Natural Climate Solutions
“The Earth Is Just as Alive as You Are” - this is the title of a recent piece in the New York Times by science writer Ferris Jabr.
“Life is not something that happened on Earth, but something that happened to Earth,” said David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute. “There is this feedback between the living and nonliving parts of the planet that make the planet very different from what it would otherwise be.” As Dr. Margulis wrote, “Earth, in the biological sense, has a body sustained by complex physiological processes. Life is a planetary-level phenomenon and Earth’s surface has been alive for at least 3,000 million years.”
“If the land is sick, you are sick,” says Fiona Livingstone, who manages a suicide prevention program at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health in Australia. In a recent article by Georgina Kenyon, Livingstone explains that “the traditional Aboriginal concept of health is much broader than that of conventional Western medicine. Aboriginal people, she says, are deeply connected to “country”, the place with which they have spiritual ties. The personal, social and ecological are closely interconnected: “health” is the state in which they are all in balance.”
The perspective of humans that we are separate, individual beings that live on a planet comprised of non-living rock, water, and air that happens to have other different forms of life on it that we are free to exploit, ignore, or destroy as we like is not only wrong, but is a mortal danger to our own existence. It is a recent development in human history and has put us on a disastrous course of destruction of species and entire ecosystems, pollution and climate change.
There is a different perspective. From this vantage point, we are part of the living Earth. We’re like an organ of the body, and like an organ, our health and existence depends on the healthy functioning of the entire organism. What is the human function in the organism of the living Earth? Indigenous people, according to Arkan Lushwala, understood the function of humans to be caretakers, maintainers of the balance and harmony that sustained health.
The Earth is sick, and we are sick. This seems to me to be an accurate description of the modern human condition, and we are the primary reason the Earth is sick. This is a feedback loop that leads to a downward spiral - the Earth gets sicker, and we get sicker. In 2018, an amount of rainforest the size of England was lost - and this was less than the year before. There are many other symptoms of this health crisis on Earth, but our energy is best spent not on cataloging the problems, but on solutions.
Like our own bodies, the living Earth has great capacity to heal and regulate itself. To illustrate that, let’s take a dive into the way that Earth naturally regulates the amount of carbon dioxide, the primary global warming gas, in the atmosphere.
For the last nearly 1 million years, until just the past century, Earth’s web of life regulated the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within a range of about 180-300 parts per million. The past 400,000 years is shown on the graph below. This period of time includes both ice ages and warm periods, and the entirety of modern human development and agriculture. By 1950 the level had passed 300 ppm, and has shot up to over 400 ppm now.
The Earth has a lot of carbon. If it were all in the atmosphere, Earth would be like Venus, too hot to support life, due to the heat trapping effect of the carbon dioxide molecule. But most of Earth’s carbon is stored away, sequestered in soil, forests, and deposits of organic matter from centuries to millions of years old, like peat, coal, and petroleum. For the past two centuries, use of fossil fuels for energy has released many billions of this ancient sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to the rapid spike seen in the chart.
But there’s more to the climate change story than burning fossil fuels. It is estimated that there is three times as much carbon stored in soil worldwide than is in the atmosphere. But deforestation and poor agricultural practices have resulted in large amounts of soil carbon lost to the atmosphere, perhaps even more than the amount released by burning fossil fuels; and unfortunately, deforestation and loss of topsoil is continuing. Reversing this trend is essential to slowing global warming, because, as we’ll see, it is the green life of Earth that has the capability to draw carbon back out of the atmosphere and sequester it back in the soil, increasing soil fertility at the same time that it reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
When spring comes to the northern hemisphere, which holds the majority of Earth's temperate forests and grasslands, the landscape greens as the leaves appear and plants begin to photosynthesize. Every year, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes down between May and September, even with all the emissions coming from fossil fuels.
You may have heard about startup companies and research into machines to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Much money and effort is being spent trying to create a technology to do what nature already does very well. Conserving and restoring natural ecosystems is a proven way to sequester carbon, while also supporting the continued existence of thousands of plant and animal species. Machines that take carbon dioxide from the air, even if they eventually work and could be scaled enough to have a measurable effect, provide no habit for species, no shade to cool the earth, no soil building, no water cycling from the soil to the atmosphere.
Natural Climate Solutions include ending deforestation and destruction of any ecosystem that sequesters large amounts of carbon, replanting damaged forest lands on a large scale, regenerative agriculture practices that build healthy soil, and conserving large, intact ecosystems around the world that support diversity of species.
The greening of life around us is a great power, far greater than any human invention. If we work with it, ending deforestation and restoring degraded lands, we have the best chance to leave a flourishing, living world for our descendants. We return to our role as Caretakers, maintaining balance and harmony in the great living organism that is Earth.