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Soil, Communities, and Climate Change: An Interview with Nikki Silvestri

Soil, Communities, and Climate Change: An Interview with Nikki Silvestri

Nikki Silvestri is an advocate for climate solutions, healthy food systems, and social change. She is cofounder and CEO of Silvestri Strategies, a project design and management firm working to support thriving communities, economies, and natural environments. In early adulthood she was a member of Los Angeles Eco-Village―an experience she describes as transformative. After she spoke at “After Fossil Fuels: The Next Economy,” a climate change conference held at Oberlin College October 6-8, 2016, Communities editor Chris Roth requested an interview, which happened on December 5, 2016. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

Nikki: We can start with me telling you a little bit about my climate change and communities journey.

I have been working in the climate and food systems field for about a decade now, I started in green jobs with Green for All, working on infrastructure projects. We focused on how you can lift people out of poverty while building a green economy, through water projects and through rebuilding our energy infrastructure. How do we make that a wealth-building opportunity for those who have been most disadvantaged by climate change?

While doing that work I was really interested in food systems. And so I went on to become the Executive Director of People’s Grocery [in Oakland, California], which is a food, economic development, and public health organization which is local and is also really trying to build wealth. I then returned to Green for All as Executive Director. So I bounced back and forth between food systems and climate change because they are both my loves. I really wanted to figure out how to merge the two. And Soil came up as the place to do that.

So much of the climate work that is happening right now focuses on reducing carbon emissions—which is good and necessary. At the same time, carbon is not a bad thing, it is just in the wrong places right now. Not enough of it is in the soil, and too much of it is in the atmosphere. Carbon drawdown efforts are not as sexy or as publicly acknowledged as efforts to reduce carbon emissions. So that’s what I work on: bringing carbon into the soil so that it can improve everything about the soil. Soil is one of the cornerstones of life.

Chris: Big agriculture seems to be enormously powerful, and able to push the focus of environmental or climate change efforts toward certain areas and away from others—as illustrated in the movie Cowspiracy, which reveals the huge amount that cows and animal agriculture in general contribute to climate change. How can grassroots soil- and food-system-related climate-change work be effective in the face of larger-scale economic forces that try to keep agriculture’s role in climate change quiet?

Nikki: A few things come up for me. One thing is that Cowspiracy is a perfect example of very well-intentioned people who lack a frame through which to think about agroecology and ecosystems management. Their good intentions get directed in the wrong way. But they are one step away from the truth. It is true that cows are horrible to the environment, absolutely horrible. It is also true that done right (with rotational grazing in the right environment), using cows is one of the quickest ways to rebuild soil. There is just no neutral ground.

It is not possible to manage an ecosystem well without looking at the full cycle of life. Which means that things die, including animals. And humans are a part of the ecosystem, so us not killing anything that lives doesn’t make sense. But that is from an agroecology standpoint. And…that bigger picture message is a systems-thinking kind of message, which can have a hard time getting through when we are an outcomes-based, linear system.

My projects aim to connect those at the top who have the ability to change the larger story with the practitioners on the ground who are doing the work. One example is a concept paper that I worked on with the Carbon Cycle Institute, linking the social justice story with the social health story, specifically in the state of California. Because, big picture, the state of California understands this. They have several funds at the state level that use infrastructure and natural resource management money to build healthy soil to meet the state’s climate goals. This was a long time in the making, and it’s a beautiful thing.

At the state level, the Governor’s office understands that climate change plus building healthy soil equals “we’re gonna be ok.” At the practitioner level, how to disperse state-level funds to those who have been most impacted by climate change so that they can build healthy soil is a very complex task. Part of my work is to lay out what those steps can look like, different options for them, to make it easier for the decision-makers to understand how to deploy resources so that we have examples of the good stories working on the ground.

Another project I’m working on that changes the bigger story is the No Regrets Initiative, started by a philanthropist investor who has an investment firm, a foundation, and a 7700-acre ranch. She is deploying all of her resources to having what she calls a Regenerative Asset Management strategy—building healthy soil for climate purposes, because it is the work of our time. She is hoping that other investors and philanthropists will sign on to have no regrets and to have a strategy for climate solutions that not only doesn’t produce any regrets or unintended consequences but that has co-benefits for everybody—both for the land and for communities. That is a massive capital-shifting effort, which will hopefully mean that people who are practitioners get investment. Some of my work is dealing with the money side and shifting private capital, and some of my work is on the government side and shifting public funds. In the big picture, we need capital to deploy the practitioners on the ground. That is a big focal point of my work.

Chris: Land ownership and control seem like major issues related to this. If people don’t have access to the land to do this on, they can’t do it. And in agriculture, the scale has gotten larger and larger. I’m not sure how much these practices can be done on a huge scale—whether they can be inserted into a large agricultural model or whether they require a more human-scale operation.

Nikki: The beautiful thing is that it is not either/or—which is why I tend to take an ecosystems management frame, versus an agriculture frame. Because agriculture is supposed to be ecosystems management. And from that frame you can look at thousands of acres of forest as a whole system and figure out how to manage it well, if you’re a government. And that is the kind of scale we need to look at our Midwest region with, and California and the Central Valley too. Is this all one region and if we were managing the ecosystem well, how would we do it? If we wanted to grow food and at the same time do animal husbandry, how would we design all of that? It is just a design question. We definitely have the knowledge to do all the design work. The issue is the political will.

Chris: How do you muster the political will?

Nikki: By telling a story that everyone sees themselves a part of. Another project I’m working on is a paper that is going to lay out natural resource management, regional economic development, and bridging cultural divides. A big part of that paper is looking at the urban-rural split—and how we don’t do regional planning right now. We focus most of our resources in the urban communities, and we leave rural communities to fend for themselves—we leave big corporate interests to manage rural communities. That does not bode well for rural communities. What it’s felt like is complete disinvestment.

So if we have a vision for climate that is regional and looks at how we manage our natural resources so that we all thrive—the planet, the people, the soil—there’s a way to do that. It creates economic wealth for the communities that haven’t had access to it. There are examples of that happening right now. An organization called Fiber Shed works with ranchers who raise sheep and do it in such a way that it sequesters carbon. That wool is sheared and that wool is then made into clothing that sequesters carbon. That is carbon negative and they are looking at Fiber Sheds because they want to see how every step in the supply chain of making clothing can be handled in a particular region.

That is the kind of stuff we’re going to have to start looking at—regional investment strategies that create supply chains that actually invest in communities and infrastructure that haven’t been invested in before. There are markets for it because millennials and those who are slightly older than millennials are more and more interested in knowing where their assets come from. They are not interested in just disposable fashion or just disposable consumerism anymore. A story that inspires around investing in your region is something that is going to rebuild the fabric that we have lost in the last six weeks [since the election]—or perhaps we’ve just recognized the loss in the last six weeks, but it was lost a long time ago.

Chris: I’m less optimistic than I’ve been in a while because of the election and because I can’t help but think that anything that sounds this sensible will strike some people as a bunch of elitist stuff that’s being imposed on them. And the people who stand to lose from this—the corporations, and people who make money out of not doing it this way—will also foment opposition to this sort of thing. When presented with these ideas, people in rural areas may find it easy to say, “Here are these outsiders telling us what’s the best way to do things,” not realizing, of course, that’s what’s already happened to them since corporations have dominated the discourse up until now.

Nikki: Indeed—and we do need to have humility. For the paper about bridging cultural divides, natural resource management, and regional economic development, I interviewed about 35 people across the country. It’s going to be their words—people from rural communities who are all about this, talking about it. The messenger is actually important, and that’s part of the point in my mind. The media and our mainstream story right now are really focused on the extremes that aren’t talking to each other and that have no reconciliation, instead of focusing on the folks who have always been at the intersections, who don’t get any love because our society is oriented toward conflict and oversimplified stories rather than dealing with the complexity of how to make a good idea better.

Chris: It seems as if there needs to be a way for people to have ownership of this, to feel they are part of it and contributing to it rather than it being imposed from above.

Nikki: Totally! And you know, the point being, in terms of having humility, they already do own it. I’m lifting up the neighbors in those communities—there is always a handful, no matter how homogeneous a community looks, who think differently and are working toward a regional, just, ecologically sound economy, but feel isolated. Their stories are everywhere. We just don’t have a collective sense of them. And the messengers who can get to everyone who needs to be gotten to are there. They just need to be lifted up.

Chris: How important do you think it is that this is framed or thought of in terms of dealing with climate change? I’m thinking about what Arnold Schwarzenegger said, on his panel at the After Fossil Fuels conference: that in California, they had success when they put the focus on human health. When they talked about climate change, people didn’t really want to listen but when they focused on human health, that’s when their campaign for clean energy had success. What do you think about that?

Nikki: I actually don’t know that climate and human health are different. There is a way that climate has been used as an obstructive force, because one can argue on whether they believe that humans have an impact on the climate. But if we just looked how human beings thrive in our habitat and whether or not we are thriving, we can’t not look at the environment in that question. And if we create the environment in a way that human health thrives, we will solve climate change—because we will look at all the interconnected systems. So for me, because I’m a systems theorist, as long as the entire system is being attended to, I don’t care what the entrance is. I do care, however, that the whole system is being attended to. And there is a way to be sectorial and siloed no matter how you enter—hence doing climate change work that just focuses on reducing carbon emissions and not sequestering carbon; or just focusing on human health work, in a way that leaves out other parts of the story.

Chris: So you don’t have any thoughts necessarily about it being good or bad to use the term “climate change” when you are doing this? Or would you use it strategically, sometimes and not others?

Nikki: Exactly; you figure out what messages work for what communities and use whatever works to accomplish the same goals.

Chris: Where can people find out more about carbon sequestration and the soil? How can they start implementing some of these strategies? How can they join a broader project that they can do in their local community?

Nikki: First place to start would be to look at the Carbon Cycle Institute website (www.carboncycle.org), and then Fiber Shed (www.fibershed.com) as well. In terms of getting involved in their local community, there are usually agriculture organizations that build soil. Look at who in the community is building soil, and see if those soil efforts are directly connected to climate—because this is starting to happen all over the place. The USDA recently released several strategies on building agricultural capacity for climate purposes and the President’s office, today I think, just released something on that as well. It is starting to get more into public consciousness and people should be able to find it.

From the very small picture to the big picture, it’s all important. Small picture, understand soil. That can be having a garden, which can help people in urban communities get connected to natural resource management. A handful of people make decisions on natural resource management in every state. And we all need to be involved in determining the future of our resources, collectively. But if we don’t have contact with them because we don’t touch them, we don’t interact with them, we don’t have a visceral understanding of how everything fits together, then we’re not going to be able to make good decisions. So, we all have our job to do when it comes to reigniting the democratic infrastructure around how we manage our resources. That’s what feels most important to me in terms of what everybody can do.

Chris: Do you see intentional communities as having any potential to influence this discussion more than others can?

Nikki: Absolutely! Intentional communities that have land are invaluable. When it comes to managing natural resources well, the values are already there. So I want every intentional community that has access to land, right now, to start measuring the amount of carbon they are sequestering through their regenerative management practices. It would be amazing to have collective data on that for the intentional community population. And then intentional and urban communities can do that democratic infrastructure piece and link urban and rural. Urban and rural communities, by and large, are disconnected. The intentional community population has this incredible opportunity to link urban and rural, because the values are collective and shared.

Chris: Do you have anything you want to say about your own experiences in intentional community and how that informed what you’ve done?

Nikki: What I’ll quickly say is that my time as a member of the Los Angeles Eco-Village deeply influenced the rest of my career. That was where I got into food, that is where I got my first CSA box and had to figure out what kale was. It was profoundly transformative and I feel like I wouldn’t be here without learning what I learned in that community. So I am profoundly grateful to the intentional community population.

Nikki Silvestri is cofounder and CEO of Silvestri Strategies, a project design and management firm working to support thriving communities, economies, and natural environments. Find out more at www.nikkisilvestri.com. Chris Roth is editor of Communities.

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