Ask Josh Tickell’s four-year-old daughter what her family’s job is, and she’ll answer, “To save Mama Earth.” The acclaimed filmmaker and his wife, actress/producer Rebecca Harrell Tickell, are passionate environmental activists whose documentaries (such as the Sundance Award-winning, Oscar-shortlisted Fuel and the Cannes-celebrated The Big Fix) chronicle the greatest problems facing our planet.
Their latest documentary feature, Kiss the Ground was released this month and is an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film will be available on Netflix on the 22nd of September, 2020. The documentary goes beyond sustainability to provide us with new hope. It’s not a climate change movie – it’s a guide to stopping climate change for good, and we’d better pay attention.
Kiss the Ground tells the story of soil as you’ve never heard it before. As the film explains, the keys to restoring the world’s beauty rest right under our feet, in the millions of live organisms that inhabit nutrient-rich dirt. We’ve been destroying their natural order for decades without realizing that by hurting them, we’re dooming ourselves. Two-thirds of the globe is now turning to desert, and we have approximately 60 years of arable topsoil left. If we don’t act fast, nearly one billion people will be refugees of soil desertification by 2050. But if we can understand how everything connects, we’ll have a fighting chance.
“Version 1.0 of the climate change conversation, that’s done,” Josh asserts. “The choir has to sing with one voice. We need [everybody] to understand how we’re going to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, how soon we can do it, and what the methods are. That’s the new conversation. We need everyone to focus on the prerequisite for life, because biology is the key to sustaining [it].”
The film teaches that we have a “legacy load” of carbon to get rid of, 1000 gigatons in Earth’s atmosphere to be precise. This buildup has amassed increasingly since the Industrial Revolution, and it comes primarily from our flawed approach to agriculture. Conventional farmers till the soil, leaving it broken and bare, and the exposure causes the deaths of countless microbes, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans, killing valuable oxygen-producing phytoplankton. At the same time, livestock feed lots produce heavy greenhouse gases, our food and water supplies get poisoned as farmers rely more and more on chemicals for their yields (nothing can grow in over-tilled soil), and the rising carbon emissions change the cloud patterns, causing each part to affect the whole.
“This time there is an urgency that hasn’t existed in the same way with anything else I’ve done,” Tickell notes. “The policy and thinking around climate change have really stagnated in the past ten years. There has been so little movement within that space. You know, screw in a lightbulb, put a solar panel in your house, put a wind turbine in – All good things, but none of it is going to change the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and it won’t change the trajectory that we are on. In order to change our trajectory, we have to change our micro-climate. We have to rebuild soil, and we have to do reverse desertification. It’s reframing the climate conversation in a much more sensible, practical, and realistic plan that is achievable.”
So how do we achieve it? We start listening to Planet Earth and participate in a regenerative economy. Enter Kiss the Ground’s pioneers of eco-holism, experts who are taking matters into their own hands to change the global perception of how to work with the land. From farmers and ranchers to chemists and wellness researchers, from Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory to French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Folle, the film shows a stunning diversity of professionals committed to a philosophy that values all life.
“It’s about love,” Maria Rodale, CEO of environmental publisher Rodale Inc., says in the documentary. She visibly tears up as she talks about the need to appreciate each microorganism, worm, and mycorrhizal fungus that contributes to soil health. Indeed, several on-camera interviewees get emotional when they describe our planet’s dire straits and their dreams for a better future. (I also found it impossible not to cry; Kiss the Ground takes the viewer on an enlightening, eminently heartrending journey.)
Two standout figures in the regenerative field are soil conservationist Ray Archuleta and rancher Gabe Brown. Now cofounders of the Soil Health Academy, Archuleta and Brown consult around the country to educate people about the links between humanity and the ground. They teach techniques focused on biomimicry or emulating nature. Instead of growing a single crop, like corn or soybeans, farmers should strive for biodiversity. Chemicals shouldn’t be involved at any level of the process, and producers should adopt a no-till policy. Cover crops should be used throughout the year so that raw topsoil is never exposed to the sun, and organic matter such as compost and manure should be incorporated as often as possible. Livestock should graze in concentrated rotation, rather than packed in feed lots, to produce that manure as a natural fertilizer. 1% of organic matter holds roughly 25,000 gallons of water (thereby reducing acid runoff) – and 10 tons of carbon.
Herein lies the secret to reversing desertification and climate change! It’s called biosequestration, the capture and storage of greenhouse gases, which happens naturally when plants in healthy soil begin to grow and photosynthesize. During one illuminating sequence in Kiss the Ground, Archuleta demonstrates the power of biosequestration using a time-elapsed carbon chart. He points out that during early spring months, when most farmers are tilling and disrupting the soil, the carbon emissions are at their peak levels, but in summer when the plants start to blossom, they pull carbon into the ground. Underground organisms aid in keeping the carbon sequestered in the soil, and this is why Archuleta advocates for cover crops.
“A covered planet is a healthy planet,” he proclaims delightedly. “Everything’s connected; everything’s one.”
Biosequestration also sets the stage for drawdown, the point at which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline. Entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken, another expert spotlighted in Kiss the Ground, has created a comprehensive plan called Project Drawdown, an extensive mapping of the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming to be implemented through 2050. Regenerative agriculture, which integrates several of the proposed solutions simultaneously, is one of the most effective pathways to drawdown, both in physical results and in financial cost.
“When you look at regenerative,” Tickell observes, “this has the potential to add about $10,000,000,000,000 to the global economy over the next couple of decades. There is very little else that you can say that about. We’re talking about fundamentally increasing the value of the basis of life: soil, water, calories, and nutrition… When you’re talking about changing deserts into lush ecosystems, when you’re talking about bringing ecosystems back online, you’re essentially talking about bringing tremendous amounts of money to the table. From an economic perspective, this is a no-brainer, and it’s going to enrich huge numbers of people. By that, I do not mean make huge numbers of people rich – I mean it has the potential to raise millions of people out of poverty. Nothing else has that potential, and I think that’s the big picture.”
While it’s difficult to ascertain how many will get the idea right away, some major sustainability influencers have enthusiastically embraced Kiss the Ground. Oscar winner and environmental philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio is executive producing the film; John Roulac, founder of leading superfoods brand Nutiva, was an early adopter of the project; and Tickell credits Ryland Engelhart of Café Gratitude and filmmaker Darius Fisher, both of whom helped produce the documentary, with inspiring him and Rebecca to make it in the first place.
“There’s [has been] a lot of support and excitement from so many different organizations,” Tickell shares. Tickell published a Kiss the Ground book last November, which differs from the movie in that it concentrates on the food consumers eat rather than the process of reverse desertification. “I think the shift is ultimately going to be driven by the consumer, the policies, and from the industry,” he comments. “It’s really these three vectors that coalesce. As a society we’re largely disconnected from the sources of most of the things that we touch, so we have to rebuild some of those connections… Part of this effort is going to be rebuilding connections between city folk and country folk – This is a great opportunity to create unity around a shared set of values and goals!”
For those who prefer a hands-on approach to education, there’s also Kiss the Ground’s namesake nonprofit organization, founded in 2013 by Ryland Engelhart and musician Finian Makepeace. Through a variety of programs for adults and children, Kiss the Ground makes soil health training accessible to anyone interested in joining the movement.
Josh highly recommends taking part in their regenerative courses: “There are tools we can use to develop the first generation of soil warriors to be educated, understand the science, and tackle what’s going to come next, which are the policy changes, ecological development, and financial tools… The idea is that I [as filmmaker, author and public speaker] will help create the arrowhead that will drive this message forward, and the nonprofit will continue to have this infrastructure to facilitate education.”
Even if you live far from the nonprofit’s California headquarters, you might soon see Tickell or Kiss the Ground team members in your hometown. They’ve embarked on an international speaking tour to engage the widest possible audience on the subject of regenerative agriculture, and Josh encourages requests for appearances: “If anyone is interested in having [us] come and speak on this topic, please reach out.”
But in between books, movies, and live appearances, Tickell’s first priority remains his family. His young children, both born during the production of Kiss the Ground, spur him and Rebecca to keep making the world a better place.
“My daughter has grown up around this conversation,” he reflects. “She knows about soil, how to compost, how to plant seeds and water them. She probably knows more plant species than me. Her awareness is so high. I can’t go anywhere without her picking up trash… She knows where plastic goes, in the ocean; she’s starting to make the connections between her toys and that they’re made of plastic. At four years old, she’s dealing with real-world dilemmas… I think she’s going to be an even more intense planetary advocate than either me or Rebecca…We need to champion these ideas. That’s where the future is going.”
And because it’s ultimately all about connections, I can’t resist asking Tickell if he believes there’s a spiritual component to the regenerative methods. He doesn’t hesitate for a second when he answers yes.
“Definitely. It doesn’t matter what spiritual flavor you come from; every major religion has a codification of honoring the soil and the Earth. It’s something I talk about in the book. We’re the first global society not to have a system of honor or gratitude for the Earth or soil. That’s interesting when you look at how it’s going for our civilization… There’s more life in a handful of healthy soil than humans who have ever lived! How can you be present to that information and not be present to awe, just absolute awe and wonder? And when you’re present to all that wonder, I think it borders on a truly spiritual experience.”
(Editor’s Note: Tickell adds that the people working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who are featured in the film, deserve far more public and media attention. Please look them up and support their dedicated efforts to study climate change!)
Article cover image Retro, B
This piece originally appeared in Honeysuckle’s print edition, ONE. An edited version of the original article appears here. Back copies of Honeysuckle’s One Issue can be ordered here.