Geotherapy: Can the Anthropocene Have a Second Restorative Phase?

 

As proponents of remineralization since the  mid 1980s, we at Remineralize the Earth include ourselves as pioneers of regenerative agriculture. Dr. Tom Goreau always advocates on behalf of a combination of biochar and remineralization as part of a geotherapy strategy to sequester carbon and stabilize the climate.

Joanna Campe

 

Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association and the Real Food Campaign with Ethan Roland answering questions at the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate conference. (Click to enlarge)

Super stable in terms of temperatures, the holocene era has allowed human civilizations to thrive for the last 10,000 years. But humanity’s massive greenhouse gas emissions, due in large part to agriculture and the industrial revolution, are threatening our own survival. Since the nineteen fifties, a great acceleration of human population and its numerous activities has led to the disruption and destruction of the biosphere – its atmospheric chemical composition, its rivers and oceans, and, less talked about, its soils. The loss of soil carbon is leading to desertification of entire regions. These changes are transforming humanity into a geological force. Victim of this “double-edged sword” of development, humanity has prospered but is destroying the biosphere. Some observers have talked of misdevelopment: humanity is destroying the habitats it depends on. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says there is 60 years of farming left if we don’t change. The good news is that we can change.

“The loss of soil carbon is leading to desertification of entire regions. These changes are transforming humanity into a geological force. Victim of this “double-edged sword” of development, humanity has prospered but is destroying the biosphere.”

“Anthropocene” defines the new geological epoch resulting from human economic activities, strongly based on fossil fuels. Today anthropological-biogeochemical forces are defining the contours of our planet. Can humanity take control of this evolution? Can humanity’s global policies control the anthropocene and master it? Can ecological policies coming from a new citizen-driven global governance steer and reverse the current anthropocene? In a fabulous and unprecedented turnaround, can the environmental and civilizational crisis be reversed? The challenge is of pharaonic proportion. Yet proponents of regenerative development, restorative agriculture, and geotherapy suggest it is possible.

 

Geotherapy as a remedy

Recently Yvon Chouinard, the 78 year old founder of the successful sport clothing company Patagonia Inc., a long-time supporter of the environmental movement, world-renowned climber, and ‘reluctant businessman,’ spoke at California’s Commonwealth Club. For a long time “doing no unnecessary harm to the environment” was Patagonia’s mission “after producing the best products.” Chouinard now thinks Patagonia can do better. How? By supporting regenerative agriculture.

“…various emerging ‘carbon farming’ strategies that can actually rebuild soils, sequester carbon, increase biodiversity, control water excess, and reduce the effects of droughts…”

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier, published by Chelsea Green Publishing. (Click to enlarge)

Chouinard is referring to various emerging “carbon farming” strategies that can actually rebuild soils, sequester carbon, increase biodiversity, control water excess, and reduce the effects of droughts (higher water absorption and good water retention result from the presence of carbon in soils, mitigating both excess and lack of water). His own company has started Patagonia Provisions, promising food produced with the highest environmental standards of regeneration and restoration. Among their products is the beer Long Root Ale, grown with no tillage and made of a new unique perennial wheat named kernza. The result of research by the Land Institute, kernza has roots 15 feet deep for a plant 4 feet above the ground. This allows carbon exchange for nutrients and minerals deep below. The plant delivers a stable, sequestered, long-lived carbon – a glue-like exudate produced by hyphae, called glomalin. Because it stores carbon, glomalin is increasingly included in studies of carbon storage and soil quality.

While not making front pages of newspapers, no-till agriculture and perennial plants are a significant evolution. The environmental movement is in a process of transition from stopping destruction and reducing sources of greenhouse gases to becoming a movement to enhance soils. Expanding carbon sinks could lead to a balanced carbon cycle of the Earth. The trend is establishing a foundation for a humanity more integrated with nature, making good use of new and better understanding of soils, plants, and the carbon cycle. We need more scientifically anchored developments as a cure – what the President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance (Cambridge, MA) [and RTE Board Director – ed.] , Dr. Thomas Goreau, calls geotherapy – with multiple co-benefits for the climate, biodiversity, and food security.

The environmental movement is in a process of transition from stopping destruction and reducing sources of greenhouse gases, to becoming a movement to enhance soils. Expanding carbon sinks could lead to a balanced carbon cycle of the Earth.

Influenced by the geotherapy concept, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth organization, Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, called for “regenerative development, permaculture, and bio-mimicry” at COP 22 in Marrakesh. With similar views, the former French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Föll, during COP 21 in Paris launched 4 for 1000, an international program to put carbon back in soils. More than 40 countries and 70 entities have joined this voluntary effort. According to Prof. Rattan Lal, Director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air following tilling, to become CO2.

Putting carbon back in soils is a win-win. Absent from the climate discussion for decades, farmers are suddenly invited to ‘grow a revolution’, a carbon revolution. A fight for a biosphere, a living Earth.

Putting carbon back in soils is a win-win. Absent from the climate discussion for decades, farmers are suddenly invited to ‘grow a revolution’, a carbon revolution. A fight for a biosphere, a living Earth.

 

The anthropocene, phase 2

Benoit Lambert holding RTE’s book while speaking at COP 22 in Marrakech. (Click to enlarge)

Anthropocene is a powerful, englobing concept. It encapsulates the evolution of the Earth and its relation to human civilization. Texts on the anthropocene do not mention humanity’s potential for reversing the destruction of the planet, yet examples exist. Lake Geneva, the biggest lake in Europe at 73 kilometers long, is much cleaner than it was fifty years ago – people swim in downtown Geneva. There is more wildlife in that region, too. In Northern Italy’s Alps, hikers get to see a surprising quantity of fauna. The mountain goat (ibex) and the wolf are back. The greening of China’s Loess Plateau, described by documentary producer John D. Liu – in particular in Green Gold – is another spectacular example of regenerative measures covering a huge area. In an important book, The Optimistic Environmentalist, Canadian author David R. Boyd gives numerous examples of successful animal recovery, including the humpback whale, the gray whale, the bald eagle, and the peregrine falcon. The success of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer also comes to mind. Humanity has successful reversal examples to refer to.

While the destruction of the Earth is undeniably occurring at a scary pace, our ability to reverse trends, for example by rebuilding soil health on two billion hectares of lost agriculture lands, is real. Two billion hectares is more land than we currently cultivate. Numerous carbon sequestration measures are not out of reach: no-till agriculture in combination with cover crops, the reintroduction of livestock with holistic grazing management, biochar, [remineralization – ed.], the use of compost or mulch, mixing trees and crops, ramial chipped wood, and others. If new knowledge and science are applied, a massive reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and oceans can occur. The return of fauna in some regions, restoration of some lakes, and some recycling measures are showing the way.

Yet, what if the anthropocene was to have two historical phases: one that started with the great acceleration of consumption and destruction after the Second World War, and one with practices and publications, pointing to examples of geotherapy, agroecology, permaculture, biomimicry and other agro-silvo-grazing techniques? Anthropocene Phase 2 certainly includes the FAO March 2017 conference The Global Symposium on Soil Organic Carbon Unlocking the Potential of Mitigating and Adapting to a Changing Climate, a first for the UN. It also includes the rise of alternative, independent, science-based information groups such as soil-age, soil4climate, Sols Vivants Québec, Regeneration International, The Carbon Underground, Project Drawdown, and others [including Remineralize the Earth – ed.]. David Montgomery’s trilogy of books, Dirt: the Erosion of Civilisations; The Hidden Half of Nature – The Microbial Roots of Life and Health; and, Growing a revolution – Bringing our Soils Back to Life; are part of this movement, as are two other important books co-edited and co-authored by Dr. Thomas Goreau Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase; and, Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration.

The Anthropocene might end up as a very different concept. Limiting its definition to a geological one weakens its immense power. It does not value the fact that humanity, for the first time at such a very large scale, is conscious of the implications of its actions. Humanity is now conscious of being a biogeochemical force. This is a consciousness of incredible precision, with satellites that can measure everything from sea levels to the thickness of a hair. NASA’s data can be followed in real time. Mycorrhizal, glomalin, bacteria, microbial life in soils: humanity masters new soils’ biological elements, with immense implications. Humanity does not yet measure the power of soil biology: conditions are now ripe for a geotherapy movement.

Humanity does not yet measure the power of soil biology: conditions are now ripe for a geotherapy movement.

In Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration, Dr. Thomas Goreau shows how, with minor assistance from nature, we can reverse the disappearance of coral reefs and rebuild beaches in a few months if we grow the right corals. The amazing rapid regenerative power of nature when assisted by humanity is appearing as a solution to an out of control climate crisis. The approach Goreau has been promoting for decades in the Caribbean and the Pacific, named biorock, shows we can grow and maintain coral reefs even with warmer waters. Goreau thinks biochar [and rock dust and sea minerals – ed.] added to soils could be the equivalent of biorock for corals. The making and use of biochar [and minerals – ed.] would allow strong water retention and strong biological activation of soils, translating into carbon sequestration and important global warming mitigation. Atmospheric CO2 could be brought back below 300 ppm.

Our understanding of the Earth’s system, in particular the carbon cycle, has made remarkable progress in recent years. In the past, humanity’s wars and epidemics have driven down the CO2 curve in the atmosphere, because of forests regrowth. Today Earth sciences and atmospheric sciences allow us to see those rapid evolutions in the past. Humanity could influence the Earth system again – intentionally this time – with the objectives of reversing global warming, increasing soil fertility, and improving the quality of our food. Reaping the sun’s energy through plants that store carbon is an underestimated tool to fix climate disorder. The sun’s energy, photosynthesis, carbon exudates through roots… the road to a balance carbon cycle is much better understood and therefore feasible.

 …to reverse the climate crisis, the world must increase carbon sinks through soils and other steps. To be efficient, these strategies must be applied on a huge scale. Only an increase of good will, inspired by best practices but also by science, will lead us to a geotherapy movement.

 

Geotherapy: return of the noosphere

Ethan Roland speaking at the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate Conference at Tufts University, November 21st, 2014. (Click to enlarge)

Promoting renewable energy and electric vehicles to reduce sources of greenhouse gases are known strategies for slowing down the global warming trend. Their adoption is accelerating. But to reverse the climate crisis, the world must increase carbon sinks through soils and other steps. To be efficient, these strategies must be applied on a huge scale. Only an increase of good will, inspired by best practices but also by science, will lead us to a geotherapy movement.

This superior level of consciousness has been called the noosphere. Introduced a century ago, the noosphere could be defined as a rise of consciousness accelerated by new understandings or scientific discoveries, and, today, by their rapid diffusion through internet. Best practices are now available with amazing detail and precision, in various fields. New financial mechanisms are available to accelerate adoption of best practices, as is the case with “free solar” financed by leasing. In the world, new renewable energies are doubling every 5.4 years. Some say at this pace, humanity will be fossil fuel-free by 2050, maybe before. Another example in the land sector: South Dakota went from almost all tillage in 1990 to more than three-quarters no-till by 2013. Today, solutions can be deployed rapidly.

The noosphere is the sphere of ideas. The word is a lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere.” It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his Cosmogenesis. Édouard Le Roy, who together with Teilhard was following the lectures of Ivanovich Vernadsky at the Sorbonne, might have been the first to use it. Vernadsky is the Russian author of The Biosphere, first published in Russian in 1926, with a translation in French 1929. According to the theory of Vernadsky, the noosphere is the third in a succession of phases of the development of the Earth, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition fundamentally transformed the biosphere. In 1922, Teilhard wrote, “And this amounts to imagining, in one way or another, above the animal biosphere a human sphere, a sphere of reflection, of conscious invention, of conscious souls (the noosphere, if you will).”

A higher consciousness seems to be emerging today through regenerative/carbon farming, or the idea of a geotherapy that some call regenerative development. For the first time in human history, agriculture can be science-based, and the meaning of soil health makes its way even into the conservative USDA. We know how to make agriculture thrive while regenerating soils, bringing their natural carbon content back to where it was before humanity’s intervention, maybe exceeding it in some cases. This is a first. Many involved, in particular farmers, are not scientists themselves. But they offer, mostly through trial and error and observation, an invaluable understanding of soil life, which is essential for the future of humanity. Some success stories get scientific confirmation, sometimes centuries or decades after being applied – examples of good practices include terra preta in the Amazon, the work of farmers Gabe Brown and David Brandt in the USA, the practices of trainer-agronomist Kofi Boa of the Center for No-Till Agriculture in Ghana (with support of The Howard G. Buffett Foundation for regenerative agriculture). Some scientists might critique the lack of data, but regenerative agriculture can be verified, and keeps a healthy distance from big-ag commercial influence…

We know how to make agriculture thrive while regenerating soils, bringing their natural carbon content back to where it was before humanity’s intervention, maybe exceeding it in some cases. 

 

From understanding to action: can geotherapy turn around the anthropocene?

“Geotherapy” is an idea inspired by a comment written by Dr. Thomas Goreau in Nature in 1987, titled “The Other Half of the Carbon Dioxide Problem.” It was coined by Prof. Richard Grantham at The Colloquium on Modeling and Geotherapy for Global Changes held at Université Claude Bernard in Lyon in 1991. The concept has numerous implications for climate change, food security, pollution, and soil health.

It is not to be confused with the field of geoengineering, which proposes complex technological fixes to the climate crises, some inconsistent with the more natural techniques of geotherapy. Where geotherapy produces biomass and soil organic carbon, geoengineering pumps CO2 underground from where it could escape. Two processes, two philosophies. With geotherapy, Goreau says he proposes a cheap and proven process, geotherapy, rather than an expensive and unproven one, geoengineering. Like any therapy, geotherapy is aiming to heal: soils, the atmosphere, rivers and oceans. More broadly, geotherapy aims to bring back the Earth as it was during the holocene, when it had stable temperatures, relatively few extremes, and a climate favorable to humanity.

With geotherapy, Goreau says he proposes a cheap and proven process rather than an expensive and unproven one, geoengineering. Like any therapy, geotherapy is aiming to heal: soils, the atmosphere, rivers and oceans.

A healthy Earth will be possible only if we can mobilize a geotherapy movement – an insurrection of consciousness, perhaps – to take control of the anthropocene. Humanity’s knowledge and science at the service of a livable and enjoyable environment can regenerate ecosystems in which societies can thrive without destroying them.

 

 

Benoit Lambert, PhD is a member of the Soil4Climate advisory board; Biochar developer and geotherapist; owner of Biochar Génération; formally, Editor and Director of Publications, Worldwatch Institute, Geneva, Switzerland.


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