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Our Fossil-Fuel Economy Destroys the Earth and Exploits Humanity – Here’s the Shift We Need to Be Sustainable

Author: Iliana Salazar-Dodge

I am a Mexican immigrant and a senior at Columbia University who’s been organizing around fossil fuel divestment since freshman year. Two years ago, I had a bit of a crisis. I suddenly felt disillusioned with the movement—not with the tactic of divestment, but rather with the fact that national campaigns were solely focused on taking down the fossil fuel behemoth. Don’t get me wrong; it’s extremely satisfying to hear of another divestment win, to see the fossil fuel industry take a hit. But I began to realize that while we need people to fight the bad in this world, we also need people creating the society we do want to live in. I want to be one of those people.

That summer, as a 350.org Fossil Free Fellow, I was introduced to the reinvestment campaign. I learned about a way that we, as students, can build off the successes of the divestment movement to fight for what we want. This campaign is one tactic we can use to facilitate the transition out of our current economy into a regenerative economy. But before we talk about where we want to go, let’s talk about where we are now.

America’s extractive economy

Whether or not we care to admit it, our current economy is extractive—that is, it’s built on the exploitation and extraction of human labor and the earth’s resources. It relies on corporations that force workers to work long hours in unsafe conditions for insufficient wages and benefits. It exists by the continual removal of nutrients from the soil, minerals from the mountains, and fossil fuels from underground. This system isn’t working for us today, and it isn’t going to work for us tomorrow. We know that infinite growth is not possible, but this economy depends on it.

Regenerative economy

In contrast, a regenerative economy satisfies the needs of the present planet without diminishing the prospects of future generations. It builds community wealth by shifting economic power, making workers the owners of their own businesses, community members the decision makers about their resources. It also strengthens the public sector such that it serves the people rather than private interests. A just transition to a regenerative economy restores our relationship to food, Mother Earth and our communities.

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The World In a State of Extreme Transition: Moving from Sustainability to Regenerative Design

Author: Daniel Pinchbeck and Schuyler Brown

Communication is the tool we use to navigate change in this perishable, impermanent world. We talk about what’s happening and what’s coming. We use words to rally and activate citizens; to inform and educate people; to alleviate or aggravate fears, depending on our intentions. Humans use language to make sense of things — even those things that are happening at a scale beyond our grasp. As Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And so, while it may seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (let’s hope not!), reevaluating the language of climate change can offer a fresh perspective on where we are and where we’re headed.

In our view, the current language around climate change and its solutions is inadequate and even counterproductive. Specifically, we question whether sustainability, the default name for most current efforts towards preservation of life on the planet, keeps us locked into the assumption that whatever we do, we must also sustain the system that is currently in place. Perhaps, this limits us before we even start pursuing these goals in earnest. “Regenerative” — regenerative design, regenerative society, regenerative economics — appeals to us as a more ambitious and dynamic term commensurate with the type of ambitious and dynamic actions that are required for the survival of humanity now.

All successful movements have understood the use and power of language, this one is no different. If it is to succeed, we must be moved by the call-to-action we are being issued. Sustainability, to date, just has not achieved any such effect.

Sustainability, the ability to sustain life to a set of standards, needs to be eclipsed by a new paradigm. As a call-to-action, what sustainability seeks to sustain, above all, is some version of our current way of life, even though the evidence is totally overwhelming that it cannot continue. Living processes, generally, don’t just endure or persevere. Life either flourishes and blooms, evolves and transforms, or it stagnates and dies. The rhetoric of sustainability tends to support the belief that our current form of post-industrial capitalism can be reformed — that it can persist, in something close to its present order.

We propose the new paradigm emerge from the ideals of regenerative culture. We can look at our current institutions and ideologies as a substrate, a foundation, providing the conditions for another level of transformation, just as modern bourgeois society emerged from monarchy. According to chaos theory, the nonlinear dynamics of living organisms allow for the emergence of new orders of complexity, when a system reaches a high level of instability. As the mono-cultural, technocratic approach of post-industrial capitalism crumbles, a new worldview — a new way of being — is crystallizing.

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Regenerative Economies for a Regenerative Civilization

Author: John Fullerton

“There is nothing more difficult to plan, nor more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system. For the creator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli

Einstein once said, “It is the theory which decides what we can observe.” i

I believe this assertion holds both truth and great wisdom. Its macro importance is trivial when the world operates according to a theory that fits the context of the times. Its importance becomes paramount when the world is running on a theory that no longer fits the realities at hand. NOW is such a time.

The so-called “practical people” who dismiss theory as being “academic” (by which they mean unimportant) have missed this critical distinction. We are in trouble now precisely because such “practical people” run the world today. As a result, we are literally flying blind. And the consequential turbulence – the complex and interconnected political, social, economic, financial, and ecological crises swirling around us – is accelerating.

Now I’m a practical person by training, a former Wall Street banker. But I have been obsessed for over a decade now with the many fundamental incongruities and paradoxes that inhabit our modern, highly reductionist, finance-driven, economic ideology (of both the left and the right). The list is long: the exponential function at the heart of finance-driven economic growth on a finite planet; the shareholder-value principle taught at most leading business schools and driving most corporate decision-making; the discount rate that discounts the value of a hospitable planet for our children whom we love more than life; Modern Portfolio Theory that is the basis for most investment allocation decisions, and Value at Risk as the guiding metric of financial risk, despite the well-understood limitations of both and their track records of failure. And the one that got me started down this path: how to reconcile the invisible hand with the Golden Rule.

My obsession with these incongruities led to the creation of Capital Institute. Since our founding in 2010 we have been collaborating on this journey with a determined and growing network of fellow explorers, including the courageous pioneers who have been on the case for decades. Our work has culminated in the theory that informs “Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape Our New Economy,” ii and our forthcoming Regenerative Finance white paper due out later this year. This theory is more rediscovery, synthesis, and extension than it is genuinely original insight. But rest assured, this theory has also been experienced first hand in working models on the ground both through my own direct investment practice and then via our story telling initiative, The Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy.iii Not only theory informing practice, but practice informing theory.

My premise is that the history of economic thought did not end with Keynes and Hayek, or Minsky and Friedman, leaving us nothing to do but shout our ideological beliefs across the public square. I believe this early stage of understanding regenerative economies is the natural next step in the evolution of economic thinking, bringing economics into alignment with our latest scientific understanding of how the universe actually works, building upon the profound advances of ecological economics as developed by Herman Daly and colleagues. The potential and structure of regenerative systems applies to both ecological and humanistic values; it is not simply a “green” idea. We already see expressions of regenerative efforts emerging all around us, although they are often invisible to those observers still trapped in the outdated reductionist paradigm. Until now, this transition has been hampered by the lack of an effective story.

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The investment case for ecological farming

Author: Paul McMahon

Farmland investing today

Farmland has emerged as a new asset class for investors over the past decade because of higher food prices. Historical returns have been good. However, commodity prices have dropped and farmland values are plateauing in many regions. In addition, most investment has gone into high-input, industrialised farming systems that are exposed to hidden risks. In future, investors will need to be smarter and more environmentally-aware to capture the opportunities.

The risks of industrial  agriculture

The profitability and sustainability of industrial agriculture are exposed to five major risks, which are set to intensify in coming decades:

  1. Exposure to high and volatile input costs
  2. Degrading natural assets such as soils and water reserves
  3. Vulnerability to a changing climate, especially extreme weather events
  4. Negative environmental externalities that will be increasingly taxed or regulated
  5. Shifting consumer trends, as people demand clean, green, healthy and tasty food
  6. Ecological farming: an attractive alternative

There is an alternative way to manage land that can minimise these risks, while increasing profitability. Ecological farming seeks to build soil health, minimise external inputs, recycle nutrients and energy, embrace diversity of crops and animals, and produce high value food and commodities. It is not necessarily organic (although it often can be), it can be practised on a commercial scale, and it is firmly science-based.

We have identified a number of proven systems that have investment merit. They include:

  • Holistic planned grazing for cattle and sheep
  • No-till cropping with diverse cover crops
  • Agroforestry systems
  • Low input pasture-based dairy
  • Certified organic farming in certain countries

Seven reasons to go ecological

There are a number of reasons why these types of systems can deliver superior risk-adjusted returns:

  1. Comparable or better yields in most cases
  2. Lower operating costs because of less reliance on external inputs
  3. Enhanced natural capital, with the opportunity to increase asset values by regenerating
    degraded land
  4. Climatic resilience because healthy soils cope better with droughts and floods
  5. Positive environmental externalities and the chance to be paid for them, for example through carbon credits
  6. The ability to sell to higher value markets such as organic or grass-fed
  7. Higher profitability with less volatility
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Meet John D. Liu, the Indiana Jones of Landscape Restoration

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He’s known to some as the “Indiana Jones” of landscape degradation and restoration.

John D. Liu, ecosystem restoration researcher, educator and filmmaker, has dedicated his life to sharing real-world examples of once-degraded landscapes newly restored to their original fertile and biodiverse beauty. Liu is director of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), ecosystem ambassador for the Commonland Foundation and a visiting research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

We recently sat down with Liu, the newest member of the Regeneration International (RI) Steering Committee. In this interview, Liu walks us through large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China and Rwanda. We learn that when humans work with nature, degraded landscapes can be restored in a matter of years, and economies can be regenerated, putting food security and climate change mitigation within our reach.

In order to survive as a species, Liu explains, humanity must shift from commodifying nature to ‘naturalizing’ our economy.

Interview with John D. Liu, February 4, 2016

RI: What is the significance of the Paris Agreement, reached at the COP21 Climate Summit in December (2015), for the pioneers, such as yourself, of the landscape restoration movement?

Liu: There is now recognition of soil carbon, which was not the case in the past. The best and perhaps only way for humanity to massively affect carbon disequilibrium in the atmosphere is to restore natural ecological function of soils through the restoration of biomass, biodiversity and accumulated organic matter.

One of the things that I have been learning about, and that has most impressed me, is the difference between natural systems, which have huge organic layers, and human systems, which are massively degraded and actually have lost their organic material.

In Paris, we’ve started to turn the corner. Instead of just talking about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we’re now seeing [climate change] spoken about as a holistic problem. When you see it holistically, you find out that CO2 and GHG emissions are a symptom of systematic dysfunction on a planetary scale… Human impact on the climate is not simply emissions; it is degradation.

There is a way forward. That is why I am so excited about the early work I did in the Loess Plateau and in Ethiopia, Rwanda and other countries. When you increase organic matter, you increase biomass and you protect biodiversity. You get a completely different result than if you just totally destroy those systems. So I don’t think that the political agreements go far enough, but they are starting to reflect reality, which is better than before.

RI: In Paris, RI encountered skepticism about the potential power of regenerative agriculture and landscape restoration to restore climate stability and feed the world. Can you tell us about your experience with the Loess Plateau restoration project in China and how it impacted your perspective on the potential of restoration?

Liu: There was a moment in the mid-1800s when Thomas Malthus reported that the rate of agricultural increase was happening arithmetically while human population growth was logarithmic. He posited huge famine and this pushed the development of industrial agriculture. But what I’ve seen is that this is based on huge assumptions and those assumptions are basically false. If you think that you can get higher productivity by reducing hydrological function, or the natural fertility in the land or the biodiversity of a biome then you are just sadly mistaken. You can get higher yields of monocultures for a short time but you ultimately destroy the basic fundamental viability of the entire system. So you are creating deserts. This is what happened in the Loess Plateau and this is what happened in every cradle of civilization.

It isn’t inevitable that human beings degrade these systems; we simply have to understand them. It is our understanding, our consciousness of these systems that determines what they look like. What I’ve noticed is that degraded landscapes are coming from human ignorance and greed. If you change that scenario to one of consciousness and generosity, you get a completely different outcome. And that is where we have to go, where we need to go. We are required to understand this. We have to act now as a species on a planetary scale. This has to become common knowledge for every human being on the planet. This has been our mission for the past 20-some years.

RI: Apart from the ecosystem benefits, the Loess Plateau project also helped lift 2.5 million people in four of the poorest provinces in China out of poverty. Is that correct?

Liu: Well, there are different ways to look at it because the Loess Plateau project influenced more than just the project areas. It changed national policy. Some of the negative behaviors, such as slope farming, tree cutting or free ranging of goats and sheep—behaviors that were devastating to biodiversity, biomass and organic material—were banned nationwide because of the work done on the Loess Plateau.

Landscape restoration does not only change ecological function, it changes the socio-economic function and when you get down to it, it changes the intention of human society. So if the intention of human society is to extract, to manufacture, to buy and sell things, then we are still going to have a lot of problems. But when we generate an understanding that the natural ecological functions that create air, water, food and energy are vastly more valuable than anything that has ever been produced or bought and sold, or anything that ever will be produced and bought and sold – this is the point where we turn the corner to a consciousness which is much more sustainable.

RI: It’s almost as if a global paradigm shift is needed to start accounting for nature in the economy. ‘Naturalizing’ the economy as you would say.

Liu: We have to be very careful not to commoditize nature. We need to naturalize the economy. What this means to me is that natural ecological functions are more valuable than ‘stuff.’ When we understand that, then the economy is based on ecological function. And that is exactly what we need in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to ensure food security, and to give every individual on the planet equal human rights. Suddenly we are in another paradigm. It’s similar to the shift from flat earth to round earth paradigm.

We need to realize that there is no ‘us and them.’ There is just us. There is one earth and one humanity. We have to act as a species on a planetary scale because we will all be affected by climate change. We have to come together to decide: What do we know? What do we understand? What do we believe as a species?

RI: Tell us about your work in Rwanda.

Liu: Rwanda is an interesting case study because of the 1994 genocide. This sort of a situation is ground zero. It is a reset. Every family, every person was affected. In 2006, I was invited to Rwanda by the British government and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). What I saw in my travels were bare hillsides, erosion and sediment loads in river systems. I presented my findings to the president, prime minister, parliament, cabinet, ministries of environment and agriculture, universities and press. We put films on TV. I explained each of these natural systems and what you have to do to correct it. And at the same moment in time, everyone in Rwanda was talking about ecological function.

Several weeks later, the government wrote me a letter saying thank you for coming to Rwanda to share your experiences. Then they wrote me a second letter, in which  they said we believe you and we’re rewriting our land use policy laws to reflect that economic development in Rwanda must be based on ecological function.

The measures Rwanda has taken have led to regeneration. They had food security when there was famine in East Africa. They have had increasing use of renewable energies and lessening of dependence on fossil fuels. If human beings can go to hell yet they can somehow come back and work to build a fair, equitable and sustainable society, that is a good thing. We need to watch carefully how Rwanda develops, as a lesson for the world.

RI: Can you tell us about the widespread detrimental impacts that industrial agriculture is having, particularly with regards to loss of biodiversity? Why is biodiversity essential to sustain life as we know it?

Liu: Evolutionary trends favor more biodiversity, more organic matter. The industrial or degenerative agriculture model favors less biodiversity, less biomass, less organic matter. This disrupts photosynthesis, hydrological regulation and moisture, temperature and it artificially elevates evaporation rates. Industrial agriculture sterilizes soil with UV radiation. It is just wrongheaded.

Humans went down the wrong path. But once we begin to understand these evolutionary trends, we understand that we have to get back in alignment with them. That is where regenerative agriculture and landscape restoration come in. We’ve seen the results at large scale and we’ve seen them on a smaller scale. This is the way forward for sequestration of carbon, this is the way forward for fertile healthy soils, this is the way forward for food security this is the way forward for meaningful work for everyone. We understand this. This is the basis of wealth and sustainability for humanity.

RI: If there were one behavior or habit of humans that you could magically change, what would it be?

Liu: It is clear right now that economics is driving today’s problems. There are a lot of assumptions in economics that are simply false. Economics now says that extraction, manufacturing, buying and selling can create wealth. This is bullshit. We are creating poverty by doing this. We are creating degradation of the landscapes. So few people in a tiny minority are accumulating vast material possessions in this system, while billions of people are living in abject poverty at the edges of large degraded ecosystems. Others can no longer even stay in their homes, and millions of people are migrating to escape from the horrible conditions. Well this cannot work. This must change.

What I have noticed is that ecological function is vastly more valuable that extraction, production, consumption, and buying and selling things. What we really need to understand is: “What is money?” If I were going to leave one thing for the people to think about it is this: What is money? What is it? It is basically a storehouse of value, a means of exchange, and a trust mechanism. That means it is an abstract concept; it can be anything that we want it to be. If we say that money comes from ecological function instead from extraction, manufacturing buying and selling, then we have a system in which all human efforts go toward restoring, protecting and preserving ecological function. That is what we need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to ensure food security, to ensure that human civilizations survive. Our monetary system must reflect reality. We could have growth, not from stuff, but growth from more functionality. If we do that and we value that higher than things, we will survive.

***

Alexandra Groome is Campaign & Events Coordinator for Regeneration International, a project of the Organic Consumers Association.

Agents of Hope — the Story of Africa’s Chikukwa Community and TSURO Projects

In Zimbabwe, agriculture is a critical sector for the economy. It accounts for about 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 70 percent of employment. Sadly, this critical sector is failing. Rural and communal populations suffer from malnutrition, and chronic droughts, causing chronic dependency on food aid and hand-outs.

As a person with first hand experience of rural poverty, news of hopeful farming practices is always more than welcome. But the best, most hopeful practices are those that are scalable, and can be deployed anywhere, to bring about positive change.

That’s why the story of the Chikukwa Community project, which has influenced and continues to impact the whole of the Chimanimani District, is such a remarkable story of hope.

This story of hope started in 1991, in the eastern and mountainous region of Zimbabwe, at a small communal land called Chikukwa. This area is also part of the Chimanimani Key Biodiversity Area bordering Mozambique. The once-treasured land in one of the Chikukwa villages, Chitekete, had degraded into a desertified landscape, with a drying spring.

Seeing a dire need, the community sought out a one-week training in permaculture design. With that one step, their journey began!

In my 10 years of work as a development worker, I’ve learned this one truth about successful projects: Solutions do not come from outside, they lie within the community. Once people decide it is time for change, then it is time, and the change that follows is more likely to last.

The success of this one village project spread to beautiful six villages, which led in 1996 to the establishment of a community-based organization (CBO), named the Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT). Initially, this project had a positive impact on about 7,000 people and 110 households. The project now runs a communally owned training centre, the Chikukwa Permaculture Community Centre, a hub for training programs throughout the region.

The Chikukwa Project is designed to exist outside NGO and donor influences. In most cases, programs fizzle out as soon as their funding runs out, because donors and most NGOs really do not have time to build relationships, create ownership and allow communities to determine the pace as they lead the implementation process. However, in participatory and community-driven projects, money and social conflict don’t hinder progress, proving that old saying that “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Projects that take a community-based approach are empowering as they foster self reliance. The Chikukwa Project has led to 80 percent of the community’s households using permaculture techniques that have made these households self-reliant when it comes to food. Not only that, but community members’ surroundings have been revitalized, as they continue to reverse rangelands desertification.

The Chikukwa project is communally driven (photo credit:Wikimedia localcultures.com)

Now, after 25 years of permaculture practice, the Chikukwa Project has inspired the whole of Chimanimani region in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. It has led to the creation of a new organization-TSURO (Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organization). TSURO is a democratic member-driven grassroots organization with currently 154 subscribed TSURO village groups and a supporting CBO by the name TSURO Trust.

In 2011, CELUCT and TSURO received training in Holistic Land and Livestock Management at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. Holistic Management (Holistic grazing) is a tool used to restore vast spaces of degraded land. CELUCT and TSURO have deployed these practices in five wards (a ward is a cluster of between 6-14 villages each). These wards are situated in the very dry area of Gudyanga, in the western low parts of the district, in the medium altitude of Chayamiti and Shinja and in the eastern high veld 1500 meters above sea level.

By combining the tools of permaculture and Holistic Management, both powerful approaches for rapid change, communities are addressing both immediate household level needs of food, money and stability, and the long-term needs of healthy land, good management systems and plans that will be ongoing in order to sustain a future of a healthy and self-reliant community. What I find most striking in this project is the building in of farmer led advocacy for farmer rights!

For example, in the Chimanimani District alone, land degradation was once viewed as a monster threat to communal dwellers. Through TSURO, the situation is slowly and steadily improving. TSURO works in all 21 wards of the Chimanimani district, where they have been facilitating a wide range of community-based initiatives, including the introduction of holistic management in five wards, and the establishment of more than 100 Farmer Action Learning Groups that focus on farmer-based research and experimentation. Research also includes climate change and watershed management.

The communities are also implementing community-based seed systems that address production, preservation, storage, saving and exchange. They use open pollinated varieties of seed. Chimanimani farmers are increasingly rejecting genetically modified seeds, which have caused problems in some other countries in southern Africa, and instead planting small grains. The district-wide project also implements household permaculture design, small livestock rearing and horticulture. Bee keeping and commercial marketing of rich organic honey as well as community based agro-processing and marketing, provide added economic benefits.

If 48 percent of Africa’s population depends on agriculture, and yet the agriculture sector has been declining continent-wide, then maybe we need to revisit agriculture strategies that no longer work, and implement new strategies that do work. The Chikukwa and TSURO projects are proof that lands can be restored, and the practices that restore them can be scaled up. If local people everywhere assumed full responsibility for solving their problems, we would see more land, economic and social regeneration across the world.

We will be making efforts to follow and document Chikukwa and TSURO stories, to share with the world just what is possible when local farmers—not big outside donors—take charge!

Precious Phiri is the Zimbabwe-based Africa coordinator for Regeneration International, a project of the Organic Consumers Association.

Scotland launches ambitious organic food plan to build farming resilience

Author: Philip Case

A bold new action plan for organic food production to help build a more sustainable farming future and regenerate the rural economy is being launched for Scotland.

“Organic Ambitions: An Action Plan for organic food and farming in Scotland 2016-2020” will be unveiled on 27 January.

The new plan will be officially launched on the first day of the Organic Research Centre’s annual conference, being held in Bristol.

Organic Ambitions is a major revision of Organic Futures, an organic action plan produced in 2011 and revised in 2013, which aimed to strengthen Scotland’s organic food sector.

Wendy Seel, chairman of the Scottish Organic Forum, who have built the new plan following an extensive consultation, said: “Organic Ambitions will aim to build knowledge about organics, strength in the organic supply chain and skills across the organic sector.”

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