Thursday, February 1, 2018

Driving Social Change

Rancho La Inmaculada in 1977. This is the "before" picture.
As I have mentioned before, I have been reading a lot lately about sustainability, particularly what a sustainable society would look like. There always seems to be a piece missing, though. How do we get there? Change doesn’t start at the top. It has always started at the bottom, with a groundswell of people who decide that the current way isn’t good enough and have an idea of how to make it better. The top is populated with the people who got their money or power (or both) from the current way of doing things. They have no reason to change and every reason to prevent change. The onus for change falls on the disaffected masses who know the life they have been given isn’t good enough. Right now, millennials are making up the bulk of the workforce and they are feeling the brunt of the economic crunch right now. This means that the responsibility for this change will fall to the millennials.

There is a problem with that, though. If you are familiar with my blog, you will know that I am a firm believer in the fact that the only way to fix this mess we are in, and to fix nearly every aspect of it, is to bring people back to the land and get them involved in regenerative agriculture. The problem there is that, as a group, millennials aren’t buying land. They just can’t afford the big house in the suburbs. So how do we get them onto the land and working it in such a way that they build soil and produce food? Let me propose two ideas, one for rural areas and one for urban areas.

First, let me start with the rural solution. To be fair, I think this solution will work best in the American west where land tends to be drier and more sparsely populated. The problem out here is that the land is brittle and requires animal impact to regenerate. But the great herds of hoofed animals are long gone. The grasses of the prairies need that animal impact grow and build soil. As the grasses suffer, so does the soil. The remaining soil organisms live off the carbon stored in the soil for many years, but in doing so, they consume it. As the soil loses its carbon, it loses its ability to capture and retain moisture. It becomes more erosive. The grassland turns into a desert.

The tricky part is that plopping some cows on the desert and letting them graze doesn’t help. It makes it worse, in fact. Taking the cows off the land and letting it rest doesn’t work either. It also makes the problem worse. It is only through either using the natural processes that created the grasslands or closely mimicking the impact of those natural processes that the desert can be returned to grassland. Holistic Management is one process for mimicking the natural processes, but there is considerable debate about whether it works or if there would be something better. For this reason, I think that it would be best to base the solution on results rather than method. Under this program, the method that promotes the best results would quickly rise to the top.

Rancho La Inmaculada in 2013. This is the "after" picture.
So here is what I propose: In the American west, the vast majority of rural land is owned by the government and it is turning to desert as it is being subjected to either overgrazing or too much rest. I propose that we institute a new version of the Homestead Act. Sell the land, at market value, to families willing to work the land. Tie the land payment to soil carbon. Before the land is sold, a baseline measurement is taken, just a simple soil test. Every year, before the year’s land payment, retest the soil. If the percentage of soil carbon has gone up from the previous year by some baseline amount, say a half percent or one percent, no payment is due. This provides a considerable financial incentive to improving the soil carbon, which is a pretty good baseline for ecosystem regeneration.

Now let me talk about a different solution for urban areas. I think that most people would agree that neither tall grass prairie nor herds of hoofed mammals would be particularly desirable in urban and suburban areas. It would be possible to have a goat lawn mowing service, but the logistics would be difficult. No, I think that a food forest and urban regenerative agriculture would be a better solution. If done correctly, the increase in plant cover would help with the urban heat island effect and air pollution. People capturing rainwater for personal use would decrease flooding problems that are common in urban areas. A diversity of food producing plants would help urban wildlife, like birds and beneficial insects. Plus, there is a huge demand for locally produced, organic produce.

For this solution, I would propose a private solution rather than a governmental one. If someone were to create a market to collect and sell locally produced, organic produce, they would be in a position to work with homeowners to buy produce from them and sell it in their market. This would create a demand and encourage people to grow their own food. Heck, even harvesting all the fruit from trees that go to waste and selling that would create a significant market.

For the actual program, I would think that such a market would struggle first with supply. The demand is already there. Where would they get the produce they need to sell? In a changing market, companies need to diversify services, maybe even creating their own circular economy that is internal to the company. For example, I worked with a developer many years ago who had teamed up with a mining company. The city they were operating in had many lots that were ideally located and in high demand, but couldn’t be developed because they were too rocky. It was too pricey to get the rock removed prior to construction. This developer would work out the design and then send in the mining equipment. First they would collect all the boulders and sell those to landscaping companies, even charging for placement onsite where they were needed. Then they would grind down and remove the rock that was in the way for development. They would sell this as aggregate for road beds or other uses. This used an existing business model and had its own profit sources. Then they would move in the builders and build the buildings and whatever else was needed for the site. It was a pretty brilliant business model.

I would propose a combination of a market selling local, organic produce and a home remodeling, real estate, and mortgage company. The realtors could find homes for sale that were in need of work and buy them at low prices. While they are fixing them up, they plant the beginnings of a food forest and do whatever else would be necessary to get food production set up. Then they sell the homes, at market prices, to families looking to start a new life.

I am a big believer that when someone owns their own property, it is theirs to do with as they please, and indeed most people would find a way to do just that. Again, as in the rural example, incentives for proper behavior would need to be brought to bear. If you sell the houses for below market value, there would be people who would buy it cheap, tear out the food production methods, and sell it at market value. So it would need to be sold at market value. The selection process would be a bit different, though. Instead of looking at credit and income, buyers could be selected on the basis of gardening knowledge, personal situation, and willingness to participate. Rather than going through a banking institution, the company could carry the mortgage and write some interesting terms. First of all, there would be the interest rate. As long as the homeowner agrees to participate in the local, organic produce program and sell (not give, mind you, all produce is sold at a rate based on the market) a minimum of a certain amount of produce monthly, the interest on the mortgage is either significantly reduced or eliminated altogether from the payments due on the home. The proceeds of the produce could either be applied to the mortgage or given as cash to the homeowner. This would give the homeowner significant leeway regarding how they want to handle their finances. They could up production and offset their entire mortgage payment with produce. They could give themselves a second income, they could even seek to pay off their mortgage early.

Right now we are in a tough spot, environmentally and economically. Most methods being suggested today tell people what they have to give up in order to make the changes we need. I really don’t think this is necessary. With some creative thinking and problem solving, I believe that there are ways to help people get pointed in the right direction towards making a real difference while still making the world a better place.

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