Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Climate Change and Ecological Austerity

My ladies foraging and fertilizing my back yard
I have been thinking a lot about the state of the current thinking on climate change lately, and an interesting parallel has occurred to me. Several years ago, the Greek economy hit a major downturn. Since they were tied into the European Union's economy, the rest of the EU had to step in and take a hand to keep the whole thing from crashing. Considering that the leaders of Greece at the time had been irresponsible with their spending, they decided that this needed to stop and imposed severe austerity measures. It didn't work. The economy crashed and times were really bad in Greece for quite a while. Why? The engine that drives an economy is the flow of money. This is a relatively simple concept that seems to be poorly understood by most. When Greece cut benefits, a significant flow of money just stopped. This rippled through the economy, slowing everything down.

In many ways, an ecosystem functions much like an economy. The currency is carbon. The bank is the soil. The income generators are plants. Carbon in the sky is a bit like debt. Plants take the energy from the sun and pull carbon from the atmosphere. They then use that to make sugars. They recombine those sugars with nutrients they pull from the soil to make absolutely everything else. The plants are a bit like small businesses. When a small business makes money, it doesn't really save much. Most of that money goes to employees. Plants do the same thing by providing liquid carbon exudates to soil organisms in turn for a direct supply of nutrients. Some of a small business' money goes to pay suppliers or consultants who provide services and then spend that money elsewhere. Animals are much like this, receiving their income in the form of fruit or vegetation that they eat, reconfigure and move to other sectors of the economy through the food web.

That carbon that originated in plants has a million possible pathways. Sometimes it travels from herbivore to the soil via scat. Sometimes it transfers from herbivore to predator to the soil. Sometime it travels from insect to predatory insect to other predatory insect to bird to snake to coyote to the soil. Sometimes it is just a branch or leaf that falls directly to the soil. No matter how it travels, carbon is removed at every stage and returned to the carbon dioxide in the air, while a portion of the original carbon is returned to the soil, along with the nutrients.

But when that organic matter is finally returned to the soil, the story is far from over. The soil organisms take over. They use up more of that carbon that is bound up. There is a whole soil food web that transfers nutrients from organism to organism, with each organism taking its cut of the carbon. In the process, the carbon gets distilled.

Eventually, the last little bit, maybe one percent of the original, gets saved as stable soil carbon, as money in the bank. But like a bank, the soil doesn't just sit on that carbon. They put it to work.  There is something magical that happens in this process. Those soil organisms each function as a part of that whole, all working to support the plants that make all soil life possible. They reconfigure the nutrients into a form that is usable by the plant. They form distribution networks to feed the plant the nutrients, its supply chain. And each uses a little of that carbon in the process. The soil carbon captures water that passes through. It is formed into glues that hold the soil particles together, reducing erosion. They manage and adjust soil pH, making sure that the plants can access the nutrients they need to grow. All terrestrial ecosystems seek to sequester soil carbon. It is a major driving force in the ecology, to the point that an ecosystem's health can usually be measured by how much carbon is in the soil.

But humans disrupt that process. Personally, I think that in our climatic calculations of how much carbon we have belched into the air, we are massively under-counting how much came from what was previously stored in the soil. A healthy woodland ecosystem can have several inches of topsoil. Even one inch is good. Historical records say that there was once ten feet of topsoil in the American midwest. That topsoil is all gone now. How? Where did it go?

Let's go back to our economic analogy. Industrial agriculture is like junk bonds. It creates the illusion of wealth in the short term, but eventually the bill comes due. Soil fertility is managed through the soil carbon and the organisms that make up a large part of that soil carbon. By tilling and using various toxic chemicals in large doses, you kill important parts of that life. By exposing all the layers of soil to oxygen and using synthetic fertilizers, you accelerate the action of certain soil bacteria, which use the opportunity to burn through stable soil carbon. The rotting corpses of the dead soil organisms and the using up of stable soil carbon create a boost in fertility, increasing yields. But next year, there are fewer organisms and less available soil carbon. Pretty soon you need to use more fertilizer. It can take decades to completely expend the soil carbon and kill all the soil life, but it does eventually happen. The productivity of the soil tapers off. The soil erodes and becomes lifeless. Eventually, it costs more to buy the inputs needed to keep the soil producing than you get out of it, and you have to abandon the field.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are similar. The manure of herbivores is a powerful fertilizer and can do amazing things to build soil carbon. But by concentrating them in a small space and preventing the manure from being spread on the soil, you are withholding important nutrients from the soil. I suppose that is more like the wealthy hoarding wealth in offshore accounts, effectively pulling it out of the economy.

That brings me back to the current state of environmental and food production policy. The cracks in the current system are showing, and many people are starting to worry that the whole system is in danger of coming down around us. At the same time, we, as a people, don't really understand how ecosystems work. We particularly don't really understand that we are obligate members of an ecosystem. We tell ourselves that we are separate and apart from the ecosystem. So when we realize that the whole system is coming apart around us, we don't realize that it is as simple as repairing those ecosystems. But that ecosystem is in fact a system. You can't attempt to fix a part of it while ignoring the other parts. They are all connected. Right now, through the efforts of a few individuals, we have discovered that cows raised in CAFOs produce huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. One documentary erroneously claimed that cows produce 51% of greenhouse gasses. Considering that the UN's own numbers show all of agriculture producing only 14%, this is unlikely. But the fact remains that a bad method is being used to blame an organism that evolved to work in concert with its environment to provide health to that environment. The combination of cows and their ideal impact on perennial grasses in grasslands might just be the most powerful carbon sequestration technology ever developed. There are those who have even theorized that it isn't accidental that the evolution of this relationship closely corresponds with the drop in carbon and the beginning of ice ages.

Right now, the weight of public opinion is pushing on a reduction in the production of meat as our best solution to getting out of the mess we are currently in. This is a bit like putting our ecosystem on extreme austerity measures to try to fix it. It won't fix the problem any better than the austerity measures fixed Greece's economy. If we eliminate animals without eliminating the rest of industrial agriculture, we are not closing the loops in a system that must loop. It is only through reconnecting the feedback loops in the ecosystem that supports us that we can generate the ecological activity that will lead to a thriving ecosystem that will support humankind into the foreseeable future. And we can only do that through regenerative agriculture.