#3, November 2019
Ecosystems for Everyone
The infinite complexity of the living world could not tolerate a simple relationship between humans and their habitat. Rather than trying to reduce our negative impact on the environment, we should create a virtuous loop where community and environment feed each other.
For thousands of years Indigenous peoples were the sole human inhabitants of North America. They viewed the land and all of its creatures, including themselves, as an interconnected whole toward whom they had both a relationship and a responsibility. Indigenous peoples harvested from the ecosystems upon which they depended for their food in such a way as to preserve them into the future.
Enter the European colonizers, who had no such view of nature. Nature was abundant, and they felt entitled to claim its resources as if they were unlimited. Over several centuries the world’s population has grown, and humans now occupy a disproportionate amount of the land surface. The dominant culture continues to behave with the same self-centred attitude, making claim to the land as a commodity with little regard for or understanding of the natural systems they are displacing. It has led to environmental degradation and huge social inequalities. The sustainable development movement attempted to adjust this degenerative trend, but ended up only slowing down negative impacts.
Addressing the complexity of living systems
It has only been about 50 years since our science has begun to make discoveries which begin to approach and validate what the Indigenous peoples knew: the earth is alive and is made up of living, interconnected ecosystems. In the 1980s scientists learned to read DNA and revealed the microbiome. We realized that all biological life has co-evolved with complex communities of micro-organisms, and that 90 per cent of the cells in our body are microscopic beings without which we could not function. This is true not only for all plant and animal species but for the elements of the earth as well. Each of us is an ecosystem within other ecosystems. Each creature within the living world contributes something to the functioning of the whole. We don’t yet understand all the complexities of how these systems work; we are just beginning to appreciate it.
Meanwhile, digital technology has given us the means to work with large volumes of information, chart complex systems, and observe patterns. Rather than a reductionist approach, isolating and controlling each element like science used to do, we can begin to study and understand interconnected universes; we can model and project trends based on large pools of data. And the science is telling us that we are on track for ecological and climate disaster.
There is a huge gap between state-of-the-art science and how things are done in society. Information travels in silos. Farming and industry continue with practices uninformed by the latest understanding and unaware of what regenerative development could do for a thriving and resilient society.
We know that soil is alive, that it has the capacity to produce food and fibres without chemical inputs, that it can purify and store water, that soil and plants cool the earth and clean the air, that excess CO2 in the atmosphere can be removed and sequestered in the earth with no adverse side effects. We call these things ecosystem services. And even if it provides nothing less than a fertile and balanced environment, with clean air, clean water, and nutritious food for us all, there still is no place on the ledger sheet to account the value of natural resources, nor the well-being of living things. We have no intrinsic system of accounting for anything other than the financial bottom line.
Starting from the ground
In a regenerative perspective, regenerative land management practices, methods to manage land which restore and maintain the terrestrial ecosystems, have been well tested and are being optimized by pioneering groups and individuals around the world. They include such things as keeping vegetative cover on land surfaces as much of the year as possible; increasing the biodiversity of species on a piece of field; planting deep-rooted and perennial plants to facilitate deeper water infiltration; creating habitat for insect, bird, and animal varieties; and recycling organic nutrients to build fertility without chemicals. Such methods can provide resilience to drought and floods. They can cool the land surface and pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
We could be building up our natural capital to mitigate and eventually reverse the climate crisis by optimizing these ecosystem services with regenerative land management on all surfaces, from farms to forests, and even in cities and degraded industrial areas. So why are we not?
We are locked in a human ecosystem which is intricately woven to keep functioning under the status quo. Decisions about how land is managed are dictated by private owners, market forces, and government policies. Public opinion influences these forces but is often bound by ignorance or apathy.
I would argue that, more than ever, our society is desperately in need of disruptive social innovations to create systemic social change. We first need change in public awareness. The best-developed example of such disruptive social innovation is the locavore movement challenging the traditional food system. With community-supported agriculture baskets, farmers’ markets, and other growing forms of distribution networks, this has become an expanding niche of the food system around the world. Small-scale farmers can restore land, earn a reasonable living, and play a role in creating a connected community of citizens in a local economy.
But we must also assign value to and drive financial and policy resources to pay for ecosystem services, rather than rely on the goodwill of individuals alone. We need to create markets to support those who are building ecosystem services which benefit the earth and all of its inhabitants. The developing carbon market is starting to incentivize regenerative land management practices, and is extending to include credit for soil carbon in California and Alberta.
These initiatives also draw communities together and help their members to have conversations about common values, to build connections and a sense of meaning and shared purpose. The overwhelming challenge is to work within the constraints of the current accounting system while building an alternative which fundamentally values life above all else.
Ananda Fitzsimmons is co-founder of Art of Regeneration and President of the Board of Directors of Regeneration Canada.