Carbon Drawdown Pays
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has been envisioning livable futures and the realities we need to navigate to arrive at them since the 1980s. In his latest book, The Ministry for the Future, Robinson explores what it would look like if there was an international body responsible for enforcing Paris Climate Accord commitments. One of the primary solutions that emerge is an international monetary regime called “carbon coin,” incentivizing carbon drawdown.
From our first whitepaper, published in October 2017, Regen Network has been co-creating an ecologically-backed currency for planetary regeneration. You can read more about case studies of our work in California, Barbados, and Ecuador. There’s a lot of resonance between the world we’re looking to create and the regenerative agriculture revolution described in Robinson’s new book.
The following is an excerpt from The Ministry for the Future — Chapter 80. It describes a smallholder farming couple in the Americas transitioning to regenerative agriculture and being compensated handsomely in carbon coins for the regeneration they’re able to achieve.
I’ve had to push him every step of the way. He’s just like one of his oxen, that’s why he likes them so much, also why he doesn’t like me. I’m like one of the birds standingon the oxen poking them in the back. He’d be so much happier if I were an ox. Instead I’m his wife and it’s a stupid fate but I have no one to blame but myself, and truthfully, I love him; but I don’t want to starve for that.
So he inherited the butt end of his father’s property, two hectares as far from the river as his family’s land got, which meant it had been used as a dump for many years, and first we had to dig through a thick layer of various kinds of crap, even pay to get some of the worst of it carted off, at which point we had a triangle of dirt hard as a marble floor. First job was breaking up the hardpan surface, second was getting an irrigation channel cut over to us from the cousin’s property upstream. I drove him to drive his brothers and nephews to help us, and eventually that all got done and it was time to amend the soil. Here his stupid oxen were of some help, as we could rent nearby pasturage for them and collect their manure and turf it into our land. Of course the water from the ditch just ran over our property at first, carrying everything loose to the river, so we had to deal with that, berm, terrace, channelize, polder, whatever. I did most of that, being the only one who could work an hour straight, also read a level. Progress was slow.
Then we heard the rumors that the district council would be giving out money for carbon retention. Given the state of our property, this would be getting paid for what we had to do anyway to keep from starving, so I told the ox to get registered right away. He dithered and mooed as always, why waste my time, he complained, those things never work. Quit it! I said. Get down there now or I’ll divorce you and tell everyone why. He went and got us registered.
That meant a team that came through the village dropped by our place for about an hour, and took samples to get a benchmark figure. One of them was looking around at our place with an expression that made it clear we were obviously going to be setting a good low benchmark. Our daughter was pestering him as he worked, and he took some of our soil and put it in a glass of water, swirled the water, then stopped and showed her how at the moment he stopped moving the glass, the water in it cleared almost immediately. All the grit and mud floating around sank to the bottom. You need to add compost, he told her. Organic material will float in water, but you can see you don’t have much of that. A good starting point. We might as well have been living on a linoleum floor, or a rock.
After that I pushed every day. Doing no-till agriculture is all very well, but first you need soil to not till. That takes first doing some serious turning over and plowing under, I’ll tell you; years of backbreaking work, in our case, and always pinched for cash, as we used everything I could afford to set aside to pay for various neighbors’ manure and crop waste.
But shit to gold, as they say; we did all that. I drove him and he drove his workers, and we got some trees and perennials planted and left them alone, and during the harvests we harvested their usufruct with gratitude. We suffered a drought and a flood, but saw our land do a little better through those catastrophes than some of our neighbors’ properties did, because of what we were doing. And it was all without any tractors or fertilizers or pesticides, just the good old poisons that had always been there. All the right kinds of old ways, and all documented by me, as these were going to be factors in the eventual carbon reckoning. We grew most of what we ate, we grew some things to sell, and we put all we earned back into the land. My ox grumbled; who ever heard of growing a crop of dirt?
Finally came a time when the team from the district office was coming through again to check carbon levels. The moment I heard I went down to the district office to sign up for it. Soon after that, the day came when the team, a different one of course, visited to make its evaluation of our little farm’s soil. They wandered the property taking samples, sometimes digging with a tool like a posthole digger, other times with a pole like a long corkscrew. Samples, then evaluations over at their truck, which held in its back some big metal machines.
When they were done with their evaluation they came over to us.You’ve done well, they told us. We’re authorized to pay you right now, but first you have to know, we subtract an eleven percent fee out of your pay-out, to pay for our expenses, and also your taxes. So if you’ll sign here to agree to that, we’ll get it done.
My big ox bristled. I’ve never heard of any such cut, he said. What’s ours is ours, just pay us what we’re owed, we’ll deal with the rest of it ourselves.
The one talking sighed and looked at his colleagues. I can’t do that, the procedure is set. You have to sign to get your part.
I won’t do it, my husband declared. Let’s go have it out at the district.
No! I said. I dragged him off to confer in private; I didn’t want to embarrass him too much in front of these strangers. Around the corner of the house I wagged my finger under his nose. You take the deal or I’ll divorce you, I told him. We’ve worked too hard. People like this always take a cut. We’re lucky it’s only eleven percent, they could have said fifty percent and we’d still have to take it! Don’t be an idiot or I’ll divorce you and then I’ll kill you, and then I’ll tell everyone why.
The ox thought it over and went back to the visitors. All right, he said, my wife insists. And she can be very insistent.
The men nodded. We signed their form, then looked at what they had given us.
Twenty-three? my man asked. That’s nothing!
Twenty-three carbon coins, they said. Actually, twenty-three point two eight. One coin per ton of carbon captured. Which means, in your currency, if that’s how you want to take it, about … He tapped on his wristpad. At the current exchange rate, it comes to about seventy thousand. Seventy-one thousand, six hundred and eighty.
My ox and I looked at each other. That was more than we spent per year on everything, by a long shot. Almost two years of expenses, in fact.
Is that before or after the eleven percent is taken out? my ox inquired.
I had to laugh. My husband is funny.
As this excerpt illustrates, compensating land stewards for regenerative management can make all the difference! Robinson has envisioned one version of a future for carbon markets that compensates.
The book also explores other economic themes:
- Jevon’s Paradox (why efficiency isn’t always good)
- AI versus markets for efficient resource allocation
- The Tragedy of the Time Horizon (discount rates)
In reading Ministry for the Future, it’s as though Robinson is playing out the themes described in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. You can actually watch a panel discussion of them both discussing this from a conversation hosted by Rutgers. If you’re looking for a galvanizing read that sets the future within reach, you’ll love this book!
Buy your copy of Ministry for the Future today:
The Ministry for the Future
Article 14 of the Paris Agreement Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change called for a periodic…
Copyright 2020 Kim Stanley Robinson. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group.