Can policy build soil carbon? Part 2 of 2

(Part 1 of this post)

To summarize: the lack of organic matter in our soils isn't a problem, to be fixed with a solution. It's an opportunity, with divergent solutions. Yet our policy systems tend to select for convergent and standardized solutions, which are difficult to implement because of power struggles and escalating fears, or are too compromised by a "best practices" format to be most effective in a variety of situations. And if they do get implemented, they depend on large appropriations that may not always materialize.

Approved, implementable, and effective strategies and actions get scarcer and scarcer as the need for them gets more and more urgent. In the face of grave threats, the sense of freedom and possibility shrinks to a point. Is this what we want? It is a situation we have contributed to.

Challenging these dynamics, important as it is, won't be enough. Giving the "right" answers to the wrong questions is a steady job, but boring. A different selection system, with different selective forces, is needed. One that asks not what to do about global warming pollution, for example, but asks how the carbon cycle functions in this or that place, and what are the possibilities for enhancing it. For example, what are the possibilities, in a variety of situations, for turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter?

Prize competitions are a proven strategy for exploring, pushing the boundaries, and telling the story of what is possible. They can help change the questions, which can help shift leadership from top-level experts to successful local practitioners.

If we want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, should we convene a panel of experts to make predictions? Should we do a literature search on how fast six-year-olds can run? Should we build a computer model? Last but not least, can we interest and engage people in running, or teach or encourage them to run faster, by televising these activities?

A prize competition substitutes progress for the pendulum. We can offload the job of picking winners to the stopwatch, and to a multiplication of regional and local subcompetitions. The focus can be on results rather than on methods, practices, or politics.

Instead of a blueprint for power struggles, a prize competition can offer a platform for possibility, a kind of participatory public space that could enroll people and groups who are not now included in formulating responses to climate change, land degradation, floods and droughts, or any of the other issues over ecosystem services for which soil organic matter is the keystone.

The core idea could be to see how fast land managers could turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter over a decade or so, with results measured in tons per hectare per year. But those who bear the costs of loss of organic matter, such as local road and water districts, conservation districts, local governments, emergency management agencies, and more broadly, local economies--could add policy or research trials of their own onto the soil carbon monitoring platform. For example, the city of Wichita, Kansas has done a great deal to encourage the formation of soil organic matter and soil cover to safeguard their municipal water supply. Elsewhere, soil and water questions often remain disconnected.

The strategy of a prize competition is that of positive deviance. We identify people who are outstanding achievers, recognize them, seek to learn from them and emulate them. It's about asking who, before asking what. Instead of a narrow panel of experts drawing up a blueprint for best practices, it's about crowdsourcing and local leadership.

Help us create a platform for possibility to replace the downward spiral. The Soil Carbon Coalition is looking for people and organizations who would be willing to help design, promote, fund, and carry out The Soil Carbon Challenge, or World Carbon Cup.

I would welcome private communications, to info at soilcarboncoalition dot org or call me at 541-263-1888 6 am - 9 pm US Pacific time (GMT-8). I'm looking for people to contact, resources, partners.

Peter Donovan

See also Scenario for Soil Carbon Challenge


Idea well conceived. However, I think we should consider two categories i.e. broad-acreage and small backyard-scale to broaden the scope of participation. In fact, the latter category might create greater public awareness / interest of the issue concerned. I would suggest an approach similar to the "TransFarmer (Half-Agric + Half X)" I mentioned in one of my postings on Just some food for thought.

"Can policy build soil carbon...(parts 1 and 2)"--classic P Donovan reasoning--thoughtful and well expressed.

We concur with Sohominium's post--a "backyard" dimension to the prize leading to a "Cup" may be appropriate. It is likely a strategic idea if policy change is how success is to be defined.

Grassroots agitation and its resultant litigation, drives public policy. Public policy is a trailing phenomenon; it is incapable of leading change. Soil carbon does not vote--and thereby is not perceived (without grassroots pressure) to compete for scarce public policy courage.

A grassroots dimension to soil carbon accretion has yet to capture the imagination of its most informed and articulate advocates. Sohominium has made a nice contribution to framing an effective prize process.

The planet's soil carbon agenda may well reside on the window sill, the small garden or the backyard.

Excellent points above. Smallholder participation would be very desirable.

I think this approach is useful to raise public awareness; some of the most enthusiastic responses I have had to the concept in the UK have come from city gardeners and also those managing public parks, sports grounds and other such green urban spaces. As a farmer it has surprised and upset me a bit that this is where the most enthusiasm is; it is also going to be more difficult to manage these areas in a carbon positive way as they mostly rely on mechanical cutting - short spells of high intensity grazing is not going to do a lot of good to a cricket pitch.
If by increasing customer awareness of carbon farming, making them feel part of the campaign by encouraging suitable management of their own backyards, and the environmental benefits of eating appropriately managed grass fed beef, this will become a desirable product, grassland managers will have more reason to change their grazing management to capture more carbon.

William, thanks for these are interesting observations. There seem to be multiple aspects: turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter, and also devolving leadership from expert policy and reductionist science toward the grassroots. If we exclude people from meaningful participation in solutions, the politics tend toward sclerotic paralysis. One sees the same dynamics in food systems, or in education.

Full carbon accounting, at least using the best available calculators, may be a useful add-on the Challenge. Fossil fuel use will be subtracted, methane will also be some kind of negative, and so on. But it gets tricky fast.

(The availability of easily movable electrified netting is beginning to make animal maintenance of lawns feasible again, even small lawns.)