Compilation of article summaries envisioning societal change

Compendium Volume 3 Number 1 July 2019

A global agenda for soil carbon, Vermeulen 2019

This paper calls for efforts to make farmers, land managers, policy makers, and the public at large keenly aware of the link between soil carbon and its more widely appreciated social outcomes, such as agricultural productivity and food security, improved water quality, flood and drought mitigation, lower rates of migration, biodiversity preservation, and climate change mitigation.

The authors identify three priorities for global action to build soil carbon stocks: (1) build an overarching case and vision for action, led by political champions; (2) build a stronger business case and track-record of success among public and private investors; and (3) establish a more compelling value proposition for farmers and land managers.

Specifically, Vermeulen et al. propose that champions in countries already prioritizing soil carbon in national policy lead efforts to generate greater awareness, such as through

persuasive narratives and campaigns [that] might link soil health and carbon storage to broader societal outcomes with wider political traction. These include double-digit increases in yield potential, particularly on degraded lands, higher household and national food security, reduced risks from disasters, improved water quality and lower rates of displacement and migration [Vermeulen 2019: 3].

They also propose that soil carbon take center stage in discourses on sustainable agriculture, from which it has largely been absent.

To build a business case among potential investors in soil health, the authors suggest, for example, creating “small-scale funds to flow to commercial demonstrations of soil organic carbon that can then be ready for widespread proliferation” [Vermeulen 2019: 3].

The authors stress the importance of demonstrating to farmers the multi-faceted long-term value achieved by incorporating soil-building practices into day-to-day farming operations, including: (1) enhanced productivity, (2) improved risk management (for example, resilience to drought), (3) superior market access (for example, certified value chains), (4) financial returns to carbon assets, and (5) government support (for example, environmental subsidies).

Another priority is “to move beyond stand-alone protocols by building soil organic carbon into existing frameworks from which it is absent, such as UNCCD, UNFCCC, Ramsar and the Global Reporting Initiative” [Vermeulen 2019: 4]. In other words, given the foundational role of soils in ecosystem function (and thus the delivery of vital ecosystem services), improving soil health must be treated as the powerful leverage point that it is for resolving multiple overlapping crises.

A global deal for nature, Dinerstein 2019

This paper recommends protecting 30% of Earth’s surface for conservation by 2030 and 50% by 2050. It also proposes building capacity for indigenous and other local peoples to enhance ecosystem integrity and sequester carbon in non-protected lands, halting energy infrastructure projects, and reducing plastics and toxic pollution.

The authors frame a “Global Deal for Nature” (GDN) as complementary to the 2015 Paris Agreement for achieving the internationally recognized goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. While the Paris Agreement focuses on critical emissions reductions, the GDN expands the scope of measures needed to include ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. The authors explain that the Paris agreement serves as a strong starting point, but is only a half-deal. It will not alone save the diversity of life on Earth or conserve ecosystem services upon which humanity depends.

Since the crucial role of intact, diverse systems has also been demonstrated to be essential for carbon storage, the GDN will need to emphasize mechanisms for protecting intactness both inside and outside of protected areas … well before 2050 [Dinerstein 2019: 12].

Contextualizing development of the idea of a GDN as part of a greater reassessment of the role of nature in the midst of a planetary emergency, the authors explain that:

The concept of a GDN as a policy mechanism emerged from an earlier study restricted to protecting biodiversity in the terrestrial realm. We expand that perspective to the freshwater and marine realms while simultaneously lending support to an alternative pathway to remaining below 1.5°C that relies heavily on aggressive conservation of remaining habitats. This approach not only safeguards biodiversity but also is the cheapest and fastest alternative for addressing climate change and is not beholden to developing carbon removal technologies unlikely to be effective or to scale in the time-bound nature of the current twin crises [Dinerstein 2019: 1].

The authors recommend that a GDN prioritize: (1) protecting biodiversity, (2) mitigating climate change, and (3) reducing threats to ecosystem intactness and persistence of species. The strategy for the first priority – protecting biodiversity – is to expand the percentage of Earth’s surface that is conservation protected to 30% by 2030, aiming for 50% protection by 2050. Currently, less than 15% of land is protected, and only half of currently protected land is connected by ecological corridors to facilitate animal migrations, while only 2-4% of the world’s ocean area is protected. To avoid the risks of (a) prioritizing low-biodiversity sites at the expense of biodiversity hotspots, or (b) an uneven representation of ecoregion types achieving protected status, the authors organized conservation targets according to 846 terrestrial ecoregions.

For the second priority – mitigating climate change – the authors propose that land outside conservation protected areas be managed in a way that maintains ecosystem intactness, prevents emissions and sequesters carbon. This would include, for example, indigenous lands, where people often lack tenure rights. Ensuring secure land tenure to indigenous people would allow them to continue managing land in a way that supports the vitality of the ecosystems on which they depend.  

The third priority – reducing major threats – would involve scrutinizing or halting new infrastructure projects (especially agricultural land expansion, road construction and energy development) on natural lands. In addition, it would involve reducing hunting and poaching, as well as the production and use of plastics and toxins.

Joint statement on post-2020 global biodiversity framework 2050 Convention on Biological Diversity vision: “Living in Harmony with Nature,” Birdlife International et al.

In the lead up to the 2020 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a consortium of conservation groups has also called for 30% both of oceans and 30% of land surface to be conservation protected. Specifically, The United Nations Foundation, Birdlife International, National Geographic and 10 other organizations call for a New Deal for Nature and People to prevent extinctions, reverse the decline of species populations, stabilize natural ecosystems and their services, and restore degraded lands. The call acknowledges the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, who should play a key role in the management of protected areas.

This 2-page vision statement opens with the following:

The Convention on Biological Diversity aims to ensure the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of the benefits of biological diversity. Securing Earth’s biological diversity is a moral obligation. It is also critical in averting catastrophic climate change and ecosystem collapse. Achieving the aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity is integrally linked with tackling climate change and is critical for realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, as a diverse and healthy planet and is the foundation of human health, security, well-being and development.

A Green New Deal for Agriculture, Patel & Goodman 2019

In the U.S., some visions for food system change are anchored in the policy framework of the Ocasio-Cortez/Markley Green New Deal, itself viewed by many as a proposal for transformative change. Noting that the way we eat accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and that “the food system is breaking the planet,” Patel and Goodman argue that the Green New Deal could redirect public funds from grain commodities, used largely for processed foods, bioenergy and meats raised in confinement, toward production of healthy foods. More evenly distributed support for greater numbers of farmers could significantly reduce rural poverty while easing pressure on and even regenerating ecosystems.

Yet farmer organizations on the right (Farm Bureau) and left (Farmers Union) have disparaged the Green New Deal, which the authors explain is because the proposal challenges a politically driven cultural view that industrial farming systems are more efficient and thus superior. Thus, transformative change, according to these authors who draw on the original New Deal for guidance, lies in building alliances among farmers, farm workers and consumers, which are capable of confronting this cultural narrative.

They suggest that confronting food system monopolies (especially in the meat industry) could bind farmers of all political stripes together, and that the question of food prices could bring farmers and consumers together. “For a rural Green New Deal to work in the 21st Century, everyone’s income needs to increase… Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s sustainably produced.”

The future is rural, Bradford 2019

Taking an altogether different angle, Jason Bradford of the Post Carbon Institute assumes radical societal change is inevitable and imminent, and focuses not on how to precipitate change but instead on how to adapt to it. “The future is rural” [Bradford 2019] is essentially a primer on how to navigate the profound changes society will undergo during the 21st Century due to climate breakdown and resource scarcity. It begins with an assertion that today’s “mass urbanization has been made possible by the prodigious exploitation of fossil fuels.” In other words,

Due to the concentrated energy in oil, with its ability to power heavy equipment and transport goods over long distances, cities have been able to achieve the scale they do today by drawing support from a land base often several hundred times their own area.

Yet these resources are dwindling. Furthermore,

Not only are concentrated raw resources becoming rarer, but previous investments in infrastructure (for example, ports) are in the process of decay and facing accelerating threats from climate change and social disruptions [Bradford 2019: 1].

Thus, “contrary to the forecasts of most demographers, urbanization will reverse course as globalization unwinds during the 21st century” [Bradford 2019: 1].

The report explains that for multiple reasons, renewable energy will not seamlessly or completely be able replace fossil fuel use, in spite of a deep cultural belief in technological progress. And as cities falter and urban food shortages occur, people will be compelled to disperse into the countryside and to develop skills to ensure their food security.

Food, its scarcity, the desire and opportunity to grow it, and the need to do it in ways that are appropriate to place and circumstance, will drive demographic shifts this century. People with life experiences and training aimed at urbanism are going to need a rapid education on what it takes to live off the land, and so-called conventional farmers and ranchers will have a steep learning curve to adopt more frugal and sustainable methods [Bradford 2019: 19].


Having established a vision of the unfolding of the 21st Century, dubbed the “Great Simplification” and “characterized by fewer monetary transactions and an increase in subsistence and informal economies,” the author presents alternative agricultural systems, including agroecology, permaculture and holistic management, with potential to overcome the problems created by current farming systems. Included at the margins of the text is key technical information about soil composition, soil types and horizons, and livestock anatomy, as if to get laymen up to speed on agricultural basics for their future rural livelihoods.

In short, the Post Carbon Institute anticipates that resource scarcity will precipitate the collapse and subsequent reorganization of societies, along with their guiding narratives. By necessity, people will learn to consume less and better appreciate our inexorable dependence on the land. Other authors reviewed above suggest the potential to avoid ecological and social collapse by changing the cultural narratives that perpetuate overconsumption and overexploitation of people and nature.

Bradford, Jason, 2019, The future is rural: food system adaptations to the Great Simplification,The Post Carbon Institute,  

Dinerstein, E., et al., 2019, A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets, Science Advances 5,

Vermeulen, Sonja, et al., 2019, A global agenda for collective action on soil carbon, Nature Sustainability 2,,%202%E2%80%934,%202019%20Vermeulen.pdf.

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 3 Number 1 July 2019