Updated: Jan 11
Mindset A: Vast expanse of twilit industrial mono-crops. Mindset B: Signal of our capacity to shape natural systems. (Somewhere over Nebraska / © Lorraine Smith 2017)
I can only imagine how people first reacted to Copernicus when he claimed the Earth revolves around the sun. Heliocentric? Pff! What’s with this guy?
It turns out that assimilating new evidence and realigning one’s fundamental beliefs is difficult for most people. Yet it’s becoming apparent to me that our ability to shift worldviews when presented with new data is essential to solving society’s biggest challenges.
I find it both helpful and disturbing to note that long before Copernicus tried to hack through the briar patch of firmly held beliefs seeded in flatly wrong ideas, the Greeks — as early as 300BC — had already surmised that the Earth revolved around the sun. It took almost two millennia for the idea to come back around, and even then it was slow to dawn on wider society (i.e. 100 years slow). Even with the plain and simple facts in hand, Copernicus, and then Galileo about a century later, both suffered serious negative consequences for promoting this idea before it finally came to be understood, to be believed. Squint into this reality for just a moment: respected scholars had the facts of heliocentricity — an observable natural phenomenon — for almost two thousand years before this concept was “accepted”.
Recently, two of my own interconnected “personal solar systems” have been given a good shuffle, testing my understanding of what revolves around what. Things I thought I understood — things I believed — about how to confront big issues are now being reorganized at a Copernican order of magnitude. However, I am not sure we have another two thousand years to get to the other side of this paradigm shuffle.
From “Carbon-Free” to “Carbon-Free-For-All”
For instance, it seems the call for a “low-carbon economy” (something I myself have called for many times…) doesn’t in fact make sense according to Mother Nature, who has been managing a natural carbon cycle since long before we came along with just about the same amount of carbon now as before. This cycle has been enabling the existence and survival of every form of life for millions of years — including the Johnny-come-lately known as homo sapiens.
With this in mind, we don’t want to reduce the amount of carbon, or “decarbonize” the economy. Carbon is a perfectly desirable, valuable and quite literally essential element when it’s in the right place. (Eric Roston’s The Carbon Age offers an accessible read on what and where carbon is, if you’re looking for a well-researched overview spanning carbon’s existence from The Big Bang to the present.)
Even though calling for a “same-amount-yet-differently-distributed-and-aligned-with-natural-carbon-cycles-economy” has a less tidy ring to it, it’s probably going to get us there quicker than the chemically impossible “low-carbon” slogan we’re trying to bake into policies right now. The trick is that this requires new and different information and — even more challenging — it requires a willingness to revise our current understanding of how nature actually works.
Here is just one example of how this is playing out: there is compelling evidence that meat from animals grazed holistically — an agronomic practice beyond keeping animals outside in grassy fields for a while — as well as other cropping techniques, can dramatically decrease atmospheric carbon (i.e. redistribute carbon from the atmosphere into the soil). Yet the very idea of raising animals for meat consumption runs counter to many of the climate-change mitigation scenarios out there.
Frankly, it runs counter to the gut instincts of people like me who favor plant-based diets, since there is a concern people will only hear “eating meat is good” and skip the carbon-specific details, making things even worse. Then again, ignoring the latest science about soil carbon is just another form of denial, and a potentially serious one.
A quote from The Soil Will Save Us (Kristin Ohlson, 2014) sums up one part of the opportunity — that is, if we can see it:
“The rates of biomass production we are currently observing in this [crop cultivation and grazing] system have the capability to capture enough CO2 (50 tons CO2/acre) to offset all anthropogenic CO2 emissions on less than 11 percent of world cropland. Over twice this amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.”
Yes, you read that right: “… offset all anthropogenic CO2 emissions.” I didn’t believe it either (see also, Tycho Brahe) so I kept chasing footnotes for more answers. There are naysayers out there, but the author’s findings seem to hold up scientifically and give grounds for hope. And this new approach to farming is happening — from Australia to Zimbabwe, from America to New Zealand. It will take time for the truth to become “self-evident” on grocery shelves, but so too at one point was finding the ingredients listed on labels. We are capable of changes when we set our minds to the tasks.
These emergent facts suggest that if we let nature do its thing — photosynthesis, in a nutshell — and if we stop getting in its way so massively, things might just turn out for the better.
If you’re curious about ways, including and beyond soil, to really get serious about living life (and doing business) in accordance with the natural laws we’re all bound to, this compelling upcoming book by Paul Hawken, Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, offers a deeply inspired outline of what it will take.
Famine: Not a weather problem. I said there were two “personal solar systems” that had realigned for me, and that they’re related. In an earlier article, Do They Know It’s Christmas Time, I explored the yuletide fundraising campaign that Band Aid launched over 30 years ago to “relieve famine in Ethiopia”. The planetary rearranging there meant going from believing that I might help matters by caring and giving, to recognizing I lacked the basic understanding required to make a difference, and risked making things worse.
Understanding the relationship between people, land ownership, political power and hunger is a steep climb, full of many complex and unanswered questions, but attempting the ascent is preferable to passively watching history repeat itself.
Not only that, but Ethiopia — just like every country on Earth — has a role to play in the transition to promoting and protecting healthy soils and in the wider adoption of a productive approach to carbon. The country that brings the world coffee and a wide range of other crops also shows us that the principles of carbon farming and agroforestry can improve producer livelihoods, biodiversity and soil impacts. In other words, in Ethiopia as in most places around the globe, it’s possible to set in motion a series of positive feedback loops with significant climate change mitigation potential.
All the more reason to truly understand and reverse the actual causes of famine that the Band Aid campaign more or less missed. However, without an awareness that there is more to famine than dry weather and severe hunger, the likelihood of making real change is slim and the potential for unintended consequences is high. We need to see the problems for what they are. (The famine issues in Ethiopia are explored in more depth by many, including a piece I wrote explaining the political state of emergency last fall, and which continues to this day. These issues are also directly tied to insufficient action on climate, incidentally.) In short, we must be open to fundamentally shifting what we thought we knew and to moving into a new orientation.
It’s destabilizing to have one’s planets rearranged. I sense there are more paradigm shuffles on the horizon, both within the orbit of the little fleck of stardust I occupy, and in the wider context on this swiftly tilting planet. Yet if there is one belief I hold most dear, it’s knowing it’s okay — possibly even urgent and essential — to change my beliefs when new and better understanding comes to light.
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This piece first appeared as a Medium article in 2017, as an extended version of a newsletter piece from January 2017. To subscribe to my newsletter, click here.