Earl Katz: Regenerative Agriculture and Massive Planting of Trees is Our Only Hope
Yves here. While this is an informative and wide-ranging talk about climate change, I have a couple of quibbles. One is about the history. I have no doubt that what Earl Katz recounts is accurate, but I believe he missed a critical development which wound up setting back environmental change, which perversely was the “Limits to Growth” study by the so-called Club of Rome. At least as far as the popular press was concerned, “Limits to Growth” for a time dominated the discussion of how resource constraints would play out to the detriment of the planet. They wound up doing harm because their initial forecasts contained modeling errors which led to overly dire results, to the degree that the report authors redid their work and had to issue a major revision, which had the effect of discrediting the entire exercise.
The second issue is not everyone is on board with tree planting as the best CO2 remediation; apparently other forms of ground cover are more efficient. But that is more a reader hook than much of a topic of discussion in the interview.
Earl Katz has been fighting since the late 1960’s for governments and the public to face the urgency of the climate crisis. Now he wonders if it’s too late. On theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay.
Paul Jay Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. In the 1890s, a Swedish chemist, Svante August Arrhenius estimated that the doubling of CO2 levels in the atmosphere would lead to a five-degree warming effect. People were not so concerned at the time as such a thing seemed unlikely and maybe even welcomed. But his calculations turned out to be not far off.
By the 1930’s British scientist, Guy Stewart Callendar noted that the United States and the North Atlantic region had already warmed significantly after the Industrial Revolution in 1988, the hottest year at that point on record. NASA scientist, James Hansen, said that he was 99% sure that global warming was upon us. In 1989, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, was established under the United Nations to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. So from the 1890s, a hundred years later, you get the IPCC plenty of warning. And where are we today? Very little has been done to address the climate crisis, even though we knew it was coming.
My guest today is an old friend. He’s been in the trenches fighting for an urgent approach to the climate crisis for decades. He’s been at it since the 1960s, trying to sound the alarm. Earl Katz founded and was president of Public Interest Pictures. He’s an environmental, social justice, antiwar activist, and Emmy Award-nominated documentary film producer. Earl is the executive producer of Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, Unconstitutional Hacking Democracy, made for HBO, Broadcast Blue’s Heist and others. He’s also the executive producer of four short environmental films narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, titled Carbon, Last Hours, Green World Rising, and Restoration in 2019.
He was an associate producer of Ice on Fire for HBO. Earl was the US senior staff member of Dai Dong, an NGO that organized and produced the Menton memorandum that linked the environment, poverty, and war. The statement was initially signed by 2,200 international scientists from 23 countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1971 it became the cover story and first issue of UNESCO, (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Career dedicated to the environment. It was instrumental in 1972, about 50 years ago, during the launch of the UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program. Earl served as executive director of the Campaign to Defend America’s Environment, a coalition of five leading environmental organizations. He was the entertainment coordinator of the International Earth Day in 2000 and has been a board member of several NGOs and currently serves as a board member of the Carbon Underground. Earl has been at this for a long time. And where are we now? Now joining us is Earl Katz. Thanks for joining us, sir.
Earl Katz Hi Jay
Paul Jay After all these years, you still call me Jay.
What are you going to do?
Paul Jay It’s Paul, but I don’t care. What do you do when you got two first names? So you’ve been at this a long time. This has got to kind of wear you out in a sense that the science, even by the late 1960s, certainly by the statement in 1972, the science was pretty clear. And by a decade later, it was really clear. How did you become aware of this so early, and what did you do about it?
Earl Katz Well, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a dual major in psychology and biology. And in biology, we learned about the environment and ecology and I could see the problems already in late 1969. My best friend had come back from the Peace Corps in Africa. I was a big sales executive with IBM, and we went to the pilot program for Earth Day at Columbia University. Less than a month later, my dear friend called me and said he’s becoming a European organizer of the Transnational Peace Environmental Organization, and that they needed someone to be the U.S. representative and to be the global fundraiser. We were based in Brussel and in Nyack, New York, which is where I worked out of.
Paul Jay And what year are we in again?
Earl Katz This was over the Christmas holidays in ’69.
Paul Jay So this is the Vietnam War is raging.
Earl Katz Yes. And the parent organization of our environmental peace organization was the umbrella group for the anti-war movement. We organized the peace marches to Washington, developed draft counseling along with the American Friends Service Committee. So that was our national program, working to end the war, and the international program was anti-war, environmental.
Paul Jay Now when you say environmental. How much of that was climate crisis and how much of that were pollution issues? Because how aware were you of the climate danger at that point?
Earl Katz We were quite aware. I mean, I think I sent you a little piece about the Monton statement, which was encapsulated in the UNESCO’s Carrier. We were the cover story. And it was billed as a message to two or three and a half billion neighbors. But one of the scientist part of my job was to meet with scientists in the United States. And there were four European organizers, people working in Africa and Asia as well.
And Paul Ehrlich was one of our signatories. And Paul Ehrlich exposed us to the problems of climate change. In fact, he wrote about it in his book, The Population Bomb. And in any case, in the full version of the Monton statement, we talk about carbon dioxide from automobiles and other sources building up in the Earth’s atmosphere. And then within the next 30 years, it’s expected to increase by 25 percent. I believe it increased a lot more.
And it’s forming a film around the Earth. It’s almost certain to change the world climate. And then we talked about the carbon dioxide from factories and cities and, you know, accumulating in the atmosphere, and here we are today.
Paul Jay So this is 1972, about 50 years ago.
Earl Katz Well, actually, the statement— I call it the Menton Statement. The U.S. calls it the Menton Message. This was 1971 that we finished the statement.
Paul Jay So how dangerous did you think it was then? I mean was it just one of a lot of issues? When do you start? When do you start to get this is actually an existential problem, as most of us seem to understand now. Not that it’s changing by that much. What’s actually happened?
Earl Katz Well, we knew about it. We knew it was a danger to science, and in fact, had been proven by the scientist, Punta Arenas, that you mentioned, who, by the way, Greta Thunberg’s father’s name is Svante.
And that’s because the man who really first discovered climate change, and the fact that we’re heating the atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases was Greta’s grandfather or great-grandfather, I’m not sure which, but her father’s named after him, Svante.
Paul Jay That’s really interesting. And her, she’s got in her DNA fighting on these issues. So ’71 is the statement. The war is raging. So, I mean, the war is very preoccupying. When do you start to really click for yourself that this is your mission to be fighting, to change on this?
And then in ’88, when Hansen makes a statement. Between the lead up to the ’88 Hansen statement, what do you do and what’s happening in terms of the sort of what amounts to denial? I know during the period myself personally, I used to hear little bits about it, but I kind of dismissed it, honestly. The war was going on. There was so much happening. And I know myself, and a lot of people I knew that were involved in the anti-war movement. We all kind of thought, gee, you know, if it’s really so serious, even the capitalists are going to have to deal with it. You know, they can’t risk the worst effects here. So we don’t have to worry about it that much. That turned out to be true.
Earl Katz I was worried about it from having interacted with Paul Ehrlich and understanding the science. The main message of the Monton statement is that all of mankind’s problems are inextricably related. And, you know, from pollution to poverty to, you know, all of our problems are in health.
They’re all inextricably related. And the point of the Monton statement was that a necessary precondition for solving the panoply of problems facing mankind is the cessation of war. So that’s really the takeaway from this. So I became deeply involved in the antiwar movement, not in my resume, but when I was a fundraiser for a film called The Winter Soldier Investigation, where dozens of Vietnam veterans gave testimony to their personal war crime atrocities. And when the film was done, I gave it to John Kerry, who was then the head of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
So the only way we can really deal with climate change now is to stop doing the destructive things that are causing it. It’s very, very late. In fact, I think it’s too late because of something called latent heat that we can go into that later. And I’m not the only one that thinks it’s too late, but whatever we can do to ameliorate the problem, we should be doing. But as long as we are a warrior nation, as long as we’re killing one another, we’re not going to be saving humanity or the planet itself.
Possibly there’s a good chance this planet can turn into Venus with the runaway climate change.
Paul Jay Which would look like what?
Earl Katz Hotter than hell.
Paul Jay Hotter than hell! So give us the big beats. On the last, you know, 20, 30 years about what’s been discovered in the science, and then let’s get into what could be done.
Earl Katz The science is clear. The IPCC report from the U.N. is very clear. There was I read a very interesting review written by Bill McKibben, who is the founder of 350.org. And it’s in the August 20th issue of the New York Review of Books. And he’s reviewing a book called Our Final Warning, Six Degrees of Climate Emergencies. He’s quoting the authors saying, If we stay on the current business as usual trajectory, which is growth for the sake of growth, increased gross national product, that’s my paraphrase, we could see two degrees as soon as the early 20s, 30s, three degrees by mid-century, four degrees by 2075 and so on.
If we’re unlucky with positive feedbacks, which I know quite a bit about from the thawing permafrost in the Arctic, collapsing tropical rainforest, then we could be in for five or six degrees by the end of the century. We can’t live in that kind of world, a world that’s that hot. We can’t grow crops.
Paul Jay And you’re talking about the lifetime of our kids.
Earl Katz Absolutely
Paul Jay So if the science is so clear, why is there so little being done? You know, all of a sudden, Biden has a kind of climate plan. It’s clearly not enough to rise to the occasion. Obama and Biden. But Obama saw all this data. Nothing really that new has emerged in the science since Obama was president. And the measures he took were beyond modest, even in terms of his bully pulpit. I went back before he left the presidency, and I looked at about four or five of his State of the Unions and climate in almost all the state of the unions, but one barely got more than two paragraphs, often one paragraph. And in the one State of the Union where it wasn’t one or two paragraphs, it was because there was none.
He’s a smart guy, and I’m not just trying to isolate him individually, but in terms that he represents a stratum of really smart, intelligent people who have access to tons of information and power, and didn’t even use their position to get people alarmed, never mind actually takes some action. You know, some of these people. How do you explain what goes on in their heads?
Earl Katz Well, they better talk to Van Jones than to me about it. Van was President Obama’s climate guy. And he really won’t say anything negative about the president, President Obama.
Paul Jay He won’t say much negative at all about the Democratic Party.
Earl Katz So that’s right. That’s right. So I don’t know if you were old enough to remember when Khrushchev came to this country, he said, I don’t want to meet with the president. I want to meet with the captains of industry because that’s who really runs the country, and we’re still there. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.
Paul Jay But they’re not stupid people, the captains of industry. Some of them are so well aware of the climate issue and other than some lip service and some sort of greenwashing, very little serious is happening from any of them.
Earl Katz You cannot underestimate greed. When I was working on the Monton statement and that parent organization, which was called Dai Dong, Dai Dong de Joy. De Joy was the parent organization of the Monton Statement, and Dai Dong was a project of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was sent to a conference by a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, and it was in Washington, D.C. It was a meeting of an organization called the Federal Union. Any information about this online has been eliminated. People at the Heritage Society, they’re rooms of people that are doing that, eliminating our history.
So we had to read a book prior to going to this conference. I was able to bring a guest who has since passed away. And the book is called Famine in 1975, written by two brothers who worked at the State Department, William and Paul S. Paddock, one of whom was an agronomist. And the book essentially was the same as the full Monton Statement saying there’s going to be massive population increase, there’s going to be resource depletion, there’s going to be water scarcity, there’s going to be mass migrations due to the environmental causes.
And this was a conference of—125 people were invited. I was sitting next to the heiress of Krupp’s armaments through most of it. there were four-star generals there. There were very powerful people, not me. On the last day of the conference, they brought out some people from NASA, and the NASA people had mockups, little models of the space shuttle. And they said, well, we’ve read the book. We understand what’s going to happen.
It’s going to be runaway population growth, runaway resource depletion, runaway problems, increased war. If you use your influence to help make sure that the space shuttle gets funded, we will be able to build an orbiting space station around the planet and we can build many of them because the space shuttle enables us to have enormous thrust, and some of us will be able to live there while chaos reigns on the earth. And, moreover, it’ll be easy to colonize the moon and possibly Mars because you don’t need much thrust once you’re outside of the atmosphere. It was then that new things are in real trouble.
Paul Jay That’s crazy.
Earl Katz And I was there with an open mike, and people were advocate, you know, totally bought in. And I got up and I said, Look, as far as I know, we have everything here on Earth. We need to make a paradise on Earth. At least that’s what Buckminster Fuller says, who was one of the signers of the Monton Statement, and we can create paradise here on Earth. It’s folly to try to go to space. And, you know, it doesn’t make any sense. I’m not a scientist, but I think, you know, there’ll be problems with weightlessness. What will it do to our skeletal systems? What about solar radiation? The NASA scientists snowed me with scientific jargon. I had no idea what they’re talking about. Then a little man got up and went to the microphone, and he said, “I’m a scientist. My name is Harold Yuri.”
Harold Yuri was one of the top five scientists in the Manhattan Project, a Nobel Prize winner. And he said, “This is what the Federal Union has in mind. I hereby resign.” And he walked out.
So what it is, the captains of industry and the super-wealthy have what’s known in the environmental world as a bunker mentality that would, with enough money, they’ll be able to ride out. You know, the coming environmental deterioration, whether it be orbiting in a space station, in an old Nike missile silo that’s been totally tricked out with its own ventilation systems and stocked with food and water for decades. But they have this bunker mentality. And that’s what’s prevented us from doing something about it. That and the fact that the fossil fuel industry has mounted a massive disinformation program about the dangers of climate change. And that’s kind of ironic because not only have they not done anything significant on climate, they’re nowhere near having space stations, and they’re not even very good at building bunkers.
Paul Jay I mean, the whole thing is they’re so short-sighted. All right.
Let’s talk about where we’re at if Trump wins again. There’s no conversation to be had about climate policy in the United States. And the situation’s going to deteriorate even further. But the way things are looking, it’s likely to be a Biden presidency.
What he’s proposed in climate goes further than what he’s ever proposed before. We’ve done a few stories on this. What’s your take, first of all, on what Biden’s plans are?
Earl Katz I’m not terribly familiar with it, to be honest with you. But I don’t have that much faith that anything can really be done. I think the die has been cast because the greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere will continue to heat the planet for as much as thousands of years. And the only way we can possibly, possibly survive is through regenerative agriculture, which is bringing the carbon down from the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil. Naturally, reforestation that made it was done on a massive global scale, we might survive, and I say might, but there’s no political will for that. You’re taking on industrial agriculture.
Paul Jay Well, be concrete because not everybody’s familiar with what this process is. How does this type of agriculture bring carbon out of the atmosphere at a scale that’s necessary? How does it work?
Earl Katz There have been white papers written about it. The United Nations has information about it. When you till the soil deeply, you kill all the microbes in the living soil. You kill the worms and you have to put nitrates and fossil fuel fertilizer to grow the crops. We are losing healthy soil. It’s such an extent that we now have. Five years ago, they said we have 60 harvests left. Now we have fifty-five. But with regenerative agriculture, there’s an exchange between the roots of live plants and fungus deep in the soil that actually pulls the carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it back in the soil, but has to be done on a massive scale and has to be done now.
Paul Jay So massive scale means what? It means industrial agriculture, which I assume has most of the land being “tilled.” Would have to be made because it wouldn’t be profitable, as profitable to do this. The government would have to essentially make American, North American. I assume this really needs to be done on a global scale to have that kind of effect.
And what would that look like? I mean, I know we’re talking politically. This probably isn’t possible, but what would it look like if it was?
Earl Katz It would look like small little gardens all over the world.
Paul Jay Why small? Why can’t this be done in big fields and stuff?
Earl Katz It takes planting by hand, actually, where you just poke a little hole in the soil and drop a seed rather than tilling. It’s very labor-intensive.
Paul Jay Why does it require that? Why can’t that be automated?
Earl Katz I don’t know that it can or cannot, but I’ve been told that I mean, there’s an article, an op-ed written by Eric Ottone, who’s the guy who publishes the Utne Reader in the July 25th issue of The New York Times.
It’s his op-ed, and it’s titled, ‘Feeling Hopeless? Embrace It’, and he’s saying, we need a segway now from techno-industrial market economies to much smaller scale, less energy-intensive, localized communities that prize food growing knowledge sharing and inclusiveness and steward the Earth and create small biotic community. That’s the only society that might survive the rocky climacteric, that is already upon us to have hope. Now, if hope means the expectation that someone, a new president or something, geo-engineering, which I’m totally against, or some other techno-fix is going to save us, then no, I’m hopeless rather than hope free.
Paul Jay Why are you against geoengineering at least? Why shouldn’t that be investigated? Because given the scenarios you’ve laid out, there isn’t going to be a scenario that works because the kind of agriculture you’re talking about, the kind of economy you’re talking about, essentially is not something that can happen with this many people, with these big cities and societies. So it may be where there is no way out of this, but that may be what the truth of it is.
But if there’s any possibility, certainly geoengineering might be one of the things that would make it work, seeing as nothing else seems to be able to make it work except planting tons of trees. I mean, it seems to me that’s a very doable proposition, even politically at some point. I mean, before we get into the geoengineering, let’s just back up to the tree part. If there was a massive, massive planting of trees around the world, how much effect would that have?
Earl Katz It’s a question of time. The book that Bill McKibben reviewed said 20 years, we can have a civilization collapse at the outside 40 years. How long’s it take to grow a tree? Geo-engineering is a Trojan horse. It’s been funded primarily by fossil fuel companies, primarily by the Koch brothers. It’s the ideal excuse to do business as usual. And rather than allow the industry to continue to act on its own interests, the world has to establish a strong, democratic regulatory mechanism, which includes the option to ban this technology outright.
It’s OK to try and develop them, but testing them on any kind of significant scale can bring untold horrors. And there’s a foundation in the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a green political foundation that funds all the various Green Parties throughout Europe. They are totally against geo-engineering. It can destroy our oceans. It can be used as a weapon of war to create drought in some places and tsunamis in other places. And when I say it’s being funded by the fossil fuel companies, you can take that to the bank. It’s a false hope.
Paul Jay So what are we left with?
Earl Katz What we’re left with really, “Is the guy a principal?” which was developed by James Lovelock, I think, in ’69 or ’70, a British environmentalist. And back then he posited that the Earth is a self-regulating entity that is biophilic, that does what it has to do to create an atmosphere on the planet that is suitable for life to exist. He was scorned at first, but no longer. The Gaia hypothesis has been pretty widely embraced.
It is a hypothesis that observes how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms contribute to the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere, and other factors of habitability. Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist in the ’70s co-developed it with Lovelock, and it’s now being studied in the disciplines of geo- physiology, Earth systems, science and some of its principles have been adopted in fields like biogeochemistry and systems ecology. The ecological hypothesis has also inspired analogies and various interpretations in social sciences, politics, and religion.
Under vague philosophy and movement, the Earth does what it has to do to survive and make life possible.
Paul Jay But not necessarily for humans.
Earl Katz That’s right. Humans are the problem now. And with our increased pension, not with our increase, with our pension for continued growth, it’s antithetical to an Earth in balance. Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. The planet is metastasizing fast. We have to if the best thing we can do is stop burning fossil fuels almost immediately, as soon as humanly possible, live smaller, develop renewables, do regenerative agriculture, plant trees, have less children, stop putting our resources into a military budget that is wasting our financial, mental and humanistic strengths.
Paul Jay Thanks for joining us.
Earl Katz Thank you, Paul
Paul Jay And thank you for joining us at theAnalysis.news podcast.