A system that cannot deliver the wellbeing of people and nature is in deep trouble. It invites ideas and actions that are transformative.
James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability[i]
IN AN ARTICLE in The London Review of Books from September 2017, Pankaj Mishra – a leading literary and political essayist and novelist – begins by asking: ‘Is it finally closing time in the gardens of the West? The wails that have rent the air since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory rise from the same parts of Anglo-America that hosted, post 1989, the noisiest celebrations of liberalism, democracy, free markets and globalisation.’ Mishra identifies that, in recent years, a group of neoliberal ‘prophets of decline’ have expressed a fear about the decline of the West – what they claim is the ‘world’s most successful political idea’ – resulting from populist social movements.
In addition to Mishra’s point, I would ask another question: are some of these wails, perhaps, repressed acknowledgement that the West – indeed, the very philosophy of neoliberalism, globalisation and rampant growth – is coming unstuck as hurricanes and heat ‘rent the air’ in a cascade of havoc across the globe? The evidence is now incontrovertible that our one and only major set of interconnected, self-organising Earth systems – the systems that define this place we all share – are faltering because of the relentless impact of industrial, fossil-fuelled capitalism. These are the systems that have sustained life and human culture during the last 12,000 or so years of the benevolent Holocene epoch (and indeed long before that).
It is clear we have entered a new, dangerous era for life on earth. Human activity has begun to overwhelm the great forces of nature, placing virtually all life – including that of humanity – at potential grave risk. This constitutes a shocking new development for our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth. The reason? Because for the first time, one of Earth’s co-evolved creatures has precipitated the terrible situation where Earth’s own history is indivisibly entangled with humankind’s history, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.[ii]
This gathering Anthropocene storm dwarfs all other issues. As such, this is where I must begin. But from my life’s experience and research – as a farmer and breeder of merinos, as a naturalist and a human ecologist – that beginning also provides grounds for hope. Moreover, such hope is rooted deep in our landscapes and what Australia’s First Peoples know as ‘country’. This comprises a multi-layered and dynamic term that goes beyond the physical and ecological to include the idea of an ancestral home terrain and territory with spiritual, universal, practical and local elements.
THE TERM ‘ANTHROPOCENE’ is used to describe the current geological epoch so as to emphasise, in the words of leading Earth system scientists Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, ‘the central role of humankind in geology and ecology: a role that will almost certainly leave millennia-long impacts’.[iii] While the start of the Anthropocene can be dated to the beginning of the industrial era, after 1800, things really began to go pear-shaped after 1945 in a unique phase of human enterprise and Earth history now described as ‘the Great Acceleration’. From 1950 onwards, Earth system trends (such as levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane in the atmosphere, ocean and surface temperatures, marine fish capture or tropical forest loss) and socio-economic trends (such as world population, urban population, real GDP, primary energy use, construction of large dams, telecommunications, international tourism, even the number of McDonalds restaurants) all exploded upwards in a pattern unique in global history. This signature of apparent economic and social thriving may well constitute ‘capitalism’s sublime success’, but in truth it could prove to be our species’ greatest mistake. According to Steffen and fifteen other leading Earth system colleagues, this was the moment ‘when the most rapid and pervasive shift in the human-environment relationship began’.[iv]
To a cohort of surprised leading researchers and thinkers across the world, the implications of the data triggered urgent calls to action in 2015, and for us all to become ‘active stewards of our own life-support system’.[v] But we have a major problem: the ennui and inertia of both our political leadership and the populace in general in reacting to this existential threat. Such non-reactivity seems to involve a combination of factors. These include the remote and intangible nature of threat or discomfort, and the fact that these threats are not always immediately recognisable. This in turn then leaves the field open to the obfuscation and denial through wilful ignorance or active scepticism (not to forget deliberate misinformation) spread by cynical commercial interests, self-seeking myopic politicians, and neoliberal ideologues.
As Clive Hamilton states in his challenging book Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Allen & Unwin, 2017), ‘today the greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy. The indifference of most to the Earth system’s disturbance’ which places us ‘on the edge of the abyss’.[vi] This indifference is clearly illustrated by the collective polity in Australia and epitomised, for example, by the denialism fostered in the Murdoch and some of the rural press, and by the conservative rump of politicians and their supporters.
In the face of this ennui and cynical, self-interested and ultimately suicidal-like behaviour, there are considerable seeds for hope. Feasible solutions exist, but these solutions are not coming from ‘the top’ – neither from politics nor the ‘big end of town’. Rather, they are grassroots solutions. And many are appearing from an unlikely group of radical insurgents hitherto largely ignored by the mainstream. This motley crew comprises a wide divergence of regenerative farmers and their urban partners in new food and social movements that are each, in their own way, stepping outside the accepted social model. It’s an ‘underground insurgency’ in effect. And to appreciate its significance, we need to talk about Earth’s self-organising and interrelated systems.
MORE THAN THIRTY years after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology, I returned to the Australian National University to undertake a PhD at the Fenner School of Environment & Society. I wanted to investigate the new movement of regenerative agriculture, to probe how and why leading farmers had undergone the cognitive transformation of shifting from an industrial to an ecologically embedded approach. This sprang from my own transformative shift in land management following the traumatic continent-wide drought of the 1980s, and my subsequent reflection on my mistakes and the damage I’d inflicted on the land. I was forced to conclude that there had to be a better way to farm than the way I had followed early in my career, which was typified by overgrazing of pastures with sheep and cattle, and sometimes aggressive ploughing and use of chemicals. This ‘better way’ needed to be less harmful to landscapes – especially those in drought.
By ‘regenerative farming’, I mean a variety of agricultural practices focused on regenerating and empowering healthy landscape function (such as solar, water and soil-mineral cycles and biodiversity). This is very much counter to the dominant industrial model, which generally aims to simplify, dominate, control and often destroy natural function.[vii] Regenerative agriculture has moral imperatives, and it implies more than just sustaining something; rather, it is an active rebuilding of existing systems towards full health. It also implies an ongoing process of improvement and positive transformation. This can encompass: the regeneration of soil itself, and of biodiversity more widely; the reduction of toxins and pollutants; the recharging of aquifers; the production of healthy food, and clean water and air; the replacement of external agricultural inputs such as industrial fertilizers and chemical inputs; and the enhancement of social capital and ecological knowledge. All of these are integral components of Earth’s regulating systems.
Regenerative agricultural practices are being applied in many ways, including: evolving management approaches for regenerating grasslands; new cropping approaches focused on enhancing soil biology and landscape function; farmer-driven, diverse agroforestry and food forestry; encouraging landscape diversity of all sorts; water capture and enhancement of water cycles; and other innovative approaches such as permaculture and biodynamics. In wide travels across Australia visiting clients of my Merino sheep stud, I’d noticed how some clients and other farmers were implementing regenerative agricultural practices and achieving remarkable results.
My return to university required an enormous ‘catch-up’ challenge: in the later twentieth century, three decades was an awfully long time concerning areas of new knowledge. Advances in digital and biotechnology had spawned methods of thinking that allowed a manageable and effective grasp of the nature and function of complex adaptive systems. Such systems can include anything from the World Wide Web to a catchment in a landscape, a farm, and indeed the Earth itself. To teach university students about such systems, I had to get my own head around their twelve main identifiable traits.[viii]
One trait particularly impacting me was that of ‘self-organisation’. This refers to the inherent capacity of systems (and especially natural systems), following disturbance or in the normal course of events, to move towards greater complexity and thus greater stability and resilience. This means that healthy, functioning living systems have a propensity to behave in a way that is established by the system itself. The reason they can do this is because the system provides the solutions from within, from what are called ‘emergent properties’. Soil bacteria and mycorrhizal (or root) fungi may detoxify poisons or destroy pathogens. Once a healthy, deep soil has been developed, soil organisms such as beetles may bring up long-buried seed for germination from plants not seen in many decades. This process of ‘emergence’ is thus an integral part of a healthy complex adaptive system or ecosystem.
In my research, I ended up interviewing more than a hundred regenerative farmers, all of whom had enacted positive, healthy change not just in their thinking but also, especially, in their landscapes. And a number of them kept telling me: ‘My job is just to get out of the way of Mother Nature and let her get on with it.’ What they were actually saying, I came to realise, was: ‘I need to enable healthy self-organisation to occur on my farm and in my landscape.’
Time and again I witnessed this in farmers’ paddocks. I visited David Vincent, whose family owns a farm near Canberra and who, in an earlier life, had been one of the nation’s top economists. On ‘retirement’ he had bought a run-down farm and, with his family, had begun regenerating it back to a state of productive health, starting with a single valley.
On the day I visited David’s farm, we passed a neighbour whose land adjoined David’s upstream. The neighbour’s farm was overgrazed and bare, there were patches of dryland salinity, and his dry creek had evidence of active erosion. By contrast, David’s valley revealed regenerating green pastures spreading hundreds of metres out from his creek. The creek itself had a diverse mix of riparian vegetation, with permanently trickling water and an active, diverse ecology. Talking with David about this vibrant contrast between two farming systems, I noticed a small patch of Phragmites reeds – a recent arrival, probably due to material carried by visiting water birds. And suddenly, out of this small patch of reeds, came the beautiful song of a reed-warbler (a bird not much bigger than a delicate wine-glass).
I stood rooted to the ground, for I realised this almost certainly would have been the first time in 150 years of degrading European management that a reed-warbler had returned to this valley. The powerful song of that small bird became a metaphor of hope for me. It was a symbol of the power of regeneration and the capacity of self-organisation in a landscape. It was a living example of what could be achieved.
In The Self-Creating Universe: The Making of a Worldview (Xlibris, 2013), writer and philosopher JJ Clarke describes ‘how at all levels, from the cosmological to the human, the world demonstrates a universal inclination towards the emergence of new and unpredictable forms of order’.[ix] My research during and following my PhD across Australian, African, American and other landscapes subsequently confirmed the exciting and positive potential of this new thinking – a thinking embedded in respectful humility and even in love. That last word surprises some people, but once you begin working with self-organising systems and natural functions, you witness amazing events, it ceases to feel out of place. The implications of the ideas surrounding ‘emergence’ and ‘self-organisation’ are excitingly positive because they dispel the nihilism of a purely reductionist, mechanistic world, and in its place present an open-ended view of creative evolution. As JJ Clarke expressed it:
Where once there was a sense of alienation from a world which seemed at bottom no more than the mechanical motion of dead matter, causally determined and in principle completely predictable, the new thinking…locates us in a world which is open and constantly transforming itself, creating new and astonishingly complex and beautiful forms.[x]
Time upon time, at the Vincents’ farm and so many others, I have witnessed the process of regeneration via the self-organising capacities of landscapes. I’ve seen holistic grazing management in the South African Karoo, the New England tablelands in northern New South Wales and the Barkley tablelands in the Northern Territory triple farmers’ productivity. I’ve seen farmers across Australia’s grain-cropping and sugar-cane areas, and in high-rainfall and low-rainfall zones, along with some of our harshest and most remote landscapes such as the Kimberley, return life to the soil and diversity to paddocks and whole landscapes through such practices as radical, ecologically-based cropping, agroforestry and food forestry, inter-row cropping, multi-species cropping, cover cropping, biodynamics, permaculture, silvo-pastoral systems (animals grazing in treed landscapes), and more. In each case, nature, when enabled, had responded in a self-organising fashion.
It was only as I began to put this regenerative agriculture story together that I realised its potential in and connections to the emerging Anthropocene dilemma – particularly as it became increasingly clear that the modern, human capitalist–industrial vehicle was beginning to come off its tracks, and, frighteningly, that this process was also accelerating.
IN THE ENTIRE history of human beings over the last quarter of a million years, the beginning of agriculture through the domestication of plant and animal species was the most significant event after our becoming a distinct species. Ironically, however, while the development of agriculture is central to our human story, the blame for much of our Anthropocene dilemma can also be laid at its feet.
The prototype of modern European agriculture largely originated in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Middle East (that broad area initially centred around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and its surrounding grasslands and forests). From around 10,000 years ago until the European Renaissance, humans on the European and south-west Asian continents began a slow process of throwing off their long co-evolved ‘organic’ mindset, which was indivisibly bound with nature, Mother Earth and a spiritual world. It was also a world view that contained strong ethical and spiritual implications for nurturing and sustaining the Earth, and it regarded plants, animals and other natural phenomena as sacred beings or entities. However, the domestication of agricultural species meant that plants, animals and other natural phenomena were increasingly regarded as manipulable property, as opposed to sacred beings or entities.
The final epoch-changing phase away from this mindset occurred from around 1500 to 1800 in Western Europe: that extraordinary period of cultural evolution from the Renaissance to the scientific, capitalist and industrial revolutions. And this new ‘mechanical mind’ meant humans came to perceive the world as a place where matter and nature were inert constituents of a new, machine-like world – one capable of manipulation.
The major phase of the metaphorical shift to the mechanical mind really began, according to environmental historian Carolyn Merchant, when ‘the image of an organic cosmos with a living female Earth at its centre gave way to a mechanistic world view in which nature was reconstructed as dead and passive, to be dominated and controlled by humans’.[xi] It was this mindset that accompanied the invasion and settlement of Europeans in Australia from the late eighteenth century and saw the introduction of an agriculture alien to this ancient land. Notwithstanding the incredible harshness and long droughts of the Pleistocene, Australia was a long-settled continent of at least 250 different Indigenous nations. Moreover, each nation was intimately connected to a different ecological territory or ‘country’, with its own distinct language, and with appropriate spiritual beliefs, world views and ecological practices that ensured sustainable occupation of these distinct countries.
While these diverse cultures had evolved various forms of a proto-agriculture, the newly arrived European agriculture would sweep more than seventy millennia of land management aside.[xii] The invasion and settlement of Europeans in Australia represented a clash of minds: ‘organic’ versus ‘mechanical’.
IN RECENT YEARS, I have begun working with local Monaro Aboriginal Elder Rod Mason, a senior lawman of the Ngarigo people. We met through a burning workshop, and I was struck by his gentle manner and extraordinary knowledge of nature, fire and landscape. Over several visits to my farm, and through our running annual burning workshops together, we became friends.
Some time ago, we were sitting under an ancient snow gum atop a hill on the farm, gazing across our Monaro landscape. Rod’s people call this landscape ‘Narrawallee’, ‘The Big Grass Country’. This was country where they used to hunt big grass birds such as emu, plains bustards and bush curlews. All these birds disappeared from the plains within a hundred years of European settlement.
As we gazed down upon a dry, eighty-hectare ephemeral lake that Rod’s people call ‘Bundawindirri’, Rod pensively recalled a story told to him by his grandfather. This story was about how, in the 1860s, Rod’s great-grandfather speared a jabiru stork on that lake, and that there were large numbers of brolgas and magpie geese, and also huge flocks of blue-and-yellow budgerigars – birds that can only be found in northern Australia today. Rod’s story tells of a landscape that was hugely hydrated as recently as the 1860s, something corroborated by early white surveyors and settlers, who talked about dense mists and fogs lasting well into summer days, and of horses stumbling over diverse, soft, richly hydrated grasslands. All this too is now gone. My home in the Monaro and most Australian agricultural landscapes are radically different to those of 200 years ago, and they are hugely dehydrated because we have simplified and destroyed long co-evolved landscapes and their ecological functions.
This raises some uncomfortable truths connected to the current ‘major’ drought and the seemingly increasing recurrence of such events. And it’s instructive to examine what has happened to the original regions where domesticated European agriculture began. In all cases (in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, and Saharan and Sahelian Africa) these lands were ecologically diverse, hydrated, fertile and, around much of the Mediterranean, well forested at the inception of domesticated agriculture. Most had a Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and autumns, and a distinct wetter winter and spring. This was in contrast to the United Kingdom (home to most of Australia’s early European settlers), which had rich soils, high rainfall and a consistently humid and wet environment. Such a climate, land and soils, in the words of the British landscape historian Kim Wilkie, left a beautiful, green but cultural landscape: one that was ‘the result of millennia of collaboration between humans, land and the natural world’, a ‘geologically deep’ beauty that came from ‘practical good sense rather than artifice or recreational fashion’.[xiii]
Where the British landscape and climate lent itself to a more sustainable and long-lived agriculture, the more brittle, drier and variable Middle East needed to be handled with far greater care. But in fact, the opposite occurred. Under a growing population and demand for food (and the subsequent rise of commercial economies), land degradation began in the Fertile Crescent. River flats were over-irrigated, leading to soil salinity; pastoral lands were overgrazed, resulting in degradation of the vital ‘small water cycle’ and the overall dehydration of the entire landscape – in turn connected to a worsening larger water cycle; and there was massive deforestation. The impacts of deforestation have been known a long time: in 360 BC, even Plato was bemoaning that the eroded hills of Attica were like the ‘skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having been wasted away’.[xiv]
What had occurred in these lands was a progression through successive stages of desertification. Unlike the rich-soiled and humid atmospheres of north-west Europe and the north-eastern United States, this desertification process occurs particularly in landscapes where there are drier climates and regular droughts. Consequently, if increasingly non-organic-minded humans fail to react sensitively to these long-scale events, a progressive drying-out of the landscape is triggered. If this continues, it inevitably leads to ever-worsening states of desertification.[xv]
Many of the world’s desertifying environments are the result of human activity. In Australia – as in the Middle East, but in a far shorter period of just over 200 years – we mechanically minded settlers have progressively deforested the landscapes and destroyed richly diverse and absorbent grasslands, thus destroying the small water cycle. In their place today are creek and ravine, incised gully, and hard-baked croplands or overgrazed pastoral areas. This is the legacy of a mind looking for the moist, culturally adapted rich, green fields of north-west Europe and finding instead an irregular and harsher climate and a more ancient, brittle landscape.
Living vegetation – through the process of transpiration – releases bacterial and other aerosols that nucleate clouds. No living vegetation combined with dehydrated landscapes means less clouds, means less rain. Take the example of Western Australia: for decades, six million hectares of croplands have been bared all summer and much of autumn. These are giant, reflective heat-domes, producing no vegetation aerosols, which results in less rain.
And this was what Rod Mason was trying to show me. In most such mismanaged landscapes the small water cycles are destroyed; soil absorbency is destroyed; more heat and carbon dioxide is radiated and less plant transpiration and release of aerosols occur (key components of the small water cycle and nucleated mists, fogs and rain). In terms of the big water cycle, temperatures are increasing and rains are now both more irregular and often occur as large events – causing increasing damage to a simplified and less resilient landscape.
Therefore, under inflexible grazing and brutal cropping regimes, the sad (but unmentionable) truth is that vast reaches of Australia’s cropping and grazing zones are going the way of the Middle East – quietly but inexorably desertifying. And this very process is also now exacerbated, in the most vicious of circles, by the arrival of the Anthropocene with its changing, hotter, more unpredictable climate – part of which has been caused by interference in water and climate cycles in our landscapes.
WHILE AGRICULTURE MAY be the determining precondition for the rise of Western civilisation and, subsequently, for much of the Anthropocene dilemma, it is now emerging that new regenerative thinking within agriculture itself can provide a key pathway to lead us out of the Anthropocene again. To understand this exciting opportunity, we need to understand the nature of regenerative agriculture’s alter ego: industrial agriculture.
Embedded in the destructive shift to a capitalist market economy and economic rationalism was the belief that continual growth is necessary and desirable. This intellectual arrogance regards nature as the raw material for wealth and property creation, with little to no ethical restrictions: it holds that ‘humans are separate from, and so can dominate and are master of, nature’.[xvi] These attitudes have become deeply and powerfully embedded in the subconscious of most people – farmers and urbanites alike.
Like many aspects of human cultural behaviour, agriculture has undergone a series of technological evolutions since its Neolithic inception, many hinging around tillage and energy efficiencies. By the twentieth century, fossil fuels had further transformed agriculture – changing the very meaning and measure of ‘horsepower’, for example.
In an epoch-changing shift, ecologically regenerating practices such as crop rotations and fallowing were abandoned in favour of a chemical topping-up of the concept of a mechanical ‘soil box’.[xvii] At the same time, the recycling of nutrients between town and country was abandoned (a process perceptively labelled ‘the metabolic rift’ by Karl Marx in 1867),[xviii] and key fertility inputs such as nitrogenous fertilizers were increasingly derived from fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuel-derived chemicals – formulated pharmaceuticals, pesticides and weedicides – has exponentially increased since the 1950s.[xix]
Today, thanks to this massive shift, industrial agriculture is becoming increasingly dominant across many of the globe’s landscapes. It is driven by the world’s largest and most powerful transnational organisations in the fields of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering and hybrid seed production, food manufacturing, global commodity trading, transport, trade and finance. Moreover, it is universally backed by the most powerful Western nations, while being equally embraced by leading non-democratic nations such as China and copied in their wake by developing nations. By any measure (a key one being our ‘global footprint’), humanity is consuming each year over 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can replenish. By mid-century, at current consumption rates, we will need two-and-a-half planets to sustain our greedy species.
From a global perspective, problems have arisen because industrial agricultural practices tend to be implemented and integrated without regard for their unintended, long-term consequences, and without consideration of the ecological dynamics of agroecosystems. The frequent result has been an intermeshing of counterproductive practices that are destroying ecological systems – a paradox largely ignored by many practitioners and supporters of this dominant system. The rapid postwar roll-out of industrial agriculture and intensive modern farming has been disastrous for planet Earth. Such an approach to agriculture is not only unsustainable but, crucially, is also increasingly being recognised as a major contributor to tipping us into the Anthropocene through effects that are threatening the very life-support systems of the planet. Activist Vandana Shiva calls the impact of industrial agriculture ‘eco-apartheid’: an ‘ongoing war against the Earth…which has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits’.[xx] Shiva is referring to ‘the economic structures which work for corporations and against people’, where corporate power converges with state power for ‘the great resource grab’. If ‘apartheid’ means ‘separateness’, then eco-apartheid is a situation that is ‘based on the illusion of separateness, of humans from nature, in our minds and lives…an illusion because we are part of nature, not apart from it’.[xxi]
The outcomes of damage to major Earth systems by industrial agriculture include biodiversity loss, connected changes in land use and freshwater use, and destabilisation of the biogeochemical flow boundary involving the interconnected nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Industrial agriculture also plays a key role in climate change (via the release of carbon dioxide through such practices as land-clearing, for example, but also via use of fossil fuels and derived chemicals) and ocean acidification.[xxii]
More recently, in a lag effect directly connected to the biogeophysical and social parameters that underwent the Great Acceleration, there has been a second and equally worrisome acceleration of two other connected key factors linked to industrial agriculture. The first is the alarming expansion, especially since the mid 1990s, of massive volumes of human-made agrichemicals such as pharmaceutical products, pesticides and, particularly, herbicides. The world’s most widely used herbicide, ‘glyphosate’, is now approaching a million tonnes of annual usage. The second is the parallel (and almost certainly not unconnected) equally massive rise of most of the modern human diseases of industrial societies – again, especially since the mid 1990s.[xxiii]
But I want to come back to the story of hope. We now know that industrial agriculture’s alter-ego – regenerative agriculture – can be a great healer and restorer. Its principles and practices, in enabling the regeneration of healthy landscape function and thus re-enabling processes of self-organisation, can see the return of healthy function to vital Earth systems and to human health. When we ‘take the foot off the neck’ of such natural systems, the turnaround can be surprisingly rapid – certainly in less than a decade when management is well executed.
Key to this is reconnecting with, and understanding, our places, our country, our home. And this, in turn, requires a capacity to ‘read’ the landscape via an understanding of how it functions – to become landscape literate, if you like. This is the basis of the shift made by hundreds of leading regenerative farmers in Australia and many more internationally who now practice a holistic, ecologically enhancing agriculture. Empathic understanding has led to a new approach to landscape management. And this reconstructed view of the landscape itself leads to a closer convergence with the Indigenous view of ‘country’ – though, understandably, without the long co-evolved, integrated cultures and belief systems of different Indigenous nations. Not surprisingly, a number of leading regenerative farmers now interact with and learn from Indigenous people – exemplified by authors Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, who have provided new insights into Indigenous landscape management in Australia.
IN A SCIENTIFIC paper from August 2018 concerning the Earth system and the Anthropocene, Will Steffen and a large group of colleagues have upped the tone of alarm. As the industrial world continues on its merry way and pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as our ‘leaders’ threaten to endorse a carbon bomb out of the Adani coalmine, and as land ‘managers’ continue to clear vast reaches of land (a trend still escalating in Australia today), these concerned scientists have warned that the entire ‘Earth system may be approaching’ a threshold ‘which could then trigger unpredictable tipping-points’.[xxiv]
Because ‘human activity now rivals geological forces influencing the trajectory of the Earth systems’, Steffen and his colleagues warn there is the possibility of ‘self-reinforcing feedback processes pushing the Earth system toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilisation of the climate and cause continued warming’. They call for ‘stewardship of the entire Earth system’– of the biosphere, climate and societies – and list decarbonisation of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, and a range of other biogeophysical and social actions as urgently needed in the next decade or two.
It is hard for the average punter to act on such exhortations, let alone feel hopeful. But I feel hope, because a key solution in keeping our Earth in a more stable state is increased carbon uptake by land systems – a greening of country and thus the planet. And the best possible way of doing this is via regenerative agriculture: having living plants fix and store long-lived carbon in the soil, or by preventing poor land and soil management that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destabilises other Earth systems.
This approach was recently supported by one of the world’s leading social and environmental change-agents of recent decades: Paul Hawken, author of such seminal books as The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins, 1993) and Blessed Unrest (Viking, 2007). In 2001, Hawken became frustrated that, despite forty years of debate on the climate crisis, and after asking scores of experts, he could find no solutions to global warming – solutions that would reverse and not just stabilise the increasingly alarming trend. He initiated ‘Project Drawdown’, conscripting seventy scientific fellows around the world to research the best methods (ranked in order of importance) of either avoiding carbon dioxide emissions or sequestering carbon from the atmosphere between 2020 and 2050. The results were published in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin, 2017), which ranks the eighty leading, fully calculated methods of putting gigatons of carbon dioxide in the ground.[xxv]
In Hawken’s opinion, talking about ‘2 degrees Celsius warming means nothing to 99.999 per cent of the population, and studies reveal the human brain isn’t wired to deal with future existential threats’. Therefore, he says, we’ve been ‘focusing too much on the problem instead of the solution’. Project Drawdown is all about healing the future rather than ‘stealing from it’, and seeing global warming ‘as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change’. ‘This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative agenda,’ he says, ‘this is a human agenda.’[xxvi]
When I examined Hawken’s costed drawdown methods of putting carbon in the ground, I noticed something. Hawken and his team had studied a handful of regenerative agriculture techniques, which all operated on similar principles of regenerating landscape functions and had the same net result of burying long-term carbon in the soil. I decided to group these methods together as ‘regenerative agriculture’, and found that their combined sequestering of carbon in the ground worked out at 217 gigatons – a figure 240 per cent higher than the next-highest costed technique (refrigeration reform, resulting in 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide). That is, already proven methods of regenerative agriculture provide the best approach to drawing down carbon from the atmosphere – and by a country mile.
Local Australian research already supports this. I know of one farm near Yass, New South Wales where, after thirty years of regenerating the land, John and Robyn Ive have increased their soil carbon from 1 per cent to 4 per cent and have fixed eleven times more carbon than entire farm emissions in that period.[xxvii]
AT THE TIME of writing this article, the Monaro region in southern NSW where I live sits in serious drought. Using predictive ecological tools (such as grazing charts), we destocked our place by more than half. Normally this would have allowed us to manage the drought without causing damage; however, because our farm was in healthier ecological condition than surrounding country, we now find ourselves overrun by kangaroos who have come in from the surrounding land – a reminder that we sit in a broader landscape. Yet nature continues her cycles, and signs of hope include the return of our seasonally migratory birds such as shelducks, yellow-faced honeyeaters and various species of cuckoos.
Equally positive is the fact that, through my research and my own farming practices, I have discovered why this new cohort of farmers has chosen a path ‘less travelled’ and transformed practices and world views. This alternate path – while healing and rehydrating landscapes and giving enormous meaning to farming families – can also be profitable. It can provide long-term, preventative health solutions to our seemingly ever-sickening populace. And it can provide tangible and powerful solutions to addressing the core drivers of our planet’s ongoing degradation and ameliorating our worsening droughts. Perhaps it can also lead to modern Australian agriculturalists farming in a method adapted to – and not imposed on – these unique but fragile antipodean landscapes. In this way, regenerative agriculture provides a beacon of hope for the ‘dystopia of the West’, and a great story for our story-loving species.
I don’t believe it’s ‘closing time in the gardens of the West’, even though it may well be ‘closing time’ for the profligate and destructive, growth-driven, fossil-fuel-based, neoliberal way of life. Instead, we need to allow rural and urban food gardens to bloom. By thinking more ‘organically’, by reconnecting with Earth and living systems, and by allowing healthy natural self-organising functions to regenerate, we can collectively shape a new and healthier society via an under- and above-ground insurgency. Surely this offers us a seminal path to the creation of healthy landscapes, healthy societies, healthy humans and a healthy planet.
[i] Speth, J.G. 2008. The Bridge at the end of the World. Capitalism, The Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Etc. p. 65
[ii] Zalasiewicz, J; Williams, M; Steffen, W; & Crutzen, P. 2010. 'The new world of the Anthropocene. Environmental Science and Technology 44/7: 2228-31, 2231. (italics added);& cited in Hamilton, C. 2017. Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest. p5.
[iii] Steffen, W. et al. 2015. 'Planetary boundaries: Guiding Human development on a changing planet.’ Science 347/6223 (Feb. 13, 2015): 736-747.
[iv] Steffen et al, 2015.
[vi] Hamilton, C. Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Allen & Unwin, 2017.
[vii] Macquarie Dictionary 1995.
[viii] Clarke, J.J. 2013. The Self-Creating Universe: The Making of a Worldview. ExLibris; Capra, F. & Luisi, PL. 2014.The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge ; Gunderson, L.H. & Holling, C.S. (eds). 2002.Panarchy. Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington DC, Island Press.
[ix] Jj Clarke op cit, p. 7
[xi] Merchant, C. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper, San Francisco: p. xvi
[xii] Gammage, B. 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin, Crow's Nest, NSW; Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books, Broome.
[xiii] Kim Wilkie, p. 6 Financial Times Weekend: 'The Farmers' Canvas'. Sat 11 Aug-Sun 12 Aug, 2018.
[xiv] Plato, Critias, 111 a-d, WMR Lamb (transl.), Laudator Temporis Acti website, http://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com.au; and Montgomery, DR. 2007.Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisations. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley.
[xv] Dregne, HE. 2012. 'Desertification of Arid Lands', in F. El-Baz & MHA. Hassan (eds), The Physics of Desertification. Martinus Nijhoff Pub, Netherlands.
[xvi] Massy, C. 2013. Transforming the Earth. A Study in the change of Agricultural Mindscapes. PhD thesis, ANU.
[xvii] Kellog, C. 1938. 'Soils and Society', in USDA, Soils and Men: Yearbook of Agriculture. USGPO. Washington.
[xviii] Foster, J.B. 1999. 'Marx's theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.' American Journal of Sociology. 105 (2).
[xix] Foley JA. et al 2005. 'Global consequences of land-use'. Science' 309: 570-574; Tilman D et al, 2002. 'Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices'. Nature 8 Aug. 418: 671-677. : Jackson 1980. New Roots for Agriculture. Friends of the Earth, San Francisco.mit
[xx] Shiva, V. 2012. Making Peace with the Earth. Spinifex Press, Melbourne. p. 3
[xxi] Ibid pp. 7, 11
[xxii] Steffen et al 15, 2011
[xxiii] Gillam, C. 2017. White Wash. The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Island Press, Washington.
[xxiv] Steffen, W. et al. 2018. 'Trajectories of the Earth Systems in the Anthropocene.' PNAS. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115.
[xxv] Hawken, P. (Ed.) 2017. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan ever proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin Books, New York.
[xxvi] Dianne Toomey, July 25 2017, for Yale Environment 360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/Paul-Hawken-on-one-hundred-solutions-to-the-climate-crisis.
[xxvii] Doran-Browne NA. et al. 2016. 'Carbon-Neural farming in south-eastern Australia.' Animal Production Science 56.