Understanding where our bread is really buttered

This article derives closely from a letter I wrote on 10th March following our first local extinction rebellion meeting. It began with ‘Thank you really for convening and bringing together a group of people who are concerned about climate change in our locality.’

It continued with highlighting the seeming lack of importance of Climate Change to MPs in Westminster:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy2SWEMbIBw&feature=youtu.be

One explanation was shown on Jill Gough’s face book page:

Generally speaking, whatever actions any of us take to try to help the situation regarding Climate Change, we must collectively get it right and be effective in bringing change for the better, and it seems we have very little time. 

Clearly different people will do different things but I feel these may all be better with increasing understanding of the whole. The more we are aware, the more powerful our personal actions will become and in turn advise and support more useful actions of NGOs and Governments.

If we are trying to get the government to take action on climate change we need to have best understanding of what in practice we want them to do – without ‘throwing any babies out with the bathwater’.

There is great danger that in their ignorance they will take actions from advisors who themselves may not have the broadest understanding of what really is needed. There are many very good things happening that are still embryonic in terms of scale but must not get lost from the bigger picture as they go a long way towards achieving what is needed.

Looking outward to the essential work of many variously informed spokespeople on climate including for instance the IPCC, The Stockholm Resilience Centre, The Oxford Climate Research Network and CAT’s zero Carbon Britain, even they at times get ‘carried away’ with their own particular focus areas and lose some caution in the areas they are not familiar with. Science is there to help us with our understanding, not to replace it.

The worst of all is of course the media trying to report on what they appear to have so very little understanding of, which in turn misinforms the public, which in turn puts pressure and possibly distortion on any governments’ action because of governments’ fear of unpopularity.

All living creatures are potentially able to make good decisions without understanding the complexity of any science that explains them[1].
Even those who know very much about it all really must also always keep in mind that we do not know everything – and that dogma of any kind can be dangerous. 

Having written that, I am going to be kind of dogmatic by saying that we must listen to nature. (It was good to hear ‘regenerative’ used at the extinction rebellion meeting.)   

One of my ‘favourite’ graphs is below. (We are now of course over 400 ppm)  What stands out for me is that ‘nature’ managed to achieve relative stability for at least 400,000 years. It is only in the last few hundred that we, humanity, have escalated unprecedented (damaging) changes.

Source: NASA

We must recognise our complete dependence on a proper functioning natural world.  So we therefore simply (?) have to help and allow nature to recover and stop doing all the things we know are causing problems ( -that are continuing to destroy natural systems).
This is easier said than done, and how does one know what actually helps and what is just more blundering interference – like much of modern agriculture, albeit initially well-meaning – which behaves like the proverbial bull in a china shop, often applying crude mechanistic practices to beautifully interrelated complex biological or ecological systems. (Ecological systems of cooperation as well as competition.)

(Clearly though some decisions should be easy; a third runway at Heathrow displays profound ignorance and perhaps illustrates the collective slavery of those seduced by economic growth in a debt-based economy – believing that money is the ‘bottom line’?)  

Also on the agricultural theme, there have been several sweeping generalisations in recent years that become adopted by many, these only help perpetuate myths about practices that are incredible distortions of what may actually be happening.[2]  

Intelligence of any level, in any creature, works within natural constraints (or context).  If we tamper with those constraints, we have to do it either with full knowledge of the earth’s interrelated complexity, or in ways that are somehow benign – which may well be possible, like best-practice agriculture that with simple true common sense really can work in harmony with nature. 

As illustration, sheep will graze a field and sometimes you might see a bit of rivalry with a ewe trying to push another away from a tasty morsel of pasture.  However if you go in with a bag of concentrate feed, it is a challenge to fill the feed troughs without being pushed to the ground and quickly enough that all can get a fair share.   If you were to leave the full bag of feed on the ground, mayhem would result with most of the feed wasted, trampled into the ground and very possibly some seriously injured sheep.  People of course are far more civilised,  we invented money so that we could create all manner of ‘clever’ tricks to get more than our fair share of the cake – and with all the increasing mayhem[3].

It can easily be argued that humanities enthusiasm for trying to recreate nature begins with curiosity, sometimes directly to gain survival advantage which largely translates through money in modern times. No matter how laudable the goodwill is initially, it is soon acquired by someone for money or power/control.  If we might regain some humility, we could have possibly allowed ourselves to be ‘chuffed’ at say, creating amazing flying machines but at the same time acknowledging the far superior magnificence of birds that can fly with grace and beauty, some around the world without causing any pollution.  Our ‘amazing’ flying machines like most of our technologies, however, are slow to evolve sufficiently well to address those inconvenient side effects – that skilfully get buried and encouraged by our (not fit for purpose) economic system that fails to include all the true costs – which would affect profit within that system.  Money is laughable really, pension plans for instance that invest for the future in practices that largely destroy the future.

My overriding (and underlying) point is that Agriculture and Land Use (/abuse) are fundamental to everything else and they are not given a fraction of the attention they deserve, although this is slowly improving.  

My own farming started with  ‘look after the land and it will look after you’.  Recently I have added ‘if we don’t it can’t’.  And of course the principle applies to the whole of the earth.  Climate Change is essentially a symptom of our mismanagement of planet earth. Biodiversity loss is very much a part of this. It does not need to be this way.

Fossil fuels have contributed directly to green house gases and other pollutants but they have also enabled us to escalate the destruction of the natural environment and particularly the loss of vegetation and soils, and including of course forests. 

One apparently dominant prevailing concern is ‘how do we keep the lights on’ (mostly a euphemism for sustaining the industrial growth economy) but the fundamental concern should be how do we grow healthy food.

This is where there is real cause for optimism as the directions for this to happen are the same that will help regeneration of the natural world and thus improve stability and resilience of the earth and its natural systems. 

The earth’s vegetation has been lost due to humanity’s direct actions and indirectly as desertification has increased.
More than a third of the earth’s top soil has been lost to erosion in addition to soils lost to agriculture through salinisation – a result of mismanagement of soils and vegetation – and thus carbon lost from the soil.  The corresponding loss in vegetation has accordingly dramatically reduced photosynthesis.

Clearly fossil fuel use has to be reduced and rapidly – and we make the perception and reality of this far more difficult than we need to because we are so very inefficient and wasteful (along with so much propaganda supporting last-century economics and infrastructure.)

It is lamentable we have lost many decades of inaction as many have been aware of this for a long.  Whatever analysis is accepted, any replacement energy sources must be truly benign.  
Many good directions are already being taken although they are far from mainstream. (watch Michel Pimbert’s opening words in the ‘Public Debate on Agroecology in the European Parliament’ and much more.[4] ) 

Keep in mind there is already vast understanding and insight into nature-friendly farming.  

The Soil Association began more than 60 years ago, recognising the significance and importance of healthy soil.  In effect they took a stand against the tide of the so called agricultural ‘green revolution’ which achieved relatively short term high yields through chemistry whilst (inadvertently?) ignoring the biological organisms that maintain soil structure, carbon and hydrology and so on. Putting this into practice on a much larger scale is not the biggest challenge.  In the words of Prof Hans Herren in ‘Symphony of the Soil’,  “Of course agroecology, organic actually, can feed the world, but, it doesn’t fill the pockets of the few….” [5].  The mainstream financial drivers are often in serious opposition to better practices.  However, while the corporate masters of western agriculture may be still sleeping, there are signs of awakening in some conventional western agriculture.

A programme about soils on Farming Today recently revealed much development in farmers’ taking on board that soils hold carbon and more of it has many benefits.  However, the thinking hasn’t quite encompassed the whole yet?  ( – about 2 minutes into the program; the Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer for the Lower Thames said “Building your soil organic matter is good for soil health in the first instance but one of the benefits is it improves the structure of the soil and enables it to hold more water, so in the lower Thames one of the concerns is pesticides getting into the water courses, so if the water can be held up in the fields after the farmers have used pesticides, then that is so much better it won’t leach out and go into the water courses.” Hopefully the broader realisation that agricultural chemicals damage the organic matter in soils might arrive soon!)  To be fair, the first 4 minutes of Farming Today, on a Monday at the beginning of March, indicated that better directions are evolving, albeit maybe too slowly for my understanding of our predicament.

The courts, too, often move in good directions.  Paul Mobbs’ report on Fracking eventually was listened to. A very good summary of a recent court judgement and how it relates fracking & climate is available[8].
Also in the bigger picture, it becomes ever more clear that we have to help nature restore the deserts we have created and the forests we have destroyed. In Walter Jehne’s words, we need to rebuild the “soil carbon sponge”[9].

Carbon capture is best done through natural means – photosynthesis. This way we also get healthy food and more useful space for many people.

John D. Liu asked us to remember that “Ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.”[10] 

Dr. Christine Jones explains more in her “Soil Carbon: from microbes to mitigation” talk.

From GM education we see that we must avoid risking undermining natures’ systems any further[11]. Adding to the inspirational understanding, Knepp Estate produce high quality food having restored abundant nature on their farms[12].

There is much more of course, particularly for instance the work the Sustainable Food Trust has done on True Cost Accounting and and also encouraging and developing ideas of harmony. Their London conference in 2013 with many enlightened speakers revealed important understanding.

Not so long ago I rediscovered David Montgomery’s book ‘Dirt: the erosion of Civilisation’. He wrote  ” – how we treat the land determines how the land will treat us, and for how long.  I also saw that we can avoid the common fate of ancient civilisations as long as we do not repeat their grand folly of stripping off fertile topsoil at an unsustainable rate.  Unfortunately that is exactly what we are doing, only this time on a global scale.”

Martin Peck 10th March

Addenda (20th April): David Attenborough’s “Our Planet” series is on Netflix: “If we wreck the natural world in the end we wreck ourselves”


1. These words, found on 7th March, initially through the Wales Permaculture website, seem to be good advice, a good start, a brilliant short cut to bypassing complexity into everyday action.
Jennifer Stephens – 5 easy ways to make a difference to climate change DO THESE NOW!!!

  • Ethical banking eg Triodos (I was shocked to see banking with HSBC was my biggest carbon footprint as they are heavy investors in fossil fuels)
  • Energy, buy all renewables eg Goodenergy , they are not any more expensive
  • Food – buy only organic local pasture for life
  • Stop buying new stuff, no new clothes or toys 2nd hand, everything is there on eBay
  • Spread the word, Get all your friends and family to do the same, tell people the house is on fire but they have the power to put it out.

2. See for instance the article from Joanna Blythman  https://www.mouthymoney.co.uk/how-vegan-evangelists-are-propping-up-the-ultra-processed-food-industry/

3. Enlightened agriculture would not of course be feeding concentrate to ruminants!

4. Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience https://www.youtube.com/embed/5u4JSaeurso

5. also from Hans Herren https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxGtln5wa8g

8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP1mzUOx1fE  ( https://drillordrop.com/2019/03/06/breaking-campaigners-win-court-challenge-over-government-support-for-fracking/ )
(Also Free Range Activism List https://lists.riseup.net/www/arc/freerange )

9. Walter Jehne speaking in Penrith last summer: “Climate Change – the answer is beneath our feet”. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cRxrt4VNajHyFR1rn3sQ5crXmBORUDqm/view 

10. John D Liu – Hope in a Changing Climate (2009) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLdNhZ6kAzo. He asked us to remember “Ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.” when he gave his update at the London Savory conference. See also Allan Savory Ted Talk (2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpTHi7O66pI 

11. https://abiggerconversation.org   ( and https://www.gmfreeze.org )

12. Knepp Estate rewilding videos have important insight. https://knepp.co.uk/rewildingkneppvideo/

Featured image is from Martin Peck’s farm at Hirnant, Wales.

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