“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Farmers and scientists want to use the dirt beneath our feet to save the air above our heads
The headlining culprit in climate change warnings is the collection of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere that come burning fossil fuels. You might be surprised, then, to learn that agriculture's effect on the health of the Earth's safety blanket is nearly as large as that of greenhouse gases. Clearing forests for farmland, tilling fields, raising livestock and spraying herbicides and pesticides—all of these practices contribute to the rising CO2 levels in the air. Now, new studies have started to point to compost as a tool for improving farming practices and reducing agriculture's effects on the environment.
Photosynthesis is the basis of agriculture and all of the plant life on Earth. Through this process, plants pull carbon from the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen atoms from water and create energy, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. This elementary-school concept—plants subtract carbon from the air and add oxygen—created the human-friendly atmosphere that we breathe and grows the food supply for every herbivore and omnivore on the planet. But the focus of some scientists is shifting from the way plants remove carbon from the air to how they store it.
While governments around the world struggle to regulate the creation of new greenhouse gases, researchers and farmers hope to bury the carbon that already exists deep in the ground. The pedosphere is the layer of soil on top of the Earth's crust. Soil naturally absorbs carbon through the roots of plants but popular farming practices reduce its ability to do this by removing naturally occurring species of grasses and altering the state of the soil. The question arising is: can a change in farming techniques to focus on soil health help soil store more carbon and store it longer?
The destruction of forests and wetlands (for farmland and livestock) and the careless use of soil has released 135 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The future extraction of carbon from the atmosphere will be expensive and difficult. Keeping carbon in the soil instead of letting it escape into the air is an immediate solution to the greenhouse problem.
Compost might be the key to doing this.
The New York Times Magazine recently profiled two farmers who are helping to spearhead the practice and offer their ranch to researchers. Peggy Rathmann and John Wick grow 2,000+ acres of crops on their ranch in Marin County, California. Originally, Wick worked to keep out the neighbor's cows who had been eating his grass. But soon, the land and plant life where they'd formerly grazed suffered and smothered itself. He brought back cows—but this time with supplies to keep them on his land—and, by the end of their spring and summer on the ranch, the cows weighed, collectively, 50,000 pounds more than when they'd come. The symbiotic relationship between the cows and grass renewed, the plant life rebounded and the cows became healthier. This extremely positive result cannot be assumed to be typical at this early stage in the research but it is a telling example of the power of soil in agriculture and climate science.
Scientists, encouraged by this result, tested the carbon content of soil from a variety of places and uses. They found that the soil that best stored carbon was beneath dairy farms—even former ones—where the farmers sprayed manure onto the fields. Manure, however, releases gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2. So the positive effects on the soil would be canceled out by the gases coming from the manure. The solution is compost.
Compost—which is, mostly, decayed organic matter—absorbs the nitrogen atoms into complex molecules, preventing them from escaping in gases. It turns out, treating soil with compost has benefits directly resulting from the added carbon.
Carbon farming is the term used to describe scientists' efforts to better store carbon in the soil. Carbon farming could improve fertility, increase the soil's water retention and make crops more resilient. There are financial benefits, too: by moving the focus away from herbicides, tilling and expensive, fortified seeds and toward the health of the soil, farmers can lower their costs of operation and increase profit on the same quantity of produce.
This monetary incentive is exactly what is necessary to incite real action on climate change. The world needs to place a price on the future damage of climate change and clearly lay out the savings that are possible by changing to greener habits to spur people to act. A report in Nature estimates the global cost to be $60 trillion. A solution that can help reduce that cost while increasing immediate profits for those involved (the farmers) seems like the perfect start.
It is still too early to know or predict the effectiveness of compost treatments on places outside of California. And the cows that are part of Wick's and other farmers' healthy-soil systems produce methane, a gas better kept out of the atmosphere. Nevertheless, this new focus on the power of photosynthesis to heal the atmosphere it created offers hope to a warming world.