What Is Earth For? / a talk by Courtney White


I have worked on the front lines of collaborative conservation, regenerative agriculture, and ecological restoration for two decades, sharing innovative, on-the-ground solutions that bring people together in what we call the radical center. These solutions include progressive cattle management, land health, local food production, and atmospheric carbon sequestration in soils. I have advocated for these hopeful solutions both in my writing and nonprofit work.


In my lifetime, human impact on the planet has gone from small to catastrophic, raising an anguished question: What Is Earth For? The presentation covers my unique journey through conservation and regenerative agriculture and is designed to provoke thoughtful questions about the future. At each step, I found a great deal of hope to a variety of global concerns – hope that I’d like to share. Topics covered:


  • The Conservation Movement
  • Sustainable Ranching
  • Ecological Restoration
  • The Radical Center
  • Carbon Sequestration in Soil
  • Resilience
  • Telling Good Stories


I am especially eager to help people tell effective stories. In my experience, it is the missing link in our collective work on solutions. Facts and figures are important, as are on-the-ground examples of good stewardship, but they require a compelling story to bind everything together in an intriguing manner.


CONTACT me if you are interested in having me speak to your group. Here is a PDF for more information.


“Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it.” – Michael Pollan, in his Foreword to my book Grass, Soil, Hope.

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and foster its renewal is our only hope.”

– Wendell Berry


What Is Earth For?

Author Wallace Stegner once said every book should try to answer an anguished question, an instruction that I took to heart at a tender age. During the course of thirty years, I’ve tried to answer a number of anguished questions through my writing, photography, and activism, ranging over the fields of archaeology, history, conservation, the radical center, regenerative agriculture, resilience, and climate change. Although the questions were often complex, daunting, and suffused with urgency in my answers I tried to be creative, hopeful and, above all, a good storyteller. It’s my nature to see the glass as half-full, even if the glass is large and intimidating!


Over the years, a general anguished question began to reveal itself, linking my various concerns and creative efforts: what is the land for? Why do we do what we do to land, including its plants and animals? Why do we treat it so poorly at times and yet magnificently at others? Why are we so obsessed with its beauty and bounty and yet so harmful and destructive to its health? We are possessive of land and possessed by it, but we are also deeply conflicted about what land is for – Food? Wilderness? Mining? Inspiration? Recreation? This anguished question lies at the heart of my novel The Sun. A young doctor inherits a large, beautiful property and must decide: what is the ranch for? Oil-and-gas? Houses? Cattle? Fish? Wolves? A casino? A spiritual retreat? Complicating things, there’s a dead body and a mystery to solve as well!


When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, my anguished questions expanded suddenly. How do we build resilience economically and ecologically for a rapidly changing world? How do we scale-up hopeful solutions to serious problems? How could we work together more collaboratively despite significant cultural and political differences? How were we going to confront a warming globe and slow down climate change?


The same year, I saw a graph in a peer-reviewed academic journal that brought all the issues I had been worried about and working on into focus. The researchers studied twenty-four global indicators in an attempt to understand how fast human impacts were taking place at Earth system levels – i.e., to oceans, land, and the atmosphere. They discovered that in a tiny fraction of time our impact had grown from insignificant to colossal. They called this rate of change The Great Acceleration. Human activity was approaching or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. The extent and magnitude of alterations to the natural world was (and continues to be) unprecedented, they wrote, and humans are primary driver of change on the planet now.

Taken together, it meant a new anguished question: what is the earth for?