An Unprecedented Future

I can see The Age of Consequences from my home.

We live on a former ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, that is now a subdivision with more than two thousand houses. Due to its proximity to a center of colonial Spanish, Mexican, and American administrations, as well as the Santa Fe Trail, the land where live has hosted a variety of livestock for nearly 400 years. In the 1950s, the owner of the 13,000-acre ranch invested in new wells, dirt tanks, roads and a ranch house complex, complete with a swimming pool, in an effort to create a prosperous cattle operation on the property. This effort continued for two decades, right up to the day the ranch was sold to a real estate company, who had a different definition of prosperity in mind.

Of all the artifacts left over from the ranch’s heyday, the one that I’ve watched closely over the years are the old dirt roads.

When we moved to the subdivision in 2003, the former ranch roads were still in decent shape, especially in the greenbelts where houses were excluded. Mostly two-tracks, the roads were easy to follow. As my wife and I walked our dogs and chatted side-by-side, we could pick out features of the ranch as we strolled, including dirt tanks for cattle and evidence of tree-cutting from days long gone. There was a timelessness at play in these parts of the old ranch, a feeling that despite the crop of houses, the land in between hadn’t changed much over the decades – a feeling that history would endure somehow.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Today, the ranch roads are essentially gone, washed away or eroded into ditches by a series of catastrophic rainstorms over the last five years. In the summer of 2011, five inches of rain fell in a single afternoon – in a land that is lucky to get ten inches all year. Chased from an outdoor basketball game that afternoon, I watched the deluge from the shelter of the community center. As soon as it ended, I hurried to a nearby greenbelt and our favorite ranch road, fearful that it had been transformed.

It had. As if by magic, two-foot headcuts (dry waterfalls) had appeared in the old road where none had existed before – and by “before” I mean all of the 20th century and probably much longer. There had been big storms in the past, of course, but to our trained eyes destruction on this scale was not visible – until now. Subsequent deluges, including a monster two summers ago, have unraveled what was left of the old road altogether. We still go for pleasant walks on it with our dogs, but now we walk in single file on a trail that is a challenge to navigate in places. I doubt many people today would recognize it as a former road. What once endured disappeared in only a handful of years.

It’s the Age of Consequences in our backyards.

I’m certain there are many similar stories from many other backyards around the nation and the world. Call it what you will – weather weirdness, climate disruption, global warming – what’s happening is something new under the sun. As our ranch road continues to teach us, what we considered ‘normal’ will continue to erode, one storm at a time, until we can’t recognize it any longer. Change happens, of course, but there’s something about this change that looks and feels very different. There’s a way to describe it – which I’ll explain by way of another backyard story.


Some years ago, Craig Allen, an old friend and colleague, stopped by the office to catch up. He’s a forest ecologist stationed at Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, and his career is representative of the transition conservation science has undergone, as well as its likely future trajectory.

When I first met Craig, more than twenty years ago, his focus was on ecological change at landscape scales in the Jemez Mountains, in which Bandelier is nestled. His approach was a systems one; he studied the interlocking variables of ecological function, historical use, and plant and animal community dynamics in order to understand more clearly the condition of the forest. And what he discovered was worrisome. Specifically, he worried about forest “thickening” due to decades of fire suppression, overgrazing, and other human activities.

In 1998, Craig summarized his concern in an article for the Quivira Coalition titled “Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?” His research revealed that open, grassy areas in the Jemez Mountains were shrinking, due to tree encroachment, at the alarming rate of 1 percent per year. What was missing was fire.

“Most forests, woodlands, and grasslands in northern New Mexico evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires,” he wrote. “The removal of the natural process of fire by human suppression has disrupted these ecosystems in many ways [these areas] need to be restored to more open conditions to protect both ecological values and human communities.”

In the next phase of his career, Craig ‘walked the talk’ of forest restoration by implementing innovative experiments at Bandelier, becoming an enthusiastic advocate of adaptive management in the process. As a result of this fieldwork, Craig joined a chorus of forest ecologists advocating proactive policies and practices aimed at returning ecosystems to health in the Southwest, principally by restoring natural fire cycles.

Today, Craig is focused on the threat posed to forests by global warming. He thinks the dangers have the potential to be catastrophic not only for trees but also for the animal communities that depend on them, including us. His goal is resilience – figuring out ways to keep a forest healthy in the face of a changing climate. His research, however, says things don’t look rosy under Business-as-Usual scenarios. “The possibility exists,” he told me that day in my office, “that a 5 degree Celsius warming of the planet could wipe out entire plant communities, including the forests.”

But it was something that Craig said at the end of our meeting that brought home the Age of Consequences for me.

He had been asked to speak to a gathering of federal land managers about the climate crisis. They were looking for options and advice on how to meet that challenge. “What they told me,” Craig said, “was that nothing in their education or experience had prepared them for what was coming down the road in terms of climate. Their training was for a stable climate, they said, not one that was changing. They literally had no idea what to do. They were facing an unprecedented future for which they were not prepared.”

The words stuck in my mind: an unprecedented future.

For most of his career, Craig focused on a traditional goal of the conservation movement: fighting scarcity. Unhealthy forests, disappearing meadows, eroding topsoils, too few “cool” natural fires, too many “hot” catastrophic fires, and not enough grass are all indicators of scarcity at work – the scarcity of properly functioning ecosystems. His restoration work aimed at reversing such declines, at replacing scarcity with health and abundance.

Today, however, Craig is working beyond scarcity. He is confronting the specter of loss. Craig and his colleagues predict that the pine forests of New Mexico, as a result of repeated fires, will likely transition to shrublands over the next century. Hotter and drier conditions under climate change are already feeding record fire seasons across the West and Alaska. When trees burn up and seedlings can’t get established as a consequence of repeated scorching, forests die. In a recent interview for the New York Times, Craig said “The future in a lot of places is looking shrubbier.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, I suppose. If you love forests and the plants and animals they shelter, you probably consider this news to be sad. If you love shrublands, this might be good news. Either way, the transition is underway. In the Age of Consequences, the unprecedented future has arrived.

Here’s a shrubland biome from a popular video game (I couldn’t resist):2v75KYc

Walking the ranch roads where we live over the last few years and thinking about forests and the bigger picture, I’ve come up with five principles (small p) for living in the Age of Consequences that I’d like to share. They’re solely my opinions – use them or not as you like:

1) Stop living in denial. The previous era is over and gone. We live now in a period of transition between what was and what will be. Exactly what our unprecedented future has in store for us isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that our actions today will greatly influence tomorrow. We can’t implement those actions, however, if we continue to live in the past – which we’re still doing, big time. Simply acknowledging that we live in new era (whatever you want to call it) is a critical first step to slipping the bonds of denial.

2) Solutions exist. Because we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Thinking big, however, can have a paralyzing effect on taking action. Let’s concentrate on the wide variety of low-cost, practical solutions available right now, not in some distant future. There are many innovative practices, for example, that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity. Pick one that motivates you and support it in any way that you can.

3) Explore and share. Despite the daily cascade of dire predictions, sobering studies, and gloomy headlines, it’s still a beautiful, diverse, amazing world. Go see as much as of it as you can, starting in your own backyard. Share what you find with others. In particular, seek out Age of Consequences stories and explain them to the world. Share research, create art, give a lecture, write a book, post a photo, call a friend – whatever you like to do, big or small, to communicate what it means to be alive today.

4) Focus on the little normals. These are things that have persisted over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. We need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns. All of these things persist in the Age of Consequences and can form the foundation for our actions.

5) Don’t despair. I did. I got over it by concentrating on the four principles described above. Despair is an eddy in the river of life – don’t let it catch you. Force yourself back into the flow of the water, move on, go places, hug people, sing a song.

A beautiful world awaits.river2-blog480

More on Craig Allen:

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


The Second Decade

We live in what sustainability pioneer Wes Jackson calls “the most important moment in human history.” The various challenges confronting us are like a bright warning light shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle called Civilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound, requiring immediate attention. I call this moment the Age of Consequences – a time when the worrying consequences of our hard partying over the past sixty years have begun to bite, raising difficult and anguished questions.

How do you explain to your children, for example, what we’ve done to the planet – to their planet? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?

As a parent and as an author, this anguished question created a strong desire to document the sequence of events that I was witnessing as well as attempt to explain our behavior as a society. So, in 2008 I began to blend news headlines with narrative and observation, travel and research into chronological installments, crossing my fingers.

Meanwhile, my work with the Quivira Coalition revealed answers to various Age of Consequences concerns, including many ‘low-tech’ solutions involving sunlight, soil, plants and animals. Practices include holistic grazing, edible backyard forests, biochar, weed-eating livestock, rooftop farms, rainwater harvesting, animal power, bees, bears, wildlife corridors, and more. We saw it as connected – soil, grass, water, food, people – all working in nature’s image of health and regeneration.

By 2012, I viewed these anguished questions and hopeful answers as two sides of the same coin and explored both in detail in three books: Grass, Soil Hope (2014), the Age of Consequences (2015) and 2% Solutions for the Planet (2015). Their common message is a simple one: hopeful answers exist to our problems if we’re willing to work together and try new ideas (and some old ones). While there’s much to worry about, there’s also a lot that we can do together at the grassroots – beginning literally with the grass and the roots.

While writing these books, however, a loose end kept nagging at me. As a student of history (and a former archaeologist), I wondered when did the Age of Consequences actually begin? For a long time, I pushed the question aside, thinking it an academic issue. What did it matter, after all, when a particular period or era began? The buzzing warning light in the dashboard was all that mattered, not when it popped on the first time. The issue was turning the alarm off – fixing what ailed the speeding vehicle and getting on with life.

I don’t believe that anymore. That’s because the dashboard alarm is louder than ever, with no sign of stopping anytime soon. Now that my ears are officially ringing, I wanted to know how long has this annoying buzzing been going on?

I’ve settled on an answer: the Age of Consequences began on August 29th, 2005 – the day Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I’ve considered this date before, but it wasn’t until the news coverage of the tragedy’s tenth anniversary that I realized how significant the date had become in the larger picture. The reason is simple: as we enter the second decade of what is likely to be a calamitous period of time, it’s safe to say the Age of Consequences is here to stay.

I’ll try to explain what that means, at least for me. 126301main_Katrina_082805_516

On August 29th, 2005, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, attending a Conference on Cooperative Conservation organized by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. I was not a fan of the Bush administration, to put it mildly, and I suspected the three-day event would be mostly political theater despite its goal to “broaden cooperative conservation with state, tribal, and local governments, communities, private for profit and non-profit organizations, and private citizens.” Out West at the time, the administration had a notable reputation for non-cooperation on environmental issues on public lands, unless you considered bending over backward for the oil-and-gas industry to be cooperation.

Still, I viewed the event as a sign of progress. For years, collaborative conservation had been treated as a kind of leprosy by major players involved in natural resource disputes in the West. In 1995, the Chairman of the Sierra Club, Michel McCloskey, famously attacked the emerging movement in a memo to the group’s Board of Directors. “A new dogma is emerging as a challenge to us,” he warned. “It embodies the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration among stakeholders, not through normal governmental processes. Further, it proposes to do this at the community level through a consensus process.”

At the other end of the spectrum, groups advocating for the “wise use” of natural resources also staunchly opposed locally-based efforts, fearful of disempowerment by the collaborative process as much as environmentalists did. Continued brawling was the preferred option by both sides. Some of us sought a middle path, however, and began calling this burgeoning cooperative effort the ‘radical center.’

I eagerly signed up when I cofounded the Quivira Coalition in 1997 with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. We endured a flurry of slings-and-arrows from both sides during the first few years but prevailed and were pleased to watch the movement grow and expand energetically. By 2005, it was even politically palatable to the Bush White House!

I accepted an invitation to attend the Conference mostly to rub elbows with fellow radical centrists from across the country. Ultimately, more than 1200 people participated, representing a wide diversity of cooperative projects, with most of the real work being done in the halls at breaks or over lunch, as normal. There was a wonderful energy in the air as all of us celebrated the movement’s coming-of-age moment.

Halfway through the conference, however, a shadow passed overhead – literally.

News of Katrina’s strike on New Orleans swept through the event. Although we had no idea of the extent of the damage, the images on television were deeply troubling. But what really hit home for me were the menacing clouds that appeared over St. Louis the next day – remnants of the hurricane itself, broken like shards of gray glass, spreading slowly and ominously over the city.

I took a walk in their shadow, sensing that something bigger and deeper had drifted in. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but there was something different about those clouds and the hurricane that produced them, something different about its intensity, its destructiveness, and its meaning. It felt portentous, like the turn of a big wheel, or the striking of a giant chime.

On September 6th, author and activist Bill McKibben confirmed my feeling with a short essay he wrote as a response to the calamity engulfing New Orleans. “The picture of the sodden Superdome with its peeling roof,” he wrote, “will dominate our politics in the coming decades of this century: America befuddled about how to cope with a planet suddenly turned unstable and unpredictable.”

The scandalous lack of planning that led to the collapse of the city’s levees, McKibben wrote, was nothing compared to the scandalous lack of planning that has kept Americans from even beginning to address global warming and face a future that will see frequent recurrences of this kind of calamity. It’s what happens, he said, when increasing amounts of heat are trapped in the atmosphere, expressed as more wind, more rain, more heat, more melt, on and on. Over the last century, changes in human societies sped up to an almost unimaginable level, stressing every part of our civilization. In this century, we’re going to see the natural world change at the same kind of rate.

The hurricane signaled the start of a new world, McKibben proclaimed.

“Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to us,” he wrote. “That delusion will now start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn’t look like the America we’ve lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will inhabit the rest of our lives.”

Welcome to the Age of Consequences.

Ten years later, I wish I could say that McKibben’s prophesy was off the mark, that his words, written in the heat and passion of an unfolding crisis, were overblown or just plain wrong. I can’t. Quite the opposite – not only has the buzzing of the original warning light become louder and more insistent, other alarms have gone off, filling Civilization’s dashboard with anxious noise. A decade on, the anguished question has become: what do we do now?

I’ve been giving this question some thought and arrived at five broad principles, which I’ll outline in next post as food for thought. positive1

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


Little Normals

Off and on over the years, whenever I could catch a break from the daily routine, I would indulge myself by musing on a question that had no real utility: is this normal?

By that I mean can life in 21st century be considered normal by any stretch of the historical imagination? Are the nature and scale of our present national economies, for example, or their social and ecological consequences, normal? In other words, do they fall within some range of variation for “normal” human activity? For many political and business leaders, of course, the industrialization and globalization of our economy fits a pattern of ‘Progress’ that’s been in place since the Civil War and thus appears to be perfectly natural. But I wonder: is this pattern normal or is it an exception?

What about the size of the human population globally or its exponential rate of expansion – are they normal? What about our rates of consumption and waste, as well as our complete disregard of natural limitations? What about species extinction? Or global warming? Or how fat we’ve become? Is this normal or an anomaly? Or have we accepted these conditions as the “new” normal even though we understand them to be exceptional? If so, what does that mean for us or the planet in the long run?

Luckily, the grind of the day job doesn’t allow me to muse on this topic for very long, or else I might start drinking heavily. That’s because I suspect that the answer to my question is not a happy one: this isn’t normal. Not by a long shot.

Take energy, for instance. The extraordinary infusion of energy calories in the form of cheap fossil fuel over the past 150 years, and the incalculable effect it has had on the project of civilization, is certainly not normal. It is, in fact, quite unprecedented – as are the consequences, both positive and negative, of this motherlode of oil riches.

Of course, all this energy has created an exceptional condition of prosperity and convenience that we don’t mind one bit. Life has steadily improved for nearly all Americans since the close of World War II, and most want it to stay that way. Besides, it feels normal now. That’s because sixty years of energy wealth, like any gold strike, has a way of creating its own sense of normality – fooling us into believing that this particular vein, unlike every other motherlode in history, will not run dry.

But there have been developments recently that have lifted this entire question of “normal” out of the realm of indulgent speculation and placed it squarely in the real world of practical “dos and don’ts.”

Take forests. As the current mega-wildfire season demonstrates, current concepts of forest management, which are often based on a forest’s historical range of variability – a cycle of ecological ‘boom and bust’ over decades that is considered to be normal – are no longer adequate. As a consequence, managers can no longer rely on past forest conditions to provide targets for the future. All bets are off.

Certainty in forest management has been replaced with uncertainty. This means we must manage our forests in new and creative ways. These management approaches include: flexibility in decision-making, a willingness to take risks, the capacity to reassess conditions frequently, the ability to change course quickly as conditions change, actions that emphasize ecological processes rather than structure and composition, and an expanded land management toolbox (not to mention money to pay for all of the above).

The goal of these approaches is to create conditions that allow forests to retain as much of their original ‘shape’ ecologically as possible. This ability to ‘bounce back’ after a shock or surprise – to keep one’s shape – is called resilience. A wildfire (of the non-catastrophic variety) is a good example of a shock to a forest system and a good test of a forest’s ability to bounce back to health. Promoting resilience is the most commonly recommended option for foresters dealing with the uncertainty caused by climate-change.

The second example involves water moving across landscapes and the concept of stationarity. This is the idea that systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of ecological and climatological variability. Stationarity means normal, in other words, which makes it the core premise on which water-resource engineering training and practice are based. Before you can build a dam or plan to tap a river for irrigation, for example, you need to know how much water a particular watershed could deliver and when – which means rain, which means climate, which means predictability. Planning requires stationarity.

But it no longer exists according to experts.

Stationarity is dead because global warming has altered the amount and timing of precipitation, rates of evapotranspiration, and rates of discharge of rivers. This means, as with forest conditions, the past expectations of the natural range of variability no longer apply to the water cycle. And there’s no way to turn back the clock. Even with aggressive mitigation, continued warming is very likely, given the residence time of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the thermal inertia of the Earth system.

We are at sea, in other words, regarding the future of our forests and water supply.FOREST-FIRE-SMOKE

In the wake of Katrina ten years ago, I began employing the metaphor of a hurricane to describe our global predicament. It stands for the combined forces of change that are rapidly bearing down upon us – global warming, energy depletion, food security, water scarcity – all of which I’ve logrolled into something I’ve called the Age of Consequences.

As I’ve written before, we need to do two things: work to lower the hurricane’s wind speed as much as possible (reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance) while simultaneously beefing up our defenses on shore. We don’t know precisely when or where the hurricane will strike, or how much destruction it will actually cause, but we do know that landfall is inevitable and so we must do everything in our power to prepare – such as build up local food systems.

But this “no more normal” business has added a big wrinkle to the picture.

Now I wonder: perhaps a hurricane is the wrong image. After all, hurricanes move along and eventually clear out, right? And after the rain and wind have stopped, doesn’t a community try to ‘return to normal’ as soon as possible? Once the sun comes out we get busy picking up the pieces of our homes and lives and begin the long process of getting back to way the way things were before the storm struck.

But what if the storm never stopped? Or perhaps more importantly, what if, under climate change, we weren’t exactly sure which ‘normal’ to return to?

This is where resilience comes in.

In ecology, there is a principle called the Adaptive Cycle in which a system (forest, swamp, desert, etc) passes through a sequence of phases over time, including rapid growth, maturation, breakdown, reorganization, and rapid growth again. The critical moment is breakdown, such as what a fire – or beetle infestation – does to a forest. After the ecological disturbance has ended there follows a period of recovery and reorganization, followed by growth and maturation, such as new trees after a fire for example, and so on.

Resilience is the ability of a community to hold its shape after a breakdown. When communities aren’t resilient, they can cross ecological thresholds into a new state, such as when a forest becomes a grassland after a particularly intense fire. There are social thresholds too, such as the demise of so many farming towns in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl. Or what prolonged drought did to many prehistoric villages in the Southwest.

What, then, are the differences between communities that are resilient and those which are not? I think a place to start is with what I call the little normals. These are things that have been remarkably persistent over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. The metabolism of a grass plant hasn’t changed significantly in millions of years; it needs rain and minerals, of course, to thrive, but otherwise it functions normally – as it always has. It is the same for human communities too.

We still need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong, we prefer marriage and the family-scale household over anarchic social arrangements. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns.

These are examples of little normals that I think remain largely unfazed by the changing nature of the big normals. Global warming is a big normal with big consequences, but it doesn’t alter our need to be loved, to care for other creatures, or to be remembered. The global supply of oil may soon peak and decline, causing all sorts of rearrangements in our daily routines, but it won’t change our need to eat, to play, or make music. Expanding population pressures and diminishing food stocks mean increased suffering globally, but they don’t mean we stop laughing.

Resilience means seeking out the little normals – the constants in human nature, including the behaviors, institutions, and durable scales, that have stood the test of time – and reengaging with them meaningfully.

We know the storm is coming, and in many places it has already arrived. We know that there is no more normal from here forward in the big picture – and that things will be different at a variety of scales. The question now is how to keep our shape – how to avoid a catastrophic breakdown that pushes us over important thresholds from which a return is not very likely. The answer, it seems to me, lies among the little normals of our lives.

Like this one:IMG_3092

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


Nature’s Cafe

[Another chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet. See:]

Few questions have generated more books, articles, studies, lectures, fads, arguments, or confusion in recent years than this one: What should we eat if we want to be healthy?

We have been told to eat meat, to not eat meat, to eat only white meat, to eat mostly plants, to eat organic, to eat natural, to eat what our grandparents ate, to not eat genetically modified food, to skip carbs, to load up on carbs, eat less, eat more, to go vegan, go paleo, go South Beach, go Mediterranean, and on and on. It seems like a new set of instructions comes out every week, so it’s no wonder that people feel bewildered.

Personally, I had settled on two simple answers: 1) If you are going to eat meat, eat only grassfed. 2) Eat more fruits and veggies, just like mom said, preferably from a local organic farm.

Recent research, however, indicates we should be asking a further question: Which fruits and vegetables? Specifically, which varieties should we be eating? New science says there are huge nutritional differences within types of fruits and vegetables. An apple is not an apple is not an apple, in other words. Some varieties will keep the doctor away, but some will make your doctor cringe with concern. That’s because many popular apple varieties are badly deficient in nutrients and highly loaded with sugar. The nutrient content of the Jonathan Gold apple, as an example, is much lower than a less-widely available variety called Heritage.

For Jo Robinson, a pioneering journalist who was one of the first to broadcast the good news about the health benefits of grassfed beef, the answer to the question about what to eat is scientifically clear:

Eat on the wild side.

By “wild” she doesn’t mean the kind of wild experienced by farmers two or three generations ago either, but the really wild—as in plants that were first cultivated four hundred generations ago.

Here’s a photo of what Robinson describes as the most nutritious potatoes she knows – Purple Peruvian, French fingerling, and Ozette:Copy of eating2

Her thesis, which she explains in her book Eating on the Wild Side, is this: the energetic campaign by humans over the centuries to make wild plants more productive, attractive, appetizing, and easier to harvest has significantly diminished the quantity and quality of their nutrients, many of which are essential to our health. These changes are so big that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are essentially modern creations.

“Compared with wild fruits and vegetables,” Robinson writes, “most of our man-made varieties are markedly lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.… Most native plants are also higher in protein and fiber and much lower in sugar than the ones we’ve devised.”

There’s another huge difference: wild plants are much higher in phytonutrients, which are bio-based compounds that protect plants from insects, disease, damaging ultraviolet light, and browsing animals. According to Robinson, more than eight thousand phytonutrients have been discovered by researchers so far, and each wild plant produces several hundred. Many of these are potent antioxidants, which fight free radicals in our bodies, responsible for damaging our eyesight, turning cells cancerous, and increasing our risk of obesity and diabetes. Phytonutrients have also been shown to reduce the risk of infection, lower blood pressure, speed up weight loss, protect the aging brain, lower “bad” cholesterol, and boost immunity.

“We will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture,” Robinson writes, “not just the last one hundred or two hundred years.”

This is a reason why this area of research is so hot today—and big business. The supplement market has exploded with phytonutrients, including pills, energy bars, juice drinks, and powders. However, Robinson says we don’t need to give money to the pharmaceutical industry to get phytonutrients back into our bodies. Instead, we can shop “with a list,” as she describes it, at our local grocery store and farmers market for fruits and vegetables that resemble their wild ancestors as closely as possible. Better yet, we can grow these varieties in a garden of our own.

Call it eating at Natures Café.

The original menu at the café was dominated by plants that were tough, bitter, dry, astringent, seedy, and mostly sugarless. It’s little wonder that as the agricultural revolution began to take off ten thousand years ago, early farmers worked hard to cultivate plants that were sweeter, more tender, starchy, and oily. Cultivated dates, figs, and olives were early additions to the menu. In short order, we added a long list of cereal grains, including wheat in the Old World, corn in the New World, rice in Asia, millet and sorghum in Africa.

Over time, thousands of new café items were introduced to customers, many becoming highly popular, such as coffee, farm-raised meat, and anything containing sugar. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of food science, the menu changed dramatically once more, as did our health. As we loaded up on sweets, starch, and feedlot beef, our well-being declined proportionally.

We didn’t just lose phytonutrients in the process, Robinson says, our food has been de-flavored as well, ironically enough. That’s because the food industry selects for ease of transport and storage, uniform appearance, and high productivity (including resistance to pesticides), all of which have had a negative impact on our food’s flavor.

Here is a photo of grafitti cauliflower, which has twice as many antioxidants as other varieties:Copy of eating1

In her book, Robinson details how we can fight back by selecting fruits and vegetables that are high in phytonutrients and other good-for-our-health qualities (describing what experts call a low-glycemic diet). She offers a basic food rule: shop by color. Fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, purple, dark green, and yellow are among the richest in phytonutrients. But there are exceptions, and not all colors are equal (think apples), which is why you’ll need to shop with a list. Here are a few quick examples:

Lettuce: go as dark green as possible; corn: blue, red, or deep yellow; potatoes: purple or French fingerlings; tomatoes: cherry, grape, and currant; crucifers: purple broccoli; red cabbage; orange, green, or purple cauliflower; and any type of kale; beans: black, brown, or red (canned beans preserve nutrients well); lentils: all varieties; berries: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries; grapes: red, purple, and black (Concord grapes pass the test); stone fruits: choose the most ripe, shop for color, eat the skins, and go for the Bing.

I would only add that if you are an organic farmer, consider planting these crop varieties as well. Chefs and customers at Nature’s Café need these ingredients in order to prepare their meals, but they can’t eat them if no one plants them.

Here’s how Robinson answers the vexing question of what to eat to stay healthy:

“We can reduce our risk of disease by avoiding refined food and choosing high-phytonutrient, high-fiber fruits and vegetables that can restore a host of lost nutrients to our diet,” she writes.

Put it together and we can have the best of all worlds.

“We can get additional health benefits by ramping up our physical activity so it comes closer to our long-ago ancestors,” she concludes. “We can choose grassfed meat, which is similar to wild game meat. And we can combine this with the best of twenty-first-century medicine and can once again be healthy.”

The answer is easy: eat at Nature’s Café—every chance you get!

To Learn More

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson. Little, Brown, and Co., New York, 2013.

The Eating on the Wild Side fruits and vegetable shopping list is available on Robinson’s website:

Meet The Beetles

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

One of nature’s most important and overlooked carbon farmers is also an ancient symbol of regeneration and renewal: the scarab.

It’s a beetle, a member of the family Scarabaeidae, which includes more than 30,000 different species, part of the order Coleoptera, which encompasses 400,000 species of beetles (out of the 4 to 8 million still to be classified), constituting roughly 25 per cent of all known animal species on the planet. That’s a lot of beetles! Too many to keep in mind, so you’re forgiven if you hadn’t given them much thought. There’s one type, however, that definitely deserves our attention: the dung beetle.

It certainly caught the attention of the ancient Egyptians, who elevated the lowly dung beetle to the status of a god—and for good reason. Dung beetles united three sacred elements of their culture: sun, soil, and cattle. Scarabs fly to the dung patties created by cattle and disassemble them within hours, usually by rolling the manure into brood balls—where the beetles lay their offspring—and then burying the balls below ground in tunnels and chambers where the nutrients nourish soil microbes.

The ancient Egyptians knew this activity was critical to maintaining the health and fertility of the soil on which their civilization depended, which may be why they revered the dung beetle on a level with Osiris, the god of the underworld.Copy of beetles1

Alas, the scarab is not so revered today. In fact, dung beetle populations were nearly hammered into oblivion in the mid-twentieth century by the pesticides and insecticides of industrial agriculture. Only in recent years has their benefit to nature and agricultural ecosystems been rediscovered, including the role they can play sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil. It’s also been estimated that dung beetles can save farmers billions of dollars every year. How?

The story starts with a fly—the horn fly in particular.

Most people don’t realize that manure (dung) is a coveted resource in nature, fought over by many creatures, including the pests and parasites that literally “bug” cattle and other livestock. This includes the horn fly (Haematobia irritans—or blood-loving irritant) which arrived on American shores from Europe in 1887. The flies lay their eggs in cow pats and the larvae are incubated there (for as little as five days) until they transform themselves into new adult flies and emerge to begin their torment. Among other maladies, their persistent biting can cause infections in cattle.

A century ago, however, horn flies were not the scourge they became for a simple reason: dung beetles eliminated the manure before the eggs could hatch. A bevy of beetles can bury a field of fresh manure patties in a matter of hours—no dung, no flies!

This natural balance changed dramatically after World War II when farms, rangelands, and animals began to be sprayed with various synthetic compounds in the name of pest and parasite “control.” Not coincidently, dung beetle populations dropped dramatically (being a “pest” after all), leaving a lot of poop sitting on the ground. Horn fly populations exploded.

Flies can also serve as vectors for a variety of serious diseases that infect humans, including typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, and tuberculosis. One cow patty can house as many as 450 different insect species and one pair of flies can parent as many as 1.5 million new pairs in as little as 14 weeks. Flies can quickly develop resistance to insecticides as well. For all of these reasons, in the early 1970s a handful of researchers and cattle ranchers decided to reject the application of ever-more chemicals and opted to bring back the sacred scarab instead.

Lead by US government entomologist Truman Fincher, an energetic effort began to establish viable populations of two species of dung beetle, one imported from Europe (Onthophagus taurus) and one from Africa (Onthophagus gazella), the latter via Australia where livestock producers were experiencing similar problems. In Africa, research had shown that an elephant dung pile supported 48,000 beetles, who buried the dung underground within hours.

One beneficiary of this work was Texas rancher Walt Davis, an early pioneer of high-density, short-duration cattle grazing, which he found to be ideal for the cultivation of dung beetles that trailed his herd of cattle like camp followers trailing an army of soldiers. When he quit using chemicals on his ranch in 1974, the scarab moved in.

“Those beetles really got to work,” Davis said in an interview in Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. “In a paddock just vacated by a herd…in 48 hours there was no manure. It was gone!”

It was another example of returning to nature’s way of doing things, in this case dung removal.Copy of beetles2

According to Fincher, few people realized the significance of the dung beetles to ecosystems. Beetles are nature’s sanitation crew, he insisted. Their quick burial of dung hastens its decomposition, prevents the loss of nutrients, aerates the soil, and increases the depth of soil containing organic material. That sounds like a recipe for building soil and sequestering carbon.

Not only do dung beetles transport carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus underground when they remove manure, feeding the microbes a rich diet of organic food, their tunnels increase porosity in the soil, which means more water and oxygen reach the microbes as well, revving up their tiny engines. This increases storage of carbon in the soil, with important positive implications for watershed health, plant growth, food production, pollution abatement, and climate change. And all done for free—by nature!

In his book, Charles Walters points out that Onthophagus gazella was released precisely as the natural food and organic agriculture movements began to pick up steam in the US, reflecting a desire for nontoxic approaches to food production that continues to this day. “The mere existence of dung beetles,” wrote Walters, “is a greater guardian of the organic red-meat supply than all the inspection certificates and agencies of verification can account for.”

Then there’s the comic sight of beetles flying to fresh dung as if directed by radar. “No one can say that dung beetles are good flyers,” wrote Walters. “When their encased wings are uncovered like some secret weapon in a military silo, they rise up almost helicopter style, then lumber along like an early Wright Brothers plane.”

Alas, industrial agriculture and its allies were not so amused. The news that their chemicals were killing critters deemed essential to the health of rangelands was not welcome. Infamously, Truman Fincher was forced into early retirement by the US government at the behest of Industry, according to Fincher himself. His research was put on hold and his laboratory samples destroyed.

The lowly dung beetle has struggled to regain its proper place in the ecosystem ever since. Fortunately, it’s making a comeback, thanks in part to rising interest in regenerative agriculture.

Hopefully, one day the scarab will return to its former lofty status!

To Learn More: Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. Acres USA, Austin, TX, 2008.

Here is an informative TED talk on the dance of the dung beetle:

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Beyond Resilience

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet to be published by Chelsea Green in October. See:]

Managing New Normals

Restoring land to health means trying to return it to something like normal ecological conditions. But what if the definition of normal changes in the meantime?

An ecosystem’s capacity to absorb a shock, such as a drought, flood, or forest fire, and then bounce back as quickly as possible is called resilience. Since it’s a critical part of ecosystem health, ecologists have made a big effort to understand what constitutes “normal” conditions in order to help a system be as resilient as possible, especially if the shock has been caused by humans, such as overgrazing by cattle. But what if a system’s definition of normal changes? What if a region’s annual precipitation dropped by half—and stayed there? Or when the rains did fall, they came as unusually large flood events or at the wrong time of year? What does resilience mean in this context?

It’s not an abstract question. Under climate change, scientists tell us, we’ll be experiencing all manner of new normals. For restoration purposes, this means we need to search the management toolbox for practices that go beyond short-term resilience and allow an ecosystem to endure long-term deviations from normal conditions.

What would those practices be? Mike Reardon has an idea.

Since the late 1990s, Reardon has used a wide variety of land restoration tools on his family’s 6500-acre Cañon Bonita Ranch, located in northeastern New Mexico. These tools include tree removal, brush clearing, prescribed fire, planned grazing, erosion control, riparian restoration, water harvesting, dam building, and ranch road repair—all in service of restoring ecological health to the land after decades of mismanagement by previous landowners. Reardon’s overall goal is to support a multitude of diverse wildlife on the property and his work has been highly effective in this regard. Today, however, he faces a new challenge: How do you maintain forward progress when prolonged drought limits the use of certain tools?

In 1997, an expert with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service told Reardon that there were “too many trees” on his ranch. This was news to Reardon, who lives in Albuquerque and readily admits to being a novice about land health when he began managing the ranch. Too many piñon and juniper trees, the expert said, meant a reduced amount of open, grassy habitat for wildlife. In the past, nature corrected this situation with periodic, lightning-sparked wildfires that would thin out the trees, allowing the land to bounce back with perennial grasses. However, a century of fire suppression by landowners and cooperating agencies across the region, coupled with poor livestock management, eventually eliminated the land’s grass cover, resulting in widespread tree encroachment.

To reverse this situation, Reardon focused first on reducing the density of piñon and juniper trees on the ranch. His original tools were handheld loppers and a chainsaw. Then came a spin trimmer, a front-end loader, and a Bobcat skid-steer. Next, Reardon hired a professional woodcutting crew from Mexico. To date, nearly three thousand acres have been cleared on the ranch, though some stands of trees were left for wildlife.

Next, during the years when grass (and rain) was abundant, Reardon alternated the use of two other tools to further reinvigorate the grasslands: prescribed fire and planned grazing. With the assistance of neighbors and fire experts, Reardon has completed two controlled burns, ten years apart, which effectively suppressed tree seedlings. Reardon also employed the tool of high-density, short-duration grazing by cattle during the vegetative dormant season (December through March). This “living fire” recycles old grass into cattle manure, which helps to build grass cover.

Here’s a photo of the abundant and diverse grasses that returned to the Cañon Bonita ranch (that’s Mike Reardon on the left):Copy of normals1

All three tools worked. Grass came back with a flourish, teaching Reardon an important lesson.

“I learned that bare ground was enemy number one,” Reardon said, “so I do everything I can to get grass to grow. And not just any grass, I want perennials and I want as much diversity as possible.”

The next job for the resilience toolbox was water. In order to create more surface water for wildlife to drink, as well as grow a year-round supply of nutritious food, twelve earthen dams and four metal tanks (with windmills) were repaired, modified, or constructed across the ranch. He also implemented a five-phase wetland and riparian restoration project that employed many of the innovative practices pioneered by specialists Bill Zeedyk and Craig Sponholtz.

They designed and implemented treatments for a two-mile stretch of Cañon Bonito Creek, which ran through the center of the ranch. Their goals were to decrease stream bank erosion and downcutting and to raise the water table. They also wanted to reconnect the creek to its floodplain in order to re-wet adjoining wet meadows and increase the amount of live water. They also hoped to increase forage species, including wetland vegetation, and increase cover for wildlife. There was even a plan to harvest water from ranch roads using a variety of techniques, including redesigned road crossings and water-harvesting rock structures in canyon side channels.

Reardon also implemented a detailed monitoring program on the ranch in order to see how changes were progressing. This included vegetation and bare-ground monitoring, moisture data collection, wildlife population surveys, and photographic documentation, including sixty photo points along Cañon Bonito creek alone.

The message of the monitoring data was clear: conditions were improving. Under Reardon’s management, the ranch progressed from a monoculture of blue grama grass to hosting a diversity of more than 55 different grass species. Dry springs began to flow again and wildlife populations shot up by a factor of ten. Despite a drying trend that began in 2002, deer, elk, and wild turkey populations continued to rise and things seemed to be returning to normal. It looked like Reardon had succeeded in rebuilding resilience on the ranch.

Except—the definition of normal was changing. The drought, for example, went on and on—and still goes on.

Today, year-round water in the Cañon Bonito creek is rare, though there is still a steady trickle in the spring area. A relict population of ponderosa pines is dying, along with piñon and juniper trees. Small populations of perennial grasses, previously restored, are now dying as well. And wildlife populations are in decline—wild turkey populations have dropped by 75 percent. As for the land management toolbox—persistent drought means that prescribed fire is off the table and grazing by cattle is limited to selected areas of the ranch.

Reardon has learned the hard way that getting “beyond resilience” is easier said than done.

On the good news front, there is still plenty of ground cover holding the soil in place, capturing “airmail topsoil,” as Reardon puts it, during local dust storms, as well as any raindrop that falls from the sky. The wetland and riparian restoration work have kept the ground moist where otherwise it might have gone dry. It also helps to dissipate the destructive forces of unusually big flood events, such as one the ranch endured on September 2013, when nearly five inches fell in a matter of hours. Thanks to all the vegetation that had grown along the stream banks, the effects of that flood were not nearly as devastating as they would have been otherwise.

Here’s a photo of the new normal of big flood events on the ranch:Copy of normals3

For Reardon, the whole experience points to important lessons learned for the new normals of hotter, drier conditions and chaotic moisture events.

“Use your time effectively,” he said, “focus on sweet spots, have a plan, pull together a diverse group of supporters and professionals, be willing to listen and learn, trust the data, be willing to admit mistakes, be proactive, become land literate, and get ready for the next storm—dust, rain, snow, whatever Mother Nature brings. It will rain again!”

Sage words as we move deeper into the twenty-first century!

More Courtney:

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The Mystrey of the Missing Carbon

It’s a whodunit with huge consequences for life on Earth.

Somehow, a whole lot of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has gone missing and it’s becoming a scientific detective story to figure out where it went and why. The Principle Investigator into this mystery is NASA, which launched a satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) on July 2nd, 2014, into an orbit around the Earth in hopes of cracking the case.

OCO-2 is designed to precisely measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in particular the amounts that are “inhaled and exhaled” annually by living things on the planet. This ‘breathing’ pattern was first discovered by Dr. Charles Keeling and is captured beautifully in the famous Keeling Curve (see: The cause of the breathing pattern is the relationship between sources (emitters) and sinks (absorbers) of CO2. Carbon sources include: fossil fuel combustion, forest fires, decaying organic matter, and the biowaste created by micoorganisms. Carbon sinks include: green plants, oceans, rocks, and soil. The planet ‘breathes in’ when the sinks are working at maximum efficiency (ie summer, when plants are greenest) and ‘breathes out’ when they are not (winter). This breathing becomes a discernable pattern (the Keeling Curve) because there are more deciduous trees, which drop their leaves in the fall, in the northern hemisphere than in the southern.

This breathing is part of the great carbon cycle, by which carbon molecules travel from source to sink to source to sink, round and round. It’s nature’s way of keeping carbon in balance, especially if there’s been a natural disruption. If too many volcanoes go off in a short amount of time, for instance, CO2 levels can rise to very high levels. Or if plants die off as the result of an ice age, levels can fall dramatically. In all cases, when these imbalances occur, the sinks and sources work to restore an equilibrium and get the planet breathing ‘normally’ again – a process, by the way, that takes thousands or millions of years.

Unfortunately, humans have been provoking an asthma attack on Earth since the Industrial Revolution, principally by digging up and burning 300-million-year old carbon in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. In terms of quantity and speed, it’s a source of CO2 that the planet has never experienced before, which means sinks have never had to work this hard in so short a period of time to soak up all this new carbon – the oceans especially – which is where the mystery come in.

Of the billions of tons of CO2 that are currently being pumped into the atmosphere every year as a consequence of human activity (up by a factor of three since the 1950s), approximately 50% stays there, causing global warming. The other 50% is being soaked up by the plant’s sinks, scientists say, with oceans accounting for 27%. That means 23% is going into the land sink, principally green plants, but no one knows precisely where! This is important because encouraging a particular sink to become even more efficient could soak up additional CO2 and help combat climate change.

So where is the missing 23% of the CO2 that we are pumping into the atmosphere going? The authors of most of the articles that I read assume its being taken up by new vegetation, trees specifically. That’s because more plants = more photosynthesis = more soaking up of CO2, which gets stored as biomass in the tree or plant. That’s great news, except for one thing: scientists can’t find a corresponding amount of new trees and plants! The main suspects are the Amazon and the boreal forests of North America and northern Europe, but scientists haven’t been able to correlate new growth in either ecosystem with all that missing carbon. It is presumed that OCO-2 will identify the specific forested culprit.

But what if we’ve got the wrong suspect in mind?

An obvious answer, to me anyway, is soil. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that biologically-rich soil covered with green and growing plants can sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon via photosynthesis. However, none of the articles I read about the missing 23% mentions the soil. A good example is a fascinating article in National Geographic titled ‘The Case of the Missing Carbon’ (

The author writes that that ability of trees and plants to “put on weight” accounts for the missing carbon. However, he notes, even when this ‘extra weight’ is tallied, there is still 1.5 billion tons of carbon missing! Could it be the soil? The author doesn’t say – because he doesn’t mention soil as a sink at all.

This is a common oversight, unfortunately. When it comes to carbon sinks and the role they can play in combating climate change (remember, 50% of the new CO2 being manufactured today is being absorbed by planetary sinks), the focus is almost always on trees and shrubs. Like Cinderella, soils aren’t invited to the party. This is a crime because it’s been well established that soils have the potential capacity to soak up large amounts of CO2. I suspect this ‘mystery’ isn’t a mystery at all – all that ‘missing’ carbon is being stored in soils!

Hopefully, OCO-2 will corroborate my hunch. If it does, then perhaps we can take a big step towards recognizing the potential of soil to assist in the fight against climate.

Here’s a photo of the usual suspect: forest1

 There’s another culprit in this mystery: the U.S Congress.

In recent years, in response to rising concerns about the Earth’s geophysical environment and the impact humans are having on it (and vice versa), NASA launched a series of satellites into orbit to precisely measure various conditions on the planet. Five of these satellites fly in a tight cluster called the A-Train (after a popular swing-era tune), one of which is OCO-2. In addition to carbon dioxide levels, the A-Train records data about airborne pollutants, water vapor, clouds, vegetation, and much more. The goal is to create a synchronous ‘snapshot’ of a specific part of the Earth from multiple perspectives, which will help us humans guide our decisions and actions (hopefully).

Congress, however, wants to dismantle the A-Train. In May, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology voted to gut NASA’s budget for its earth science programs by roughly 25%. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an avowed skeptic of global warming science, said that NASA should be focusing on space, not Earth. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden shot back by saying the budget cuts would “set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts and storm events.”

The Committee’s proposed cuts boggle the mind – but not more than their hypocritical reasoning, if you can call it reasoning at all. Here’s an illustration: Smith wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he said “Instead of letting political ideology or climate ‘religion’ guide government policy, we should focus on good science. The facts alone should determine what climate policy options the U.S. considers.”

Except – if you eliminate the satellites, you have no data! How can decisions be based on the facts without any facts? I’m not naïve enough, of course, to know what’s really going on here, but it staggers the mind nonetheless. It’s one thing to dispute the data or conclusions based on facts, but it’s another to block the fact-gathering itself. Here’s Smith again: “We don’t know enough yet to make decisions that are going to hurt our economy or hurt the American people. Let’s continue to gather the facts, make sure the science is correct.”

Incredible. Call it The Case of the Missing Data. The criminal is Congress and the murder victims are future generations of Americans.

I don’t know the answer to this mystery other than hope for more democracy. We know what to do about carbon – stop burning it and start storing it – but I don’t know what to do about a political ideology that not only rejects scientific conclusions but actually blocks their formulation. Vote ‘em out of office, I suppose, and pray that their replacements are more willing to gather data and accept scientific consensus. But figuring that out is beyond my pay grade.

In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting for NASA’s A-train! Here’s an illustration: a-train(arch)_new

Courtney White:

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Two Announcements

Hi everyone. I just wanted to make two quick announcements:

I’ve bitten the bullet and launched a Facebook page. Take a look:

Second, I have a new book coming out in September from Chelsea Green Press titled Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change.

 Copy of TwoPercent_frontcover

Terra Cognita

What a difference twenty years make.

On April 23rd, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a major voluntary, incentive-based effort to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding renewable energy production, and increasing carbon sequestration in partnership with various agricultural producers across the nation. Specifically, this effort aims to achieve a net reduction of 2% of greenhouse emissions by 2025, or the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, according to the press release.

While this goal is not particularly ambitious, frankly, it does represent a startling change from the type of conservation priorities on federally owned lands that I encountered when I co-founded the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago. It’s an important indication not only how serious climate change has become as a policy issue, but also a testament to how far soil carbon has risen as a climate change mitigation strategy. If you had told me as recently as 2010, when I began researching a book on soil carbon, that the Secretary of Agriculture would be supporting publicly the implementation of practices that sequestered carbon in soils, I would not have believed you.

But here’s what the press release said: “USDA intends to pursue partnerships and leverage resources to conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks, reduce emissions, increase renewable energy and build resilience in agricultural and forest systems.”

Here are some of the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Action announced at the April press conference:

  • Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. For example, the effort aims to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.
  • Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.
  • Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 5,000 acres each year.
  • Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values.

Twenty years ago, goals like these would have made all of us fall out of our saddles. Words like adaptation, mitigation, sequestration and even resilience were not on anyone’s agenda, much less the words climate change. At the time, we worked mainly on improving land health – the ecological processes that sustain life in rangelands and riparian areas. Mostly, we focused on living things above the ground, such as plants, animals and people. The microbial subsurface universe was terra incognita for many of us. And carbon? Wasn’t that just some element on a Periodic Chart?

How the times have changed.

It’s especially heartening to see the Secretary of Agriculture support rotational grazing. One of Quivira’s principle goals was to spread the news about the multiple benefits short duration, management-intensive cattle grazing, now generally called holistic planned grazing. We took a lot heat from a lot of quarters for our advocacy, including from employees of the USDA’s Forest Service. For a while in the mid-2000s, Quivira was a grazing permittee on the Santa Fe National Forest where we attempted to ‘walk the talk’ of progressive land management. Our hopes for implementing a planned grazing system on the allotment, however, were met with a large amount of indifference (i.e. passive opposition) by the local Forest Service district office. To see the Secretary of Agriculture now become an advocate for the very system we tried to implement is both exciting and bittersweet.

AS a result of this experience, I’ll remain skeptical until I see the Secretary’s words actually reach the ground.

It’s the same with his support for no-till farming systems. On a conventional farm, a tractor and a plow are required in order to turn over the soil and prepare it for seeding and fertilizing, a process the often requires three passes of the tractor over the field. In a no-till system, a farmer uses a mechanical seed drill pulled behind a tractor to plant directly into the soil, requiring only one pass. The drill makes a thin slice in the soil as it moves along, but nothing resembling the broad furrow created by a plow. The soil is not turned over and any growing plants or crop residue on the surface are left largely undisturbed, which is a great way to reduce erosion and keep soil cool and moist, especially during the hot summer months.

These are all good reasons why no-till has grown in popularity with farmers around the world.

One of the major disadvantages of no-till, however, is its lack of weed control. When farmers don’t plow, the weeds say “thank you very much” for all that undisturbed soil and grow vigorously. To kill weeds in a no-till system, many farmers apply chemical herbicides to their fields. Lots of it. They also spray pesticides to keep the bugs in check. Additionally, many no-till farmers use genetically modified seeds, often in combination with the synthetic herbicides. All of this is verboten in an organic farming system, of course, which brings us to the Holy Grail of regenerative agriculture: organic no-till. It combines the best of both worlds—no plow and no chemicals. It operates on biology – plus the tractor and the seed drill.

I doubt Vilsack has organic no-till in mind with this new effort to fight climate change, but who knows? After twenty years, at least it’s a start!

In this graphic, replace the words ‘organic matter’ with ‘carbon’ and see how it all links together.soil_food_web_biochar_blm

To explain how the USDA’s new policy on carbon sequestration in soils might work, it’s worth a quick review of a protein in the soil called glomalin, one of nature’s superglues.

The story starts with mycorrhizal fungi, which are long, skinny filaments that live on the surface of plant roots with which they share a symbiotic relationship, trading essential nutrients and minerals back and forth. This fungi-root mutualism reduces a plant’s susceptibility to disease and increases its tolerance to adverse conditions, including prolonged drought spells or salty soils.

Fungi in general are best known to humans as the source of mushrooms, yeasts, and the molds that make cheeses tasty, ruin houses in humid climates, and produce antibiotics. Like plants, animals, and bacteria, fungi form their own taxonomic kingdom. There are an estimated 2 to 5 million individual species of fungi on the planet, of which less than 5 percent have been formally classified by taxonomists.

Carbon molecules, in the form a sugar called glucose, pass from plant roots into a mycorrhizal fungus where they eventually makes their way to one of its hyphae – hairlike projections that extend as much as 2 inches into the soil in a never-ending search for nutrients. Then, in a process that is not completely understood by scientists, the carbon molecule is extruded from the hyphae as a sticky protein called glomalin.

As a plant grows, hyphae break off and the now free-floating glomalin quickly binds itself to loose sand, silt, and clay particles. Soon, small clumps of glomalin-glued particles form larger and larger aggregates, kind of like a vast, intricate tinker toy construction. As the aggregates grow bigger they become stronger and more stable, making the soil increasingly resistant to wind and water erosion. This process also makes the soil more porous (fluffy), with lots of tiny pockets in between the tinker-toy aggregates, and this facilitates oxygen infiltration, water transport, micro-critter movement, and nutrient transfer.

 Next stop: humus – carbon rich soil, dark, rich, and sweet-smelling.

You can feel glomalin, by the way. It’s what gives soil its tilth—the smooth texture that tells experienced farmers and gardeners that they are holding great soil in their hands. To create tilth, the soil engine needs both biology and chemistry working together, and glomalin is the glue that binds them.

Glomalin itself is a tough protein. It can exist up to fifty years without decaying or dissolving. When locked into the stable tinker-toy structure of humus, it can persistent for even longer periods of time. Healthy soils have a lot of glomalin, which means this: since glomalin is 30 to 40 percent carbon, it is the ideal safedeposit box for the long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is what scientists call “deep carbon”—the kind that stays in the soil for decades, or longer. There are fewer hungry microbes this deep in the soil, which adds to the stability and longevity of the carbon storage.

It’s a simple equation: lots of deep glomalin = lots of secure carbon storage. It’s also a fragile equation, however. A plow can destroy this safe-deposit box in a heartbeat, releasing its carboniferous contents back into the atmosphere. Plows also tear mycorrhizal fungi into bits, slaughtering them in droves, putting an end to our unsung heroes.

No one knew glomalin existed until it was discovered in 1996 by Sara Wright, a soil scientist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Maryland. She named it after glomales, the taxonomic order that includes arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Not only did she uncover its role in soil-building and carbon sequestration, but a subsequent four-year research project under her direction demonstrated that levels of glomalin could be maintained and raised with regenerative farming practices, including no-till planting.

In the study, Wright observed that glomalin levels rose each year after no-till was implemented, from 1.3 milligrams per gram of soil (mg/g) after the first year to 1.7 mg/g after the third. A control plot in a nearby field that was plowed and planted each year had only 0.7 mg/g. In a further comparison, the soil under a fifteen-year-old buffer strip of grass had 2.7 mg/g of glomalin. She also discovered that some plants don’t attract arbuscular fungi to their roots, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustards, rapeseed, and canola.

Before 1996, determining the carbon content of a farm’s soil was largely based on measuring its soil organic matter (SOM), which is roughly 58 percent carbon. Thanks to the discovery of glomalin, soil carbon can now be measured quite precisely. This sort of data is very useful in determining how much deep carbon a specific farming or ranching practice is sequestering. It has economic implications as well, since carbon trading markets, such as the ones recently established in California could potentially use levels of glomalin as a “currency” to pay landowners for mitigating carbon dioxide pollution.

Here’s an idea: employ a farming or ranching practice that is known scientifically to increase levels of glomalin and get compensated financially!

That’s what I would recommend to Secretary Vilsack, anyway.

Here’s an electron microscope image of glomalin (the small spherical shapes) on a fungus:


The Carbon Ranch

[This is the final excerpt from my book Age of Consequences. I return to the theme of carbon, climate and hope – the subject of new posts to follow]

Novelist and historian Wallace Stegner once said that every book should try to answer an anguished question. I believe the same is true for ideas, movements, and emergency efforts. In the case of climate change, an anguished question is this: what can we do right now to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from its current (and future) dangerously high levels?

In an editorial published in July of 2009, Dr. James Hansen of NASA proposed an answer: “cut off the largest source of emissions—coal—and allow CO2 to drop back down . . . through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.” I consider these words to be a sort of ‘Operating Instructions’ for the twenty-first century. Personally, I’m not sure how we accomplish the coal side of the equation, which requires governmental action, but I have an idea about how to increase carbon storage in soils.

I call it a carbon ranch.

The purpose of a carbon ranch is to mitigate climate change by sequestering CO2 in plants and soils, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and producing co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes. “Sequester” means to withdraw for safekeeping, to place in seclusion, into custody, or to hold in solution—all of which are good definitions for the process of sequestering CO2 in plants and soils via photosynthesis and sound stewardship.

The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil carbon is neither new nor mysterious. It has been going on for millions and millions of years, and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Dr. Christine Jones, a pioneering Australian soil scientist, there are four basic steps to the CO2/soil carbon process:

Photosynthesis: This is the process by which energy in sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy, in the form of a simple sugar called glucose, via green plants—which use CO2 from the air and water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a byproduct.

Resynthesis: Through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, glucose is resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch), proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils (including hydrocarbons)—all of which serve as fuel for life on Earth.

Exudation: Around 30-40 percent of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. This process is essential to the creation of topsoil from the lifeless mineral soil produced by the weathering of rocks over time. The amount of increase in organic carbon is governed by the volume of plant roots per unit of soil and their rate of growth. More active green leaves mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded.

Humification: This is the creation of humus—a chemically stable type of organic matter composed of large, complex molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, and minerals. Visually, humus is the dark, rich layer of topsoil that people associate with rich gardens, productive farmland, stable wetlands, and healthy rangelands. Land management practices that promote the ecological health of the soil are key to the creation and maintenance of humus. Once carbon is sequestered as humus, it has a high resistance to decomposition and therefore can remain intact and stable for hundreds or thousands of years.

Additionally, high humus content in soil improves water infiltration and storage, due to its spongelike quality and high water-retaining capacity. Recent research demonstrates that one part humus can retain as much as four parts water. This has positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, especially important in times of drought.

In sum, the natural process of converting sunlight into humus is an organic way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soil for long periods of time. If the land is bare, degraded, or unstable due to erosion, and if it can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, covered with green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high. Conversely, when healthy, stable land becomes degraded or loses green plants, the carbon cycle can become disrupted and release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

Healthy soil = healthy carbon cycle = storage of atmospheric CO2. Any land management activity that encourages this equation, especially if it results in the additional storage of CO2, can help fight climate change. Or as Dr. Christine Jones puts it, “Any . . . practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon.”

image description The Carbon Cycle (courtesy of the Quivira Coalition)

What would those practices be? There are at least six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus its carbon content. Three sequestration strategies include:

Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground, deepening the roots of existing healthy plants, and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, a “carbon rancher” can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include the soil cap–breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the “herd” effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning dead plant matter back into the soil; the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old forage; targeted grazing of noxious and invasive plants, which promotes native species diversity; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.

Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands in the United States exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock, and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, the disruption of hydrological cycles, the decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, and the loss of wetlands. The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. There are many cobenefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health as well, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.

Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees where I live, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners has been an increasing focus of restoration work recently. One goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. The removal of trees also has an important cobenefit: they are a source of local biomass energy production, which can help reduce a ranch’s carbon footprint.

Three maintenance strategies that help keep stored CO2 in soils include:

The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate-change-mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2; their destruction releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, but they often also improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important cobenefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.

Building long-term resilience. Nature, like society, doesn’t stand still for long. Things change constantly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a rush. Some changes are significant, such as a major forest fire or a prolonged drought, and can result in ecological threshold-crossing events, often with deleterious consequences. Resilience refers to the capacity of land, or people, to “bend” with these changes without “breaking.” Managing a forest through thinning and prescribed fire so that it can avoid a destructive, catastrophic fire is an example of building resilience into a system. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in soils requires building resilience as well, including the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members.

All of these strategies have been field-tested by practitioners, landowners, agencies, and researchers and demonstrated to be effective in a wide variety of landscapes. The job now is to integrate them holistically into a “climate-friendly” landscape that sequesters increasing amounts of CO2 each year.

Copy of notill1 Organic no-till farming (courtesy of the Rodale Institute)

Reality check: the increased sequestration of CO2 in soils won’t solve climate change by itself. It won’t even be close if the emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced at the same time. According to experts, this reduction must be on the order of 50-80 percent of current emissions levels within fifty years.

A carbon ranch can help in three ways: by measuring and then reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions an agricultural operation contributes to the atmosphere; by producing renewable energy “on-ranch,” which it can use itself and/or sell to a local or regional power grid; and by participating in local food and restoration activities that lower our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels.

A carbon ranch can also help by confronting the controversy over “offsets” and carbon “credits”—the two strategies most frequently touted by governments, businesses, and others for encouraging the creation of a so-called “carbon marketplace.” In this marketplace, “credits” created by the sequestration of CO2 in one place can be “sold” or traded to “offset” a CO2 polluting entity, such as a coal plant or airline company, someplace else, supposedly to the benefit of all. In reality, these schemes appear to mostly offset our guilty feelings rather than actually affect atmospheric levels of CO2.

Here are these ideas in more detail:

Reducing the “footprint” of a carbon ranch. This is a two-step process: assess the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are rising from a particular landscape or operation, follow this assessment with a concerted effort to reduce these emissions. One way to measure this carbon footprint is to conduct a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) of an enterprise, which is an inventory of the material and energy inputs and outputs characteristic of each stage of a product’s life cycle. This is a well-recognized procedure for tracking the ecological impacts of, say, a television set or a refrigerator, and different types of LCAs exist for different types of products.

For a carbon ranch, there are four important measures of its LCA: (1) cumulative energy use; (2) ecological footprint; (3) greenhouse gas emissions; (4) eutrophying emissions

The first three measurements are relatively straightforward, and there are many credible methodologies today to calculate energy use, ecological footprints, and emissions, though most are designed for urban contexts or industrial agriculture.

However, the fourth measurement—eutrophying emissions—has been the source of considerable controversy in recent years. It refers to the amount of methane produced by the digestive system of livestock during its time on the ranch, farm, or feedlot—and in the public’s mind, the connotation is negative. That’s because the public has conflated a natural biological process—belching cows—with fossil fuel-intensive industrial livestock production activities, including chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture, cultivation of feed crops (corn), and the transportation of feed and animal products. As a result, there is an impression among the public at large that one answer to the climate crisis is to “eat less red meat”—an opinion that I have heard repeatedly at conferences and meetings.

Personally, I think an answer is to eat more meat—from a carbon ranch.

For the purposes of a carbon ranch, the methane emission issue is just one part of the overall “footprint” assessment. The goal of a Life-Cycle Analysis is to measure an operation’s energy use and emissions so that it can reduce both over time. Ultimately, the goal is to become carbon-neutral or, ideally, carbon-negative—meaning the amount of CO2 sequestered is greater than the ranch’s carbon footprint.

Producing renewable energy. Anything that a carbon ranch can do to produce energy on-site will help balance its energy “footprint” and could reduce the economy’s overall dependence on fossil fuels. This includes wind and solar farms; the production of biodiesel from certain on-site crops for use in ranch vehicles; biomass for cogeneration projects (this is especially attractive if it uses the woody debris being removed from the ranch anyway); micro-hydro, micro-wind, and solar for domestic use; and perhaps other as yet unrealized renewable energy alternatives.

Participating in a local economy. A carbon ranch should carefully consider its role in the “footprint”of the greater economy. Are its products traveling long distances or otherwise burning large amounts of fossil fuels? It is generally accepted that involvement in a local food market, where the distances between producer and eater are short, shrinks the fossil “footprint” of a ranch considerably. There is some contradictory research on this point, however. In my opinion, the technical issues of local versus global food systems in terms of food miles traveled is largely neutralized by the wide variety of cobenefits that local food brings economically and ecologically.

The trouble with offsets. Many observers—myself included—have become increasingly skeptical of the offset concept at regional or national scales. Objections include: (1) We need actual net reductions of atmospheric CO2, not just the neutralizing “offset” of a polluter by a sequesterer. And we need these net reductions quickly; (2) It is not acceptable to let a big, industrial polluter “off the hook” with an offset; (3) It is unrealistic to expect the same system that created the climate problem in the first place—i.e., our current economy and specifically its financial sector—to solve this problem and to do so with the same financial tools.

While offsets and carbon credits may not be the economic engine of the future, they highlight an important challenge for carbon ranching: profitability. If not offsets, then how can a landowner who desires to mitigate climate change earn a paycheck, without which there will no carbon ranching?

One idea is to include “climate-friendly” practices as an added value to the marketing of ranch products, such as its beef. Another is to create a “carbon market” at the local level. A county government, for example, could help to create a local carbon market to help offset its judicial buildings or schools or prisons. It could possibly do so through its ability to tax, zone, and otherwise regulate at the county level. It would still have to deal with some of the other challenges confronting offsets, but at least it would keep the marketplace local.

Another idea might be to reward landowners financially for meeting sequestration and emissions goals. The federal government routinely subsidizes rural economic development enterprises, such as the ongoing effort to bring high-speed broadband Internet to rural communities. Additionally, the government often provides incentives to businesses for market-based approaches, including corn-based ethanol production, solar power development, and wind technology (and don’t forget the federal government’s catalyzing role in the birth of the Internet). It would be perfectly logical, therefore, to reward early adopters of carbon ranching with a direct financial payment as a means to create new markets.

None of this will be easy. In fact, the obstacles standing in the way of implementing a carbon ranch and sharing its many cobenefits are large and diverse. Is it worth trying anyway? Absolutely. If a carbon ranch could make a difference in the fight against climate change—now developing as the overarching crisis of the twenty-first century—then we must try. The alternative—not trying—means we consign our future to politics, technology, and wishful thinking, none of which have made a difference so far.

Best of all, a carbon ranch doesn’t need to be invented. It already exists. We know how to grow grass with animals. We’ve learned how to fix creeks and heal wetlands. We’re getting good at producing local grassfed food. We’ll figure out how to reduce our carbon footprint and develop local renewable energy sources profitably. We don’t need high technology—we have the miracle of photosynthesis already.

Answers to anguished questions exist, but too often our eyes seem fixed on the stars and our minds dazzled by distant horizons, blinding us to possibilities closer to home. A carbon ranch teaches us that we should be looking down, not up.

At the grass and the roots.IMG_1762

Published in The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press) see:


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