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February 2022

Long Watch: Kiss the Ground documentary

Kiss the Ground (2020) - IMDb
Kiss the Ground cover photo

(1 hr and 24 mins on Netflix and Vimeo, available free to schools, students, and teachers.)

Kiss the Ground is a 2020 documentary focusing on how sustainable farming practices can be used to sequester carbon from Earth’s atmosphere. While it is cheesy at times (with some gratuitous celebrity cameos), the documentary puts forth a fairly compelling argument that a reassessment of global farming practices could work in tandem with renewable energy production to achieve “drawdown”—the point at which atmospheric carbon levels begin to reduce on a yearly basis. Three sustainable farming practices are highlighted throughout the film: no till farming, cover crops and farming amongst perennial crops and trees, composting and mob grazing.

The first, and potentially most revolutionary tactic, is no till farming. This means getting rid of that instrument most associated with farming: the plow. Tillage cuts into and turns over the topsoil for easy planting of row crops; however, in doing so, it damages the fragile microbiome in the soil. In healthy soils, these microbes grow symbiotically with plant roots and help to fix carbon and nitrogen into nutrients for the plants. Years of tillage and pesticide usage will kill these fragile microbes, whose carbon and nitrogen fixing abilities must then be replaced with ever-increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizer.

The second sustainable farming tactic is to use diverse cover crops to cover fallow land. Fallow land is farmland that has not been sewn with crops for the season in order to replenish soil nutrients. Cover crops are a diverse mix of short grasses that can quickly replenish soil nutrients, promote microbe growth, and prevent topsoil erosion. Cover crops can be combined with mob grazing to increase profits for farmers and enhance natural composting from ruminant dung. Alternatively, crops can be grown amongst trees and perennials in order to supply a constant source of nutrient replenishment to farmed soils.

The third tactic is composting and mob grazing. Compost redirects nutrient-rich food waste from the landfill and into the field. Compost can synergize with cover crops and reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Mob grazing of cows and other ruminants may seem counterintuitive as a strategy to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, as ruminants are known to emit copious greenhouse gases. However, the film argues that decoupling ruminants from their natural grazing patterns is the real sin. Well-managed open pasture grazing allows for humane meat production that can boost soil health, plant growth, and carbon sequestration through the natural fertilization brought by cattle poop.

The film makes the point that destructive farming practices have been employed by humans for thousands of years. In fact, several once-fertile lands that held the cradles of civilization (the Loess Plateau in China, the Nile Delta in Egypt, and the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia) have been heavily desertified for centuries. Loss of fertile topsoil has led to drought, famine, and mass human migration, creating international instability and human tragedy. The ancient practices of tillage and monocrops damage the soil microenvironment and drain the soil of its nutrients. As crops grow more sparsely on depleted soils, rainfall will erode soils rather than hydrate them, further exacerbating topsoil loss and decreasing carbon sequestration. The film stipulates that at this rate of topsoil loss, all of the fertile topsoil will de degraded in 60 years.

Despite this, there is reason to hope. The Loess Plateau in China was completely regenerated as an arable region over the past 30 years due to massive efforts from the Chinese government, scientists, and conservationists. It will take acceptance from farmers and governments and pressure from consumers to make this farming revolution happen, but it will have profound positive effects on the climate, biodiversity, and human flourishing.

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Loess Plateau before and after regeneration (

Short Read: Stop blaming the climate for disasters

This short 2-page article from Nature Communications sets forth a clear and often overlooked argument: “Disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability.” In other words, it is not enough to recognize that the increasingly erratic climate is putting many people’s home and lives at risk. Rather, one must also acknowledge that these people are significantly more vulnerable to climate threats because they are underserved socially, economically, and politically.  Hazards are ubiquitous, but they only become disasters when they are not adequately planned for and mitigated by infrastructure and social support. This is especially true for communities with compounded vulnerabilities, as has happened when climate hazards arise during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The article further argues that all of us, and governments in particular, must accept responsibility for disasters and warns that, “A discourse that attribute disasters to nature paves a subtle exit path for those responsible for creating vulnerability.” It also rests on scientists and informaticians to help change the perspective on climate disaster reporting. We must highlight not only the global trends of climate changes, but also assess hazards at the temporal and spatial scales that are relevant to vulnerable communities. These smaller scale analyses can lead to actionable changes in infrastructure and social support that can prevent future climate disasters.

MIT Spotlight: Lynn Best ‘69

Lynn Best portrait
Lynn Best

The MIT Technology Review recently featured an article about Lynn Best, a 1969 MIT graduate in Biology, who worked at and eventually led Seattle City Light from 1982 to 2020. In her time there, she used scientific reasoning to balance environmental, cultural, and financial concerns about hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River that produce electricity for much of northwest Washington. She established optimal flow rates for the dams that would allow the native salmon to flourish. In doing so, she gained the respect of local tribal communities and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Best lead Seattle City Light to be the first carbon neutral utility service in the United States. She now protects the river and its watershed as a commissioner on the Skagit River Environmental Endowment Commission.  


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