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What could possibly go right?

Written By: - Date published: 6:05 am, December 6th, 2020 - 34 comments
Categories: climate change, sustainability - Tags: , , ,

We evolved in the context of natural systems. Once you start connecting, once you start feeling the love of what’s around you, you’re in. So that’s engagement.

Judith D Schwartz

What could possibly go right? is a podcast interview series hosted on the Post Carbon Institute’s website. This post is an invitation to conversation about the interview and ideas raised. Please listen to the interview or read the transcript and join in the discussion below.

Vicki Robin:

Welcome to “What Could Possibly Go Right?”, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve others, so that they can help us see more clearly, so we can act more courageously in these crazy times. I’m Vicki Robin, your host. Today you’ll meet Judith Schwartz.

Judith D. Schwartz is an author who tells stories to explore and illuminate scientific concepts and cultural nuance. She takes a clear-eyed look at global environmental, economic, and social challenges, and finds insights and solutions in natural systems. She writes for numerous publications, including The American Prospect, The Guardian, Discover, Scientific American, and YaleE360.

Bringing insights from her latest book, “The Reindeer Chronicles”, Judith addresses the question of What Could Possibly Go Right? including:

  • That “we are a part of nature and to keep ourselves separate from nature is really causing our own demise, as well as the demise of all that we love around us.”
  • That increased interest in home gardening is a gateway to larger engagement in the natural world and environmental restoration.
  • That mainstream news highlights when things go wrong, but “when something goes the way it’s supposed to go, it isn’t news, so we’re never paying attention to how the natural world works or how communities function when they’re going well and serving the people in them.”
  • That slowing down and staying in one place during the pandemic has encouraged us to pay attention to smaller things and gives “permission to love where I am in a very different way, as opposed to that being the backdrop and then real life happens elsewhere when I leave.”
  • That there is opportunity in the degraded landscapes throughout the world, including restoring the heartlands and rangelands of US.
  • That regenerative agriculture projects, such as by Commonland, give people reasons to stay or come back to the land. These include 4 Returns: of finance, of nature, of social capital or community well-being, and of inspiration.
  • That a connection to nature can happen anywhere, even a permaculture lesson around a city tree by a New York City sidewalk.


Well, first of all, I want to speak to the brilliance and importance of that question, because it’s a question we tend not to ask. Yet we need to ask that question, perhaps more now than ever, because if we can’t envision what we want, what we wish for, what we aspire to, then how are we ever going to get there? So I think that what we have been dealing with, to a large extent, is a lack of imagination and creativity. So let’s open up that creativity.

Let’s say we do ask that question, “What could possibly go right?” and then we come up with an answer. Okay, I’ll toss out an answer, because it’s the topic of my current book, which is, we could all decide and put an effort towards restoring the world’s ecosystems. Okay, so we’ve got a vision of what could go right, then we can ask the question, Well, what would that be like to get that there? What would that look like? What actions, what behaviors, what attitudes would get us there? But we need to get started by asking what we want, what it might look like, and how can we help make that happen?

One reason that I wrote this book is that there are so many efforts, there are people all over the world as we speak, quietly restoring the ecosystems in which they live. Often, we don’t hear about them, because they’re not checking in on social media, but often they are long duration projects that are underway. And because I knew this was happening, and I knew that so many of these projects have gotten such fabulous results, I felt compelled to put that out there; because if people didn’t know that we can restore large scale damaged ecosystems, it’s not within the realm of what could possibly go right, then how is anyone going to get involved in this work?

So I felt a disconnect between the hope and excitement of people who are engaged in regenerative agriculture and different kinds of ecosystem restoration projects, and people who don’t know that this is going on, who say we’re doomed and don’t know where to put their energy. So I wanted to make that connection to say, Hey, we are where we are, and we need to accept that, and accept that we don’t know where things are going. But let’s look at where we do have agency. In particular, let’s look at where we have more agency than we think we do, and that is with the health of ecosystems, which connects to climate, because one area where we have really not been talking about is the role of functioning ecosystems in climate regulation, okay? That’s like how nature works. So we do have a lot of agency there.

34 comments on “What could possibly go right? ”

  1. Robert Guyton 1

    Welcome to the inside of my head!

    Thanks, weka, for posting this; depending upon how this post is received here, I would regard this as the most important and exciting I've ever seen on The Standard.

    • weka 1.1

      I was thinking of you! The opening quote was just perfect following on from the heart of the matter the other day.

      (would love to make discussion spaces like this happening more, and yes let's see how it goes today).

    • Fran 1.2

      Read this after repotting trees grown from seed on my city deck, trimming tendrils from tomatoes and generally tending my urban food forest. I love that someone is looking at what's right because we can make a difference to our environment by being in it. My environment is my section and we are slowly ensuring that it is nurtured so it will nurture us. Written as I eat the raspberries I picked today.

  2. Robert Guyton 2

    Pretty quiet so far smiley

    I expected as much. Presently, our yurt is filled with the sounds of crystal bowl, drone-flute and gongs, as locals relax/revive to the music of a visiting sound-healer – pretty hippie, huh!

    I'm on traffic duty, making sure our neighbours don't get upset by a congested street.

    While that's progressing, I'm off to a nearby arboretum to collect resin from some of the conifers there (there was a bristlecone pine, but that's expired) in order to make some glue; I have plans to make a special Christmas present and want to use natural materials for it.

    I hope your post strikes-up some interest; it would be sobering to think that no-one "gets it". In any case, I do 🙂

  3. Ad 3

    Given how most of Auckland's CO2 production comes out of cars and trucks, if you want to see what's going right check out the year-on-year increase in cycling:


    Back in the day most kids would ride and walk to school.

    Now, with congested roads, we bike when there's a grade separated lane.

    When that stretch is built between New Lynn and Avondale next year, we will finally leave the car at home.

  4. I read the podcast and, of course, agree with the need to ask the right questions.

    But I’ve got to admit to a feeling of deep despair about the future – the disconnect between those who are quietly doing what they can to regenerate their environment, and the vast majority who think from Saturday night booze-up to Saturday night booze-up.

    Covid-19 should (and still might be) a massive wake-up for the world. That we simply cannot continue to treat the earth and its inhabitants (and that includes virus’) as things designed simply for our/human use and exploitation (or mutation as may well be the case with the coronavirus).

    But I see no dawning of understanding among the people and even less among the politicians. Everything seems focussed of how quickly we can ‘get back to normal,’ with no understanding that ‘normal’ will doom the human race to extinction.

    And I have a deep disappointment with this majority Labour government (at least so far, they may yet startle me/us). They should be positioning this country to lead the world in climate change mitigation, but, apart from a few electric cars and some boiler replacements, their emergency declaration seems just words.

    This is possibly not the response wanted to the post, but I suspect I echo the feelings of a lot of people who would be open to radical change and some considerable changes in our way of life. Just to be making the effort (nationally) would be reward in itself.

    • Robert Guyton 4.1

      I think it's a matter of having faith in the proposal that well-intended/appropriate actions by a few will eventually become equivalent actions by all, or not believing that is possible. It seems perhaps, counterintuitive to believe that the lesser, softer, gentler, greener approach will win over the harder, coarser, less-heart-focussed, you-can't-be- green-if-you're-in-the-red approach, especially when that way has done so well to date, but there it is; I'm backing the hobbits!

      • "I'm backing the hobbits!"

        Me too. It's just that I don't think the vast majority will wake up to the threat of climate change until it bites them on the bum.

        And by then, it may be too late.

        • Robert Guyton

          I think Merry, Pippin et al knew that and did it anyway; that is, they booted out the wreckers and set about re-planting the place. I'm in.

  5. RedLogix 5

    We evolved in the context of natural systems. Once you start connecting, once you start feeling the love of what’s around you, you’re in. So that’s engagement.

    Yet oddly enough it's people who live in cities who also value their access to the natural world very highly. The ranks of trampers, fishers, hunters and kayakers are heavily biased toward city people, and many of them vociferous advocates for the protection of parks and wild spaces.

    Green Parties everywhere have strongholds in inner city electorates.

    Conservation movements draw their ranks and funding mostly from urban liberals.

    To suggest that somehow you have live in a forest to care about that forest just isn't true.

    • Ad 5.1

      And the people who work the hardest to care for the environment every day are called farmers.

      • Robert Guyton 5.1.1

        I thought farmers work the hardest for their farm. Agriculture, surely, is responsible for by far the greatest loss of biodiversity of any of our human endeavours; much of New Zealand forest mantle has been stripped away by agriculture!

      • Phillip ure 5.1.2

        @ ad..

        are you having a feckin laff..?

        greedy/uncaring 'farmers'/animal-fatteners are who have and continue to fuck up our environment…

        they are who has to be forced to just stop..

        they sure as hell won't volunteer to do that..

        and 'farmers' are those who grow food..

        the others aren't a farmers-rectum..

        ..they are just animal-fatteners..

      • Hunter Thompson II 5.1.3

        " … the people who work the hardest to care for the environment every day are called farmers."

        I find it hard to reconcile that comment with the rural sector's strident opposition to the government's proposed water quality regulations. A Taupo farmer has just been fined $80,500 for illegally discharging animal effluent into a waterway. Such offending has long been common.

        The only thing most farmers are concerned about is money.

        So what is to be done? For a start, change farming methods and have reduced stock numbers. In urban areas, cut motor vehicle use via a congestion charge or similar. That way, everybody is contributing.

    • Robert Guyton 5.2

      Did someone suggest "… that somehow you have live in a forest to care about that forest …”?

      If you've never spent "quality time" in one, you're not going to care one whit for them. Experience, skin-to-bark contact, is everything here.

      • lprent 5.2.1

        Experience, skin-to-bark contact, is everything here.

        • provided you don’t do it with the bush lawyer. 🙂
      • RedLogix 5.2.2

        I appreciate that you have an especially intense and enduring 'connection' with the land, yet that does not mean anyone else whose experience is more intermittent or diffuse, or merely lies in a different direction to yours … 'cares not one whit'.

        Even at their most removed, city people still like having green stuff around them, they place high value on the 'leafy suburbs', and if they can afford it they'll pay extra for 'organic' for sentimental reasons if nothing else.

        My point is that their 'connection' may be different to yours, but it doesn't lack meaning or significance either.

        Because while I admire and respect your land restoration/food forest work, a quick back of envelop suggests there just isn't enough arable land in NZ for every household to do this. And the numbers are much less plausible in many other nations. In other words, it’s good that you can do this, it’s not necessarily good that everyone does.

        You really have a choice between a lot of people living in cities, which frees up rural land but demands efficient, intensive agriculture to feed them, OR lots of people living in rural settings but occupying a great deal of land … and impacting the wild world accordingly.

        The general trend over the past 200 years has been the former one; people moving to cities and agriculture becoming radically more efficient in terms of land use per capita. Of course this didn't come for free, much of that intensification was undertaken in a relatively crude fashion, resulting in desertification, nitrogen runoffs, and vast monocultures.

        The direction I'm suggesting is that we have the opportunity to get the best of both options here, most people living in cities AND an agricultural transformation that delivered the kind of ecological renewal I know is dear to your heart. This won’t be easy, but I suggest it may be a trick worth mastering … 🙂

        • Robert Guyton

          Well put, RedLogix! At this point, I give up.

          • RedLogix

            Please don't. What I'd love to know is this; do you think the kind of regenerative work you are doing can be scaled up? At present I'm thinking it must be pretty labour intensive, but what would it take to scale it up ten or a hundred-fold without just adding lots of people?

            I really don't know the answer to this, but if we had the chance to bowl a few beers one night talking it through, that would be good.


            • Robert Guyton

              I appreciate your kind intentions. Thinking about "the kind of regenerative work" I do, or at least, how it must seem from the outside, is frustrating in that describing is a bit like giving the shoe-making elves clothing; they disappear, never to be seen again, as does meaning when pinned-down and interrogated and that's because the mechanical aspects are so easily"taken down"but, but, but there's not enough land, there're too many people, there's not the water/nitrates/selenium etc". I think it comes down to, between your world-view and mine, a belief/disbelief in the potential of photosynthesis, on the technical level, and those who employ it as a way of life. I think the focussed application of human ingenuity onto and in association with plants will result in a new epoch of life on earth for all concerned, but you do not. You are strongly inclined to track the development of technologies that might bring about a viable future world in which civilisation is a part, based on your knowledge of energy, I am fervently wishing to learn more from cooperating with, and applying our considerable powers of observation and thought, to the non-human world where technologies have been perfected to such an extent and subtly that we can hardly detect them; at least, that is what I imagine to be the case and as I attribute so much to the human imagination as a technology for transformational change and the formation of material reality, you can perhaps see why I'm frustrated at discussions about the merits or otherwise of the next iteration of vehicle or electricity generation. So while that positions me as an ineffectual dreamer, I am just busy enough changing my surroundings and the thinking/imaginations of anyone wishing to take a peek at what excites me. It's doubtless a rarified harvest that only someone privileged can indulge themselves in, but as someone in a very fortuitous position; not fleeing an oppressor, not starving, etc. I feel a strong obligation to apply myself to "the greater good" and use my time trialling and thinking-about and developing the particular line of thought I've found myself moving along. So, hippie, I guess. The curious thing is, I don't feel wracked by doubt, if fact, I feel curiously supported and encouraged as I go. So, dyed-in-the-wool hippie! For me, story is the most powerful technology and wielding that hot iron is the way to weld and carve out our future. All this will leave you thinking, "I wish I hadn't asked", which in fact, you didn't, so don't feel aggrieved. As to your actual question about scale-ability; yes, relatively effortlessly. Even the regenerative ag people have not yet uncovered the "secret" of how elegantly and effortlessly change of the sort I'm toying-with can be made; in fact, I've not met many at all who have pictured or seen for themselves the regenerative powers of wind and seed, coupled with the use of present technologies and resources and people, people, people; I'm not a believer in the/your city-folk in the city, countryside for food production model; I see custodians/kaitiaki/pastoralists throughout the bucolic landscape in a way that's very, very different from the empty-of-humans farmland we have now. Hmmm….I'm getting to the point where I want to press "delete" and go outside to net my redcurrant bushes; I can see the blackbirds are partying through my kitchen window, so I'll stop this ineffectual ramble and go before I waste any more valuable ink.

        • weka

          "Because while I admire and respect your land restoration/food forest work, a quick back of envelop suggests there just isn't enough arable land in NZ for every household to do this."

          There you go working backwards again. Start with the land and people and what they can do in each rohe or watershed. Design out from that. If you start with the reductionist accounting you will miss the key aspects and invariably be disappointed.

          Nature does most of the work btw and is expert in that far beyond what humans can do, that's the point of the regenerative movements. It's already been said, work smarter not harder (hard work at appropriate times/ places helps too, but the other has to happen first).

          • greywarshark

            That's such a good explanation of how things can be weka. Thanks for that. I can vouch for nature doing the work as I haven't got the grasses, bindweed and yarrow under control and the grass is growing apace. With the right things in and sensible mulching I could grow for the street.

            So in my tiny patch, after Christmas gatherings, I will start to follow good ideas from here and other places. I do have a compost bin with worms a-wiggling, and some good greenery but the strong and pushy tend to take over, as in life.

            • weka

              probably the hardest bit is decolonising the western mind. It's not that the western mind is wrong, or of no use. On the contrary, the whole reductionist tool set is incredibly useful in its place. But we do have a major issue with the paradigm we are operating from. Can't solve the problems by using the same set of thinking that created them.

          • RedLogix

            Start with the land and people and what they can do in each rohe or watershed. Design out from that.

            The next time you drive over a bridge, ask yourself if the engineer just made do with whatever bolts and beams were lying around the contractor's yard, and never cared if all the numbers added up.

  6. greywarshark 6

    If people could be encouraged to use their imaginations! A thinking experiential group starting off with naming a plant, tree, that you know and have opinions about. Good or bad? What plant, tree do you feel is close to your feelings about self? Why, what features appeal?

    Then what sort of world seems right for you. What input do you have into that world and its features? What do you want from that world to suit your interests? What effect does that have on the world you like to spend time in? On other people who live there? Do they do harm to the world? Do you? What can be done to decrease the effect of the harm, in the place it occurs? Are you able to balance quickly the harm and the recovery process?

    An interesting example to discuss could be – are wilding pines which establish themselves useful to the reduction calculations of our greenhouse gases? First without considering the original natural landscape and then with the natural landscape – and flora and fauna? Would the resin of pine make the area more prone to wildfires that spread?

    Can you spend less time doing harm to the world, choosing to spend more time with others who are aware like you are? Will that take you away from your peer group? Who do you dislike? Could you spend some time being with such people, finding out the good features that they have, and if not obvious then persevering to find their viewpoints and backgrounds? Do you then spend lesser time doing things that harm the world and perhaps harm yourself?

    This is my idea for a thinking exercise going round a group with the same question not needing to find solutions but to hang queries in the air for consideration presently and later. This could work as a way to break through entrenched ideas to a more open, fertile mind that can see a problem, a person, in the round, not a flat cardboard caricature of something or someone, who will be more complex than appearances and behaviour indicate. Break through the crust, to the person underneath, and there could well be a green pilgrim there who just hasn't found a satisfactory path to follow.

  7. greywarshark 7

    Have all the participants so far heard all the podcast? I haven't heard it yet but got thinking how might minds change, how could the shutters be taken down and new wind blow in. So put that up. Will listen to the podcast soon and hope to read what more people think about it.

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