“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  But the fact that it’s largely repetition doesn’t mean it’s outdated: we are still mining soil and oil to feed ourselves, and poisoning the ocean and the land with the resultant wastes.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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Looking at the World

The Confluence project is attempting to photograph every whole-number intersection of latitude and longitude on the planet:

There are 64,442 of these perfect integer degree confluences on earth, places where the theoretical latitudes and longitudes that humans have drawn to navigate the globe crisscross at actual, pinpoint-able locations. A little more than 14,000 of them are on land not near either of the poles (and about 2,000 more are over accessible water where you might still be able to make out land in the distance). You can, in other words, try to visit these places–at least, if you have a GPS device in hand.

You can visit the project and view all the photos taken to date here at confluence.org.  What struck me most in scanning through photos from intersections in North America is how few depict urban landscapes or any human-built infrastructure.  One upshot of an urban civilization across a huge land mass is that there’s very low built-environment density across most of the land area, and even within most big metropolitan areas there’s a fair amount of undeveloped land.  And, most people spend most of their time in and around that already-unevenly distributed built environment.  So the “random” grid sampling of long-lat intersections shows a much more “empty” or “wild” -looking continent than I think most people would usually expect or experience.

A great example of this is 41 N – 74 W.  This is the closest intersection to New York City and its surrounding urban spaces, which are home to something like 3% of the US’s entire population in a relative handful of square miles.  10 million people, 800 languages spoken, 400 years of vertical and horizontal city growth, the whole nine yards.   And the lat/long point that’s closest to all that looks like this:

Something to ponder, and also to hopefully prompt some consideration of worldviews and cultural ideas about “empty” land.  In any event, this a beautiful, fascinating tour of planet Earth in the early 21st.  Check it out!

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More Fire Tornado Blogging

I can’t resist.  Embed’s not working, so watch it here.  As usual, this is not just about awesome pyro-weather but also about climate change, land use, etc.

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Two Very Different Stories

On the one hand, an interview with author Kristen Iverson on the barely-known nuclear disaster at the Rocky Flats, CO nuke plant in 1957:

For 13 hours on the night of the 11th, into the morning the next day, the fire raged inside that building, until firefighters put it out (with water — exposing themselves, and perhaps the entire front range of Colorado, to an even greater risk of radiation). When it was over, Energy Department officials, and the Dow Chemical officials who then ran the facility, did not share the extent of the catastrophe, or the radiation danger, with local officials or the media. For years, no one really knew how bad it had been, what it meant for those exposed to the radiation, or how such a dangerous event could be prevented in the future.

On the other hand, the Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted legal personhood along the lines of that often granted to corporations:

In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently grantedthe Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, with legal personhood “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests”. The decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway.

Under the settlement, the river is regarded as a protected entity, under an arrangement in which representatives from both the iwi and the national government will serve as legal custodians towards the Whanganui’s best interests.

One of the major obstacles to the Very Important Project of healing the planet is that in most places, the dominant governance and economic systems aren’t congruent with that project.  So one response is to develop strategies (like making carbon-sequestering agriculture profitable, or turning a major U.S. regulatory agency into a venture capital outfit for clean energy technology) that can lead to substantial regeneration within current systems of economics and governance.  Another one is to operate outside of existing systems entirely, or actively resist those systems.  But another strategy is to, at key leverage points, change the systems of economics and/or governance to support social and ecological healing.   And using corporate personhood as a precedent to grant rivers, mountains, valleys, and oceans intrinsic legal rights sounds like a pretty smart piece of world-changing jujitsu to me.

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From Eric and Eric

From my friend Eric Toensmeier, at Perennial Solutions, on higher-order plant taxonomy and what the heck it all means, and then applying those insights to understanding nitrogen fixers.  Who knew?

And from my friend Eric Garza, at Path 2 Resilience, on lessons from white-tailed deer on energy balance in a food system and why our current food system is deeply unsustainable.

Enjoy and ponder.

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