The Economic Argument
The value of the agricultural sector in 2017-2018 in Australia was $59 billion. It is expected to reach $60 billion in 2020, with the National Farmers Federation aiming for a $100 billion industry by 2030—based on the assumptions of modern industrial agricultural practices that include extensive use of irrigation, application of chemical fertilisers and pest control, and large scale mono-cropping and grazing of animals for meat production.
Australia’s Agricultural Challenge
The IPCC Report, Climate Change and Land, has drawn attention to the impact of climate change on land degradation, desertification, food security, and the challenge of sustainable land management in the agriculture sector. The report notes: changes in per capita consumption of food, feed, fibre, timber and energy have caused unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use, with agriculture currently accounting for approximately 70 per cent of global fresh-water use. Extensive land clearing associated with modern techno-agricultural practices and food consumption, linked to the production of palm oil and expansion of cattle grazing for meat consumption, has led to a significant rate of deforestation reducing the ability of trees to provide carbon sequestration, and thus increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This is especially significant for Australia, which has ‘some of the nutrient-poorest, worst-structured, most fragile and driest soils on Earth’ (Massey, 2017:17). Australia, one of the Earth’s most ancient landscapes is characterized by large arid areas, thin top soil coverage leached of both macro-and micronutrients, low in phosophorous, nitrogen and soil organic matter. It is also characterized by great variability and irregularity in rainfall leading to periodic droughts. Over 70 per cent of the Australian landmass is classified as arid, receiving less than 250 millimetres of rainfall a year, and where evaporation rates are very high. In the 250 years since Europeans settled in Australia, the application of techno-agricultural methods of mechanical land clearing, irrigation and application of chemical fertilisers to overcome these characteristics, together with the introduction of hoofed animals such as cattle, horses and sheep, has led to widespread soil depletion, land degradation, increasing desertification and loss of water in Australia’s inland river systems.
The Failure of Political Leadership
The response to this challenge in our agricultural methods and use of land and waterways mirrors our response to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our energy sector. Both demonstrate the influence of stakeholders engaged in legacy systems of energy production, such as thermal coal, and in agricultural practices such as extensive irrigation, land clearing and grazing of cattle and sheep on marginal arid lands. As a result there has been a failure of political leadership to:
- Embrace the transition to the use of renewable sources of energy production
- Promote the sustainable management of water resources in the face of the increasing severity of drought
- Promote regenerative agricultural practices that can repair soil fertility and land-based carbon sequestration.
As Massey notes: ‘the reason industrial agriculture is so powerful and dominant is because it is the logical spawn of modern capitalist society’s world view and its enmeshment with the most powerful commercial and political entities on Earth’ (Massey, 2017:47). These are the fossil fuel industry, the chemical industry and techno-agricultural industry. This is underpinned by what Massey calls the ‘mechanical mindset’ and the prioritising of wealth creation through economic instrumental rationality and commitment to economic growth and material consumption as both necessary and desirable. It also represents a logical managerial interpretation of a key tenet of the Christian idea of God having given ‘man’ dominion over the Earth and all its creatures, as set out in Genesis, and the binary dualistic ways of thinking that underpin modern ‘western’ civilisation.
Known as Cartesianism, this dualistic way of thinking organises the world into binary opposites and breaks the whole down into component parts: man versus nature; mind versus body; sacred versus secular. It can be contrasted with systems thinking that underpins the network of relationships in any natural eco-system, the emphasis on flow and change that characterises traditional Chinese Daoist thinking, and the ways in which most pre-industrial societies conceive of humans as part of nature with whom they have a sacred relationship, not separate and over nature. The French sinologist François Jullien points out that when a person has been imprinted with the inner dynamics of nature, and has thereby become capable of creating new syntheses of thought and experience via gestaltic intuition, they will in fact feel an affinity for the whole of Creation (humans as part of the natural ecosystem of Earth, together with the technologies flowing from human ingenuity) (Jullien, 2004).
The limits to traditional western ways of thinking have been exposed by the global and interconnected nature of climate change, the disjunction between political systems of governance based on the nation state and global cooperation required to deal with global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, and the rapid pace of technological change that is transforming economies and societies. As the fuzzy logic of fractal mathematics and the quantum universe show, ‘things’ cannot be pinned down in a dynamic relational world of ‘infinite contingency’ yet Western economic and political philosophies seek to do precisely this.
Professor Surakiart Sathirathai, a prominent legal and political figure in Thailand and chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC), explicitly warned that rebalancing economic growth toward green and sustainable development could not be achieved merely through law and regulations or administrative and bureaucratic measures. Steeped in Thailand’s Buddhist culture, Professor Sathirathai called for proponents of eco-civilisation to recognize the power of the mind and paradigms that guide human behaviour (Bangkok Post 29 July 2014).
Globally, people are enjoying the highest standards of living in human history. And yet acceleration and interconnectedness in every field of human activity are pushing the absorptive capacities of institutions, communities and individuals to their limits. This is putting future human development at risk. In addition to dealing with a multitude of discrete local problems, at a global level humanity faces a growing number of systemic challenges, including fractures and failures affecting the environmental, economic, technological and institutional systems on which our future rests.
Just as global risks are increasingly complex, systemic and cascading, so our responses must be increasingly interconnected across the numerous global systems that make up our world (Klaus Schwab, WEF Global Risk Report, 2018:5).
The Regenerative Agricultural Revolution
Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.
It aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. Regenerative agriculture is based on ecological literacy—an understanding of how to work with nature, rather than over nature.
Key principles of regenerative agriculture are:
- Work with whole systems not isolated parts
- Increase soil fertility to nutrient saturation points
- Progressively improve whole agro-ecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity), connecting the farm to larger agro-ecosystem and bio-region
- Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders
- Design for non-linear, multi-capital reciprocity
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential.
Regenerative agricultural practices include:
- No-till farming and pasture cropping
- Organic annual cropping
- Permaculture design
- Composting including compost teas (water extracts leached from composted materials)
- Bichar and terra preta (adding of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to otherwise infertile soils)
- Holistically managed grazing
- Animal integration
- Ecological aquaculture
- Perennial crops
- Silvopasture (integrating trees, forage and grazing of domesticated animals)
Principles of Intensive Techno-Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture stands in stark contrast to contemporary techno-industrial agriculture associated with:
- Land clearing, removing all trees
- Economies of scale requiring large farm sizes
- Extensive use of fossil fuels in chemical fertilisers and use of farm machinery
- Overgrazing and intensive tillage
- Intensive irrigation
- Chemical pest and weed control
- Manipulation of plant and animal genomes to increase food productivity
- Ploughing and fallowing that prevents carbon sequestration
- Monoculture—focus on one crop or animal grazing activity
- Factory farming of animals
The Regenerative Mindset
The alternative ‘regenerative mindset’ draws inspiration from the modern science of ecology that seeks to understand the complex patterns of interconnections among different lifeforms that support local ecosystems. It also acknowledges the ancient concept of Law that has underpinned the 65,000+ years of Aboriginal societies living sustainably in Australia—Law that is intrinsic to the way nature actually works and the forms of social organisation required to live sustainably in local ecosystems governed by that Law.
This Law was kept alive and embedded in Aboriginal societies through the Songlines and associated ceremonies that crisscross Australia. These celebrate the Dreaming and the activities of the Ancestral Beings whose activities shaped the world and created an intimate relationship between human beings with particular landscapes and their lifeforms, all of whom, through totemic relationships, are regarded as descendants of the Ancestral Beings. Developing this sense of intimate relationship with all of nature’s lifeforms and their ecological connectivity is one of the major challenges confronting modern society. When nature is no longer regarded for its ‘use’ value as a source of wealth creation for humans, or for its recreational value for human wellbeing, but as part of one’s family, a whole different set of emotional feelings and relationships ensues.
This sort of mindshift is the focus of Deep Ecology, using transformational and experiential processes developed by John Seed and Joanna Macy, to enable modern humans to recover their sense of interbeing with the natural world and overcome the profound alienation that has resulted between humans and nature through the cultural tenets of modernism and the economic principles of global capitalism with its emphasis on monetised transactional relationships.
The conflict between these two mindsets of modern capitalist societies and societies still shaped by pre-industrial modes of thought was recently exposed at the Pacific Forum. The emphasis of the Australian delegation was on ‘economics’, a set of words that protected Australia’s continuing economic benefit from its coal industry, and a reliance on stressing the generosity of Australian aid in mitigating the worst effects of rising sea levels on the very viability of many islands. By contrast those of the Pacific Island nations, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, was on a set of words that emphasised the urgency of action and the protection of people. When our Prime Minister talks of being all part of the Pacific Family, but responds by reminding Pacific Island nations of Australia’s $500 million aid package and our Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party, Michael McCormack, responds to their concerns that Pacific Island nations affected by the climate crisis will continue to survive “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit” and “they’ll continue to survive on large aid assistance from Australia”, it demonstrates a leadership unthinkingly steeped in economic rationalism without any regard for wider sensitivities.
As Malcolm Turnbull noted: “If you are a Pacific islander and your home is going to be washed away by rising sea levels caused by global warming then this is not a political issue, it’s an existential one.” While the argument that Australia alone limiting its coal production would not significantly alter global warming might be factually true, it is also true that Australia has one of highest per capita production of greenhouse gas emissions. While China may indeed be using coal-fired energy production and so increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, on a per capita basis, it is still less than Australia. Furthermore, China does have a climate policy that commits their transition to renewable energy and has embraced the idea of a move to an ‘eco-civilisation’ as a model for future development. Statement of intention matter.
The Need for a Philosophy of Regenerative Living
One reading of the rising tide of anxiety and depressive disorders in the human population, particularly in advanced economies, and the projection outwards of this anxiety onto ‘the other’ in the politics of rage, is a growing subconscious awareness that our planetary home is in an increasingly precarious situation when it comes to continuing human habitation. With the continued failure of nation states to respond to the climate change crisis, and the intransigence of significant corporate global stakeholders, the psychological impact of climate change can be expected to increase.
The regenerative agricultural movement, with its emphasis on ecological literacy in the widest sense, is laying down the foundations for a wider paradigm shift to regenerative living.
Beyond the political advocacy of climate change activism, such as the Extinction Rebellion, the task before us is to articulate a new philosophy of regenerative living for the 21st century, based on ecological literacy. This must find a way to transform the dominant mindset that has underpinned western civilisation for the past three hundred years and led to our current crisis of environmental non-sustainability. A philosophy of regenerative living must move beyond the major tenets of liberal democracy and its rules-based world order that have shaped global relationships between nation states since the end of WWII. It must find a new way to reconcile localism and globalism; the rights of the individual and the needs of the collective in a world that is fundamentally relational at all levels.
Charles Massey (2017) Call of the Reed Warbler, UQP
François Jullien (2004) A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking, translated by Janet Lloyd, University of Hawaii Press