Healing Earth: A Q&A with John Todd

Posted by – April 22, 2019
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Interview

Here at NAB, we’re always enthusiastic about finding ways to help heal our planet. Since today is Earth Day, we thought there was no better time—and no better person—to advise, encourage, and restore some much needed hope to our environmental efforts. We caught up with John Todd, author of Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship, to talk ideas, inspiration, reasons not to despair, and why we should do good things in bad places. He also filled us in on what’s on his own reading list.

In your book, you say that there are “as many ways to serve the Earth as there are people willing to engage in this vast restoration project.” A lot of people want to help, and want to do the work, but may feel stuck or paralyzed. What advice do you have for them?

The quickest thing one can do is to vow to eat organic foods, as organic methods mostly sequester carbon into soils. Even better, link up some way with an organic farm and volunteer a little help to them. Industrial agriculture is simply one of the greatest threats to the health and stability of the planet.

Let’s say you’re a dancer in New York City. And you can’t figure out how to really become engaged in earth stewardship. What can you do? My daughter, now a neuroscientist and professor, was for many years a professional dancer and choreographer in London, Boston, and Toronto. She created dances that had ecological themes and wonderful aquatic ecologies and design elements on the stage. That was her way of reaching out beyond the human domain.

The thought really is this: no matter where you are and what you’re doing, there has to be some way of positively moving this story forward. The tale that I tell is that many people in apartments have window boxes. And in their window boxes they have pretty annual flowers like petunias and some lettuces…but if that same window box also has perennial grasses, they’d be taking CO2 out of the air, and on a minor scale, sequester a life-threatening gas into a stable form from their own window boxes in downtown New York or San Francisco.

There are a thousand and one ways—whatever your proclivity or your talent—to not just embrace earth stewardship, but also to somehow shape it so that it goes beyond, locking into the larger story of regreening the planet, purifying the waters, living within our carbon budgets, and all of these things.

The inevitable question: are we too late?

What I’m going to say, based on my experience working with various complex ecosystems around the world, is: we don’t know that answer. We cannot live as if it’s too late. Period.

The reason I suggest that, is that I have enough experience working in a highly polluted ecosystem, where everything looks desperate…it’s comatose, and there’s no visible life on the bottom. Then, all of a sudden, within a period of months the system wakes up and the effect is immediate—and not only where you’re doing your intervention. The self-healing kicks in, and it spreads almost like wildfire. As long as there are examples of self-healing systems, we have no reason to be completely discouraged.

What were some of your formative experiences with nature?

When I was a young child, I lived a life that straddled the line between the wild and the very domesticated. I lived at the western end of Lake Ontario. I was surrounded by escarpments, woods, and marshes—and in the middle of all that was this atrocious development with golf courses and subdivisions. I lived in this very confusing, conflicting world, one that seemed so destructive on one hand, and on the other so healing and hopeful: the wild. I had parents who were very, very understanding of all of this, who really encouraged me to remain closely connected. Then as I got a little bit older, I had a funny sort of thing where I would see eroded hillsides or stark gulleys and I would actually begin to feel the suffering of the land. And that’s what woke me up.

And as I mention in the book, my father got me these incredible four or five volumes on Malabar Farm that an American novelist Louis Bromfield wrote upon returning home from World War II to the hill country of southern Ohio. He found the farms run down but used his knowledge from observing peasant farmers in France to restore the farmlands, making the equivalent of a thousand years of topsoil in just around ten years. It was all just a very romantic story. So that was a huge influence—to see his woods and farms come back. Maybe there is a romantic element in a life of earth stewardship which needs to be thought about a bit more.

What advice do you have for kids, or parents of kids, on how to inspire and train the next generation of agents of renewal?

Make them ecological Robinhoods. I had a number of imperatives in my class: “Do good things in bad places.” It must revolve around the engagement issue.

How are kids asking for help? Do they have their own paths cut out, or are they just saying enough is enough? They need enough options and opportunities. That’s what I really want Healing Earth to do—to inspire people to find some way to become engaged in all of this. That it’s not esoteric science. That there are so many ways to turn this around.

What are you reading now?

Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff

About the Author

Bevin is the publicity and marketing manager at North Atlantic Books.