Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Changing the climate conversation

We see as through a glass darkly. For decades now the global conversation about climate has been the equivalent of obsessing about a small kitten in the corner while ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room. We need to change the climate conversation. It’s time to talk about the elephant.

“Although the problems of the world are growing increasingly more complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
Bill Mollison

The western mindset has a consistent tendency to work linearly, to latch onto objects rather than processes, to isolate relationships within the natural world and reduce them to conceptual engineering exercises (thereby omitting most of the critical variables) to which we can apply equally linear technological solutions, and to proceed from ultimates. Ultimately, it’s precisely this thinking which has got us into this mess in the first place.

These lines of thinking are like tangents to a circle, the circle representing the holistic interdependency and interconnectedness of all life on Earth. At a single point on each line, there is momentary contact with the circle, but then it glances off into the progressively more irrelevant and ultimately counterproductive. That moment of correlation anchors a feeling of ‘truth’ into the line of logic, but we can’t seem to grasp that it doesn’t imply the entire line of thinking is correct, and we don’t see that our infatuation with our lines of logic have blinded us to what’s going on in the circle.

So what is the elephant and why do we need to talk about it?

95% of climate change effects are down to displaced water. Water vapour is the principal ‘greenhouse gas’ on the planet. We’ve known this a long time, but the main reason we’ve not been talking about it is that climate scientists didn’t believe human activity could disrupt hydrological cycles. The amount of water moving about on the planet was just too vast for it to seem credible. It was also too vast for them to model … They’re now realising they were very wrong, but most of the rest of the world, and even much of the rest of science, hasn’t caught up yet.

We’ve removed one third of the earth’s forests and degraded one third of its soils (two thirds when we’re talking about cultivable soils). This has had a substantial impact on global hydrological cycles, both small and large. Too much water is trapped in the oceans and the atmosphere with no easy means to return to, and stay in, the land.

Small water cycles

The functioning of small water cycles. Graphic from Rain for Climate

It’s multi-layered vegetation, especially forests, which cool temperatures, bring rain to the land and help infiltrate it. Temperate deciduous forests are the primary hosts of the microbial precipitation nuclei – airborne bacteria – which create rain. These organisms have the ability to freeze water at temperatures above 0°C, which results in more regular and gentle rainfall. Without them, water vapour has a tendency to accumulate in the atmosphere until major storm systems develop and rainfall becomes much more extreme.

Climate scientists also failed to realise the extent to which vegetation, especially forests, plays an important role in climate patterns. They thought the effects were local and minor and could effectively be discounted. They were wrong.

It’s soil carbon which acts like a sponge to keep rain in the soil, recharges groundwaters and is habitat for the vast ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, insects and arthropods which not only build healthy soil but feed all plant life. Plant life can only make very limited use of inorganic minerals in the soil. They need these minerals in bioavailable form. For that, they rely on soil organisms who they entice to inhabit the soil around their root systems with sugary root exudates on which the organisms feed.

Tilling the soil exposes soil life to air and sun which is fatal. It breaks up all the fungal mycelia, the communication pathways of the soil ecosystem. Fertilisers add grossly excessive quantities of inorganic mineral salts to the soil, killing even more. Then there’s herbicides, pesticides … Before long, the soil is functionally dead and the plants we grow in it become dependent on inorganic fertilisers. Since this isn’t the nutrition they really need, they’re constantly stressed and vulnerable to disease. So instead of correcting the problem, we spray them with more chemicals, killing yet more soil life. Before long, no microorganisms are left to create more soil, and the system spirals into degradation and erodes away.

“I say confidently that not many farmers can read the landscape. For them to change they have got to admit they have been wrong for most of their lives. The thing that is challenging about it is that you have got to be totally flexible to adjustment and really get your mind into how nature works and be able to change tactics.” Charles Massy

The loss of forests and soil organic material is what’s directly causing rising land temperatures and the extended periods of drought/wildfire, alternating with catastrophic storms and flooding, in so many parts of the world.

There’s precious little direct causative connection between rising CO2 concentrations and changing weather patterns. Where the strongest connection lies is in the increase in atmospheric carbon displaced from the vegetation and soil we’ve killed, but it’s the lack of vegetation and soil carbon in the land, far more than the presence of more CO2 in the atmosphere, which contributes to the changing weather patterns. Warming attributable to rising CO2 concentrations accounts for maybe 5% of what we’re seeing. And it’s as much a symptom as a cause.

We need to change the narrative. It’s mostly through our mismanagement of terrestrial ecosystems – in particular through deforestation and massively destructive industrial agricultural practices – that global feedback loops are being impacted so severely. And it’s not just the forests and soils that have gone. 60% of the planet’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970. Insect populations have crashed. It’s all interconnected and interdependent. It’s all part of the same picture.

Walter Jehne, former CSIRO climate scientist and microbiologist, explains the role of water in climate change and climate mitigation

Living systems are self-maintaining and self-correcting. The Earth is a living system. Warming and increasing CO2 concentrations are exactly what’s needed to promote rapid vegetative growth. Abundant vegetation is exactly what’s needed to cool temperatures, restore hydrological cycles, and hence restore the proper functioning of the biosphere’s feedback loops which maintain all life on Earth. Mobilising clean water from the polar ice caps makes more available for that vegetation to infiltrate into desertifying land to replenish groundwaters and aquifers. It also serves to counteract the tendency to ocean acidification resulting from increasing CO2 concentrations and industrial pollutants. Earth’s systems are working to correct our destabilisation of them. We need to try to understand what’s going on and work with it, not against it!

“The process of self organisation, which is the very process of life, is seen as a cognitive process. And correspondingly, the interactions of a living organism – plant, animal or human – with its environment are cognitive interactions. In this way, life and cognition are inseparably connected. Mind (or more accurately, mental activity) is immanent in matter at all levels of life. In this view, cognition involves the entire process of life, including perception, emotions, behaviour, and does not even necessarily require a brain and a nervous system. So cognition, the process of knowledge, is present at all levels of life.” Fritjof Capra, The Systems View of Life: a Unifying Vision

We need to rapidly move away from …

  • further deforestation
  • industrial agriculture and silviculture, monocultures, agrochemicals and tillage
  • quick-fix, engineering-thinking, technological ‘solutions’, especially the more grandiose geoengineering projects. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”
  • continuing urbanisation of flood plains and coastal estuaries
  • environmental exploitation, unnecessary consumption and waste creation (one third of the food produced globally is wasted)
  • polluting oceans and waterways with our chemicals and waste (plastic can be pyrolised and turned back into oil and fuel)

North American cattle ranchers using Holistic Management techniques to restore ecosystems, increase biodiversity, build soil biota and organic matter and infiltrate rainfall

We need to move even more rapidly towards …

  • prioritising environmental restoration and human health over economics
  • reforestation with a diversity of indigenous species in imitation of natural forests, especially on ridge lines
  • water retention landscaping (use those fossil fuels to power the machines to create it!) to slow, spread and infiltrate rainfall
  • repair of riparian landscapes to allow rivers to function as nature intended
  • agroecological/polycultural/silvopastoral organic growing methods. Far more yield can be obtained from polycultures and agroforestry systems than monocultures – potentially up to 20 times greater per acre from mature systems – and they become self-maintaining, just as all natural systems are
  • massive increases in herds of grazing animals, grazed using Holistic Management husbandry techniques, to rapidly restore soils and biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. This means eating more meat and dairy, not less
  • relocalisation of food
  • returning people to the land to work with and care for it
  • relocalisation of production and government/social services to bioregional scale
  • modelling human society on principles of biomimicry
  • dismantling multinational corporations, introducing the crime of ecocide and removing limited liability (polluter pays)

We need to work with natural systems, not against them.

We need to change the climate conversation

So can we please stop obsessing about the kitten, open our eyes to what’s going on in the rest of the room, and start putting this right? We are not powerless. Everyone can do something, even if they only have a small back yard to cultivate and a small budget to spend in their local regenerative farm shops. The effects are cumulative.

If you’re interested in learning how to rehydrate the land and restore soil health and diversity, come and join us for our Permaculture Design Courses at Quinta do Vale.

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  1. Andre September 20, 2020

    You have a wonderful website, reflecting a great approach to living. And I think this article is a good addition. But the ‘holistic management’ proposal is flawed, produced as a result of vested interest in animal food production, which is perhaps the greatest contributor to the systemic problems you identify. It is a shame you decide to promote this!

  2. Quinta do Vale September 23, 2020 — Post author

    The opinion that “the ‘holistic management’ proposal is flawed, produced as a result of vested interest in animal food production” is just that – an opinion. And a contentious one at that. Personally I disagree. Savory’s methods have been refined and developed a long way since the old Sierra Club attempted ‘debunking’ which I guess is what you’re referring to? His concepts are sound in my opinion. And have stood the test of time, restoring what now amount to millions of acres of grassland ecosystem to health as a result. I suggest you check out the new documentary “Kiss the Ground” which premiered on Netflix last night and features many of the ranchers who’ve used Savory’s methods to great effect.

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