Meet 5th World: Interview with Lead Engineer and Co-Founder, Rob Avis

My journey into regenerative land management was quite unexpected. I didn’t grow up on the family farm. I didn’t grow up in one of those families that was focused on scaling their personal sustainable food production. Instead, I grew up in a cake factory. I like to joke that I’m the Canadian Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kid; I literally grew up with an intimate understanding of the industrial food system. Some of my earliest memories formed between the kilometers of pipe that transported cake batter into cake molds, industrial-sized ovens, and watching piles of cakes be shipped off to supermarkets. And yet, this early education in scaling large quantities of food production would lay the groundwork for my life today as an engineer and regenerative land management expert and advocate.

When I got older I attended the University of Alberta to become a mechanical engineer and transitioned from the world of industrial food to industrial energy. I oversaw the chopping down of massive swaths of forests for the extraction of oil and gas which, incidentally, was transported in the pipelines I also helped design to the refineries where it would be processed. 

But at a certain point in my career, I became depressed and aimless. I knew I was working in the field of industrial energy during a period of time often referred to as “Peak Oil” – the point in time when humanity has exhausted half of all oil resources on earth. Seeking hope and answers, I had taken a few courses at the University of Calgary in Environmental Design Studies that let students like me explore topics like the science of sustainable design or urban analysis and planning. But I still felt helpless to address the challenges of the environmental degradation I had become aware of. How could I criticize an industry that I was supporting as a professional as well as a consumer? 

Then one day, I stumbled upon a video produced by a man named Geoff Lawton, a world-renowned permaculture consultant, designer and teacher, that literally changed the course of my life. In one 5 minute and 21 second video, Geoff captured my imagination with his Greening the Desert Project, and effectively changed my life. 

I knew I had to make a change. I was inspired by Geoff and totally hooked by the idea of regenerating land. I wanted to discover how to address challenges like soil degradation, desertification, and more.

So, inspired by Geoff and driven by our own questions, my wife and I quit our jobs as petroleum engineers to travel the world to learn everything we could about renewable energy and permaculture. We spent our first six months in Denmark learning about how many energy solutions were possible and left with a lot of hope. This hope (and the Volkswagen van that I converted to run off of vegetable oil) fuelled our travels across Canada, the United States, and Mexico as we picked up whatever we could about permaculture and retooled our engineering degrees to focus on renewable farming. 

After this initial adventure, my wife went back to work. However, I still had things I wanted to learn and questions I wanted to ask. So I went to Australia to spend six months with the man who had inspired this journey in the first place: Geoff Lawton himself. I learned that if we look at humanity over the last 3 million years – specifically the last 10,000 – it is evident that our agricultural pattern has been to plow, desertify, and move on. Scientists are now saying we have 60 harvest cycles left and 50% of the forests are gone on planet earth.

I realized that if we were to reverse the effects of this desertification, each of us would have to jump in and start working on solutions. Which is totally possible to do, because here’s what else Geoff taught me: we already have all the science and technology that we need to regenerate the earth. In fact, if we had the financial and personnel resources that the U.S. Army currently has, I anticipate it would be possible to regenerate the earth in the next ten years. Researchers like Dr. Rattan Lal, Dr. Richard Teague, Dr. Christine Jones, and Dr. Elaine Ingham and the many farmers conducting their own empirical experiments demonstrate that farm land can be repaired while being productive. The world is waking up.

Armed with that knowledge, I came home and started Verge Permaculture and have spent the next 14 years teaching Permaculture Design Courses. Teaching these courses gave me a chance to meet so many inspirational and dedicated people who were committed to making whatever contribution they could to the regenerative land management movement. One of these people, Dave, became the co-founder of 5th World, and together we’ve rallied an army of our own: a fearless team committed to training and mobilizing people and global financial capital to build an economy of regeneration. 

To learn more about how you can be part of the conversation or receive assistance on a regeneration project from our team of engineers and consultants, please visit our consulting page.

Conversations around topics like soil health, carbon sinking, sustainable land management, and topsoil regeneration are no longer the exclusive domain of industrial scale farmers and agricultural scientists. Read along as together we trace the rise of sustainable agriculture in our collective imagination.