Unclear Thinking and Bad Incentives Harmful to Plants, Animals, Soil

I’m face-deep in finishing graduate school, so posting has been pretty infrequent since the New Year.  But I have to comment on this from the Washington Post:

America’s prairies are shrinking. Spurred on by the rush for biofuels, farmers are digging up grasslands in the northern Plains to plant crops at the quickest pace since the 1930s. […]

A new studyby Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University finds that U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, driven by high crop prices and biofuel mandates[.] In states like Iowa and South Dakota, some 5 percent of pasture is turning into cropland each year.

I’m not going to mince words: this is bad.  Wendell Berry’s written about similar trends happening in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere around the world as well.

Kansas Prairies

It’s understandable why biofuels are attractive given resource scarcity and climate change, but there’s some very unclear thinking here that we need to unpack.  The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) ratio of most annual-crop biofuels is terrible: usually  below 2:1 and sometimes even below 1:1.  Corn and soy just aren’t thermodynamically efficient fuels.

Climate-wise, replacing perennial pasture or grasslands with annual tillage crops releases  a huge amount of carbon, from loss of perennial root systems and reduction in soil organic matter.  And, this type of land conversion means major loss of habitat, biodiversity, soil nutrient & water retention, and grassland communities with their own intrinsic value and importance.  Moreover, these outcomes are directly incentivized by ethanol and crop insurance subsidies (which the Post article mentions) and the massive unpriced externalities of industrial farming (which it doesn’t).  It’s a mess.

Bottom line, ideas and incentives matter a lot and can be very harmful.  Which is why we need both better ideas (i.e., perennial polycultures; rotational grazing; restoration agriculture; resilience, justice, and regeneration instead of growth; etc.) and financial, political, and social incentives that make it easy for those ideas to be widely adopted.

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Reading in the Dark

I’m heading to the woods of northwestern Maine for the next week, with legendary naturalist Bernd Heinrich and the Field Naturalist program.  Will certainly bring back some photos and stories.

In the meantime, here’s some reading for the darkest weeks of the year.  Remember, biological spring doesn’t begin until late January to mid February depending on your latitude and elevation – there’s still time to hibernate!

–A terrific, well-referenced look at the ecological history of the Eastern North American savanna.  It’s way more exciting and broadly relevant than it may sound – read it!  A very Renewing the Commons topic that I’m excited to explore more here soon.

–Another long “death of environmentalism” essay in Orion.  I say partly in jest, because of the regularity of the topic in that magazine and the deeply (and perhaps quite warranted!) negative/pessimistic tone of many of the essays in this subgenre.  But more so than some past entries, I think this one is very much worth reading and pondering.

I may respond or add my thoughts at more length at some point.  For now, I’ll just pose a question to anyone who reads it: what activities would you, for yourself in your own life, with your set of relationships and leverage points, add to the author’s list of “what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of time”?

Finally, a not-unrelated reminder that as of two days ago the state of California is regulating carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade market.  It’s a fairly big deal; hopefully more on this soon as well.

Enjoy the dark, cold weeks and the ever-so-gradual return of the light.

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Financial Permaculture for New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve, two important posts from my friend Rafter over at Liberation Ecology: Teeth in the Ethics (Revisited) and Toward Financial Permaculture: New Farms in the Old System.  My suggestion is to read them, then come back here.

Back?  Ok, to review: in most situations today, advancing real ecological regeneration and social/economic justice is incompatible with being financially profitable.  This is partly why so many activists and world changers work in the non-profit sector, where some alternative funding streams can be found (which of course often come with significant catches/constraints).

More importantly, though, it’s also why the momentum of the global economy continues towards greater eco-social devastation.  The big incentives that most people and nearly all companies respond to are (nearly) always pointing in the direction of exploitation rather than regeneration (as I’ve explored at greater length here previously).

But mostly and nearly always are not the same as always.  There are ways, usually through (as Rafter suggests) higher-level system design and movement development, that the financial incentives can move in the direction of greater ecological health and social/economic justice.  And at the national Young Farmer’s Conference a few weeks ago, Fred Kirschenmann talked about this very possibility.

The core concept Fred presented was called “Creating Shared Value,” a term coined by some insurgent social economists in the last few years.  The basic idea, as I understand it, is that a single enterprise with a triple bottom line (i.e., people, planet, profit) is unlikely to succeed beyond a certain scale or niche in the current economy, and therefore will have a negligible overall impact on the big-scale problems.  But by creating ecosystems of these eco-social enterprises that mutually support each other, economies of scale start to work towards greater regeneration and economic justice rather than towards greater inequality and resource depletion.  These ecosystems of enterprises can then create shared value (financial, social, ecological) that feed back support and surplus into their communities and bioregions.  Fred went on to argue that in food systems, the sweet spot for these shared-value enterprise systems to take root right now is in middle-scale markets – larger scale than a single small local-market farm, but smaller-scale than the national agribusiness market.

This is all very similar to and synergistic with the thinking of a) the cooperative business movement, b) the emerging food systems field, and c) the Financial Permaculture Institute‘s work on regenerative enterprises.  And at YFC, Fred essentially challenged the 200+ young eco-social farmers present to figure out how to scale up our business models for more profitability and greater positive social and ecological yields.

Both the structures and functions of natural ecosystems (which are still our best reference palate for design) and the Creating Shared Value framework suggest that a big part of the way to do that is by working together and interconnecting.  So that’s my planet repair challenge to all of you for 2013.  How can we scale up, interconnect, and create a significantly greater ecological, social, and financial return on our work?  What are examples of communities doing this around the world?  What are the leverage points for individuals and organizations in diverse positions to participate?

It’s a unique time in human history.  Let’s make the most of it.  A grateful farewell to 2012, and an engaged, awakened welcome to the new year.

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Glimpsing the End of Mountaintop Removal Mining

If there was ever a place in need of “renewing the commons”, it’s Appalachia.  Huge, ancient, megadiverse mountain ecosystems; 12,000 years of human history that’s included some very complicated and intense cultural and economic interactions in the past 500 years; and in recent decades, the massive, traumatic impact of mountaintop removal mining.

But there’s some good news: a combination of legal, economic, and ecological factors are combining to begin to shift the momentum away from unrestricted MRM’ing:

Selenium is a micronutrient that bioaccumulates up the food chain and has been linked to a variety of problems, including deformed fish. Selenium contamination downstream from Hobet and other Patriot mines is chronically high. Patriot had thus violated the terms of the Clean Water Act it promised in its permits to observe. Environmental groups took to the courts to get those terms enforced. Cleaning up selenium contamination is complex and expensive; when Patriot agreed to a major cleanup last January, it took on a crushing obligation estimated at $400 million.

And that was the whole idea, the environmentalists say. Until now, companies have not paid a significant price for the collateral environmental damage they cause. “When you look at a company like Patriot which has scores of outfalls across dozens of permits, you’re taking some serious money to come into compliance,” says Derek Teaney, an attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, one of the groups that brought the litigation. “It just revealed, in stark terms, exactly what expenses there are when a company is forced to internalize these costs rather than just having the environment bear them.”

It’s worth reiterating that this is, and has been, one of the core goals of the environmental movement.   When companies that pollute and degrade land can freely pass the costs of that pollution and degradation onto the public, unborn children, and earth, there’s very little incentive for them to operate ecologically.  Remember: in most corporate governance structures, executives can be fired if they don’t maximize available financial returns for shareholders.  This isn’t to excuse the inexcusable, but to illuminate the incentives at work.  Forcing those externalized costs to be paid by the polluters and degraders changes the incentives.  When it works, it’s a big deal.

I think the old “rear guard/vanguard” framework is also useful here.  And it’s not really an either/or, but a partnership.  In an overall “build a new world that works” vanguard strategy, there’s also a really important place for high-leverage rear-guard actions to slow or stop devastating harm by the existing system.  This type of legal mechanism to de-externalize costs is one of them.  It should be supported and championed even by those of us working primarily to create new practices and institutions.

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Resource Depletion, and Identifying the Real Problem

A little reminder from Tom Philpott about peak phosphorous:

The N in NPK, nitrogen, can literally be synthesized from thin air, through a process developed in the early 20th century by the German chemist Fritz Haber. Our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (as its known) carries its own vast array of problems—not least of which that making it requires an enormous amount of fossil energy.[…]But phosphorus and potassium cannot be synthesized—they’re found in significant amounts only in a few large deposits scattered across the planet, in the form, respectively, of phosphate rock and potash. After less than a century of industrial ag, we’re starting to burn through them.

85% of the world’s mineral phosphorous is in the colonized, politically disputed Western Sahara region of Morocco.  We are rapidly depleting it.  Most of the world’s calories and nutrients currently come from big agribusiness farms which depends on this mineral.  This, in a simple nutshell, is the story of the industrial food system.  The ecological and social costs are extraordinarily high; the resource math doesn’t add up in any way; and most people now depend on it for their survival!

Now, the good news.  The solution to this problem is fully known, exhaustively documented, strongly supported by both modern science and traditional knowledge, and already successfully practiced worldwide by millions of people.  Small-scale, diversified, ecological agriculture growing for local and regional markets does not have this problem.  The math adds up, for the long term.  It’s the only viable future for the food system.

Let’s remember this, in the 21st century, when doomsday comes knocking on our door.  The problem does not lie in finding a solution – we’ve found them.  The problem now lies in figuring out how to replace what’s not currently working with those solutions that we already have.  And that problem, in turn, is not about technology or information, as compelling as those approaches may seem.  It’s much more fundamentally about incentives, power, and belief systems.

Bottom line: if world changers want to be as effective as possible in our lifetimes, much of our work will focus on these deeper leverage points.  And that may mean developing very different strategies and skill sets than the ones we’ve inherited and focused on so far.

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Islands in the Sky

Few people in the Northeast have heard of, let alone visited, the Sky Islands of extreme SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.  They’re a vast, complex series of steep ridges and peaks that form a meeting point between the Sierra Madres to the south and the Rockies to the north, and between temperate and tropical plants and animals as a result.  Jaguars, parrots, and many tropical mountain plants co-exist with the arid temperate species of the southern Rockies.  As such, they’re a completely unique ecological crossroads, with major historical and spiritual significance to the local Apache Indians and other indigenous peoples in the region.

And, as it turns out, they have an analogue of sorts in the Northeast US: the scattered alpine peaks and plateaus of the northern Appalachians and Canadian Shield that rise above treeline.  These places are on my mind because I’ve just received of one of the most extraordinary natural history books I’ve ever laid eyes on: the newly published Eastern Alpine Guide, co-authored by Mike Jones and Liz Willey, and published by their eastern alpine conservation non-profit, Beyond Ktaadn.

This book is the real deal, everyone.  It’s breathtaking.  I think it rivals Liz Thompson and Eric Sorenson’s Wetland, Woodland, Wildland for the most revelatory natural history & conservation book published about the Northeast in recent years.

WWW and EAG are very different books, but they share a common approach as “ecological field guides.”  They’re field guides to places rather than species.  And for people (including the author of this blog) who spend a lot time looking at the world through a “stories of place” lens, the explanatory power that high-quality place-based writing and images can have is just incredible.

A few nuggets I’ve picked up so far from the EAG:

–The high-elevation alpine and subalpine islands of the east aren’t just ecological rarities.  They’re also southern refugia for many primarily northern (and in many cases, arctic/subarctic) species.  And this really matters in context of climate change, because of the peculiarities of how climate and weather affect high-elevation places.  Because of much higher frequency of cloud cover than lower-elevation places, as well as some other factors, high-elevation sites seem to respond more slowly to climate change than high-latitude sites with similar suites of species.  The atmosphere, in essence, is “buffering” the alpine and subalpine islands from warming as quickly as lower-elevation landscapes.  So species retreating north with climate change might be able to find refuge on these isolated peaks just as they appear to have in past periods of warming – which is an obvious, big, important argument for their conservation.

–There is a substantial (~140 animal) herd of woodland caribou, today, south of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  They live in the highest peaks of the Gaspésie peninsular mountains in eastern Quebec, hearteningly close to mountain landscapes I know in New England.  Caribou, as students of historical ecology may know, once ranged throughout far northern New England, and probably in the Adirondacks as well.  The last caribou in northern New Hampshire was sighted in the winter of 1898 near the Connecticut Lakes, and the last sighting in Maine was in the 1920’s.  But the Gaspésie are only 300 miles as the raven flies from Ktaadn.  It’s not too far-fetched to imagine their return.

–The EAG includes a brief but very interesting and clear discussion of New Hampshire’s pyric balds – subalpine peaks who’ve been stripped of their vegetation and soil by catastrophic fires.  These mountains (some of which can also be found in other Northeast states) are lower-elevation than the climatic treeline found in the White Mountains, but many have retained a pseudo-alpine treeline ever since the fires and some now host a small set of alpine/arctic plants.  Mount Monadnock is the best-known example, but there are others, including Mt. Cardigan, Mt. Chocorua, and Mt. Kearsarge.

–Finally, the very last chapters of the book contain some absolutely astounding information about the Torngat mountains of northern Labrador.  I won’t reprint the truly mind-blowing parts here – you’ll have to read the book to find out!  But they’re one of the most inaccessible places in all of North America, and have an ecology that’s completely unique on the continental Atlantic coast.

On a deeper level, the EAG inspires me about what books can do in a more and more “settled” and data-rich world.   They can, if the alchemy between book and reader is right, access genuine wonder and awe.  As such, I’m giving this book my highest, strongest recommendation, and especially to people apprenticing themselves to the natural world anywhere in the Northeast.  It will expand your understanding of the larger place you call home.

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Upcoming Winter Events

For those interested, I’ll be leading workshops on agroforestry in the Northeast at two conferences in New York this winter.

Young Farmer’s Conference at Stone Barns is sold out, but if you’re coming I’ll be teaching at 8:30am on Friday Dec. 14th.

And I’ll be at the Just Food Conference in NYC, presenting at 2:30pm on Friday Feb. 22.

I’m very excited for these events, and looking forward to meeting lots of new people at both.  Get in touch (comments or Twitter) if you’ll be at one and want to connect!

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“You Can’t Run a Landscape Indefinitely in a State of Emergency”

Wendell Berry’s latest essay in the Atlantic is a must-read:

[A]s ethanol production has driven up the price of grain, our fragile uplands have been invaded by corn and soybeans. Whole farms, with sloping fields that have been in grass as long as I can remember, have been herbicided and planted to annual crops that, because of the drastic reduction of the number of farmers, will not be protected in winter by full-sown cover crops.

This is agriculture determined entirely by the market, and limited only by the capacities of machines and chemicals. The entirely predictable ruination of land and people is the result of degenerate science and the collapse of local farming cultures.

Industrial agriculture characteristically proceeds by single solutions to single problems: If you want the most money from your land this year, grow the crops for which the market price is highest. Though the ground is sloping, kill the standing vegetation and use a no-till planter. For weed control, plant an herbicide-resistant crop variety and use more herbicide.

But even officially approved industrial technologies do not alter reality.

This information and perspective isn’t new to anyone who works on ecological agriculture or has followed Berry’s writing over the years.  But the fact that it’s largely repetition doesn’t mean it’s outdated: we are still mining soil and oil to feed ourselves, and poisoning the ocean and the land with the resultant wastes.  And we don’t have to do it this way – we have all the tools and techniques and knowledge we need to transition into regenerative perennial agriculture (and take a sizable chunk of our surplus carbon out of the atmosphere in the process).  It will just take brave, well-supported, clear-thinking people in all parts of the food system to take consistent steps in that direction.

Here are some people in the US doing exactly that:

Holistic Management International trains farmers and ranchers in regenerative grazing and whole-farm planning.

Growing Power develops and supports community-based, green-tech urban agriculture.

The National Young Farmers Coalition organizes on behalf of and supports the rising generation of relocalizing, ecological farmers.

Wes Jackson’s Land Institute is breeding perennial grains to replace annual agriculture in the Great Plains.

Badgersett Research Corporation is breeding new varieties of staple-crop nut trees and developing planting, harvesting, and management systems for large-scale woody agriculture.

And a large, large range of other small organizations around the US and the world are figuring out regenerative agriculture for their places, bioregion by bioregion and farm by farm.  A lot’s happening, and it’s very hopeful, and we need a hell of a lot more, and we have both unprecedented tools for it and unprecedented challenges, and these are amazing times to be living in as a result.

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Charles Mann and the Human Story

In an article in Orion magazine, Charles Mann of 1491 writes a sweeping account of all of human history.  You should read it:

With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.

And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.

Mann goes on to talk about a huge range of things, including the (potential, much-debated) distinction between “biologically modern” and “behaviorally modern” people, the Toba volcano eruption on Sumatra, the “evolutionary bottleneck” it appears to have created, and the Very Big Question of whether human beings can survive modern exponential growth in consumption of resources.

I have a lot of different responses to this essay, and some minor (or maybe not-so-minor) disagreements with it, but I’m still collecting my thoughts about it and don’t want to jump too soon.  But one thing it did (along with some great Twitter dialogue with @MetaCookbook) was reinforce my growing sense that 350.org is on the money right now, strategy-wise.  Climate change is, by and large, not actionable by individuals.  But there are leverage points that a mass social/political movement could have a sizable affect on, and 350 appears to be trying their damnedest to be that movement and have that affect.

So consider this an endorsement of 350’s Do the Math tour/campaign/project.  I really believe in an “all of the above” approach to the climate crisis, and within that shotgun spray we need some very clear, specific, actionable priorities.  And Bill McKibben and the global movement he’s helped to create have figured out some very, very clear and important priorities to focus and act on.  Please look at what they’re doing, and consider how you can participate in the most effective way, in your home place within your web of relationships.  We really do get to attempt something unprecedented at this time in history, and the very understandable, common feelings of defeat and resignation should be the beginning of our work rather than putting an end to it.

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A Must-Read Article on Climate Change

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, please take 10-15 minutes to read “A Convenient Excuse”, a piece by Wen Stephenson on climate change in the Boston Phoenix.

I’m not going to quote the article – it deserves to be read in its full argument – but I will say this: the core question it poses to leaders in the news media can (and should) equally be posed to current leaders in all fields.  The article is unsettling, and it should be.  Especially if you are in a position of institutional or corporate leadership, please read, think, get support from people around you, and act.

More on climate change leverage points soon.  In the meantime, happy Halloween!

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