From “Less Harm” to “Active Regeneration” This Earth Day
By Christian Shearer, CEO of Regen Network
As we reflect on 50 years of celebrating Earth Day, we can celebrate how far we’ve come — but we may also lament that we are farther from success today than we were then. Perhaps it’s time to re-frame.
Since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, there has been a palpable shift in the way people consider and interact with the environment. The recognition of anthropogenic climate change is nearly universal, even if the US is behind the rest of the world in that regard. In 1962, solar energy was essentially non-existent, chemical agriculture was in its hay-day, and most of the world’s populace was only just starting to consider that humanity’s effects on the planet could be catastrophic if not addressed.
On one hand, we’ve made impressive gains since that time. The amount of renewable energy the world produces has grown exponentially, electric cars are a common sight around the world, and extreme poverty is now at under 10% worldwide after surpassing 35% in 1990. Organic production and consumption of food continue growing at double-digit rates. According to the IUCN, almost 15% of the planet’s land area is now “protected” and marine protected areas have increased by over 300% in the last decade, representing 4% of the world’s marine area. This amount of protection represents incredible gains for wildlife.
That said, humanity continues to increase CO2 emission from about 14 Billion tons per year 50 years ago to over 36 Billion tons per year currently. The demand for electricity increases, the number of goods thrown into landfills increases, the amount of plastic in the oceans increases, and every year, we lose more and more of the planet’s precious species to never be seen again, like the Hawaiian Tree Snail.
George the tree snail (Achatinella apexfulva) died on January 1, 2019, at the age of 14. He was the last snail of his species and is emblematic of the loss of unique species from around the world.
Celebrating Less Bad
As a society, we have been focused on sustainability for the past 50 years. This is a valid and important effort, especially if you believe that a “sustainable” system is one that can continue indefinitely without outside influence. But for all practical purposes, sustainability in our society has become equated to doing less harm. This is a watered-down version of what was meant by the term 50 years ago. A company is applauded for its sustainability efforts, using 20% less energy, even if the other 80% is generated from the burning of coal. A person is applauded for reducing her carbon footprint by 50%, even if the other 50% still represents her share of “2 planets worth of resources.” This type of sustainability is “important, but not sufficient” for the survival of this planet.
Discernment about our aims and achievements are incredibly important if we are going to turn this planet around.
Even some of the most exciting developments of the last 50 years are really impressive and exciting examples of “less-bad” solutions. Solar panels service a higher percentage of electricity than ever before and many laud the renewable energy produced by solar power as a solution to the world’s problems. After all, energy is one of the largest contributors to global climate change, and solar power reduces emissions by up to 90%. However, it’s important to note that even if the world functioned on 100% solar power, this upgrade does not imply ecological regeneration, or even sustainability, due to the extractive nature of the industries involved in the production of green energy infrastructure. It continues to have a net negative impact on the planet and is simply a much less bad way of sourcing our power. Important, but not sufficient for solving the ecological and climatological challenges of our time.
Let me explain: by consuming solar power, we are polluting less and producing fewer greenhouse gases. This is undoubtedly a positive change. However, I insist we acknowledge that every step of the solar panel production process involves extraction and at best a neutral implication on the planet’s ecosystems. Mining, manufacturing, shipping, installing, and maintenance are all processes that do not contribute to a healthier planet; they all still degrade the planet.
Electric cars, solar airplanes, hydrogen power, biodegradable plastics, paper straws, and most other really helpful advancements also fall into the category of “less bad.” They simply degrade the planet much less than the products they are replacing.
Again, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. I installed solar panels on my home, I use paper straws, and I have ambitions to upgrade to an electric vehicle. We’ve come a long way. These things are good, but they are not good enough.
It is imperative that humanity evolves our approach.
One of my mentors, Carol Sanford, describes regeneration as a way of engaging that develops the capacity of whole systems to express their uniqueness. This then, in turn, allows those whole systems to grow their ability to uplift all with whom they interact. So, as designers, entrepreneurs, and global citizens, we each are invited to live our lives, design our businesses, raise our children, and be creative individuals in a way that uplifts those people and systems around us, making them more able and resilient in this increasingly unstable world to express their uniqueness and positively contribute to life.
So what does this look like? At Regen Network, we’re focused on the agricultural system, because we see it as one of the low-hanging fruits of regeneration (pun intended). Allow me to elaborate on what regeneration looks like in particular examples of regenerative agriculture, and how reconnecting with food may be the first step on our pathway toward a regenerative society.
If regeneration is a way of engaging that develops the capacity of whole systems to express their uniqueness, then regenerative agriculture is the act of growing food and fiber in a way that allows the whole system, the watershed within which the farm is nested, to express its uniqueness. Here are two examples:
Wilmott Farm — New South Wales Australia
Wilmott Cattle Company raises animals that are 100% antibiotic-free, with no growth hormones, and on rotating pastures. Their cattle are pasture-fed and never fed grains, free to roam, and nourished by their mothers’ milk, with open access to freshwater throughout the property. Wilmot Cattle Co. has increased Soil Organic Carbon on their 1,854ha property to 4.5% and removed approximately 33,000 tons of CO2e in the past two years by utilizing holistic rotational grazing practices. The regenerative outcomes of the activities of these master ranchers show up in the ecological co-benefits of soil organic carbon sequestration, animal welfare, ecosystem health, and improved soil health indexes. Despite the ongoing drought, this 1,800-hectare property has measurably increased the resiliency and health of the watershed within which it’s nested.
By consuming the beef from this property, or purchasing ecosystem services credits from these farmers on the upcoming Regen Registry, a person is not just doing less bad for the environment but actively supporting the revitalization of whole systems.
Regen Network has been working with the team at Wilmott Ranch to monitor and verify their positive impacts, and issue a holistic grasslands health credit into the voluntary carbon credit markets. These holistic credits offer individuals and corporations the means to offset their negative environmental impacts with a credit that represents carbon sequestered into the soil, coupled with a suite of co-benefits that come along with these impressive management strategies. This purchase also supports these ranchers to continue their good work and encourages those around them to transition to regenerative practices as a more financially viable agricultural approach.
Old Mud Creek Farm — Hudson, New York
Celebrating the integrity and unique character of the Hudson Valley, Old Mud Creek Farm is a 525-acre biodiverse farm implementing a broad range of regenerative practices. Old Mud Creek is working with Hudson Hemp to produce a new generation of annual crops, as well as with Propagate Ventures to implement broadacre, biodiverse, agroforestry practices.
The conversion from conventional cropping to biodiverse agroforestry is having a dramatic effect. A tree is the opposite of the smokestacks historically seen in the northeast, in that it sequesters carbon, contributes to biodiversity, and improves the local microclimate, which keeps the ecological systems thriving. Globally, forests cover only ⅓ of terrestrial land, yet contain over 80% of terrestrial biodiversity.
The agroforestry systems at Old Mud Creek increase farm resilience and play a role in expanding and linking habitats to support ecological adaptation in the face of climate change. Agroforestry systems can protect New England farm communities by limiting the impact of extreme and shifting weather on agricultural production while actively reversing the effects of climate change. Old Mud Creek Farm is integrating
a) riparian forest buffers, which protect waterways from agricultural impacts by filtering sediment and contaminants, providing shade for aquatic ecosystems, and stabilizing stream banks that minimize hydrologic changes of storms and floods,
b) silvopasture, which combines trees, forage plants and livestock in an integrated intensively-managed system which creates shade to protect animals,
c) orchard band windbreaks, which filter air pollutants and protect crops from wind and temperature extremes, and
d) alley cropping, which diversifies farm income by coupling wide tree row plantings with a companion crop.
Chestnuts, hazelnuts, and fruit trees have historically played a vital role in the agro-ecological systems that supported people in the Northeast for the past 10,000 years. Until the chestnut blight of the 1900s, chestnuts made up one-quarter of hardwoods in the Eastern Seaboard and were a staple of Indigenous diets. Chestnuts are nutritious, low in fat, high in carbohydrates, gluten-free, and can easily be incorporated into baked goods. Chestnut trees’ deep roots stabilize and improve soils.
As Old Mud Creek establishes its productive systems, it also enjoys the return of the birds, the butterflies, the pollinator species, and the amphibians that historically thrived on the banks of the creek. This is a gift for the families working the farm, but more importantly for all the life nested within that watershed.
When a person purchases a CBD product, a bag of chestnuts or ecosystem services credits for offsetting their company’s impact, they aren’t just doing less harm than if they were to purchase elsewhere — they’re actively contributing to the wellness of farming communities and to the regeneration of place and people.
Let’s turn our attention to Regeneration.
Reducing our impact is important and necessary, but insufficient for tackling the ecological and social challenges that humanity has in front of us. We’re already at 410ppm atmospheric CO2 and need to backtrack below 350ppm. We’ve already lost so many species to extinction and need to do everything we can to maintain what remains.
This destabilizing time of COVID-19 and economic instability is an opportunity for us to shift the way we see the world.
Join Regen Network in shifting this narrative. We invite you to consider how you can bring your family, your community, your company and your country into a discussion about what’s really important.
It’s no longer enough to make this planet “sustainable” — it’s time to regenerate our global ecosystems.
Happy Earth Day.