I don’t know how to talk about climate change.
We may as well get this settled right now. After all, we’re going to be talking about climate change for a few weeks here, and it falls to me to at least get the conversation started. But while I may be the sort of person who likes to extol folks in the room with so many things I know something about, I tend to fall fairly quiet when it comes to climate. It is not, as I’ve said before, my wheelhouse.
Something that’s very interesting about this dynamic is not that I quibble over the facts and the science on climate. Nor that I have blissfully plunged my head beneath the surface with so many other ostriches who wish to pretend it is not, in fact, a thing. It’s not even that I am disinterested.
I care quite deeply about the plight in which we find ourselves, wishing to rescue and rehabilitate a suffering earth. I do the things that seem within my reach to minimize my own impact. I try to minimize the amount of waste I generate, and recycle what I can’t avoid (even if I do tend to think recycling has become a good bit of smoke and mirrors). I choose to live where I can walk or ride a bicycle to most necessary or desired destinations. For those times I do need to drive, I have a car that is small enough it might fit inside the average full size SUV. I keep my heat and air conditioning set outside common margins of comfort and make other, less fuel-consuming adjustments.
Even so, these small actions feel like a bare minimum, most days not even much of an inconvenience and a very far cry from what seems to be the requisite sacrifice needed to begin to solve for a looming crisis. And they also feel like they accomplish very little, on the scale of one person, one trash receptacle, one small gasoline-powered car.
This may explain some of why the cat seems content to have taken my tongue when it comes to climate. It feels too vast, too intractable, and so, too unspeakable.
Not long into the introduction to The Reindeer Chronicles, I fell upon a way of thinking about all this that could possibly work for me. I shouldn’t say “fell upon.” Clearly, it is author Judith Schwartz’s intent that readers discover a way of possibility, and to say “fell upon” makes it sound like sheer happenstance. Or that she tripped me, neither of which is true. In this book, Schwartz tells stories of healing the earth, of undoing damage, of rehabilitation and restoration, showing over and over in the most beautiful of ways that the crisis is not intractable, that it is not unspeakable.
But before even reaching the wonder of the stories, we looked first at the ecosystem. And this is where, for me, it truly becomes speakable. I don’t have to talk about the whole planet. I don’t even have to talk about climate. I don’t have to know if we’re calling it global warming or climate change or climate breakdown. I can just talk about a single ecosystem. The beauty of the ecosystem is it is connected to everything else. I can talk about it all without having to get my hands around it all. It becomes speakable in large part because a small solution can become scalable.
Schwartz quotes permaculture designer Geoff Lawton as saying that “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”
He doesn’t mean a single garden, of course. And he’s also not a pie-in-the-sky Ted Talk idealist. As Schwartz notes, he is credited with creating a food forest in a Middle Eastern desert. But he does mean that what we do in a garden has implications beyond giving me a juicy tomato and sun-warmed cucumber for lunch. What happens in an ecosystem never stays in an ecosystem, and what we do in a garden can have farther reaching impacts on the soil, on the water cycle, and even on the sun.
Her point, in this and every other story, is that if we want to make something happen, we need only start where we are.
I have started, right? I am recycling and reducing and even though I’m not so good at reusing, I do what’s within my reach. But Schwartz is quick to point out that there are actions that can create benefits far beyond preservation and conservation. The heart of her book and its healing accounts is in regeneration.
Schwartz cites Dr. Millán Millán, a climatologist who previously directed the Center for Environmental Studies of the Mediterranean (CEAM), in explaining that “most of today’s weather extremes are not due to greenhouse heating but to ‘local impacts going wild.'”
The crisis we face is not as simple as an emissions problem, Schwartz explains. She writes, “Climate change is best understood as the manifestations of disrupted carbon, water, nutrient, and energy cycles.”
What Dr. Millán is telling us, Schwartz explains, is that “ecological restoration in pivotal areas can reinstate water circulation and bring weather patterns back toward longstanding norms. He says strategically revegetating even a small expanse of land can make a difference in the surrounding region.”
As if directly answering my conundrum about climate being out of my wheelhouse, Schwartz writes that “Earth repair is a participatory sport: a grassroots response to evolving global crises. It is the inverse of apathy and an antidote to despair. Too often, activism is framed around being ‘against’ something. This keeps us stuck in reaction mode instead of reaching creatively toward solutions.” But regenerative work, which she frames as an act of love—not of guilt or anger or shame—is “creative and often surprising. Unlike the genius-in-the-garage narrative of technological breakthroughs, it entails an understanding of place and respect for community.”
So that’s the garden where we can start, and that’s what takes us to the Loess Plateau, in China.
Schwartz tells the story of the restoration of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, captured in a stunning documentary by journalist and filmmaker John Liu. The Loess Plateau is situated in North Central China, and was the place where Chinese agriculture began, 10,000 or so years ago. At the time, the area was known (and named) for its “powdery, windblown mineral-rich ‘loess’ soil.” But this very fertile soil is also highly prone to erosion if it is not protected by organic matter and plant cover. With the advent of agriculture, the land was cleared for farming and for communities to settle, which led to, annually, “one and a half billion tons of soil and sediment … flowing into the the Yellow River, causing untold damage.”
“The inescapable result,” Schwartz writes, was the same as so many other situations around the globe. An ongoing cycle of “flooding, drought, mudslides and famine.” She notes that the local residents did what they could to keep their livestock and their families alive, which of course just made a horrific situation even worse as they depleted whatever vegetation was left to try to “eke out one more harvest.” She reflects on Liu’s documentary, noting that “you can see weary farmers push near-empty wagons of dried out boughs across the dirt and jaunty-horned white goats clambering down a barren slope.”
The global entities involved in the rehabilitation project were determined to somehow restore the land. The situation had gone on long enough that even the locals had forgotten what made the land this way, saying that ‘It’s always been like this. … Trees don’t grow here. It’s too dry.'”
And then, one day, they found their answer. “One day in a small village, a young woman showed them some walnut trees. The visiting group thought this was great: a benefit to people and the environment. Then they looked down into the ravine and saw it was bursting with green.”
This was a community that had made a decision. When they first planted the seedlings, the livestock ate them. So, “they had a village meeting and decided they couldn’t have both.” They couldn’t let the sheep and goats feed on the greenery, if they hoped to grow anything at all. The village decided to sell their sheep and goats for the sake of regenerating plant growth.
The researchers learned an important lesson: Rather than focusing on what was going wrong, they learned to “Look at the positive outliers and learn from what they are doing.” This successful outlier became a model for the rest of the region. The team began to work with the villages on plans to manage livestock and also began to use pen feeding models so the sheep and goats would not free graze. They also looked at different breeds of animals that would be better suited for the environment and the needs of the land. And, they paid the villagers not to put their livestock on the slopes to feed. There was a recognition that the villagers were grazing the animals where they were because they had to survive. By compensating them to stop doing so, they provided the resources they needed to be able to feed their animals through other means. In just three years, they saw significant results of re-greening in many areas, simply by keeping the animals out of the reforesting areas.
The researcher, Juergen Voegele, observed that “One of the most important things is that everybody had underestimated the ability of an ecosystem to restore itself. That is a phenomenal lesson.”
Building on their success, the project was expanded and the team began to implement water management techniques as well as reforestation, agroforestry and revegetation measures. And they specifically designated some portions of the land as “ecological” or conserved, and others as “economic” or cultivated. They didn’t ignore the need to cultivate the land. But neither did they release all of it for that purpose, sending it back down the path of its earlier devastation. Liu noted that this “was based on an understanding that the ecological function was vastly more valuable than the production in the marginal lands.”
In the end, the land was regenerated, and 2.5 million people were lifted out of poverty. The villagers are growing fruit in orchards, and producing vegetables in greenhouses that they are able to sell in the local markets. The people are healthy, children are attending school, and incomes have doubled, in some cases more. And the cost? Around $500 million. Across the full swatch of land, and a ten year project, the cost was about $7 per acre to bring this area back from devastation in a way that is sustainable.
Schwartz writes that, “of course, the effort was human-supported. But it was nature that actually did it.” The land proved it still had the will to live. An ecosystem was regenerated. And maybe it’s something we have a way to talk about.
Photo by Ken Xu, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
We invite you to join us, and the reindeer, for this challenging exploration of possibility as the first of our winter book club selections. Our reading schedule is below:
February 3: Ch. 1-3
February 10: Ch. 4-5
February 17: Ch. 6-7
Buy The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz