This principle has the built-in prerequisite, of course, of stopping the destruction. Burning fossil fuels has to stop. Likewise, industrial logging, fishing, and agriculture have to stop. Denmark and New Zealand, for instance, have outlawed coal plants—there’s no reason the rest of the world can’t follow.
Stopping the destruction requires an honest look at the culture that a true solar economy can support. We need a new story, but we don’t need fairy tales, and the bread crumbs of windfarms and biofuels will not lead us home.
To actively repair the planet requires understanding the damage. The necessary repair—the return of forests, prairies, and wetlands—could happen over a reasonable fifty to one hundred years if we were to voluntarily reduce our numbers. This is not a technical problem: we actually do know where babies come from and there are a multitude of ways to keep them from coming. As discussed in Chapter 5, Other Plans, overshoot is a social problem caused by the intersections of patriarchy, civilization, and capitalism.
People are still missing the correct information. Right now, the grocery stores are full here. In poor areas, the so-called food deserts may be filled with cheap carbohydrates and vegetable oil, but they are still full. But how many people could any given local foodshed actually support, and support sustainably, indefinitely? Whatever that number is, it needs to be emblazoned like an icon across every public space and taken up as the baseline of the replacement culture. Our new story has to end, “And they lived happily ever after at 20,000 humans from here to the foothills.”
This is a job for the Transitioners and the permaculture wing, and so far, they’re getting it wrong. The Peak Oil Task Force in Bloomington, Indiana, for instance, put out a report entitled Redefining Prosperity: Energy Descent and Community Resilience. The report recognizes that the area does not have enough agricultural land to feed the population. They claim, however, that there is enough land within the city using labor-intensive cultivation methods to feed everyone on a “basic, albeit mostly vegetarian diet.”14 The real clue is that “vegetarian diet.” What they don’t understand is that soil is not just dirt. It is not an inert medium that needs nothing in order to keep producing food for humans. Soil is alive. It is kept alive by perennial polycultures—forests and prairies. The permanent cover protects it from sun, rain, and wind; the constant application of dead grass and leaves adds carbon and nutrients; and the root systems are crucial for soil’s survival, providing habitat for the microfauna that make land life possible.
Perennials, both trees and grasses, are deeply rooted. Annuals are not. Those deep roots reach into the rock that forms the substrate of our planet and pull up minerals, minerals which are necessary for the entire web of life. Without that action, the living world would eventually run out of minerals. Annuals, on the other hand, literally mine the soil, pulling out minerals with no ability to replace them. Every load of vegetables off the farm or out of the garden is a transfer of minerals that must be replaced. This is a crucial point that many sustainability writers do not understand: organic matter, nitrogen, and minerals all have to be replaced, since annual crops use them up.
John Jeavons, for instance, claims to be able to grow vast quantities of food crops with only vegetable compost as an input on his Common Ground demonstration site.15 But as one observer writes,
Sustainable Laytonville visited Common Ground. The gardens could only supply one meal a day because they didn’t have enough compost. The fallacy with Biointensive/Biodynamic and Permaculture is that they all require outside inputs whether it’s rock phosphate or rock dusts, etc. There is no way to have perpetual fertility and take a crop off and replace lost nutrients with the “leftovers” from the area under cultivation … even if the person’s urine, poop and bones were added back.16
I have built beautiful garden soil, dark as chocolate and with a scent as deep, using leaves, spoiled hay, compost, and chickens. But I eventually was forced to realize the basic arithmetic in the math left a negative number. I was shifting fertility, not building it. The leaves and hay may have been throwaways to the lawn fetishists and the farmers, but they were also nutrients needed by the land from which they were taken. The suburban backyard that produced those leaves needed them. If I was using the leaves, the house owner was using packaged fertilizer instead. The addition of animal products—manure, bloodmeal, bonemeal—is essential for nitrogen and mineral replacement, and they are glaringly absent in most calculations I’ve seen for food self-sufficiency. Most people, no matter how well-intentioned, have no idea that both soil and plants need to eat.
Annual crops use up the organic matter in the soil, whereas perennials build it. Processes like tilling and double digging not only mechanically destroy soil, they add oxygen, which causes more biological activity. That activity is the decay of organic matter. This releases both carbon and methane. One article in Science showed that all tillage systems are contributors to global warming, with wheat and soy as the worst.17 This is why, historically, agriculture marks the beginning of global warming. In contrast, because perennials build organic matter, they sequester both carbon and methane, at about 1,000 pounds per acre.18 And, of course, living forests and prairies will not stay alive without their animal cohorts, without the full complement of their community.
So be very wary of claims of how many people can be supported per acre in urban landscapes. It is about much more than just acreage. If you decide to undertake such calculations, consider that the soil in garden beds needs permanent cover. Where will that mulch come from? The soil needs to eat; where will the organic material and minerals come from? And people need to eat. We cannot live on the thin calories of vegetables, no matter how organic, to which 50,000 nerve-damaged Cubans can attest. So far, the Transitioners, even though many of them have a permaculture background, seem unaware of the biological constraints of soil and plants, which are, after all, living creatures with physical needs. In the end, the only closed loops that are actually closed are the perennial polycultures that this planet naturally organizes—the communities that agriculture has destroyed.
But as we have said, people’s backyard gardens are of little concern to the fate of our planet. Vegetables take up maybe 4 percent of agricultural land. What is of concern are the annual monocrops that provide the staple foods for the global population. Agriculture is the process that undergirds civilization. That is the destruction that must be repaired. Acre by acre, the living communities of forests, grasslands, and wetlands must be allowed to come home. We must love them enough to miss them and miss them enough to restore them.
The best hope for our planet lies in their restoration. Perennials build soil, and carbon is their building block. A 0.5 percent increase in organic matter—which even an anemic patch of grass can manage—distributed over 75 percent of the earth’s rangelands (11.25 billion acres) would equal 150 billion tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. The current carbon concentrations are at 390 ppm. The prairies’ repair would drop that to 330 ppm.19 Peter Bane’s calculations show that restoring grasslands east of the Dakotas would instantaneously render the United States a carbon-sequestering nation.20 Ranchers Doniga Markegard and Susan Osofsky put it elegantly: “As a species, we need to shift from carbon-releasing agriculture to carbon-sequestering agriculture.”21
That repair should be the main goal of the environmental movement. Unlike the Neverland of the Tilters’ solutions, we have the technology for prairie and forest restoration, and we know how to use it. And the grasses will be happy to do most of the work for us.
The food culture across the environmental movement is ideologically attached to a plant-based diet. That attachment is seriously obstructing our ability to name the problem and start working on the obvious solutions. Transition Town originator Rob Hopkins writes, “Reducing the amount of livestock will also be inevitable, as large-scale meat production is an absurd and unsustainable waste of resources.”22 Raising animals in factory farms—concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—and stuffing them with corn is absurd and cruel. But animals are necessary participants in biotic communities, helping to create the only sustainable food systems that have ever worked: they’re called forests, prairies, wetlands. In the aggregate, a living planet.
That same ideological attachment is the only excuse for the blindness to Cuban suffering and for the comments that 30 percent of Cubans are “still obese.” That figure is supposed to reassure us: see, nobody starves in this regime. What such comments betray is a frank ignorance about human biology. Eating a diet high in carbohydrates will make a large percentage of the population gain weight. Eating any sugar provokes a surge of insulin, to control the glucose levels in the bloodstream. The brain can only function within a narrow range of glucose levels. Insulin is an emergency response, sweeping sugar out of the blood and into the cells for storage. Insulin has been dubbed “the fat storage hormone” because this is one of its main functions. Its corresponding hormone, glucagon, is what unlocks that stored energy. But in the presence of insulin, glucagon can’t get to that energy. This is why poor people the world over tend to be fat: all they have to eat is cheap carbohydrate, which trigger fat storage. If the plant diet defenders knew the basics of human biology, that weight gain would be an obvious symptom of nutritional deficiencies, not evidence of their absence. Fat people are probably the most exhausted humans on the planet, as minute to minute their bodies cannot access the energy they need to function. Instead of understanding, they are faced with moral judgment and social disapproval across the political spectrum.
I don’t want any part of a culture that inflicts that kind of cruelty and humiliation on anyone. Shaun Chamberlin writes, “The perception of heavy meat eaters could be set to change in much the same way that the perception of [SUV] drivers has done.”23 Even if he was right that meat is inherently a problem, this attitude of shaming people for their simple animal hunger is repugnant. Half the population—the female half—already feels self-loathing over every mouthful, no matter what, and how little, is on their plates. Food is not an appropriate arena for that kind of negative social pressure, especially not in an image-based culture saturated in misogyny. Food should be a nourishing and nurturing part of our culture, including our culture of resistance. If Chamberlin wants an appropriate target for social shaming, he can start with men who rape and batter, and then move on to men who refuse to get vasectomies—that would be a better use of his moral approbation.
Getting past that ideological attachment would also bring clarity to the bewildered attitude that underlies many of these “radical” writers’ observations about dietary behavior. Accepting that humans have a biological need for nutrient-dense food, it’s no longer a surprise that when poor people get more money, they will buy more meat. They’re not actually satisfied on the nutritional wonders of a plant-based diet. Ideology is a thin gruel and imposing it on people who are chronically malnourished is not only morally suspect, it won’t work. The human animal will be fed. And if we had stuck to our original food, we would not have devoured the planet.
Restoring agricultural land to grasslands with appropriate ruminants has multiple benefits beyond carbon sequestration. It spells the end of feedlots and factory farming. It’s healthier for humans. It would eliminate essentially all fertilizer and pesticides, which would eliminate the dead zones at the mouths of rivers around globe. The one in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, is the size of New Jersey. It would stop the catastrophic flooding that results from annual monocrops, flooding being the obvious outcome of destroying wetlands.
It also scales up instantly. Farmers can turn a profit the first year of grass-based farming. This is in dramatic contrast to growing corn, soy, and wheat, in which they can never make a profit. Right now six corporations, including Monsanto and Cargill, control the world food supply. Because of their monopoly, they can drive prices down below the cost of production. The only reason farmers stay in business is because the federal government—that would be the US taxpayers—make up the difference, which comes to billions of dollars a year. The farmers are essentially serfs to the grain cartels, and dependent on handouts from the federal government. But grass-fed beef and bison can liberate them in one year. We don’t even need government policy to get started on the most basic repair of our planet. We just need to create the demand and set up the infrastructure one town, one region at a time.
Land with appropriate rainfall can grow two steers per acre. But those steers can be raised in two ways. You can destroy the grasses, plant corn, and feed that corn to CAFO steers, making them and their human consumers sick in the process. Or you can skip the fossil fuels and the torture, the habitat destruction, the dead zones that used to be bays and oceans, and let those steer eat grass. Either method produces the same amount of food for humans, but one destroys the cycle of life while the other participates in it. I can tell you with certainty which food the red-legged frogs and the black-footed ferrets are voting for: let them eat grass.
Repairing those grasslands will also profoundly restore wildlife habitat to the animals that need a home. Even if the rest of the above reasons weren’t true, that repair would still be necessary. The acronym HANPP stands for “human appropriation of net primary production.” It’s a measure of how much of the biomass produced annually on earth is used by humans. Right now, 83 percent of the terrestrial biosphere is under direct human influence, and 36 percent of the earth’s bioproductive surface is completely dominated by humans.24 By any measure, that is vastly more than our share. Humans have no right to destroy everyone else’s home, 200 species at a time. It is our responsibility not just to stop it, but to fix it. Civilizations are, in the end, cultures of human entitlement, and they’ve taken all there is to take.