Copyright Notice

Individual articles on this website are copyrighted. Articles may be downloaded for personal use; users are forbidden to reproduce, republish, redistribute, or resell any materials from this website in either machine-readable form or any other form without permission of the author and NHLA or payment of the appropriate royalty for reuse. For permissions and other copyright-related questions, please email your question to: editor [at]

Dr. Dirt
July 2016

Dont' Worry — Act and Be Happy

— in which Dr. Dirt discovers a hidden optomistic side —

Many of Dr. Dirt’s scribblings here over the past decade seem to be on the pessimistic side, though I prefer to call it the realistic side. But every now and then, I’m besmitten by more positive thoughts. I just have to admit that some things seem to be getting better, seem to be moving in more sustainable long-term directions. We might all get out of this alive – not you and I, but the human species.

As an example, consider the plodding megalith of the US Department of Agriculture: They now sponsor research into the large-scale use of organic methods, biological control of disease and insect pests, cover-cropping and crop rotation, organic dairy herds, maintenance of a healthy soil ecosystem, etc. They have incentive programs aimed at helping new small-scale farmers get established and succeed. They promote farmers’ markets, local (rather than national and international) farming, urban agriculture, backyard wildlife, and local/regional food networks. Twenty years ago such approaches were considered jokes in the USDA and across the US. Now, with the help of your government agencies, more sustainable farming practices are being actively encouraged. True, the funds going in these positive directions are dwarfed by the funds going to agri-business and subsidies for farming conglomerates. Nonetheless, the USDA has started to move in more regenerative directions.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, in the landscape field. Twenty years ago permaculture was almost unheard of in the US; now, most folks have heard of it, although they may not really understand what it means. Native plants weren’t even stocked in most nurseries and garden centers; now, natives are frequently stocked and sometimes even marketed. Lawns were the backbones of every landscape, and organic lawn maintenance was a miniscule niche market; now, lawns are shrinking (especially in the West and Southwest), and organic lawn care is slowly on the upswing. Pesticides were the go-to solutions to disease and insect pests, even when control was not really warranted; now, people (especially those with children or pets) are increasingly demanding no chemicals in their yards. Compost was a minor practice; now, many homeowners have small composting operations in their backyards. Shearing most plants into gumballs and hockey pucks prevailed; now…well, you can’t have everything.

So, in many of these areas are seen the beginnings of a major turnaround, toward more organic, natural, ecosystemic, and sustainable landscape practice. There’s a long way to go, but changes have begun and seem to be accelerating. And as I’ve said before, if you’re not on this bus as a landscaper, you’re going to be left behind.
In the field of architecture and building, the Green Building Council has been promoting the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for more than a decade, with good success in shifting the building trades to more sustainable practice. It’s likely that your town has at least one LEED-certified building. And LEED is now allied with SITES, a sustainable landscape program developed jointly by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the US Arboretum in Washington, DC. The LEED and SITES programs provide clear guidelines for developing buildings and landscapes in a long-term, sustainable manner.

In universities and boardrooms, reductionist thinking and solving problems in “silos” is being replaced by systems thinking and interdisciplinary solutions. CEO’s are taking courses in mindfulness and micro-dosing LSD to seek creative solutions. Paul Hawken, successful businessman (Erewhon Trading Company, Smith and Hawken, Biomimicry Technologies) and a global proselytizer for sustainability, writes of the significant impacts of personal activism, localized economic control, and small community-based working groups and NGO’s: Think locally, act locally. The result, he suggests, will be global.

Finally, I cite Al Gore, President-for-a-day and long-time environmental advocate. His stump speech for the last few years asks and answers three critical questions: 1) Must we change? 2) Can we change? 3) Will we change? He answers all three in the affirmative. Regarding the first question, the need to change, he cites a litany of global environmental problems, with plenty of distressing statistics and scientific data, all updated from his 2006 documentary and book An Inconvenient Truth. The fact is, the situation now is approaching dire: Thousand-year floods, hurricanes, droughts; rising temperatures and acidity in the oceans, leading to marine die-offs, loss of diversity and increases in invasive species; habitat losses on the land and related loss of diversity and ecosystem stability; the sixth great extinction in the Earth’s history; the heating of the planet, with attendant rising of seas and stresses on ecosystems; we release 110 million tons of greenhouse gases every day, and every day we use the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima explosions; ETC. Among the human population, all this has led to large-scale famine, disease, war, and refugee crises. Our country may seem immune, but in fact the US poverty rate is the highest in decades, our infant mortality is among the highest in the developed world, and we’ve been at war for the longest period in our history. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy may mark a new normal, along with record droughts in the West and Southwest and record floods across the country.

His first point is undeniable: We must change. Gore’s second question, Can we change?, is answered by a brief history of human consciousness and conscience. We are questioning, seeking, searching animals – this is perhaps our greatest characteristic as a species. Our genes demand curiosity, and they demand constant improvement in ourselves and our living conditions. Humans have a tremendous flexibility and resilience. We are generalists, able to adapt successfully to changing environmental/social/political/personal demands. His optimism here is based in our essential creativity, inventiveness, scientific inquiry, and ability to solve problems. As examples of current efforts, Gore notes that the cost of renewable energy has gone down ten percent per year for the past thirty years. Active investment in renewable energy now exceeds active investment in non-renewable fossil fuels. The costs are now equal, in spite of the fact that fossil fuels still have forty times the subsidies of renewables. China now has a cap-and-trade regulation on non-renewable carbon-based fuels. Gore sees renewable energy as “the biggest business opportunity in generations.”

So Gore presents a clear picture that We can change. But Will we change? Again, Gore is optimistic. We have addressed intractable problems and found creative solutions in the past. Examples he cites – and they are among our most difficult issues over the past 200 years – include abolition of slavery, the granting of women’s suffrage and women’s rights, ending apartheid, and the successes of the civil rights and gay and lesbian rights movements. In support of his thesis, he quotes the poet Wallace Stevens: “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” Gore closes his talk in his own words: “Some still doubt we have the will to act, but I say, the will to act is a renewable resource.”

Rousing words. Toward the end of his talk, Gore also quotes the late economist Rudi Dornbusch: “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you think they could.” This is open to wide-ranging interpretation: Quickening salvation, or quickening apocalypse. You decide. Meanwhile, I recommend Gore’s 2016 TED talk, available on YouTube. If you’re not terrified at the thought, it will make you think. It could even make you change.

— Dr. Dirt is somewhat terrified of John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.

Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart