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Time To Flip the Ocean Script — From Victim to Solution

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By Virginia Gewin

The ocean was once thought too immense to fail, until bleached coral reefs, ocean acidification and depleted fisheries transformed it into what seemed a hopeless, depleted victim.

Now the ocean is primed for a new role, with emerging evidence pointing to a more hopeful narrative that the ocean offers untapped climate, food security and economic recovery solutions.

That’s the case being made by Jane Lubchenco, former administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who spoke Sept. 23 at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ virtual conference.

Former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco spoke about the future of oceans at SEJ’s virtual 2020 conference on Sept. 23.

At a workshop on oceans, climate and the 2020 election, Lubchenco pointed to the work of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a diverse partnership of heads of state, including 14 world leaders, prime ministers and presidents — representing 30% of the world’s coastlines and 20% of the world’s fisheries — who have committed to transition to a sustainable ocean economy.

The panel has published an analysis that highlighted five ocean-based options able to meaningfully decrease global carbon emissions:

  • ocean-based renewable energy (wind and wave)
  • decarbonization of ocean-based transport
  • conservation of existing blue carbon in coastal and marine ecosystems
  • shifting of diets to sea-based protein
  • carbon storage in the seabed (the only option that requires further study)

Implementing all five actions could deliver roughly 20% of the greenhouse gas emission cuts needed by 2050 to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the panel’s analysis.

“Most of the international climate policy world focuses on land-based mitigation — transportation, buildings, energy generation,” Lubchenco told the virtual workshop participants. “The ocean has been out of sight, out of mind; based on this analysis, it needs to be squarely at the table.”

 

Future of food from the sea

Lubchenco further highlighted how ocean-based food security is on the rise. The 2006 overhaul of fisheries reform, she noted, is one of the least appreciated environmental success stories of the last few decades. In 2000, there were 92 overfished stocks; by 2019, that number had been slashed to 46.

“It is possible to end overfishing,” Lubchenco said. In addition, as of 2019, 47 stocks had been rebuilt amid a 21% increase in catch.

The ocean panel also looked at the future of food from the sea to publish a white paper (and subsequent peer-reviewed Nature study) that calculated the ocean could supply over six times more food than it does today — as a result of fisheries reforms as well as aquaculture, namely for bivalves such as mussels, oysters and clams.

To that end, Lubchenco mentioned an innovative new partnership among 10 top global companies called SeaBOS, or Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship, which is working to realize sustainable seafood production.

 

Report suggests big payoffs to ocean investments

Pivoting to how the ocean offers opportunities for an equitable, sustainable blue recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic, she noted that the ocean panel released a report in September detailing how investments in coastal restoration, seaweed or bivalve aquaculture, sewerage for coastal communities, renewable energy and zero-emission marine transport could pay off five-fold.

‘The ocean is so central to our health, prosperity and well-being, it’s too big to ignore.’

— Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA administrator

“The ocean is so central to our health, prosperity and well-being, it’s too big to ignore,” said Lubchenco.

She added a teaser for the Dec. 3 release of the ocean panel’s final report and a major policy announcement. Interested journalists can register for a Dec. 1 embargoed press conference by contacting Lauren Zelin of the World Resources Institute.

Later in the SEJ workshop, Lubchenco fielded questions on a range of topics including the scientific integrity of NOAA, the future of aquaculture, greater protections for marine reserves and U.S. readiness for sea level rise.

Ocean-related actions to mitigate climate change. Image: High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. Click to enlarge.

Asked to comment on the appointment and nomination of climate change deniers to key posts at NOAA, she expressed grave concern.

“When there are people in high-level positions that have the power to suppress, cherry-pick or distort information, it undermines the confidence Americans can have in NOAA,” Lubchenco said. Scientific progress, she noted, requires dissent or thinking out of left field, but it must be credible.

“The people nominated and appointed recently are not even in left field, they are miles from the ballpark,” Lubchenco  said, adding they posed a real threat to the nation.

She encouraged journalists to stay alert and file FOIAs to unearth any shenanigans that might be playing out.

 

Aquaculture needs clearer governance

Lubchenco also highlighted the status of aquaculture. Fish farming — specifically aquaculture that must be fed, such as salmon — continues to face significant environmental challenges.

In recent years there has been progress to reduce the amount of wild-capture fish needed to feed carnivorous farmed fish, she noted, but it is not yet considered sustainable.

Fish farms have also made modest improvements in dealing with diseases and waste. Lubchenco argued there’s so much more potential and so many fewer problems with bivalve aquaculture — for example, mussels, oysters, clams — because they feed on plankton in the water.

“The future, especially with climate change, will be on non-fed species,” added Lubchenco.

That said, she highlighted how it’s become clear that there is ambiguity over which federal agencies have the authority to manage aquaculture in federal waters — specifically to what extent the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that governs fisheries, also applies to aquaculture.

 

‘We are not well prepared at all for

sea level rise, as a nation or as a world.’

— Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA administrator

 

In the end, Lubchenco predicts Congress will have to weigh in and create a law to govern aquaculture.

Lastly, Lubchenco responded bluntly to a question from Portland-based journalist Lee van der Voo, about U.S. preparedness for sea level rise.

“We are not well prepared at all for sea level rise, as a nation or as a world,” she warned. While some states — notably California and New York — are addressing the issue, Lubchenco said the country needs to take parallel actions to mitigate the consequences of sea level rise in parallel with rapid efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And to that end, she added, “we need federal government that is enabling that to happen, not preventing it from happening and not making it worse.”

The workshop was moderated by Robert McClure, co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest, and an on-demand video is available to registered conference goers on the #SEJ2020 Whova app. Plus, check out this page of additional links and resources.

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist based in the Pacific Northwest who covers climate change, agriculture, conservation and diversity in STEM. Her work has appeared in Nature, Science, Discover, Popular Science, Washington Post, Modern Farmer, Portland Monthly and many others. Follow her on Twitter at @VirginiaGewin.


Source: Society for environmental Journalists

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The Big Water and Fisheries Power Grab

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The dynamics playing out in international, regional, and local fisheries policies show striking similarities to processes of land and resource grabbing observed in other contexts over recent decades. However, public awareness of these issues is far lower. There is an acute crisis of marine and aquatic resources and most policy solutions ignore or actively exclude small scale fishers who rely on access to these resources for their livelihoods.

TNI works at a number of levels to expose fisheries and environmental policies negatively affecting small-scale fishers. We work with movements to develop analyses, defend the rights of small-scale fishers, and support them when participating in key policy-making spaces.

Source: Transnational Institute

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Fukushima Daiichi, revisited

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The Big Picture: March 11, 2011 was the date when the “not credible” destruction of a key part of Fukushima Daiichi power plant suddenly became very credible indeed, due to a massive earthquake.  The land for many kilometers around had to be evacuated.  Now it’s 10 years later.  Billions have been spent, whole towns are still deserted, and all they have to show for it are some hardy robots and… no long term plan to clean up the waste.  We’ve seen 10 years of band-aids slapped on a problem that could last a millenia.  Ugh.

By Dan Franco

For The Record: Look, there is no TECHNICAL problem with nukes.  The science really is settled, and there really do exist safe ways to handle nuclear power.  None of them are even remotely affordable, profitable, or can be trusted to be managed by the stupid, stupid people who run them.  That’s the core of the problem: the people involved.  See for example Texas, just a few weeks ago, when their nuke-u-ler power industry, managed by the best and brightest, with all the latest bells and whistles of technology, was entirely defeated in 2 days flat by… snow.  By SNOW.  They had no plan for snow, falling from the sky.

These are the same people who tell us they have plans for the safe storage of waste that will protect human, plant, and animal life for the next several thousand years.  Riiiiiigghhht!   I so want to believe them.  I do.  But Davis Besse happened, right where I grew up.  It was “not credible” that a reactor made from 6” of thick steel could be breached.  Then it happened.  Three Mile Island happened, 2 states away.  And I watched on TeeVee as the entire eastern seaboard lost its’ damn mind, until the reactor mess was stopped in barely the nick of time.  On and on… over and over.  Everywhere on the planet where there are nuke plants, there are cost overruns, optimistic promises, folly, near misses; and disasters. 

Enough.  We’ve had 8 decades of BS now.  It’s time to admit that there is no future for this technology, at any price point.  

The real point of this posting isn’t so much about the Fukushima tragedy, though it was a damn shame.  It’s about how right here at home, we have so many plants and so much waste with no idea about how to manage their after-effects for the long term.  It’s simply not fair for example, that people who are not yet born, will be paying to de-commission the Diablo Canyon nuke plant 3 generations from now.  But that’s the deal our venal and corrupt politicians have set up for SoCal residents.  

Speaking of Southern California, how many of my readers there are aware that you reside near 73 possible Chernobyl-sized explosions?  The odds are not huge that they might pop off, but are far from zero.  And as time goes on, within your lifetime, the odds go up to nearly 100%.  I’ll post some slides here from the group Public Watchdogs to help clarify why you should give a sh** about this pending disaster.  And why the NRC, and plant operators are acting with the same arrogance, hubris, and incompetence as the leaders at Fukushima right up until the day the earthquake exposed them as the fools they really were.  Their foolish choices practically guarantee a terrible outcome for you and yours.  It’s high time to bring this industry to heel, starting with the failed plant at San Onofre, (aka SONGS).  

Credit for the data below goes to Public Watchdogs, a salty bunch of hippy enviro-tree huggers, such as Stuart Scott, Paul Blanch, and Charles Langley.  Oh wait, none of them are hippies, this group just happens to be made up entirely of folks that made their careers in Nuclear Power and became whistleblowers out of disgust and anger.  Some of them wrote the very rules the NRC is now breaking.  Huh.  

It is exactly because of Climate Change and sea level rise that I am opposed to nukes.  Anybody who tells you that nuke plants are the only solution to our petroleum addiction is lying to you.  Most all plants are built just like San Onofre – – right next to a body of water.  Those same plants are now all imperiled by rising waters, but every current model tosses out any rosy scenarios.  The only credible scenarios on the table now show our coastal areas hit and hit hard, within a decade or so.  It’s no longer a theoretical problem, no longer a can we could just kick down the road for our heirs.  The risk is real and effectively could happen tomorrow.  Given how long it takes to get bureaucrats to change course, it’s practically too late already for San Onofre.  

73 grain silo-sized tubes of waste sit, about 100’-0” from the ocean shore, ready to blow at any time.  The folks in charge say it’s “not credible” that they could fail, but we’ve heard that nonsense before, haven’t we?  Their system depends on helium staying sealed in the tubes, but has no way to check or refill them if it leaks.  You know, Helium, the 2nd lightest atom, one known for its famous property of staying close to the ground…

Their backup plan relies on air circulating around the tubes.  Which is a great plan, until those tubes are flooded out, and those same air ducts become plumbing.  Heck, even then, they say, no problem!  There’s a wall!  (That wall is merely 10’-0” high).  If water comes in, then the mud will act as an insulator.  They don’t mention that there will be no way to then even access, let alone test the tubes for safety if that happens.  This is the part where I remind readers that *each* tube has more radioactive Cesium in them than what Chernobyl released.  So if the worst happens in SoCal, (an earthquake or tsunami waves),  and you happen to survive them, don’t sit around patting yourself on the back.  Get the heck out of dodge, because ole’ SONGS will be about to sing it’s swan song.  And that’s one finale you don’t want to experience.  


The SONGS plant is located midway between LA and La Jolla, CA

 


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What to Do When the World is on Fire

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But in December 2019, the Dorrigo escarpment, along with the rest of the country’s south-east, was shrouded in the thick smoke of Australia’s worst bushfire season on record. Rainforests were burning that had never known flames before. ‘Megafires’ was suddenly a household term.

Never mind – we were in one of the wettest parts of the entire continent, adamant that there were still swims to be had, beauty to be enjoyed and peace to be felt.

In the red-tinted afternoon light, we pulled over to ask an old farmer the way to a campsite. He opened the gate to his riverside cow paddock and invited us to pitch our tent there. I was touched that this kind of generosity and trust between strangers still persists – once you get away from the big cities, at least.

Despite the blackened leaves and long strips of charred bark that rained down on us from the oppressive, bruise-yellow cloud of smoke that filled the sky, we had a sweet time in that paddock – making dinner, looking for platypus in the river and telling stories in the tent at dusk.

Then, our hearts skipped a beat. We watched through the flyscreen as the faint orange glow on the horizon suddenly combusted, sending a plume of magenta flames into the sky. We could hear the roar as the blaze consumed the entire mountainside to the south-west in a matter of seconds. Left with little choice, we hurriedly packed up our tents and drove oceanward. I will not forget the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and utter inadequacy I felt as we said goodbye to the generous old farmer, who chose to stay and defend his home.

As a nature-lover and lifelong birdwatcher, that feeling echoed a greater despair. This planet and her kaleidoscope of species have given me so much – provided me so generously with food for the body, mind and spirit. And yet, in the face of anthropogenic climate change, can I do nothing but panic and watch her go up in flames in my rear-view mirror?  

Unfortunately, this story does not pertain only to Australia. In 2020, Siberia, Indonesia, Brazil and Argentina all experienced their worst wildfires in decades, and the Western USA is currently in the throes of an unprecedented inferno. My heart goes out to all those countless humans and non-humans who have lost their homes and their lives.

It also goes out to all the young people in the world who justifiably fear for their future. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change informed us that we have no more than twelve years left to limit climate change to avoid untold catastrophe. As young people, how can we possibly open ourselves up to this suggestion, while retaining enough hope to work for change? The new megafire reality now incites me and my partner to question our dreams of moving to the bush and building a little house – is it now a reckless decision to leave the concrete insulation the city affords, and live a life in Nature? For others, like the Thora Valley farmer (and the rest of the rural half of humanity), is it a reckless decision to stay in their homelands and maintain land-based ways of living? Should we all accept a destiny of total urbanisation, turning our backs on a burning world in favour of the climate-controlled “smart city”?

Most global business-leaders would not hesitate to answer an emphatic ‘yes’ to that question. After all, many of them expressly believe that our species is destined to dwell in the realm of robots, internet, spaceships and ultra-modern megapolises, and not in the realm of forests, small farms, koalas and riverine swimming holes. In the fantasies of Google’s Ray Kurzweil, our food will come from “AI-controlled vertical buildings” and include “in-vitro cloned meat”. In the not-so-humble opinion of Tesla’s Elon Musk, building a city on Mars is “the critical thing for maximizing the life of humanity”, even as Earth’s cities will soon require “30 layers of tunnels” to relieve congestion.

And it’s not just the tech bros who paint this kind of future-vision. Much of the environmental movement is on board with it, too. In the crude belief that humanity needs to consume ever more energy, they are pushing “Green” policy packages and Corporate Social Responsibility programs that will plaster fertile soil with solar panels and pave mountaintops to accommodate wind turbines. Our governments are investing in huge, power-hungry technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, while geo-engineers propose bleaching the stratosphere with sulphur dioxide to reflect infrared sunlight away from the Earth. Environmental spokespeople are promoting lab-grown food as a solution to the nightmare of industrial agriculture. So-called ‘progressive’ think-tanks envision a climate-deranged world in which humanity has “adapted” by moving into polar latitudes and building megacities with populations 2.5 times denser than Manila (today’s densest metropolis), while importing energy and raw materials from the abandoned tropics and subtropics.

I implore all my fellow young nature-lovers and activists to consciously reject – wholesale – the corporate-led, techno-globalist future we are being sold. Such suggestions represent yet another extension of the reductionist thinking and scientific hubris that originally justified exploitation of the biosphere – it’s what got us into this mess in the first place. Tech-based “solutions” are still failing to curb emissions and unsustainable consumption, even as they guzzle more resources and damage more ecosystems in order to operate. Moreover, they are fundamentally about enabling the continuation of a gargantuan global economy that can’t even serve our own wellbeing, let alone that of the animals and ecosystems we love.

We’ve already seen how economic globalisation undermines livelihoods and drives competition for ever-scarcer jobs, while exploiting workers and resources. We’ve felt the depression and stress it causes, as it rips apart community fabric and pressures us to compete at school and in the workplace. We’re angry at the way it creates enormous wealth for the few at the expense of the many, and perpetuates the deep racial, cultural and economic injustices that are embedded in the colonial roots of the global economy. We’ve felt the emptiness of the consumer culture, suffered the serious health effects of the addictions in which it entraps us, and experienced the isolation and competitive rat-race of life in big cities.

We need to overcome the serious delusion that industrial modernity is the only way. The toxic cocktail of corporate globalisation, high-tech development and urbanisation is not inevitable, and it cannot offer any meaningful solution to the crises it has created.

What to do then?

Move onto the land, fight fire and pray that we too don’t go up in flames?

Well, not quite. We have to go beyond the “fighting” response: the kind of response that saw Australian authorities bomb forests with thousands of tonnes of toxic fire-retardants and thousands of gallons of seawater last summer. This added insult to injury, poisoning the already-vulnerable waterways, ecologies and human communities. No – we cannot simply invest in more machines, technologies and large-scale infrastructure to fight Nature.

A very different response is needed – one that is holistic, systemic, creative and actually works alongside natural processes, rather than against them. We are called to wake up to humanity’s potential to heal the Earth: to restore her ecosystems, rebuild her soils, retain freshwater and draw down carbon.

This means getting over the myopic idea that humanity can only leave a destructive footprint on the Earth – an idea that depressed and paralysed me when I was a teenager, and continues to torment too many nature-lovers. Let’s open our eyes to the majority of human cultures – including and especially indigenous Australian ones – that have consistently enriched the biosphere. As ground-breaking books like Dark Emu and Fire Country reveal, indigenous people have been improving ecological health and abundance for millennia, by observing and listening to the ecosystems they inhabit, and altering them with small-scale agriculture and locally-sensitive resource-management.

Fundamental to the deep ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures are localised, land-based economies, in which human flourishing is directly tied to local ecological abundance. Similarly, by localising our economies in the modern world, we can re-embed economy in ecology. We can set our resources (including our technological genius) to the task of maximising ecological regeneration while simultaneously meeting all the needs of local communities. Homo sapiens can once again become Earth-healers.

Systemic localisation = widespread regeneration

For as long as I can remember, I have been searching for informed hope in light of the ecological crisis. My journey has been guided by author, environmentalist and alternative economist Helena Norberg-Hodge and her organisation Local Futures, whose 2011 documentary ‘The Economics of Happiness’ relieved me of the crippling idea that human flourishing and ecological wellbeing are separate, mutually-exclusive goals. It explained how localisation is a “solution-multiplier” that rebuilds intimate, reciprocal relations between people, and between people and ecosystems.

Localising our food systems, in particular, is the single most meaningful solution to climate breakdown. Sound like a big claim? Hear me out.

Most environmentalists are familiar with the fact that current agricultural practices are destructive on many levels. In the globalised food system, enormous quantities of uniform commodities are grown on vast, resource- and chemical-intensive monocultures and managed by fossil fuel-hungry agricultural machinery. Animals are raised in highly toxic and polluting factory farms. Harvests are flown around the world and back again just to be processed, packaged and sold. Soils are left bare and deadened, vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain. Farmers and farm workers are subjected to conditions constituting modern-day slavery. All told, this food system is currently responsible for up to half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, as well as an immeasurable amount of deforestation, soil degradation, water consumption and biodiversity loss.

Localisation flips this madness on its head. By localising, we prioritise the production of a diversity of foods, fibres and medicines for local markets, stimulating a seismic increase in agricultural biodiversity. Farms come to act like natural ecosystems, returning organic matter to the soil and thereby boosting its carbon sequestration potential. Preliminary studies suggest that, if instituted on all the world’s cultivated and pasture land, such agricultural systems could sequester over 100% of current global carbon emissions, while producing many more times (some studies show as much as 20 times) the amount of food per acre.

And the benefits go far beyond just carbon drawdown. Agroecological farming techniques bring the land back to life. Watch Allan Savory’s talk to see how regenerative grazing of cows, goats and sheep has greened vast swathes of desertifying lands in Africa, or this video of how it has brought back endangered species in the UK. Or investigate the story of Ernst Götsch in Brazil, who was able to revive fourteen dry springs, reforest hundreds of hectares, and bring about more rainfall and cooler temperatures in his microregion by mimicking the ecological succession of the surrounding forest, all while producing abundant food and lumber.

How can farming possibly affect rainfall? The increased tree cover in diversified farms can seed the formation of clouds and reinforce wind patterns that bring the rain. And rebuilding soil turns it into a sponge for water, allowing rain to penetrate and refill aquifers, and soak into vegetation. Many small-scale farming systems also integrate water-retention landscapes, like community-managed percolation ponds, swales and wetland areas, which recharge groundwater and sustain rivers and springs. We should not underestimate the importance of these effects, especially since dried up lands and depleted aquifers (thanks again in large part to industrial, globalised agriculture) was a central condition for both Australia and the USA’s unprecedented fire seasons.

There are still other forms of restoration and resilience that human beings can gift to their landscapes. As traditional fire practitioner Victor Steffensen details in Fire Country, indigenous custodians on this continent have worked with fire for many thousands of years, both to protect against wildfires and to actively enhance ecosystems. (Again, this parallels the situation in North America, where First Nations people also work with fire to both of these ends.) They burn off dry shrubs, weeds, dead grasses and leaf litter in order to make way for new shoots to emerge and seeds to germinate. They burn slowly, coolly and in a piecemeal fashion (allowing animals to escape), making sure not to damage the canopy. They draw upon deep, intergenerational knowing of the land to choose the right times and places to burn, avoiding nesting seasons for ground-dwelling birds and fruiting seasons of key food sources. This is a hands-on approach, which aims not only to protect human beings, but to increase the biodiversity and life-giving capacity of entire ecosystems.

Let me stress why the broader framework of economic localisation is so important for the needed revolution in agriculture and resource-management: all such methods need to be small in scale, slow in pace, and managed carefully by human hands. Diversified farms cannot be sowed or harvested by blind, standardising machinery – they require the intimate care and sensitive cultivation that only human hands can offer. Similarly, practices like traditional fire management require more time – more hands and eyes per acre. Economic localisation is a structural way to incentivise and revive this kind of small-scale, hands-on, job-rich, community-centred activity.

The cohesive fabric of local communities is, in and of itself, a form of social and ecological resilience – a force that can be mobilised to protect against natural disaster. In the Nimbin area of north-east New South Wales (a hotspot for intentional local communities), the Mt. Nardi bushfire threatened many homes and burnt through swathes of World Heritage protected Gondwanan rainforest. But the fire was contained thanks to a self-organised group of local eco-villagers, cooperative members and farmers called ‘the Community Defenders’.

“Without the [Community Defenders’] work we would not have contained this fire” stated one fire brigade driver. “Man oh man, they stepped up in such a way that all of us in uniform were just completely blown away,” praised the Captain, noting: “these communities are already intentional communities; there’s already that fabric that exists there. I’m not too sure how that might work in a different area, where there are private leaseholds and people don’t know their neighbours as well.”

The Key Piece of the Puzzle

‘Mitigation’, ‘adaptation’, ‘resilience’ and ‘regeneration’ – these have become buzzwords in the environmental movement, and are increasingly present in policy discussions. But the key piece of the puzzle is left out far too often: any genuine climate solution requires more hands on the land.

This doesn’t mean that you and I must quit our jobs, leave our social circles and move out to some rural backwater to start planting trees and growing our own food. While there are indeed countless brave young people doing that kind of pioneering work, we really need policy frameworks that facilitate localisation so that it’s not a constant uphill battle. This means policies that:

  • make local food, clothing and building materials cheaper and more accessible than produce from the other side of the world,
  • revitalise life in smaller cities and towns by providing good quality jobs, exciting education and cultural opportunities,
  • shorten the distances between producer and consumer wherever possible, to allow more transparent, more accountable and more democratic economies,
  • encourage small-scale, diversified production for local markets, rather than large-scale commodity production for export.

We could support the reconstruction of local, diversified economies in rural areas, while linking cities up with regional producers of basic needs. We could stop supporting globalised systems of production run by unaccountable corporations, and start investing in smaller businesses that are structurally able to adapt to local conditions, to participate in circular economies and to respect community relationships. This would mean redirecting economic subsidies, taxes and regulations away from supporting energy and technology, and towards favouring employment. For example:

  • Instead of spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on leasing enormous water-bombing aircraft from foreign companies, we could employ people to carry out traditional burns, under the supervision of indigenous experts.
  • With half the amount of money that currently subsidises Big Ag, we could support farmers to transition to regenerative practices, and fund the establishment of many more small farms.
  • Instead of pouring money into infrastructure for ever more global trade, we could strengthen local supply chains and rebuild the much lighter infrastructure needed for local markets and small businesses – think railways, post offices, public market spaces.
  • Instead of signing “free trade” treaties that give multinationals still more freedom to do whatever they please, we could start reregulating them, while cutting the red tape and bureaucracy that too often strangles smaller players and community projects.

Just a couple of years ago, the very idea of policy change would have put off a lot of people (especially younger people). Back then, mainstream environmental and social justice messaging still focused on changing individual behaviours. But I am encouraged to see, on social media and in conversation with my peers, that there has been a marked shift. We are increasingly using our imaginations to reach beyond the depressing confines of neoliberal capitalism and industrial modernity, and we are realising we have a collective democratic muscle to exercise. More than ever, we are up for the challenge of taking on systems change.

I therefore propose that our most urgent task is to envision land-based futures, and to demand that political steps be taken to realise them. Imagine: empowered and responsive communities and more small businesses meet water-retentive and flood-resilient landscapes, informed land-management, biodiverse farms and enlivening ecosystems. These elements can intersect to form the fabric of our future; a fabric that can hold us in safety and profound optimism, even as the spectre of climate change looms.  

This goes far beyond transitioning the current global economy to renewables; if we’re honest with ourselves, we know our love for Nature goes much deeper than that. It envisions human societies reintegrated into the natural world, sustained by food forests and holistically managed ecosystems, powered by small-scale, community-owned renewables. It blurs the line between the wild and the cultivated, between the human and the non-human, between the individual and the universe.

A latent capacity for healing

Over the months since the rains finally came and extinguished the fires, one of my greatest joys has been to witness the incredible regenerative capacity of burnt forests. With water at their roots, the blackened bodies of eucalypt and banksia, paperbark and bloodwood burst into bright pink and green leafy shoots. Grasstrees and ferns sprang from the ashy ground. Forests turned from sombre graveyards to vibrant palaces of chlorophyll, and lyrebirds could still be found scratching through the slowly regenerating soil.

My solace is that we humans – even the scientists among us – cannot fully understand the incredible regenerative capacity of our planet. Therefore, we can hold out hope that the dire scientific models and predictions of the future are not the full picture. I believe, if we shift our global economic system towards a plurality of systems that support the hands-on cultivation and renewal of ecosystems, and if we shift our cultures towards Earth-reverence rather than Earth-oppression, we can have faith that Mother Earth may move in surprising ways to rebalance the global climate and support life. Dare I say, she actually wants to do so.

If that sounds naïve, remember that scientific hubris has always been ecological enemy number one – we thought Nature was mechanical and predictable, able to be dissected, predicted and manipulated. But now, even science is moving in a more holistic direction. We are learning that things as tiny as atoms are fundamentally unpredictable – in the words of Rupert Sheldrake, they have an innate freedom. Surely then, so do ecosystems, ocean currents and weather systems.

Indigenous people the world over tell of conscious powers embedded in mountains, rivers, forests and seas. What if moving beyond the dire scientific predictions of out-of-control ecological death-spirals and climate timebombs, and collectively dedicating ourselves to a more beautiful future, could incite these powers to reawaken? We have never understood the true complexity of the living world. By stepping into that humility, and by embodying faith in the untold power and intentionality of Mother Earth to support life, we may just release a cascade of regenerative power that we scarcely dare to imagine.

After the fires, I was humbled to see how some trees exploded into new shoots after a week or two, while others of the same species and in the same areas took months. The complexity and uniqueness of all the life around us denies reductionist categorisation – we simply cannot fully understand the nature of Nature.

What we can do, however, is to raise the call for an economics of humility; an economics that respects the diversity and dynamic flows of the natural world; an economics of localisation. We can work to deconstruct the “invisible hand” of the global techno-economic juggernaut, and make it release its death grip from Nature’s throat. In the humbled understanding that the Earth has what it takes to flourish, we can put our own hands to work in bringing her back to life.

If we do these things, we can believe in a future of expanding rainforests, flowing rivers, diverse species and a stable climate. We can believe in a world without famine or drought, without systemic violence or economic injustice. In the words of Charles Eisenstein, we can believe in the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Source: Local Futures

Photo: Henry Coleman

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