Later is now

Patagonia’s philosopher Vincent Stanley explains why we need a sense of both patience and urgency to tackle the world’s biggest environmental problems.

Chile’s Salar de Atacama is the country largest salt flat, and the world’s largest lithium brine deposit – an environment whose health is threatened by the green economy.

by Vincent Stanley
9th August 2022

This text is the based on the transcription of a series of lectures held by Vincent Stanley during the 2018 Italia Innovation Responsible Success Program. The transcription was condensed and edited for clarity.

What I’d like to discuss is a vision for 2050 and beyond, and I’d like to start by asking: what would the conditions be for a good human life? What if we talked about the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community? What is it we need to do to get there?

Before diving into these questions, I wanted to open with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, with two lines that read: ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ ‘Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly’.

This is where we are now.
We’ve been talking for a long time about certain things, and we thought dealing with climate change would be something to do later. And later is now.

We’re dealing with a situation of massive environmental change. And we’re also dealing with massive political change, as you can see from the voting in so many countries in Europe, in the U.S., in India, and so on.

So what I want to talk about is: what is this era of change? What are the possibilities, the ways forward, for coming to a point where we actually have a way to live that supports all people and also supports nature?

In order to get started, I will talk briefly about what constitutes the environmental crisis.

The Components of the Environmental Crisis

Patagonia has had a mission statement for 25 years, and the third clause of the mission statement is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. We’ve been talking about that since the 1990s and yet there still is no strong consciousness on a daily basis, even nowadays, of an environmental crisis. People generally know about climate change, and people in limited areas know about specific problems related to climate change when they experience it directly.

So I wanted to talk about what constitutes the environmental crisis and then use that as a starting point to discuss where we need to go.

This is arguable but probably the biggest challenge we face is the loss of species. Because when we thin out the web of life, we make every species that remains more vulnerable as we have less of a complexity to support the life that remains. And you can see it even with us, with our susceptibility to viruses and bacteria and to certain kinds of diseases we’ve lost the capacity to fight.

The second big challenge, the second element of the environmental crisis, is climate change. Climate change affects us in many important ways.

One is the warming of the atmosphere, which is the most threatening.

The second is the intensity of storms and wildfires, and the violence of weather more broadly, which if you live in certain areas of the planet you will start to experience as personal and no longer as an abstract issue.

The third problem is ocean acidification, which is a byproduct of climate change. Since we’ve had factories, so for the last 200 years, the oceans have been absorbing the extra carbon we put in the air, and now they’ve lost that capacity to do that without changing their PH level. And when the oceans turn more acid, the smallest creatures in the ocean lose their capacity to grow spine or shell, and that affects the whole chain of marine life.

The fourth big problem is the loss of freshwater, which is mostly underground. Underneath China, underneath northern Russia, underneath the Midwest in the U.S., there are massive underground aquifers which cover miles and miles, and these are being drawn down much faster than they can be recharged.
And then there is the problem we have with the water we actually do have, which is pollution. Most of water pollution comes from agriculture, specifically from fertilizers which create an immense amount of nitrogen that in turn creates algae blooms that suck up the oxygen in the water and kill off fish. And our public policy toward agriculture is very protective. For instance, if i wanted to open a plant in Iowa, all of the discharge from that plant would be very carefully controlled by the EPA. But if I’m a farmer and I’m dumping the same chemicals onto my land and those eventually wind up in the Mississippi, there’s no restriction. And that’s also why we have been causing intense pollution of land and water.

The fifth problem, related to the previous one, is the fact we’ve introduced several thousand industrial chemicals since 1850 and only a few hundred of them have been tested by the EPA. When the environmental protection agencies were formed in the 1970s, most of these chemicals were grandfathered in since we had yet to study the effects of individual chemicals and also how they combine in the environment.

And then the last problem is desertification. It takes nature 500 years to grow an inch [2.54 centimeters] of topsoil. And what we’re doing now with industrial agriculture, when we till extensively, when we use inorganic fertilizers, when we plant mono-crops with very short roots – as we do with soy, corn and wheat which represent 62% of all agricultural land in the U.S. – all these causes the soil to dry out and lose its life at a very fast rate.

Soil is actually the one problem we can address most quickly, since we already have the capacity to do that, we don’t necessarily have the politics and we don’t necessarily have the financial system set up to handle the restoration of the soil for organic farming, but the knowledge is there and it’s increasing every year.

Understanding the problems

So we have these environmental problems, which are quite extensive, and a lot of people are saying that we will lose our capacity to support ourselves as a species by the end of the century if we don’t turn things around. But at the same time, we have long-standing human problems – we don’t get along country to country, we have problems such as of one part of the population keeping the other part of the population poor. And these traditional social problems are now being worsened by the environmental crisis and what we are witnessing are essentially wars over scarcity.

My proposal: a three-part idea

What I’d like to discuss now is this three-part idea of how we might live in a way that addresses the environmental problems and creates health for the biotic community.

1. Livable Cities

The first element of this this three-part idea is livable cities. There’s been a huge move in the last one hundred years as every region industrialized and cities got bigger and bigger and then became kind of unlivable. There has been a move to suburbanize which started first in the United States and it started to happen in other places too. But what happens when you move people out into the suburbs, and everybody gets a little patch of land and a little house, is that a couple of problems ensue. First, human beings are tremendously social and in the suburbs we lose the capacity to really interact with one another. Second, there is a land use problem, as you begin to use up huge tracts of land especially devoted to cars and parkings.
So a lot of people have looked at how you can make urban life rich and rewarding and how you can remove some of the reasons why people leave cities, which typically are noise, pollution, smoke, higher expenses, and a lack of nature, a total surrounding by concrete structures.

There is a movement called the New Urbanism which is based on mixed use of space, mixing commercial space with residential areas, and having a lot of qualities like walkability. Among other elements of New Urbanism that are really thriving, even in American cities now, is the idea of rooftop gardens to help us deal with climate change, because they also filter pollution, or the idea of using permeable materials instead of concrete then reducing the need for piping to deal with loss of rainwater.

So livable cities is one key element to this idea of how we might live together. Because if we’re going to restore biodiversity, we need land for different life forms. And if we are to feed ourselves organically, we need land to do that.
So the idea is how do you make these cities habitable?
The second element is the importance of people living together and the quality of life together. As we all know, our virtual life is not sufficient: in order to deal with human problems we need to deal with people face to face. And if we lose the capacity for people to live face to face, we create enormous problems. There is a key element to living together in cities: it is important to recreate a sense of community, without losing some of the sense of opportunity that cities provide. We don’t want to lose the sense of community.
Another thing we need to address in cities is not to keep nature out entirely. The concrete fortress of the city is not where people want to live, it is not what makes us happy. For example, if we adopted solutions as simple as planting more trees on urban streets, that would be a very simple action with multiple benefits like reduced pollution, reduced noise, more pleasant and livable place.

This is actually a critical point: if we’re trying to make big positive changes in the world, we should try to make one action have as many benefits as possible. What we need is simple solutions that have multiple benefits.

2. Regenerative Organic Agriculture

The second major element of this this three-part idea is Regenerative Organic Agriculture (ROA). Regenerative organic agriculture can help restore the soil to health and so it can help restore living systems more broadly creating opportunities for biodiversity that we would not have otherwise.

The idea of regenerative organic agriculture originates from some of the failures of certified organic agriculture, which was a fringe movement until a few years ago. The concern was not just over the safety of food but also over taste, because increasingly our fruits and vegetables and grains have been engineered for shelf life, reducing not only their nutritional quality and also their taste. The idea of organic agriculture was certainly to eliminate the use of chemicals, but there were also other ideas originally behind organic agriculture that kind of got lost once the certification became established and more mainstream. Among the idea that got lost was soil health, namely the idea that in order to feed everybody, you also wanted to create soil that could regenerate itself. We also lost the idea of water retention, as healthy soil requires much less water and much less organic fertilizer.

So the idea behind regenerative organic agriculture is to also look at all the other practices, for example how to bring the soil back to health to reduce water consumption and increase fertility, which are significant aspects for the farmers.
The primary ideas are to reduce tillage or to eliminate it, because when you till, especially when you till annuals and till deeply, you release a lot of carbon out of the soil and into the air contributing to global warming, and also you lose soil health. Another idea is companion planting or intercropping which also increases productivity for the farmer and it also makes the plants more resilient and reduces the risk from pests since one species helps out the other.
Another really critical benefit and significant advantage when we create soil health is that there is tremendous potential for sequestering carbon, for drawing carbon out of the air and sticking it back into the soil where it belongs, drawing it very deep down.

The Rodale Institute helped create the original organic certification and one of the things that they advocated that nobody ever adopted was the idea of continuous improvement to the organic certification. And this was perceives as kind of a risk since the advantage of certification as it becomes understood, and accepted is that it becomes trusted. But on the other hand the danger of certification is it locks you into a way of doing things that may not be the best way to do things. And so the idea of continuous improvement is to make a certification, not necessarily more flexible, but more evolvable so that you can improve it. The other thing that Rodale noticed is you cannot talk about soil health without talking about animals or without talking about human beings. It’s absolutely critical that the farmers make a living, and it’s also absolutely critical that the agricultural communities in which these farmers live have a degree of health, so you definitely want to establish 21st century standards for animal welfare. Even on organic farms, you’re getting manure from animals that are being raised in what are called CAFOs, which stands for concentrated animal feedlot operations, in which the animals have almost no room. They don’t really have enough room to walk, they don’t have a regular life, they don’t lead a life worth living.

For the Regenerative Organic Certification we teamed with the Rodale Institute and with Dr. Bronner’s, aiming at improving soil health but also at creating high standards for animal welfare and also adopting fair trade standards. In many cases, we’re using existing standards, like fair trade or animale welfare standards, rather than recreating the wheel.
We also realized that a lot of this is difficult to adopt all at once, especially when you’re dealing with farmers that need to make a living through what they grow. So we’ve developed a bronze, a silver and a gold standard. And part of the idea is to make the bronze standard, the lowest standard, the most reachable for more companies and farmers, while the gold standard is meant keep the highest standard, in order to always have a bar.

And now there are technological possibilities that enable organic farming and regenerative organic farming, like the use of big data in terms of climate information and soil information, so that the farmer can know how much water is needed and how much fertilizer is necessary.
So it is not just a matter of going back to fourth century methods, but rather a matter of creating an agriculture that is more suited to nature and that gives it more possibilities for being regenerative.

3. Spaces for species restoration

The third major element of this this three-part idea is to allow space for species restoration.
This is a fairly recent idea, put forth by E. O. Wilson who is probably in many ways the world’s leading biologists. He made a proposal a few years ago saying that if you took 50% of the land and water and saved it to restore species, then 80% of the species would live. And right now we’re losing species at a much faster rate.

When you talk about devoting half the earth for species survival, that’s quite an idea and that’s something really hard for us to grasp, it kind of takes our breath away. At this point it’s more of an interesting idea and it sounds like a lot. But rather than saying “no”, we could ask what would it take and what could we do. For example, with regenerative organic agriculture there is a border where a lot of good things can happen, at the border between a wild space and a farm space. And if you look at this in the context of livable cities, restored farmland, and then border areas where people can have recreation, and then certain areas that are closed off for periods of time to allow animals and also plants to recreate themselves, that’s more understandable and not so extreme.

It is actually a familiar pattern that Europe used to have. You would have the city, then you would have the farms, and then you would have the forest. To that extent, it’s not such a new idea. That notion of a centralized city and farmland around it to feed the people, and then an area that would be available for recreation, and then some areas that would be just closed off that would be available for animals.
And it would also be interesting to take this idea and look at it regionally, to understand in which parts of the world you could apply this idea, where you could devote more land to wild space and where it becomes more difficult because there is more built environment.

A reminder: Later is Now

One last thing I want to mention is timing. We’re talking about a time of very rapid change. We’ve also been talking about more rapid changes for a very long period.

There’s a journalist called Andy Revkin who used to work for the New York Times for a long time, who ran a blog, and he said that what we need for these times is a sense of both patience and urgency.
And we do need the urgency, because it’s ‘later’. There is no now or later: later is now. But we also need the patience, because what we tend to do, as a very organized society, is to create massive, top-down solutions that then create massive unintended consequences.
What I believe we need is to always make decisions as low down as possible, always trying to have whoever is going to be affected by the decision be consulted. I think this is absolutely necessary. If you don’t solve problems at the lowest possible level. So what we need now are a series of smaller actions that are closely related to community life and related to regions, rather than imposing a particular model or solution on system and on an entire bio region, without regard for differences or for complexities.
Stressing the importance of bioregions is a reversal, in some ways, of globalization. The problem of globalization is you can no longer see your supply chain, you lose control and ability to act on it, while if you’re dealing with issues on a regional level, all of a sudden, you can see them and you can do something about them.

I will leave you with one question: if we say that top-down solutions where no one is consulted, where we’re engineering very abstract solutions and making decisions from a great distance, don’t work, how are we going to create these solutions at a local level?

I believe that if we start to develop a clearer vision of the kind of world we actually want to live in, looking at bioregions and then looking at cities and at how we might better live together and in harmony with nature, if we are able to visualize it and actually discuss about this, that it would be much easier to pursue those goals.

About the Author

Vincent Stanley

Head of Philosophy at Patagonia

Vincent Stanley joined several of our journeys in Italy and California and offered his unprecedented experience to our research on business and ethics.
Member of the original, founding team of his company, Vincent is also co-author with Yvon Chouinard of the book The Responsible Company.