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Will the Circle Be Unbroken


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 epidemic brought us great sadness – more than 50,000 people died from the disease – and dire circumstances: as of April 23, 2020, the Department of Labor released data showing that 26 million Americans had filed for unemployment insurance since the coronavirus pandemic brought the U.S. economy to a standstill five weeks ago. It brought isolation, “sheltering in place,” to further prevent the spread of this highly contagious, life-threatening disease and a concomitant slow down of the economy. Some people are overworked, i.e., health care professionals, and many others have no work. The pandemic has cost lives and livelihoods.

This state of “limbo” gave us time to think about a lot of things, especially how the economy is not working well for people in the service sector, who work for far less than a “living wage.” Celebrating Earth Day us gave a momentous opportunity to consider how we affect the planet and how we could do things differently in a more earth-friendly way that could reduce a lot of environmental problems, grow healthier food, have a healthier population, support small businesses and local farmers, create more jobs with businesses that don’t rely on abusing or destroying the environment, and reduce pollution and waste. That seems like a tall order, but a few changes to the way we do things can result in a lot of benefits for everyone.

Cleaner Environment
During Earth Day month, we saw serendipitous, positive environmental consequences. Sharp reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution caused by coronavirus-related lockdowns offered a preview of environmental improvements that can be made when definitive action is taken. With less air travel and auto commuter traffic, we burned less fossil fuels and our air got cleaner – rapidly. And cleaner air means healthier breathing for people, especially with a respiratory disease pandemic at work. Some waterways also got cleaner.

Less driving brought oil to its lowest prices that we’ve ever seen, showing the strong impact consumer behavior can have on the economy, as well as the environment. This also gave us pause to consider cleaner forms of energy, e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, as well as energy efficiency, that we could have already put in place.

Managing Trash
But we still had plenty of trash. As Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch sings, “Oh, we love TRASH!” Anything dirty or dingy or dusty; Anything ragged or rotten or rusty…” You’d think we have all turned into Oscar the Grouch, judging by all the trash we throw on the roadsides. It’s difficult to drive anywhere without seeing a lot of trash! But do we consider where all that trash ends up? It definitely doesn’t all degrade and much of it gets washed into ditches, streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. For example, when the Mississippi River flooded in Memphis in 2019, WREG Channel 3 reported on Feb. 28, 2019: “Parts of downtown's waterfront look more like a sewer than a river. Trash and debris is piling up along the shoreline. Stuff like plastic bottles and broken tree limbs.” [link to the full story:]

National Geographic magazine and others have profiled the global problem with trash, as well as our recycling problem since China has stopped receiving most of the U.S.’s “recycling” trash stream. Take a look at National Geographic’s June, 2018 article on plastics, “Planet or Plastic?”

Sierra magazine offered “Trash Talk” in its July/August 2019 issue, about the problem of plastic and plastic bags in its July/August 2019 issue.

What does this tell you about the economy? A linear economy based on creating more and more “stuff,” especially single use – or no use – items that eventually become trash is a highly inefficient economy. Next time you grocery shop, pay attention to all the packaging you purchase, and the bag you carry it home in, which you will simply throw away when you get home. You are literally buying trash, and then you have to pay a trash company to haul it away. And for those who don’t pay to haul it away, it ends up on streets, lawns, and lots of other places.

Rather than returning to normal, the time is ripe for planning an alternative economy that will protect the planet on which we depend for life, and offer greater benefits in a more equitable way.

Circular Economy
In National Geographic’s article “The End of Trash” (March 2020), author Laura Parker notes: “Every year we transform more than 100 billion tons of raw material into products. But less than a quarter becomes buildings, cars, or other long-lasting products. Less than 10 percent cycles back into the economy. But two-thirds of the material flowing through the economy gets emitted as pollution or otherwise scattered or disposed of as waste. What’s her answer to this enormous problem? A circular economy, with the ultimate goal of eliminating waste because it uses waste as a resource. It was presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 by Marc de Wit [see Circle Economy:]. In the article Parker explores how several categories of materials could be brought into the circular economy.

In their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle, authors architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart argued that products and economic processes could be designed such that all waste becomes fodder for something else.
The “cradle to grave” proposal would require companies to consider what happens to their product once its useful life is over and to make plans to keep it out of the waste stream.

Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce (1993) proposes a redesigning the institutions surrounding commerce to create a sustainable method of commerce – a restorative economy. “This book is ultimately about redesigning our commercial systems so that they work for owners, employees, customers, and life on earth; that the economy mimics nature at every step,” Hawken writes. He cites the concept of Dr. Michael Braungart and Justus Englefried of a completely cyclical economy.

“A restorative economy tries to achieve a market in which every transaction provides constructive feedback into the commons, rather than every act of consumption causing degradation and harm,” wrote Hawkins. His four principles for sustainable small businesses are: “(1) replace nationally and internationally produced items with products created locally and regionally; (2) take responsibility for the effects they have on the natural world; (3) do not require exotic sources of capital in order to develop and grow; (4) engage in production sources that are human, worthy, dignified, and intrinsically satisfying; (5) create objects of durability and long-term utility whose ultimate use or disposition will not be harmful to future generations; (6) change consumers to customers through education.” He says, “We must design a marketplace that obviates acts of environmental destruction by making them extremely expensive, and rewards restorative acts by bringing them within our means. If we do this, then environmental restoration, economic prosperity, job creation, and social stability will become equivalent.” One way to do this is by “shifting the tax burden from income and entrepreneurial activity to those activities we wish to discourage.” An example he gives is “deposits on soda bottles to prevent indiscriminate dumping by a roadside.” Interestingly, Edward Humes’ June 26, 2019 article “The US Recycling System is Garbage” in Sierra magazine finds that “bottle bills are the single most effective means of boosting recycling [of plastic bottles].”

Hawken’s book Natural Capitalism (1994, with co-authors Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins) describes a future in which business and environmental interests increasingly overlap. Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all life, and economic activity. These services are of immense economic value; some are literally priceless, since they have no known substitutes. Yet current business practices typically fail to take into account the value of these assets. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of such resources as energy, materials, water, fiber, and topsoil.

Hawken writes in The Ecology of Commerce, “Society must recognize that ecological principles apply absolutely to human survival, and that if we are to long endure as a world culture, we will have to incorporate ecological thinking into every aspect of our patterns of living, particularly our economic institutions. …What ecology offers is a way to examine all present economic and resource activities from a biological rather than a monetary point of view.”

Hawken proposes three approaches: (1) obey the waste-equals-food principle and entirely eliminate waste from our industrial production; (2) change from an economy based on carbon to one based on hydrogen and sunshine; (3) create systems of feedback and accountability that support and strengthen restorative behavior.”

Near the end of book, Hawken critiques modern, conventional agricultural practices for “causing widespread and lasting ecological damage to soil, water, and wildlife. …To say that chemical farming is efficient is to ignore the topsoil turning to hardpan, the ground levels collapsing above mined-out aquifers, the white salts glistening on the surface of the land. The most truly efficient farm is on that most effectively internalizes all of its costs…that builds up topsoil, that uses water sparingly, and thriftily, that uses pesticides rarely if at all, that understands that the secret to healthy plants is healthy soil…” Hawken advocates “returning to sustainable, traditional farming practices.”

Soil: the Natural Capital on which Life Depends
This is exactly the main theme in David R. Montgomery’s book Growing A Revolution. The book is all about conservation (or regenerative) agriculture that restores and rebuilds topsoil to create healthier plants, stop erosion of soil, use less water, stop leaching chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides into water supplies, and thereby make farming more productive and profitable for farmers.

In his concluding chapter Hawken writes, “Most global problems can’t be solved globally because they are global symptoms of local problems with roots in reductionist thinking…” Montgomery also finds that the beneficial changes in agriculture that he documents are coming from the “bottom up” because agricultural institutions are structured around chemical farming.

Montgomery writes: We must “think of soil fertility and soil organic matter as natural capital. …What really matters is soil health. “Conservation agriculture rests on three principles: (1) minimum disturbance of the soil (no plowing); (2) growing cover crops and retaining crop residue so that the soil is always covered; (3) use of diverse crop rotations.:

Montgomery travels to several countries around the world to learn about how adopting these methods is maintaining or increasing crop yields, decreasing fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide use, and using less labor. These results are brought about by increasing topsoil to restore degraded soil, thereby increasing soil fertility.

There’s a dynamic system going on underground in fertile soils between plant roots and mycorrihizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi and soil dwelling microbes extract mineral nutrients from soil particles and help break organic matter down to soluble nutrients that plants take up through their roots.  Plants then release a variety of carbon-rich molecules they make – exudates that provide an attractive food source for soil microbes. In these ways soil life makes soil fertile.

This system of long-term soil building is translating into increased income and profits for the farmers utilizing the system. Smaller, more profitable farms can also help revitalize small-town America.

The specific cover crops are adapted to the region and its geology, and Montgomery learns that a combination of cover crops works better than just one. He also finds that cover crops don’t just feed the microbes, they also help moderate soil temperatures, and one farmer said that “earthworms eat our weed seeds.”

Soil-building practices also sequester atmospheric carbon and have the potential to reduce or offset 10% to 20% of global carbon emissions. The majority of the carbon that builds up in the soil comes from root exudates.

Livestock and Manure
In addition to the three principles listed above is the addition of livestock for grazing and manure fertilizer. On one farm, a rancher is grazing his cows in high density in 10-acre paddocks. With higher-stock density, he found that the next year the plant density had increased and actually produced enough to graze twice as many cows as the previous year. The key is intense grazing in a short period of time, and then rotate the cows to another paddock, and then give the first paddock a long recovery time. He found this changed the grazing pattern of his cows – instead of being picky eaters, they were less selective about what they ate, devouring all they could before the next cow did. He also found this solved the parasite problem: with longer rest periods between grazing, there were no cattle present when the parasites needed to complete their life cycle, so they died off.

Montgomery shows how cow manure can be an integral part of soil building. But what I wondered about is how horse manure could play the same role. I have seen on our own farm that composted horse manure makes rich, black soil that works wonders in the garden. I would like to see how the above farmer’s intense grazing, frequent rotation, long recovery time for the field, along with application of composted horse manure, could help horse boarding barns find an additional source of revenue and increase the pasture grazing for their horses at the same time.

With the methods Montgomery recommends, wildlife, especially birds and pollinators, also increases as the farms use less or no pesticides and create habitats that support them.

If we want to improve our environment and economy at the same time, these methods have been demonstrated in several countries around the world to work – well and efficiently. Montgomery concludes, “Informed consumers are one of the best and fastest ways to move the commercial dial in market economies. If consumers realized that their health is intimately connected to the quality and fertility of the soil, this could help move conventional farming toward more sustainable, organic practices.”

Will the circle be unbroken?  Will the circle be unbroken?  We have seen what a powerful force consumer behavior can be in changing the economy. Adopting a circular economy and building healthy soil through restorative/conservation agricultural practices could improve our lives and our pocketbooks.

Consciously think about your consumer activity. Refuse (to purchase waste); Reduce (consumption, travel); Reuse (rather than throw away); Recycle (food scraps and other items); and Regenerate (soil through conservation agriculture). Make a positive difference in the world.

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