Know-that and know-how

Will reducing carbon dioxide emissions slow down global warming? Hardly, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century" (IPCC Fourth Assessment FAQ, section 10.3).

Carbon dioxide is a stable gas, requiring energy to break its molecular bonds. With 100 percent reductions in 2007, we will maintain what NASA climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous levels—not just for a few years, but for generations. The area under the Keeling curve will remain huge, and that translates into ocean heating.

What this means is that our current widespread advocacy of CO2 emissions reduction has little leverage on what most scientists regard as the cause of global warming—the highest atmospheric CO2 levels in hundreds of thousands of years. The assumption that CO2 emissions reductions will do the trick has become popular groupthink, not subject to scrutiny because it's what we all know, and may seem like the only available option. Once again, we are goading ourselves into a gallant cavalry charge into the barbed wire.

What's needed is to reverse the Keeling curve, to quickly and significantly reduce existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2. According to NASA's figures on the global carbon cycle, fossil fuel burning represents less than 3 percent of the annual flux of CO2 into the atmosphere (3.4% according Rattan Lal's figures). The rest is biology, which also responds to human management.

Carbon-neutral won't be enough. We have to be carbon-negative, to be pulling carbon out of the atmosphere into some safe, stable place. Various technologies have been proposed for this, but so far they haven't succeeded in solving the immense storage or disposal issues, and they require energy. The oxidation or burning of carbon compounds yields energy, and the reverse reactions require energy. Reversing the Keeling curve will require enormous amounts of energy.

So let's ask ourselves two questions: 1) What is an immense source of energy, preferably free or inexpensive, that can be used to pull carbon out of the atmosphere? 2) Where can this energy put all the carbon that needs to be taken out of the atmosphere, where it will be fairly safe, and even yield us benefits?

The answer, as it so often turns out, is all around us and right under our feet. Green plants using free and abundant solar energy can capture the carbon, fairly quickly. Soil organic matter can store much of it for generations, and with enormous and varied benefits besides. But my telling you this won't show you how to accomplish it.

James Hansen, Al Gore, and many many others have done us huge service by calling our attention to the climate problem and amassing the evidence. But their strength is in knowing that there is a problem. Knowing how to solve it is another matter. We tend to confuse "know-that" with know-how.

the Keeling curve
The Keeling curve

The know-how to capture large amounts of atmospheric carbon in plants and quickly turn it into soil organic matter is surprisingly well developed. But unlike the know-that, this know-how hasn't been developed by leading universities, environmental organizations, National Science Foundation grants, or government agencies. Some determined and independent-minded ranchers and farmers, associated with various strands of alternative agriculture, have figured out innovative, often low-cost, and locally adapted ways of turning sunshine into marketable products, and have discovered rapid and substantial increases in soil organic matter (most of which is carbon) as a kind of side effect. This isn't technology, it's management.

Because this know-how is adapted to each individual situation and is not based on particular species or inputs, there aren't any universal recipes or best management practices to hand down. Instead, the focus is on enhancing fundamental biosphere processes such as water cycling, nutrient cycling, solar energy flow, and synergy/succession, all of which tend to favor soil organic matter. The complexity that these processes bring requires feedback—monitoring and adaptation based on results, rather than expectations or assumed outcomes.

These kinds of management cannot be described or defined by our usual ways of understanding agriculture, or by categories or terminology based on what practices or inputs it uses or doesn't, such as organic, no-till, or natural farming. (For examples, see http://managingwholes.com.)

In general, those who are building soil organic matter practice neither neglect or abuse, but tend toward intensive and adaptive management, producing high-quality food and fiber with few inputs. Soils tend to be covered year-round, either with growing or dormant plants, and this often means grass-based agriculture. In seasonally arid environments especially, animals tend to be an essential part of the system.

Beyond this, generalities and universal rules about soil-building grazing and agriculture are hard to make. This is frustrating, because our preference for "know-that" expert panels has trained us to want to "know-what." As informed consumers, we want to know what's good and what's bad.

But sustainability—what sustains what—can only be described locally. Its "whats" are local, and it is ongoing action, know-how. Since the 1980s, Allan Savory and Holistic Management International have been prototyping and teaching a holistic decision framework that connects know-that and know-how on specific local scales. It's available, but it is not generally recognized or practiced because of the persistent cultural divide between institutional science and what works on the ground, between peer-reviewed, universal know-that and feedback-based, localized know-how.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is necessary, but it is not enough. We also need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already in the air, toward where it was in the 1800s, before most of the world's prairie soils were plowed and much of their organic matter oxidized into the atmosphere. Some land managers already know how to build soil organic matter rapidly, while reducing floods, droughts, improving human health, local rural economies, restoring water supplies, and lessening dependence on fossil-fuel inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer and other agrichemicals.

Know that the know-how exists, on every continent. But how can it be proliferated, how can it spread? To reverse the Keeling curve will require more than a few pioneers and innovative souls.

It will require transformational change—in our institutions, power arrangements, economic arrangements such as farm subsidies, and politics, or the manner in which we make decisions together. Ecosystem services such as carbon storage and better water cycling will need to be part of our economies. It will require transformational change in the way we understand the environment, the carbon cycle, and biosphere functions in general.

Challenging as this sounds, all kinds of people are ready for it. It is the great ecological, economic, and political opportunity of this century. Because it's a local opportunity, with all the near-term local benefits of increased soil organic matter, everyone can participate.

I can't tell you how to do this, because that's something that each of us has to discover by doing, by a process of inquiry. On this website we're launching a collective inquiry process that anyone who's registered with us (free and quick) can participate in. It's somewhat like a forum, only we don't debate or ridicule each other.