Realistic Optimism and Climate Change

Roger Blobaum once told me there would only be twenty-nine questions that book talk audiences would ask and once I’d been asked them all book promotion would be a cinch.

Apparently I haven’t reached the magic number yet, as each time there is one question that surprises me and catches me without a thought out reply. At a recent Turn Here Sweet Corn book talk an audience member asked, “How do you keep from getting discouraged about climate change?”

I talked about not having expectations and then tacked on a short bit about organic systems sequestering 15-28% more carbon. But I wasn’t satisfied; it felt like an incomplete answer, and it has been turning in my mind ever since.

Taking Care Of Our Emotional Selves

It is important that we take care of our emotional selves as we work to care for and protect life. Sometimes we become narrowly focused on the magnitude of the problems and the force of the opposition, or we expect quick change. We forget to look for and notice the good and the progress, we become discouraged, or even worse apathy threatens.

Sometimes moving forward looks and feels like moving backward, and sometimes success takes a very long time. It took 70 years for women to gain the right to vote. The original organizers were no longer alive to celebrate the day of signing. Progress has been made on segregation, but the work on civil rights, equality, and racism is huge, and will  continue for a long time.

When fertile prairie soils are bare, nature provides weeds for quick protection.

A basic law of nature is to protect and renew. We see this every day on an organic farm. Nature’s goal is to keep the land covered and protected from the ravages of weather. Ecosystems are protected through the system of species balance. The very life process itself is based on the fundamental law of renewal and that includes the recycling of nutrients and energy.

It is these basic systems of protection and renewal that create the amazing resiliency of life. When life is beaten down by hail or wind, by suburban development or toxic inputs, it rises up with immense power and begins the healing and re-growth process again. Again and again and again.

We are part of nature also and the laws apply directly to us as well.

In regions that are dry or with little topsoil, protection is provided with a CRYPTOBIOTIC CRUST or BIOLOGICAL SOIL CRUST. These are communities of microorganisms that colonize the surface of bare soil. "Cryptobiotic" means "hidden life." They are vital to the health of soils and ecosystems, are fragile, and take decades to develop.


I find every question has a helpful analogy from nature or the farm. When we’d plant a field I’d always say to the crew, “It will be a beautiful crop—if it makes it.”

There might be hail or drought, frost, pestilence, or a hoard of persistent flea beetles. A family of raccoons might host a family reunion with fresh sweet corn as the main course. There are erosive monsoons and blaring sun and fungal organisms.

The truth is . . . it isn’t real until the food is on the table. We know this, we do our best with what we have in the moment, and we have no choice but to accept the end results.

We do the work out of love. We know the gamble and the risks—there are no guarantees of success. We take the good with the bad, learn and improve, and go out and do it again.


Martin loves to say, “In gardening you see all sides of life, and that includes death. Focus on what you want to see. It’s the farmer’s prerogative.”

To foster the life force deep within each of us and continue at whatever pace and direction is the present moment we must notice the good. This is part of our own renewal and protection process and it’s even more healing when we share it with others. Martin and I start and end each day (well, most days—we are human) with telling each other something good in our lives or relationship and expressing gratitude. It takes only a few minutes and the rewards of noticing include re-energized enthusiasm, peace with our place in the work, motivation, and support.

Blending Reality with Optimism creates Realistic Optimism and Personal Resilience

When we talk about the future, it is important to include a healthy balance of optimism and realism. If we want to change our food and farming systems we must follow the laws of nature and think like an eco-system. One of the most positive actions we can take is to support organic farming.

Climate Change and Organic Systems

We know that agriculture and the food that we eat is a significant contributor to the climate change problem.

Conventional agricultural systems reliant on off-farm inputs require enormous amounts of fossil fuels to mine, manufacture, transport, and apply fertilizers and pesticides. These processes release greenhouse gasses.

Organic systems do not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; they build fertility on-farm through soil-building practices (soil incorporation of nitrogen-fixing legumes and high-carbon biomass grasses), reduced tillage, and the use of composted animal manures. Off-farm pest control inputs are minimized by relying on practices such as crop rotations to break up pest cycles and habitat to attract beneficial insects.

Organic systems use less energy and emit less greenhouse gases, sequester more carbon in the soil, and are more adaptable to climate change symptoms: drought and extreme weather.

 Live the change! Bring the power of life into your daily practices. Think like an ecosystem. Eat, relate, and advocate for organic agriculture.

© Atina Diffley 2012


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Atina Diffley is an organic consultant (Organic Farming Works LLC), educator, public speaker, and author of the 2012 memoir, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Until 2008, she and her husband Martin ran the Gardens of Eagan, one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest. For reflections, tips and decision-making tools subscribe to her on-line blog, What Is A Farm.




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