Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Will The Soil Save Us?

Image © Rodale Books
The question at the heart of Kristin Ohlson's new book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet is simple; can we rethink and re-make the agricultural system we've used for the last 10,000 years over the next decade?
The answer depends on your view of human adaptability in the face of global warming. If you are thinking about how the role of national and local governments have been superseded by international trade agreements assigning more power to corporations than governments, well, then we're doomed. If you're thinking about the innate conservatism of farmers and other food producers and the immense stranded costs they would face with any change to the way we produce food, well, then you have to pretty much figure we're doomed. But if you think about the way people respond to disasters like Katrina, Sandy, the Calgary flood of 2013, or earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, the way we refuse to duplicate the infrastructure that failed and instead rebuild taking the changed conditions into account, well, then you have to figure we're doomed.
You might think that I'm a bit defeatist, that I'm rather cynical when it comes to the future of humanity on this planet. And you'd be right. The tremendous control exerted by international corporate structures over our everyday lives, limiting the choices we can conceive of or discuss, suggest to me that without a major international democratic revolution there is really not much chance of turning this Titanic from it's fated course. The cry of “Iceberg! Dead ahead!” went up in the late sixties/early seventies, and overall we haven't paid a blind bit of notice since.
Kristin Ohlson doesn't exactly share my feeling that this big boat is going down, and the only people who will make it are those who launched their lifeboats early. In keeping with her American sense of optimism, she charts the rise of alternative agricultural methods and the (small) communities that have arisen around them. Primarily, this is the rise of “soil farmers,” those who concentrate their efforts on growing soil over growing cash crops. She justifiably calls these New Agriculture practitioners “heroes of the underground.”
Ohlson meets a number of very interesting people in the soil farming movement. People like Allan Savory (whose TED talk is quite remarkable but who faces serious criticism) who's work in Zimbabwe is claimed to be restoring the damaged veldt, and Jay Fuhrer and Burleigh County, where people interested in New Agriculture (my title) learn how to build soil on working land.

 It's an entertaining ride, very accessible to the lay reader. She briefly recaps the history of global warming (which should be known to every person on the planet by now, but, distressingly, is not), cruises through in introduction to soil microbiology, and then focuses the remainder of the book on permaculture practice through different characters and how they interact.
The focus on characters to introduce practice is a smart one, allowing a great deal of information to unfold through talking with people. The book feels like a great conversation between he writer and reader (as the best of these books do) and avoids any unsightly info-dumps. The best practitioners of this style—Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman spring to mind—create the impression of having learned an enormous amount while reading one of their books. What they do, is to introduce the reader to a topic and give them enough information, artfully conveyed, to allow the reader to participate in a greater conversation on the issue. And Ohlson does her best to live up to this standard of writing, for which I'm very grateful.
The downside is that the book offers up a simple single solution to our problems. This is a problem, but one we all suffer from. We like the idea that one person, heroically doing one thing against great odds, can save the world. And that's bullshit. We didn't get into this crisis by one person doing one thing, and we won't get out like that. The only way out is, as Mao put it, to let a thousand flowers bloom. Each person has to begin taking a step forward. We don't really know which step is the important one, so we had better be taking a lot of different ones. And as we start to move on this crisis, we need to form linkages between us—individuals, groups, municipalities, nations. As Kristin Ohlson describes the formation and structure of the microbial world of the soil, so too do we need an ecology of change. An inter-related web of groups and individuals exchanging tactics, techniques, and actions, each moving us in a general direction so that as the crisis evolves, so too can our responses. You don't have to be right, you just have to be trying.
This is the sort of information we desperately need in order to find a way forward into a world where we'll survive global warming. After reading this book I don't think that the soil will save us. But I do think that soil farming/New Ag/permaculture, is one of the big tools we'll have to use to ensure a future. But it's also going to take Radical Democracy, and a movement to Occupy Food, the simplicity movement, and probably the total bankrupcy of the global economy, to get where we need to go. But in the meantime, get up, stand up. And as Public Enemy said “Bring the noize!”

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