Climate news gets worse every day. The eye slides away; the heart falters. There seems little hope when we consider that if the world could, by some political miracle, reduce carbon emissions to zero, the Earth’s temperature will continue to rise into dangerous zones for the next thirty years.
Einstein has said that we can never hope to solve a problem with the same thinking that caused that problem. It was a chance conversation with a chef, who cared deeply about how the food he prepared was grown, which sparked Ms. Ohlson’s curiosity about soil management and led her across three continents to gather innovative ideas from farmers, soil scientists, ranchers, landscapers and foodies. Treading the crossroads between science, farming, food and environmentalism, she brought us the new kind of thinking—what she calls our “great green hope”--that Einstein meant when he spoke of what is needed to solve our problems and change the conversation from one of inevitable climate catastrophe to one of climate recovery.
Our childhood science experiments in which we planted bean seeds in two milk cartons and denied sun to one demonstrated the relationship of the plant to sunlight but left out the most important part of photosynthesis—the living soil in those milk cartons. This mini-herd creates a small community around plant roots which eats the carbon and releases micronutrients from soil minerals for the plant to absorb. If left undisturbed, these will condense and store carbon. It is estimated that humankind’s plowing has released around 80 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Our industrial agricultural practices continue to release stored carbon from the soil, contributing around 30% to total CO2 emissions globally.
These “tiny heroes of the underground”, as Ohlson calls them, thrive around plant roots which is why the time-honored farming practice of cover cropping increases soil fertility. After reading The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, I changed the way I managed my own small yard. Instead of pulling the spent plants out by the roots, I cut the plants off at soil level and left the debris to decompose. I planted a legume (Crimson Clover) to cover the soil and keep my mini-herd happy during the cold winter rains. I revel in not turning my soil over this spring, always my job since my husband has an allergy to shovels. I topped off my beds with compost, mixed with good stuff like worm castings and rabbit manure. When I plant my seeds, I will plant them carefully with my mini-herd in mind.
My county in Oregon has a May ballot measure to give legal standing to a local food system for which I am campaigning. One of the provisions to protect this system is acknowledgment of the rights of natural communities to exist, flourish and maintain themselves similar to the recent Constitutional Amendment of Ecuador which fights Chevron and Texaco in the Amazon. Not “human rights for individual trees”, this provision specifically mentions soil. With this ordinance, citizens could approach the city councils and county commission to alter the soil management of our public land by cover cropping and avoiding tillage. With legal standing to empower citizens to protect our natural communities, we would not be in the powerless position of petitioning.
The reason we are doing this on the county level is because we see our governments from the international to the municipal level not meeting even their modest goals. When our wonderful Senator Jeff Merkley held his recent town hall here, I asked him if Washington was aware that people felt strongly that Climate Change was an overwhelming crisis which the citizens were mounting grassroots efforts to fight. He responded that citizens were a decade ahead of the politicians.
Frankly, we do not have time to wait for them to catch up.
Photosynthesis originally produced the life-supporting atmosphere of Earth. This natural process still works. There are more microorganisms in the soil than there are stars in the sky. With some intelligent low-cost changes to our soil management practices, we can harness these powerful soil allies to truly fight back against the ravages of climate change.