The Climate Change Blame Game:
How a Revolution in Agriculture can Heal the Planet
A friend of mine recently shared an article on climate change. The central arguments were that whenever the government is telling you to do something, you should probably watch out. Just because we can prove that global temperatures have risen on average doesn’t prove who is responsible. There is tons of evidence that the earth has gone through many huge climate shifts and ice ages in the past and while the effects have been rough for some (goodbye dinosaurs) the end of the ice ages opened up tons of land that was previously unusable such as Europe and North America. Maybe in the future Greenland or Antarctica could be the next Garden of Eden? To hear this point of view from someone who actually believes it check out the article here.
This is an interesting perspective. The article isn’t really disputing global warming/climate change, it’s saying “Don’t blame me!” It’s also arguing that massive climate change and the things that go with it (flooding of a majority of urban centers, species extinction, etc.) are part of living in a changing world and we should adapt, move if necessary and not freak out so much.
I can concede a few points to you here. There are multiple factors that influence global warming and some, like solar flares, meteors and volcano eruptions are out of our control. On the other hand tons of other factors are effected in huge ways by our lifestyles and industry. What is the point of debating who is to blame when it’s clear what we could do to help?
One of the biggest and most well know factors in global warming is the fact that excess carbon dioxide catches heat radiating off the earth and keeps it from escaping. (In much the same way that clouds insulate and make cloudy nights warmer than clear ones.)
What people don’t talk about is where this excess carbon dioxide came from and the fact that we desperately need it back in the soil for fertility. Carbon is a pollutant in the air, but a priceless resource in the soil.
Carbon matter in farming is better know as organic matter and is the basis for the soil’s fertility and ability to hold water and nutrients. This is the black compost that makes up our topsoil, but in recent history it’s been estimated that 98% of our world’s topsoil has already been lost. Carbon matter in topsoil naturally decomposes and slowly releases gasses as it breaks down while at the same time plants breathe in carbon dioxide and turn it into physical carbon that is left in the soil when the plant dies and sheds it’s leaves in the fall. This is the carbon cycle. In a healthy ecosystem carbon is collected and stored faster than it is released. A healthy farm can work in much the same way. In a lot of places traditional and indigenous agriculture techniques were as effective as wild ecosystems at doing this. Sustainable agriculture calls for at least breaking even but what we really need is regenerative agriculture to rebuild our depleted soil resources.
Conventional agriculture is one of the worst offenders. When you till the soil it creates a ton of microscopic activity that breaks down soil and makes a bunch of new nutrients available to plants, but unless those nutrients are replenished with additions of compost the soil gets used up. That’s what happened to the once Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Bad agriculture can turn a forest into a desert within a few lifetimes. Adding chemical fertilizers basically does the same thing; speeds up decomposition and uses up the soils reserves without giving anything back. We can do this with great results at first, as long as we keep adding fertilizers, but over a decade or so the soil gets depleted and eventually becomes barren so it can’t grow anything. Chemically fertilized soils quickly go from being alive, with up to a billion organisms in a single teaspoon to being dead and sterile. Another side effect is that this creates a dependence on buying the fertilizers and if a farmer has a bad year and can’t afford them he or she may need to go into debt, mortgage the farm and risk loosing everything. Sustainable agriculture allows the farmer to produce almost everything the farm needs and the waste from one crop or animal becomes the food, bedding or fertilizer for another. Very little needs to be bought and so the farm is more resilient to hard economic times.
We need to switch to regenerative agriculture. Just as bad farming is one of the worst offenders in climate change, good farming offers the most effective solution. Small scale diverse farms with a good mix of types of plants and animals can speed up the production of plant matter and then the animals, microorganisms and compost savvy farmers can help incorporate it into the soil where it can be stored and not lost.
Think of sustainable farmers like reverse coal miners. Mining carbon from the sky and then burying it in the earth. There is even a technique from the Amazon where farmers do controlled smoldering of plant matter to turn it into charcoal that is then buried. This locks the carbon into a permanent form that won’t break down over time. (Burning the wood with barely any air prevents the carbon from bonding with oxygen to for carbon dioxide.) Burying the charcoal creates a stable and rich black soil that will stay fertile and productive for thousands of years, even in a climate where torrential rain usually leaches away tons of nutrients.
Modern soil scientists are just now “discovering” that a number of North and South American indigenous peoples had developed some of the most sophisticated and productive agricultural systems in the world. Food systems centered around salmon runs, oak forests and camas roots for the NW Coastal Tribes and around the buffalo and prairie for the Lakota Plains Tribes were the most advanced in the world in terms of productivity and sustainability. They were so advanced and low maintenance that colonists couldn’t even tell that the humans were an integral part of the system. Settlers thought they could improve productivity by decimating the buffalo, introducing cattle and tilling the prairie for wheat but the result was the dust bowl, one of the worst human made environmental disasters in recent history.
Good farmers know that they need to be building their soils. They are the architects and choreographers of an elaborate dance between humans plants and animals, both tended and wild. It isn’t rocket science but it is skilled and interesting work that needs to be done with local knowledge and long term goals in mind. Good farming requires family farms where long term productivity is valued as much as short term productivity. A fertile farm is a legacy and an heirloom to pass down to future generations. When corporations own all the farmland they have no incentive to play the long game. They don’t love the land.
Cutting down on our emissions of greenhouse gasses is a big part of the solution to climate change. At the least we can move towards renewable energy like solar, wind, micro-hydro and wave energy and also use sustainably harvested plant based fuels where possible. Firewood ends up being a net zero fuel because the tree cleans up as much carbon in it’s life as the tree can put off in smoke going up the chimney. But using less is only part of the solution. We need to be actively collecting carbon and storing it in the soil. We can take a pollutant and create a resource.
Climate change deniers get caught up in the blame game and miss the big picture. The same industries that are causing or contributing to global warming are also poisoning our air, soil and water with toxic chemicals. You don’t have to believe that climate change is happening or is bad to believe that poisoning each other and our children is bad and that corporations need to be stopped and held accountable!!! You don’t have to believe that humans are responsible to decide we need to get inspired and have a plan for replenishing our depleted renewable resources like topsoil and mature diverse forests. If we don’t admit that there is a problem we can’t get started fixing it. We need you on our side. Lets work together to heal the world. Or at least try and head in the right direction. There are a lot of us and our small actions add up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sara Wolf is a small scale farmer and permaculturalist from Portland, Oregon. She traveled the world farming and gardening in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Spain and before studying with the internationally renowned Linnaea Ecological Gardening Programme in BC, Canada. She has started and managed small farms and CSA programs in Canada and Oregon and continues to be an activist for environmental healing through agriculture.
MORE READING AND BACKGROUND:
Climate Change Explained by the World Wildlife Federation
John Oliver hosts a mathematically representative climate change debate, with the help of special guest Bill Nye the Science Guy, of course.
You Can Farm by Joel Salatin