The global media and policy focus on parts of the carbon cycle is masking a much more complex set of challenges in the global ecosystem that we need to address.  Managing the carbon cycle is important, but if we are going to protect the planet, we need to take a much more balanced perspective.

I was thrilled to hear the crew of the Planet Normal podcast (‎Planet Normal on Apple Podcasts) turning their steely eyed focus on the subject of Net Zero.  As a mixed farmer in the North of England, working hard to produce good food in a sustainable way I am increasingly frustrated by the superficial oversimplification of the climate debate.  This has seen the global oversimplification of farming practice and its impact to produce a situation where it is becoming culturally more acceptable to import avocado pears, soy beans and almonds across the planet where the production of local sustainably food produced is demonised.

We are becoming fixated on the “easy” part of the carbon cycle to the detriment of the myriad of other cycles and systems that make up this complex and wonderful world in which we live.  Many of us like  almonds as a guilty pleasure, but an understanding of the impacts of their production in context must raise questions about whether Almond milk is less damaging to the local ecosystem than sustainably produced dairy.  Just because they impact a different part of the complex ecosystem or have an impact thousands of miles away.  By the way, I’m not taking a swipe at Almond production here per se, merely pointing out that different contexts have different impacts.

I totally acknowledge the fact that we all have much to do and must all focus on doing our best, but this is not an easy challenge, and that we must  embrace the complexity of the the solution.  We are asked by teenage activists to “follow the science”, though I might argue that the pursuit of extant science is precisely what got us here in the first place!  As an example, we conflate the impact of an  intensive meat production system that is based on destroyed rainforest using highly processed inputs with the output of an extensive system based on natural fed production that is part of a balanced ecosystem.  This is probably something that must be challenged as credible science.  Even school level science demands that assumptions are acknowledged and questioned – this doesn’t seem to be happening in the global debate where to challenge the groupthink is to be labelled a “climate change denier”.
I am currently trying to find a meaningful methodology to map my sustainability across the whole spectrum of ecosystem services.  Its incredibly hard!  There are lots of carbon mapping methodologies and tools that look at the simple aspects of the carbon cycle (essentially a calculation of hydrocarbon inputs vs simple sequestration) but very little that takes an holistic view of the other cycles that drive the ecosystem(s) that we are privileged to inhabit.  I manage my farm through a microscope (no, really – I have one on my desk and use it almost every day to look at animal faeces, soil biology, insect and seed populations etc which tell me what is actually going on day to day on the ground.  It has become incredibly clear that the simplistic global solutioneering that we hear routinely on the news is not only unhelpful but often dangerous when applied out of context.  I acknowledge, of course, that this is only a problem for those actually trying to actually do something and that if you are merely a commentator or verbal activist, the problems conveniently drift into the difficult zone and can be conveniently ignored.
There is no silver bullet – though naively , I do think we all have a part to play.  The UK PM’s plan to plant 30bn trees is interesting, but as someone who plants and critically, manages many trees every year, I am bound to raise a sceptical eyebrow towards the practical challenges; imported diseases, forests of …. plastic tubes…. a massive shortage of the skilled labour required to manage these woodlands (if you just plant the wrong trees and forget them you end up with vast tracts of ecological desert like those produced by the Forestry Commission in the 40s, 50s and 60s, ironically as part of HMG “best practice”).  I am also minded that there are practical lessons and implications to be drawn from the impacts of Storm Arwen and her metrological successors who have reintroduced a vast amount of previously “sequestered” carbon back into the carbon cycle.

Nor is rewilding the only solution.  It does have a part to play in some areas and has produced some  incredible examples of ecological restoration, but is it a way to feed the population if deployed on a widespread basis – especially if increasing numbers of said population have been persuaded that meat eating is not good for the environment?  I am very fired up by my Agroforestry, Mycology, Biochar and Permaculture projects – these all have lot of promise at farm scale – though again each has its own limitations.    It is becoming clear that any credible solution will lie somewhere in a complex context specific mix.  This doesn’t make good news however, and does take some effort to consider.

Looking at the challenge from a pragmatic point of view, we need to understand the contextual implications of global scientific assertions if they are to be any real value.  A global suggestion that we (globally) should eat less meat may not be practically relevant to someone who eats a balanced diet (I acknowledge there is an extensive debate about what constitutes a balanced diet!).  A policy or conclusion that is general enough to be relevant at a global or even national level is unlikely to be able to address great detail without becoming contextually inaccurate. This is something to think about in more detail later I fear!  I think we have all seen this challenge demonstrated in government doctrine and publications, especially in the agricultural space. 
In short, there is much we can all do; and we need to listen to the science, but we do need to challenge it and the assumptions underpinning it in context.  We also need to think hard about it and acknowledge that what may be a sound general principle, might not be applicable in a detailed context (and vice versa).  Politicians and press need a simple narrative…. but for us, the “punters on the ground”,  the situation is both more complex and more exciting.  If we are to do our part then we need to add a bit of scepticism, critical analysis and imagination to apply strategy intelligently in context.
Global sustainability is about much more than the carbon cycle and the carbon cycle itself is about much more than fossil fuels and sequestration.  We need to acknowledge complexity and be sceptical about anything which appears to be a simple silver bullet.  Government, Media and Academia need to trust us  to manage complexity and we need to demonstrate that we are worthy of that trust.
%d bloggers like this: