Carbon Ranching: Turning Problems into Solutions

Joan Bailey
Monday, 19th January 2015

Courtney White advocates positive thinking as the basis for all his Earth restoration work. He believes that we can weave together carbon sequestration, environmental restoration, food stability, and economics with a running theme of hope, abundance and opportunity.

For Courtney White, the power of positive thinking is no cliché.

Positive thinking, he believes, is the best foundation for finding solutions to a number of issues, such as climate change, habitat restoration, water quality, and hunger. Discovering this though, has been a journey full of chance meetings, intriguing characters, and varied landscapes where optimism is a common element.

As director of Quivira, a non-profit founded in 1997 that focuses on sustainable and restorative ranching practices, White and his co-founders decided to make optimism the centerpiece of their work. His years as an environmental activist revealed in stark detail the results of negative thinking - discord, devastation and ever deepening divides.

According to White, "We weren't seeing any positive or hopeful solutions. The answers relied on heavy penalties for rural people and that didn't seem to be fair. We decided to make an energizing radical center where we said, 'Yes, we can collaborate,' and 'Yes, we can find solutions.'" In 2009 however, White discovered something unexpected in Quivira's work, and this is where the latest leg of his optimistic journey began. He read Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use by Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit. Published by the Worldwatch Institute, the authors wrote that "for political, technological and economic reasons, the only possibility for large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere currently is through improved ecosystem function, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving land, and restoring degraded watersheds." That concept resonated with White.

"We were already doing creek restoration work and other similar projects, and suddenly I thought, 'Wow, here's a whole other dimension.'" He realized he'd been a carbon rancher all along, that the things that he'd felt a sense of urgency about - climate change, a lack of preparedness for coming changes, rampant environmental degradation, food stability - were already being worked on.

"It's like holding up an object to the light and turning it. You start to see it in a different way," said White. White brings all of this to bear in his new book, Grass, Soil Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country (Chelsea Green, 2014), where he weaves together the seemingly disparate strands of carbon sequestration, environmental restoration, food stability, and economics with a running theme of hope, abundance and opportunity.

This traveler's tale includes farmers, ranchers, conservationists, hairstylists (yes, a hairstylist), and researchers he met along the way, already hard at work. For him, "When people employ positive energy for positive purposes – to produce healthy food, for instance, or build community - instead of negative energy for negative ends - such as killing things - a world of possibility opens up."

While carbon may seem like an odd topic, White's perspective is that carbon is the unifying force behind the food movement, sustainable ranching, land and habitat restoration, and beyond. Pair that with an outlook on seeing problems (too much carbon) as challenges and turning them on their heads in order to find possible answers (sequestering carbon in the soil for better water infiltration and improved fertility), and the world suddenly fills with opportunity rather than problems.

"What's neat about carbon is that you're talking about biology, life. If you run that through the positive filter - what are we doing to promote life? - the energy just goes round and round," said White. That energy is evident not only in the stories he shares but in the reaction to his book from people looking for what White calls hopeful solutions. "People are getting it in ways that I was hoping. The carbon thing has really zoomed off. There are more papers and projects like the Chevrolet Partnership to offset emissions by restoring grasslands, storing carbon and getting credit, that a year or two ago wouldn't have been a possibility," said White. People are also eager for ways to get involved. White sees no shortage of opportunities there, either.

"When I made the carbon map on the cover of the book, I deliberately constructed it so that everybody was on the map. We all live in Carbon Country, but we have to figure out our role. Are we producers, consumers, or bird watchers? If we don't have a direct role, then we need to support someone who does," he said.


Yet, there are those who remain unconvinced, no matter how much evidence put before them. What makes someone resistant to change? Although White readily admits it's hard to pinpoint, he does have some ideas. "Paradigms and psychology are at work there. It's not just numbers, but something to do with the way a person looks at the world. Maybe we represent an implied threat, or it's distressing, or it's just stubbornness."

White is also well aware of the naysayers, those who would dub him and others as 'Pollyannas'. His answer is sharp, clear and grounded in the real world. "Everyone I work with is earnest and serious. No one has stars in their eyes. This is a real world lot. If it doesn't work, they toss it out. When it does work, people should pay attention. The toolbox is being developed, and the question now is how to scale up. There is nothing Pollyanna-ish about that."

While there are plenty of challenges to turn into opportunities, White also points to the power of community to maintain that positive outlook. He reminds us that it's a good idea bad to gather with the like-minded for support and to re-energize.

"Sometimes the choir needs to sing to each other. Good ideas are difficult to implement, but we implement them, and in the process try to earn a living." For White, the future remains bright and hopeful, and that's what we need to keep aiming for. "There is a kind of momentum happening - journals, crazy farmers and ranchers, and researchers are all fanning out and doing stuff," he said, "If we all climb together, we'll get there faster. The world's problem is rising fast enough that we're all in the same boat. Let's row together."

Further resources

Read a review of Courtney White's book Grass, Soil Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country

UK readers can buy Courtney White's book Grass, Soil Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country from our Green Shopping site

US readers can buy the book from the publishers, Chelsea Green at

Joan Bailey is a regular writer and reviewer for Permaculture magazine.


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