Yes, The Planet Has A Microbiome — And There's A Lot We Can Learn From It
Early in the pandemic, we watched our planet enjoy a much-needed break. Smog cleared, carbon emissions dipped by a matter of percentage points, and birdsong filled city streets with an unfamiliar tune. The relief was temporary, but its lesson was eternal: Thanks in part to a complex web of microscopic life, nature has the innate capacity to heal itself—and, by extension, heal us.
Researching the outsize influence of unseen microbes.
The microscopic realm that helps Earth self-regulate is too small to see with the naked eye, but we're getting a better picture of it with each passing year. And the more digging we do, the more we uncover about its importance for environmental quality and human health.
Soil microbes are the foundation of our food system. In healthy soil, mind-blowingly large microbial colonies help crops absorb nutrients from underground. "In a thimbleful of really good soil, there's more life than humans who have ever existed on the planet," Mark Hyman, M.D. (whose new book on the state of our agriculture system, Food Fix, dropped in February), told mbg this year.
Regenerative agriculture, which protects these massive but delicate colonies by minimizing soil erosion, has emerged as a way to promote human and environmental health. Prioritizing microscopic life makes for farms that can produce nutritious food in the face of warming temperatures and extreme weather events. Microbe-rich soil is also more capable of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. According to a new blue-sky estimate by organic agriculture research nonprofit The Rodale Institute, if all the world's farm and ranch land was managed regeneratively, our soil could recapture all the annual CO2 emissions produced by humans and then some.
In the woods:
Science is also continuing to explore the importance of tiny life living underfoot in forests. This year, we learned that the growth of adult trees depends on their participation in a wide and wonderful underground fungal network, which forest researcher Suzanne Simard has dubbed the "wood-wide web." In this web, microbes expand a tree's roots and connect them with others in the area to create an underground network where trees can share resources and send signals of incoming threats.
Beyond promoting hearty trees, these rich forest soil communities also seem to support stronger people. The growing research on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, continues to uncover new ways that a walk in the woods can reduce stress, improve mood, and even support immunity. A review published this July in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction concludes that "the twenty studies included reported that shinrin-yoku is effective for mental health, particularly anxiety."
Again, these microbes contribute to the landscape's carbon-capturing potential, and well-managed forests can provide a buffer against climate change.
The microbial universe extends far into our oceans, too, providing nutrients to shallow-water species as well as helping collect carbon dioxide from the water's surface and pulling it down to the ocean floor.
If this quick landscape scan is any indication, healthy microbial colonies lead to healthy ecosystems. "Microbes are the master engineers," Eoin Brodie, Ph.D., a microbiologist and senior scientist in Berkeley Lab's Earth and Environmental Sciences Area, tells mbg. "The reason our planet is habitable is because of microbes. There's a long history of microbes affecting the development of the planet so there's no reason to believe that's going to stop. It's happening right now; microbes are doing their own thing despite us."
A small solution to a massive problem.
In a world that's increasingly choking on greenhouse gases, these microbes should be an integral part of the sustainability conversation. "If we want microbes to fix some of our problems," Brodie says, "we need to start treating them better."
Extractive human practices—the tilling of farmland, the clear-cutting of forests, the large-scale fishing of marine environments—are destroying the earth's delicate microbiome and, in turn, fueling the (sometimes literal) fires of climate change.
Considering the symbiotic relationship that we have with these microbes, it's no surprise that our well-being as a species is declining as they are disrupted. Patrick Hanaway, M.D., explored this idea on the mbg podcast this year: "If we look at where I live, [there has been an] 80% decline in flora and fauna in 100 years. There has been an 80% loss of diversity in our own microbiomes in that same amount of time." The link between the health of our environment and the health of our species has never been more clear.
Brodie draws another parallel: "We've approached agriculture with this single-solution type of approach—a fertilizer, a pesticide—and that's gotten us into trouble. We've approached human biology the same way: Here's an antibiotic; use it for everything that feels bad. We keep repeating these mistakes, and they have the same consequences."
Looking forward to the rest of the 2020s—which climate scientists have dubbed the Climate Decade wherein our actions will largely decide the future of our existence on this planet—we need to acknowledge these parallels and take action to diversify the world beneath our feet. The new science of conservation is telling us that reducing our emissions and supporting the planet's natural healing systems will both be essential.
How to help put the power back in nature's hands.
A handful of new companies are helping citizens become more directly involved in this ground-up approach to climate action. Carbon removal marketplace Nori, for example, allows individuals and businesses to fund regenerative farmers who are actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. The platform launched in the U.S. last year and just closed a $4 million funding round, which it will use to begin scaling up across the country.
"A lot of what we're trying to do is democratize this and make it much simpler and easier for people to access," Paul Gambill, Nori's CEO, tells mbg. In the future, the company also hopes to give people the option to invest in other nature-based carbon-capture initiatives like forestry and kelp farming. "The list is almost endless there because we want people to propose new methods to us to get onto the platform," Gambill adds.
CiBO Impact, another marketplace for investing in regenerative agriculture, also launched this year. Looking forward, we expect to see more networks cropping up to help restore the planet's innate carbon-capturing ability.
Moving forward, together.
The fact that such powerful climate solutions come from teeny-tiny natural systems working in tandem is a poignant reminder of the importance of partnership. It's something many environmental movements of the past have forgotten, and as a result, they have centered white and privileged perspectives and left BIPOC communities by the wayside.
As Richard Powers wrote in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Overstory, "Ecosystems tend toward diversity, and markets do the opposite."
"Our economy right now is built on an extractive, oppressive, and in some ways violent approach," she tells mbg. "How can it be regenerative? How can we create a new economy that's not replicating the racism and sexism and income inequality that exist today? Those are the opportunities that I think are there in climate that I've learned from communities on the ground."
Supporting a more interdependent approach to climate—one that celebrates and protects communities both human and nonhuman—is ultimately what we'll need to do to overcome toxic individualism.
"When you're thinking about climate in a way that centers both people and the planet," Walton says, "it gives you the expansiveness and the vision that's needed for transformative change."
It's fitting that the more we discover about the world around us, the more we realize that the solutions to so many of our problems come with collaboration. The road ahead will be difficult, but it will be a whole lot easier when we work together.
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