Solutions Abound

by Courtney White

This excerpt is adapted from Courtney White’s book Two Percent Solutions for the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

We live in an era of seemingly intractable challenges: increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, rising food demands from a human population that is projected to expand from seven to nine billion people by 2050, and dwindling supplies of fresh water, to name just three. What to do? So far, our response to these big problems has been to consider “big” solutions, including complex technologies, arm-twisting treaties, untested geoengineering strategies, and new layers of regulation, all of which have the net effect of increasing complexity (and anxiety) in our lives. And most of these big solutions come with big costs, both financial and social, especially for those least able to bear them.

Which raised a question in my mind a few years ago: Why not consider low-cost, low-tech, nature-based solutions instead?

Rancher Tom Sidwell standing on restored grasslands on the JX Ranch, a result of planned grazing practices and brush clearing. Photo by Courtney White

I knew this was possible based on my experience with the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico–based nonprofit that I cofounded in 1997 with a cattle rancher and a fellow conservationist. Our original goal was to find common ground between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around progressive livestock grazing practices that were good for both the land and its inhabitants. Over time our work increasingly focused on building economic and ecological resilience in the West, with a special emphasis on ecological restoration, local food production, and bridging urban-rural divides (described in my book Revolution on the Range).

Through Quivira, I had met many innovative people who had been hard at work for decades field-testing and implementing a wide variety of regenerative land management practices, proving them to be practical, profitable, and effective. These practices, such as planned grazing by livestock and the ecological restoration of creeks, are principally low-tech, involving photosynthesis, water, plants, animals, and thoughtful stewardship rather than big-ticket technological interventions. I knew they improved land health, produced food, and repaired broken water cycles. What I didn’t know was how they might address the rising challenge of greenhouse gas buildup in our atmosphere.

This changed in 2009 when a Worldwatch Institute report, “Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use,” landed on my desk. Its authors argued that the potential for removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities was both large and largely overlooked. Strategies they listed included enriching soil carbon, no-till farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, and restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands.

That sounded like the work of the Quivira Coalition!

Exploring further, I discovered that many other regenerative practices also sequester CO2 in soils and plants as well as address food and water problems. The link, I learned, was carbon. It’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases, and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up. A healthy carbon cycle, I realized, had a wide range of positive benefits for every living thing on the planet.

Jeffrey Creque inspects olive-mill-waste compost piles at McEvoy Ranch. Use of the compost doubled carbon content of the soil in less than ten years. Photo by Courtney White

However, I also discovered that carbon sequestration in soils and the climate change mitigation potential of these regenerative and resilient practices was nearly unknown to the general public, much less to decision makers and others in leadership positions. Even within progressive ranching, farming, and conservation communities, the multiple economic and ecological gains that come from increasing carbon in soils were largely overlooked. The story of carbon needed to be told, I saw, leading me to write Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country, which makes the case that if we can draw increasing amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil we can go a long way toward solving many of the challenges that now confront us.

There wasn’t enough space in Grass, Soil, Hope for many of the hopeful stories of regenerative practices that I had discovered along the way. What to do with all these wonderful solutions? After giving it some thought and consulting with my colleagues at the Quivira Coalition, I decided to begin writing them up as short case studies. There was a need, I surmised, for succinct profiles of nature-based approaches to global problems. To that end, I included some condensed versions of practices I had described in Grass, Soil, Hope and other publications. I called the entire series 2% Solutions for Hunger, Thirst and CO2 and we bundled 14 profiles into a special edition of Quivira’s journal, Resilience, in the fall of 2013. The response was very positive, so I decided to keep writing—resulting in this book: Two Percent Solutions for the Planet.

The 2 percent in the title refers to:

  • the small amount of additional carbon in the soil needed to reap a wide variety of ecological and economic benefits;
  • the portion of the nation’s population who are farmers, ranchers, and others who can get this work done; and
  • the low financial cost of these solutions—only 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

It is an illustrative number—not a scientific one—meant to stimulate our imaginations. Look what can happen for only 2 percent! Big solutions, in other words, can actually be accomplished at a small cost.

Each of the fifty practices profiled in this book either builds soil carbon (and thus mitigates climate change), intensifies food production sustainably, improves water quality and quantity, or involves a critical support activity—such as animal herding or an advance in appropriate technology—that enhances regenerative practices. Many do more than one! Some solutions are more expensive, complicated, or specialized than others, but all share a common attribute: they are regenerative over the long haul, meaning they replete rather than deplete people, animals, plants, soil, and other natural resources. Each solution is simultaneously unique and interdependent. Each can be implemented on its own, depending on local conditions and circumstances, but each is also part of a synergistic whole—a vision of renewability, vitality, and careful stewardship. You can use them like tools lifted from a toolbox, but without a larger blueprint in mind you won’t build anything durable.

In the last decade or two, a movement to rediscover and implement “old” practices of bygone days has arisen rapidly, abetted by remarkable innovations in technology; breakthroughs in scientific knowledge; and tons of old-fashioned, on-the-ground problem-solving. Some of the reasons for the rapid development of this “new” agriculture are practical; some are economic; some are philosophical; and some are driven by a sense of urgency about the world—but all of them are motivated by a concern for the future. Questions abound: How can we conserve finite and dwindling natural resources for future generations? How can we adjust and adapt our lives to tomorrow’s changing climate? How can we create a robust economic and ecological bequest for all our children?

To find answers, many people looked to the past for wisdom, and what they discovered is this: nature’s model works best. After all, nature has used evolution and the laws of physics to beta-test what works for merely millions of years—billions in the case of photosynthesis. That’s why a new generation of agrarians is returning to the roots of agriculture and conservation for a different approach, with large helpings of science and social advancement added in. I like the way the Rodale Institute described it recently in a white paper: farming like the Earth matters. Like water and soil and land matter. Like clean air matters. Like human health, animal health, and ecosystem health matter.

Rainbow at sunset over regenerative farm in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Courtney White.

It all matters, and regenerative solutions are the way we’ll get there.

The goal of this book is to present informative snapshots of regenerative practices in a format that can be widely read and shared. It is not a comprehensive accounting by any means. I picked 50 topics that I consider to be a diverse representation of the regenerative world. There are other solutions already at work, and new ones are being developed even as you read this. I encourage you to seek them out. In the meantime, I hope this book will help you connect the dots between these diverse, pragmatic, and hopeful practices.

It is also my hope that readers will be energized by a story or two in the collection to explore a particular topic further—to dig deeper and learn more. Consider each solution as the top two inches of water in a well that extends down hundreds or thousands of feet—a well of knowledge and experience that took decades to create. Check out these wells in the field yourself: visit a farm or ranch or research project and learn directly from the practitioners themselves.

This collection has one more goal: spread the good news—solutions abound!

To Learn More

“Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use”
by Sara J. Scherr and Sajal Sthapit. WorldWatch Report no. 179. WorldWatch Institute, Washington DC, 2009.

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country
by Courtney White. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2014.

About the Author

Photo by Elaine Patarini

Courtney White is the author of Grass, Soil, Hope. A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, White dropped out of the “conflict industry” in 1997 to cofound the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, and others around practices that improve economic and ecological resilience in western working landscapes. He is the author of Revolution on the Range, The Age of Consequences, and The Indelible West, a collection of black-and-white photographs with a foreword by Wallace Stegner. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

 

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