Land played a pivotal role in the emergence of the global industrial market economy and it remains essential to its transformation. Our relationship with and treatment of land is so fundamental to survival that it seems to have become invisible, like the scenery we pass each day can become so routine that we fail to take note unless something changes. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, recognized the importance of land to human existence and considered its conversion into a commodity as a dežning feature of market economies:
We have become so accustomed to land as real estate, as a commodity, that it is easy to forget that we are utterly dependent on land and its covering of soil for our survival. Polanyi’s characterization of a market economy as a utopian concept provides a hint of his analysis of free markets as a hopelessly temporary basis upon which to organize an economy (the
concept of unsustainability was still unheard of in Polanyi’s time). The industrial market economy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced an unprecedented material abundance for those who appropriated the land of others. The appropriation of land in areas colonized by England and other European powers, the agricultural capitalism of the Tudors in England itself, and the land grabs of industrial capitalism for “industrial towns with their need for practically unlimited food and raw material supplies” were all “stages in the subordination of the surface of the planet to the needs of industrial society.”* The appropriation of land continues and has accelerated recently, with China, India, other rapidly industrializing nations, and private investors buying land, primarily in Africa and Latin America, to meet the demands of economies that have exceeded the ecological resources of their homeland. This modern extension of enclosure and resource expropriation is driven largely by land and water shortages and the need to increase food production. †
The subordination of the surface of the planet, as noted by Polanyi, has led to the nearly universal degradation of the terrestrial ecosystems of the Earth. Reversing that degradation and restoring terrestrial ecosystems requires an approach to land use and management that eschews subordination and embraces careful recognition of the fragility, resilience, ecological limits, and unique characteristics of each biome and location-a distinctly nonindustrial approach. Rather than the simpližcation, mechanization, concentration, consolidation, and energy intensižcation associated with industrial land management, ecological land management involves approaches that recognize the complexity and uniqueness of each place, avoid concentration of ownership and control, and transition away from fossil fuels and toward the use of diffuse, renewable energy sources. Replenishing the organic matter and nutrients in soils that have been nearly universally diminished by agricultural and other land use and management practices is and will be a central component of improved practices. The large amounts of carbon that have been lost from forest, crop, and grazing lands worldwide present a historically unique opportunity to sequester large quantities of carbon over the next few decades by replacing the carbon lost due to a 10,000-year history of carbon-depleting practices.‡
There are a couple clear and universal principles underlying land use and land management practices that enhance the biosequestration of carbon; all involve increasing and protecting photosynthetic biomass or increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil. Increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil results from increased carbon inputs from aboveground and belowground biomass, reduced carbon losses due to disturbance and exposure, or a combination of these. In simple terms, this means growing more and healthier plants and keeping soil covered with organic matter. The carbon in biomass and soils is most stable and secure when produced and protected in a healthy ecosystem with a diversity of perennial species and a minimum of disturbance. Carbon and nutrients in cropland that is disturbed by tillage can be protected and enhanced by minimizing fallow periods, using cover crops, and using multicrop systems.