge areas which are underpopulated that need people to help restore the landscapes. I know that there are people who are seeing this and looking at communities where they can invest in different kinds of regenerative agriculture projects, that also give local people a reason to stay, because people moving all over, people don’t necessarily want to leave their homes. I mean that’s pretty demoralizing, when the place that your family has been for generations can no longer offer a viable future.
So I’ll just give you one example. So for the book, I went to Spain, and there’s a company called Commonland, based in the Netherlands, and they have I think eight landscapes now where they are working. Basically this company is creating investment and business opportunities in the realm of restoring landscapes. So I went to this region of Spain, the Altiplano, which crosses several provinces, so it’s a pretty large area. What’s been happening is because of industrial agriculture, the land had degraded. It was compacted. It was basically like, the soil was high mineral; it was reddish, but there was no life in it. So young people had been leaving, and there were a lot of abandoned farms and abandoned orchards and all of that.
So Commonland came in and helped a local group of farmers and activists and community leaders start, and helped support people in enterprises that would restore the land, as well as offer a crop. So the main crop is, this is the largest area of rain-fed almond production in the world. So they centered on the almonds. Then they planted around the almonds, which no one had been doing, so that you had cover crops, so that those plants were drawing down, holding the soil together and pulling up different minerals and drawing down carbon. Then they also are starting to integrate the sheep that are eating those plants, which by the way, those plants also are a product because they yield essential oils. So this whole matrix; rather than one crop, many crops that all support each other. And young people are starting to come back. So the spirit was really high, because people have something to live for. What I’ll note is about these projects is that they go on, so it’s four returns. Return of finance; return of nature; return of social capital or community well-being; and return of inspiration. And it’s that inspiration level that’s really ineffable. I think that in so many areas, people feel they’ve been left behind, and they don’t have a connection to their culture; they don’t feel the agency to create art and all of that. But that inspiration piece is actually a really, really good example of what could go right.
Right. So it took Commonland coming in, seeing this opportunity. These are like models, right? Yeah, just in our last few minutes. I’m wondering if you could spin a picture for us, like here in the United States, where we do have the heartland. I mean, there’s a lot of complexity there, like mega agriculture and then there’s also towns that are being abandoned. Can you paint a picture for us of the possibilities that are coming forward now, with this sort of renewed interest about inhabiting the heartland with a more regenerative approach?
Judith D Schwartz
Yes, it is happening. If for no other reason, it’s because the industrial agricultural model is really not serving the people who are practicing it, or are applying it. It is serving the people who are selling the chemical products, but other than that, I know that there are large areas where many, many people have cancer, that people attribute to that. Then the farmers themselves are spending tonnes and tonnes of money on inputs, and then because the soil is continually degraded, they need to keep pumping that up. But I have spoken to consultants in the heartland, working in the heartland, that are telling me that there’s a big shift happening; a lot of people are changing how they do things. In different parts of the country, there’s the farming areas, there also the rangelands, the grazing areas, where people are, again on a small to moderate scale right now, applying holistic planned grazing which restores the soil, which supports the grasses, the healthier grasses. So then you have cattle that are not stuck in feeding confinements, but are really there and getting nourishment and they’re eating the grasses that they were designed for, as opposed to grains that may be a cheap filler. So that is happening but it needs to be done everywhere. Vermont, it may look pretty but I know we could be doing better. I think it’s really about valuing ecological function, valuing how water cycles and moves, the state of the soil, how we’re using the sunlight, which is what fuels everything we produce. Are we using the sunlight to serve life and feed people and wildlife? Or is the sunlight beaming down and creating heat? That’s where I’ll leave it; valuing what nature does.
Exactly. It’s almost like what could possibly go right in this moment. It seems prior to the actual implementation of planting the cover crop, there is this belief that planting the cover crop is going to do something, it’s going to heal, it’s going to work. It’s the belief that it can work. It’s something about ecological restoration that is linked for me with the belief that we are not a failed species on a dying planet, but we are a creative species on a living planet, and that we have so much creativity and so much life right before us. This news cycle keeps us glued to what’s wrong, while the natural cycles are like this banquet; it’s sort of this big invitation, a picnic blanket. Even if you don’t have a farm or whatever, just that going outdoors and noticing things, working in your garden, listening to the birds; you start to see how in everyday life, you can participate in the regenerative process. I think that’s a pretty good hope.
Judith D Schwartz
Yes, I was just going to add that I have a friend who teaches permaculture to children in New York City. They look at the soil around a city tree; next to the sidewalk or in a break in the sidewalk. They work with that soil and they see the soil life emerge and they see the pollinators come and they plant things. That brings it all to life for these children. So when I say it can happen anywhere, it can.
Exactly. Thank you so so much for entertaining this question and painting the picture. I feel like you’ve painted a picture for us. It’s like a picture of what could possibly go right. It’s a feeling; it’s not a thing. And then if you have the vision and you have the inspiration, then you’ll do the hard work; and it’s going to be hard work. It’s no joke.