How fences could save the planet

As politicians get bogged down in debating complicated strategies to fight climate change, Mark Stev

Nobody would blame you for being pessimistic about the future. After all, if you listen to the media (and, it seems, anybody over 25) we're all going to hell in the proverbial handcart, as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - economic meltdown, climate change, terrorism and, who else, Simon Cowell - bear down on us.

But I have news. Some people are rather fed up of this narrative and are quietly getting on with solving the grand challenges our planet faces, using both new technologies and forgotten wisdom. Their mantra? "Cheer up, it might just happen." I've spent the past 18 months researching a book about these people.

One of them is Tony Lovell, an accountant from Australia, where farming has become synonymous with drought. A decade of low rainfall, heatwaves and wildfires has scorched much of the land. Australians call it "the Big Dry" and it means that when the rains come - as they are doing now on the eastern seaboard - water runs over the parched surface, resulting in devastating floods. Many farms survive on "drought assistance" handed out by the government. Rural suicide is depressingly common.

Lovell thinks he has the answer. At a climate-change conference in Manchester, I find him talking about a new method of farming. "This is a typical ranch in Mexico," he explains, showing an image of a terracotta dust bowl with bare, compacted soil. Then he puts up a second image of lush green vegetation. "This is the ranch next door. Same soil, same rainfall. These pictures were taken on the same day."

I am astounded - it seems too good to be true. Later, I ask his business partner, Bruce Ward, what caused the difference. "Management," he says. "Just management."

To find out more, we travel to New South Wales to a sheep farm owned by Tim and Karen Wright. The Big Dry isn't so big on their land - it looks more like Sussex than the images of the bush that we're used to seeing on TV. The couple have also tripled their sheep stock, with half the labour associated with herds the size of theirs. And yet, Tim says, the rainfall had been low for nine years. What is his secret?

Back to nature

Driving to another farm, Ward and Lovell show me. They point to a paddock by the side of the road that is almost totally bereft of vegetation. "Is that from lack of rain?" I ask. "Look down at the fence," says Lovell. And then I see it, and from that moment on, I see it everywhere we go. Outside the fence there is grass. Indeed, we are standing in it up to our knees. "Things can grow just fine here," says Ward. He bends down and grabs a lump of vegetation. It comes away in his hand. "This is dying, though. That's the other half of the problem."

Back in the car, Lovell tells a story. "If you go back in time, our grasslands were dominated by large herds of grazing animals - bison in America and wildebeest in Africa." There are still a few places where you can witness this. The Serengeti, for instance, is one of the few remaining natural grasslands on the planet and is home to huge migrating herds of wildebeest and zebras. There is no beginning or end to their journey, but a constant clockwise trek in search of water and fresh grass. Every year, two million animals cover 1,800 miles. The herds stay closely packed as a defence against predators.

“What happens is the herd eats the grass but then moves on, looking for the fresh stuff. In the Serengeti, that herd won't be back on the same ground for at least a year," Lovell says. "That's important," says Ward. "There's a natural relationship between grasses and grazing animals. The growing buds are at the base of the plant and they need sunlight. If the plant gets too tall it starts to kill itself by hiding those buds in its own shade. It can't photosynthesise." "That's why that grass came away in my hand," Lovell explains. "It's dead material. In nature, the herd would have come along, eaten the tops off the plants, exposing the growth buds, and moved on. By the time they came back, the grass would have regrown."

“The problem with the way we farm livestock is we don't let them roam," says Ward. "We split up big herds between separate paddocks and keep them there for way too long. With no predators, they can wander where they like in that space. The grass never gets a chance to grow back. An animal will have a go at it as soon as it starts sprouting."

“Why doesn't anybody notice this?" I ask. "Did you?" Lovell replies. It's a fair point.

The effect of such poor land management is a sharp decline in soil carbon levels across grasslands over the past 150 years, directly related to the loss of vegetation. Ward tells me that grass plants grow roughly the same amount of root matter as leaf matter. If the plant gets nibbled by a cow or sheep, it'll slough off a corresponding amount of root matter into the soil in minutes, enriching it with carbon.

“A plant is roughly 58 per cent carbon - from CO2 in the air," says Ward, "and while nearly all of the lost root matter will rot, returning that carbon to the atmosphere, it leaves behind a small amount of residue."

“It's only a small amount of the carbon that makes up the plant," says Lovell, "but a little bit of a bloody big amount soon adds up." He's not wrong. The UN estimates there are 3.5 billion hectares of agricultural grasslands on our planet. Increase the organic carbon content of their soils by just 1 per cent, and this would offset nearly 12 years of global CO2 emissions.

Rotating cows

Some worry about cattle belching methane (another potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere and call for us to relinquish meat-eating. But if what Ward and Lovell are saying is right, it's not that we have too many cattle, it's that we have too little grass. Working correctly together, animals and plants are a huge natural "carbon pump" that can take vast quantities of CO2 from the sky. As a bonus, richer soil is far more effective at retaining water, ending the destructive cycle of drought and flood.

What is more exciting is that almost any farmer can adopt the system. All you need is a few fences. Then you build lots of small paddocks, form your cattle into a big herd, and put them in each one for just a day or two.

So why isn't everyone doing it? "The problem is that farming's a traditional business," Ward explains. "Changing the way you farm is the same as saying that what your dad and your grandad did was wrong, which isn't easy when they're still living on the property."

That's why he and Lovell want Australia's government - and other governments - to pay farmers to increase soil carbon. "It's a carrot instead of a stick," Lovell says. "They can tell Dad the change is to bring money in."

It's a wonderful thought - that something as simple as a fence could save the world - and I remembered the words of another farmer I met on my trip, a typically salty Australian called Michael Coughlan. "The thing is, in Australia and America, we've absolutely pillaged our land. We've just fucked the whole thing. But I think we can turn it round really quickly."

“An Optimist's Guide to the Future" by Mark Stevenson is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Three easy ways to make a difference

Send Klaus Lackner some money

This professor of geophysics at Columbia University has developed a carbon scrubber that removes CO2 from the sky cheaply and efficiently. Now, his team wants to create a commercial prototype - and it needs $20m to do it. Why not help him out by chipping in at

Create some charcoal

Charcoal has undergone a makeover in recent years. Creating it (and then burying it) is seen as one of the most promising ways to mitigate global warming.

By burning all agricultural waste such as corn and rice stalks, branch and leaf litter (as well as animal dung) in a "low-oxygen" environment to create charcoal, we could "halt the increase and actually decrease the level of atmospheric carbon by 0.7 gigatonnes a year", according to Johannes Lehmann, a soil science expert at Cornell University. The bonus is that charcoal in the soil tends to increase crop yields, too.

Cut your energy bill
Haven't got around to insulating the loft or buying any draft excluder? Energy efficiency is the quickest way to reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Your wallet will appreciate it, too. Just sticking some boards over the beams in your loft will make a difference. And you can use the lovely power tool you got for Christmas.
Mark Stevenson

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State