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Drawing Down Atmospheric Carbon

by Rebecca Canright

As a student studying sustainability at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, I am encouraged by the recent research that Paul Hawken and his colleagues have conducted on the 100 most effective solutions to global warming. The book Drawdown explains the potential benefits and drawbacks of each solution. I was particularly drawn to the section of the book on regenerative land use solutions, which aims to sequester, or “drawdown”, maximum carbon dioxide out of the air and into the soil.

We are already aware of the solutions to heal our planet.

Many regions of our world have nutrient-depleted soils due to intensive agriculture. When humans till or otherwise disturb soil’s delicate layers, much of the carbon stored within is released into the atmosphere—which is precisely what we don’t need right now, at a time when atmospheric carbon exceeds 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 million years. The last time carbon dioxide was at such high concentrations, the world’s oceans were at least 30 feet higher than they are today. The excessive CO2 we are releasing may result in a massive rise in sea levels and other climate rebound effects. Certainly, the realization of just how much we’ve tinkered with Mother Nature’s innate checks and balances, in so short a time (just a few hundred years, a blink of an eye in Earth’s 4.6 billion years of existence), should be enough to send us trembling under our bedcovers. It’s enough to make us throw up our hands and sigh, “It’s too big a problem for me to make any difference!” and continue to drive our gas-hungry cars, living our fuel-fizzling lifestyles in resigned frustration.

Well my friends, this will not do. We can subscribe to a different, positive narrative that trusts our collective power to heal the planetary wounds that cry for our attention. Listen to Earth as she speaks to us through the languages of thrashing hurricanes, painful droughts, and roaring wildfires; she asks for our loving stewardship. The solutions and their ingredients rest here in our hands. We may sow the seeds we know are healing, and trust that future generations will reap the fruits of our labors.

Despite the incredible urgency of the climate crisis, Paul Hawken stresses the importance of framing climate change action measures in a positive light, of focusing on solutions that speak to each of us as individuals, and then diving in. Perhaps Drawdown’s land stewardship section piques my interest most because I grew up on an organic farm. Organic, regenerative farming helped me realize the benefits of a direct and friendly partnership with the Earth and her soils, trees, and plants.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable resources to power our lifestyle and low-to-no-carbon technologies (such as vehicle electrification, and energy-efficient architecture) are crucial ways to prevent the future release of greenhouse gases. But since we’ve already overshot Earth’s carbon capacity, we also must sequester the excess of atmospheric carbon we’ve been releasing since the Industrial Revolution and so come closer to atmospheric balance.

These include organic, regenerative agriculture and holistic grazing management, afforestation (replanting logged forests and protecting existing ones) and tidal marsh plain elevation (protects tidal marshes, which sequester carbon very effectively, so they don’t turn into open water and therefore stop sequestering carbon). And trees are some of our greatest allies in carbon sequestration; according to Drawdown, expanding forestlands could capture over 895 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (when added to what current forests are already sequestering).

Fundamentally, we are already aware of the solutions to heal our planet. The challenge lies in overcoming societal inertia to implementing them. We have only been dependent on our fossil-fuel-extractive economy for about 300 years, which is a mere moment of human history. Many of us are already improving our own lives by planting trees, installing rooftop solar panels, buying more local produce, and eating more organically. These practices not only reduce carbon emissions, but they also clean the air, making it easier for humans and our wild animal brethren to breathe.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always trying to find the words that effectively and kindly encourage family and friends to join me in living lighter on our sweet Earth. If everyone did this, we could massively reduce our collective carbon footprint and also weaken the money-laden grip of the fossil fuel industry on our political and education systems. Choosing to invest in healing systems in their many forms, from supporting a local government candidate who champions education and climate change action, to utilizing our regional public transit system, to shopping at our local farmers’ market, empowers a more joyful economy where equality and environmental stewardship take precedence before profit.

Many towns and cities around the country are already leading the way in adopting sustainability initiatives and pro-local business policies. Let’s voice our approval for these pioneers and carry our shared vision to the places and people that need it most. There’s no time to waste, and everyone will benefit.

by Rebecca Canright

Rebecca Canright, a sophomore at Evergreen State College in Washington state, is from Asbury, New Jersey, where her parents have an organic farm.

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