A Natural New Deal for Planet Earth

by Zhiwa Woodbury, M.A., J.D.

With the birth of the Sunrise Movement in America, the emergence of Extinction Rebellion in UK and across Europe, and the catalyst of climate prodigy Greta Thunberg, whose superpower is her preternatural ability to speak truth to power, real honest-to-goddess solutions to the climate crisis are sprouting from the grass roots and intertwining to illuminate the path of recovery from the global trauma that pervades our politics. With children pleading hearts-in-hands, and parents standing up for them around the world, scientists’ voices are now actually being heard over the tired old drone of corporate-controlled politicians.

A new kind of rational political movement is emerging, especially women ascending to power who are determined to take the radical steps that are called for by the nature of this crisis. As if in response to the call of women in politics, professionals in the streets, and children on strike, some revolutionary scientific thinking, decades in the making, is also emerging right now, and leading scientists are proposing an exciting new strategy that could compensate for the inadequacies of the Paris Accords. This new science makes it astonishingly clear that our greatest potential ally in reversing climate change is nature herself. Rather than having to geoengineer our way out of this crisis with a Pandora’s box of hubristic and unproven technologies, which are guaranteed to have unintended consequences, all we actually need to do is work with the natural world to unleash her unlimited potential to capture carbon from the atmosphere. The bonus is that, if we follow the leaders of this new ecological and regenerative approach, we ourselves will become healthier in the transition, and most other species will benefit as well, potentially halting the Sixth Great Extinction in its tracks.

A Green Beginning

The Green New Deal is the prototype for climate solutions emerging from the ground-up.  The youth-led Sunrise Movement may have changed politics forever by storming Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November of last year, demanding along with their fearless new leader-elect, Notorious AOC, that Congress enact a Green New Deal. The still-clueless Pelosi, along with her ossified partner in political putrefaction Dianne Feinstein, have effectively scolded AOC  and the Sunrise kids to “Get off my lawn!” But their neoliberal refrain of “No We Can’t” was quickly nullified by the growing legion of ‘progressive’ Democrats and Social-Democrats who are listening to the children and following their lead. 

As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts remarked when he introduced a Green New Deal resolution with AOC in February, it seemed appropriate that the Sunrise Movement’s “national tour is beginning right here in Boston [] because we are the city of revolutions.” 

And just as the mandate for a Green New Deal takes shape in the American electorate, promising to be on the ballot in 2020, the powerful synergy of Greta Thunberg’s once lonely, now global school strike and the UK-instigated Extinction Rebellion – led by the kind of grown-ups Greta has called into action – has sparked the beginnings of a European Spring with their clear chorus that politicians everywhere must declare a climate emergency because, as Greta puts it, our house is on fire.

While still nascent, the beauty of the Green New Deal in America and Extinction Rebellion in Europe lies in the utter simplicity and unambiguous morality of their demands: tell the truth; keep it in the ground; take action to decarbonize our economy now (net zero by 2025); go beyond politics; and, end economic inequality. It is a framework, in other words, for rebuilding society to meet the demands of the climate crisis itself.

One of the Five Freedoms that underpin this global framework for climate justice is the “freedom to live” based on the premise that “[t]here is enough on our Earth for people everywhere to have what they need to live well.” This may seem absurd to those brainwashed by the corporate culture of capitalism, which favors instead an “every man for himself” mentality with women and children last. But to see the truth in the freedom to live, all we need to consider is that if we just grew crops for people instead of cows, we could feed the world population 7X over. It isn’t 7 billion people that is too much for Earth to support, in other words, it is the 70 billion factory-farmed animals that are slaughtered each year, and half the planet’s arable land required to support them, that have wiped out over 80% of all wildlife and half of all vegetation in my lifetime.

The New Science of Global Renewal

It is against these emerging demands for truth and life that two truly revolutionary scientific movements are co-emerging: the “rules of life” and the “planetary diet” movements. Taken up together with the Paris Accords, and incorporated into the framework of a flourishing climate justice movement, we can quickly arrive at a Global Green New Deal. To distinguish it from the American version, let us call it the “Natural New Deal.” The logic of this label will become quite clear by considering how these two new scientific developments are linked.

Because of our unconscionable delay in responding to the climate crisis, we know that simply phasing out fossil fuels will not be enough for civilization to continue. We will need to begin drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. This is where ecology trumps technology. 

The cheapest, most effective way to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is to rely on nature. Nature does this for free. Trees, coral reefs and the ocean itself are much better vehicles for removing greenhouse gases than anything engineers have ever invented. And it doesn’t cost us anything, except to protect it.

So says Eric Dinerstein, one of the architects of the ambitious Global Deal for Nature announced in the journal Science Advances by an international team of scientists. As Newsweek’s science reporter Aristros Georgiou summarizes it, their proposal “aims to help ensure that climate targets are met while also conserving the Earth’s species.” 

To better understand the compelling force of the Global Deal for Nature, it helps to appreciate the fruit of a related decades-long effort by scientists from various disciplines to understand the rules for life on planet Earth. In a 2019 documentary based on the book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (2017), we learn that the most effective way to reverse humankind’s heavy handprints on the natural world, and to heal entire ecosystems in short order, is to simply identify the missing (or oppressed) keystone species in any given ecosystem, allow their populations to recover, and permit them to recolonize as much of their range as possible. By taking this kind of local action on a global scale, we can help reverse climate trends as well.

Even with a plant-eating keystone species like the wildebeest, this kind of targeted population recovery has a cascading effect on all life throughout the ecosystem that happens to include revegetation – otherwise known as “carbon capture” or “climate drawdown,” because plants suck up CO2 and turn it into carbon and oxygen. This keystone effect is as true for riverine ecosystems in Yellowstone – an unanticipated boon with the reintroduction of wolves, benefiting birds and fish, was that stream side vegetation rebounded with elk afraid to linger in easy predation zones – as it is for kelp forests along the Pacific coast (which disappear when otters are removed) and the broad savanna of the Serengeti. Recent discoveries have found that whales could also be a key ally in climate recovery:

One study suggests that every year, sperm whales help sequester as much carbon as 694 acres of U.S. forests do. 

Whales Keep Carbon Out of the Atmosphere”

Who needs a trillion trees when a million whales could do the trick?

Or six million bison across the vast grasslands of the Midwest? As The Serengeti Rules reveals, the slow recovery of wildebeest populations over the last several decades, following the removal of a livestock pathogen that had drastically reduced their numbers, has benefited all other species, both predators and prey, and counter-intuitively resulted in a dramatic increase as well of forests and grasslands that had become relatively scarce in the wildebeest’s absence.

The Global Deal for Nature identifies 840 eco-regions in the world, and proposes fully protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 – including terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments – with another 20% to become the focus of climate stabilization efforts to reduce land-based climate impacts. The hope is that this will be incorporated into the Convention on Biological Diversity when it is approved next year in Beijing, China. This would in turn provide new impetus for implementing the Paris Accords, as it provides the missing piece of carbon drawdown that the Accords recognize is needed to stay below 1.5C average temperature rise.

Global New Deal Proposal

The 30% reserves require only formal recognition and protection of existing, intact (though under assault) eco-regions. The 20% climate stabilization zones are where the Serengeti “rules of life” can guide ecological recovery and the associated CO2 drawdown. Of course, the major obstacle to this kind of stabilization and recovery effort is our existing, outdated industrial agriculture regime, with its crops-for-cows monoculture, animal killing factories, and soil-killing chemicals crowding out wildlife and insects on half the planet’s arable lands. About a third of the topsoil has already been degraded worldwide, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Office, if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone by 2075. 

This, too, is where the freedom to live becomes key, as it is up to climate-conscious consumers to demand a healthy, earth-nurturing food supply. And this is where the new science of a planetary diet comes in.

According to a report from an international commission of experts published in the medical journal Lancet, we can feed every human being a healthy diet without having a negative impact on the environment. But to do so “a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.”

According to one estimate, a single hamburger patty requires 14.6 gallons of water, 13.5 pounds of feed, and 64.5 square feet of land to produce, and contributes 4 pounds of carbon dioxide and 0.13 pounds of methane to the atmosphere. Researchers at the World Bank Group estimate that intensive livestock production is the largest single contributing factor to the climate crisis.

Healthwise, meat-based diets turn out to be a bigger killer than tobacco, which probably has more to do with the way meat is produced than anything else. Even so-called “grass fed” cows end up at factory farms getting pumped up with chemicals before they are slaughtered (never mind the ecological damage they wreak on public lands). If we all changed our diets to a more healthy, plant-based, whole foods cornucopia, we would prevent 20% of adult deaths per year, saving over 10 million lives annually.

Oh, is that all? Averting more than a Holocaust’s worth of carnage every year? Gosh, lets start an on-line petition, shall we?

“A global shift to a plant-based diet is a win-win for both human health and the environment,” Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told ABC News. “Animal products are not only major drivers of our planet’s top killers — like heart disease and obesity — but they’re also major drivers of what’s killing the planet itself: climate change, land use, water use, and air and water pollution.”

According to Elizabeth Kuchinich, the policy director for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC (and wife of former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kuchinich), “[t]he overall global food system — including land-use changes, feed, fertilizer, transportation, refrigeration, processing and waste — is estimated to be responsible for 30 to 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions… [while] ‘recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that [regenerative organic agriculture] could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions.” 

So there it is – the solution to the climate crisis staring at us right in the mirror. Armed with this knowledge, why wouldn’t we change the way we feed our families?!

A Global Eco-Logical Solution to the Climate Crisis

Put all of this together, and you get a Natural New Deal for Planet Earth:

  • Tell the Truth: It is Climate Trauma, not change, and we are in a state of emergency more pressing than world war;
  • End subsidies for fossil fuels, industrialized agriculture, and industrial fishing, while encouraging healthy, whole-foods diets;
  • Keep it in the ground – a global ban on fossil fuels exploration and extraction;
  • Subsidize alternative energy sources and research;
  • Adopt the Global Deal for Nature into the 2021 Convention on Biological Diversity, and combine the Convention with the Paris Accords;
  • Boycott factory farm meat (over 90% of all meat), demand plant-based burger options from fast food restaurants, and begin aggressively converting industrial/chemical agriculture to regenerative organic agriculture;
  • Ban industrial fishing with a view towards reviving small, sustainable fishing operations, and begin removing plastics from the oceans as quickly as possible;
  • Observe the Serengeti Rules of Life by reintroducing and/or reviving keystone species around the world with local support and expertise (e.g., for my ecoregion, that means bringing back bison on grasslands to restore the vast prairie lands where industrial monoculture farms now dominate, while restoring small farmers with regenerative programs).

And there you have it. Climate Crisis Solved. World population fed. Climate Justice. 

Of course, this ‘brave new world’ will only come about to the extent that the ecological consciousness that is now emerging through the climate justice movement reaches critical mass, forever changing our worldview and how we relate to the natural world, our culture, and one another. This ecological consciousness, which reconnects our idea of what it means to be human to our home planet, our local eco-region, and indigenous (earth-based) wisdom, is at the heart of the quantum shift that is now occurring in response to the global climate crisis. Enough of us have to change ourselves to see this natural healing potential, to view the world in terms of relations and not things, to express this natural worldview in compassionate ways in our communities and in our culture, if we are to succeed in demanding it as our natural birthright. This kind of quantum climate activism is something each of us can do that will resonate non-locally around the world.

At 7+ Billion, we are now meant to become Earth’s uber-keystone species in this, the Anthropocene epoch. By accepting responsibility for having trashed our home planet, and by elevating our human nature over our warring nature, we can thrive and so can life. It is the only humane alternative. By continuing to avoid the moral imperative of the climate crisis, by contrast, we will surely perish.

Fifty years ago, humankind witnessed the Earth rising over the moon’s barren horizon. In that moment, we realized she is alive. Now it is time for us to rise up and meet her on her own terms.

She is calling you home. Join the Rebellion.


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