Closing the circle As we face ever-greater impacts on the environment, it seems important to go back to first principles. In his 1971 book The Closing Circle the American ecologist Barry Commoner defined four laws of ecology, which have stood the test of time: 1 Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms, and what affects one affects all. 2 Everything must go somewhere. There is no
‘waste’ in Nature and there is no ‘away’ to which it can be thrown. 3 Nature knows best. The absence of a particular substance from Nature is often a sign that it is incompatible with the chemistry of life. 4 Nothing comes from nothing. Exploitation of
Nature always carries ecological costs, and these costs are significant. In this context, the concept of sustainability may no longer suffice as a frame of reference for our actions. It is no longer good enough to just try and sustain soils, forests and watercourses in a profoundly degraded condition – we need to take active measures to regenerate them. In this context, it is most important to address the relationship between farming and cities as the world’s primary food consumers. Organic, regenerative farming is, above all else, about closing the loop between food production, nutrient supply and soil life.
Lack of concern about this is vividly demonstrated by the deplorable condition of many river estuaries, and not just the ubiquitous presence of plastics debris: all over the world estuaries have become dead zones, due to excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. This is a systemic problem: urban sewage is not recycled, and farmland is kept productive artificially by the use of chemical fertilisers. Across the world there are now some 500 dead zones where marine life has perished due to depleted oxygen levels: nutrient run-off from chemical agriculture combines with urban sewage and causes the growth of algae, which sink to the bottom and use up oxygen when they decompose.
One of the world’s largest dead zones, in the Gulf of Mexico, covered more than 8,700 square miles in the summer of 2017. The reason? The Mississippi and its tributaries drain much surplus fertiliser from the farmland of 31 US states, plus waste water from some 12 million city people. Some 1.7 million tons of phosphorus and nitrogen are discharged into the gulf every year, causing eutrophication and the death of oxygen-producing marine ecosystems. Much of the Baltic is another vast dead zone for a similar reason. Although the surrounding countries have agreed an action plan to reduce nutrient load, so far there has been little improvement in the sea’s condition.
Britain used to have a major problem with eutrophication in the Thames estuary, but incineration of much of London’s domestic sewage has reduced this. However, it does not address the fact that the nutrients human waste contains are not returned to farmland as fertiliser.
Closing the circle between urban food consumers and the farms that produce this food through regenerative practices is an as yet unresolved issue. Contamination of sewage with heavy metals, chemicals and medicines has caused the EU to prohibit the use of sewage as fertiliser. It is argued that this pollution problem can only be solved if domestic waste water is collected and treated separately from industrial waste, and only then used in agriculture.
In some regions, such as South Australia, these issues have been vigorously addressed: the region is heading for 100% reuse of waste water in urban fringe farming. Viticulture, market gardens and agroforestry projects now utilise both recycled sewage and urban green waste compost. Soils in the Adelaide Plains have been regenerated, and more carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere at the same time.
This example could be copied if Britain were to adopt its own waste-water reuse standards in a post-Brexit world. An additional dimension of this issue is that the world’s phosphorus deposits are being depleted at an alarming rate. At current consumption levels, we will run out of known phosphorus reserves by around 2100, but meanwhile consumption can only increase further under the pressure of ever-increasing global food demands. We can no longer afford to waste precious mineral resources in linear systems of resource use. Regenerating the vitality of soils and ecosystems is crucial in an urbanising, climate-challenged world heading for ever-greater food challenges. We need to give Nature a chance to beneficially assimilate human wastes, and we need to help initiate innovative policy changes to deal with these vital matters.
Regenerative development is about giving back as well as taking – maintaining a proactive relationship between humanity and the world’s ecosystems, and nurturing Nature’s dynamism and abundance while drawing on its income. Again: we need to help regenerate soils, forests and watercourses that our cities depend on, rather than just accepting that they are ‘sustained’ in a degraded condition.
Dealing with the environmental implications of an urbanising world is a new challenge for humanity, and this requires the evolution of a new consciousness, linking the wellbeing of individual citizens with humanity’s collective interest in the health of our home planet.
Herbert Girardet is an author and international environment consultant, recently elected as a Resurgence Trustee. He is a member of The Club of Rome and of the World Future Council.
Resurgence & Ecologist