Chelsea Green, 2020
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
This informative and inspiring book is part of a fairly recent trend in publishing that I find both exciting and hopeful. Its author, Judith Schwarz, is one of a new breed of environmentalists whose focus is not simply on preserving Nature and conserving what natural resources we have left but rather on creatively enhancing and enriching what we do have and restoring and regenerating what we have lost.
This work is informed by a deep knowledge and understanding of the natural cycles –that sustain life on our planet. The aim of regenerative practices is to bring disrupted carbon, water, nutrient and energy cycles back towards balance. Space mirrors and other techno-fixes may make good copy, says Schwartz, …but the actual processes that regulate and moderate climate derive from living ecosystems.
Thus it is also informed by the understanding that Nature herself is the best ally in this work. And that if we make a start, Nature eagerly cooperates. As Schwartz has discovered in her extensive travels around regenerative projects in various parts of the world: …strategically revegetating even a small expanse of land can make a difference in the surrounding region. Eventually, when we have created enough microclimates, our efforts can begin to affect the climate of the wider region.
What’s more, as she points out, rather than waiting for governments and/or business interests to decide in whose interests it is to restore ecological health, we all need to start where we are and just get on and do it. Earth repair is a participatory sport: a grassroots response to evolving global crises. It is the inverse of apathy and an antidote to despair.
Following an enthusiastic introduction, most of the remainder of this book is devoted to an in-depth examination of various, very different projects. The first of these is the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, a staggeringly massive – and highly successful – undertaking in rural China that started in the 1990s. It involved seven provinces and 2,137 villages and has not only turned hundreds of square miles of utter barrenness into a lush, verdant and highly productive landscape but lifted 1.24 million people out of poverty.
In Saudi Arabia we learn about the re-greening of a desert area that has been accomplished simply by applying a key Permaculture principle. Which is that in dry places where it rains very infrequently but falls in torrents when it does, the trick is to find ways of slowing down the water and getting it to stay in the ground rather than running off or evaporating. This, together with protecting new growth from grazing animals such as sheep or goats and finding suitable plants – sometimes ones from other places in the world with similar climatic conditions – to hold the water and build topsoil, can make the desert bloom again.
We also learn about the huge opportunity offered in Hawaii when, after 150 years of dominating the island’s economy, the last existing sugar company ceased production and closed its mill on Maui. Here was a chance to start moving Hawaii back towards its original, self-supporting state and the reclamation of its culture.
There is a beautiful story from the frozen north of Norway where a local, indigenous reindeer herder is challenging the academic knowledge about herd density by invoking the more ancient, traditional wisdom of his tribe that has kept reindeer herding sustainable for centuries.
I also enjoyed reading about a very different sort of project, in a town just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an expert in conflict resolution ran a highly successful workshop to resolve a long-standing dispute over water rights. For in human relationships, just as in environmental restoration, we are learning more and more skills. And we are learning to solve problems by searching for deeper levels of understanding and connectedness. Because, as this author maintains very firmly, we are not going to make progress by arguing, blaming or sowing fear – or by denial. The way we shall get there, she says, is through love.
This is a book densely packed with information and threaded through with optimism. Anyone interested in the art and science of regeneration and the restoration of damaged ecosystems will surely find encouragement here.