Carbon cycling is a process

The current situation over much of the world is this:

1. There is not enough carbon (organic matter) in and on the soil.

2. There is not enough water in the soil.

These two facts mean desertification and food insecurity, as well as a predisposition to both flooding and drought. As the Earth IQ quiz on the right hand side explains, soils hold more carbon and more water than the atmosphere, vegetation, and rivers combined.

3. There is too much carbon in the atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) are the second and third most powerful greenhouse gases.)

4. There is too much water in the atmosphere. (Water is the number one greenhouse gas. It precipitates unpredictably.)

The first two combine with the second two to form a vicious circle, with reinforcing feedback. The more water and carbon in the atmosphere, the less in the soil, generally. The less the soil is able to hold water and carbon, and grow protective and productive vegetation, the more water and carbon in the atmosphere. Both water and carbon cycles are accelerated.

The only exit from the vicious circle is to get more carbon in the soil. Water will follow. If this can occur, the vicious circle turns virtuous (transformational change). The more water and carbon in the soil, the less in the atmosphere, and so on.

Technology isn't well adapted to turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon. Biology is well adapted, but it's a process, neither a quick fix nor a programmatic one. This poses a problem for institutions, organizations, markets, and government agencies who may wish to increase soil carbon. But it is an opportunity for land managers of all kinds, particularly those who want to work with biosphere processes such as the carbon cycle, water cycle, and succession, rather than against them.

When dealing with biological and social processes, direct action typically results in backlash or unanticipated side effects. What are more powerful are the selective forces we can put in place. If we routinely spray glyphosate, for example, we are selecting for resistant weeds. If we let livestock remain on one pasture all season, we may be selecting for weedy, unpalatable plants and bare ground. If a boss favors employees who tell him what he likes to hear, he selects for words, not actions.

Selective forces are powerful allies when dealing with biological and human processes. These selective forces include:

  • Goals. Negative, problem-based goals, or managing against what we don't want, typically selects for a continuation of the problem. A positive goal, managing for what we want, can be a powerful selective force, particularly when combined with monitoring.
  • Opportunities. Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) wrote that rational argument or proofs seldom change scientific paradigms. What changes them are opportunities to address new questions and new challenges. Reward systems are also selective forces. A very powerful selective force can be the opportunity for consumers, for example, to opt out of a dysfunctional or unsustainable system (e.g. by buying pasture raised meats and milk). An opportunity for farmers and ranchers may be to opt out of an input-output production system that puts them at the mercy of suppliers and commodity markets.
  • Monitoring. This can influence our selection of choices and management strategies. What is working toward our goal, what isn't? With complex systems that don't have determined outcomes, such as most of biology and human affairs, monitoring is essential to creativity and innovation.
  • Facilitating shifts in beliefs and behaviors. What we believe, and how we behave, are primary selective forces in everything we do. Education, awareness, and creating a safe environment for people to make shifts are incredibly important, especially as the "us versus them" polarity frequently encountered in human conflicts greatly restricts creativity and keeps us in a frame of managing AGAINST what we do not want.

These aren't separate strategies, but are interdependent. The Soil Carbon Challenge involves all of them. We hope you can get involved.