Right now, countries are competing for trade routes and natural gas extraction in the melting polar ice caps in what the Harvard International Review is calling a “modern gold rush.” Instead of individuals with wagons and mules, each country is boasting its brigade of icebreakers. This scramble for resource extraction is a tale as old as our push for progress. But these resources aren’t limitless, and progress—in our global economic system—often leaves poverty and oppressed people groups in its wake.
What if, instead of forcing people to degrade their own landscapes by pulling the last trees to create a sellable product, we determine that a healthy, intact ecosystem is the product? What if we embrace a quadruple bottom line that integrates financial capital with ecologically regenerative ventures that enhance local well-being and offer a sense of purpose, rather than relegating emissions or landscape degradation to an externalities box? What if we see natural disasters as cultural ones?
This is exactly what Judith Schwartz proposes in The Reindeer Chronicles—and Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth (Chelsea Green, 2020). Schwartz’s compilation is both an overhaul of our economics-equals-profit thinking and a start-where-you-are restorative effort.
This book is jam-packed with organizations and individuals working to heal the earth, as well as a growing number of women interested in regenerative agriculture. Schwartz masterfully spotlights Allan Savory’s holistic management practices and Bob Chadwick’s consensus model for guiding management-level decision making and community conflict resolution—methodologies taught in MSU’s Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Department.
Schwartz also highlights the astronomical damages of colonialism. Particularly striking is the use of Aesop’s fable of the wolf and the lamb, as told through Ánde Somby, a Sámi from Norway, in which the wolf blames the lamb for arbitrary offenses in order to justify eating it. Schwartz writes, “[a] tyrant will try to rationalize the harm they do to those they prey upon.” The lamb is too dangerous, traditional, or different. She follows with examples of the Norwegian government approving construction of a copper mine in 2019, touting it as “the route to a prosperous future,” and Sámi children being sent to boarding schools where they were stripped of their cultural heritage, a familiar history for Indigenous peoples in the U.S.
One gap in this book may be that Schwartz never quite explains how to partake in these restoration efforts in solidly urban settings. She employs a short section on Natalie Topa, an employee with the Danish Refugee Council, who composts and houses chickens on her apartment balcony. And though Topa explains the need for dignified employment, affordable housing, and food accessibility in low-income areas, this falls short in light of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ prediction that 68 percent of the global population will be living in urban areas by 2050.
In 800s Algeria, at the originally wooded outpost of Timgad, “Romans cut down the forests to heat their baths and build up the city.” That city was eventually swallowed by the expanding Sahara Desert. Right now in the Arctic Circle, there is about three times the amount of natural gas and other fuels as the United States’ current oil reserves. There are also over forty Indigenous people groups living in the Arctic. If we take lessons from historical land degradation seriously, and refuse to let the wolf devour the lamb, we may yet keep the advancing desert from swallowing us.
Though she employs cloying sayings like “we’re all in this together” and urges readers to drop their cynicism (important yet difficult), Schwartz effectively makes the case for an urgent yet patient activism, and the need for strong investment in eco-restoration careers. She challenges us to not only name our greatest climate change fears, but to act according to the conviction that those fears are preventable—because Schwartz claims they are.