Not to sound like a television game show, and certainly not to offer a $64 billion dollar prize for the answer, as if money would do it all… but what is the best answer? That’s in the singular. Is there one? Skip oil; go solar? Are there a dozen? Find deeper causes? Are there as many as there are people on the planet about now?
The latter should be the democratic answer, but maybe they would all converge, the elite and the salt of the earth, in an approach that makes the best sense.
Another question is why would I presume to know something about all that? Welcome to democracy! We are all supposed to have worthwhile, helpful thoughts and exercise freedom of expression to do our best with them and it, thoughts and expression.
Poster in the SkyTrain metro system in Vancouver, BC, Canada announcing a show on threats to the Arctic from climate change at the Vancouver Aquarium
Looming mushroom clouds
I can tell you something interesting about my own case, though. Back in the late 1950s when I was an adolescent my parents had friends – I even remember their names: John and Elizabeth Northrup, musicians and nuclear scientists, both of them working on hydrogen bombs – up there in the “Secret City” of Los Alamos, New Mexico, up on “the Hill” or “the Mesa” to the west of Santa Fe where I lived at the time.
Very good friends too. We’d sometimes went up the mountain to the laboratory city and spend a few meals and the night with them, my younger sister and I in sleeping bags on their floor. You couldn’t get into town with any kind of a visitor pass; your resident friend had to come greet you at the gate and state you were OK, highly unlikely to be a spy or saboteur – we didn’t have terrorists in those days. I visited the Northrup’s bomb shelter, the only one I ever entered, and was impressed by how deep it was under the house, way below the basement floor, impressed by the dark descending concrete hallway and staircase, the smooth but slow-opening 600 pound steel door, air vent tubes with filters, comic books and Monopoly board. I was pondering at that impressionable age waiting out a nuclear war under there casually playing a fun capitalist game of Monopoly while civilization went back to the Stone Age in writhing pain and death thanks to Commie vs. Wall Street and vice versa games outside. I was also wondering what being in the number 1 nuclear target city might be like. Would the ground roll with the force of the exploding bombs, dust fall from the ceiling as at the front line command post in war movies, but in this case with bombs big enough for any one of them to take out a whole city? And there we were, guests almost unbelievably, of scientists actually designing and making such weapons, prime targets themselves. Could it happen any second now? “We’ll survive anything but a direct hit,” said John the beautiful violinist, reassuringly.
In the afternoon after exploring the happy comics and games dungeon under the Northup’s house, the two families were having Thanksgiving dinner. I asked Mr. Northrup what he did on a typical day. “Well, work in the lab a lot.” He also fairly frequently flew from Los Alamos to Livermore National Nuclear Lab, he said, which is 30 miles east southeast of where I sit in Oakland, California writing on my computer right now. He said he went out there to brief generals on “Those nasty bombs we’re making.” Then he got a kind of distant look in the eye and said, “They’re crazy.” I remember asking, “What?” He answered not at all, repeating something like, “I don’t know… Those generals are just kind of crazy.” I wish I remembered more. But maybe, I think, that’s all he’d say about it.
The bottom line for this bit of writing is that my youth was dominated, way back in a sort of primordial fear place, by the looming profile of the famous mushroom cloud rising four times higher than the highest cloud you ever saw, threatening, darkening, seething with radiation. In occasional dreams I was blown away by an atomic shock wave. So I grew up wanting to defend the planet from such End of the World insanity. The urge rose up rather frequently, appearing in different worlds like what to do about the war in Vietnam? How to deal with the impacts of cities on the planet? What to think and do about the climate change problem? And what to offer for some ideas to hopefully be helpful.
Armageddon averted or just rescripted? Are we beginning to catch on?
Somehow we escaped that radioactive Armageddon, for the time being anyway. But some have commented that we are in the Third World War right now, without much awareness of the fact. It’s the slow burn attack of humanity against the world, nature’s world and humanity’s world both in one. The main effect of the attack is the actual heating of an entire planet, along with the extermination of our fellow species, one by one, hundreds by hundreds. It is such a gigantic proposition one can understand that people in vast numbers might just ignore the scientists studying climate change and its implications and go into denial – for a while. But by the time every five years averages hotter than the previous five years and the glaciers are melting away, it is hard to imagine all but the epic stupid missing that, yes, this catastrophe does seem to be well on its way.
Some of you know I’ve just written a book called World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build, which will be available in a matter of a few short weeks. (Speaking of economics, buy it!) It’s about solving some of our larger problems, not the least of which is the climate change problem we hear so much about heading into the United Nations’ next climate conference in Paris about the time most of you will be reading this article. As you have guessed rightly, I think building ecologically healthy cities, towns and villages has an enormously positive and helpful place in solving our current and growing climate change problem. Ecocities, as most economists in one of their moments of clarity would call “demand side,” radically reduce the demand for energy, land, money, sacrifices both animal and human to the gods of automobility on our streets and highways and, as Eisenhower said in his famous farewell address and warning about the military-industrial complex, wasting the genius of our people. A big part of the solution is to build so that very few of those problems happen in the first place. Ecocities would be big, but they are not enough. In my book I propose a broader solution I’ll get to momentarily.
Meantime, it is greatly encouraging that cities and their designs and development patterns are beginning to be a major topic in important climate change events, COP 21, as the next one is called, being especially important. As most of us know, that stands for the 21st in the series of Conferences of the Parties. Specifically those parties are representatives of national governments deliberating on eventual international treaties addressing and attempting to solve the global heating and climate change problems that are already melting glaciers and causing climate and weather events abnormal or even unique in the last half million years.
One example of this ecocity progress was the powerful talk presented by Joseph Alcamo at our 11th International Ecocity Conference held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on October 13, 2015. Joe is an old friend to ecocities going back to the mid 1970s when we were both living in Berkeley, California and the basic ideas for ecocities were in early stages of gestation. Currently he is a research team leader at the University of Kassel, Germany where he is the Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Systems Research. Very importantly, he is also Chief Science Advisor to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which is one and the same as the COP series of UN conferences on climate change. His talk title was: “Ecocities and their key role in fulfilling the international climate treaty.” To over summarize on over heating, Alcamo laid out the reasons for scientifically establishing emission targets and describing some of the ways in which ecocities greatly reduce demand for the energy that is the most direct cause of the problem.
I might add that he was one of our Important speakers at the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990 in Berkeley, California along with other leaders in their fields such as legendary environmentalist Dave Brower; author of Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach; first real innovator, systematizer and philosopher of ecocities, architect Paolo Soleri; philosopher Fritjof Capra; pioneering bioregionalist Peter Berg; and one of the rarified few humans to walk on the moon, astronaut Edgar Mitchell. It was inspiring to shake the hand of a man who walked the moon – and listen to his warning about how delicate our whole Earth seemed from that distance, everyone and everything he loved so small against the stars and endless void that as he raised his hand the whole planet disappeared behind his thumb.
“Whole Systems” – key concept
But I am delaying the introduction to what I’d propose. You will find the idea in World Rescue and I’ve mentioned it before in this newsletter without special notice to its specific relationship to climate change. But here goes and it has everything to do with solving a wide range of problems: take the whole systems perspective. Proportionalize the specific major components of human actions that impact climate, prioritize for the largest and most important among them and don’t procrastinate: get busy addressing them with the most effective strategies we can imagine for each part in the overall strategy. You might also notice this works for solving a wide range of the other major problems we have: species extinctions, decline of non-renewable resources, general pollution of the world environment, collapse of ocean species, acidification of the ocean and so on. And, these problems all interrelate.
Proportionalize, you might note isn’t even a word, says Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar feature. Yet what better way for finding the correct proportions so that we can move on to properly assess priorities? This is a hint as to an important gap in our process of analyzing and strategizing for solving larger scale problems of complex systems, such as the biosphere, whole cities and the climate system.
You might note Professor Alcamo is a team leader of the Center for Environmental Systems Research at his university. There’s that word “systems” again. When I first visited him after his graduate study years at the University of California, he was in Vienna, Austria at the International Institute for Applied Systems (again) Analysis studying trans-boundary air pollution in Europe and supplying data and analysis for restitution between polluting countries and victims of the industrial nation’s contamination, money transfers to help repair and otherwise help compensate for the damage caused by the polluters. That was in the mid 1980s when Joe was cutting his teeth on international treaty negotiations and strategy for political solutions to our environmental problems, about eight years after I met him.
A system is a whole that functions well when all its component parts are present and well arranged in their best positions relative to one another. Thus our eyes are on the front not the back of our heads, despite our tendency to “drive into the future through the rear view mirror,” following trends, acquiescing to long established habits and even what are called “best practices” giving us – we hope – good guidance in where we are going ahead rather than behind us. But even best practices are part of the total matrix of influences and sometimes might not be so good after all, such as best cars – which help perpetuate building cities for cars on into the future, postponing dealing with reorganizing the whole “system” of the city, continuing to promote sprawl, paving, demand for floods of transport fuel and so on.
Good designers of course give respectful credence to what are seen as past successes, but these nonetheless have sometimes landed us in a lot of the disasters still on-going. More essential to their art is noticing the principles that govern the functioning of the whole system.
I often compare cities to complex living organisms. This is not my original idea by any means. I first heard it from Italian born architect and profound thinker Paolo Soleri at his house and workshop in Paradise Valley, the hopeful name of that northeast part of Phoenix, Arizona sprawl. Then, in 1965, it was more like a rural actual desert paradise of clear skies, tall vermillion tufted ocotillo cactuses and wild west mountains you thought you’d seen in some cowboy movie. I stated calling this “the anatomy analogy:” the city is like a complex living organism. One of its most important features must be that its form should be compact, efficient and basically three-dimensional, not flat and scattered, the basic form of automobile dependent suburbia. I quickly considered this to be a truly fundamental principle for designing cities, in fact designing almost any whole system “phenomenon” as Soleri would tend to word it.
Complex or complicated – the distinction is important
Dig a little deeper into this same project of trying to understand systems and you discover not only do occasional practices that appear “best” actually turn out to be counter-best, shall we say, but that another common misunderstanding is that simple is good and complex is bad. Or at least complex is exhausting in our modern day world in the way that used to be called “the rat race” but that today is diffused across not just work and career but permeating a wildly chaotic environment also of entertainment, leisure, social and cultural cacophony, the onslaught of international news and so on. But this random swarm of experience is more complicated and normally confusing not because it’s complex but because it isn’t. That is, there is no order in it, or at least it is hard to find the order. Without the order what’s the meaning? What are the patterns that give us a handle on… or maybe better, a screen to sift out the useless, meaningless, contradictory and even destructive?
When the parts are well integrated we can see systems as whole and healthy in their environment. It all makes sense and is relatively easy or at least “natural” to deal with. Nothing simple about, for example, permaculture (a type of organic farming unified with homestead, and sometimes community design), as well as ecocity design. Nothing simple about our bodies or our minds. What you don’t want is simple, as in frontal lobotomy.
When the basics are understood, whole systems become comfortably handle-able, if that’s a word. When you “get” the relationship of parts, such as say of a bird, an analogy I use sometimes, and you know wings are for flying, legs are for landing, beak is for eating, eyes for seeing, feathers for insulation and slipping through the air gracefully with minimal resistance and so on down to the microscopic genetic material level, plus with a little about the bird’s diet and life habits like nest building, you can then easily understand the animal and relate to it in a way that might seem simple enough but is actually an understanding based on the good coordination of parts within the animal and the basics of how that animal behaves in its environment. So too with how to design ecocities, and maybe even how to solve the climate change problem. There is a whole system there and by understanding the causal major components and their interconnections we have a good chance for a solution.
James Miller in his textbook-style 1,002 page tome Living Systems (no subtitle) says there are 19 essential subsystems in all living organisms once we get more complex than single celled organisms. We are familiar with most of them in our own anatomy and can see the parallel in bones with architecture, veins and arteries with streets and rails, nerves with telephone wires and radio and microwave signals, vocal cords with radio stations, reproductive organs with schools and scolding parents that teach how to keep the city and the culture going. Miller identifies some subsystems within whole systems we might not have thought of, such as various feedback and correction mechanisms for on-going health, but basically – and he spends a thousand pages spinning this all out in great detail – there are 19.
He leads into all this by studying the functions of the organs (subsystems) in basic terms, then goes on to examine not only living bodies but group dynamics, formal organizations, whole societies and “the supernational system” meaning transnational systems including cultural, business and political systems all. Think cultural exchange systems, World Trade Organization and defense alliances, for examples. He looks at ships as one physical case in point, major development projects we’d call mixed use these days, and whole cities.
He doesn’t dig into the planet with its “organs” that we might see in its lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere all interrelating in its climate system in various ways. Thinking big, early ecologists like Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky and French priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin spoke of a sphere of knowledge created by human society, the by far most active of the thinking part of the biosphere, that they called the “noesphere” or “noosphere.” Soleri was especially influenced by de Chardin and the noosphere idea, deciding that the city amounts to concentrations of consciousness and action parallel in many ways to a brain in the totality of the noosphere. He considered the city to be a human creation in the saga of evolution following earlier established patterns and even laws of nature unfolding in a kind of constant creation process into the future.
Getting back to solving the climate problem now, could there be a method, looking at the whole system of the planet’s climate, interrelated with human systems that might work? I think it would have to start with recognizing the most consequential of human activities in relation to climate. Nothing too controversial about that except that instead of doing that, most people involved tend to take a random approach, bouncing around in the usual way of chaotic habits here, policies there, better technologies to be applied, worse life styles to be toned down and so on. Even scientists involved tend to be, in their own terminology, “siloed” in their particular disciplines which involves focusing like a laser on particular problems, striving for certainty.
One result of this approach, and with seeking the consequential, is noticing that, obviously, our energy system is based mostly on fossil fuels and they are producing so much carbon dioxide the atmosphere is deep into the “greenhouse effect” heating up as if we had a layer of glass erected over our heads. It’s there actually, but made up of “greenhouse gasses” in the atmosphere, most consequentially at this point CO2. So, switch to renewable energy technologies that don’t do that and perhaps, some say, nuclear energy.
But taking a whole systems approach we need to ask why we need that much energy in the first place and also what else in the sense of subsystems interrelating in the whole system of the planet is crucial to deal with. In other words we need to utilize the methods of the science of ecology and understand deeper links in chains of causes and effects and understand what might be thought of as the lateral connections that could be seen as a pattern of simultaneous networks of cross influence. Just every day ecology.
But… Proportionalizing is the key my friends. Getting a sense of the true
proportions of things so we can prioritize and see the major parts of the whole and how the parts interrelate is a crucial and generally omitted step in thinking through a means to stop the rapid heating of the planet and perhaps actually reverse the damaging processes. Yes solar and wind energy systems are also crucial, but we all use energy in a very complicated disordered sort of way, almost swimming in a churning, flowing soup of energy in almost everything we do. Go for renewable energy systems for sure and implement them broad spectrum as soon as we can but realize that other major causal patterns and forces are directing these flows of energy.
Similarly we are all made of matter in complex arrangements and should be careful to recycle non-renewables, as well as simply conserve, also broad spectrum. Matter like energy is part of the matter/energy basic constituents of our total reality, and though it is important to say we need assiduous recycling, what are the forces demanding and directing flows of matter as well as energy?
Miller sees 19 subsystems to be understood, at least intuitively once the first five, six or seven most conspicuous subsystems (or organs in the case of biological bodies are concerned). I think we have an easier conceptual task if we deal with 6 items as what I think of as the Big Ones, the six issues that have the most powerful effect on clarifying the mind in relation to climate and even the rising of the seas and flows of its currents, not to speak extinction of large swaths of the biosphere’s plants and animals. If we select the Big Ones that help order both our thinking and the actual conditions on this planet relative to climate change we will have the best chance of understanding how to prioritize and move forward, most important things first, instead of randomly trying this and that, if always shifting in a good direction toward renewable energy sources. I’ll leave out nuclear for its dangers in other areas like accidents and waste and leave it out because with a whole systems approach we don’t need all that energy anyway.
I also believe that if we do focus strongly on a smaller number of the really important ones we provide not a simple but a clear approach that gives us an order we can work with easily. The magic number is the small one that provides a means for progress. As said, it all becomes comprehensible – and we are talking solving climate change problems here – even easily comprehensible in its strategy paradoxically with complexity at its core. This on a planetary scale in just the way that we can understand the whole system of the bird and her functioning given as an earlier example. The small number of big things provides the illusion of simple, and if that works, go with it!
So here are my Six Big Ones:
1. Population – too big, gradually reduce: family planning, world awareness
2. The agriculture/diet nexus – too much meat, energy, chemicals and
machines – could be far more “organic,” knowledgeable, hands-on
3. The built infrastructure: ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillages, often in
ecotropolis arrangements in their bioregions
4. Natural carbon sequestration – help nature in her normal ways of
Sequestering carbon into soils and sediments of the Earth.
The mental, psychological, spiritual
5. Generosity – we have to give back to the planet that has given us so
much, reverse over exploitation, over production and overconsumption and invest massively in the above 4 and finally getting serious about human rights an ceasing organized violence
6. Education intensely emphasizing the above five as if our lives
depended on it, which at least the lives of our grandchildren and all other species in the long term do
The 6 in a little more detail
Recently a number of prominent environmentalists, industrial designers, social critics and theorists, architects, concerned anti-climate change pundits and others in the general murmur have advocated making solutions for the climate change problem as easy as possible, as one such said, “as easy as falling off a log.” Another expression I’ve heard a number of times: “make it easy for people to pick the low hanging fruit” and I’ve responded publically to this train of thought saying, “Leave the low hanging fruit for the children. It’s time to be adults and face that this is not going to be easy.”
On the one hand we are told by the most knowledgeable that we’d better get moving soon and with full commitment, resolve, work and money invested or we’re doomed! Many of these same people counsel doing it kind of easy like. Now does that sound a little contradictory? It does to me. I think it is going to be more like Winston Churchill’s words for the Battle of Britain in the Second World War: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Though far from such violent times – we can certainly hope, and before possibly facing a societal collapse should states be destabilized all over the word from any of a number of growing crises – it will nonetheless be one of those rare historic junctures where we will be called upon to make difficult choices and sacrifices for a greater later good.
Here’s what we are up against as the main strategic theatres of action and none of them are a cakewalk. Leave the low hanging fruit for the children – good practice before they have to learn to climb, make ladders and learn something about canning, baking, picking, irrigating, pruning, fertilizing, planting, and planning a healthy fruit tree.
The beach at Rio de Janeiro
Population is said to be an insurmountable barrier due to religious beliefs and lifestyle traditions connected to a scarcity world in which disease and privation cull children leaving fewer to take care of the old for a few declining years. So such societies tend to have large families. And there are various religious strictures that say only God can decide if you are to have children or not, and on that point not even priests and imams are allowed to interpret otherwise. Then there is simply the habit of growing up with large families being a cultural habit, that like growing up with small families can be also a happy continuity satisfying a strong desire, that is merely cultural continuity.
Two interesting cases in the religious realm: in Iran during the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s, Khomeini stepped into war planning on the bullish and not strictly Koranic idea that people should control output on the intentional large family side to help boost the population of soldiers should the conflict be an extended one or just to be a strong proud warring nation. A few years later, realizing the baby flood was upon them and noticing the investment and efforts needed to support rapid growth in population, the policy was reversed and in one of the most conservative of restrictive religious, political and social environments, sex education was made mandatory and government distributed condoms widely, television scripts were written and approved for evening viewing with characters engaging in, essentially, family planning education. I think Lester Brown put the story in all of his Plan B books seeking to help cure the world of its most intractable problems.
From my own experience in Italy: “Well,” I asked a couple locals, “what about Italy being a country with a slightly negative birth rate, yet you have the Vatican right here, heart of the Catholic world and heart of Catholic Italy,” “Oh the Pope – he’s a great guy,” was the essence of the usual answer, “But what does he know about having children – he’s celibate.”
Countless studies by the United Nations Population Agency and dozens of human health delivery services around the world have confirmed that by far the single most important approach to reducing family size is simply making reproductive information available to women: family planning education for women. Anyone against women’s rights ready to step forward? Well there are some but fewer all the time and that’s a hopeful sign.
I say that because population, all 7,383,272,989 of us as I get to this point in writing this article, says worldometers.info/world-population on the Internet, is as basic as it gets in human impacts due to sheer requirements to maintain human bodies in large numbers. Multiply that by production and consumption rates, then take into account the impacts of the particular kinds of agriculture and cities we run, how we help or don’t help nature in her natural means of carbon sequestration and the attitudes we have about all the above and we can see the starting point is population. However I disagree with those who say therefore that population is the most important of all major factors. I think it is more likely that all of them, all six I indicate here, simply cannot be omitted, are indispensable for success – as a whole system in its own right.
But finishing up with population before moving to agriculture, last summer I found some statistics on how much the mammals on the planet weigh – that’s right, their total biomass from shrews and voles to elephants and whales, including us of course. The information was staggering and comes from Vaclav Smil, a University of Manitoba scientist meticulous in his detail, depth and referencing. I reorganized his figures as a simple graph and to me it was the most frightening graph I have ever seen. I used it in a past newsletter and in all of my 13 public talks since then, in England, China, Colombia, Bolivia and Abu Dhabi. I’ll provide it again here for the sheer impact of such disproportionate numbers.
It’s a graph made up of small squares, each one representing one million tons of weight. The number of squares are in three categories. Of all that biomass humans are approximately 30.5% of the total and our food animals and pets 66.7%. Staggering information that less than 3% of all the mammal weight on the planet is wild and free anymore. And Smil’s figures are from 2002 in his book The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution Dynamics and Change, MIT Press. It is stunning and profoundly depressing, to me anyway, that one species alone has appropriated more than 97% of all the primary photosynthetic product, work of the plants of the world to supply life to the animals that’s put to use by the mammals on the planet. And the figures today 13 years later are bound to be less, probably less than 2% free and wild. Amazing. All that production of energy from the sun destined to mammals and one species alone is the ultimate destination for its purposes. We appropriate that much for ourselves and all the thousands of other species of mammals get such a miniscule proportion. Just amazing.
Gandhi said there is enough for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed. Once probably true. A glance at the chart below however indicates not any more. We have to also deal with how many everyone actually is. The numbers have more than caught up with us and we are on the cusp of a lonely, lonely world.
Chart representing the weight of mammals on the Earth by weight
The agriculture/diet nexus has deep roots too in tradition and local tastes developing over hundreds of years in very different places around the world. As with the population issue there are religious stricture here, too. I won’t elaborate on this subject about which I’m not an expert by any means, though broadly read. I’ll abbreviate it down to the reminder that we need to understand the vastness of its demands, not only for food but as they say fiber, as in clearing forests for grazing animals and turning wood into buildings, furniture, paper and so on.
A Texas Porter House stake – 72 ounces
The built environment – cities, towns, villages – these are the largest creations of humanity and as we so often hear, they are the home to well over the majority of the human population. But if we include the towns and villages, there are very few people left living alone on the range or isolated in a separate farm house with associated facilities and no village neighbors. That is, it is probably more like 90%+ of us live in designed and built communities from the very small to gigantic. Energy consumption, product production and pollution emissions to air, water and land are immense with these infrastructures sprawling over the best agricultural land – of course cities would start where the food is best available. Only in regard to the vast extent of the land area involved in agriculture is there a larger disruption to land and seas – think of the dead zones or most major rivers with agriculture up stream.
The lessons here are clustered around the more compact, three-dimensionally integrated pedestrian ecocity, ecotown, ecovillage and metropolitan areas that could be recast as ecotropolises. Being the main topics set of Ecocity Builders, any but first time readers of this newsletter already know most of the problems ecocity design solve, problems averted.
Built environment – one of infinite versions: same ecocity principles very different local ecological, social, economic and conditions of climate, weather, sun angles, temperature regime…
Natural carbon sequestration I first started contemplating when reading about Zimbabwe rancher Allan Savory’s way of herding cattle in tight packs eating and excreting their way across large grassland landscapes – as he says these compact herds are like gigantic agricultural machines powered by the sun for free. The dirt, poop and pee are mixed to perfection with seeds that have evolved and adapted for millions of years to passing through the innards of these big beasts and when the first rain comes, up erupts fast growing grasses, flowers, small brush in vast profusion – biomass and biodiversity at its regional best. Along comes the second rain and there is very little runoff. Instead the soil soaks up water, raising the water table and in some place streams and ponds return to formerly dry stream beds. Allan learned this from the way lions herd wildebeest and zebras, paralleled in North America in the way bison were herded by wolves. With grasslands quickly turned into sinks for both large increased sequestration of carbon in deeper roots and deeper soils, and with water tables rising where the technique is applied Savory points out that many millions of acres around the world can be turned into vast carbon sinks in this manner.
I believe he exaggerates greatly when he says – and he does – that such treatment of the grasslands and marginal deserts of the world could almost single handedly turn around the CO2 growth in the atmosphere. Similarly I heard a claim that organic agriculture could do the same thing. This last May at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa I heard a truly impressive lecture by master organic farmer Tom Newmark pointing out the destructive impact of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides on the community of soil organisms from microscopic to worms, and prairie dogs to the maximum productivity of the soil, both natural and farmed.
Everyone has their own favorite solution, but why so lonely with only mine? What about similar techniques also for forests, peatlands, sea weed forests and all the other surfaces of life working away under the sun with chlorophyll trying each organism to out produce his, her or its neighbor? The acreage involved in natural carbon sequestration into soils and sediments is the vast majority of the entire Earth’s surface. While other approaches can radically reduce demand, this one actively removes carbon from the entire atmosphere (and the waters too) and not just industrial smoke stacks. Then add to such a technique the larger whole systems strategy of 1. through 3. above and 5. and 6. below.
Lion herding wildebeests
Allan Savory’s cattle pass by his front porch, Zimbabwe
Here we move from the physical to the mental, psychological and spiritual. Generosity – we need to swamp the planet in it. We have been given this life on a stunningly gorgeous and infinitely varied planet. If we don’t invest seriously in the above four, and all at the same time – “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” John Muir – we will lose the incredible synergies of whole systems. Climate change is an opportunity to grasp that and the discovery will be, if the five Big Ones described here and above can be conceptualized and implemented, it seems to me, a winning strategy. And if that’s possible so is a cascading of other solutions connected in the good old whole systems patterns of organization: organs in organisms humming along smoothly.
Another dimension of generosity is investing in peace. There is nothing less generous that taking another’s life. In other words it’s time to put an end to war. Can this issue is placed in the middle of a discussion of survival of life on the planet? This is not the Battle of Britain or the nuclear war we narrowly dodged – so far. But climate change has an uncomfortable number of parallels with those gigantic conflicts. If we can’t somehow come to peace with each other, why do we think we could solve the climate change problem – and vice versa?
Wait a minute… No one has ever tried a united whole systems approach of the Big Six kind. How do we know it wouldn’t work? Never have we had better information and communications.
Gandhi at number 10 Downing Street, London
Richard trying to educate about ecocities at the ICLEI Future of Cities Conference, Incheon, South Korea
Number six is communication about those most important items that are not the low hanging fruit: the above Big 5. It is simply education as powerful as we can make it about all the above as if our lives depended upon it. Do they?