A few weeks ago, the New York Times had a cover feature in its Sunday magazine, headlines, “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” The article examined agricultural practices that are less carbon-intensive, suggesting that “agriculture could pull carbon out of the air and into the soil.”
I am a huge and vocal fan of alternative agriculture in all its forms.
But the headline is misleading. The content of the article answers the question pretty decisively: the answer is, no, dirt cannot save the earth! In response to a breathless initiative by France to “completely halt the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide” in this way, the essay says:
Few experts I spoke to think the impact would be quite that grand; Pete Smith, for example, estimates that soil could, at the most, store just 13 percent of annual carbon-dioxide emissions at current levels. “I appreciate that everyone wants to save the planet,” he told me, “but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this is all we need to do.”
Thus, even if (as the article indicates) we imagined a total and complete change in our agricultural system, one which has some unknown costs as well, we do not make much progress. So the question is why the New York Times decided nevertheless to provide an extensive article discussing this issue as so revolutionary. What makes this approach attractive?
The answer has to be that this reinforces the prejudices of the New York Times readers. New York Times readers apparently like problems to be solved, first and foremost, by other people changing. Farmers need to change. And if we go “beyond organic” and “beyond sustainable” to “regenerative farming” to make it happen, then we can do something. The proof? The article interviews two farmers who are betting they come out ahead financially if they adopt these methods. Experts, however, are not so sure:
Critics of regenerative agriculture say that it can’t be adopted broadly and intensively enough to matter — or that if it can, the prices of commodities might be affected unfavorably. Mark Bradford, a professor of soils and ecosystem ecology at Yale, questions what he sees as a quasi-religious belief in the benefits of soil carbon. The recommendation makes sense intuitively, he told me. But the extent to which carbon increases crop yield hasn’t been quantified, making it somewhat “faith-based.”
William Schlesinger, an emeritus soil scientist at Duke, points out that “regenerative” practices might inadvertently cause emissions to rise elsewhere. If you stop tilling to increase soil carbon, for example, but use more herbicides because you have more weeds, then you probably haven’t changed your overall emissions profile, he says. He thinks the climate-mitigation potential of carbon farming has been greatly oversold.
[Farmer] Williams has reduced his herbicide use, not increased it, but Schlesinger’s broader point — about the need for a careful overall accounting of greenhouse gases — is important. Williams, Brown and others like them aren’t focused on climate change; no one really knows if the carbon they put in the ground more than offsets the methane produced by their cows, for example. What they do demonstrate is that augmenting soil carbon while farming is not only possible, but also beneficial, even in a business sense. And that makes the prospect of rolling out these practices on a larger scale much easier to imagine.
Well, sure, but even here, the net accounting is mixed at best. Why put so much energy into something with such an uncertain, anecdotal outcome?
The essay, however, is most egregious in displaying blind spots when it begins with the tale of two amateur authors who go back to the land:
When John Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, bought their ranch in Marin County, Calif., in 1998, it was mostly because they needed more space. Rathmann is an acclaimed children’s book author — “Officer Buckle and Gloria” won a Caldecott Medal in 1996 — and their apartment in San Francisco had become cluttered with her illustrations. They picked out the 540-acre ranch in Nicasio mostly for its large barn, which they planned to remake into a spacious studio. Wick, a former construction foreman — they met when he oversaw a renovation of her bathroom — was eager to tackle the project.
Turns out their efforts to get back to “pristine nature” harmed the land, so they invited farmers to graze again, discovering the regenerative aspect of the cow’s land use. But… wait a sec, maybe it is not particularly environmentally friendly to leave a city and live out in the middle of nowhere on 540 acres?! Maybe THAT has a pretty huge carbon impact?!
But here is the deeper problem: maybe the New York Times could do a better job calling into question lifestyle choices that their readers actually pursue – like pristine homes far from anywhere (or second homes!), frequent long-distance travel, upscale remodeling projects, and the like – and say, “Can New York Times readers sabe the earth?” And the answer is, well, yes. The educated elite of North America and Europe ARE the people who can save the planet… if they recognize the need to live differently.
Call this article an example of “evasive news” – an attempt to narrate things in a way that leaves out the significant parts of a story, or leaves them unspoken, in order to evade the responsibilities that actual readers of the piece might have to live differently. This isn’t partisan – political media on both sides do this. “Evasive news” tells partial stories whose purpose is often enough to evade the uncomfortable responsibility the media’s own users might have for social problems. Instead, the New York Times needs to ask whether and how it glamorizes lifestyles that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be adopted by any significant portion of the world’s population, because their adoption by a select few (reading the Times) is already gravely endangering the earth.
Wouldn’t it be nice (and more effective) to see an article like that?