Should we focus so much on making optimal choices, or should we just get on with it!

25 Jul 2018


I was in a discussion with colleagues the other day. Generally speaking, the topic was what should our NGO’s key messages be to help mobilize positively transformative climate change action.


The conversation was centred around the Drawdown project’s list of Greenhouse Gas (GHG)-reducing action, with a focus on agriculture, food production and land management.  Eventually, the subject morphed into what the NGO’s position ought to be on the merits of plant-based diet vs an animal-based diet.  According to that list, a plant rich diet is ranked 4th best (just pipped by reducing food waste which came in 3rd).  This emboldened many in the discussion to advocate vegetarianism – and progressing to veganism for those who can manage it – as a key NGO message.  Being practically a vegan already, the thought of government policy that actively enabled more of the population to move towards a plant-based diet felt ultra-exciting – especially now with the advent of mock plant-based meats which (as long as it was affordable) would make the transition easier (people could still have their ‘meat’ and eat it too).  On the other hand, Drawdown ranks regenerative agriculture 11th best (although the focus seems to be on encouraging plant not animal agriculture there too), and even better Silvopasture at 9th most effective.  


Naturally, these last two options appealed to those of my colleagues who advocated an animal farming NGO key message. I had my doubts, although I had to admit that even GHG-sustainable or “neutral” action, like transitioning to regenerative farming ‘lite’ practices, has value.  I could also empathise with how conventional farmers might be comforted by action that made them feel good about improving their farming practices while not being too ‘radical’ a departure from the status quo.  


After considerable lively debate, I recalled that in a fractal Universe where degrees of seemingly opposite values exist in all things, harmony must inevitably be struck through compromise.  For the sake of diplomacy, I was therefore tempted to propose our NGO support all three policy actions “equally”.  However, scarce capacity (especially financial constraints) unfortunately forces us to prioritize (progressive taxation and sovereign money could flip the scarcity notion on its head, but such progressive ideas take time to realize, if Governments can get there at all).  Put another way, our (apparent) scarce resources must often be calibrated depending on the ‘background noise’ of how extremely tilted the scales of opposing forces already are.


Which brings us back down to Planet Earth: clearly humanity’s life-support systems are in an imbalanced state of climate crisis and 6th mass extinction, primarily from anthropogenic-driven GHG overshoot.  This is demonstrably not a situation in which ‘all things are equal’.  Therefore, while we can advocate merely reducing GHGs, what would give humanity a better fighting chance would be to demand action that creates net positive GHG sinks.  Anything less is sub-optimal action which will dangerously delay the re-balancing of our atmosphere, and we simply don’t have the time to dilly-dally around.


Assuming reducing food waste and plant-based diets are a given, my mind turns to Drawdown’s agricultural GHG-sinking options.  Silvoculture is ranked superior in this regard.  Further still, a refined school of thought is that well-managed silvoculture grasslands are even better carbon sinks than their forested counterparts.  Feel the cognitive dissonance on that idea! Possibly, more research would help shed light on the efficacy of that proposition (if you can support that research, please do!). 


Every choice we make counts, especially now.  Should NGOs push beyond a neutral message of just encouraging everyone to do anything and everything they can to reduce GHGs in the food and agricultural sectors?  Should NGOs follow Drawdown’s ranking example, and put (as one of my Greenpeace Aotearoa mates often refers to it) a “surgical laser focus” on effective grassland silvoculture as a priority over forested silvoculture or regenerative agriculture – especially where agricultural pastures already exist?


While articulating the options might seem like semantics, and sometimes NGOs feel like we’re spinning our wheels on such matters, none the less democratically debating what we stand for and identifying our shared commitment has huge value.  As long as we decisively make our choice – and get on with it, soon.



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