Building the Next System from Emerging Next Systems

Originally posted on

Written by Economics of Happiness Conference speaker Anthony Flaccavento

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What if the Big Question were not “Where will the jobs come from?” but “What is the work that needs to be done?”

The work that needs to be done is enormous in scope, fantastically varied across our nation. It includes work to restore our land, forests and fisheries, revitalize our towns and cities, repair and update our infrastructure, vastly improve our health, reduce our energy, water and material use, accelerate the development of clean energy and dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, and so much more. Putting this body of work at the center of our economic thinking would begin to put the economy back where it belongs, at the service of people and communities.

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Miami Valley Community Organizing Conference

by Jonna Johnson

The Miami Valley Community Organizing Conference was held March 18 at the Central State University (CSU) Dayton Center. Sixty activists gathered from Dayton and the wider region to share experiences and reflect on ways of being more effective organizers. This was a collaboration of Community Solutions, CSU, and the Dayton Community Action Network that began a year ago with a brown bag lunch, followed by sessions on organizing at the Community Solutions fall 2016 conference.

Clay Dixon, former Dayton Mayor, full of wonderful observations, finished the conference day with a few of his signature observations, including that community organizing efforts often look similar to the conference -- the day begins with a full house, eager eyes, steady hands; as the day wears on a few people duck out, a fresh face joins in, our eyes are less sprightly and our hands are tired. And yet, we fight on.

Reece Freeman, who announced that she is moving to New Orleans for a prodigious chef gig, explained that evaluation, real-life data-based reflection, is habitually under-utilized and therefore becomes the key piece of the puzzle – why do we ignore this piece? – and she fervently advises that we do not ignore systematic and meaningful reflection of our efforts, throughout the whole process (beginning, middle, later that night, re-beginning, and so on).

Darryl Fairchild’s deep experience in organizing Dayton showed through, particularly when he was asked the questions everyone asks but rarely get answered with the incisive know-how that deep experience and honest reflection can offer.  Such as, how?  Sure, we should build relationships, but how?  Sure, we need to strategize, but how?  Sure, we want to take considered action, but how?  It takes a lot of gumption, intelligence (emotional and otherwise), and wherewithal to build, reflect upon, and share (accessibly) relevant experiences like his.  

Karil Sampson presented one of my favorite tools – the why game.  Young people are so right to ask why.  And we are doing them, and the planet, a disservice when we shut down that impulse.  Getting to the core, the root, the crux is key to most if not all of life’s wonders – including organizing efforts, healing historic wounds, moving forward down healthy and just paths.  Keep asking why!!!

Amaha Sellassie delved into my absolute favorite piece of this puzzle, my absolute favorite piece of life on earth --- Relationship.  Trust.  Connection.  I wonder, are we able to reframe the grand narrative, can we get to the place where we are building just relationships, making healthy connections, striving for trust as ends unto themselves?  It is my hope.  It keeps me going.  It is that possibility that keeps me fighting on.  

Naim Edwards began our day with a reflection on the immense sacrifice that it takes to be successful advocates, allies, accomplices for peace on earth.  I want to include a special note of appreciation for Naim’s sacrifice.  While it was not 381 agonizing days, the sacrifices that helped make the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success as Naim highlighted that morning, he was willing to ride a bus [wonder what seat he sat in?] from Detroit, put up with a Community Solutions gathering, sleep in unknown quarters, prepare a talk, facilitate four small group discussions, and more, without monetary compensation.  Hopefully he was able to gather other forms of compensation; I know I am enhanced for his sacrifices.  

Our all-volunteer force included:

Basim Blunt, WYSO Community Voices Program
Isaac DeLamatre, Antioch College Kitchens
Clay Dixon, Dayton Mayor 1987-1993 and Organizing Collaborative
Naim Edwards, Voices for Earth Justice in Detroit
Darryl Fairchild, Chaplain Services at Dayton Children’s Hospital
Reece Freeman, former Sinclair Community College Professor of Sociology
Michael Gaines, Central State University Dayton
Jonna Johnson, Community Solutions and former Highlander Center staff
Brian Keith, Educator and Organizer in Springfield, OH
Karil Sampson, Dayton Community Action Network
Amaha Sellassie, Center for Applied Social Issues at Sinclair and Dayton Human Relations Council
Eric Smith, Rural Action
Arlinda Vaughn, Dayton Community Action Network
Kat Walter, Yellow Springs Resilience Network

A follow up lunch is planned for May 17 and plans have begun for a second Miami Valley community organizing conference in 2018.

Agraria: A Community Land Trust and Regenerative Agriculture Research Center

There is no clearer demonstration of the universe as a self-organizing system than the synchronistic process that led Community Solutions to be the sudden owner of Agraria, a farm on the western outskirts of Yellow Springs.

We learned on the Saturday afternoon of our February soils symposium that a property that included a sensitive local watershed—Jacoby Creek—had unexpectedly gone up for auction. The watershed is a source of drinking water for Xenia and Yellow Springs, and protecting it has been a goal of the village for over 40 years.

Throughout that weekend, and before, we’d been exploring ways to put our new soils work into practice.

Our Healthy Soils Symposium focused on active hope, highlighted by keynote, Didi Pershouse. Didi is the author of The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities. She writes and teaches about how our ‘sterile’ model of care—killing everything that we see as pests—needs to be replaced by a ‘fertile’ model of care that builds healthy communities of soil, cells, and people.   

Symposium presenter Peter Bane enchanted us with his drawings of water and carbon cycles, helping us to visually and viscerally link our care of the soil to larger water and climate systems. We also heard from many local farmers, gardeners, and researchers about their ongoing relationships with their land.

By Saturday afternoon, the conference room at Antioch College was abuzz with ideas of how we might move forward as a region to demonstrate what we were learning.

The farm that the Jacoby traversed was a demonstration opportunity on a grand scale. But it was not until one of our members stepped up with an early promise of investment that the dream of bidding on the property began to take hold. Two weeks later—with the incredible support of an entrepreneurial board of directors; a hard-working and flexible staff; investment promises from several friends and members; commitments of conservation monies from the Village of Yellow Springs and the Tecumseh Land Trust; and the knowledge of our historical organizational weight—we took the leap and purchased 128 acres of the Jacoby property. It came complete with house, barn, workshop, fields, streams, and brambly copses threaded throughout.

While the purchase of the farm feels like an unexpected leap into the future, it is clear that we have been preparing for this for the past 75 years. Arthur Morgan was a philosophical and practical father of the Community Land Trust model and was recently inducted into the Community Land Trust Hall of Fame. His son, Griscom, founded the Vale and Celo Intentional Communities, both of which continue to flourish. And Griscom’s daughter, Faith Morgan, and Pat Murphy dreamed of a place—Agraria—where residents could do small-scale farming and live in community in energy-efficient homes.  

More recently, our board and membership settled on five strategic focus areas, with Regenerative Land Use front and center. For the past few years, we have been educating ourselves about healthy soils through workshops and trainings across the country and in Yellow Springs. We have also built up partnerships with local and national colleagues around soil health and regenerative soils practices.

As part of our Community Economics focus, we had convened a group of colleagues from the village, local foundations, and the Yellow Springs Credit Union, to explore how to build the community's capacity to invest locally. It was the connections made through this group that enabled us to partner with the Credit Union on a linked deposit strategy—a strategy that is enabling our supporters to use their funds as surety for a line of credit for the farm purchase and early expenses.

All these preparations were in place, but we still could not have predicted how they might manifest into such a grand vision. Now that we are on the other side of closing on the property, and on the cusp of a new organizational future, it is obvious that our agrarian community land trust has been made possible by the 77-year-old community of trust that’s been built within the organization, within Yellow Springs, and within our organizational membership.

Why Soil?

Across the planet, farmers, researchers, economists, activists, and community members are linking global crises like hunger, climate change, refugees, and war, to the degradation of soil. Historically, many if not all of civilizational collapses can be linked to soil degradation.

Locally and nationally, depleted soils add to the economic challenges of conventional farmers. On Agraria, 75% of our topsoil has been lost, with erosion and depleted nutrients adding to the challenge. Soil and nutrient run-off lead to widespread algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, rivers, and water basins, contributing to water woes. Many researchers also link exponential growth in some chronic diseases to pesticide residues and nutrient-poor soils.  

Yet, new understanding about soil biology and the incredible capacity of regenerated soils to heal ecosystems are sparking hope—again on a planetary scale. In Australia, China, across Africa and other continents, small and massive regeneration projects are demonstrating the possibilities inherent in healthy soil biology.

This hope underlay the United Nations declaration of 2015 as “The International Year of Soils,” as well as the inclusion of carbon-rich soil as an important climate mitigation strategy in recent international climate accords. Twelve of the eighteen most promising tools to reduce atmospheric carbon are land based.

Regionally, many farmers are taking the lead in practices that build carbon and healthy soil biology. David Brandt, a carbon farmer, Community Solutions conference presenter, and Agraria adviser, has been experimenting with cover crops for over forty years, and has built his Eastern Ohio soil carbon content from 1% to 8%. Other strategies like rotational grazing, perennial pastures, silvopasture, and agroforestry are being studied in farms and research plots across the country and the globe.


Agraria is 128 acres of rolling farmland. Now that spring is here, the trees and bushes are sprouting yellow and green, wildflowers line the paths, and birdsong and the tracks of wildlife remind us of our fellow residents. On the property frontage on E. Dayton-Yellow Springs Road, there’s a wooden Banker’s Barn circa 1920 with approximately 7000 square feet of space on two floors and a loft. There is also a home and a workshop, and yards with lilac and blackberry bushes.

Our overarching vision of Agraria is that it will serve as a multi-functional teaching and research farm that models best practices in soil regeneration.   

The land has been farmed conventionally, most recently planted in corn. We have just conducted an extensive series of soil tests—including for nutrient levels, soil respiration, and the presence of heavy metals and oil. In the next few weeks, we will be planting cover crops in partnership with David and Ann Brandt of Walnut Creek Seeds, and local farmers Jim and Brian Clem. We’ll also be planting a tree/hedge barrier on some of the property edges. We hope to graze animals late this summer on about half of the land.  

Much of the next several months will be spent developing plans for the farm, including: Heritage and perennial grains

  • Biodynamic vegetable gardens

  • Hedgerows and edge planting

  • Silvopasture

  • Pastured animals.

We also plan to develop a small community of homes for resident farmers. Concurrently, the Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the Tecumseh Land Trust, will be developing a restoration plan for Jacoby Creek that includes removing honeysuckle, allowing the stream to find its natural meandering state, and planting native species in the riparian barrier.

Education, research, and community outreach are woven throughout our project plans. In addition to the partnerships mentioned below, we are documenting our interests in Agraria and soil restoration in a soil podcast series, and in Peter Bane’s book on soils and water cycling. Dennie Eagleson, a local photographer, is recording the transformation of the soils and the landscape through a longitudinal photographic series. Further soils conference presentations and field days are in the works.

This summer and fall we are visiting several possible models for Agraria—including Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia, Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm in Wisconsin, and the Land Institute in Kansas.

Collaborative Opportunities

We are fortunate to live in a rich agricultural and educational landscape. We have been working with Central State University, an Historically Black University and recent land grant institution, Antioch College, and regional farmers, on grants related to organic transition and farming internships.

We are also exploring research and educational activities with the Yellow Springs Schools, a national leader in Project Based learning (PBL). This spring we partnered with a third-grade Mills Lawn class on a soil PBL activity—planting underpants (yes, underpants) in the schoolyard to assess soil microbial activity. We have also partnered with schools and organizations in Springfield on school gardens and urban farm education, and look forward to expanding these connections.

OEFFA—the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association—has served in an advisory and cheerleading role in our soils work, and we look forward to research, education, and grant partnerships with this visionary organization.

With funding from the William Beale family, a biochar pilot project could find its culmination in the use of biochar-infused compost on Agraria and partnering farms.   

We also look forward to collaborations with the Soil Carbon Coalition, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Healthy Soils Australia, and citizen scientists.

Our research into soil fertility, perennial crops, and agroecosystems also interweaves with larger questions of community economics—creating strategies to help conventional farmers transition to healthier practices, and urban gardeners to build healthy soil. We’ll be exploring ways that our work on Agraria can inform and support our Springfield food system work, for which we were recently awarded two Americorps VISTAS.

Getting Involved

Buying Agraria is just the first step of our multi-faceted journey, and we would love to share next steps with you. A charrette on May 20th was an opportunity for friends and neighbors to share their ideas about educational, research, and outreach opportunities.

We will also be hosting volunteer days throughout the summer and fall—and could use your help with trail clearing, tree planting, yardwork and painting.  

We are hosting a celebration dinner with music and storytelling on Saturday, August 19th, you can find the Facebook Event here.  And we will be hosting farm tours and workshops during our Economics of Happiness Conference on October 20th-21st.

Donations of all shapes and sizes are welcome! We need a slew of shovels, a tractor, other farm and garden equipment, small and large investments, etc. Our Generosity campaign is designed to raise funds for early farm expenses, including our second cover crop planting, our second round of soil testing, and farm fencing.  

Please consider an investment in Agraria. Early funding will enable us to plan for the long term. For more information on how you can help, please call or email us, or visit the Agraria link on the Community Solutions website. We look forward to growing this dream with you.

Regional Resilience

Written by Community Solutions Senior Fellow Don Hollister

At Community Solutions we have begun to inventory examples of regional collaboration, multi-community initiatives in our Greater Miami Valley region of Ohio. How are organizations helping communities cope with change? This information will be shared on a Regional Resilience website that is under construction. We have found interest in convening a periodic Regional Community Roundtable to share our stories of success and challenges.

This undertaking seems historically fitting as our organization name, the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, identifies us with Morgan’s ambitious regional work as director of the Miami Conservancy District. However, our concern is broader than preventing physical floods. We see shifts in the climate, the economy and social health that threaten the region.

We suspect that the worst is yet to come and just as no individual stands alone, no community can survive and thrive on its own. Colleges and universities in the region, county soil and water conservation districts and a small network of conservation advocacy non-profits have begun the work of connecting stewardship of the physical region with the social and economic changes that are underway.

By buying a farm to serve as the home for a Center for Regenerative Agriculture, Community Solutions has taken a dramatic step in its service to the region. In addition to research on soils, the Center will be a facility for research, education about and demonstration of best practices in land use, community economy, decentralized generation of electricity and social resilience. This will be an educational resource for SW Ohio, in particular..

[Establishing a land base for our research and education mission makes Community Solutions more like our sister organization Mitraniketan that Arthur Morgan encouraged and supported starting in 1956. Mitraniketan school and People’s College now has Indian government status as the Farm Science Centre for their region of Kerala state.]

Our new farm Center puts a land based emphasis on our regional resilience work. Regional foodshed analysis, local food production, issues of storm runoff, distributed energy and energy efficient buildings now will be less abstract. We will continue to develop relationships with area universities, non-profits and local agencies, looking for stories of their successes to share with others. This networking will inevitably develop with a connection to our projects at the farm Center.

So many towns across America have been like the legendary frog in a pot of water slowly heating up until cooked. Circumstances have changed slowly enough that there was not a broad sense of crisis. Different regions have faced varying circumstances, yet now there is a wide spread sense of malaise. In our corner of the Rust Belt, the Dayton and Springfield, Ohio, metropolitan region, the news headlines are full of deaths from drug overdoses. That is the extreme, a symptom of widespread hopelessness.

There are many factors at play here. Automation and global competition have reduced the number of manufacturing jobs. Agriculture has been consolidated and focused on commodity production for a national and international market. A century of industrial land use has begun to show chemical residues in all of our surface water and increasingly in our groundwater. A widely mobile population no longer shares decades or generations of memories and experiences that provide the basis of neighborly trust.

Yet most people in this region, as most people in the world, are coping in their daily lives. It is just that so many are not. We have an elaborate sophisticated economy that supports social interactions at the workplace, in sports and other recreation, at church and, yes, on the internet. And those who do not have a job or a supporting network of friends and family are struggling.

Step back and examine our daily system. It is very fragile, dependent on transport of materials and energy over great distances. Most people drive a car to work. We drive to see family and friends. We tend to forget or ignore the times when there was a regional power outage, a gas shortage or spike in cost, the hundred year flood, the devastating tornado.

Where our energy sources are close by, where food is produced locally, our communities will be more likely to survive the unexpected crisis.

In the long run those more dramatic crises may be less threatening than the slow longer term changes. Just as the frog in a pot of water would jump out if the heat spiked, it enjoys swimming in the gently warming water. Wake up. Our temperature is slowly rising. You do not have to drive far to see blocks of boarded up houses. There are people dying of hopelessness. Although these are not all from the same direct causes we will better be able to cope together.

One Earth, One Home

Written by Audrey Hackett

Originally posted on

Summers as a child I played in a stream. A creek, trickling through the edge of a park in my neighborhood, bearing all the marks of human disturbance: tin cans, bottles, paper trash, even for a time an overturned shopping cart. Also algae, stagnation, funky smells. It was the 70s, early 80s. There wasn’t so much plastic then. At the grocery store, the baggers packed our comestibles into brown paper bags.

A stream: polluted but still beautiful, still mesmerizing to a child.

I thought of my childhood stream/creek on Saturday, crossing and recrossing the Jacoby Creek on a portion of the former Arnovitz farm, now home to Community Solutions’ regenerative farming project and stream conservation effort. Tecumseh Land Trust’s annual meeting was held there Saturday afternoon, in a magnificent cathedral-barn, after which attendees split into two groups for a tour of the land. I tagged along with Devin Schenk from the Nature Conservancy, the organization partnering with Community Solutions and Tecumseh Land Trust to restore the stream and its riparian environment. About 80 acres of Community Solutions’ total 128-acre parcel may ultimately be put under conservation easement for this purpose. The proposed conservation area includes the creek, its immediate wooded banks and generous swaths of land where wetlands wait, just beneath the surface of farm fields, to return.

Village money is helping to purchase the easement, so all villagers have a stake in the beauty and future of this land.

I was amazed, but shouldn’t have been amazed, to learn that the creek’s smooth arc through the property was humanmade. A stream, like the best of thoughts and conversations, naturally meanders. And so one of the tasks of the Nature Conservancy wizards is to re-meander the stream. Re-meander! That was the actual term Devin used. 

They’ll also be improving the creek’s shade, depth and flow — more magic. They’ll plant trees near the fords, the shallow areas where the stream is exposed to direct sun. All that sun exposure overheats the water, creating dead zones, breaking up the continuous ribbon of life that a river should be. They’ll create pools in some areas and riffles in others, distinct habitats where different creatures dwell. Riffles are those places where water runs fast and turbulent, adding oxygen to a stream. Plus personality, plus a silver voice.

Our final crossing brought us into the ooze, the best part, I thought. We were all pretty hot by then, and I won’t speak for the rest of the group, but I was prepared to lie down in the muck and let it and the long sloppy grass swallow me up. 


Last week the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, a pact with 194 signatory nations, and two, now three, dissenters. When I first heard the news, I found it hard not to smash something, to weep. The world’s industrial behemoth and number-two polluter: going its own way.

Does it have to be said? There is only one way. Only one Earth, only one home. A blue-green marble spinning in space. A reclaimed farm, a re-meandered stream. A deeply grooved old cottonwood growing up from the middle of a marsh. An Ohio field, expectant, on a June afternoon. A childhood summer. A childhood of summers, long past yet flowing on and on.

I came home Saturday dirty and a little tired. I wished I’d been able to join the second group as well, which walked the property talking about soils. Community Solutions has big plans for soil remediation. What I saw of the current fields, conventionally farmed for decades, was discouraging: the ground was dry, cracked, weed-ridden, with last year’s broken corn cobs and stalks crunching in a grisly rubble underfoot. But soon the fields will be planted with cover crops, a small step toward rebuilding soils, then farmed sustainably using different and ingenious methods to produce food and enrich, not deplete, the earth.

Such farming is an act of love, I think. 

On Saturday I felt that love, which as much as the day’s heat made me to want to sink deep into the earth’s ooze. I didn’t, at least not literally. But my heart, clenched since last Thursday’s climate agreement news, became less stone, more bird. I watched the slow creek, the grass and trees, the faces of my fellow walkers and the daytime stars of cottonwood seeds, drifting over all of us.

Wherever we were going, we were already home.

Make Our Soil Great Again

Written by David R. Montgomery

Originally posted on

Most of us don’t think much about soil, let alone its health. But as Earth Day approaches, it’s time to recommend some skin care for Mother Nature. Restoring soil fertility is one of humanity’s best options for making progress on three daunting challenges: Feeding everyone, weathering climate change and conserving biodiversity. 

Widespread mechanization and adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides revolutionized agriculture. But it took a hidden toll on the soil. Farmers around the world have already degraded and abandoned one-third of the world’s cropland. In the United States, our soils have already lost about half of the organic matter content that helped make them fertile.

What is at stake if we don’t reverse this trend? Impoverished trouble spots like Syria, Libya and Iraq are among the societies living with a legacy of degraded soil. And if the world keeps losing productive farmland, it will only make it harder to feed a growing global population.

But it is possible to restore soil fertility, as I learned traveling the world to meet farmers who had adopted regenerative practices on large commercial and small subsistence farms while researching my new book, Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. From Pennsylvania to the Dakotas and from Africa to Latin America, I saw compelling evidence of how a new way of farming can restore health to the soil, and do so remarkably fast. 

Workshop on cover crops, weed management and no-till practices at the Stark Ranch in Gainesville, Texas. Noble Foundation /Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Workshop on cover crops, weed management and no-till practices at the Stark Ranch in Gainesville, Texas. Noble Foundation /Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

These farmers adopted practices that cultivate beneficial soil life. They stopped plowing and minimized ground disturbance. They planted cover crops, especially legumes, as well as commercial crops. And they didn’t just plant the same thing over and over again. Instead they planted a greater diversity of crops in more complex rotations. Combining these techniques cultivates a diversity of beneficial microbial and soil life that enhances nutrient cycling, increases soil organic matter, and improves soil structure and thereby reduces erosive runoff. 

Farmers who implemented all three techniques began regenerating fertile soil and after several years ended up with more money in their pocket. Crop yields and soil organic matter increased while their fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide use fell. Their fields consistently had more pollinators — butterflies and bees — than neighboring conventional farms. Using less insecticide and retaining native plants around their fields translated into more predatory species that managed insect pests. 

Innovative ranchers likewise showed me methods that left their soil better off. Cows on their farms grazed the way buffalo once did, concentrating in a small area for a short period followed by a long recovery time. This pattern stimulates plants to push sugary substances out of their roots. And this feeds soil life that in return provides the plants with things like growth-promoting hormones and mineral nutrients. Letting cows graze also builds soil organic matter by dispersing manure across the land, rather than concentrating it in feedlot sewage lagoons. 



Soil organic matter is the foundation of the soil food web, and the consensus among scientists I talked with was that soil organic matter is the single best indicator of soil health. How much carbon could the world’s farmers and ranchers park underground through soil building practices that incorporate plant residue and stimulate microbial activity? Estimates vary widely, but farmers I visited had more than doubled the carbon content of their soil over a decade or two. If farmers around the world did this, it could help partially offset fossil fuel emissions for decades to come. 

Soil restoration will not solve world hunger, stop climate change, or prevent further loss of biodiversity. No single thing can solve these problems. But the innovative farmers I met showed me that adopting the full suite of conservation agriculture practices can provide a better livelihood and significant environmental benefits on conventional and organic farms alike. 

Restoring fertility to degraded agricultural soils is one of humanity’s most pressing and under-recognized natural infrastructure projects, and would pay dividends for generations to come. It’s time for a moonshot-like effort to restore the root of all prosperous civilizations: Our soil, the skin of the Earth.

Tough Thinking for Urgent Action

Climate Cooling Front and Center

Written by Community Solutions Fellow Peter Bane


Climate change looms before us an existential threat dwarfing by several orders of magnitude the change of government recently enacted by an enfeebled political system in the United States. Stable climate has given rise to agriculture and human civilization, and the climate, along with the atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere that together regulate it, are the greatest global commons, one we must protect at all costs.

As concerned citizens of the world, and as permaculture designers, we are obliged to think systematically about the problems we face, the resources we can bring to bear on them, and the outcomes we seek. To begin a conversation on strategic objectives, I propose an inverted variation of the familiar SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. We will find it much more clarifying to put Threats first, as these are daunting, and to take the sequence in reverse.

The Threats are to world peace, contemporary civilization, and the health and well-being of the human population. Also under threat are most forms of higher life on the planet, along with the ecosystems that sustain them. The deep cause is human activity, both its extent and its nature. The proximate cause is massive disruption of the climate, rising sea levels, and consequent displacement of human and other populations.


    The Threats take three specific forms, which I will discuss below, and a fourth is implied.

1. Extreme climate events are increasing in frequency and intensity.

    Anthropogenic heating of the globe is underway, initiated 7,000 years ago during the expansion of agriculture by early Eurasian civilizations and massively accelerated during the industrial era. (1) Fire, drought, and crop failures in Russia; record temperatures of 129°F in Pakistan followed by immense flooding. Fires alternating with biblical-scale floods in the Amazon. The Western Hemisphere’s largest city, Sao Paolo, running out of water for 23 million. These are markers on the road toward a world we can scarcely imagine and may not survive.

    The period during which all of agriculture and civilization arose is a short interval in the much longer but still geologically insignificant lifespan of Homo hubris/sapiens. What few realize is that the past 10,000 years offered temperate and stable climate conditions suitable for the cultivation of crops on a large scale and that most of the previous 3 million years did not. Our agriculture is an artifact of our climate, and without it is likely to fail. Plants may be engineered to resist pesticides, but there is no genetic memory to resist 50°C/122°F temperatures.

    Wild fires, drought, flooding, massive storms, and the dislocation of pollinators and other phenology compound the degradation of soils to threaten widespread crop failures. In 2012, 63% of U.S. counties reached levels of extreme drought by the end of the growing season, leading to a dramatic fall in yields. If this repeats at five-year intervals, famine will spread. Drought has already affected dozens of countries in Africa and Asia, and compounded by run-of-the-mill political ineptitude, led directly to the collapse of a relatively modern society in Syria. While the U.S. media audience sat mesmerized by the rantings of a demagogue during the past year, a billion tons of carbon from dried and burning peat bogs went into the atmosphere across Indonesia where more than 200 million people were barely able to see through the smoke. (2)

    Global heating is also leading to a rise in sea levels that threatens the half of human population living within 50 miles of the ocean. Dislocations are certain to spread as the trickle of refugees we see today becomes a flood.

2. The climate system has momentum that makes action urgent in this decade.

    Ice core data show that the climate can switch directions abruptly, and that despite its apparent robustness, may be vulnerable to rapid change from forcing or positive feedback loops such as methane releases from melting permafrost, Arctic warming due to reduced snow and sea ice cover (lower albedo), and loss of vegetative cover in semi-arid regions. Much of the political questioning about climate change has festered during a period when the oceans have been absorbing both carbon dioxide and much of the heat load imposed by human activity. At some point which we cannot predict, but which might happen soon, this will reverse and the curve of heating may accelerate further. The rate of carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere is increasing year after year, and biosystems are being degraded. Ecological footprint measurements suggest that humanity is overdrawing natural capital regeneration by at least 50% each year with no suggestion that this will reverse. (3) This clearly cannot continue as the underlying life systems will drop below critical thresholds in extent and vitality, leading directly to rapid collapse. A critical test, which we should not like to witness, will be the conversion of the Amazon basin from a carbon sink (where CO2 is being absorbed at greater rates than released) to a carbon source (from fires and dessication). Ironically, widespread fires may be followed (or preceded) by unprecedented flooding as occurred in Acre state in Brazil in 2012 and 2015. (4) The scale of ecological disruption is increasing.

3. The human response has been achingly slow, and on its present course will remain inadequate for many decades.

    Carbon dioxide emissions (along with methane and other “minor” greenhouse gases) have been targeted as the driver of global heating, yet we have not succeeded in reducing their output globally nor for any major portion of the world for more than a few quarters or years associated with severe economic retrenchment. Russia reduced CO2 output after the Soviet Union collapsed. (5) The US reduced emissions during 2009 and for a short time afterward as deep recession set in. (6) The pressures to continue using fossil fuel are immense, and the conversion to renewable energies, while accelerating, is decades from reaching critical mass.

    Worse, even if carbon dioxide emissions were to end tomorrow, the planet would continue to warm from effects not yet registered by the climate system, and to do so for about 30 more years. (7) We are just now experiencing the climate heating effects of the 1980s, before a full quarter of the fossil fuel ever used by humans was released (1990-2010; thank you very much Mssrs. Bush and Clinton! -8)

3a. We do not have time for an orderly (business-as-usual) retreat from the Growth Economy, so technological “fixes” will be advanced as climate shocks hit hard.

    While hidden in plain sight now, when the implications of the first three threats are made undeniable by events, this threat will emerge as the first three synergize: technocrats and the usual cast of elite terrorists will promote geoengineering openly. At present, 20 years of artificial cloud cover in the form of chemical hazes dispersed by airplanes has introduced a measure of global dimming (supported by the discharge of industrial pollutants into the atmosphere) without either reducing heating or inducing rainfall. It remains a conspiracy of military and political insiders firmly marked “taboo” for the media. (Just look up for the grids in the sky…) When simultaneous climate-linked crises converge and the public’s fear is aroused, worse will be cooked up, and a drumbeat of demands for technological salvation will overwhelm reasonable voices. This cannot have a good outcome.

    Whether the spider pilots are presently releasing aluminum and barium (toxic to soils, implicated in dementia) or coal fly ash (mercury, arsenic, and tiny particulates harmful to the lungs) matters little compared to what will be inflicted upon us if nothing is done to turn the temperature down. Think quack medicine on a planetary scale.

    The conclusion from the Threats we face is that we must think differently about the situation and we must do so with urgent clarity, because these Threats undermine the human future. They certainly hold the prospect of famine and social collapse. The latter will make any kind of orderly response to climate change very difficult. You can be sure that nothing proactive or positive for the environment or society is going on in Syria today. The problems of Syria will metastasize if the climate system is not healed.

    We can also conclude that a different approach than the reduction of carbon emissions must be found and undertaken with all deliberate speed. This is not to say that we should not reduce emissions. There are good reasons enough to continue working on that problem, but we must leap over what is now a roadblock in our thinking to get at what might forestall extreme climate events, runaway change in the climate system, and geoengineering as a maniacal last gasp of self-destruction by Homo economicus.


    This points us toward Opportunities.

4. Climate negotiators have accepted a new paradigm.

    The Paris Agreement (Conference of the Parties or COP-21) introduced three simple words, backed by 193 governments, “Net Zero Emissions.” This means that the parties, virtually all of the world’s governments, agree to set goals that converge on eliminating the annual net release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by their societies. “Net” means that carbon drawdown is now on the table, along with emissions reductions. Though the nominal targets and the mechanisms of CO2 reduction are too little and too slow (for reasons we examined in #3 above), the corner has been turned in our thinking. (9)

    Charles Keeling’s famous rising sawtooth graph of CO2 levels in the atmosphere (from which we get the campaign, and the current levels of 400 ppm, etc) were generated from readings high atop Mauna Loa in the remote Pacific. They show annual increases of CO2 of about 7ppm each November, and annual decreases of about 5ppm each May. (10) Guess what! The large vegetated land masses of the Northern Hemisphere (the Southern Hemisphere is mostly ocean) draw down carbon by photosynthesis during the spring and summer, and this drawdown exceeds the ongoing rate of emissions by human activity for the period of green growth. Winter brings a ratcheting up of CO2 as vegetation decays, industrial carbon releases accelerate with heating loads, and total photosynthesis wanes, limited to the much smaller land masses of South America, southern Africa, and Australia.

    A major opportunity exists to draw down carbon by extending the area and longevity of green growth across the planet. Furthermore, the world’s governments have agreed that this is part of their covenant with each other, and that such efforts will be advanced and supported.

5. Land degradation is far advanced on historic timescales, and must be dramatically reversed to ensure supplies of food and water, and to prevent fire and flood. This is our invitation to cool the climate simultaneously.

    Land repair can happen quickly and affordably if the right thinking is put to work in the right places. and it offers huge benefits. Many small actions can have a broadscale effect on regional economies, hydrology, and cumulatively on the climate system.

    The regeneration of biosystems will result in accelerated sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere into soils and vegetation where it will have forcing effects on water storage capacity, buffering of rainfall extremes, soil fertility (and thus human nutrition), and net agricultural and forest productivity. The process should also directly address unemployment by creating millions of jobs. At a deeper level, it is likely to reduce conflict and mental illness, while increasing physical and emotional health among human populations as people are put to paid and meaningful work in nature.

    Some 8 billion ha (20 billion acres) of forests grew up in the wake of retreating glaciers within the last 13,000 years, along with 5 billion ha  (12.5 billion acres) of grasslands. These have been degraded by human activities to about 3 billion ha (7.5 billion) of forests, of which about half are primary and the rest poorer regrowth, 5 billion ha of agricultural lands of low primary productivity and impoverished soils, and 5 billion ha of man-made deserts. (11) (For perspective, the area of the continental US is about 2 billion ha or 5 billion acres.) The crisis/opportunity is widespread and massive. Agriculture and urbanization are contributing to drying of the land (through artificial drainage and careless practices) on a scale that significantly impacts sea level rise. Water is increasingly in short supply.

    Needed for its own sake and for its many immediate, local, and practical effects, biosystems regeneration is the one great economic sector able to sustain growth in the coming decades as it does not depend on dwindling resources. By mobilizing under- and unemployed workers applying minimal toolkits and tiny amounts of fossil fuel for some machinery to deploy locally available resources of wood, stone, earth, and brush, land repair can catalyze and support local economic renewal around the world. (12)

6. Large-scale funding is being mobilized for investments in climate mitigation.

    While the big numbers thrown around during the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 were not substantiated, a quieter move is now underway, growing out of the COP-22 discussion just concluded in Marrakech, Morocco. Funds on the order of $10 billion per year are being lined up for distribution through the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environmental Facility, both U.N.-associated agencies operating under the climate and biosphere regulatory agreements that began to emerge in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. While these mechanisms are imperfect, they have the backing of large numbers of countries, including the British Commonwealth and much of the E.U.

    The Net Zero Emissions provision of the Paris Agreement came forward with the strong support of the Commonwealth countries (53 nations) and France, which hosted the talks. This group’s representatives are now actively seeking consultation and guidance from experienced permaculture designers. (13) It is a valuable door, now opened, to direct funding toward biosystems regeneration with the express aim of locking up and drawing down carbon. It will have the effect of fostering market pricing of carbon, which will in turn make funds available for such initiatives as carbon farming, forest conservation, and land repair.

    In addition, private capital is moving toward climate mitigation in the form of social investments and profit-oriented projects with positive climate spinoffs.

    Though the Threats are grave, new thinking has emerged to enable new and widely distributed action. However, the focus remains directed at carbon targets, with their very slow response time (in human terms and in terms of the climate urgency).


    Our Weaknesses should give us pause as we contemplate how to apply ourselves to the dilemmas created by these Threats and Opportunities.

7. Atmospheric carbon reduction is needed, not merely reduced emissions, but more urgent still is mitigation of extreme climate events. A more complete paradigm of environmental stewardship and action is required.

    Despite ample evidence that global warming is leading to weather-related economic disasters with downstream effects that are destabilizing societies, and in the face of numerous careful studies, computer simulations, and a consensus of scientific opinion that the second half of the 21st century will be fraught with enormous problems, governments and the public have remained fixed on carbon emissions reductions (whether in favor or opposed)—and now have just begun to admit that carbon drawdown can help. They fail to see that the dangers lie in extreme events, whether these are single massive storms such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, Hurricane Katrina on the US Gulf Coast in 2005, or Superstorm Sandy in New York in 2012, or seasonal or prolonged droughts (Russia, the Middle East, the Sahel), vast recurring fires as occur in SE Asia, Australia, and the Amazon, or recent catastrophic floods (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia). This comes from a hubris borne of technological power and inculcated over several generations.

    The grinding, disruptive force of nature cannot be stopped by nuclear weapons or fleets of warships, only by millions of human hands and eyes, and by a new thinking that sees nature as our ally. Seawalls to protect coastal infrastructure are unaffordable outside a few globally critical ports, and will soon enough be breached if runaway heating proceeds without interruption. Cloud seeding, desalinization of seawater, and all the madcap schemes to divert distant rivers and lakes or to pump aquifers deeper cannot reverse drought generated by planetary climate conditions so long as the same thinking leading to the same behaviors that have created the problems continues.

    As writers from Sir Albert Howard to J. Russell Smith to Aldo Leopold and Bill Mollison have eloquently argued, we need a new land ethic and a new agriculture. Our farming, forestry, and city building activities are destroying soil carbon, disrupting water cycles, and consuming forests in a seemingly endless downward spiral. The climate dislocations, which began with agriculture 7,000 years ago, are still tied closely to its propagation across ever larger areas.

    The deadly dangers of flood, drought, and fire make headlines, but ongoing soil erosion, which is a precursor of all of these and threatens human survival no less, gets little attention. The lever for moving all these colossal problems lies in the landscape-level management of water to regulate and smooth the flow of runoff from farm, forest, and town lands. A vast array of micro-engineering works are needed to check flood flows, trap sediments, collect and hold biomass, and allow water to infiltrate to soil and water tables to ensure steady, year-round soil moisture for critical revegetation with brush and trees. Big dams are nominally about flood control, but in reality are a chiefly schemes to regulate river levels for shipping and to generate electricity. The flooding of valuable lowlands which they bring can scarcely be tolerated any longer in a world short of cropland. In any case, the answers begin to be found in the upper parts of catchments.

    Restoring water cycles requires deepening of soils, the growth of forests and shelterbelts, and extending and prolonging green growth on millions of barren and degraded acres of crop- and wasteland. This is work for millions of small teams and crews working in local communities everywhere.

    Of critical importance to global climate systems are local actions that restore forest cover continuously from coastlines to continental interiors. While the scientific community continues to test and challenge their findings, the work of two Russian scientists: Makarieva and Gorshkov, published in the last decade, persuasively argues that coastal forests create low pressure by transpiration, which draws in moisture-laden sea air. (14) They have termed this effect ‘the biotic pump.’ This moisture is in turn passed along to the atmosphere and to more interior forests which continue to draw it in, down, and back up again. Addressing drought in continental interiors requires continuous bands of forested land to harvest, re-transpire, and seed the rain.

    Precipitation over land is primarily a result of raindrop and snowflake nucleation around microbes produced in the stomata of tree leaves. Salts and ice crystals contribute as well, especially over the oceans and very cold regions, but we can influence the production of these critical microbial precipitation nuclei over land by planting and nurturing forests. Willie Smits in Borneo has demonstrated this by restoring forest cover to degraded palm oil plantations in Borneo (15), while Stoy at U. of Montana has documented that the spread of cover and cash crops on land that formerly lay fallow in the Dakotas and adjacent territory in Canada has led to long-term increases in soil moisture and rainfall. (16)

    If water is retained on land by building the soil-carbon sponge and restoring forests and grasslands, moisture can move gently up and down in place, reducing runoff peaks and cooling whole regions by increasing high-albedo cloud cover and regular precipitation. This in turn will mitigate the violent movement of large amounts of water from the sea toward the land, dangers that continue to mount in recent years with never-before-seen “atmospheric rivers” (17) and unprecedented storms leading to tidal surges and widescale flooding.

    We will examine some of the tools needed for this work below.

8. Climate science, by emphasizing the effects of CO2, methane, and the minor GHGs, has focused public attention on the wrong targets.

    Disingenous arguments backed by corporate money and advanced by paid shills have muddied the water of climate science too long, but these openly fraudulent efforts have been partly enabled by a failure of scientific consensus to embrace a more complete paradigm of climate science. Faced with evidence of global warming, and pressed for answers by governments, scientists from the 1970s (18), later reified by prestigious research institutions (19), advanced the thesis that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, acting as a greenhouse gas, forced global warming. The relatively minor but increasing contributions of greenhouse gases (GHG) CO2, methane, halocarbons (CFCs, etc.), and nitrous oxides were understood to trigger slight increases in temperature which in turn led to increased capacity of the atmosphere to hold water vapor, itself the primary greenhouse gas. Water in three phases and in continuous circulation, was too complex to model in the 1970s. It’s probably too complex to model via computer simulation today. It was also too complicated and expensive to monitor effectively, while the relatively rare gas CO2, which molecule for molecule has a greater effect than water vapor, was more uniformly distributed, and could, from the right vantage point, be effectively tracked.

    Just as arguments raged for decades about whether human land use might contribute to carbon in the atmosphere, only to be settled scientifically in the last few years (3) and politically in the last 12 months, so the failure to acknowledge human impacts on water in the atmosphere has clouded the picture of global warming. Water vapor, through phase changes, the release of latent heat by evapotranspiration from plants and soils, by convection from the ground to the upper atmosphere, through cloud formation (with albedo or reflective effects on incoming solar radiation), and the ability or failure of ecosystems to condense precipitation nuclei have immense impacts on weather, climate, and global temperatures, to say nothing of water on the 70% of Earth’s surface that is ocean, absorbing vast amounts of heat and distributing it around the planet. Humans have very much affected atmospheric moisture by the dessicating effects of our agriculture and urbanization, and more broadly by our degradation of ecosystems (draining wetlands, cutting forests).

9. We have failed to mobilize the whole of society in the titanic effort to restore balance to Earth’s climate and biosphere.

    The failure to consider adequately the 95% of planetary heat dynamics regulated by water, left the scientific consensus open to sniping criticisms. Carbon dioxide even at double current concentrations is in no way is a dangerous pollutant threatening human health directly, and it may even improve plant photosynthesis under some circumstances. (Of course global warming on its present course is a huge threat to human health and even survival.) Thus, the EPA’s stretch of its statutory authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate power plants has become a political football in part because the logic was limiting.

    If we wish to accelerate action on climate change, we need to engage the critics on viable common ground and argue the case on the strongest practical as well as scientific bases. If we can address climate skeptics with arguments that do not immediately present an existential threat to their interests, we are far likelier to gain support. If business can quantify the costs of using fossil fuels (as carbon offsets that will in fact draw down more than the CO2 released), it can accommodate the needs of climate mitigation within a familiar market framework. Scores of major corporations have already begun such planning, with estimated per-ton costs of carbon mitigation in the range of $62. (20) We need to be ready to provide those services in ways that actually address the Threats.


    Our Weaknesses, as so many things considered through the permaculture lens, also point to potential Strengths.

10. We have powerful, simple, and inexpensive solutions available to repair land, stop erosion, build soil, and regenerate water cycles, vegetation, and biodiversity.

    President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put millions to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration to repair landscapes and infrastructure across the United States during the New Deal era of the 30s. Many of the earthen structures: swales, terraces, infiltration pits and ponds, as well as the bridges, culverts, forest trails, and more that these agencies built are still in place, working quietly to regulate stream flow and improve conditions for people and wildlife. More recently, the Slovak Republic undertook a pilot program of waterworks to similar purposes in 2010-2011. (21) Modern documentation of that effort, with color photos, text, and web dissemination makes widely available a dizzying array of creative, low-cost solutions to flooding and erosion in agricultural, forested, and urban landscapes of that small central European country. These are national-scale examples within current and recent historical time. Smaller efforts are ongoing in a multitude of regions, unremarked but no less effective. Bill Mollison and Hugo Schiechtl have described many of the same techniques and methods as used in Slovakia in great detail, and have gone beyond the European context to address dryland and tropical regions too. (22) Permaculture designers have gathered traditional knowledge from East Lansing to Ethiopia about what works to repair damaged lands, restore water supplies, and improve agriculture.

    The demonstrated systems are effective (Slovak installations of 2010 withstood tremendous flooding pressures in 2011 and came through in good shape with obviously mitigating effects on local and downstream areas). They are also cheap, can be made in large measure with local materials, and often do not require machinery—though it can be helpful on large projects. Wood, stone, and bamboo structures, gabions and check dams, earthen dams, dikes, polders, balks, terraces, and contour ditches can be created quickly and without specialized tools or materials. They can endure for generations and so represent excellent investments. Water slowed down and infiltrated to soils and groundwater becomes available to sustain more plant growth for longer each season and to promote better transpiration, cooling, cloud formation, and rainfall. Water retained can grow trees and crops instead of the budgets of drainage engineers and sewer contractors.

    Nor are microengineering works the only approach, though these are directly and progressively restorative in damaged lands, and once installed can work passively for decades where no agriculture is presently sustainable. Where farming is active, cover crops, zero-tillage implements, elimination of fallow, intensive rotational grazing, polycultures, and a suite of agroforestry techniques (sylvopasture, alleycropping, and more) are available to improve yields and nutrition, build soil carbon, eliminate erosion, enhance profit, and support ecosystem services such as pollination, microclimate, and amenity.

    All these methods are proven and available, but are too little adopted because of institutional inertia, resistance by some corporate interests, and a lack of information by land managers.

11. Extensive grassroots networks are familiar with land repair tools and have the capacity to expand these practices rapidly by training teams of local workers.

    The concepts behind restoration waterworks are simple and the engineering required for success can be conveyed with simple models and diagrams. Initial oversight of crews can lead to team self-management within a short time. The diverse solutions implemented in the Slovakian experience testify to the wisdom that there is no one right way—a thousand flowers may bloom, or a thousand check dams, each different, may leak and hold at the same time—and all contribute to the wellbeing of the land. Specialized skills such as the use of earth-moving machinery, chainsaws, and the careful laying of masonry, are either widely distributed or can be organized in most regions. The scale of work supports amateur efforts, which can be both varied and surprisingly capable.

    The knowledge of intensive rotational grazing, of the timing and installation of agroforestry systems, and the specialized equipment needed for zero-tillage cultivation of crops are also well developed and widespread at this point, though still not practiced by enough farmers. A key insight from the Holistic Management movement, inspired by Allan Savory, lies is the development of self-help cells or small groups of practitioners in a region who can provide mutual support and regular learning to each other based on empirical findings of greatest relevance. (24)

    Drawing on these grassroots networks to stimulate the spread of skills and practice is equivalent to the decentralization of operational decisions by the US and British forces during WWII. While the war effort as a whole was directed with great precision from headquarters locations and at the highest strategic level, the solving of logistical problems, which were immense, fell on G.I.s and officers in every imaginable situation on the ground. The ingenuity, resilience, and positive attitude of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and support personnel made possible adaptive responses that were decisive as a whole.

    A similar urgency and reliance on the good sense and goodwill of ordinary people everywhere is now required to mobilize a full effort by humanity to secure its own survival.

12. The rich abundance of the fossil fuel era has enabled millions of ordinary people to learn new ways of thinking outside the box.

    Despite organized efforts over the past several decades to ‘dumb-down’ school students, and the pernicious influence of mass media, relative well-being in many societies since WWII has fostered the growth of free-thinking about environmental issues, science, land-use practice, and the social systems that arise from decisions about them. This freedom to innovate, to solve problems, and to engage the world and other people about matters of shared concern may be be our greatest strength.

    The open, democratic, and universal nature of permaculture design, both as a system of thought rooted in science and empiricism, and as a social movement without borders and with flat hierarchies, connects it to a vast array of parallel and allied movements for social and cultural betterment. It ensures the relatively free flow of information, accelerates learning, rewards useful innovation, and catalyzes internal motivations to organize untapped potentials within the human population. Learning, sharing, and working with others on matters of immediate and visceral concern go to the core of our humanity and our capacity for making culture.

    Centered in its concerns on food, nutrition, health, and the common property resources of the land, permaculture design and allied movements are part of a huge, and ultimately unstoppable movement for the transformation of culture. With strategic intervention and guidance at this point, humanity can limit the damage from climate change, begin immediately cooling the planet, and buy itself time to bring carbon levels in the atmosphere and carbon consumption in the economy down to safe levels.











9. Bates, Albert K., The Paris Agreement. 2015.




13., accessed 12/23/16.








20., and subsequent reports

21. (readers may have difficulty in downloading from this link). Kravcik’s work is outlined in this 2007 paper:, though the Slovak government’s water programme was funded through the EU in 2010-11. References to it may be found here:

22. Schiechtl, Hugo. Bioengineering for Land Reclamation and Conservation. 1980., Mollison, B. Permaculture Designers Manual. 1988.

All web references accessed 12/23/16.

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Stock hedges, home insurance, and our misunderstanding of risk

Written by Community Solutions Fellow, Kurt Cobb

Originally posted 

"If you own stocks without a hedge, it's not rational." So says the world's most famous student of risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a recent interview with Bloomberg as many of the world's stock markets hover near all-time highs. "It's like buying a house without insurance," he explained. "We have tail risks today that we didn't have before, and every day it gets worse."

"Tail risks" refer to the possibility of unusual, rare, catastrophic events, often of a nature that cannot be anticipated or even imagined. Such events are frequently dubbed black swans, a term made famous by Taleb's book called The Black Swan.

So, what is the perceived difference between houses and stocks and what does that tell us about how we judge risks elsewhere in our lives and societies? First, houses. Houses are very expensive consumer items or investments or both, depending who is buying them and why. Taleb's point is that the value of a house will not track the market if the house burns down.

Every homeowner understands this and buys insurance. In fact, the bank requires insurance if the home has a mortgage. And, that's because, of course, homes don't rebuild themselves if they are destroyed.

The companies underlying stock listings, however, are not obliterated by a market crash. Of course, some companies may disappear if the crash is followed by an economic downturn; but the thousands of companies that make up the exchanges do not all evaporate.

Stocks have historically recovered after losses, even extreme losses. So, the hedging Taleb is suggesting is really about timing. Can an investor afford to wait for the rebound before having to cash in? If Taleb's concerns are borne out in the next few years, many near retirement or already retired may be answering this question.

(The history of stock markets reveals a mixed picture. Some rebounds to previous highs have occurred within months or years. Some have taken decades. The Japanese stock market has yet to revisit the peak of 1989 and currently stands at about half the level of that peak.)

With housing and stocks we have two different kinds of risk, both of which can be hedged so as to prevent a severe loss of net worth. Why do most people only hedge one, namely the home?

Now, most investors diversify their investments. They own some stocks, some bonds, some real estate and perhaps some other investment such as a business they control or an annuity. While diversification, if done properly, can reduce risk, it is not true hedge.

Hedges are designed to go up in value in inverse relation to the decline in value of the instruments they are hedging. Owning gold as a hedge against a stock market crash may or may not work. Gold is not a true hedge in this instance and in the last market crash, it plummeted along with stocks. Stock options that necessarily rise in value as stocks sink are a true hedge.

Of course, homeowners insurance does not insure us against a decline in real estate prices. It turns out that one can actually now hedge that risk with the appropriate financial instruments. But few people do that for their family homes. In fact, people rarely envision having to sell their homes for less than they bought them.

It is this one-way bias that links people's perceptions of both homes and stocks. It is almost inconceivable that any of us might be forced to accept catastrophic losses if only we can hang on long enough. What this view presupposes is that the future will look like the recent past (that is, the last century or so). It will be one of growth, growth, growth. Growth in population. Growth in economic output. Growth in financial wealth. Growth in the energy supplies needed to make all the other growth happen.

It would indeed be a black swan if growth failed to appear or was so stunted that few people obtained any benefits from it. (Has the second scenario already arrived?) But the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change make such a future ever more likely. These crises aren't hidden and they aren't cyclical. They are advancing in such a way that the risks of both are not staying neatly tucked under the "tails" of the bell-shaped distribution curve of possible outcomes. Our current actions make them inevitable.

Things could change. Human societies could revolutionize the way they live so as to avert disastrous climate change or fossil fuel depletion (that is, depletion without adequate alternative energy). But, it seems that such a revolution would be more akin to a black swan than any rendezvous with energy or climate Armageddon.

We've convinced ourselves as a world society that such outcomes are so unlikely that we are making what amount to token efforts to avert them. Renewable energy is being deployed rapidly, but not rapidly enough to replace the current fossil fuel infrastructure soon enough to prevent a climate catastrophe (and perhaps an energy insufficiency).

There is no insurance policy that will protect us against catastrophic climate change. We cannot get our habitable climate back on any time scale that matters to humans once it's gone. The insurance policy is us, that is, changes in our behavior and our technology done quickly enough to matter. There is no other hedge that will help us.

A Conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge

This audio clip was a conversation between Helena Norberg-Hodge & Charles Eisenstein, both of whom will be speakers at the Community Solutions 2017 Economics of Happiness Conference.

It was originally published on

This is a conversation with the political thinker and activist Helena Norberg-Hodge. She had a huge radicalizing influence on my political thinking through her film Ancient Futures. By "radical" I don't mean the usual leftist politics. Helena is a tireless advocate for re-localization, the reclaiming of the commons, and the importance of direct participation in community. She is deeply insightful in linking these to global issues. Having spent decades in Ladakh, she is also one of the first to integrate traditional and indigenous world-views into a coherent critique of techno-industrial society, finance, and politics. Her work has been a great source of nourishment to me in unfolding a vision of a more beautiful world. I hope you enjoy this conversation we recorded in the fall of 2016 in England.

Click here to hear the audio clip

Trump Trauma

This article was written by Helena Norberg-Hodge, who will be a speaker at the Community Solutions 2017 Economics of Happiness Conference.

It was originally published on Local

While we mourn the tragedy that fear, prejudice and ignorance “trumped” in the US Presidential election, now is the time to go deeper and broader with our work. There is a growing recognition that the scary situation we find ourselves in today has deep roots.


Is soil the great new integrator?

This Article was written by Lisa Palmer

and was originally published in Environmental Health News

Carlos Hernando Molina pressed his boot onto the shovel and the blade cut into the earth. He rocked the handle, turned over the clump of soil, and fingered the dirt to point out the worms, bugs and plant fibers as the soil crumbled.

His land was alive. Worms twisted and beetles scurried to hide. Microorganisms were there, too, but you couldn’t see them working to help plant fibers decompose, making the soil ready to supply nutrients to roots. The shovel-full of soil was the definition of healthy, but it didn’t always look this way.

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Preparing Vocational Training for the Eco-Technical Transition

Written by Community Solutions board memberNancy Lee Wood

Excerpt from EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet

Over the coming decades, in the face of climate change, resource depletion, and economic contraction, the kinds of things that people will need to know and the standard approaches to accessing that knowledge will change. As people seek new and innovative ways of building sustainability and resilience into their lives and within their communities, they will encounter a widening variety of educational choices.


Community Solutions buys half of Arnovitz farm

By Audrey Hackett

Agriculture and conservation were the winners at the auction of the 267-acre Arnovitz farm Thursday night, following weeks of speculation about the potential for development along the western edge of Yellow Springs. All nine parcels were sold, to a total of seven buyers, for a combined amount of over $1.6 million.

Nearly half the auctioned land went to Community Solutions. The local nonprofit purchased two of the nine parcels, Tracts 6 and 8, totaling about 128 acres, for $655,000.

“It feels miraculous,” Executive Director Susan Jennings said minutes after auctioneer Ron Denney banged his gavel and brought the auction to a close.

Community Solutions plans to establish a center for regenerative farming on the property, as well as put about 80 acres into conservation in collaboration with Tecumseh Land Trust and other groups, according to Jennings earlier this week. At the auction, Jennings said the nonprofit also hopes to relocate its offices to the existing home on Tract 6.

The single largest auctioned parcel, 124-acre Tract 8, is a conservation priority for Tecumseh Land Trust, or TLT, and the Village of Yellow Springs. The land contains two tributaries of Jacoby Creek, plus woodlands around the creek, and is part of the long-envisioned Jacoby greenbelt. Village Council voted unanimously on March 6 to commit up to $200,000 in Village greenspace funds toward the purchase of a conservation easement, clarifying with a second unanimous vote this past Monday its intent to focus those funds specifically on the creek’s preservation. Jennings said earlier this week that Community Solutions shares TLT and the Village’s commitment to protecting the creek.

The next largest parcel, 84-acre Tract 9, was purchased by Miami Township resident Julie Jones for $400,000. Jones declined to comment on Thursday about her plans for the land, which is currently being farmed.

The Village is in discussions with both Community Solutions and Jones regarding establishing a conservation easement on each property, according to Village Manager Patti Bates at the auction. “If their values match with village values, we’ll go from there,” she said.

Krista Magaw, executive director of TLT, said she believed Tracts 8 and 9, together representing over three-quarters of the auctioned land, would continue to be farmed.

Springfield attorney Greg Lind purchased Tracts 1 and 2, totaling about 26 acres, for $216,000 with conservation in mind. Lind said Thursday that he is working with TLT to conserve 23 of the acres, including protecting wetlands on the property. The remaining three acres will be a homesite, he said.

And local contractor Jimmy Kingsolver purchased 13-acre Tract 3 for $142,000. He currently lives in a home on the property and intends to continue living there, he said Thursday. Kingsolver bid repeatedly on a combination of three properties throughout the evening, winning just the one.

The auction at the Hilton Garden Inn in Beavercreek drew lively interest, with more than 80 people attending, including around 20 residents of Yellow Springs. Forty-nine attendees registered as bidders.

Bidding over the two-and-a-half-hour auction was initially brisk, then slowed down to a contest between a handful of bidders. Particularly hard-fought was Tract 6, which changed hands between Community Solutions and Kingsolver around a dozen times before the local nonprofit made the winning bid.

TLT’s Magaw said she was pleased with outcome. “I’m happy. We had a good mix of bidders,” she said. And she expressed confidence that TLT would be able to purchase easements on “most or all” of the parcels before the closing date of Friday, April 28.

“There’s still work to be done,” she said.

Community Organizing Conference

Written by Community Solutions AmeriCorps Vista Volunteer & Community Empowerment Coach Jonna Johnson

It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.  This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it

Democracy … depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift.  But it's really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power.  We, the people, give it meaning.With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge.

                                            ~Former US President Barack Obama

 Sure, Obama, we need to engage, but how??? 

Well… I am pleased to invite you to a day of exploring Community Organizing.    Join us for a day of workshops designed to sharpen our abilities to engage - building support and coalitions, performing strategic research, creating meaningful action plans, and staying fit for the marathon. 

Meals and a community organizing handbook are included. 

Opening speaker, Naim Edwards, is on the frontline of Detroit’s well-known grassroots movements to co-create a Detroit that works for Everyone.  Local friends Amaha Sellassie, Reece Freeman, and Basim Blunt will be on hand as well!!

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Please contact Jonna if you have questions, want to utilize a scholarship or reduced rate, or want to pay Community Solutions directly, or 937-767-2161.  We need a head count for food, and we want to feed you too!  Register by March 14th to be included in our meal count.

Coffee Shops, Beauty Shops and Resilience

Written by Community Solutions Senior Fellow Don Hollister

As I write this over one million households in Michigan are without electricity as a result of a record breaking wind storm. The governor of Michigan urged people in the affected areas to check on their relatives and neighbors, particularly the elderly or disabled, since it is estimated that electric power may be off for many days in some neighborhoods.

That got me thinking, how well do we know our neighbors? The process of checking in on their well being would vary tremendously on how much we already know about them. Information gleaned from casual conversation may suddenly be very important.

“Oh, she said that they would be out of town this week.”

“He gets a fresh tank of oxygen every Thursday”… or “he depends on an electric oxygen generator.”

In turn, your neighbor may be thinking about you. “Is he OK?”  And imagine if everyone down the city block or along the country lane was keeping track of each other. To a varying extent we do that all the time without thinking about it. Some neighborhoods are much closer than others and some individuals are more engaged than others. Of course, not knowing someone or only being slightly acquainted need not keep you from reaching out to see if they need help.  Yet in an emergency, in a time full of surprises, the level of mutual knowledge and of trust built up over the years makes a big difference in how well a community copes. This ability of communities to survive, adapt and grow in the face of shocks and stress is “resilience.”

 Resilience is a term that has gained new popularity, but there is nothing new about the factors involved. How can we be more resilient? There has been increased attention in recent years to emergency management, with fire departments, local police, hospitals and transportation agencies collaborating on local plans. These physical systems are certainly key in surviving a crisis; however, the social side of resilience generally falls below the planning radar.

If you value social resilience how can you strengthen it? How can you increase the social ties and goodwill in your neighborhood and wider community? People write entire books on that question, but it boils down to looking at your own life and the daily lives around you. Where do people bump into each other? When do people get a chance to chat? Do people visit with each other in the immediate neighborhood, across the fence, walking their dog, while putting out the trash, while watching their children play at the playground down the block? Some observers describe the home as the “first place” that you encounter people, family and immediate neighbors, the workplace as the “second place,” and a wide range of neutral social spots, such as churches, beauty or barber shops, coffee shops, bowling alleys, bars, and libraries as “third places” where people meet friends and make friends. Look for the places around you where people do visit and then ask how those patterns of interaction might be shared or expanded. Or look at the patterns in other communities and imagine what might be started in your own neighborhood. These third places, the occasions for repeated back and forth between individuals and families, are a template for relationships, for the weaving of social fabric, for the strengthening of resilience.

During the next wind storm and power blackout, it may well be your neighborhood church, local beauty shop or corner diner that becomes the field headquarters, literally and emotionally, for the recovery operations in your community.

Evidence for microbial-derived soil organic matter formation

This article comes was originally published in the November 2016 issue of Nature Communications

Written by Jack Kittredge





This 10-page paper by Cynthis M. Kallenbach, Serita D. Frey and A. Stuart Grandy was published in the November 2016 Nature Communications, 7:13630 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13630

Summary: For nearly a century soil organic matter (SOM) formation has been depicted primarily as a function of the preservation of biologically stable complex plant compounds. Yet it has been known that soil microbial communities are adept at decomposing such materials, incorporating the released carbon into their microbial biomass. Due to advances in laboratory molecular analytic techniques, the role of microbes in SOM formation has been increasingly recognized. But direct evidence about the degree to which microbes are involved has been lacking. Now, a team of University of New Hampshire scientists has uncovered evidence that microbial pathways are the chief source of the organic matter found in stable soil carbon pools. They suggest that SOM is formed by residues of microbial digestion of carbon from roots and root exudates.

Click here for the full article.

Fertile Health: Parallels between Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Medicine

Written by Healthy Soils Symposium Didi Pershouse

Originally Posted on

The microscope, the telescope, and the deep-sea camera have helped us to rediscover that we are part of a vast interdependent web of relationships, and whatever happens in one part of the system affects the whole.   This means that there is no such thing as “human health” apart from the rest of the planet, there is only health. When I use the word “medicine” I mean something much more profound and far reaching than medical care practiced by, and for, humans. The planet itself has become something like a field hospital, with new species limping in each day, and others going extinct.

The “Sterile” Model of Care

Both agriculture and medicine went through a profound shift in the past two hundred years. As I have tried to understand the issues of our current health care system, it has been useful to note the parallels between industrialized agriculture and medicine as they adapted to the larger markets of the modern-day growth economy.

Both agriculture and medicine shifted away from what I would call a “fertile” model, and towards a more “sterile” one, that competed with, or killed off, what was not wanted. We turned away from stewardship, collaboration, and cooperatives, and towards competition, profits and patenting.  We used pesticides and herbicides, rubber gloves and antibiotics, and turned away from compost and manure, human touch and probiotics.  Both agriculture and medicine shifted from seeing things in the context of whole integrated systems, focusing instead on individual parts. We moved away from diversification and focused instead on specialization, we abandoned small-scale localized infrastructure and invested in large-scale corporations. In the process, we lost touch with traditional knowledge that works with natural patterns and cycles, and rushed instead into chemical and high-tech manipulation of nature. This left us with a planet swimming in industrial waste and struggling to adapt to an entirely new climate—all in the guise of feeding ourselves and keeping ourselves healthy.

In high-tech, industrial models of agriculture and medicine we tend to focus on:

  • Human manipulation of nature
  • Machines, speed, and technology
  • Isolating parts to understand the whole
  • Killing off“bugs” with pesticides or antibiotics
  • Laboratory knowledge
  •  Mono-cropping and specialization
  • Simple chemical fertilizers and synthetic vitamins
  • “Sterility” and separation from the natural environment
  • Growth, profits, and corporations
  • Large, centralized farms and hospitals, and global production of supplies

Bio-Mechanistic Puzzles

The industrial farming model—in which we put an animal in a box, away from its natural environment, give it antibiotics and hormones and then try to determine what nutrients it needs to be maximally productive, or we put a seed into “sterilized” dirt, kill off all the weeds and bugs with chemicals, and try to figure out what artificial fertilizer the seed needs to be maximally productive—is strangely similar to the industrial medical model. We tend to look at patients, like the cow or the grain, as if they were bio-mechanistic puzzles. We put a patient in a private room, away from natural influences, and give him industrially-made food and medicine with the goal of keeping him alive and functional as long as possible so he can be a productive member of society. It’s not a bad goal, just an odd way of getting there: since it doesn’t take into account its effect on everything outside of the hospital.

As we have changed our outer landscape with industrial agriculture and changed our inner landscape with industrial medicine, we have created new problems—many of them intertwined in the ongoing relationships between food and health, and health care and the environment. These include loss of beneficial bacteria, loss of essential micro-nutrients, dwindling supplies of clean drinking water, antibiotic resistance, superbugs, auto-immune diseases, and a general loss of resiliency.

Ironically, modern health-care itself, practiced in the context of the for-profit growth economy, has become a contributor to our health-care problems. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs  properly administered are estimated to be somewhere between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death in the United States.[1] [2] Pharmaceuticals persist in sewage and water-treatment plants, adding other people’s medications (and their side effects) to our daily drinks, and spilling antidepressants and cholesterol-lowering drugs into rivers and lakes where they affect wildlife.[3][4] [5] Until recently, hospital incinerators were a major contributor to cancer-causing dioxins in the environment.[6] Health care is hugely dependent on fossil fuels for heating, cooling, and power, as well as for the raw materials, manufacturing, and transport of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.[7] If you take into account all that goes into running a hospital, medical care for one patient spending a single night in a large teaching hospital adds nearly one metric ton of climate-disrupting CO2e to the atmosphere.[8]

When we change the biology around us, the chemistry around us, the genetics around us and even the physics around us, we change the systems that we rely on for health and survival.  As we begin to fathom the interconnectedness of life, the doctor’s mandate “first, do no harm,” becomes a much more complex task.

The question is: how do we adapt our forms of caring for one another to take all these aspects into account?

Our Common Roots with the Natural World

Farmers and scientists working within the permaculture and sustainable agriculture movements have already questioned the long-term workability of large-scale industrialized agriculture. Out of these concerns have come many new integrated models that revive traditional wisdom without necessarily abandoning technology altogether. These farming methods produce healthier, more resilient crops and animals that actually enrich the landscape, rather than depleting and polluting ecosystems. I think medicine is ready to do the same.


Photo by Didi Pershouse

To do so means that we must acknowledge our place as one of many species living within—and dependent upon—a healthy functioning whole.  We evolved out of the same natural cycles, patterns, and events as the land around us—and we struggle with many of the same issues. Plants and animals deal with bacterial, viral, fungal and genetic illnesses just as we do. They also rely on a wide variety of beneficial microorganisms for survival, just as we do. They are affected in various ways by insects and uncertain weather patterns, and they need nutrients and water, just as we do. When they are resilient, they adapt and change and evolve, just as we do.

We can draw many of the solutions for taking care of our inner landscape and growing healthy people from seeing how sustainable agriculture takes care of the outer landscape to grow healthy food.

The sustainable/organic/permaculture models of agriculture and medicine tend to value:

  • Complexity and diversity
  • Working with natural patterns and cycles
  • Contextual understandings like Family Practice, and Permaculture
  • Complex nutrients teeming with beneficial bacteria and fungi
  • Boosting natural immunity and resiliency
  • Using natural predators and healthy bacteria to balance out inner or outer ecosystems
  • Collaboration and cooperatives
  • Multi-purposed stacking of functions
  • Small, localized, easily accessible farms, clinics, producers, and providers integrated into the community
  • A slow and steady pace, and long-term connections
  • The integration of traditional knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing along with creative use of technology

Returning to the Commons of Care

The future of health care, from what I can see, involves stepping out of the for-profit model and returning to the commons of care. If teachers, road maintenance crews, police and firefighters can provide for our social and physical needs in a model that doesn’t include corporate profits, then doctors, nurses, researchers and creators of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies can do the same. No matter what political system one believes in for the larger society, profit motives have little or no usefulness in the ecology of care.

I encourage those wanting to practice sustainable medicine to welcome in human collaborators as well as a wide variety of microorganisms and other natural allies. The time is ripe to study ecological models of the body, and apply pattern language and permaculture principles as we diagnose and treat illness. By doing that, we can understand the interrelationships between people, pollinators, healthy soil and food, and prescribe traditional diets that replenish the good bacteria in the gut. When prescribing pharmaceuticals or recommending technological interventions, we must do so with the precautionary principle in mind.

Now that we have already committed to at least a short-term climate crisis, health care itself will also need to quickly adapt if we want to continue to provide care in an era of increasing natural disasters, power outages, water shortages and supply chain interruptions. For providers and community members alike, I recommend reskilling in low-impact, carbon-neutral ways of caring for ourselves and others, in order to lessen the impact on the species that share our earth, and lessen the need for high-tech care in an age of powering down and re-localization.

Didi Pershouse’s book The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities is available now.

Feedback Loops

Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings



The notion of feedback loops is an important part of the climate conversation, as climate researchers note that the positive (reinforcing) feedback of methane released from the warming Arctic and peatlands move our time for coordinated climate action up from decades to years.

Feedback loops also allow a more sophisticated reflection on global systems, rather than the linear cause-and-effect thinking that permeates political discourse. If, for example, we see the refugee crisis as feedback from climate change and military policies, we may be willing to reflect on our own deep complicity with international upheaval, rather than attempting to stop the international flow of peoples across borders.

Recent marches and protests are also a feedback loop, alerting us that those who have been nurtured by a multi-cultural society are unwilling to play the politics of separation. This kind of feedback can embolden others to find their own voices. As governors, mayors, and activists of all stripes find their leadership legs, hierarchical systems of control may cede to more sustainable systems of distributed and local leadership.

This sort of virtuous feedback loop is a central concern of Didi Pershouse, upcoming Soils Symposium keynote, and author of The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities. Didi writes and speaks eloquently of the hope that she feels, spurred by the emergence of a ‘fertile’ model of care of ourselves and our soils.  By nurturing our biotic and human communities, a cascade of health, relational, and planetary benefits ensues.  We hope that you will be able to join us in February in Yellow Springs for our Healthy Soils Symposium. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite on the writing of Didi and other presenters below.

Climate Change Requires our Full Attention Now and Biosystems Offer Hope to Blunt the Worst Impacts

Written by Community Solutions by Community Solutions fellow Peter Bane    

      Global temperatures are rising at unprecedented rates along with increases in CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans. Last year (2016) was the hottest since record keeping began. Both phenomena are a result of human economic activities, including fossil fuel burning, the intensification of agriculture, and other forms of land degradation. These trends lead directly to a host of climate change effects, most of which are destructive to the natural world and disruptive of human life.

     The build-up of heat in the atmosphere and oceans, both from increased trapping by greenhouse gases (water vapor, CO2, methane, nitrous oxides, halocarbons) and especially from increased heat radiation off of land surfaces, has globally catastrophic long-term consequences for humanity as sea levels rise. Some of those effects are beginning to manifest at threatening levels. However, of even more immediate concern, global warming is kicking the climate system into overdrive and producing more and more extreme weather events of flood, drought, fire, and storm. These in turn are causing dramatic and widespread economic losses and societal disruptions that have the potential to provoke the collapse of whole nations.

     The climate system is a complex set of global and regional feedback loops and forcing mechanisms driven by orbital physics, tectonic, biological, atmospheric, and weathering effects. While seen against the backdrop of geologic time, Earth is now in an “Icebox” phase, the past 10,000 years have been a relatively mild and warm period, known as an interglacial - between ice ages - during which all of human history has emerged. From about 7,000 years ago, humans entered the climate equation as early deforestation for farming appears to have deflected a long-term cooling trend, while the application of machinery to farming, the industrial era, and fossil fuel consumption beginning about 1850 led to the current spike in global temperatures. Our signature is written all over the climate change now underway.

     While human influence on the climate began with farming, the changes since 1850, and particularly since the end of WWII, have been decisive. Two global trends converge during the last 70 years: a dramatically increased use of fossil fuels for all economic purposes, and a de-greening and de-forestation of the planet, primarily from the expansion and intensification of agriculture, but also from urbanization. Both have driven and been driven by a huge increase in human population, from about 2 billion to more than 7 billion. The second trend is inextricable from the first. Fossil fuels, while contributing excess CO2 to the atmosphere, have enabled humanity to convert green biosystems into semi-deserts by industrializing agriculture and clearing and paving over large areas for human settlement. That has reduced nature’s ability to absorb the CO2 being released by ever-more numerous smokestacks and tailpipes.

Of importance to policy makers and society at large are three things:

     1. Thoughtless and ignorant human activities have provoked unprecedented warming;

     2. Extreme weather events driven by global warming are already disrupting communities with grave consequences should these trends continue; and

     3. The climate system itself has momentum that makes mitigating action urgent within the next decade.        

     The change of scale from humanity’s infancy 10,000 years ago, to its out-of-control rampage against nature occurred in a short period. Feedback was delayed by the vast size of the climate system, an historically mistaken sense of our impacts, ignorance of the complexity and responsiveness of planetary systems, and self-serving ideologies. We have just begun to learn the lessons of climate change, and have further to go before we can adjust our behavior. Unfortunately, because of earlier delays and the momentum of the system, urgent action is now required.

     The frequency of billion-dollar losses due to storm damage has risen steadily throughout the 21st century. These large numbers mask the reality of human tragedy as millions are displaced, homes and infrastructure are destroyed, and thousands of lives are lost—each year. Flooding was widespread throughout the U.K. for months in 2013-14, exceeding record levels set in 2007 and 2000. Budget-cutting by the climate-skeptical Conservative government that targeted coastal defences was blamed for increasing the damage, as $3 billion was lost from a notional saving of $500 million. Baton Rouge, Louisiana received over 30” of rain in August 2016, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and damaging 146,000 houses and thousands of businesses, churches, schools, and public buildings.

     Heatwaves have begun to shatter nations and whole regions. Drought and failure of the farm sector set the conditions leading to the 6-year Syrian civil war, destroying that country and destabilizing its neighbors. In May 2010, Pakistan experienced all-Asia, all-time record temperatures of 129°F in a 9-day heat wave, and two months later the worst-ever nationwide flooding, as nearly two million homes were destroyed. Russian grain exports were halted when heat (111°F) and fires (500,000 acres) in 2010 suppressed the harvest. Smoke blanketed the huge nation and more than 56,000 died of air pollution-related causes. Radioactive lands near Chernobyl were ignited, threatening to spread radionuclides widely. The grain export ban is thought to have bred food shortages that helped trigger the Arab Spring rebellions.

     Sixteen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred in this short century. Over 70,000 people died of heat-related causes in Europe in August 2003 as temperatures soared over 100°F. Chile is presently being overwhelmed by forest fires, not unlike those that have recently raged through the American West. Wildfires burnt almost 120,000 acres in the Southeast this past autumn, including over 700 buildings near Gatlinburg, Tennessee after drought in the summer prepared the way. The Northeast is now in drought, and despite recent flooding, California remains stubbornly below normal levels of moisture, threatening the nation’s most valuable agricultural economy. Fires in Oregon throughout the summer of 2016 made outdoor activity hazardous. Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paolo, home to 20 million, virtually ran out of water in 2015. Ft. MacMurray, Alberta, a city of 88,000, was evacuated last May in the face of massive wildfires.

     These conditions are not normal, and even where studies indicate that similar extremes have occurred in the past, such as 10-year droughts in the Southeast, our modern societies are unprepared for their impacts.

     Ice core data, pollen records, and even historical accounts show that the climate can switch directions abruptly, and that despite its apparent robustness, may be vulnerable to rapid change from forcing or positive feedback loops such as methane releases from melting permafrost, Arctic warming due to reduced snow and sea ice cover (lower albedo), and loss of vegetative cover in semi-arid regions.

     In addition, the oceans are absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and much of the heat load imposed by human activity. At some point which we cannot predict, but which could be soon, this will reverse and the curve of heating may accelerate further.

     The immediate dangers of climate change are increasing extremes of flood, drought, fire, and storm. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, increasing the risk of intense rain and snow events. Warmer oceans generate larger hurricanes and typhoons. Disruptions of oceanic currents and the jet stream from Arctic warming have thrown off familiar patterns of rainfall and seasonal temperature, reducing food production. Added heat in the tropical Pacific is increasing the frequency of El Niño events with world-wide effects that include severe drought, high temperatures, and weakening of the Indian and east Asian monsoons.

     A full litany of disasters would require dozens of pages to present, but we should reflect on the scale of recent impacts lest we lose perspective: two storms, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, cost the U.S. more than $175 billion, over 1% of annual GDP, and claimed more than a thousand lives in New Orleans, New York City, and their surrounding regions. These were fully modern and wealthy cities, both critical to the national economy, but their influence did not spare them. Neither has fully remediated the damage. Both calamities led to permanent out-migration. With already weak underlying economic conditions, it is easy to foresee how the curves of mounting climate disaster and faltering economic growth will cross and fatally undermine our ability to recover.

     Climate scientists have focused for the past 40 years on the growing load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the world’s efforts to address the crisis have, heretofore ineffectively, attempted to limit their annual increase. Because of lag effects, momentum in the climate, and vast amounts of CO2 stored in the oceans, even a complete cessation of industrial and agricultural carbon emissions today would not result in turning down the world’s greenhouse gas levels or temperatures for at least 30 years. Given the impacts we are already experiencing, we cannot afford to rely only on this important but wholely inadequate mechanism.

     About half the carbon emissions from human activity are presently absorbed by forests, soils, and the sea, but human demands on the biosphere continue to erode their restorative capacity. If we are to cool the planet in time to mitigate a growing environmental catastrophe, we must greatly amplify the ability of green nature to rebalance the Earth’s heat budget.

     Greenhouse gas trapping accounts for only about a quarter of the heat dynamics of the atmosphere. Of the greenhouse gases impacts, carbon dioxide represents about one-fifth, other industrial gases another fifth, and water vapor at three-fifths the greatest portion. Other effects, mostly related to the water cycle, dominate surface and atmospheric heating and cooling. Human actions have changed this balance detrimentally and we can change it back.

     Land clearance for agriculture and development has reduced forest cover, while industrial forestry has degraded forest age and density. Mechanization and chemical fertilizers have reduced the seasonal length of green cover on farmland by enabling broadscale clear cultivation and by supplanting crop rotations. Tillage and chemical use have dramatically reduced soil carbon content, and with it the ability of landscapes to hold, and thus to cycle water to the atmosphere. When bare of plant cover, soil temperatures under sunshine can spike from a normal 68° to over 140°F. Radiation from a dark surface is proportional to the 4th power of the temperature difference, so these effects are huge. Radiation from urban pavements is the most evident demonstration of these physical laws, but naked farm fields reproduce the same brutal conditions on a massive scale.

     The churning of billions of tires on roads, the plowing of billions of acres, increasing wildfires, and the hubbub of humanity along with our industrial pollution release immense swaths of dusts, smoke, and hazes into the atmosphere where they contribute to capturing heat from sunlight and preventing its release from the Earth’s surface to space. Hazy night skies are particularly damaging to the planet’s ability to cool itself, and their incidence is widespread and increasing. While these haze particles and droplets of moisture can aggregate into rain and snow, to do so, they must nucleate around either salts, ice crystals, or bacteria. Salts dominate over the oceans, ice crystals in polar regions, and elsewhere — most of the inhabited regions of the planet — aerobacter, produced chiefly in the stomata of tree leaves, make the rain and snow.

     As raindrops and snowflakes form in the atmosphere, millions of dust and haze droplets coalesce, clouds amass, and as they do, naturally reflect incoming sunlight high in the atmosphere, preventing it from heating the surface. When saturation occurs, the clouds release moisture to the ground and further cooling occurs. With subsequent clearing of the air, often at night, yet more heat can radiate to the top of the atmosphere and out to space, leaving the Earth system. All these processes are natural and ongoing, but heating and cooling effects, which have been regulated by biosystems for millions of years, are out of balance due to thoughtless human impacts.

     To restore the Earth’s ability to cool itself naturally and safely, we must increase the water-holding capacity of our landscapes, first by a wide array of micro-engineering works, and in the longer term by returning organic matter (carbon) in soils to levels that prevailed before plow agriculture. Although this will move carbon from the atmosphere into stable storage in plants and soils, it is the thermodynamic effects of water that can make the quickest impact on global temperatures and weather extremes.

     Transpiration and evaporation from vegetated surfaces (called latent heat) releases a quarter of the incoming solar radiation without raising temperatures. Extending the length and expanse of green cover on land is the most powerful way we can aid the planet to cool itself.

     As part of this strategy, we must replant, restore, and preserve forests, and do so in a way that ensures continuous forest cover from the oceans toward continental interiors. Studies have shown not only that forests draw in moisture from the surrounding atmosphere — making it available as regional rainfall — but that they are essential in transpiring and transferring rain from moist coasts to otherwise dry interior regions.

     Our farmers must be supported to reduce chemical use and eliminate most tillage so that farm soils can recover their carbon content. This will entail the greater use of cover crops and the introduction of well-tested agroforestry systems. Grazing practices mimicking predator pressures can greatly enhance carbon uptake in pastures and on rangeland. Wetlands and riparian woodlands must be restored along all streams. Green roofs, porous pavements, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure must come to dominate our urban landscapes with the aim of dramatically reducing runoff to waterways.

            Of course efforts must continue to reduce the use of fossil fuels, to de-link economic value from energy consumption, and to make these processes equitable across society, but even more urgent, if we are to avoid crushing burdens from extreme weather events, is to initiate massive programs for land repair, reforestation, water harvesting, and to transform our agriculture to capture carbon. The effects of these efforts will be felt first regionally — so states, provinces, cities, farm communities, and even individuals can take leadership — but they will impact the global situation. The promise of restored biosystems is a more temperate climate, more comfortable and gracious towns and cities, increased employment, a more profitable and productive agriculture, and lower levels of violence, stress, and trauma across society. The alternative is virtually unthinkable.