From the introduction of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, to the Paris Agreement of 2015, and even up to the present day, we have seen a steady stream of publications, conferences, and pacts committing to supporting the climate by reversing the direction of global warming with steps to be taken in the foreseeable future. 2021 is a watershed moment because that future is now upon us. Every day, one reads of new records set in any number of important markers: CO2 levels, heat and precipitation, loss of Arctic ice and permafrost, and increase in deforestation, to name just a few symptoms. Climate is no longer an issue that can be pushed down the road.
The voices of civil society, governments, business, the military, the financial world, and faith communities unite in expressing their deep concern, even if some have only recently (and sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged it. We also hear voices who say that it is too late, that we need to be planning and pivoting in response to the inevitable and horrific changes to our planet rather than trying to avert the worst consequences.
In times of crisis, a moment often arises when unity of purpose changes the course of events. In spite of overwhelming agreement about global warming, that moment has yet to arrive. Paul Hawken’s latest book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation is a powerful catalyst to action, and creates a call to move urgently, together, towards rapid change.
Hawken is an internationally recognized environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author who has focused his efforts on the daunting impact that global warming has on the planet and all the life it supports. While originally recognized for his entrepreneurship and his commitment to the beneficial intersection between business and the environment, he became known for articulating this position in his best-selling books including The Next Economy, Growing a Business, The Ecology of Commerce, and more recently in 2017, Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.
Regeneration is the new addition to this storied anthology. While there are hundreds of books on the subjects of global warming and climate change, many if not most are either backward-looking (“how we got here”) or focus on a particular position or category of interest, from petroleum to carbon sequestration to oceans to topsoil to social impact.
Hawken brings all the pieces together at the beginning of his opening essay, writing: “Regeneration means putting life at the center of every action and decision.” After that, he focuses on the single idea that we must regenerate, and posits that the path to regeneration is to reduce and sequester carbon dioxide in every aspect of activity to reverse global warming.
He presents us with the often-stated but little-used notion that everything is connected. He introduces us to the concept of Nexus: that no issue stands by itself, that every issue and every solution intersects multiple categories, concerns, geographies, and communities. For too long, climate change and global warming seemed to be discourses that focused on weather and the planet without considering that people were actually integral to, and not separate from, the conversation.
Regeneration is not a mere book, but a resource, a tool, and a guide, drawing on decades of interdisciplinary expertise and hands-on knowledge. It breaks the subject of global warming into nine broad subject areas including Oceans, Forests, Energy, Industry, and People. Within each subject area is a series of as many as 10 essays that serve to inform or inspire. The Forests section, for instance, includes essays on: Proforestation, Boreal Forests, Tropical Forests, Afforestation, Peatlands, Agroforestry, Fire Ecology, Bamboo, and a synopsis of a portion of Richard Powers’s The Overstory (my favorite novel of the last decade and a passionate call to action in the form of fiction).
The final section is Action + Connection, which offers a roadmap and steps to become engaged at the individual, group, or institutional level. It is helpful not only in its clear guidance, but also in its emphasis of the dual importance of connection and Nexus. To the reader and the burgeoning activist, it provides a series of questions (to answer Yes or No) as a way to confirm if a planned course of action is helpful in heading to the intended outcome: regeneration. As examples, two questions are: “Does the action create more life or reduce it?” and “Does it serve human needs or manufacture human wants?”
Because of my collaborative work with the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, Smallholders Data Services Platform, Terra Genesis, and The Data Economics Company’s Lydion Engine (as we describe elsewhere in this issue of The Lydion Magazine), I was particularly drawn to two sections as a way of understanding the larger whole of the book: Forests and Regenerative Agriculture.
One can not begin to think about global warming and carbon sequestration without starting with Forests. For many of us, we understood that forests served two purposes: fun places to have outdoor experiences and sources of lumber to support humans.
In the opening section, we are reminded that forests are our full partners for survival on this planet. Forests cover one third of the Earth’s surface; they are critical to habitat, housing the vast majority of animal and plant species; and they clean and moderate the air we breathe. Recent research has introduced us to the understanding that trees have ways of thinking and communicating and have their own sense of community with the ability to respond and protect their community.
Forests are also the single most important area of concern in terms of solving the climate crisis. They store 2,200 billion tons of carbon; and old growth (boreal) forests store the highest density of carbon. The wanton destruction of forests releases staggering levels of carbon into the atmosphere and can almost single handedly reverse the cumulative positive steps taken in all our areas. Because of Forests’ importance to the crisis, the two highest priority actions within this category are protecting old-growth forests and reforesting land.
The Smallholder Farmers Alliance’s original work supported by The Timberland Company was to plant eight million trees in Haiti. This was the catalyst to partnering with DECO and the Lydion Engine to develop a decentralized, farmer-led data platform to measure the impact of tree planting and ensure traceability for this action and its positive climate impact. As more consumer product companies commit to tree planting, regenerative agriculture, and community impact, they will require verification on the ground that their commitments are indeed being met and are being done so at accepted international standards.
This direction and action contrasts with that of other large international corporations who have jumped on the climate bandwagon by purchasing unused carbon credits from other companies, celebrating their “responsibility” optics all while continuing with their own degenerative practices. In an extreme but important example, we consider Monsanto, which purchases carbon offset credits while continuing to widely distribute glyphosate, the most destructive chemical herbicide in history. In another section of his book, Hawken uses Pepsi Co. as an example of a company that wants to demonstrate its commitment to renewable energy but fails to see its actions and their consequences fully within context—it uses its “eco-friendly” trucks to deliver sugar-laced drinks and salty snacks around the world while lobbying for no limits on extra large sodas and elimination of soft drink taxes.
In the Land section of the book, “Regenerative Agriculture” is the opening essay. Here, we find particular value in understanding Hawken’s thesis because we are presented with a clear example of his Nexus, in this case linking Food, People, Soil, Water and Farming, to name just a few.
There are approximately 500 million smallholder farmers in the world. While the term Regenerative Farming is credited to Robert Rodale, indigenous farmers have been using regenerative techniques for thousands of years across every continent. These are natural practices that deliver healthy food with high yields and perpetuate the health of the soil without destructive additives.. These practices are in direct contrast to the twentieth century phenomenon of industrialized agriculture, which has been celebrated incorrectly to be the more efficient and more productive approach to farming, without adequate accounting of its downside costs and value destruction to ecosystems and communities.Especially in the United States, industrial agriculture has booted small-scale farmers off the farm and with them their traditional and effective practices which supported the crops, the people, and the soil itself.
As described by Hawken, the cycle of industrial agriculture is terrifying. In this system, seeds are covered with chemicals and reduced to monocultures that are more efficiently managed with the use of sprayers and monstrous farm equipment. As soil health declines via the elimination of natural processes, industrial farmers add more chemicals to promote growth and maintain profitable yields. Less healthy plants are more susceptible to insects, necessitating heavy application of pesticides that kill not only the insects, but their natural predators that consume them for food, carrying chemicals further up the food chain and disrupting wildlife ecosystems in sometimes horrific ways. The amount and variety of chemicals combined with destructive use of massive machines destroy natural cycles, including loss of carbon in the soil, and cause dramatic health problems for farmers, their families, livestock, and broader wildlife.
For those farmers who remain, and even for the large farms whose crops are failing, learning or relearning regenerative practices to return health to the soil and the crops grown in it becomes an imperative.In doing so, they begin to participate in the reversal of global warming, which is wreaking havoc (that often cruelly impacts first, and disproportionately, farmers) through changes in temperature, precipitation, kinds and intensity of severe weather, and even shifts in seasonality. The research is clear, encouraging them to initiate the accepted best practices Hawken describes: recarbonize the soil; reduce and limit intense mechanical soil disturbance; cover the soil with other crops rather than with chemicals; and hydrate the soil to return it to porosity from impermeability.
As these steps are taken, sequestration of carbon can return, and contemporary agriculture can move to being a net regenerator from being a net degenerator.
But what about those voices who say that it’s all too late? Even with all the warning signs, we squandered the opportunity to reduce global warning for more than a decade. Now we must focus on adapting to a frightening but inevitable future.
Hawken addresses this question directly by referencing Dr. Joeri Rogeli, a lead author of the Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who said the following in December of 2020: “It is our best understanding that, if we bring carbon dioxide [emissions] down to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two. There will be very little to no additional warming. Our best estimate is zero.” This is an extraordinary statement, and a heartening one, as it contradicts the previous conventional wisdom that bringing carbon emissions to small or zero would reduce but not eliminate global warming well into the future.
The sheer scope of Regeneration makes it impossible to discuss all of its excellent sections in a single review. But these two examples represent a sample of the positive options that the entire interlocking jigsaw puzzle of actions offers. Thus, the only question that remains is: do we human caretakers both individually and collectively have the courage and the commitment to our planet, to ourselves, and to those who follow us to make this the most important priority of our lives? If your conviction ever falters, Regeneration will renew your resolve to act.