Former Sierra Club activist Courtney White set out to discover how we can mitigate climate change impacts through the sequestration of carbon in soil. Along the way, after visiting rooftop farms, ranchers, Australian graziers, marsh land regenerators and waterway rehabilitation projects, he discovered something else – if we take care of the carbon, by taking care of land with regenerative practices, there’s a whole bunch of other immediate and lasting benefits.

These things include improved protection for coastal communities like New Orleans because the mangroves and estuary marshes buffer the force of storm surges – and they also sequester “blue carbon”.

Or new life opportunities from urban farms on tall buildings like those underway in New York City, where chickens, rabbits, bees, herbs and vegetables provide real jobs, and real produce, while also sequestering carbon in the form of glomalin, also known as humus, in the soil.

Renewable energy, as researchers in France have shown with a system they’ve developed that combines solar power generation with food production, can actually lead to improved yields of crops and deliver better financial viability for a farm, as well as reduced emissions.

Courtney White

There are benefits like improved crop yields to be had from innovative grazing practices that use cattle, sheep and goats strategically to encourage native grasses to grow deeper root systems – sequestering more carbon, and developing a soil with better water-holding capacity and higher fertility.

The science of everything from carbon’s role in the cycle of life through to evolution, data gathering and permaculture is extremely well explained by White, who has a distinctly personable way of narrating the things he sees and learns.

The various projects and people of the journey are interwoven with research from a wide range of bodies, including the University of NSW, and with reflections and quotes from many of the greatest minds across ecology, conservation and sustainability, like Aldo Leopold.

Some of the case studies are remarkable for the fresh perspective on basic environmental issues like ecosystem service provision, how it’s going wrong and how it can be put right –for example, the role of beavers in maintaining healthy waterways, and why there are some folk actively recruiting beavers to come and fix their creeks.

He explores the notion of “sweet spots” – areas where small actions can make a major difference in restoring land to health and delivering a broader ecological benefit, including sequestration.

White also looks at the ways policy, including agricultural policy and carbon pricing policy, is helping or hindering efforts to transition to sustainable practices.

Given this year is the International Year of Soil, this is a timely, easy and uplifting read for anyone who wants to understand soil’s role in wider human society – what it means for each of us, whether we are farmers, financiers or hairdressers – and also to see how even in cities our choices of food and lifestyle can support or hinder global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and absorb those already causing impacts.

White’s discovery that regenerative land management in both cities and urban areas leads to abundance is a call to optimism. The rewards, he says, will be more food, more water, more beauty, more life.

“It’s an inspiring and hopeful time to be alive – if we choose to make it so,” he says. “We can be rich. It also reminds me that we can’t be spending all our time looking at our feet. We need to be looking up, at the clouds, at a world that is infinitely beautiful.”