TOPEKA, Kan. — Keynote speaker Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute, helped the Kansas Rural Center mark its 40th anniversary at their annual conference in early November by dealing head on with the greatest challenge we face as humans on the planet: climate change. He spoke specifically to the 180 or so attendees about the role agriculture plays in ecological sustainability and economic justice in the face of climate change, arguing that we must meet many challenges simultaneously.
Iutzi began by quoting part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural speech on March 4, 1933—the now famous “the only fear we have to fear is fear itself” speech that rallied the country to deal with a host of economic and social crises.
FDR’s words, Iutzi said, allowed the new president to rally the nation behind a program of suspending despair, suspending inaction and getting down to work. The problems outlined in the New Deal were more obvious than those the world faces today, in terms of material deprivation and the collapse of the economy, stated Iutzi. Climate problems have not yet entered into the day to day field of vision for many as the Great Depression of the 1930’s did. “But our problems today are simultaneously more dire and concrete,” he said. “They concern the very biophysical and biochemical systems that sustain life on this earth. The global climate doesn’t get much more concrete than that.”
The Climate Reality.
In 2018, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change published a special report (https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/) documenting that human activities from the industrial era to the present have already caused a full degree Celsius increase in global warming, “which will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long term changes in the climate system,” Iutzi quoted from the report. This is the global warming that we’re locked into, even if all the smokestacks go dry today, he added.
If it continues to increase at the current rate, by 2050, we can expect hot extremes in most inhabited regions, excessive rainfall in some places, severe drought in other places. The effects include impacts to plants, insects and vertebrates, and also the rather chilling phrase “transformations of ecosystems from one type to another,” he said. Climate related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth are projected to increase.
To avoid this, global carbon dioxide emissions must decrease by about half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
Agricultural sustainability and economic justice.
Agriculture contributes about 9% of the total greenhouse gas emissions impacting climate change, Iutzi said. But the shift away from the extraction and emission economy also must take into consideration the social and other problems. Economic justice is also at play and affects both rural and urban communities in different ways. Around the world, those most impacted by the impacts of climate change are the poor and the disadvantaged, those who have not actually contributed to the problems.
“We are having a pell-mell transition into underemployment in the service sector at the same time our level of extraction is only increasing,” Iutzi said. “Rather than agriculture being poised to simply charge out and save the day, we have problems of our own, such as soil erosion, water quality, soil carbon loss, and profitability issues.”
To help understand the ecological limits and social justice issues, Iutzi put forward a framework developed by Oxford economist Kate Raworth, called the “safe and just space framework.” Within the framework, a safe space is one that avoids violating any critical planetary boundaries such as atmospheric CO2 concentrations, nitrogen/phosphorous cycles, pollution, biodiversity loss, and so forth. A just existence is one where the vast majority of the people in the world attain certain minimum standards of nutrition, good health, education, housing, income, social equity and political voice, energy, and so forth.
Raworth plotted these two sets of factors on two different circular diagrams, and then superimposed them on one another so that the acceptable minimum for human well-being is the inner ring, and the maximum burden placed on the planet is the outer ring, and you get a “donut” that illustrates the narrow band humanity is called to exist in.
Using this framework, other researchers found that the United States scored very high in almost every area of minimum standards for a just existence, but greatly exceeded our thresholds for living within our means compared to other countries in the world, he said. “Overall, countries that are living within their means are not supplying a very abundant existence for their citizens, and countries that are supplying a prosperous existence are running the planet down,” Iutzi concluded. Not a lot of global north counties meet the safe and just space criteria.
With our present economy driven by our continued extraction of coal, oil and natural gas, Iutzi noted that we have a lot of work to do if we are to find a space within our ecological means that also treats people with dignity and justice. “We need to decouple human well-being from economic growth,” Iutzi said. “And, we need to do it fast.”
Solving the problem of agriculture.
The Land Institute’s paradigm is trying to move beyond confronting the problems in agriculture to the problem of agriculture,” Iutzi said. There are things that can be done to slow the rate of resource loss within the bounds of the crops and cropping systems in place now, but in order to make decisive improvements, we need to mimic the structure and function of native ecosystems. To do that, we need to mirror those systems.
“The key values that emerge for adjusting sustainable human existence on the planet are also those same familiar to perenniality and diversity,” he said.
These key values translate to society, he added. The value of diversity in society is intuitive, not only in the context of what’s right, but also what’s effective. Educating and informing one another from our diverse global experience benefits all of society.
Civilization has suffered a lack of perennial regrowth structures from which to replenish and renew our good decision making and our collective wisdom, Iutzi said. Instead, we’ve relied too heavily on the individual to consistently make good decisions without a lot of help. Perenniality calls us to weave sustainability and justice into the culture and institutions.
As far as agriculture’s role in this endeavor, stewardship of the soil and food itself are still the starting point.“ If we as rural people, as agricultural people, have the opportunity to lead and facilitate, we should certainly take it,” he said. Iutzi named four principles for a policy framework and collective action for confronting the problem of climate change:
- must be ecologically sound;
- must be just, equitable and kind;
- must align our day to day incentives and disincentives in order to get the results we want
- must revolve around immediate action
Phasing out fossil fuels and phasing in renewable energy and energy efficiency must begin right away. “We have no excuse for not taking immediate action on things that can be deployed immediately.”
Green is good
Over the last year, there has been a great deal of discussion nationally about the “Green New Deal,” and renewed interest in the old New Deal advanced by FDR in his 1933 speech. Then, as now, political factions are butting heads, blocking any forward motion. One year can make a big difference. For example, bold new leaders are now in place in Kansas and also around the country following the 2018 elections.
In just the first 100 days of FDR’s presidency, Congress acted on many initiatives designed to turn the country around. This sort of seachange was demonstrated then, and it can happen again. Many of the initiatives gained traction early because the people implementing them believed in what they were doing. “The people at that time cultivated a willingness to try things, to fail fast, to adjust and move on,” Iutzi said.
One of the biggest innovations of the New Deal era, he said, was the idea of working from two lists simultaneously. There was a list of reforms that were easy to get support for, and there was a list of initiatives that were more radical and transformative.
But, the focus of the old New Deal was to rev up the economy, which is contrary to what needs to occur today in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. Great caution and insight are needed when we speak today of spooling up economic activity, in order to avoid worsening the condition we’re trying to improve, Iutzi said.
Things that the Green New Deal proposes that we should get behind:
- Retraining people for a range of green jobs, ranging from installation of solar panels to farmer training programs.
- Immediate policy and collective action to start phasing out fossil fuels while simultaneously spooling up as much renewable energy and efficiency as we possibly can.
- Taking immediate action to perennialize our agriculture by grassing down as much of our acreage as we can afford to and fully supporting an effort towards perennial grain crops.
The Land Institute is in the process of rebooting its 50-year Farm Bill model for the climate change era. Key is stacking benefits of immediate changes that can be adopted today with increasingly transformative benefits from perennials over time. Iutzi has faith that each incremental step towards the goal will allow the masses to get behind the process and continue to push further towards bolder change.
“We can visualize a world that’s beautiful and inspiring at the other end of this,” he said.
Embracing social capital and relating to one another in community needs to be our top priority, he said, underscoring the sentiment with a quote from the 19th century French sociologist and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville: “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart expands and the human spirit develops only through the reciprocal action of human beings on one another.”
Rather than choosing to work individually, to work outside the context of policy collectively, or to work through policy, Iuzi urged attendees to dive into all three and use them to mutually reinforce one another. In the face of overwhelming odds, he shared a nugget of wisdom he learned from Wes Jackson, who in turn was inspired by the writings of Gandhi. “When people relentlessly explain why actions you propose in the face of injustice are impractical, we must relentlessly reply, “But what are we going to do?”
In the face of climate change, Iutzi urged, we have no choice but to dive in, regardless of the unlikely possibility of immediate success. Failures will simply prepare us better for that moment when we arrive at consensus and can make progress, whether it arrives quickly or years from now.
“We need to take ownership of our skill at making change, because that’s the only thing that is going to get us out of trouble now,” he said. “We can do it if we work together.”
Veronica Coons is a journalist who covered the conference keynote speakers for KRC.
— Veronica Coons, Kansas Rural Center
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