Thinking Dirty: Can Soil Save Us from Climate Change?

In early April 2018, a large crack suddenly and mysteriously appeared in the earth in South-Western Kenya. Scientists believe the geological phenomenon is related to the East African rift — a shifting in the tectonic plates beneath Africa that will likely lead to the continent’s eventual split into two land masses. It’s a major #tbt that calls back to the Cretaceous Period and the OG Pangaea rift.

50 feet wide and several miles long, the crack is a not-so-subtle reminder that our planet is constantly changing — sometimes in loud, noticeable ways… but mostly in a slow progression, and in silence. Despite the fact that any literature on global warming and climate change has been discretely removed from the United States’ State Department website, it has become abundantly clear that we’re on a fast track to destroying the planet.

97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. And according to research published by NASA, the world’s net carbon dioxide level has increased more in the past 60 years than it has in over 400,000 years.

As a result, global temperatures have risen, oceans have become more acidic and gotten hotter, ancient ice sheets are shrinking, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are a more and more common occurrence.

In sum, it’s not looking good, guys.

Honestly, it’s all a bit overwhelming. Because, what can you do as one single person that will really make a difference, right? Bringing your reusable aluminum water bottle to spin class just doesn’t feel like it’s doing much to put a dent in the massive trash island that’s sitting out in the middle of the Atlantic. (P.S. It’s currently the size of France.)

If you feel a general sense of depressed resignation about it all, you’re not alone. “Eco-anxiety” is totally a thing; the American Psychological Association recently began using the term to describe those who “are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”

But before you begin your downward spiral of carbon footprint shame, eco-regret, and guilt over all those plastic water bottles you used before you purchased your reusable aluminum thermos, take a breath.

There’s actually something you can do to save the planet, and it’s so innovative you’ve likely never even heard of it. Enter: regenerative agriculture, which could be just the thing to reverse the effects of climate change, permanently.

Regenerative agriculture is a farming and grazing philosophy that rebuilds the organic matter in soil. More organic matter means healthier soil — and healthier soil improves plants’ abilities to perform photosynthesis (the process of converting CO2 to oxygen), which results both in improved carbon drawdown from the air and an enhanced water cycle. It’s a relatively simple concept: fix the planet’s soil to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Ryland Engelhart, the owner and proprietor of LA mainstay and vegan hotspot, Café Gratitude,  first ran into the concept at a panel discussion on climate change. Like many in the food industry, Engelhart is passionate about sustainability; it’s one of the pillars of his plant-based restaurants. Curious to learn more about how he could make a deeper impact on climate change as a business owner, he sat in on a seminar. The six scientists on the panel talked about the serious effects of excessive carbon use and how it would eventually lead to the end of the planet. But one speaker had a slightly more optimistic view.

“The last guy that spoke talked about a blind spot. He spoke to something that had essentially been left out of the global climate change conversation. And that was the ecological principles of how plants work with soil and microorganisms,” explains Engelhart.

Through regenerative agriculture, the speaker explained how we can reverse the effects of climate change.

A light bulb went off in Engelhart’s head: “Basically what I saw for the first time in my life was a pathway — it was a big a-ha moment — one that showed not just how human beings can reduce their carbon dependency and use of fossil fuels, but how we can actually counterbalance, regrow, regenerate, and heal the planet.”

At first blush, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that soil could be our planet’s great redeemer — the hero we’ve been waiting for, if you will. But unhealthy soil is at the root of many of our global warming problems.

“Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis. 30 to 60 percent of the carbon they pull out of the atmosphere they’re sending back into the soil to be stored,” explains Engelhart. “And the more carbon in the soil, the healthier the soil actually is for plants.”

When soil is devoid of nutrients and minerals (imagine Dust Bowl Era barren farmland) it becomes arid and dehydrated. This decaying, sand-like soil can’t sustain plant life, which, in turn makes the land more vulnerable to natural disasters like flooding and erosion, whereas plants’ roots help keep soil intact during times of stormy weather, preventing events like mudslides. It is a direct byproduct of farming and agriculture techniques that are used all around the world — these techniques suck all the nutrients out of the soil, and as soon as the land has been deemed infertile, it is abandoned.  

Armed with this new information, Engelhart hustled back to Los Angeles and immediately enrolled Finian Makepeace, his childhood friend and professional musician, in his plan to clean up the soil, reverse climate change, and tell everyone about it.

Thus, Kiss the Ground was born — a non-profit co-lead by Engelhart and Makepeace that educates people on the benefits of regenerative farming while working on a global level with farmers to restore soil worldwide.

Creating more healthy soil directly reduces the carbon dioxide count — a simple concept that Engelhart and Makepeace are eager to share with the world.

“Our goal is to educate as many people as possible around the concept of soil and regenerative agriculture,” says Engelhart. The group has created an impressive library of assets — most notably, their two short films: The Compost Story and The Soil Story — as well as plans to develop curriculum for schools that would teach the benefits of regenerative agriculture and empower kids to reverse climate change by making their own gardens at home. And for adults who are interested in sharing Kiss the Ground’s good work, the company offers online speaker training for people who want to become unofficial Kiss the Ground advocates and educators.  

Kiss the Ground’s realistic approach to climate change is empowering — and it certainly makes us feel far less helpless in this modern age.

Michelle Pellizzon is a creative consultant based in Los Angeles. A former professional dancer-turned-startup employee, she’s led a strange but wonderful creative life. Follow along for latest projects and mishaps at @betterbymichelle and @holisticism.

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