Meat lovers, rejoice! Cattle could be a climate-change solution.

cattle-ranch-sierra-nevada-mountainsIt’s become a truism of the environmental movement. Eating meat is bad for the planet. A few years back, a couple of researchers published a study claiming that livestock is responsible for 51 percent — 51 percent! — of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO says it’s closer to 18 percent, but still…

Jim Howell, a lifelong rancher and the CEO of a company called Grasslands LLC, says this conventional wisdom is ill-informed and misleading. More important, he has set out to disprove it. Grasslands owns four cattle ranches in South Dakota and Montana, where the company is monitoring the environmental impacts of its unconventional approach to ranching — called holistic management — and forging relationships with nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, hoping to turn them into allies. Last month, Howell’s partner, mentor and friend, Allan Savory, who is a Zimbabwean farmer, politician and environmentalist, delivered a TED talk called “How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change” that rapidly attracted about half a million views. Their argument, in brief, is that traditional ranching methods can degrade land and threaten biodiversity but that, when managed well, cows can actually be restorative.

What’s most interesting (to me, anyway) is that Howell, Allan Savory and their investor-partners in Grasslands believe that they can use markets to drive their unorthodox ideas about ranching to a much, much larger scale. They argue that holistic management is better for business, better for the land, better for the climate and, not incidentally, a way to raise more cattle on less land than conventional methods and thus help feed a hungry, growing planet.

If it sounds too good to be true….well, their arguments have been controversial for decades, and certainly since 1988, when Savory described his methods in a 564-page book called Holistic Resource Management,  In a book review[PDF, download] in the Journal of Soil & Water Conservation, a Berkeley range ecologist named James Bartolome wrote: “Holistic resource management itself is a model for a management system with little novelty and severe technical problems…Those who apply Savory’s approach do so at their peril.” The Savory Institute has compiled a portfolio of supporting evidence, including peer-reviewed papers, but the debate rages on.

Jim Howell
Jim Howell

Howell, 44, comes from a family that has been ranching in Colorado since the late 1800s. He intends to bring further science and economics to bear on the question of whether ranching, done right, can help regenerate the planet, improve the farm economy and, as one of his investors, John Fullerton, puts it, “harness the power of capital and markets to shift the course of capitalism onto a more just and sustainable path.” A former managing director at JP Morgan, Fullerton is now president of the Capital Institute and an investor in Grasslands LLC, along with Larry Lunt, a private investor and environmentalist who runs a family office called Armonia. The Savory Institute, a for-profit company that carries out Savory’s work–Howell’s wife is CEO–is also an owner of Grasslands. Other investors will be brought on as Grasslands grows, as its owners expect it to. [click to continue…]

Scott Jurek (and other vegans I like)

Scott Jurek at Pacers in Clarendon

“Believe it or not, there were two things I used to hate–vegetables and running,” Scott Jurek says. ”

Which only goes to show you how much people can change.

Jurek is a vegan and one of the world’s all-time greatest ultra-runners — “ultras” are races longer than marathons, often much longer. Scott has won the world’s most prestigious ultras many times, including seven consecutive victories in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. In 2010, he set the U.S. record for most miles run in a 24-hour period by covering 165.7 miles, which is more than six marathons. Think about that for a moment.

The other night, Scott led a group of several dozen runners (including me) on a 3-mile jog from The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Pacers running store in Clarendon, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve just finished the book–it’s an autobiography, a guide to running, a recipe book and, more broadly, a story about the importance of pursuing your goals, whether or not you achieve them.

Eating and running, he writes, are “simple activities, common as grass. And they’re sacred.”

Pilgrims seeking bliss carry water and chop wood, and they’re simple things, too, but if they’re approached with mindfulness and care, with attention to the present and humility, they can provide a portal to transcendence. They can illuminate the path leading to something larger than ourselves.

This isn’t to say that running will solve the world’s problems, or yours. But, as Scott writes

Move your body and fill it with healthy food and you will be transformed.

I’ve met Scott a couple of times now, and I have to say that I am impressed, not so much with his extraordinary accomplishments as a runner (which strike me as near-superhuman, and therefore not relevant to the rest of us)  but with his thoughtfulness (he’s smart, inquisitive and well-read) and  his purposeful approach to life, notably his plant-based diet. The fact that he’s a world-class runner and a vegan may well be coincidental–though I don’t think that’s so–but at the very least he is proof that a plant-based diet is no obstacle to good health and athletic stardom. [click to continue…]

On the run with Team Nature

It’s no surprise that many runners care about the environment. We depend on the outdoors to enjoy our sport, and most of us love to run in beautiful places.

But, unlike so many other cause-oriented nonprofits or charities–think of the Race for the Cure or Run MS–environmental groups have been slow to take advantage of the opportunity to connect the work they do to the running world.

The Nature Conservancy is trying to change that, which is how I found myself at the start of the GW Parkway Classic 10-mile race, which goes from Mount Vernon to downtown Alexandria, on Earth Day, a drizzly Sunday morning. Here in the capital region, and elsewhere around the world, Nature Conservancy chapters have organized Team Nature (“Healthy You, Healthy Planet’) to encourage people to get outside and run, and to raise money for the conservancy’s work.

When I had the opportunity to join Team Nature for today’s race–thanks to Mark Tercek, the Nature Conservancy’s CEO, and Kate Hougan, the regional marketing director–I was delighted to do so. TNC does important work, including efforts to protect and restore Chesapeake Bay, which I heard about today from Mark Bryer, who also ran the race. Plus I knew Scott Jurek would be there.

I’m too old for heroes, especially sports heroes, but I am a huge admirer of Scott, who I met recently for the first time. In a terrific book about running called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (which set off the minimalist running craze, a topic for another day), author Christopher  McDougall writes:

Scott was the top ultrarunner in the country, maybe in the world, arguably of all time.

Scott, who is 38, is a seven-time winner of the  Western States 100-mile endurance run, a trek through the remote and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, and he set a course record the first time he ran the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile run through Death Valley where temperatures routinely top 120 degrees. [click to continue…]

Running with a conscience

Melissa Schweisguth photo credit: TIME

Two of my passions are running and the environment. I do my best to marry them: I’ve recycled my old running shoes. I currently run in Vibram FiveFinger “barefoot” shoes, which are light weight and last a long time. I mix my own Gatorade from a 3 lb. 3 oz. can of powder, which saves plastic bottles. But I also use high tech equipment (Garmin GPS, Monster headphones, iPod shuffle), own dozens of T-shirts from races that are stuffed in a closet and drive 2-3 miles most days just to get to the place where I start my run. Over the years I’ve flown to marathons in Chicago, San Diego, Big Sur and Athens, Greece.

Melissa Schweisguth is a 36-year-old fellow sustainability professional and writer who also enjoys running. She puts me to shame, and not just because she clocked an impressive 3:11:07 in the Eugene (Oregon) Marathon this year. Melissa hasn’t thrown anything into a landfill since 2006, which earned her notice in Time magazine (due to non-consumerism and creative reuse.). She thrives on an organic, whole foods, locally-based and almost exclusively vegan diet, (as does famed ultra runner Scott Jurek). She’s been working on improving her running footprint to avoid trampling people or planet and has written three blogposts on running “au naturel” for her blog, Living Acoustically, which she’s kindly agreed to let me share here.  I don’t expect most runners to be as “green” as Melissa, but my hope is that she’ll inspire you, whether you run or not, as she has inspired me to make a change or two in your lives. When she isn’t running, Melissa works a freelance writer and consultant on sustainability issues and media relations, and as director of membership and development for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association. Here’s her first post, about clothing and shoes:

Sometimes we need new, ready-made things, but, more often, we can reuse, buy used, or make something easily, and get a better, cheaper, more healthful product. It’s easy to forget this since marketers are skilled at wooing us, we’re encouraged to seek upward mobility and novelty, and our culture has devalued making things ourselves: gardening, basic cooking and the like.

While running, I’ve sought to maximize and improve performance while honoring a guiding principle that defines sustainability to me: “live simply so that others may simply live.” (Or, following this blog’s theme, unplug from consumerism and run acoustically.) Below are examples of things I do, some long term and some more recent changes. This is being shared for informational purposes only; it’s not intended to be preachy or judgmental, as that’s not my style. We all have different backgrounds and resource demands in our lives, and I’m the first to admit there are many things I can improve!


When I started running, “technical” fabrics and performance-optimizing clothing weren’t on the market. I wore basic clothing and never really bought into the marketing around newfangled stuff. More apparel uses fabrics marketed as environmentally friendly, such as organic cotton, wool, bamboo, hemp and recycled poly, which are great if new things are needed. However, the most sustainable choices are items we have or can get used, which also saves money. I’ve found great shorts, tops and running tights at thrift [click to continue…]