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Exposing Environmental Big Lies
This is chapter 10 of my book, A Natural Language, which exposes the environmental narrative as propaganda and puts bottom-up solutions in front of the actual problem.
The most disheartening part of all of this environmental destruction is that it is not necessary. We could instead design landscapes that provide us with abundant yields and other species with abundant habitat. We can do so without releasing dysfunctional amounts of carbon dioxide or water vapor in the atmosphere. We can design our towns to become food autonomous, too. That would solve our energy conundrum as a bonus by freeing up land to grow energy crops. We could move some of that energy crop production to bodies of water, and provide habitat for aquatic animals in our lakes and our coastal waters in the process. None of this would require convoluted solutions, sophisticated products, or herculean mining efforts. We could even do without most metal mining: plants bioaccumulate all sorts of useful resources. The yield is not stellar, but neither is the yield of mining. We only need to make two simple adjustments to become better land stewards and create abundance on our planet.
These two adjustments both revolve around letting go of authoritarianism. We are so acclimated to authoritarianism as modern societies that we barely notice the way it permeates everything. Authoritarianism is basically about unhinged rationality: strictly focused purpose, with no space for context or meaning. It demands that everything have a purpose, with everything serving its purpose. It discounts anything that serves no purpose or that is not fit for purpose as useless and disposable. Such undesirable waste ends up in landfills and waterways, but also in ghettos, refugee camps, prisons, and death camps. Modern landscapes epitomize this fetish for sanitized purity. Most fields serve a single purpose, with everything else in them getting ruthlessly sprayed to death. Modern societies are effectively beating all life out of nature by enslaving it. The same, in passing, goes for our minds and our communities — we are, after all, natural and part of nature.
The way to let go of authoritarianism is to rehabilitate meaning. Meaningful reasoning is about focused purpose within a context. That makes it structured and goal oriented, but rooted in reality. Authoritarianism is easy enough to spot in relationships: it is when one partner treats the other like a doormat. Note that it takes two to tango: oppressive ghouls that take all the space depend on servile zombies that make room for them. It works the same way in a landscape: it is when you replace a prairie with plantations, or when you rewild those back as a nature reserve. The first leaves no space for nature, and the other none for humans. Permaculture and regenerative farming both point to a sweet spot in-between. The first neatly synthesizes indigenous land stewardship best practices. It has you design an ecosystem by introducing the species you want in a way that makes sense in the surrounding context. The other industrializes this, typically using bio-intensive beds or plantations interspersed in between prairies, hedgerows, or forests in an alley or mosaic system. You can purposefully manage these hedges as well, or let nature do its thing in them. That keeps nature alive too, and it could feed the world with not that many changes.
Two simple steps are enough to reintroduce meaning in our relationship with nature. The first step is to stop thinking of things as having one purpose for the next part of a system only. You want to start thinking of them as having more than one purpose for more than one part of a whole instead. You want to design redundancy in there as well, so that the whole does not fall apart when a critical part fails. The other step is to design systems with an eye on minimizing input and waste, rather than with one on maximizing yield while ignoring externalities. Note that yield can be a source of waste because of externalities: if you fail to harvest enough eggs or chickens, you will end up with an overgrazed wasteland and manure runoffs. A corollary is to approach problems not in terms of how you kill them, but instead in terms of how to avoid introducing them to begin with or how the problem can become part of a solution. For instance, if rats are feasting on the veggie scraps and carcasses in your compost pile, drop the veggie scraps in a worm bin for castings, and the carcasses inside a sealed bug barrel that uses a flexible pipe to funnel pupating larvae inside your chicken coop.
Managing nature with this mindset often means adding functionality that is missing, especially as a replacement for what was removed. Consider the carnivores that chase grazers around in grasslands. You can prevent the grazers from overgrazing by rotating them instead. The lots need to be small enough, too, because the animals are better at trampling dead grass and manure into the ground when densely packed. As herds run in prairies, they propel dust and fungi pores in the air. You can rush the animals to their destination, or set up hedgerows that serve similar condensation and fungal nurturing functions. As a bonus, more tree fodder means more nutrients to browse from and healthier animals. You can double down on that and sprinkle nitrogen fixing trees in the field to grow more grass, too. The deep roots will help soak in more water and more manure, and the trees will provide shade that the animals can eat under when it’s hot. Also, birds tend to follow grazers in prairies. They spread the manure while pecking at the bugs in it, all while dropping their own manure. You can rotate birds after grazers to do that too. This is a bit more involved than just leaving cows in a huge field, but you can run double the number of cows per surface and get extra yields as a bonus.
Managing our economies the same way would have major energy ramifications, too. If you take a step back, the bulk of our energy use goes into powering a planetary-scale Rube Goldberg machine that only serves elites who hoard prestige and storytellers who master the dark art of abusing fear to make a herd march in lockstep. These narcissists and cult ringleaders create a lot of designs that emphasize yield instead of minimizing work, energy use, and waste. Consider the energy that goes into producing industrial eggs and giving people jobs that enable them to buy eggs. Include the supply chains, the warmongering to secure them, and the environmental destruction. Contrast that with having backyard chickens that lay eggs, eat kitchen scraps, produce fertilizer, and break pest cycles. More generally speaking, the bulk of a consumer’s energy use goes into repeat consumption of low quality or single-use items (including food), and earning enough to afford those and a shelter. Promoting local food autonomy would go a long way towards reducing energy use. It is not an accident that colonizers like to destroy the ability to grow food of those whose territory they encroach on using weapons, laws, culture, or technology — or of late, health. Replacing lawns with food forest gardens would go a long way towards eradicating oppression and wage slavery.
With this high level overview in mind, let’s turn to reducing soil emissions. We have two strategies: avoiding emissions, and soaking up what remains. Some emissions are tied to plant roots that decompose after harvests. We’re eating grains and burning wood, so at least some emissions are unavoidable. Other emissions are tied to die offs of species that depend on plants, like fungi. That points to growing crops near plants that will keep soil species alive. Fields were small in the past, so hedgerows likely filled this role. Alley cropping, which is about growing crops in between alleys of perennials (trees especially), can deliver a similar benefit as hedgerows while retaining machinery use. The trees also slow down wind, soak up carbon, and harvest water like hedgerows did in the past. A caveat is that deciduous species don’t photosynthesize during the winter months, but soil biology slows down too when it’s cold. Either way, companioning trees with other perennials would work around that. Let’s unpack these concepts for readers who aren’t familiar with agroecology.
Alley cropping is the likely cornerstone of avoiding carbon emissions. You would want the alleys on contour to maximize water harvesting, rather than oriented to maximize sunlight. Plants can’t use the whole spectrum anyways. They grow fine under trees. One of the main benefits of trees, in fact, is the shade that keeps soil moist by reducing evaporation. There are many others. Trees have deep roots that help soak in water and extract nutrients that would otherwise be out of reach. Closer to the surface, tree roots hold the ground together, which prevents erosion from water runoffs. Trees break wind, which helps prevent erosion too. Slower wind helps keep carbon dioxide around where it can be soaked up. It also slows down pests. Trees collect dust as they break wind. The dust contains nutrients. It washes off to the ground with rainwater washes or with the leaves in the autumn. The latter drop yet more nutrients. Trees provide habitat. They give hawks and owls a perch to hunt pests like rodents. Trees provide extra yields — nuts, fruits, timber, fiber, fuel. Trees need water to grow, but as noted earlier you can subsoil or add swales on contour to harvest water. You want trees in the berm behind swales, in fact, to avoid landslides. Such trees will grow faster as a bonus.
Hedgerows are an excellent place to use companion planting to increase yield variety. This ties into edges and guilds. Edges are nature’s most productive environments, in that you get the benefits of each side and habitat for what lives only in between. See for instance a beach. You can design a farm field to maximize the use of edges: prairie, forest, stream, pond, mixed and matched together as your context allows. In passing, this edge thing also holds for psychology: a lot gets said when you enter or leave a location. It holds for organizations. It holds for physiology. Nature loves edges. Guilds are about mixing and matching plants together in mutual aid relationships. Not all plants play well together, but most do. In a garden, you’d want scrubs, flowers, herbs, roots, vines, and so forth around a tree. Practicalities rule out growing overly complex plant guilds in farm fields, but you can still companion trees with plants that attract desired beneficials or bioaccumulate desired nutrients.
With this in mind, alleys need not necessarily be in between narrow bands of trees and scrubs. Thicker hedges are a solid option too. Perhaps your context demands a narrow patch of native grasses and wildflowers to keep the bees happy and well fed. Perhaps several trees that are double-fenced in between fields makes sense to get more timber and more firewood. Perhaps the hedge is in fact an alley, and alleys contain working forests, with an alley of native forest thrown in every so often to keep nature happy. What matters in the end is to grow crops without harming nature. Alley cropping allows crops to grow with less fertilizer, less soil evaporation, less habitat loss, less pesticides, more diverse yields, and more yield overall. Just as importantly, it introduces plants close enough on each side of crop alleys to break wind, soak up carbon emissions, and keep fungi alive when you harvest. Planting rows of trees on a field is a trivial change for most farming operations: pick a species that doesn’t spread shallow roots all over the place, and plant the trees on contour. The hockey stick appeared when loggers started forest clearings and farmers got rid of hedges, so leaving enough space for a few passes with machinery (like small fields allowed in the past) should do the trick. Chances are that this change alone would be enough to reverse the carbon hockey stick. Coppicing the trees on a short cycle could yield biomass energy without wasting space as a bonus. We’d still be left with our bare soil problem, but that is easy enough to solve too.