Monday, July 23, 2012

Regenerative Ecology: A Look Ahead

Over the upcoming months I hope to address a few related topics on this blog. Since I expect to be fairly busy, and I feel the internet is already a dumping ground with loads of low-quality information, my goal is going to be quality over quantity. But I wanted to give a sense of what this project is supposed to be all about, assuming yours truly keeps himself on track :)

1) The origins, ecology, and evolution of grasslands and ruminant animals. I will briefly cover the relevant biology of grasses and ruminant animals, and then discuss the changing extent and nature of grasslands over the ages, and their present significance. Since grasslands account for 25-33% of the earth's terrestrial surface, it's important to understand the basics of how they function, contribute to biodiversity, and provide invaluable "ecosystem services" to our species.

2) The role of ruminant livestock in agriculture from a national and global perspective. I will consider how ruminant animals contribute to nutrient cycling on organic farms, the maintenance and health of grasslands and rangelands, and the human food supply. We will consider the common environmentalist objections to ruminant animals. In particular, I will focus on the methane production of ruminant animals: Why does it happen? How much of it is released? How does livestock husbandry affect methane production?  What are the global sources and sinks?

3) A detailed look at the global carbon cycle, including a layman's primer on ecosystem carbon storage, and other sequestration strategies. The goal is to understand how land management can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

4) Exploration of the subject of resilience and sustainability. What does it mean for landscapes, and ecosystems? For human economies? How does politics help or hinder? What can we do to foster resilience in our own lives and communities? I will argue against many of the common assumptions about sustainability, green development, permaculture and so on.


So what is "regenerative ecology" anyways?

I suggested a partial answer in my first post. It wasn't a very good explanation though. I think that the answer to this question will become clear as I address the above issues. Nevertheless, a few more words may be in order.

Our civilization has been under-written by relatively cheap, abundant fossil energy since the industrial revolution. I take this to be axiomatic. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism, excesses of capitalism, foolish decision-making and other politico-economic forces have encouraged exploitation rather than wise stewardship of natural resources and capital. So far, we've done a good job at insulating ever growing numbers of people from the condition of ecosystems on which we all depend, but this too has been facilitated by cheap energy.

 Consider agriculture.Yields have risen, even as natural capital has literally been eroding into the sea:
-Global agriculture produces several tons of eroded topsoil for every ton of food produced
-Industrialized intensified agriculture (such as in the US), uses between 5-12 kcals of fossil energy for every kcal of food energy yielded
-Global agriculture has become a net sink of energy, rather than a net producer 

The consequences of this pattern of development are numerous:
-Despite record yields, more and more people go hungry
-Nutrient export into oceans creates hypoxic zones
-Loss of carbon from topsoils depletes long-term fertility and soil quality, and contributes to global warming
-Human health suffers from the over-production commodity crops for the processed food industry

At the same time, the outlook for global energy supplies appears tight, to put it mildly. The consequence is rising prices for everything.

We can do things differently! We can rely on ecosystem services, and sunlight energy. Again, agriculture is the most tractable example. It should
-build soil fertility rather than deplete it
-conserve or restore biodiversity rather than imperil it
- be a net yielder of energy, rather than a net sink

I don't want to be glib about this transition. Indeed, that's why I'm writing this blog. But if we want to rely increasingly on natural ecosystem processes and agroecosystems for our necessities and goods, we cannot just talk about sustaining them; in many cases, we have to regenerate them! This is analogous to politics, where we need to eschew "lesser of two evil" choices, and start supporting things that are actually part of the "solution matrix".

This means that excellent land stewardship has to become the norm, and not the exception.

So, broadly speaking, I define "regenerative ecology" as the application of ecological sciences towards the aim of regenerating ecosystem health while returning a yield to their human inhabitants and managers.

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