A Positive Utopia - Interview with Patrick Worms

Feb 22, 2023 | written by:

A Positive Utopia
What could our future look like if we take action now? 

 The climate crisis is a real threat and we can see its impact almost every day in our lives. So, is it already too late to do something about it? At Treedom we don’t think so! Supported by scientific data and input from international scientists in different fields, we show how our planet could change positively in 5, 10 or 50 years. Provided, of course, that we take action now. In a time of energy crisis, biodiversity loss and war; we give a positive outlook, spreading hope and inspiring people to take action for their own future by making their small contribution to a greener and better planet. 

In the first interview of our “positive utopia” series, we are talking to Patrick Worms. Originally educated in molecular genetics, Patrick received bachelors and masters degrees from Cambridge University and has a career spanning four continents. He represents World Agroforestry and the Centre for International Forestry Research, the world’s premier research institution devoted to the study of the roles of trees in human-dominated landscapes, to policy makers in Europe and globally. Patrick is also President of the International Union of Agroforestry; Vice-President of EURAF, the European Agroforestry Federation; a member of the Steering Committee of International Land Lives Peace, which works at the interface between land degradation and conflicts; a Senior Fellow of the Global Evergreening Alliance, and a member of several advisory boards.


“For our earth, climate change is no big deal. The reason why climate change wakes me up at night is, because I like humans and I don’t want them to suffer too much. And that means getting climate change under some sort of control.”


Treedom: Patrick, it’s a pleasure to talk to you today since you are really one of the key experts in the field of agroforestry. Please tell us, why did you choose to work in agroforestry in the first place?

Patrick Worms: I discovered agroforestry at a conference in Abu Dhabi in 2011, where Dennis Garrity, who is one of the leaders in that field, made a presentation. As a trained biologist, I was immediately fascinated. I understood how elegant and powerful the processes can be. But also surprised, because until then, despite my work in environmental remediation across the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe and China, I had not even once heard the word “agroforestry”. So I thought, these guys need some help.

Treedom: One of the most interesting aspects of agroforestry is the interaction between reforestation and agriculture. But it is also one of the biggest challenges. To us, it is purely beneficial, but there are voices raising concerns that those two don't go well together. What is the reason for this belief?

P.W.: That is related to the way we humans think. Yes, we are clever animals, but in the end we're just animals. And while our brains are bigger than those of most other species out there, they’re still pretty small compared to the sheer complexity of the natural world. So, one of the ways we manage that complexity is by dividing the world into silos. But that brings a major problem, because we do not have good tools for marrying the different perspectives that these different silos bring to the table.

Agriculture is something that has developed on a simple principle: you take a piece of land, you clear whatever's on it, you plant your crops and you feed yourself. Forestry is something that's developed on the same principle: you take a piece of land, you clear whatever's on it, you plant fast growing trees, you harvest the timber and you do whatever you want to with it. So, both of those land uses are predicated on the same, simple goal: grow a marketable product. But every time we pursue a simple goal like that, we choose to ignore everything else that might be a consequence of the pursuit of that objective, for example soil degradation, biodiversity loss or rising greenhouse gas emissions - despite the fact that each of these issues are being worked on in different silos. So I think that the challenge of the 21st century will be about figuring out how we can get these different silos to start working together productively. And what you are doing at Treedom is one example of that. You’re encouraging trees to grow together with the crops, and that works because far from taking room from one another, the trees and the crops, if they're well combined, actually help each other.

Treedom: Is that also the thing that you like best about agroforestry? Overcoming those silos? Or what is it that you find fascinating about it?

P.W.: Absolutely. I was the kind of kid who took alarm clocks apart to understand how they worked. I've always been interested in understanding how things work. And agroforestry is intellectually satisfying because it brings into play a number of different fields of activity: soil science, agriculture, agronomy, forestry, ecosystem management, water fluxes, carbon fluxes, nitrogen fluxes, phosphorus fluxes. Imagine the interactions! The trophic chains inside the soil web! How the fungi and the bacteria trade resources with the trees, and all the trees trade resources with bacteria, and how you could even say that there's slavery going on in the soil! A variety of tree species have an army of little slaves, a type of bacteria that they send out there to go and grab resources. And when they come back, they are absorbed into the tree roots, where they are stripped of all these resources, boosted with a shot of sugar from the tree’s photosynthesis, and sent out again into the soil to grab more minerals. So there is a fascinating number of things going on under our feet - and if you are of a geeky disposition, you can just spend your whole day happily getting lost in these things!

Treedom: In very simple terms, agroforestry is a way of fostering sustainable and regenerative agriculture while doing something beneficial for the environment. Speaking of ecology – does climate change influence your work on a daily basis?

P.W.: Absolutely. On a personal basis, it wakes me up at night. Because the more you understand about earth's systems, the more you realize: the earth is going to be absolutely fine. Climate change? No big deal. There were tons of major climate change events over the last billion years - yes, a whole bunch of species are going to die as a result, but the planet will be hunky-dory. But the reason climate change wakes me up at night is, because I like humans. I think they're more interesting than most other species out there, and I’d like them not to suffer too much. And that means getting climate change under some sort of control.

And in that context, agroforestry is really, really important. Depending on how you measure it, agroforestry can contribute to between one and ten tons of carbon drawdown per hectare per year. So you can imagine how much carbon would be drawn down if it was to be consequently applied and implemented around the whole planet. Another really important land management technique we should focus on is something known as holistic grazing management (editor’s note: a sustainable concept based on natural ecosystems, where animals herds graze briefly in a spatially limited area, followed by a period of non-grazing, for periods that are dynamically adapted to the precise characteristics of the soil, the weather etc. This boosts soil fertility and animal welfare, raises production and draws down carbon into the soil). That's also an extremely powerful tool: you can eat steak and still do something good for the planet. Yes, I love that solution because I like steak!

And then you have all the things we can do with the oceans: restoring the kelp forests, ocean iron fertilization, restoring the whale poop pump, etc. Each and every one of these carbon drawdown strategies are little slices of the total pie of nature-based solutions we need to implement alongside a broad decarbonisation of the whole economy to keep this planet within the kind of boundaries where our civilization can thrive.

And it is becoming very urgent that we do so, because some of these systems have latency times that are absolutely enormous. If we stopped emitting any carbon today, the weather would stop changing fairly rapidly. But the seas will keep on rising, rising and rising - if you like to think of your children or grandchildren, do not buy property in Florida, Bombay, the Mekong Delta, or Friesland, because within 100 years time these places will either be under water or behind really big sea walls. Even if climate change at three or four degrees would still allow us to grow the food we need to feed our large population - a big if! - there are so many other negative effects that life would really not be very pleasant. So we have to get a grip on it, and very quickly.

Treedom: I assume that doing what you do, you must have a positive attitude towards our future, you must believe in our own ability to change something. Let's just imagine our own future. What if all the pieces that you mentioned come together and we all worked full force for that greener future, for that future that saves us humans? How could our planet look like in a few years?

P.W.: It's moving in the right direction already. When it comes to agriculture and the land use system, ten years ago, people wouldn't return my calls. Now I get called all the time. The farmers, the foresters, the ranchers, they all want to move to systems that are better for biodiversity and better for carbon. And when I talk to people in industry, there's all sorts of fascinating things going on - to decarbonise cement, to decarbonise steel, to decarbonise glass, to decarbonize ceramics, to decarbonize all of these obscure bits and pieces that we never think of, but that are responsible for a giant chunk of our emissions. After all, we both sit in buildings made of concrete and brick whose production demanded massive amounts of carbon. Absolutely everything needs to be decarbonized. This computer mouse, that phone, my glasses, my artificial leg  – everything needs to be decarbonized. And everywhere you look, you notice that there's progress. Sometimes the progress comes from a good place, sometimes progress even comes from a place of evil. Both of these things actually push things in the right direction. So for that reason, I'm optimistic.

Regarding the question, what does the world look like in 2050? By then, first, we will have begun to break down the silo problem, because artificial intelligence allows us to automatically change rules, laws and regulations to optimize them for the more complex management that we actually require. Second, an enormous amount of things have already been decarbonized, so we will be seeing the end of the carbon era. Third, thanks to the work we're doing with plants, with soils and with the oceans, we will be drawing down a significant proportion of the carbon that we've already put in the atmosphere, and that will begin to reflect itself in temperatures, extreme weather events, etc. Fourth, barbed wire has been banned around most of the world, because we have other ways of controlling where our livestock goes, like GPS collars that deliver little shocks when they stray. Wildlife is again starting doing its giant migrations. So just imagine, in 2050, you can sit on the porch and you see a herd of some local antelope just walking by through people's gardens and fields. And, you know, you use the collars on them too and so they don't go and munch on the maize. And fifth, there will be less poverty in the world. People will eat a diet that is much more adapted to the fact that by then there will be 10 billion of us and we only have one little planet. That doesn't mean no meat, no pizza and no burgers, but it does mean regenerative meat, pizza and burgers. It means regenerative vegetables, it means regenerative fish, and it means all the wonderful things coming out of bacterial fermentation.

We still have some problems to deal with. The sea levels are still rising. We still need to build more sea walls. The impact of climate change has led to hundreds of millions of people having to move. We have to deal with the political consequences of this migration. It's not all sweetness and light. But it's moving in the right direction. The world will have changed in some respects, but not so much in others. People will still live in families, have kids, love to do stupid things when they're young and become wise when they're old.

Treedom: Talking about individuals, what can everyone of us do to foster that change that we so urgently need? What things can each of us do to make our world a little bit better and to positively influence our future?

P.W.: The most important thing you can do is politics. And that means: voting. You have a vote, use it. Don’t get hoodwinked by social media or the newspapers or distracted by the issue of the day, whether it's migration or COVID. Vote for the things that really matter. Don't just look at the slogans of the political parties, look at the programs. The only way we can solve this, is, if society as a whole solves this.

If, after having done that, you still have some energy left, then you can become an activist. What kind of activist? Any kind. Activism for bicycles, activism for veganism, activism for regenerative grazing, activism for agroforestry, activism to get more bicycle lanes or to shut down the local airport. Doesn't matter what it is, but do some activism because that keeps the pressure up on the people who run things. You can help your neighborhood improve in some way. You can help your family improve in some way. You can help your job improve in some way.

And only if, after that, you still have some energy left, become a vegan. It's helpful. But don't think that by becoming a vegan and not doing these other two things - politics and activism - you're going to save the planet. Even if the whole of the 750 million people in Europe become tofu-munching vegans, it's not going to have any impact on climate change as long as the other 7.5 billion people out there continue having a different diet. Obviously there are certain things you can do - like who needs a two-ton metal box to go from A to B? Get a bicycle! Little things like that work, but they are not enough on their own. What matters is politics and activism.

And the last thing I would say is never believe that the world is going in the wrong direction because it is filled with evil people. The reason why we burn carbon is not because we're evil, it's because it's convenient. And the reason why policymakers find it hard to decarbonize society is not because they’re corrupt, but because it's hard to change such an enormously complicated thing as a country and move it from one direction to another direction. 

So, give people credit for trying. Most of the people you deal with, and most of the people who are making decisions are not evil. They're just flawed human beings, like you and me, trying to do their best under the circumstances.


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