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Richard Heinberg: Lessons from the Soil

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, explains the need to learn the lessons of sustainability with your whole body—by digging your hands in the soil and gaining a visceral understanding of what it means to get your food from the Earth.

From the September 2008 edition of The Ecologist:

It’s hard to learn much or do much about sustainability without getting your hands dirty.

True, global problems of resource depletion and climate change entail some high-level thinking. We need to understand some important numbers—350 parts per million of CO2 (the target necessary to avert catastrophic climate change), 5% production decline rate in existing oilfields (what must be overcome each year to forestall the inevitable peak of global oil output). We need skills in analysis and persuasion. Inevitably, all of this requires much time spent in front of computer screens.

However, while we attend to these technologies and abstractions, we are much more likely to succeed in our ultimate goal of building sustainable culture if we are also grounded in the most basic of activities—obtaining food directly from the Earth.

Reading has taught me a lot. Gardening has taught me as much or more. Often, these lessons tend to be ones that sound trite when put in words: Stay humble; Don’t demand too much too fast; Notice the interconnections; Go slow, but always pay attention and be prepared for rapid-onset opportunities and problems. However, when you garden you don’t just learn these lessons verbally and mentally. You learn them with your whole body.

Leaving food production entirely to others is the essence of full-time division of labor, the origin and vulnerable taproot of civilization. Only in agricultural civilizations has a rigid class system arisen in which the most important decisions are made by people who don’t need to spend any of their time directly contemplating our human dependence on nature. Instead, the managers, accountants, soldiers, and religious functionaries of state societies tend to enclose themselves ever more completely in the language-based solipsistic social matrix that is the source of their power. They pay ever more attention to words, money, and technology; ever less to weather, birds, and insects. And this, ultimately, is why civilizations collapse: the people in charge simply don’t notice that the ecological basis of their society is being undermined.

Sound familiar?

There are lots of good reasons to garden these days—given that food prices are soaring and the nutritional quality of supermarket food diminishes by the year. Those of us who are working on sustainability issues have even more reasons to plant and hoe. We must teach our neighbors the survival skills they will need as fossil fuels dribble away; we must set an example, and help create the gardening networks that will provide food for our communities during the hard times ahead.

But perhaps the best of all reasons to garden is simply our need to stay sane. I mean this in two ways. Yes, the garden is a refuge from a world that often seems to be flying apart. Turn off the television and pick up a trowel: you’ll feel better. But more importantly, if we garden we are more likely to be psychologically balanced people capable of making sane choices. And the world needs people like that at the moment.


To Create Climate-Secure Foodscapes, Think Like a Plant

The techniques and prophetic vision for achieving food security in the face of climate change contained in Gary Paul Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land may well need to be implemented across most of North America over the next half-century, and are already applicable in most of the semiarid West, Great Plains, and […] Read More

A Meditation on Garden Weeding

In this excerpt from The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, author Carol Deppe reflects on her time spent daily in the garden and how her actions can often transcend the moment, or the task, at hand. As Carol notes, “On a good gardening day there is nothing better. On a good gardening day there is not […] Read More

Food & Drink Sale! Save 35% on all Food & Drink books through August 1st

Here at Chelsea Green Publishing, we believe that it matters where our food comes from and how it is grown because a healthy food system is key to ensuring a resilient, sustainable, and healthy future for all of us. We’ve put ALL ourfood & drink books on sale for 35% off — but hurry it […] Read More

How Carbon Farming Can Save the Planet

Carbon farming alone is not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, but coupled with new economic priorities, a massive switch to clean energy, and big changes to much of the rest of the way our societies work, it offers a pathway out of destruction and a route to hope.Along the way carbon farming can also […] Read More

Dear Farmers: Get Grazing! (And, Here’s How)

In her new book, The Art of Science and Grazing, nationally known grazing consultant Sarah Flack identifies the key principles and practices necessary for farmers to design, and manage, successful grazing systems.This book is an essential guide for ruminant farmers who want to create grazing systems that meet the needs of their livestock, pasture plants, […] Read More
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