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Regeneration Part 5: Land, Regenerative Agriculture and Soil Restoration To Reverse Global Warming

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In this 5th installment of our deep dive into Paul Hawken’s new book and movement – Regeneration: Ending The Climate Crisis in One Generation, we dive into the 4th chapter specifically on Land. The topics covered range from Regenerative Agriculture to Composting and Vermiculture, Degraded Land Restoration and Returning Biodiversity. It’s a hopeful chapter on everything we can do to change our current trajectory, reverse global warming, and return health to our soil, to our people, and our planet. We can draw down carbon – put it back where it belongs, and continue forward, creating a better future. 

Time Stamps: 

00:00 Introduction

01:06 The Magic of Soil

02:51 Regenerative Farming, Drawing Down Carbon

05:47 The Six Tenants of Regenerative Farming

07:40 Degraded Land Restoration

09:10 Compost and Vermiculture

12:55 Rainmakers

14:27 Biological Charcoal (AKA Biochar)

16:30 The Call Of The Reed Warbler by Charles Massy


Regeneration Interview with Paul Hawken: 

Regeneration Part 1: 

Regeneration Part 2: 

Regeneration Part 3: 

Regeneration Part 4: 

Regeneration: Ending The Climate Crisis In One Generation was published on September 21, 2021 and is available at all your favorite booksellers. Visit the Regeneration website for details, resources, and valuable tools for anyone interested in becoming a climate activist. 

Regeneration + Nexus: 


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Regeneration Part 5: Land, Regenerative Agriculture and The Importance of Soil Restoration To Reverse Global Warming

The magic of soil is something that we are yet to fully comprehend. It holds with it a solution that can sequester 25% of the carbon in our atmosphere, drawing it down into the roots, fungi, and microbes that exist in rich earth – with one big caveat – we must act to protect preserve and regenerate land.

The earliest known soil is 3.7 Billion years old. It was a home for the first algae plants that made their way from waterways to land, adapting to their new home and becoming the first terrestrial plants. Without organic matter, earth is simply dirt – so it is with mutualism – or mutual relationships that soil is born. We have a responsibility to protect the complex nature of land – because it gives us food, it holds water for drier times, it sequesters carbon, and it plays a role in the small water cycle that creates rain, giving us new, purified water to squelch dry earth. If we hardscape our planet, deplete our soils, and continue to extract its resources without giving back, then guess what. Earth will survive us… but we won’t survive the climate that we have created. The good news is that we can take action. We can heal the earth. We can build solutions to regenerate our oceans, waterways, forests and wild spaces. 

Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis In One Generation by Paul Hawken provides the roadmap. In our first 3 sessions, we covered the first 3 chapters of the book. Oceans. Forests. And Wilding. In our 4th deep dive we reviewed and the resources that Nexus provides to continue our educational path and inspire action. Today, we dive back into the book and its 4th chapter. Land.

Now, in this mid-section of the book, we finally arrive at a discussion of Regenerative Agriculture. This is perfect timing, because this week I’ll interview Tom Newmark, former CEO of New Chapter – a well known vitamin company – and also the co-founder of The Carbon Undergound, a not-for-profit focused on regenerative agriculture’s ability to sequester carbon. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

“When you gather a teaspoon of healthy soil, you have at hand one of the most complex living systems on earth – one that in less than 150 years has been degraded by industrial agriculture. Roughly 35% of all carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activity since 1850 were caused by farming and degeneration.” – Paul Hawken, p. 96 – Regeneration: Ending The Climate Crisis In One Generation

But how can regenerative agriculture really save us. It’s through its simple ability to draw carbon down into the roots of plants, the microbes and fungi, the living creatures that live in soil and the creatures that feed upon them – that holds this important key. The term regenerative Agriculture was coined by an organic farming advocate, Robert Rodale roughly 40 years ago, but its roots are in indigenous agriculture. Indigenous people around the globe understood the relationship between grazing animals – and their ability to fertilize land. They buried biological charcoal to re-carbonize, fertilize, and improve the water capture of the earth. Importantly they did tear down forests to monocrop great swaths of land. They ensured the resiliency of their land.

“Though regenerative agriculture is complex and intricate, it is based on clearly defined principles and can be implemented by farmers and ranchers the world over. Importantly its yields can be commensurate with or greater than traditional agriculture, with higher future returns due to enhanced soil resiliency and productivity.”

 – Paul Hawken, p. 97 – Regeneration: Ending The Climate Crisis In One Generation

Today, farmers are waking up to the reality that traditional agriculture isn’t getting them anything. Those that transition to regenerative practices incur increases in costs for a couple of years, followed by incredible gains. Their soil stores and retains more water, they lower their costs, erosion that may have dried their land out to early in the season halts, they can get out of debt. Their plants and animals are even healthier, more resistant to disease. The core tenants of regeneration are as follows.

First — You must recarbonize the soil. This means you have to stop using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that kill the microbes and destroy the complex living nature of the soil.  As Paul Hawken states, “Soil is a community, not a commodity”.

Second – Limit disturbance. This means a no-till approach to farming, plowing destroys soil structure, tears apart the roots and fungi mycelium, releases carbon, and reduces soil moisture. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Third – cover the soil through the use of cover crops. Earth never wants to be bare, so providing a cover crop to help retain its moisture, draw carbon into its roots, and support the complex soil is critical. Some cover crops are used to encourage grazing by animals who fertilize the soil, others are literal crops to be harvested like fava beans chickpeas beans and turnips.

Fourth – Hydrate the soil. Invariably, carbon rich soil holds more water, so the cycle continues.

Fifth – put creatures on the land – as they will fertilize and provide more organic matter which provides more food for microbes and fungi, sequestering more carbon which improves production and yield, and which retains moisture in the land.  

And lastly – Recognize one idea is simply true. Soil health is plant health is human health.

These are big ideas, and our ancestors would not be surprised. Half the reason most of us now supplement our diets by taking pills is simply that our soils and foods don’t contain the levels of nutrients they once did. Minerals are depleted from our soils because brought on by the industrial agriculture complex. It’s time for a big change in our habits, on a massive global scale.

But what do we do about the soil and land we’ve degraded? We restore it!

As Paul points out, “Dry lands often have nutrient-poor soils and lack organic matter which makes them prone to erosion” (p. 103). Primary causes for this dry land are overgrazing, tree removal, tillage, and biofuel production. If we do not restore these lands, they will continue to dry, become parched earth, and desert.

“The default mode of nature is regeneration. It is not the land that is broken but our relationship to it. Nature has been recovering from disturbances for eons, including floods, fires, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and even an occasional asteroid strike. The natural world renews itself.” p. 103

But when the natural recovery cycle has been severely compromised – by us – so it may take human assistance or intervention to help it heal. Bill Zeedyk, a retired wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service developed a toolbox to help restore degraded land. By slowing water drainage through circuitous pathways, more water seeps into the land. This “induced meandering” as he calls it helps halt erosion and reintroduce sediment to degraded land. Plants take root. Soil microbes begin to do their thing. Insects return, with the animals that eat them. More organic matter is introduced, and restoration has begun.

And as we think about our role in restoring degraded land, there is another human solution. Compost.

Organic matter destined for landfill becomes anaerobic. It becomes simply waste. Buried in landfill, it decays, creating methane, and releasing it into the atmosphere. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. The good news is that composting is easy, and compost returns the nutrients of what was to the soil from which it originated. It’s easy – especially if you have any dirt to work with at home.

Here’s how we create compost in my home. We have a 3-gallon lidded bucket under my sink. We put all our coffee grinds and coffee filters, tea, food scraps and citrus peels and egg shells into it. Some of our food waste our dog consumes, composting it in her own way. Now we don’t put our animal waste in the outdoor compost, that goes into the undeveloped part of our land, where her scat becomes part of the normal nutrient cycle of the chaparral forest. We’re lucky that way…

Many who have land use a compost pile and turn it periodically. We have an outdoor composting system made from recycled plastic that you feed new compost into the top, and take old, processed compost out from the bottom. It sits on the land, which enables worms, beetles and other bugs to enter from the bottom and do their part too – making this a vermiculture mecca. I’ll include a link to one like ours – which has already been in use for 10 years – in our show notes. We mix our food scraps with oak leaves as our “brown matter” along with scraps of paper from time to time. I use the compost to enrich our soil for healthier fruit trees, strawberries that I grow as a cover crop beneath my plum trees, and when we produce more compost than we need for our gardens, we introduce it into our forest. Our oak trees and Douglas fir thrive. Barn owls, crows, and squirrel abound as do burrowing critters and insects.

A big question is asked on page 105.

“Could spreading a thin layer of organic compost across the planet’s vast grasslands address the climate crisis? According to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, if a half-inch layer of compost were applied to only 5 percent of California’s nearly 60 million acres of rangeland, it could offset greenhouse gas emissions produced by the state’s agricultural and forestry sector for one year. They discovered that the compost significantly increased plant growth, improved the water-holding capacity of the soil, and boosted the sequestration of atmospheric carbon underground.”

So perhaps this is our start. Instead of sending all our food scraps to landfill, we do what the City of San Francisco has done. In 2009, they became the nations first municipal service to require separation of all organic material – which has resulted in diverting 80% of their trash from landfills to composting sites where hundreds of thousands of tons of organic materials is processed each year. Taking an action like this would make composting the norm, instead of something that only the most motivated individuals do.

The nationwide reality in the USA is quite bad. 96% of food waste is landfilled or incinerated. If we change our habits, and our local processing of waste, we might just be able to cover degraded land with life promoting compost. And let’s remember, the whole concept of regeneration is centered on one thing. Putting life at the center of every decision we make and action we take.

But where has all the rain gone. Here in California, the forests around me are the driest I ever remember them being. Our reservoirs are running dry. We need rain. Here I learned something entirely new. Reading Regeneration. Paul starts this section with the kind of optimism that sometimes brings up the skeptic in me. He states: “People can make rain, cool down the planet, rehydrate the land, and turn deserts green. It starts with imagination.” – p. 108

But guess what – plants contribute waters to evaporated water – to the clouds – that cause precipitation over land. So it follows that more plants equals more rainfall. By ceasing deforestation, initiating reforestation and afforestation projects – like those we covered in our episode on Forests – we can create more rain.

And by integrating more carbon in our soils, we can create nutrient dense land that stores more water, creating a seedbed for new plants and fungi that will support the small water cycle so we can rebuild a living system that supports its own regeneration. This is a return to nature. It may be a tall ask in some ways, but it is so very doable.

Paul closes this chapter with something else that really surprised me. He teaches us about the wonders of biochar – which is a type of supercharged charcoal that we can create with organic material such as wood, grain stalks, grasses. It’s heated slowly under high heat with very little exposure to oxygen. Instead of escaping, the carbon becomes secured in the biochar itself. It can then be integrated in the land to increase carbon content of soils which then increases the amount of water land can hold and also crop yields. He details the surprising story of Doug Pow who decided to feed biochar to his cows, who would then leave behind carbon-rich dung. They introduced dung beetles, and the dung beetles buried the dung 15 inches underground, securing this carbon rich material deep underground. By doing this, the soil is aerated. The carbon is stored secure and deep in the earth. Undisturbed, plant roots and mushroom mycelium feed on it. It’s one of the most interesting regeneration stories I have yet heard – carefully architecting a new ecosystem using natural moving parts to store carbon and promote life.

And not only that – the cows who ingest the carbon are healthier. They are less prone to sickness – and they produce less methane – 10% less in fact. Not only that, his soil stores more water, his avocadoes are more fruitful. He has harnessed the power of a natural symbiotic relationship between animals, insects and plants – and he’s figured out a great use for his plant waste – creating the carbon sequestering biochar in the first place. This is a full circle miracle!

Recently, Biochar’s use is expanding beyond agriculture. It can be added to concrete, reducing cracking and increasing resistance to erosion. It sequesters carbon

As we close this chapter, we are introduced to Charles Massy and his book “Call of the Reed Warbler”. The essay that closes this section bears the same name. With this story we learn about a man who grew up in the conventional farming, but who went on a deep quest to learn more, to harness the knowledge of nature itself, of indigenous people, biosystems and energy flow. He details his lifelong journey to understand nature – and how his perspective changed completely when he saw how regenerative practices could return lushness to land – even in drought years – increasing biodiversity, and even bringing the reed warbler back to a region for the first time in over 150 years of mismanagement.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into Paul Hawken’s Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis In One Generation. I’d like to invite you to do two things in action today.

  1. Visit and explore Nexus. You can listen to or even watch my coverage of the site by visiting Part 4 of this Regeneration Journey on my podcast or on YouTube. It’s a really great tool that’s continually updated
  2. Sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t already. You’ll get that download link I mentioned at the top of this show – providing 5 actionable steps to help you on your activist journey

Thank you listeners, now and always for being a part of this pod and this community because together, we really can do so much more. We can care more and be better.

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