How do we mitigate climate change? A fashionable suggestion is technologically intensive carbon sequestration. That, however, is an excessively expensive and probably technically impossible method of capturing significant amounts of carbon. Another popular suggestion for sequestering carbon is planting trees.
A more traditional method — building up the soil — which is better for the environment has not been mentioned in mainstream discourse about climate change. Soil building is a simple low-tech technique for sequestering carbon. For centuries, careful farmers have realized how to build up the fertility of the soil. The technique that they have developed without really thinking in terms of carbon sequestration, however, is more suitable for slowing down climate change than the aforementioned alternatives.
Commercial US agriculture is largely based on “robbery agriculture,” as the great German chemist of the century and a half ago, Justus von Liebig, put it. When I published my book Farming for Profit in a Hungry World 30 years ago, I discovered that US agriculture was eroding about 30 pounds of soil for every pound of food it delivered to a US table. At the same time, my research for the book also found that US agriculture was burning about 10 calories of fuel for every calorie of food that it was delivering to a US table. I have no reason to believe that these imbalances have gotten any better since then. I strongly suspect that they have gotten worse.
So, when a plan for reducing carbon by way of agriculture is mentioned at all, it is to grow corn, perhaps the most industrialized crop, in order to produce ethanol. This process produces more energy than it consumes, even if a lot of credit is given to the energy value of the residues, which are fed to cattle. Even then, the net gain in energy is minimal and ignores the intensive consumption of water and the carbon released from the soil.
In contrast, careful agriculture, by putting more organic matter back into the soil, builds up soil fertility while sequestering carbon. This kind of traditional agriculture uses less mechanization.
Does this mean that society must revert to the past and turn more people into downtrodden farm workers? Capitalism might impose such an imperative, but the technology certainly does not. After all, many Sunday newspapers have a special section devoted to gardening because people find that sort of activity pleasant.
Final caveat: I do not pretend to have developed detailed data on how much a rational and cultural system could contribute to slowing down global warming, but I do know that the direction we are heading is wrong.
Michael Perelman is professor of economics at California State University at Chico, and the author of fifteen books, including Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity, The Perverse Economy: The Impact of Markets on People and the Environment, and Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology. Read his latest book The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology to the Next Great Depression, just published this month. Visit his blog Unsettling Economics: A Progressive Look at Economics and the Rest of the Screwed-up World at <michaelperelman.wordpress.com/>.