Policy pyramids

Situation: For years, working groups and strategy sessions on soil carbon have focused hopes on a market for soil carbon credits or offsets. Even with the failure of cap and trade in the US Senate, this focus dominates policy conversations in the US.

There is relatively little data on soil carbon change, especially from nonstandard land management strategies. Understanding of how carbon cycling works, in complex situations and with various types of management, is shaky and overly influenced by all the factors on the upper layer on the left, above.

Worst possible outcomes: this focus continues to occupy hopes and dreams, time and energy. A workable market or incentive does not emerge. Or, if a market emerges, it rewards practices rather than performance, does not significantly enhance soil health, and cannot be maintained. We remain in the situation pictured on the left, above.

Best possible outcomes. Strong platforms develop in terms of data and understanding, with good and improving performance in turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter that is monitored. If there is a policy incentive or market, it is firmly supported by understanding and data, and may be local rather than national, with the benefits close to the costs.

Ways to foster best possible outcomes. Start at the bottom, not the top. Develop a wide-ranging and site-specific range of data and proven possibilities on soil carbon change, which is a keystone indicator of biosphere function on land. This data should be public and available, not secret or unavailable as is most of it now. Understanding of carbon cycling, soil health, biosphere function will probably follow, as well as performance and policy. (Learn more about positive deviance.)

The Soil Carbon Challenge starts at the bottom. And the bottom of the page is where our contact info is. Please contact us if you're interested in a baseline, getting trained as a Monitor, or if you are interested in helping us out with a donation. We can also accept donations to support and implement specific and local monitoring projects.

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.

Terry Gompert

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Terry Gompert, of Center, Nebraska, USA, on March 25. Terry was a good friend and a dynamic and effective force for holistic management and soil health, and he will be sorely missed.

Abe Collins has begun a celebration page here and everyone who knew Terry is encouraged to contribute. The wiki page does not require registration or login.

Carbon that counts (Christine Jones)

Christine Jones has a new paper here.

"Failure to acknowledge/ observe/ measure/ learn how to rapidly build fertile topsoil may emerge as one of the greatest oversights of modern civilisation." The paper emphasizes the differences between the decomposition pathway and the liquid carbon pathway, and the consequences of the failure to recognize the difference.

Google Earth Engine displays satellite data on energy flow

A 32-day Landsat EVI composite image from Google Earth Engine showing San Juan Bautista, California, from April 7 to May 9, 2010. The town is at upper left. The tan-colored areas, upper center, are farm fields. The darker green areas on the bottom are pasture lands and woodland.  

Selman Waksman's HUMUS: Origin, Chemical Composition, and Importance in Nature (1936)

Selman Waksman, a microbiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, wrote this thorough and well-researched book on humus in 1936. It is available as a 21.6 mb pdf (text-searchable) download here.

California Grassland Carbon Challenge: What we learned, advice for moving ahead

photo by Carol Hirashima

In January, 7 land managers hosted me as I sampled and established baseline sites (22 total so far) for the California Challenge. The weather was ideal.

On January 24, the Morris family hosted a meeting in at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista facilitated by Jeff Goebel with at least 55 people participating. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the possibility of turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter, and engage people's interest and creativity in this possibility. In the afternoon, after an excellent lunch prepared by the Retreat Center that included Morris Ranch grassfed shortribs cooked with balsamic syrup, Joe Morris led us on a short walk where he explained how their grass-fed beef enterprise depended on, and could probably continue to enhance plant productivity, soil cover, soil organic matter, and soil water, and how his holistic decision framework connected it all.

I felt that the meeting was an excellent start. At the close, some people expressed a desire for more basic information on the subject, and some for more detail, such as suggestions for their particular situation. I've been trying to meet these needs with this website (or http://managingwholes.com), and hope to organize things a bit better as we go. In the meantime, browse the information on the right hand side, and use search, or feel free to ask specific questions.

To the participants: Now that you've had some time to reflect, what did you learn from our meeting and afternoon at Joe Morris's ranch, and how do you feel about it?

What would you recommend, going forward? What can we do to create more movement in California, in building soil organic matter?

Using multi-species cover crops to improve soil health

This is an excellent presentation by Jay Fuhrer, who works for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in North Dakota, USA. He uses case studies to explain how innovative use of cover crops can boost soil health and productivity, and dramatically reduce the use of artificial fertilizers.

Sea WIFS biosphere animation

Watch the global carbon cycle! The link below takes you to a NASA page that loads a 90 megabyte animated GIF file showing chlorophyll concentration (in the oceans) and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, on land) as the seasons change. Note: this page requires a fair bit of computer memory and good internet connection to load the image. It may step around slowly until the image is fully loaded.

Carbon cycle video

The first two segments of a video presentation/animation of the carbon cycle.


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