During my recent and rare week off, I got the chance to actually read a book. An entire book, that I picked myself, instead of council meeting minutes or a 308-page government Bill. Outstanding.

Me being me, I hadn’t selected a particularly cheerful read. It was 'Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown' by public policy researchers Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton.

The book took great pains to spell out precisely how dire our collective predicament really is, alongside an extremely thorough roadmap for getting us out of it – everything from rewilding and managing the decline of fossil fuel use to housing, work and childcare.

The National Wales: Rewilding our green spaces helps reduce carbon in the atmosphereRewilding our green spaces helps reduce carbon in the atmosphere

We should aim, the authors say in their final lines, to not just survive the crisis but thrive, for “a sustainable future anchored in democracy, justice and mutual solidarity, in a world fit for life, in all its finitude and wonder.”

In short: Highly recommended.

Again – me being me, I’m now going to drag you away from that optimism and back to the bit where everything’s simultaneously flooding and on fire.

One of the points the authors stress in that book is the idea that climate change – rising temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps – is not the only factor driving our current emergency.

READ MORE: As extreme weather events accelerate, climate grief is real

Instead, they say, we should think of our situation as “environmental breakdown, of which the climate crisis is but a part, albeit an important one.”

They point to a statistic that continues to melt my brain - that in areas ploughed for farmland, soil itself is disappearing more than 100 times faster than natural processes can replenish it.

In other words - it’s not merely the climate that’s breaking down, but the very building blocks of life itself.

READ MORE: How a Snowdonia farm is measuring its carbon footprint

Reading up on this, you find that researchers across the world are reporting dramatic losses in topsoil – the nutrient-rich soil needed for growing food – with the main driving factor behind this destruction being intensive farming.

Last year’s Uneven Ground report by the Land Coalition - an international alliance of farmers and agricultural organisations - warned that global land inequality is far higher than previously expected.

The National Wales:

The report warned that local farmers, particularly women and indigenous peoples, are increasingly being forced off land: “More and more land is concentrated in fewer hands, mainly serving the interests of corporate agribusiness and distant investors, utilising industrial models of production that employ fewer and fewer people.”

“Distant investors” is the right term – many farms across the world are now largely owned by private equity funds based thousands of miles away.

There are now more than 300 such funds specifically devoted to investing in farmland and food production, up from around seven in 2004 – these funds are worth billions, sometimes trillions, and are big shareholders in supermarket groups like Walmart (parent company of Asda).

Think Wall Street, but in a tractor.


As one might expect, these large enterprises favour practices that yield the highest rate of profit for the lowest cost – aside from employing fewer people, they also tend to focus on profitable biofuel crops like maize, as well as intensive poultry farming – and these practices in turn are much more likely to result in soil erosion and contamination.

Here in the UK, intensive farming has risen sharply over the past decade, and we’re seeing the effects.

A 2019 government report found that two-million hectares of soil are at risk of erosion, while a further four-million hectares are at risk of disappearing through compaction; 300,000 hectares were thought to be contaminated, and microplastics “widespread in soil with unknown consequences”.

The National Wales: Protests were held this week to highlight the "slow death" of the WyeProtests were held this week to highlight the "slow death" of the Wye

Last week I reported on the continuing campaign to save the River Wye, where the combined hazards of intensive poultry farming, sewage dumping and soil erosion are thought to be killing off wildlife, as well as driving away the wild swimmers, anglers and kayakers that normally enjoy the waters.

I spoke to campaigner Andrew McRobb, who explained his fears that the poultry farm pollution – mostly phosphorous from chicken faeces – was being made worse by the heavy rainfall and flooding we’ve all experienced in recent years.

READ MORE: Workers in arms industry should transition to green economy

The chicken waste is used for muck spreading on arable crop fields, where ploughing and compaction means topsoil is most easily rinsed into the river when it rains.

Mr McRobb was fairly confident that smaller family farms could be worked with to improve the situation, but said he was well aware that the big industrial operations would “fight long and hard to retain profitability over environmental good”.

READ MORE: UK Parliament temporarily cedes control of English counties to Wales

It struck me that the struggle that Mr McRobb and his fellow campaigners are facing is a microcosm of the systemic problems we face worldwide.

The energy behind their efforts to monitor the river, to scrutinise government and industry, and to educate, could too be described as a microcosm for the stubborn determination and dedication that’ll be required to lessen these problems.

What’s happening to the Wye raises questions about how much we need and how much is wasted; about who owns which land and why; about the tension between preserving livelihoods and preserving our planet, and about how the structures in our society often compel us to do the wrong thing.

They’re questions I think we all should think about. Our answers might very well save us.

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