[Hope in a Changing Climate]
We've done a lot to this planet to make its future habitability somewhat precarious. If printed out, the amount that has been written on the hows, whys, wherefores and whereuntos would probably itself contribute significantly to climate change. But is there a way back? Is there a path we can choose that can restore our Earth's vast areas of degraded land, that can improve food production, that can improve incomes and support economic stability? Can we find hope in a changing climate?
If you're one of the many people who has given up that hope, this documentary by environmental researcher and film-maker John D Liu may just be what you need to help you reassess the situation. If you feel you can't make a change, or you don't even care that much, perhaps you've let the blinkers drop down over your eyes. But lift them up, because all is not lost.
The example of the Loess Plateau in China - a harshly degraded area the size of Belgium - shows that it is possible to design, install and encourage passive natural systems that can restore landscapes, with effects local, distant, and possibly even global. Incomes for local people increase, quality of life increases, agricultural productivity increases, rainfall (yes, rainfall) increases - and all the while the system locks carbon up into the cycle of biology and into the very soil itself. The Loess Plateau project, funded by the World Bank Institute, has been in operation since the 1990s, and has achieved astonishing success, indicating that restoration is possible, and in the process, climate change itself can be significantly mitigated, or even reversed.
In many ways we've known the techniques for years - careful water management, minimising run-off, slowing it down, spreading it out, sinking it into the ground (thereby replenishing wells and aquifers), growing plants to shelter the soil, slow the wind, prevent evaporation - these are all well established techniques, although the permaculture techniques of putting them all together may require something more than local enthusiasm.
This is where a heavily top-down state like China can flex some muscle, but in the documentary John shows how other areas, such as Jordan, Rwanda and Ethiopia have taken steps to rebuild the paradises (yes, I did say that) that once existed where centuries of relentless exploitation have created desert.
In a recent Facebook post I cheerfully and cheekily suggested that the problems weren't all that hard, and John immediately protested that I was underestimating the challenges involved. Not for the first time in my life, my Irish sense of the ironic did not translate well onto social media. Because John is absolutely right - what needs to be done is indeed hard. And it's hard in the John F Kennedy sense, that this is why we choose to do this and the other things.
But you'll note that it's not impossible. It has been done, so it can be done. In the McKee Lexicon, something had better be damn near impossible before it earns the label "hard". So I'm going to go with "challenging". You've watched the documentary, so you'll appreciate some of these challenges. As it turns out, these are applicable to a large number of things, and as so often in life, if you want to achieve something amazing, you need to meet those challenges head on. Often planning will help, but sometimes you need to do it on the fly. But let's have a look at some of these challenges - this list is not exhaustive.
We're often limited by our lack of vision. We think that "challenging" means "impossible" - or we make it so. We lose sight of the ultimate goal - or we can't even conceive an ultimate goal. We lower our targets, we accept something less than what we really want. Lifting our vision can be hard. Even when we have a vision, we have to go out and transmit that to others, requiring communication and visualisation skills that we may have to improve.
Vision itself is pointless unless you also have a plan for achieving it. Many ideal scenarios founder on the rocks of reality because you can't get there from here. However, very often what is required is thoughtful study of the problem and, with the appropriate application of our acquired knowledge, we can plot a path to where we want to get to. As Matt Damon's character Astronaut Mark Watney in the blockbuster movie "The Martian" puts it, "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this." More prosaically, in the Loess Plateau, the designers put forward the solution of placing a "hat" of trees at the tops of the hills, a "coat" of terraces on the slopes, and "shoes" of dams in the run-off channels. A design-based solution, and a brilliant metaphor to tie that design to the vision, allowing the highly-sceptical residents to relate to what they were being asked to buy into.
$300M is not to be sniffed at - that was the grant awarded by the World Bank Institute, and a considerable amount was injected by the Chinese Government, and I imagine some other NGOs were involved too. Paying for land, labour, compensation, equipment, plants and seeds and many other items - you could argue for an area of that size it's pretty cheap, but you don't come up with that sort of cash without some serious commitment. And you don't come up with that sort of cash unless you can also sell the vision in point 1. You need fiscally-minded people who are committed to the project. You need due diligence and careful financial governance. You need transparency, equity and the prospect of paying back your investors.
Here's where the Loess Plateau job got really hard. The people who had lived in and farmed this ravaged land for centuries had to gang together and put in some serious work. This is not a trivial thing. John's film shows how they grabbed tools and physically dug the terraces out of the steep slopes. How, with the aid of skilful landscape designers (operating at a level far beyond the small-scale garden designers we employ to beautify our back yards and neighbourhoods), they planted trees, fenced off areas from livestock, built dams to check water flow - this was civil engineering on a massive and truly civil scale. They had to be paid, and (perhaps crucially) paid better than they could make from farming the land as before.
You can't achieve change overnight. The Loess Plateau has taken almost 20 years to regenerate to its current state, but (and this is the important point) it's still changing, still improving. Like an ion drive rocket engine, the acceleration rate is slow, but it's steady and prolonged and keeps building. The important thing is to set out in the right direction and commit to spending that time to get things right.
There are of course many other challenges, and as you can see, the ones I've listed aren't even mutually exclusive. Is there one principle which is paramount? Perhaps. This gets back to my exchange with John D Liu - it's VISION. Vision should be easy, right? It should be straightforward to explain the benefits of change to people, and they'll jump on board, and all those other issues will get sorted out along the way, right?
Vision is hard. Vision is so susceptible to the corrosion of cynical small-mindedness, failures along the way, direct opposition, fatigue. But it's also exquisitely rewarding. We need people to grasp the vision, to get out there, and to transmit it. It needs to be a meme infecting other brains. And it's the meme that, if successful, might just save civilisation, restore lands to productivity, and lift people out of poverty.
As it turns out, terraforming the Loess Plateau can be easier than changing the landscape between our ears.