A Review Of John Feldman’s “Regenerating Life”


by Fred Jennings, Ecological Economist for Biodiversity for a Livable Climate

Part One: “Water Cools The Planet”

Runtime 41:43

John Feldman introduces himself and expresses surprise that this work got him thinking a lot about water. The film proceeds to talk about water in its many diverse aspects: as a powerful greenhouse gas; in its role distributing heat both on and away from our planet; in forming mists and clouds based on nature-created aerosols and precipitation nuclei; for the need to cover the land with vegetation to cool its surfaces; to keep water as high in watersheds as possible, like what the beavers do for free as superb hydrological engineers; how trees need rain, but also how rain needs trees… All the while, we learn about the biotic pump bringing in evaporative ocean water to feed forests, and of the absorbent soil sponge when covered by photosynthesizing vegetation and infused with fungi and carbon, which fertilizers kill. The complex processes hidden behind the Gaia Hypothesis are explained so clearly, one might think it is all rather simple as we skate delightfully through all this daunting complexity. As it unfolds, this film is sprinkled with philosophical insights on the ideas driving these problems of runaway climate change, such as Descartes’ view of nature as “other” and thus apart from mankind, an outlook that justifies exploitation of resources common to all. We are ushered into the greenhouse gas discussion by Joseph Fourier, who calculated in the mid-1800s that the earth should be 33˚C cooler if it was without life, though it would be totally covered with ice. Life is what balances Gaia in its heat and temperature, circulating water vapor across the land by biological means.

This first section offers us a gentle introduction to the mysteries of water and its role in both the biology and hydrology of the planet. There is much to be learned here; it leaves you wanting to know more about the subtleties so smoothly revealed. One’s appetite is whetted for Part Two!

Part Two: Life Sustains The Climate

Runtime 48:32

This part introduces itself with a question of how life sustains the climate and how it sustains itself, quoting Walter Jehne saying “the challenge of climate change is to rebuild the bioframe.” Lynn Margulis explains that life simply makes more of itself as its prime purpose. Where does the energy and the matter that flow through and sustain life come from, and where does it all go? What a wonderful introduction! It sure does get us thinking… Photosynthesis is shown to be the reverse of combustion, turning CO2 and H2O into C6H12O6 (sugar) and O2 by plants and in the other direction by animals and fire. The role of dung, bacteria and fungi in soils is also discussed at length, outlining traditional and novel agricultural methods. The key is protecting and nurturing good soil, which will help to balance solar radiation in and out from the planet. The loss of trees has had disastrous ecological impacts, but nature knows best how to restore the planet if we just get out of the way. The Loess Plateau in China is used to show what a careful program of ecological restoration can do in as little as 20 years. Much of the problem, of course, stems from the way we think about the planet and our human roles in regard to ecological harm. In a circular-flow ecology, poop becomes other creatures’ food; the system feeds itself in that way. We humans, as Lynn Margulis remarks, could learn a lot from biology, especially if we abandon the Profit Monster along with the Consumer Monster, who are gobbling up our future. An interesting and insightful discussion of the highjacking of the entire climate conversation into CO2 emissions and fossil fuels as a distraction from what we need to consider, regarding ecological restoration, is followed by an explanation that rising CO2 levels and global warming trends are not causes but symptoms of ecological loss. Part Two ends with a whole surfeit of information about how our agricultural methods are responsible for a wide array of social ills…

So this second section opens us up to how biology affects climate through photosynthesis and hydration. Again, though we thought we knew a whole lot about water from Part One, now we have learned about the importance of soil for ecological health and for restoring our climate…

Part Three: Small Farms Feed The World

Runtime 44:32

This third part begins with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Kansas talking about healthy soils and why they are so important. Jackson explains that a use of plows has killed off living farmland and so has had deeply destructive effects on soil, leading to dust storms in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then the film takes a close and very informative look at the history and development of agricultural policies in the United States, and how they evolved after WWII toward total control of farming by what is termed “the military-industrial complex.” The way that agricultural loans are handled by banks has put farmers in an impossible bind, requiring a use of only traditional methods to secure financial assistance. This has stalled any effort to institute and develop regenerative farming methods, as attested by interviews with farmers seeking to use such approaches. The film then turns to the impact of fertilizers and pesticides on agricultural land, and its economic and health effects; this discussion is both enlightening and extremely disturbing. Then the Green Revolution is addressed, in equally troubling terms since it shows in stark relief an emergent abuse of corporate power over local farmers in India and elsewhere. The discussions with Vandana Shiva are of particular interest here, especially in regard to the development of seed banks to preserve farming biodiversity against this corporate-driven assault that pushes for crop monocultures and privatization through genetic ownership of seed varieties. A very compelling lesson – that Nature can help us solve our climate problems if we give her a chance – is embedded throughout this remarkable film. The solution lies not in any expansion of industrial agriculture or Green Revolutions, but rather in nurturing small local farming communities by which most of global food is grown more productively than by any of these corporate farms. Nature’s solution is to readily regenerate and protect our lands and soils.

This final part develops a view of agriculture that demands a clear rethinking of how we deal with the land and our soils, and how our destructive farming practices need to be reformed. The promise is one of restoring communities and developing a fair economic system for all of us…

A General Summary Overview And Review Of This Film

John Feldman has done it again! I was so impressed with his Symbiotic Earth about Lynn Margulis and her impact on our understanding of biology, I thought that would be a hard act to follow with any subsequent film. But his new Regenerating Life has unfolded a very complex, multidimensional story in an accessible way. I know enough about these issues to understand their depth; it is a delicate art form to distill challenging ideas into their essential components, such that they can be understood without delving into arcane details that might detract from the whole picture. Feldman has shown us that such can be done very ably with these subtle climatic conceptions that tend to be wholly ignored by our mainstream media, much to our detriment. This film covers the ground so well, I would urge its wide distribution! It conveys a hopeful and positive view of what we all need to do, in terms of reversing global warming and our changing climatic conditions. Thank you so much, Mr. Feldman. This film is a triumphant achievement.