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#223 - How to Turn Degraded Landscapes into Regenerative Circular Economies, with Neal Spackman of Regenerative Resources Co.

May 03, 2022

#223 - How to Turn Degraded Landscapes into Regenerative Circular Economies, with Neal Spackman of Regenerative Resources Co.
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The Earth is unique, irreplaceable – it’s our home. We can't keep destroying it little by little. There is still a chance to save it, and one of these solutions is through regenerative agriculture projects.


The Earth is unique, irreplaceable – it’s our home. We can't keep destroying it little by little. So then, why are billionaires more interested in the exploration of other planets instead of restoring our Mother Earth? There is still a chance to save the Earth, and one of these solutions is through regenerative agriculture projects.

Neal Spackman is the Founder & CEO of the Regenerative Resources and the Founder & former Director of the Al Baydha project in Saudi Arabia. Regenerative Resources is an ecosystem service company that acquires highly-degraded lands and transforms them into restored ecosystems of agro-ecologies. 

Neal is passionate about terraforming, regenerative agriculture, and the relationship between ecology and wealth.

In today’s show, Neal walks us through the start of the regenerative agriculture project in a completely degraded desert landscape and how they transformed it into breathtaking, green life agroforestry. He also touches on topics about the poverty degradation trap, the massive effect of deforestation, and nature-based solutions.

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🗣 TOPICS DISCUSSED:

  • The story of Neal’s participation in the Al Baydha project in Saudi Arabia
  • The specific goals and targets for the land project in Makkah (Mecca)
  • How they maximize the use of the most sustainable source of water
  • The two major problems that we face as humans
  • Why a shift of mindset can lead to better decision making
  • The importance of non-carbon crediting in the economy
  • How nature-based solutions apply to climate change and create a beneficial effect on the environment
  • Regenerative Resources' systems that are extremely innovative and applicable to 15 million hectares globally
  • Regenerative Resources' framework for a successful ecosystem restoration

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Transcript

Neal Spackman  0:00  
Saudi Arabia has an extensive welfare system, particularly aimed at the rural poor. And the community that I lived in had, most families were receiving that on a monthly basis. That's how they lived, primarily, because they would use those welfare payments to buy imported feed for their animals, because the land won't support them anymore. And so the challenge was, okay, if there was no water, there's no soil, the trees are going, the ecosystem is completely degraded. So how do we bring that back in a way that will not just restore ecosystem function, but create wealth for these people in a way that that system is expandable? And so for eight years, I worked with members of these tribes to prototype a system that would do that.

Cory Ames  0:53  
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always, so grateful to have you listening in. Today we're talking about building regenerative economies, and in the process, using nature based solutions to climate change to do so. And in this conversation, I'm joined by Neal Spackman, the founder of Regenerative Resources, where they transform degraded landscapes into productive agroecologies. Before Regenerative Resources, Neal was a part of an incredible project in Saudi Arabia - regenerative agriculture project where they started with essentially a completely degraded landscape and facilitated an absolutely awe inspiring, breathtaking eight year transformation. We will have links up to that project to check out the befores and afters - the results - in our show post at socialentrepreneurship.fm. So be sure to check that out. Neal and I talk about it as well in the conversation. 

And so before we dive into this chat, a really fascinating one, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter, the weekly newsletter that I write, curate and publish myself send out every single Monday to our community of changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe. 6000 plus changemakers get this email in their inbox every single Monday now. So without further ado, go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to join on in that discussion of all things building a better world. That's growensemble.com backslash newsletter. Alright y'all without further ado, here's Neal Spackman, founder of Regenerative Resources. 

Cory Ames  2:42
I appreciate you being here with me on the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. For folks who are unfamiliar with you and the work that you do would you mind introducing us?

Neal Spackman  2:53  
I'm a Terraformer by profession. I change degraded or barren landscapes into productive agro ecologies. And I cut my teeth on that in the Al Baydha project in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. I was a co founder and director of that project for about eight years, where I worked with tribes of settled nomads in rainwater harvesting, flash flood management, watershed rehabilitation, and silvopasture as an effort to restore indigenous grazing patterns and a sustainable economy with these rural peoples. And now I am a founder and currently CEO of a company called Regenerative Resources. We have there's a lot of innovation that we're doing, but primarily we're focused on coastal regions, degraded coastal landscapes, and we do mangrove and seagrass restoration and mangrove agroforestry.

Cory Ames  4:07  
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for the introduction. And I guess to take it back, I can't help but be curious to know, how did you end up in Saudi Arabia with that project? I'm sure there's a pretty incredible story behind just even getting there.

Neal Spackman  4:23  
I was neighbors with somebody affiliated with the project, when it was in very early stages, and my undergrad work was an Arabic and Middle East Studies and Economics. So I spoke Arabic, I'd had significant experience in the region. I'd lived in Egypt, I'd lived in Jordan for a bit. And my passion was sustainability and food systems and sustainability in the built environment. That's not what I was working in at the time - at the time, I was doing media analysis. And, but I really wanted to get into it. And so I had read everything that I could find on those two subjects. And my neighbor who was affiliated with the princesses who spearheaded and funded this project ended up talking with me for a number of months where we were bandying ideas back and forth on, you know, what could be done? How could a project be rolled out that would actually help the people in these communities. And about six months into it, she said, you know, we're actually looking for somebody that could lead this is something you'd be interested in doing. And I said, Yes. And then we had some more formal interviews, and I quit my job and, and flew over. 

So it was a scary decision to make, it was a massive pivot. I think the primary reason I was hired was not because of my experience doing this, but because they trusted my cultural and language expertise to be able to work with these folks, and not mess it up too bad. They did want somebody that was - that could be considered neutral. Because this was a very tribal society I moved into, and we had to key into all those tribal structures. And by having, you know, a very foreign American person, they could have someone that was viewed as tribally neutral and not a threat in that sense. I think that's ultimately what got me the job was I had a lot of ideas of how to approach things, but I had a cultural expertise and that neutral status going into it. So it was more about the social considerations that I got picked for it, then that's interesting. The rest of it.

Cory Ames  6:46  
Were you upon getting that job and understanding maybe what was required in the ambitions for that project, were you well equipped with the prospect of being there for nearly a decade? Or was it just kind of one year after the other? 

Neal Spackman  7:04  
No, I think, going into it, I thought it would be three to five years, assuming the first six months worked out, like there was a six month kind of "is this really gonna work or not" kind of sussing out of the situation. And, but after those initial six months, I think we were dead set on seeing it through. And, you know, the experience started out extremely difficult and got better as time went on. So it was, I mean, for me, it was a chance to pivot into the kind of work I wanted to do for a long time. But it was also an adventure. And the chances of failure, were so high, that it almost felt like, you know, if we failed, people would be like, "Well, yeah, it was destined to fail in the first place." And if we succeeded, then it would exceed any kind of expectations. So there was risk involved in that. But I think, you know, the reputational risk, or the, well, what if it doesn't work out, wasn't really there, because we assumed it wasn't going to work out from the start. But we assumed that if something was going to go wrong than it probably would. And so that actually kind of made it easier to make that choice, because we went in assuming, well, this is pretty quixotic. But it's worth a shot, right, it's worth a shot to see if it'll work. And so and it did, it did in the end,

Cory Ames  8:44  
what were the specific goals? I mean, you mentioned to make people in this area better off like what what were some of the the targets or the objectives? And as well, like why, especially as I've gotten a grasp for the whole scale of comparable lands to that area that you focused on in Saudi Arabia. Why was this specific area focused on and what were some of the specific targets in making things better off, I guess?

Neal Spackman  9:12  
Yeah. So the location was selected by Princess Haifa al-Faisal, and her brother Prince Khalid Al-Faisal. And I understand the pitch was, Haifa was launching-- She wanted to launch a project around sustainable development. And her brother who was the governor of Mecca said "well, you should go check out Al Baydha because they have it pretty rough." And it's within Mecca governance so it's under his purview. And so he was in a position to approve this project. And it was his younger sister who spearheaded and financed it. I did not select the location, but it is an area that's very indicative of many rural areas up and down the west coast of the Arabian peninsula. And the geography is identical, the geography just fractals up and down that coastline. And so it was a few months and that we realized that whatever we did was going to be geographically applicable, if not culturally as well. So that was the first question. What was a second question, Cory?

Cory Ames  10:19  
What were some of the specific targets under the overarching idea of of making things better off? 

Neal Spackman  10:25  
Yeah, this project was quite comprehensive in scope. I mean, we dealt with infrastructure, education, housing, environment, and food, because the overarching goal was, we want to help this community reach sustainability, including self sustainability. And so I was not involved in all of those efforts, at least not deeply. But for instance, this community got their first paved road in 2009, which drastically shortened their trips to Mecca, which is where they get their supplies, thanks to Princess Haifa's efforts and Prince Khalid's as well. So they got paved roads, they got access to electricity. Some of them had houses built for them by Saudi philanthropies. That was mostly Princess Haifa, I was not involved in any of those aspects. My particular job was, how do we make the best use of the local expertise? How do we channel local culture into sustainable development? And the people are experts at animal husbandry, they're all camel and goat and sheep herders. They understand those markets, they understand all the operations and they understand the land. And so in looking at indigenous systems to that area, we came across the history of the hammer, which was a very, very old system. And we thought, okay, this is the baseline of what we need to restore is a functioning silvopasture. And it used to be that they would get summer rains and winter rains, where you would have a flush of grasses for 30 to 60 days. And during that time, the animals would eat the grasses, but then in the fall and spring, they would generally browse on trees, right. So you'd have two periods of grass grazing and two periods of tree grazing in a given year, with pretty dependable summer and winter rains. 

That's what it used to be. And over the last century or so, the summer rains have become very intermittent. Most summers, you don't have a rain anymore, and some winters, you don't have a rain anymore. And so the-- and the other major factor is that there's been massive deforestation, which leads to drought flood cycles. I mean, that's partly why there's less rain, if not the primary reason why. And then you get deforestation leading to desertification, both of which are leading to greater poverty in these rural areas. Because if people can't feed their animals on the land anymore, there's a cycle that's happening all over the planet, that is called the poverty degradation trap, or the poverty degradation cycle, where unsustainable use of natural resources leads to the degradation of those natural resources, which leads to greater poverty, which leads to more short term decision making, which leads to greater degradation. And so that that was the context, you know, that the communities I moved into had been experiencing that cycle, at least since the 1950s, if not, you know, decades earlier than that. So for me, personally, it was, okay, water is the limiting factor here. So, what's the most sustainable source of water and how do we maximize the utility of it? 

These are folks who are rural land based semi nomadic people, so they're not farmers, right? They're not gardeners. Their diet is primarily dairy, and dates and rice, with meat every now and then. And the vast majority of them are also on welfare. Saudi Arabia has an extensive welfare system, particularly aimed at the rural poor, and the community that I lived in had-- most families were receiving that on a monthly basis, and that's how they lived primarily because they would use those welfare payments to buy imported feed for their animals, because the land won't support them anymore. And so the challenge was, okay, there was no water. There's no soil. The trees are gone. The ecosystem is completely degraded. So how do we bring that back in a way that will not just restore ecosystem function, but create wealth for these people in a way that that system is expandable? And so for eight years, I worked with members of these tribes to prototype a system that would do that. And that's what we did, we had 100 acre site, that was about seven acres of mountains and 30 acres of floodplain, which is what the geography of the whole region looks like: big mountains, short floodplains. And we did that, we built a system that put more water in the ground than it was taking out, which is critical. We trialed a dozen different species of trees that could have an economic side to them that could produce something that we thought would also be able to survive the region, and that would also help to restore economic function. We built extensive water management systems that would slow down those floods, and allow that water to go into the ground. 

And then we let that system go and said, Okay, we've designed this right, we've built it right? Let's see if it'll survive the area without inputs, right? So we irrigated everything we grew for the first couple of years. The longest we irrigated some trees was five years, some only got irrigation for a month. And then we let the system go and said, Okay, when it rains, that's when they get water. And if they die, then we know that they're not a good fit for the region. And if they survive and produce, then we know that we've got a baseline of genetics for - and the baseline of an agroforestry, or a silvopasture, that can survive the region that can handle you know, the long periods of drought and the drought flood cycles. And that can be the base of our regional agroforestry. So those, and that gets into the question you've got about definitions of regenerative, but essentially, those were my benchmarks. Are we increasing water resources? Is biodiversity coming back? Does it survive? And does it produce and provide a foundation to start restoring indigenous grazing patterns, supplemented with additional tree crops that they may not have used in the indigenous systems before?

Cory Ames  17:33  
Well, I guess we can then start to get into defining maybe a regenerative economy can be and what it should look like, because it's stated with your newest company, Regenerative Resources, that seems to be the target or the aim of your work in any particular project. 

Neal Spackman  17:50
Yep. 

Cory Ames  17:51
And so I imagine that projects like this, and what I understand other projects that were connected to two co founders, those might have been where y'all started to develop these theories, these hypotheses and conclusions as to what this looks like. So be curious to know, you know, as you're launching into some of these new projects, and perhaps we could touch on some of those, where those are at in what the next sequence starts to look for you. What is that objective vision for y'all or that perspective vision of constructing a regenerative economy? What sort of conditions are you trying to meet? And maybe how does that reflect on that experience in Saudi Arabia?

Neal Spackman  18:27  
Yeah. Let me take a step back to start with that question. Sure. We've got two major sets of problems that we face as a species. One is the human set, which you-- everybody knows this stuff. It's ignorance, poverty, famine, drought, inequality, corruption, that centralize the human condition, right. We've got that set of problems. And then we have an environmental set of problems. I think most people tend to like bleed these into environment, but you've got climate - and when most people talk about climate, they're thinking about carbon. But far beyond carbon, we've got deforestation, desertification, aquifer depletion, ocean dead zones, soil erosion, and tragedies of the commons occurring everywhere, right - fishery depletion, etc, etc. And so we have that human set of problems and we have an environmental set of problems. And historically, we only ever tried to deal with one set by exacerbating the other one. Right? If we want to build an economy, we do it by destroying the environment. If we want to save the environment, we do it by cutting it off from people. And so we create conservation areas and say nobody's allowed to use any resources in this area, right. 

And so, when you have poverty adjacent to conservation, for example, that conservation will fail. Because people who are in poverty, you will find a way to utilize the resources in that area. And so historically, because we have separated these out into separate sets of problems, we will never solve either of them, because they are inextricably connected, right? You cannot solve one set without taking the other into consideration. And it goes both ways, right. And we tend to think of climate as as a new set of problems. But the patterns we're dealing with are at least 10,000 years old. And so you can look at the Babylonian Empire, which, over a period of hundreds of years, turned all their agriculture into, saline fields that could not produce food anymore. And that was a function of irrigation. Right? Irrigation is how that civilization emerged, in our first alphabet, our first city building, our first kind of civilizational hierarchies emerged out of that system, and it was based on agriculture. But that agriculture was also the source of that civilization's downfall, because as they irrigated over time, the soil got saltier, and saltier until they couldn't grow food. And you can look at the Maya and see a similar thing with deforestation, you can look at the roelands and see a similar thing with soil erosion. You can look at China, and the massive floods and the problem of the Yellow River. This pattern plays out on every continent in every civilization, regardless of culture. These are standard patterns, and we're dealing with them right now. As well, the difference is we don't have anywhere to expand to. Right?

We don't have anywhere to expand to. I'll name one more example, because it's not an old problem. George Washington criticized tobacco farmers in Southern Virginia and said, if you took better care of the soil, you wouldn't have to pack up and go find new farms every five to 10 years. George Washington attributed westward expansion, not to some concept of manifest destiny, but to poor soil management. Because tobacco farmers were intensively growing tobacco, totally degrading the soil packing up and moving west and doing it again. When we look at this environmental set of problems, it's that our management of natural resources allows us to build what you and I would think of as civilization. And I don't necessarily think of that in a positive term. Right? I'm not creating this dichotomy between civilized and uncivilized. I'm talking about city building. The thing that allowed civilization to emerge is also the downfall of that civilization. Not in like 100% "Oh, this is THE cause," but it is a primary cause in many cases. Today, we can look at the Ogallala Aquifer, which is depleting and is expected to go dry and 20 to 30 years. We can look at overuse of the Colorado River. We've got 17 million acre feet of water in the Colorado every year, current, and every drop of that is used. Right, the Colorado River doesn't reach its Delta anymore. And demand for water within the Colorado watershed is expected to grow by another 17 million acre feet over the, you know, by the time our kids are adults, that is the expectation and guess what there isn't another Colorado River to supply another 17 million acre feet. 

Deforestation in Southeast Asia and Brazil are going to lead to drought flood cycles. Depletion of fisheries globally is causing fishing communities to turn to mangrove deforestation in order to make ends meet. So this this poverty degradation cycle, this drastic, unsustainable use of resources, is going to create enormous amounts of pain over the next century. And it's not just about carbon, right? It is about tragedy of the commons and unsustainable use of the planet. So when we talk about a regenerative economy, we're talking about an economy that increases the foundational resources upon which it's built, rather than degrading them. degrading the foundational resources is the standard. That's the standard everywhere, right? And that's why a third of the Corn Belt in the United States is devoid of topsoil. A regenerative economy means an economy that actually increases freshwater resources, and creates more soil and increases ecosystem function while providing for human societies. That's it. Water, soil and ecology underpin every single human activity and to the extent that we degrade them, we are amortizing the foundation of our societies and our cultures.

Cory Ames  25:06  
So I'm interested in particular with that project in Saudi Arabia and then looking, or I guess expanding beyond that, is your belief that that, that that is just something quite exceptional in the handful of projects perhaps associated with with your co founders? Or do you think that the regenerative style of economic development can be the prevailing style? Like, can we have something of an evolution of culture or consciousness or whatever it means for that to take over instead of degenerating and degrading as we develop? Can the widespread practice actually become regenerative?

Neal Spackman  25:46  
I think it has to. At some point, there isn't an option anymore. Because that amortization is gonna reach a zero. And the difference, right, and I, I love the term amortization for this, because yeah, people get it, they understand the value of this piece of capital, or this piece of machinery is going down every year. And at some point, I have to replace it. The problem here is you can't replace earth. You can't just go and get another planet and say, Okay, well, we're done. We've amortized Earth, it's down to zero time to move on. It doesn't work. But that is what's happening. And the only way to get that back is through regenerative systems, or through putting everything into conservation. The problem of conservation as well that no one's allowed to use those resources. So where did they come from? Right, it's not that it can, it's that it has to, there has to, or we-- the same patterns that have played out, across multiple civilizations in the last 10-15,000 years are gonna play out on a global scale. That's not a scenario that any of us want to face.

Cory Ames  26:59  
Certainly. I mean, was it some sort of just, I guess, political serendipity in the context of of Saudi Arabia, or from experience do you think can be replicated, like more close to home, at least for you, and I, you know, the western United States as an example, if we are so clearly experiencing record breaking drought season after season? Is there a point at which we're just going to hit complete devastation? And that's going to create the will necessary? Or are there ways to all things considered still make progress? Because as well, I'm curious, because it looks like your your perspective, initial projects with regenerative resources are still all international, I think, Spain, Mexico, maybe a couple of couple countries in Africa. So yeah, I'm curious on that, what will be the impetus, you think, to have even very small scale?

Neal Spackman  27:51  
Yeah, I think that's already happening. I do know, a couple of farmers in Central Valley that aren't getting any distributions from their water district this year. Since we're talking about California, that's a disaster. That's an absolute disaster. And production is going to fall drastically in the Central Valley. And food is getting more and more expensive globally. Right now, in part because of Russia, Ukraine, but also because production is falling. In places where this is being carried out. It's not falling in aggregate. Not yet. In terms of what can be done, what could be applied, I think, the approach the mindset, I think, can be universal. Right? The approach of, okay, let's create a system that isn't depleting the water. That can be done anywhere. We did it in one of the hardest places on earth. And I mean, we got, on average, one inch of rain a year, two inches of rain a year. And we went 30 months, with no rain at all, between 2016 and 2018, 2019. I think part of what makes Al Baydha so salient is the austerity of the plates. And so it's a an extreme data point, that at least indicates that this kind of thing is possible everywhere. I think that's why people appreciate it. There are lots of similar projects globally. But because of how extreme our situation was, I think that's why it stands out. I mean, whether we're talking about water, whether we're talking about oceans, whether we're talking about land and food, or ecosystem restoration and conservation, fundamentally, we can't approach the human set of issues and the environmental set of issues as if they're not related to each other because they're inextricably connected. And that - just that shift in mindset leads to better decision making.

Cory Ames  30:00  
Well, I'm curious then that, it makes me think of asking you, what do you think the opportunity is in carbon credits as an example? Because there's a lot of misconceptions in that realm. But from what I gathered from your writing, I think that you did see some unique opportunity, given their popularity. What are you thinking currently about carbon crediting?

Neal Spackman  30:23  
So I'm skeptical of a lot of what's emerged in that industry. And I'm also fixing to become a significant player in that industry. I feel like a lot of the red plus stuff and a lot of the emissions reduction stuff strikes me as very fuzzy. Paying somebody to not cut down a forest make sense, in certain situations. But it's unsustainable. And it creates really messed up incentives, right? Because what you end up with is people saying, "Oh, I have to make a plan to cut down this forest so that I can get people to pay me to not cut it down." Right? That's a messed up incentive. It reminds me of those, you know, that in Mafia shows where a mafia guy shows up to a store, and he says, "Look, I'm willing to help you out. And I can guarantee your protection, but you've got to pay me. You know, if you don't pay me, I can't guarantee your protection in this neighborhood." That's what it's like, except it's not-- it's very similar to that: I'm going to cut down this forest unless you pay me. It gives people incentives to threaten to cut down forests. And deforestation is a serious issue. So it makes sense in a given situation. But it can't be maintained. You can't do that indefinitely. You can't do it permanently. And so in situations where people are paid to preserve a forest through carbon crediting, eventually, well, how do you do that 30 years from now, when all the people you're paying have six kids, right? All of a sudden, the payments need to be six times higher, or else they go back to extracting those resources. 

And so there has to be a non carbon, or non carbon crediting economy, in order to maintain that. There's a lot there that I don't like. What I do like about it, is that we're putting a value on something that's measurable, that is a crude stand in for nature as a whole. And so there's a tribe in Northern California, an indigenous tribe, that's using carbon crediting to buy back their land that traditionally belonged to them. I think that's super cool. And the fact that they're able to do it through carbon crediting, speaks to the efficacy of their land management systems. Right? I like that. It's incentivizing restoration. So I don't like the emissions reduction stuff - like, it's important, but again, the math can get really fuzzy. And you can have pretty interesting, "interesting" as a euphemism... pretty messed up incentive structures. That's where the emission reductions for carbon removals, which is what we're incentivizing, that through nature based solutions creates a huge number of positive externalities. And so to the extent that it can incentivize the restoration of functioning ecosystems, it's phenomenal. And, you know, two and a half years ago, when we were starting regenerative resources, we thought carbon would be a cherry on top. Like, we know our systems sequester carbon, but it's a natural result of the system. It's not something that is was necessarily what we were aiming for. 

But the the price of a ton of blue carbon, blue carbon refers to carbon in ocean systems, right, so we're doing a lot of mangroves. We're doing some sea grasses. Both of those fall under the blue carbon rubric. The market is just going nuts. And to the extent that it can finance our work, or be a source of revenues, or be a source of project finance for investing in communities. It's becoming a bigger and bigger part of our business model just because of how the market is evolving. Three years ago, we were looking at $5 a ton, which would have been a financial cherry on top. It wasn't that big a deal. But now the lowest I'm seeing for blue carbon is $30 a ton, and I have seen as high as $50. And so to see the price go up 1,000% in three years, and to see the projections from people who have been in the carbon worlds a lot longer than I have, where they're estimating the price is going to be $80 to $100 a ton in five to 10 years, it - to the extent that incentivizes the restoration of ecosystems, it's going to be fantastic, it's going to be wonderful. There are, and it's a bit of a black rush, right? It's, I don't want to say a gold rush, because carbon is black. But you're gonna see a lot of people entering into this market, you're gonna see a lot of fraud and chicanery and dubious accounting, but the cream will rise to the top and the people doing the right work are going to get the right kinds of attention, and hopefully it leads to significant restoration of ecologies around the globe. 

Cory Ames  36:09  
It's interesting to me, err - it seems, almost seems like it's almost the invention of a new currency. It kind of feels like, to some degree, like all of a sudden, it's just now extremely valuable, and creates a -

Neal Spackman  36:23  
Yeah, it's a new commodity. Yeah, it's gonna be a new commodity. 

Cory Ames  36:32  
Wow. Well, Neal, I'm curious to etch out a little bit more on the nature based solutions thread. So first, if you wouldn't mind, I know we've we've been talking about them generally in your work here, over this conversation thus far. But just to provide us a quick definition on that of nature based solutions, what are they? And then I guess we'll follow up and see how can nature based solutions - like what y'all are employing, with regenerative resources? How can they get more support? What are the barriers to widespread adoption?

Neal Spackman  37:14  
Yeah, I think so, nature based solutions, as an umbrella term can refer to things in the carbon world. Like there's nature based solutions to climate. But there are nature based solutions to things in the engineering world, or to things in the food world. And when you're talking about engineering, that's a biomimicry. Right. Biomimicry is is a set of, or a methodology for developing nature based solutions, right. And so the shape of bullet trains or the the design of subway systems have all been done through biomimicry in ways that created significant efficiencies. That's a nature based solution. But it's not necessarily about climate. Nature based solutions to climate typically referred to using ecology to sequester carbon in the ground. And the rationale behind this is, okay, we're emitting enormous amounts of carbon through the use of carbon fuels, right, oil and natural gas and coal, primarily. And also in the manufacturing and production of all sorts of things, right. NOx and all sorts of other gases that we emit that affect the that our greenhouse gases, let's say. And once these are up in the atmosphere, there's only a few places they can go. Right? If they stay in the atmosphere, that causes problems. They get absorbed by the ocean, then you get ocean acidification, and then you get coral bleaching and die offs and stuff like that. So we don't want it in the air. We don't want it in the ocean. To the extent that it's important that it's not imbalanced. 

If you put it in the soil, you actually get really positive effects out of it. So it's really the only place that can go. And even if we became an emissions free species, let's say, right, we wave our magic wand all emissions cease today without causing massive economic downfall and collapse. Okay, we've just waved our magic wand and done. We still have, what, 430 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, which is the highest it's been in hundreds of millions of years. And it's, we're still gonna get runaway greenhouse gas effects, right. That is my understanding of the science. You've still got to move it out of the atmosphere into the soil. Right? Even if we're an emissions free society we got-- we've got to do that. But beyond that, soil is the thing we all depend on. Right? Without soil, we don't live. And so to the extent that we can use nature based solutions to draw down carbon, put it in the soil. It creates a host of beneficial effects related to food security, water security, natural disasters, biodiversity and a bunch of other things. So in general, that's how I think about nature based solutions as it applies to climate. It's taking the excess amount of carbon in the atmosphere in whatever form it may be, and other greenhouse gases, and using ecosystems to pull that out and get it back in the soil. And primarily, that's through conservation and restoration, when we're talking about degraded landscapes. Or it's through regenerative agricultures. Both of those can do that.

Cory Ames  41:36  
And so I appreciate that first and foremost. But beyond that, then it seems like there isn't a wide enough spread adoption of nature based solutions, or perhaps it comes into conflict with technologically based innovations and solutions to drawing down carbon. Why aren't nature based solutions right on the forefront of being the no brainer or default means towards drawing down this this carbon that we need to? 

Neal Spackman  42:15  
Yeah, they're, they're complex. Compared to, let's say, a direct air capture machine. The direct air capture machine is very simple. It's technology, which people tend to love tech. And it's replicable. You say, Okay, one unit costs x, that's gonna pull y down amounts of carbon with Z amounts of energy. Right. And that's very expensive, but it is simple and replicable, and doesn't require the kind of complexity that a well done nature based solution requires, right? Because when you're talking about nature based solutions, you're talking about people rather than tech. And you're talking about land and water and ecology, which are highly political. The more local you go, the more political they get, and require complex and system wide solutions in order to really function. And they're not. I think people are afraid of that kind of complexity. But they're also - people are used to looking for technological solutions to problems that we face, which, you know, admittedly, have created a whole bunch of positive things for all of us, in every facet of our lives. But that's one issue, I think, is the mindset. 

Another issue is the difficulty in financing this kind of work, because too, and I wrote about this in a blog post called the Valley of Death, but to pull off a successful project website, it takes a huge amount of work upfront. Before it's considered direct enough to be to be investable, right, whether we're talking about commercial investors or governments or development banks, or whatever it may be. There are a certain number of benchmarks that need to be met before people are feel comfortable putting resources into a project. But to get a project to that point, also takes significant resources. So there's a mismatch of, of finance that makes it extremely difficult to get a project like the kind that we do off the ground. Because you need you need local people, right? If you're not local yourself, you need local people to be bought into whatever you're doing, because ultimately, they're the people managing land and water. You need permits, right, you need a government that is amenable to what you're trying to do. And particularly when you're doing innovative things, that can take significant amounts of time. You need a team that can execute on the kind of project you're trying to do. And all these things cost time and money to put together. And that's, that's extremely difficult. 

So I think there's, there's difficulty involved politically, in terms of designing something that fits local culture and that local people will accept and not just participate in but lead and manage eventually. And then you need a system that actually fulfills the requirements of being a real solution. And that there are not many of those floating around, right, that's significant amounts of innovation and creativity that need to be deployed to that problem. And so that's what we do, we have a system that is extremely innovative, that is applicable on 15 million hectares globally, and that we are just starting to finance our first pipeline of projects. But it's taken us three years to get our first permits and to build the right team, and to develop the right business model that this will actually attract investment into this kind of system.

So it's, it's got to be a winner across all these different facets. It has to fit culturally, it has to fit geographically, it has to fit ecologically. It's got to be financially attractive. It's got to get past the politicians and the local people have to be able to lead it once it's set up. That's, it's tough to do. It's really tough to do.

Cory Ames  47:32  
And how do you see y'all reducing the friction, if at all, on those various barriers or challenges?

Neal Spackman  47:44  
I think I think the model we're putting together will be a model that other people can copy in other bio regions. I think the strategies we have will be replicable in other bio regions and with other organizations. And I think once our first set of projects are done and are functioning, I think we will be-- we will become a venue for channeling billions of dollars of investment into nature based solutions. Ultimately, that is one of our main goals is to create that structure that accomplishes these objectives while still being able to attract capital. And the reason for that is that if we were trying to do this as a nonprofit, you know, the total amount of philanthropic dollars is in the billions. And less than 2% of it goes to environmental causes. Right? Like the total amount of philanthropic capital available for nature based solutions is extremely small. 

Meanwhile, the amount of capital sloshing around global markets looking for investment is in the trillions. It was six to 10 trillion last I looked, and the problems that we're trying to address are trillion dollar problems. And so, for us, for me, particularly I started thinking about this all the way back in 2015 was how do we create something that's going to go after the trillions to solve these problems? Because ultimately, that's what it's going to take. So that's, that's why we are a for profit company. And that's why it's taken us as long as it has to come up with a system and a model that we think we'll be attractive to typical capital. Well, you know, let's appeal to human greed. To solve these problems, right? Human greed exists. We're also susceptible to it one way or another, it's part of human nature. Let's use that as a way to help solve these problems.

Cory Ames  50:11  
So I guess to summarize what seems to be your framework for success in an actual ecosystem restoration, it looks like funding, financing, is obviously key, perhaps the political will and support the local stakeholders and local partners, your local partners that are partners, the right team to execute on it, are there any things that we're leaving out?

Neal Spackman  50:45  
Yeah, the right system, the right system. You've got to have-- the key to successful ecosystem restoration is regenerative economic development. Because it's the line I use over and over, it doesn't make any sense to grow trees, unless you address why people are cutting down trees in the first place. Right? That's economics. People are cutting down trees because they want to make a living, whether you're talking about like a corporation that's engaged in deforestation for, you know, palm oil production in Indonesia, or you're talking about a fisherman who can't catch fish anymore, because the fishery is depleted. So he's gonna go cut down mangroves to make charcoal and sell that. Right? You, people are cutting down trees for economic purposes. And until we can address that piece, there's no point in trying to restore an ecosystem when you know that people are just going to come and cut it down and 20 years. And that speaks to one of the skeptical modes of thought around nature based solutions is well: if we're growing a forest, how do we know people aren't just going to come cut it down? Or how do we know that there isn't just going to be a forest fire to release all the carbon, right? And so local stewardship of ecosystems is a critical piece in the permanence of this carb, and the way you guarantee that permanence is through the creation of an economic system that incentivizes the preservation of that ecology. Right, so we do regenerative economic development in tandem with ecosystem restoration, because that is how you guarantee the permanence of that carbon going in the ground. 

Cory Ames  52:36  
Right. Not requiring the dependence on it. And as you mentioned in the short term extraction. Well, perhaps to add contrast to or maybe nuance to the theme of, of greed, one thing that I really liked, that you said, Neal, at at the end of your recap, on the project in Saudi Arabia, is that we're not necessarily destructive by nature, but by habit. I'd be curious if you could say a little bit more as to what you meant by that, and in what perhaps you envision, for what could be our relationship to our, our natural ecosystems, perhaps in tandem with our economic systems too.

Neal Spackman  53:25  
Yeah. This is where this is where the entire regenerative movement relies heavily on indigenous thought and indigenous systems. Because there are indigenous systems that have persisted for 10s of 1000s of years, without degrading their ecosystems. So they're the proof that it's possible, and I'm thinking, in particular about the indigenous peoples of Australia as well as many, many others, but I've, I had studied indigenous systems for over a decade, I have some favorites. But the beauty about the ones that have persisted for so long, is that they integrate human society into ecosystem function. And, the role of that society then becomes the maintenance of the ecosystem function rather than the degradation of it. And so you look at the the Pula system of the Polynesian islands. It's elegant, and it's beautiful. And it's prosperous, right. And it can last forever. That can last forever. You look at the data out of Spain, the cork, oak, and pig system that is a silvopasture. You know, it produces the most delicious ham on the planet. But it's also a completely sustainable system that could last forever. It doesn't degrade water resources, it doesn't degrade soil, it doesn't require deforestation. 

And so there are examples of societies on every continent 10s of 1000s, I estimate, we don't know all of them. But at least 1000s of systems that human societies have created, that can last indefinitely, that can be permanent. And this is, I don't know if this is a controversial way to think about it, but we have examples of numerous societies of people where they weren't destructive. Not in aggregate, right, they still cut down trees, but not in a way that it destroyed the forest. They still killed animals for food, but not in a way that it destroyed the entire ecosystem. Right, they still use the water and irrigation, but not in a way that they were completely depleting aquifers. And so we have this set of examples historically, and some of which are very much functioning today, that you can go and visit and you can talk to the people who are stewards of these systems. And they're not distracted. They're not. And so the dominant narrative that oh, we are, I call this the Agent Smith narrative because it's out of that scene from The Matrix - you know, where Agent Smith is talking to Morpheus. And he says, "I've realized that humans are a virus. Because you go to a place you consume all the resources, and then you move on and you kill the host." Right? The direct line that Agent Smith says is "I've realized that people are not mammals, because mammals achieve an equilibrium with their natural environment, but people don't." Right. 

So the Agent Smith narrative is the dominant narrative among city building societies of who we are as a species, a lot of people think we're just a virus. Right? That's not true. We can be a keystone species that stewards the earth. And there are 1000s of examples of societies that have done that. And so it's, it's not destiny, that we're doomed for some kind of, you know, apocalyptic collapse due to unsustainable use of the planet. That's not destiny. It's just where our momentum is taking us. But we're all indigenous to earth. All of us, right, we belong to this planet. But very few of us act that way. Right? Very few of us act like we belong to this planet. And so that's, that's what I mean by that we're not destructive by nature. We don't have to be - we don't. We don't have to have an unsustainable system. And ultimately, our potential is to be a keystone species. To be the species that is the primary vector for restoring ecosystems, for bringing ecosystem function back, but also for creating societies that are integrated with that, rather than viewing it as some kind of separate thing, or rather than amortizing the rest of the planet in order to feed our own appetites.

Cory Ames  58:57  
And I think this is one of the threads that's most inspiring or exciting to me about the regenerative movement as a whole, in that the relationship of being as well as potential of actually achieving that potential as a keystone species. Sounds like a much healthier and fulfilling existence than perhaps the alternative that that we've created. I mean, we are, we're wired - hardwired - to be in awe of nature. You know, there's your constant kind of expression and desire to want to spend more time in nature. We're probably hardwired to not exactly work for work sake, as much as we do, or as much as perhaps industrialized culture has pushed us to do. Set this right up equilibrium, as you mentioned there, and it sounds like it's a recipe for a much more fulfilling and satisfied relationship to the planet.

Neal Spackman  1:00:03  
I think so. I'm not sure that it means eliminating industrialization. But it does mean changing the way that we produce the goods, the way we package the goods, the way we transport the goods that all of us use, right? That means changing the way we manage land and water. And I think, ultimately, I think what I'm describing as some kind of solar punk future, it's not necessarily a de-industrialized one, but it is one that is much more in keeping and much more integrated with the patterns and the cycles that dominate the function of our planet. 

Cory Ames  1:00:58  
Certainly, well, Neal, I really appreciate your your time here. I want to be respectful of it. But before we wrap up, do you mind if I hit you with a few rapid fire questions? Alright, so first one, what's maybe a book, film or some other resource that you might recommend to our listeners, either something that you always come back to or something that's impacted you recently?

Neal Spackman  1:01:21  
Well, Natural Capitalism by the Rocky Mountain Institute folks, was a pivotal for me. That's Amory Levins, Hunter Levins, and I think Paul Hawken was also a contributing author there. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond is, it's a manual, but it's really good for people managing water. That's by Brad Lancaster, and I dogeared my three editions of that. I really like Architecture for the Poor, by Hassan Fathy, he is an Egyptian architect who had some really, really interesting ideas about about design and architecture and, and human society. Those are three big ones for me. I haven't read any of them recently, but they they stick out in my mind.

Cory Ames  1:02:19  
Wonderful, great recommendations. Next one for you. Are there any particular morning routines or daily habits that you feel like you absolutely have to stick to?

Neal Spackman  1:02:29  
I wish there were. I'm kind of a chaotic person. The only morning-- the only thing that I do every morning is pray. I do believe in prayer. Whether or not you believe in God, prayer has been shown to be beneficial. But I do pray. And other than that, my mornings are pretty... We're still in the startup phase, so I'm in that, you know, pre revenue, everybody is doing a little bit of everything phase of our company right now. Hopefully, we'll be out of that in the next six months. 

Cory Ames  1:03:12  
I imagine that's similar, which you have experienced with too, to caring for a newborn? That's kind of how it feels. Somewhat similar. All my routines, habits and everything are out the window right now.

Neal Spackman  1:03:23  
Out the window. Yeah, your time does not belong to you. 

Cory Ames  1:03:27  
That's right. And next one for you, and perhaps a final one, what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it?

Neal Spackman  1:03:49  
Oh, goodness. I would say that neither technology nor nature alone can save us. We've got to find ways to integrate these things. But if we rely exclusively on one or the other, it's not going to work out. We can't solve the human issues and the environmental issues unless we recognize how they're connected. And that shift in mindset, the sooner that shift happens, the sooner we can really start creating real solutions.

Cory Ames  1:04:36  
Awesome, very thoughtful advice to leave us with Neal. Thank you so much. Final final thing, where are the best places to keep up with you and regenerative resources? 

Neal Spackman  1:04:47  
Oh, man... Twitter, which is a very different answer than I would have given you a year ago. But I'm posting on Twitter fairly regularly -

Cory Ames  1:05:01  
That's where I came across your work. 

Neal Spackman  1:05:03  
I'm a bit of a broken record, like I looked through like stuff I'd post over the last week and it's all, it's all regenerative stuff. It's all food, environment, water. And a little bit of defi stuff in there. But I'm posting on Twitter fairly regularly. I do write a quarterly kind of update for people that have signed up for our very chaotic and irregular email list on our website, which is regenerativeresources.co. We do have a YouTube channel, but we're not producing anything for it yet. Eventually, we will be. So probably Twitter is the best way right now.

Cory Ames  1:05:53  
Perfect. We'll have all those things linked up in our show post at socialentrepreneurship.fm. Neal, thank you so much for taking the time.

Neal Spackman  1:06:02  
Thanks, Cory. It's been a pleasure.

Cory Ames  1:06:05  
Alright, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.

Neal Spackman Profile Photo

Neal Spackman

Founder, CEO, Terraformer

Neal Spackman is the founder of Regenerative Resources ®, transforming degraded landscapes into productive agroecologies. He is also the co-founder and former director of the Al Baydha Project.

https://medium.com/@neal.spackman