Amid a world so concerned with “getting back to normal,” I propose that we actually need to go back a number of decades—maybe 60–70 years, even—to recover an all-around sustainable, more humane approach to “normal.” Specifically, we need to go back to a time when more people were more connected to the earth through the cultivation of crops and the husbandry of animals for sustenance, in symbiosis with the Earth and her cycles.
I recently watched the film Kiss the Ground (2021), which has forever changed my perspective on what earth actually is. The film is about saving our soils globally, restoring them to a state of nutrient-richness alive with microorganisms, as the basis for all human, animal, insect, and vegetable life, and especially for a sustainable climate. I had no idea how intimately intertwined the changing climate and the retention of the world’s vital topsoil are—they are essential for our very survival. As creatures made up largely of other microorganisms, we are wholly dependent on a multitude of living, thriving, unseen beings.
Soil loss is taking place on an epic scale: one third of the world’s topsoil has already been lost to commercial farming practices, erosion, and desertification. These activities also cause global warming and increasingly intense climatic changes. Healthy soils absorb water and carbon dioxide, but the opposite is now occurring: once-vital soils are releasing water and carbon dioxide, resulting in desertification. Examples abound. However, there are also places, such as China, South America, the US, and elsewhere, where farmers are committed to soil restoration. Whether rooted by seedlings, grasses, or trees, the soil needs plant life to sequester carbon and to retain water, to stabilize the climate, and to prevent water erosion and wind-borne soil loss. Desertification is a vicious cycle that continually leads to hotter microclimates, scaled to larger and larger areas. Then macro-climatic changes become the norm and we have dramatic climate change, or as one friend calls it: “global weirding”—hotter hots and colder colds, as well as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and all manner of extreme weather conditions. These events lead to the displacement and endangerment of already marginalized communities, the loss of animal life, and the depletion of entire species.
According to the United Nations, we have a mere 60 years left before the world’s remaining topsoil has blown away as dust, when nothing will be cultivable. This is a terrifying thought, which should give us each great pause.
I may not have children of my own but that does not mean that I don’t feel responsible for helping to ensure that current and future generations will have access to food, shelter, and a habitable climate for all life. Therefore, our imperative as Buddhists, as activists, as humans of any persuasion, ought to be preserving vegetation, soil, clean water, and air, and reversing the ominous trajectory of soil loss and degradation.
How is farming an issue for Buddhist or spiritual practitioners? It is the ultimate form of enacting wisdom-compassion, a skillful means to provide what beings need, within the context of knowing there is no time to waste. There is also no soil, water, air, or ozone layer to waste! Although these actions may be relative, if held within the ultimate view that meeting the needs of beings beyond our own narrow circle is the swift path of generosity, they become forms of enlightened living to benefit all. Rather than only stepping in after a natural disaster, we could be helping to prevent future crises—especially those of a catastrophic or irreversible nature, such as loss of soils, clean water, or air, species extinction, or the loss of human life.
Sustainable farming is within reach no matter which country we live in, for even the most modest of budgets, because one way to accomplish this goal in the short term is to join energies with neighbors, sangha, and even at work, to begin with a humble plot or planters on the roof, to begin to reclaim lost soil, water, organisms, and vegetation that all beings need to thrive on our shared Earth.
Give thanks and a bow to your fellow organisms, no matter how big or small. We are all interdependent.