The Other Carbon Economy

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Vandana Shiva, the famous environmental activist, does not consider carbon as an industrial byproduct only, responsible for climate change. She knows that it is also the basic element of life on earth. And she thinks that we should change our society accordingly.

Reductionism seems to have become the habit of the contemporary human mind. We are increasingly talking of “the carbon economy” in the context of climate change. We refer to “zero carbon”, as if carbon existed only in fossilised form under the ground. We forget that the cellulose of plants is primarily carbon. Humus in the soil is mostly carbon. Vegetation in the forests is mostly carbon. Carbon in the soil and in plants is living carbon. It is part of the cycle of life.

The problem is not carbon per se. The problem is our increasing use of fossil carbon as coal, oil and gas. While plants are a renewable resource, fossil fuel is not. […].

With our dependence on carbon in the form of fossil fuels, we have broken out of Nature’s cycle of renewable carbon. We have fossilised our thinking by dependence on carbon in fossilised form.

Fossil fuels are the heart of industrial agriculture. Fossil fuels are used to run tractors and heavy machinery, and to pump the irrigation water necessary for industrial farming based on chemicals and machines. The energy use in industrial systems of food production is ten times more than the energy used in ecological agriculture.

The UK government’s Stern Review has identified agriculture as responsible for 14% of greenhouse-gas emissions. What the report neglects to mention is that not only is industrial, globalised agriculture responsible for 14% of greenhouse-gas emissions, but it is also responsible for 18% of emissions through changes in land use (when tropical forests are cut down to grow agricultural commodities). If you add those two together, 32% of greenhouse-gas emissions comes from the industrial way of producing, distributing and storing food. […]

Localised, biodiverse ecological agriculture could reduce these emissions by nearly half while improving biodiversity, soil and water quality, improving the security of farmers’ livelihoods, improving the quality and nutrition of our food and deepening freedom and democracy. Instead of focusing on the achievable solution, the Stern Review promotes the pseudo-solution of carbon trading, which translates into ‘business as usual’ for the agrichemical and agribusiness corporations, which profit from globalised, industrialised agriculture.

We need an alternative to the dominant system. Biodiverse, organic farms and localised food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more and better food and creating more livelihoods.

The industrialised, globalised food system is based on oil; biodiverse, organic and local food systems are based on soil. The industrialised system is based on creating waste and pollution; a living agriculture is based on use and conservation. The industrialised system is based on monocultures; sustainable systems are based on diversity. Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step towards both mitigating and adapting to climate change. […].

Biodiversity is the alternative to fossil carbon. Everything that we derive from the petrochemicals industry has an alternative in biodiversity.

While climate change combined with peak oil is making biodiverse agriculture an ecological imperative for a post-industrial economy, the industrial paradigm is still the guiding force for mainstream society. This is related to the fact that industrialisation (which was based on the transition from a biodiverse economy of renewable carbon cycles to a fossil-fuel economy of non-renewable use of carbon) has also become a cultural paradigm for measuring human progress. Business leaders and politicians seek a de-addiction to oil without seeking a de-addiction to industrialisation as a measure of human development. They want a post-oil world but do not have the courage to envisage a post-industrial world. As a result, they cling to the infrastructure of the energy-intense fossil-fuel economy and try to run it on substitutes such as nuclear energy and biofuels; nuclear power production is being redefined as ‘clean energy’, and non-sustainable production of bio-diesel and biofuel is being welcomed as a ‘green’ option.

Consumer society is playing these tricks with itself and with the planet because it is locked into the industrial paradigm and it has forgotten the potential of biodiversity to meet human needs and provide a good life. Consumerist ideas of the good life are based on production and consumption patterns that the use of fossil fuels gave rise to. And we cling to these patterns without reflecting on the fact that they have become a human addiction over only the past fifty years, and that following this short-term non-sustainable pattern of living for another fifty years will risk wiping out millions of species and destroying the very conditions for human survival on the planet.

Renewable carbon and biodiversity redefine progress. They redefine development. They redefine being ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘underdeveloped’. To be ‘developed’ in the fossil-fuel paradigm is to industrialise – to industrialise food and clothing, shelter and mobility, ignoring the social costs of displacing people from work and the ecological costs of polluting the atmosphere and destabilising the climate. To be ‘underdeveloped’ in the fossil-fuel paradigm is to have non-industrial, fossil-free systems of producing our food and clothing and providing shelter and mobility.

In the biodiversity paradigm, to be ‘developed’ is to be able to leave ecological space for other species, for all people and for future generations. To be ‘underdeveloped’ is to usurp the ecological space of the other species and communities, to pollute the atmosphere and threaten the planet.

This cultural transition in ideas of progress and wellbeing is at the heart of making an energy transition to an age beyond oil. What blocks the transition is a cultural paradigm that perceives industrialisation as progress combined with false ideas of productivity and efficiency. We have been falsely made to believe that industrialisation of agriculture is necessary to produce more food. This is not at all true. Biodiverse ecological farming produces more and better food than the most energy- and chemically intensive agriculture. We have been falsely made to believe that cities designed for automobiles provide more effective mobility to meet our daily needs than cities designed for pedestrians and cyclists.

[…] We need to return to the renewable carbon cycle of biodiversity. We need to create a carbon democracy so that all beings have their just share of useful carbon and no-one is burdened with carrying an unjust share of climate impacts due to carbon pollution. So, no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. The fossil-fuel-driven industrial system must come to an end. We must plan for a biodiverse, ecologically sustainable post-industrial society.

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