Two Important New Books
March 10, 2016
Among systems thinkers there is already a fairly robust literature on the use of agroecology to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon. From its origins in the late 1970s, Permaculture has sounded this theme; more recently, Vandana Shiva’s book Soil Not Oil (Women Unlimited Books, 2009) honed the discourse about the adverse climate impacts of conventional agriculture and the potential of regenerative agriculture to reverse those impacts. A well-attended “Soil Not Oil” international conference held in Oakland in September 2015 (another is scheduled for later this year) brought together advocates and researchers to discuss the new field of carbon farming.
Toensmeier’s book aims to be the bible of this new movement, and it does indeed competently cover the wide range of issues related to carbon sequestration in soils, forests, and perennial crops. Yet even though it’s a big book (about 500 large-format pages, with color photos and graphics, as well as topical sidebars), it would be impossible to fully explore the wide range of relevant subjects within a single volume. Veterans of the Permaculture literature will find some familiar ground re-trod here, while advocates of biochar may wince when they see that their favored climate solution is granted only a few paragraphs of discussion.
Nevertheless, this is a timely and useful book. As its author carefully explains in the first few chapters, carbon sequestration in the biosphere is our only credible path to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. But only a revolution in agricultural practices can enable us to take advantage of this potential. Toensmeier is careful to point out repeatedly that carbon farming cannot by itself solve the climate crisis: the world simply must rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels—which will entail not only the build-out of renewable energy technologies, but also the redesign of industrial systems for manufacturing and transport.
The mainstream climate mitigation prescription includes carbon capture and storage (burning coal but burying the CO2), but that is an economically and practically unrealistic strategy. Carbon farming makes far more sense: not only is there plenty of capacity in the soil for carbon uptake, but the agricultural practices required would address many other problems at the same time—including the economic viability of small-scale farming, biodiversity loss, the restoration of water and nutrient cycles, food security, and toxic chemical pollution throughout the biosphere.
Carbon farming is clearly an idea whose time has come, and Eric Toensmeier is a forceful, knowledgeable, and eloquent advocate.
Edward O. Wilson’s latest book again advances an idea that is far from new—in this case, that of setting aside massive amounts of land and ocean for ecosystem recovery so as to stem biodiversity loss.
The goal of creating national parks immune to industrial development dates back to the mid-19th century, with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt its most famous proponents. Since 1991, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman has been working with the Wildlands Project to establish a network of protected wilderness areas across North America. And throughout the past couple of decades, philanthropist Doug Tompkins (who tragically died last December) financed and created a series of huge wilderness preserves in South America.
The need for such efforts could hardly be plainer. As Elizabeth Kolbert documented in her chilling book The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt, 2014), we humans are causing so many other species to disappear (and the rate is at which this is happening is increasing so fast), that the phenomenon can only be compared to the very few most cataclysmic events in all of Earth’s prior history.
Wilson argues that if we are to slow the rate of extinctions, we must do two things: cut back dramatically on the activities that are making it difficult for other species to survive (burning fossil fuels, cutting ancient forests, polluting waterways, expanding human populations), and create large interconnected spaces where nature can regenerate. His bold proposal is to devote fully half the Earth’s surface (land and water) to nature.
An obvious problem: regardless what we do now, we humans have already emitted enough carbon to guarantee a certain amount of climate change, and zones where species currently thrive may not be places where they will be able to persist in a warmer future. Therefore isolated nature preserves will not suffice; wildlife corridors will also be needed. And many of the preserves must be very large in order to be of use: a huge number of small nature parks would support far fewer species in total.
Wilson’s idea of setting aside half the Earth for other species may seem like a tall order, but 15 percent of the planet has already been protected with national parks and other preserves, and most of the needed legal and regulatory mechanisms have already been developed and tested. The author identifies specific spots where Earth’s biodiversity can still be reclaimed and shows that the project is practically achievable, if admittedly ambitious. All we need is the will.
Wilson’s proposal has already been attacked by “humanitarians” arguing that concern over human overpopulation is essentially racist, and that areas that are centers of eroding biodiversity are also places where poor people need access to resources. These are specious arguments: if we do not protect biodiversity, it is precisely the poorest people in countries with the highest fertility rates who will suffer first and foremost. That said, it is clearly true that the cause of human equity should always be taken into account in conservation efforts.
Half-Earth is certainly not the first word on the subject of wilderness preservation and will hopefully not be the last. But the issue is reaching criticality, and Wilson’s proposal is clear and bold. Further, the author is a revered biologist and beloved naturalist whose acclaimed literary skills have never shone brighter.