Guest Essay: A Soil Nerd Walks Into a Roomful of Futurists

If you saw headlines about a recent gathering in Dubai with the indecipherable acronym of COP and, like me, wondered what the heck it was and if you should care, then read this personal report from Portland's self-described "soil nerd," Kristin Ohlson, author of "The Soil Will Save Us" and "Sweet in Tooth and Claw."

Over 97,000 people convened in Dubai this December for the twenty-eighth Congress of Parties (COP)—the United Nations’ annual conference on climate change. A much smaller segment of the world’s eyes were on Dubai for a gathering which preceded the COP by a few days and involved at least a handful of the same people: the Dubai Future Forum, billed as “the world’s largest gathering of futurists.”

Amazingly—or at least, amazing to me—I was invited to speak at the forum. I had received a request to connect on LinkedIn from someone with the Dubai Future Foundation months ago, and even though this seemed like yet another request from someone whose interests seemed so different from mine that I hesitated to make the connection, I accepted. Further communication led to a phone call.

The forum would have four themes: Empowering Generations, Transcending Collaboration, Transforming Humanity, and Regenerating Nature. The director of the Dubai Museum of the Future had read my book, "The Soil Will Save Us," and the committee putting the gathering together wanted me to speak on one of the regeneration panels. I’m not exactly a Luddite but I certainly don’t consider myself a futurist—unless one who alternately hopes and panics about the future is a futurist, which probably describes all of us—but I’ll go anywhere to talk about regeneration and healthy ecosystems. They had told me that around 2,500 people would come, many from that region and that they were also flying in thinkers and doers from around the world.

And indeed they did! I’ve never been at a gathering as truly diverse as this one—people young and older, from just about every part of the world, of every hue, and dozens of nationalities. Lucky for me, all speaking English albeit with the chiaroscuro of both their first language and the accent of whoever schooled them in English.

The reality of a conference like this is that you can’t get to everything, especially if you’re a speaker who’s a little nervous about being there to begin with. I managed to get to several of the regeneration panels, which were held in a dimly gorgeous room inside the Museum of the Future with walls that glowed with images of various life forms. In one panel, people talked about tapping indigenous wisdom to prepare for the future; in another, panelists talked about what might lie beyond Net Zero carbon emissions; in another, they talked about city planning that centers nature.

On my own panel, my co-panelists, Nithiya Laila, who works on biodiverse diets and equitable food systems in Singapore;  Christine Gould, who supports science-and-technology-based startups through Thought for Food based in Switzerland; and our moderator, Dionysia Angeliki Lyra from the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai and I spent an animated 45 minutes talking about soil, seeds, native plants and feeding the world’s people.

I certainly wasn’t the only person among the 2,500 futurists who centers on healthy ecosystems—including healthy, prosperous humans, of course—but it’s also true that many of the panels and discussions at the conference were about shiny new things. Shiny new tools, shiny new technologies, shiny new approaches to problems. I told anyone who would listen that I’m not opposed to the new and shiny—unless those innovations are aimed at hacking the natural world for the convenience of humans.

Yes, new technology for benign sources of energy, please! New technology to turn my gas-powered car into an electric one! New technology for mining the mountains of garbage we’ve created to obtain the resources for future products! New ideas for our homes and cities! New science to parse the dazzling and essential complexity of the natural world and—this is the issue for me--to help us figure out how we can hack our own behavior so that both we and the rest of nature thrive.

Because life is so precious and—given what we know so far—unique. One of the early presentations at the Dubai Future Forum was a panel of astronauts talking about life on the space station. They talked about how they dealt with the conundrums of ordinary life while living in space—eating, getting enough exercise, staying in touch with loved ones—and agreed, sweetly, that one of the best things about the experience was the brotherly bond they now have with each other.

I couldn’t help but think of our marvelous planet as I listened to them. Scientists have searched through the samples brought back from space, hoping to find evidence of life. It’s not there. I have more life under my little fingernail after digging in the soil than has been found in all our extraplanetary explorations. We have to treasure life on Earth, respect that life, and change ourselves so that those coming next will also experience its beauty and abundance. Imagine if our collective aspiration for the future was to be good ancestors.

Watch a video of the presentation here.

Top photo: The Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (l); presenters (left to right) Christine Gould, Nithiya Laila, Kristin Ohlson and Dionysia Angeliki Lyra. This essay was originally published at SoilCentric.

Legislative Action Alert: Oregon's Small Farms Need Your Help

As the Oregon legislature nears the end of its 2023 session, there are several bills affecting small farmers that need your help to get over the finish line successfully. (Click on the action link at the end of each item.)

Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (HB 3366): This bipartisan program, known as OAHP, helps farmers and ranchers protect their land while keeping it in production, supports rural communities, and helps Oregon leverage unprecedented federal funding. In the first grant cycle, OAHP protected more than 12,400 acres of working land across Oregon. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) requested $10.8 million in grant and administrative funding for the 2023-2025 biennium, but that funding was not included in the Governor's budget. Contact your legislators today and ask them to support this program at the link below.

ACTION LINK: Tell your legislators to fund the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program.

Healthy Soils Bill (HB 2998): This bill leverages federal funding and existing programs to expand resources to support farmers and ranchers with soil health practices that make the most sense for their land and businesses. The Healthy Soils Bill is important in meeting the needs of farmers and ranchers, and addressing the climate crisis. We are at a critical time in the legislative session where funding for many bills, including the Healthy Soils Bill, is being determined. Your advocacy right now could make a real difference for the success of this bill so please contact key legislators to urge them to fund the Healthy Soils Bill.

ACTION LINK: Copy and paste the template provided into an e-mail to tell legislators they need to fund the Healthy Soils Bill.

Canola Bill (SB 789): In a parliamentary move attempting to waylay this bill, the House Ag Committee held a work session resulting in this being moved to the House Rules Committee instead of going to the House Floor for a vote. It is more important than ever that constituents make their voices heard to get this bill passed in this legislative session. We need to maintain the current 500-acre canola cap in the Willamette Valley in order to protect brassica specialty seed production.

ACTION LINK: Tell your legislators they need to act to protect specialty and organic seed production in the Willamette Valley.

Support for Farmers Transitioning to Organic (SB 1058): Oregon is ideally situated to be a leader in the rapidly growing organic industry, which surpassed $60 billion in 2022, but will need to make both public and private investments in order to fully actualize this opportunity. Organic farmers are subject to third party verification, rigorous certification processes, and federal standards that mandate practices which, among other benefits, creates the healthy soils found on organic farms. Certification takes three years and is a considerable economic burden on organic farmers that conventional farmers are not subject to. Given the triple bottom line benefits organic can bring Oregon, investments in organic farming and transitioning to organic are smart policy moves.

ACTION LINK: Copy and paste the letter provided into the template form and let your legislators know it's critical to help grow organic in Oregon.

Thanks to Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF) for these legislative alerts and links.