Published on Peak Surfer on March 12, 2017
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"A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable."
Although the practical tools to reverse climate change are already available, to date the scale to which they have been implemented is not even remotely close to what needs to be accomplished within a very short time. Two vital elements are still missing: shared vision and concerted collaborative action.
How do we get areas the size of India planted in mixed-aged, mixed-species, soil-regenerative, storm- and drought resilient agroforest, grassland and wetland with well-trained and motivated, self-financed productive cooperative management? And do it all again next year? And the year after, and the year after that for the next half century?
The Secretary General of the British Commonwealth looked at this question and, with the help of a few of her friends, proposed a portfolio of answers.
In October, 2016, Patricia Scotland convened the Commonwealth’s Workshop on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change. Over the course of the workshop, particular emphasis was placed on the issue of language and terminology.
To date, the discourse surrounding responses to climate change has been largely negative. Focusing primarily on the scale of the problem and the severity of its consequences, the language employed in the debate has often been alienating, effectively producing a general sense of apathy and disempowerment. In a reversal of this trend, the workshop emphasized a reframing of the debate from problems to potential, and the solutions that flow from potential. In doing so, the aim was to inspire a real call to action.
Of course, changing outlook from pessimistic to optimistic does not make it so. As we have said here before, we humans are nasty pieces of work. Why are there no more mastodons, Atlantic gray whales or Great Auks? How is it that although there were many hominid species roving Earth at one time, ours became the only one, and by what means? What are we doing to the whole of our co-evolved biodiversity as you read these words? What part of that sorry picture is genetically hard-wired, and what part is merely cultural?
The Commonwealth’s report observes:
The primary result of the workshop was the consensus that there are proven techniques readily available to effectively address climate change and regenerate the capacity and capabilities of communities and ecosystems. Drawing on substantial bodies of evidence, recalling numerous success stories and outlining countless potential interventions, the participants agreed that the means to effect real change through regenerative development already exist. The real challenge of the workshop, therefore, was to identify ways to put these means into practice and mobilize action.
The meeting recognized that a statement of the problem and a list of potential solutions is not enough. There has to be the means and the desire to get solutions underway.
The group decided that from a social perspective, it is necessary to develop capabilities to use effective frameworks and processes to align desire and action. As practical matter that meant that the world economic paradigm has to shift from resource extraction and exploitation to exhaustion (both material and human) to increasing biological capacity as the driver for economic and social satisfaction of needs.
Only increased photosynthesis is going to rebalance the carbon cycle at this point. But it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach. As the report put it, “Techniques that work well in one context may not be immediately transferable to another; Island nations, for example, have different regenerative needs and potential to landlocked nations.”
|Commonwealth Workshop, London, Oct 29-30, 2016|
A key finding from the workshop was that a shift in the definitions of wealth and capital is necessary to reverse climate change. That is quite a pill to swallow. But the truth is inescapable:
As things stand, behaviors that increase energy consumption, extraction, production, consumption, pollution, and degradation are generally rewarded. Such activities are promoted as the basis of wealth creation, yet this is demonstrably false. Earth’s natural resources and processes are the source from which all financial capital is derived. It’s impossible for derivatives to be more valuable than their source. A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable, and it is necessary for humanity to redefine its relationship with the natural world accordingly. Education, information dissemination, and appropriate policy and economic incentive structures are critical in shifting individual behaviors and social ideals, to properly value natural wealth.
The workshop caught on to a key principle that we have been hammering away at here: this does not have to be financially painful. It can even be reasonably profitable.
Attracting finance means developing approaches that are not only effective at reducing atmospheric carbon, but also generate a realistic return on investment measured by the full range of current Capitals (natural, human, manufactured, social, and/or financial.)
The Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 has been described as an historic turning point. Now that we have agreed to turn, however, we must start going in a new direction. Regenerative development is this new direction. This involves not only limiting carbon emissions at their source but also sequestering them into standing forests, regenerated grasslands, improved soil and innovative production processes that lock carbon into materials. Through the adoption of regenerative approaches, climate change can be reversed through the recovery and regeneration of the biosphere. Redesigning humanity’s presence on Earth to shift from extractive to regenerative is essential for realizing our species’ potential for shared health and prosperity.
What the workshop participants recommended were some very concrete, easy-to-implement approaches that are unlikely to draw fire from entrenched positions. Community-led initiatives — ecovillages, transition towns, civic drives — are key. They will build local capacity for people to work together to help themselves and to realize the unseen regenerative potential within the unique conditions of their local cultures and ecosystems.
But communities do not exist outside of their national context. In this the Secretariat was very helpful. Overseeing 52 countries of common language and culture and almost a third of the world’s population (over 60% of which are under 30 years old), the Commonwealth is ready and willing to lead the way by offering to assist the transitional policies of member governments. The way forward that it envisions is by exponentially growing a network of trainers, or “knowledge multipliers,” that can train other trainers around the world but more importantly, inspire.
Finally, the realpolitik of Brexit, Trump and the crash of Ponzinomic petrodollars means that financing has to be more creative than merely looking to government grants, which ultimately rely on tax revenues. Again echoing what we have said here, the workshop concluded:
From the project side, all initiatives must be designed to attract investment and achieve productive returns. At the same time, funding mechanisms and a clear case for investment need to be developed to enable investors to direct their funds to this necessary work.
|Singer cartoon in Beijing magazine|
By analyzing the role of the different forms of capital (material, human, social, manufactured and financial), it is easy see how a capitalist system would develop an unsustainable bias towards placing manufactured capital on a pedestal. By conceptualizing manufactured goods as an endpoint, solely from a consumerist perspective, the creation of “wealth” can be simplistically reduced to profit from efficient exploitation without regard to externalities, such as planetary or social health. This has the undesirable effect of limiting the regenerative potential of human activity. By reconceptualizing to circular economics and biomimetic thinking, manufactured capital comes to depend on regenerative practices.
Social and ecological capital are captured by linking financial gain to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Only by striving to meet the 17 development goals can a regional development agenda, or a national economy, be considered to be balanced in all forms of capital appreciation.
At the close of the workshop plans were sketched for the establishment of a “Commonwealth Online Incubator for Regeneration & Restoration.”
This online platform would focus on the practical and immediate implementation of regenerative projects, while simultaneously acting as an awareness-raising medium and repository of information. The incubator will invite applications for projects, selecting and supporting the most promising on a yearly basis. Each year, new projects will be brought to fruition while the previous are monitored and evaluated, creating a continuous cycle of action and learning. Furnished with relevant information, the platform will map and detail the results of incubated projects, disseminating demonstrably effective approaches among communities and decision-makers.
In January, 2017, the Commonwealth drafted a Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change Collaborative Manifesto. Among the things it called for were “ecosystems of solutions:”
Our people-centred approach aims to help local communities across the Commonwealth to help themselves, enabling them to create elegant ecosystems of solutions carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. In doing so, we will:
- reverse climate change
- increase biomass and bio-productivity
- increase and protect bio-cultural diversity
- accumulate organic matter as a real store of wealth and health
- increase community resilience
- build food, energy, and water sovereignty at the community level
- leverage the power of collaborative abundance
- and address environmental degradation and the causes for hunger, poverty, ill health, migration, and war.
Our hope is to become a welcome species, functionally indistinguishable from the organisms and ecosystems we admire. We look forward to fitting in, at last and for good, on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.
How do we ecoforest areas the size of India or Australia, year in – year out?
The Commonwealth’s 52 nations include ecosystems that speak for the diversity of all the planet’s climates, covering 40 percent of the world’s land mass, over 20 percent of her forests, and the largest area of coastlines, fronting all the world’s oceans. It also includes 31 of the 39 most vulnerable nations to climate change. Is that big enough?
Published on Peak Surfer on March 5, 2017
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In 2008 we asked Frank Michael a tough question. Frank is a physicist, formerly with the Ames Research Center group that created the first Flying Solar Laboratory to study the sun and its “weather” and prevent astronauts from being fried by solar storms. We asked him what would happen to atmospheric carbon if everyone on earth planted a tree each day.
It was an interesting question, and one that was not easy to answer. Frank explained some of the variables to us. You would want to know what kind of trees are planted; what their lifespan will be; what happens to their carbon store when they die; the net photosynthetic productivity of the forest, by hectare, based on soils, rainfall, latitude and expected climate change; the effect of all the stored carbon in the ocean that would “leak back” into the atmosphere in response — trying to re-balance the distribution of carbon dioxide — and much more.
Nonetheless, he agreed to give it a go. Thus began a system model that Frank Michael will be presenting at the 7th World Congress on Ecological Restoration later this year in Foz do Iguassu, Brazil.
The question changed to “what amount of trees, land and biochar would be needed to return the atmosphere to ‘normal’ and how long would it take?” We know much less about paleoclimate drawdowns and feedbacks than we know about epochs of carbonization. As his calculations and his global model became more elaborate, he began to be drawn to the complexity of the social dimension. What are the potentials for unplanned reversals like deforestation, population pressure, energy demand and urban sprawl? How many of those trees would survive one year? 5 years? 100 years? Who would care for them and how would those people be compensated? How would you pay for the biochar conversion?
|Frank Michael and LuLu Stove|
Frank asked, instead of every man, woman and child planting a tree a day, would it not make more sense for teams of tree planters to be gainfully employed, with nursery managers, advance planners, follow-on caregivers and the rest? How could those perennial reforesting economies be created?
Wangari Maathai, as inspiring as she was, would not have been able to create the Green Belt movement in Kenya had she not been supplied continuous international grants with which to pay her forestry teams.
Frank also looked at the ecological dimension. Shouldn’t the forests be optimized for ecosystem functionality, with virtuous cycle gains in biodiversity, soil fertility, complexity and regenerative resilience? Therefore, should we not avoid monoculture plantation plantings and instead favor mixed-aged, mixed-species polycultures of root crops, ground cover, intermediate canopies, standing deadwood, climbing vines and forest giants?
Frank came up with a model that we can only describe as pure genius, worthy some day of a Nobel Prize should he ever be recognized. His “step harvest” system, which we first described in The Biochar Solution, sets out a practical methodology for employing hundreds of millions of forest stewards to regenerate and revitalize neglected and abandoned “wastelands,” working with principles of ecological regeneration and patch management to stack yields while optimizing ecological functions. Rather than rely on charity, it relies on capitalism – a healthy return of investment in semi-autonomous but coordinated microenterprises.
Today we call this system “Climate Ecoforestry.”
During interglacial periods, the Earth normally enjoys relatively stable weather patterns and large increases in the biodiversity and expansion of vegetated ecosystems. That is changing. Extreme weather swings, melting of glaciers and polar ice, large plumes of methane rising from ocean clathrate sediments, and the massive decomposition and outgassing of CO2 and CH4 from the world's tundras are signs of great difficulties for humanity just ahead. We can expect increasingly severe and frequent heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, rising seas, flooded cities, Arctic vortices, forest fires, and crop failures.
If the burning of all fossil fuels were stopped today, the effect on global climate would be minimal. This is the result of the relative chemical inertness of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), and the thermal and chemical inertia of the world's massive mineral, oceanic and forest carbon sinks. While switching from fossil to renewable energy sources is necessary and desirable for ecological, economic, and health reasons, it is no longer sufficient to stabilize the climate. What is required is a direct, rapid, massive, and sustained removal of petagrams of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using effective, timely, verifiable and economically sustainable methods.
There are compelling reasons for the extremely rapid implementation of such an undertaking. Within a few decades of business-as-usual, extreme climate volatility will make forestry and agriculture difficult and no longer cost-effective over large regions of the world. Furthermore, at the current atmospheric CO2 concentration of >400 ppm, the planet has passed the threshold into a region in which a methane-emissions-driven runaway climate is more likely, and where even more severe amplifying climate feedbacks are likely. Each year it becomes more urgent to 1) sequester all the past, current and future global fossil fuel CO2 net emissions and 2) rapidly bring atmospheric CO2 to well below 350 ppm, preferably to preindustrial levels of 240-260 ppm.
Climate Ecoforestry is a viable methodology for retracing our way back to the Holocene relatively quickly. Permaculture and ecovillage design provide the means to implement and to take that to scale rapidly enough to matter. What is often called “social permaculture” is a key element, because it is not enough to temporarily halt emissions or start using techniques of agroforestry and carbon farming (or BECCS, which we'll describe separately). Those efforts have to be sustained for several human generations. The trees and perennial crops that are planted now have to stay there, and if storms, droughts or fires remove them, they need to be replanted. There needs to begin a transgenerational culture of stewardship.
The social glue is cognitive semantics training, and the economic engine will be, in most cases, small (village) scale microenterprise hubs that we are calling the Cool Lab. Key to that is capital redirection and training of trainers.
Climate Ecoforestry at its most basic is a process of optimizing land use for its photosynthentic capacity. In plants, algae and cyanobacteria, solar energy capture in the form of sugars is produced by light-independent reactions called the Calvin cycle. Some bacteria use different mechanisms, such as the reverse Krebs cycle, to achieve the same end. In the Calvin cycle, atmospheric carbon dioxide is incorporated into already existing organic carbon compounds, such as ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP). Using the ATP and NADPH produced by the light-dependent reactions, the resulting compounds are then reduced and removed to form further carbohydrates, including long carbon chains like fructose and glucose. Carbon is taken from the atmosphere and stored in the cells of a growing plant.
This process is the foundation of life on Earth. The energy of the sun is captured, first in light-gathering proteins of bacteria, then chloroplasts of plants, then in the cell membranes of plants and animals, and finally as labile carbon to feed the needs of living organisms and provide ecosystem services. As a biproduct we get oxygen and the biological types of life we've come to know and love.
Carbon is very special. To say it is the building block of life is almost an understatement. It is difficult to conceive of how life could exist without its unique abilities.
Carbon’s compact atom can form more different compounds than any other element. It can even form covalent (shared-electron) bonds with other carbon atoms, which in turn can share electrons with others and so on, forming long strings, complex branchings and "head-to-tail" rings of carbon atoms. There is practically no limit to the complexity of carbon branches or rings. Allotropes include diamond, graphite, graphene, buckyballs and carbon nanotubes.
Eight allotropes of carbon: a) Diamond, b) Graphite, c) Lonsdaleite, d) C60 (Buckminsterfullerene or buckyball), e) C540, f) C70, g) Amorphous carbon, and h) single-walled carbon nanotube or buckytube. Design created by Michael Ströck
Biochar is made by heating carbonaceous biomass while excluding oxygen. Molecular carbon transformation creates a skeletal, sponge-like structure. In soil, biochar:
1. holds moisture, air and nutrients, promoting biological activity.
2. moderates nitrogen distribution
3. improves compost maturity and humic content
4. accelerates plant growth
This is the foundation of Frank’s climate ecoforestry model. A mixed-age, mixed-species, ecosystemically-oriented, climate-resilient forest, perennial grassland and wetland, plant and animal system is gradually established, augmented, with biochar at its root zone. While not reducing its productivity as a whole system, vegetation is pruned, coppiced and selectively harvested and both soils and vegetation renewed at intervals determined by energy and nutrient flows, rainfall, growth cycles and planting capacities. The daily harvest is taken to the Cool Lab for processing.
With human ingenuity, biochar becomes a microenterprise incubation engine, using the unique structural qualities of carbon to fashion products and services as varied as the creative instincts of those making and using them. It closes the pass-through resource-to-waste chain and builds circular economies.
There establishes a gradient of inwardly directed intensity. The outer spiral edge is agroforestry; serving as green buffer, photosynthesis depository and biodiversity accumulator. Inwardly concentrating are semi-autonomous self-organizing microenterprises: polycultures of aquatics, perennial grasses and animals in pasture, legumes, and coppice crops. At center the Cool Lab produces bioenergy, leaf nutrient concentrates, biochemicals and biomaterials. Many products and services are sequentially cascaded outward to periphery from the same labor and energy input.
The flexible lab design allows highly variable production of different streams, maximizing value creation by real time adjustment to local and global demands and available enterprise talent. Typical biomass energy systems have net energy returns of 2 to 4 percent rendering them unlikely replacements for fossil energy with a much higher EROI (energy return on investment). The Cool Lab produces and consumes its own energy by biomass conversion. By cascading value (products and services) from the same source, it can raise EROI to triple digits. Potential yield is limited only by human imagination. "Waste" is a stranded verb.
The model creates long-term jobs and educational opportunities and allows self-financing of a viral economic model.
The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon away for thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water, which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the nitrogen cycle, something seriously out of balance but seldom mentioned.
By growing perennial supergrass pastures and feedstocks, combining compost and manures with biochar, and feeding biochar as a nutriceutical to herds of migrating herbivores, the story becomes one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. And the best part: it produces profits from the start, no carbon markets, taxes or subsidies required (although those could serve as accelerants if used with care).
Now comes the arithmetic. Frank’s model predicts that if ramped up to a planting rate of 200 million hectares per year (Mha/yr), equivalent to four Spains, in 24 years it would cover 4.8 Gha and be sequestering 14.6 gigatons of carbon per year (GtC/yr) or 2.7 times the current net global emissions. Can we find 4.8 Gha to plant? Yes, and without disturbing existing farms, cities, or having to green the deserts (although that may also be desirable as we restore larger hydrological cycles). The land is there at the margins, and it has been inventoried and cataloged. Climate change is actually expanding the no-longer-commercially-viable land available for these uses.
Because Earth’s oceans balance carbon concentrations with the atmosphere, as carbon is withdrawn from one, the other responds by refilling it. To remove six gigatonnes from the atmosphere and have it stay that way, we have to actually remove twelve.
The model shows that continuing rotational cycles at 200 Mha/yr on the same land would sequester a cumulative 667 GtC, the amount of carbon required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to 300 ppm by year 56. With reductions in fossil fuel emissions, 300 ppm could be achieved on years 45 to 48, depending on the scale of reductions. If the rate of implementation were raised to 300 Mha/yr, the goal of 300 ppm would be reached in years 35 to 37 from startup.
These numbers may change. While many less ambitious studies exist, as far as we know Frank Michael is the first to integrate so many variables into a single model, and to attempt to incorporate the labile and recalcitrant carbon cycles (biochar), the known unknowns of reverse forcings, and human labor. As more researchers work over these models, improve upon them, and test them against real world results, there can be little doubt that these early beginnings will seem primitive and be superceded by much more elaborate calculations.
What the model says answers the question of whether we can reverse climate change in a time frame short enough to matter. The answer is yes, we can. What it cannot answer is whether we will.
Published on Peak Surfer on February 26, 2017
Discuss this article at the Psychology Table inside the Diner
- All things start from small beginnings.
- Nature abhors a vacuum.
- No one wishes pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure some greater good.
- ’Tis an excess of pleasure not to feel a trifle uneasy.
If increasing average national happiness is the goal of advanced capitalist societies and economies, then something seems to have gone awry. Whilst high income economies may have largely failed to date to decouple their economic growth from the most important measures of ecological footprint and impact, they have had more unwitting success in decoupling it from increasing the happiness of their populations. Various studies using both cross-national and within-country longitudinal data indicate that the correlation between happiness and per capita income or GDP seems to become weak or even disappear, at a level past about US $10,000 per year.
Cicero agreed with Aristotle that humans are a kind of moral diety, and fulfillment in life comes from meeting the ends “whereunto he is born, (through) observation and action, as a horse to racing, or an ox to ploughing….” (translation by Jeremy Collier)
Eleven years ago, in The Post-Petroleum Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, we began our now-seemingly relentless theme:
The principal challenge of the Great Change is not physical but mental (as it is in any survival situation). Collectively, societies that are heavily addicted to consumer goods and the pattern of waste that a consumer culture creates will have to struggle to adjust to a new normal. It will not be optional and neither money nor social position will allow you to escape.
The easy path is to downsize expectations and simplify your lifestyle. This path requires giving up certain ways of looking at the world in order to embrace other, more survival-oriented ways. The hard path is to try not to make this change, to somehow cling to the old ways as long as possible, which will entail huge — I would say cruel — efforts for diminishing yields.
- Walking instead of driving
- Giving children more free time
- Reading instead of watching television
- Eating home-cooked meals with family and friends
- Taking up relaxing hobbies such as painting, gardening, or knitting
- Practicing yoga, tai chi, or meditation
- Unplugging from technology
- Indulging in leisurely love-making
- Simply resisting the urge to hurry unnecessarily
The presence of the clock gave birth to the notion that time lies outside our bodies — that it can be tracked by a machine, and that we can sit and watch it “fly” by, tick-tock, as though it is something linear, containable, and separate from the organic, flowing process of life.
Published on Peak Surfer on February 19, 2017
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We first latched onto the notion of catastrophic climate change back around 1980 when we were a young attorney taking quixotic cases involving impossible-to-rectify injustices like cancers among atomic veterans, trespass of sacred sites or nuclear waste disposal, and shoving those insults under the noses of attorneys-general, judges and justices to try to get a reaction.
Occasionally we would finesse a surprising win and that helped attract donations to keep the enterprise running and the entertainment value high, attracting more donors, and so it went.
One such case was against the deepwell injection of toxic effluent from the manufacture of pesticides and herbicides by agrochemical companies in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. The effluent in question had been extracted from an aquifer and tested by State laboratories where was quickly ranked as the most concentrated poison they had ever pulled from the wild. A single green fluorescent drop killed all the fish in the tank. There were 6 billion gallons injected under Middle Tennessee from 1967 to 1980. It made Love Canal look like the kiddie pool.
As we mustered our arguments to go before state regulators and appellate judges, we were compelled to counter some rather absurd arguments being advanced by the mop-up squads of high-priced attorneys for the companies. They said, “Heckfire, Tennessee has plenty of water,” meaning there was no good reason to protect the nonpotable (mineral-rich) waters of the Knox Aquifer a mile down.
Apart from the fact that the Knox is an artesian source of water for area industries and thereby already protected from “contaminants” whether toxic or not by the federal Safe Drinking Water act, we advanced two principal lines of argument, bringing in expert witnesses and entering scientific studies into the record.
Our first line was population growth. Tennessee was growing and what may seem like a lot of water in 1980 may not be nearly enough in 2080. The second line was climate change.
We argued that global warming was advancing, just as scientists had been consistently predicting for the past hundred or more years, and that it would put pressure on water supplies not just in Tennessee, but across the continent.
At that time science suggested warming in the 20th century of about half a degree Celsius. Those were the good old days. Nonetheless, persuading a country judge that global warming was real and something to be concerned about was no mean feat.
We had to pull out the big guns. We went to our local congressman and got his assistance to troll the federal agencies for useful studies. We holed up in Vanderbilt science library poring over journals and books on climatology. We spoke to some key figures in the field at that time — Stephen Schneider, Susan Solomon, Kerry Emanuel, Edward A. Martell, Mario Molina — and we assembled that advice into legal briefs and memoranda.
The case lingered on for a number of years but by 1985 had been largely resolved by gutsy State regulators, who wrote new rules that essentially prohibited hydrofracking. The companies shut down the injection wells, closed their factories soon after (the phosphate ores that had attracted them in the first place having long since played out and the costs of hauling in by train making the location uneconomical) and moved on. The litigation cost meter ceased running and the death threats stopped. But we were still beset by unshakable malaise.
We had seen the future, and it was different than we had previously imagined. It was not our father’s future.
The materials gathered over the course of ten years were published in our book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do. The book came out on the heels of two other fine 1989 books that said essentially the same thing: Stephen Schneider’s Global Warming and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, all to resounding popular disinterest.
Fast forward a quarter century and we were still very much in a funk about what the future holds. When our granddaughter was born in 2005 we felt very sad for her.
We were still tracking the literature, still going to conferences, still speaking with experts, but until the International Permaculture Conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil in June, 2007 we had not found much to call hope.
It was at the Ecocentro do Cerrado that year that we caught a first fleeting glimpse. Andre Soares and his partners were conducting experiments in recreating terra preta do indio – the Amazonian Dark Earths. They were, not coincidentally, massively sequestering carbon while growing wholesome food.
Just over a year later, in September 2008, the Permaculture International Journal sent us to Newcastle, England to report on "Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate,” the 2d International Conference of the International Biochar Initiative, with over 225 attendees from 31 different countries and over 70 presentations. That, and some intervening trips back to Brazil to visit the archaeological sites near Manaus, provided the source material for our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change.
For those readers who might be new to biochar, the Virgin Energy Challenge offers this quick synopsis:
Biochar is a relatively low-tech approach inspired by the terra preta soils found in the Amazon basin. These black, fertile soils were created in pre-Columbian times by indigenous farming cultures. They mixed wood char, crushed bone, and manure into the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil to build crop beds. The wood char, though not a fertilizer per se, served to buffer nutrients from the bone meal and manure. It apparently served as a soil analog of a coral reef. Its porous structure and nutrient buffering surface area created a favorable microenvironment for communities of soil fungi and other organisms that aided soil fertility.
Terra preta soils, once well established, appear to be self-sustaining. So long as crop cover protects them from wind and water erosion, they maintain their high level of soil carbon and productivity long after additions of the materials that built them have stopped. In fact they gradually increase in depth as new material composts. In the Amazon basin, thick terra preta soil beds built as far back as 450 BCE remain productive and highly valued by local farmers to this day.
Terra preta soils were initially thought to be peculiar to the warm, wet environment of the Amazon basin. Research has shown, however, that similar results can be obtained in temperate regions by amending soils with formulations of biochar and other ingredients tailored to local soil and crop conditions. The amount of carbon that can potentially be stored in this manner is huge; the amount currently stored as soil carbon has been estimated as 2,300 GT, nearly three times the 800 GT of carbon now present in the atmosphere. If soil carbon could be increased globally by an average of just 10%, it would sequester enough carbon to return atmospheric CO₂ to pre-industrial levels.
The issue with biochar then is not the amount of carbon it could ultimately sequester in the soil; it’s (surprise!) economics. There’s little doubt that a well designed program of soil building, incorporating use of biochar as an element, would be an effective way to sequester carbon while providing long term economic value to farmers. It would boost crop yields while reducing the amount of fertilizer needed. It would also reduce water runoff and nutrient leaching while improving drought resistance. On the other hand, biochar is costly to produce and distribute in the amounts needed, and it may take decades for the considerable investment in soil quality to pay off financially.
The key to success for biochar will come down to technology for producing it from local resources, and dissemination of knowledge for how to employ in in a broader program of soil building. A sense of the complexities can be found in a document from the International Biochar Initiative: Guidelines on Practical Aspects of Biochar Application to Field Soil in Various Soil Management Systems. The three VEC finalists developing biochar display the diversity of product and business strategies possible for addressing these complexities.
There are a few errors in that account, but they are trifling. Biochar is not a “relatively low-tech” approach, it is about as low-tech as you can get. Some Amazonian deposits, similar to those “as far back as 450 BCE,” are ten times older than that. Most estimates put soil carbon at 2500-2700 PgC, not 2300 PgC. You don’t need to increase carbon content to 10 percent globally, 5 percent would probably do it, but remember: we were at 20-plus % soil carbon before the age of agriculture and most soils are hungry to get that back. Building it back with biochar makes a more permanent repair, not just moving the furniture around, as other Virgin Challenge competitors — BECCS (Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage), direct air capture and holistic grazing — do.
Biochar gave us hope, but it did not, in and of itself, solve the climate crisis. We asked that question at the close of our book — “Can it scale quickly enough?” The answer, from what we have seen at the recent UN climate conferences and the lack of early adoption as the dominant farming paradigm, is — “Probably not.”
The rapid rise of global temperature that began about 1975 continues at a mean rate of about 0.18°C/decade, with the current annual temperature exceeding +1.25°C relative to 1880-1920 and +1.9°C relative to 1780-1880. Dampening effects by the deep oceans and polar ice slow the effects of this change but global temperature has now crossed the mean range of the prior interglacial (Eemian) period, when sea level was several meters above present. The longer temperature remains elevated the more amplifying feedbacks will lead to significantly greater consequences.
While global anthropogenic emissions actually declined in the past decade, there is a lag time for consequences. The rate of climate forcing due to previous human-caused greenhouse gases increased over 20% in the past decade, mainly due to a surge in methane, making it increasingly difficult to achieve targets such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C or reducing atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. While a rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions must still be accomplished, the Paris Agreement targets now require “negative emissions”, i.e.: extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.
In a recent Soil Day paper presented to the American Geophysical Society and the Society for Ecological Restoration, Harvard professor Thomas Goreau wrote:
“Already we have overshot the safe level of CO2 for current temperature and sea level by about 40%, and CO2 needs to be reduced rapidly from today’s dangerous levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) to pre-industrial levels of around 260 ppm.”
Goreau, citing the work of John D. Liu and ourselves, provided his prescriptions:
"Current rates of carbon farming at typical current levels would take thousands of years to draw down the dangerous excess CO2, but state of the art methods of soil carbon sequestration could draw it down in as little as decades if the percentage of long lived carbon is raised to as little as about 10%."
Here we note that Dr. Goreau’s arithmetic is much better than the 4 pour 1000 or Holistic Management calculations we criticized last week. Goreau has distinguished labile carbon from “long lived carbon” and not limited land area just to existing farms. He advocates 10 percent rather than 4 tenths of a percent. He continues:
While all soils can, and must, be managed to greatly increase soil carbon there are two critical soil leverage points that will be the most effective to reverse global climate change, namely increasing the two most carbon-rich soils of all, Terra Preta, and wetlands. These are the most effective carbon sinks for very different reasons, Terra Preta because it is 10-50% carbon by weight, composed of biochar, which can last millions of years in the soil. Wetland soils can be up to pure organic matter, because lack of oxygen prevents organic matter decomposition. Wetlands contain half of all soil carbon, and half of that is in marine wetlands, which occupy only about 1% of the Earth’s surface but deposit about half of all the organic matter in the entire ocean. Yet they are often ignored in both terrestrial and marine carbon accounting. Marine wetland soils have more carbon than the atmosphere, but are being rapidly destroyed in the misguided name of “economic development.”
Biochar is what soil scientists call “recalcitrant carbon,” meaning that it does not readily combine with other elements unless high temperature heat or some other catalyst is present. Consequently, as much carbon as can be gleaned from the normal “labile” carbon cycle and turned into recalcitrant carbon can be kept from the atmosphere. We know from the experience of the terra preta soils that it doesn’t just stay out of the atmosphere for a few seasons, it traps carbon in the soils for thousands of years.
Switching to renewable energy will not arrest climate change. None of the schemes that involve planting trees can succeed unless they also include biochar. None of the claims of Allan Savory, Joel Salatin or the Holistic Management movement for mob grazing, or any of the claims related to organic, no-till, animal-drawn carbon farming by Eric Toensmeier, Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva and others pencil out to reverse climate change unless you include biochar. Even then, the area required for biochar-augmented conversion of land-use, farming and forestry is massive — something like 7-10 Spains per year, and maybe more. Anything less than that and the ship goes down.
When we first grasped this in Brazil in August 2006, it provided our first “ah ha!” moment. But then we concluded it likely can’t scale fast enough, by gradual adoption through word of mouth or a few good books, to prevent Near Term Human Extinction. In October 2007 we called that our "Houston Moment," not in the sense that "Houston we have a problem" but because we were in Houston at an ASPO meeting when it dawned on us — it may already be blown. The death sentence for our species — in the next century if not this one — could have been handed down even before we were born.
The problem is not the science or the efficacy of the solution. The problem is human willingness to change. There also seems to be something called profit that always complicates matters. We will tackle that, and offer some possible ways forward, in our coming posts.
Published on Peak Surfer on February 12, 2017
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. "
Let's summarize: so here we stand. The ocean is going out, the fish are flopping in the sand. Do we stay and scoop them up or do we run for the hills?
If the problem we have is too much carbon in the sky (and conversely too little in the ground), then the solution is to deprive the sky while feeding the ground.
And yet, for much of the climate change policy community, biochar is still not on their radar. It’s too new.
In 2011 a Duke University study by the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases reviewed the research literature to assess the state of knowledge on the mitigation potential of a wide range of agricultural land management activities. They reported:
Out of 42 practices reviewed, 26 seem to have positive mitigation potential. Eleven of those were supported by significant research (more than 20 field or lab comparisons), 13 by a moderate level of research, and two, while promising, have little research.
Despite an 8000-year track record of adding and holding carbon in soils, biochar was among those last two. The other was mob grazing through Holistic Management.
Eric Toensmeier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution, which is otherwise excellent, falls into this trap, falsely labeling biochar untested and potentially dangerous.
He may draw this conclusion from two seriously flawed (not to say insidiously undermined) studies by the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. Both of those studies lumped biochar under the heading of geoengineering and then assigned it to the same dumpster as all the other already debunked carbon capture schemes without bothering to speak with any actual biochar scholars.
For the geoengineering techno-utopians, methods of atmospheric carbon extraction such as BECCS, air capture of CO2 or limestone salting imply estimated costs of 100 to >570 trillion dollars to deploy, and entail large risks with uncertain feasibility and duration. Among the uncertainties is our ability to muster sufficient political consent to impose expensive taxes and tariffs on carbon emissions in order to justify the economic burden of these efforts. When faced with dire economic environments, the public may simply choose to disregard moral duties towards future generations.
Biochar, in contrast, requires no tax subsidies (although that would accelerate the needed conversion) because it provides enough financial rewards as a renewable energy source and biofertilizer to justify the cost of making it from various woody wastes, most of which are burned away. It is easy to verify — just do annual or decadal soil tests — and easy to perform life-cycle costing because it has been commercially available for many years.
When we use terms like “carbon-minus” or “carbon-negative” we set off associations that immediately cause the majority of us to back away, or to regard the information as detrimental to us in some way. Last week we spoke of the important work on cognition provided by Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics.
Just as an aside, one of Korzybski workshops, in the Autumn of 1939, was attended by a 25-year-old William S. Burroughs and the 36-year-old Samuel I. Hayakawa. Hayakawa, the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, went on to become president of San Francisco State College (where, among the students he trained, was Stephen Gaskin) and a US Senator for California (1977-83) where he had untold influence on the seductive rhetorical practices of silver-screen-idol-turned politician Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party he led, later catalogued by George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.
We know that words that seem threatening, such as those that imply, hard conditions, forced austerity, higher taxes and so on, trigger a denial reflex in the human brain, one which was not possessed by our mammalian ancestors but which is important to our genetic survival. Once we realized that not only is it our karma to kill to live (right down to the billion of helpless microbes in every teaspoon of tofu), but each of our fates to suffer and die, we would go raving nuts were it not for the saving grace of the denial reflex.
So what should we use instead of carbon-minus? We like “cool.”
Cool soothes the brain and chills the endorphins that might cause denial impulses to form. Cool is chill. We are more relaxed, more receptive.
An example of "cool" branding was provided by the pilot Carbon Minus Project in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The Hozu rural farmers' cooperative, concerned about the overgrowth of bamboo that was destroying satoyama (managed forest commons) began producing bamboo biochar to amend their soils. Using a "Cool Vege" brand to denote the benefit of carbon sequestration, the university assisted cooperative demonstrated impressive success in marketing their produce to climate-conscious consumers.
Nothing stands in the way of the "cool" brand being extended to any product or service that reverses climate change. It is a sticky meme.
4 pour 1000
There are other reasons that good solutions may not get traction that have less to do with our fight or flight reflex. At COP-21 in Paris in 2015 the French government backed an initiative called 4 pour 1000. France had obtained pledges from over 25 countries – and would bring that number to 50 during COP-21 – as well as hundreds of food, agriculture and research organizations.
The "4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate" was a voluntary effort launched through the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.
"The conclusion is simple," said French Foreign Minister Le Foll. "If we can store the equivalent of 4 per 1000 (tons of carbon) in farmland soils, we are capable of storing all man-made emissions on the planet today."
"This is the most exciting news to come out of COP-21," said Andre Leu, president of IFOAM – Organics International. "By launching this initiative, the French government has validated the work of scientists, farmers and ranchers who have demonstrated the power of organic regenerative agriculture to restore the soil's natural ability to draw down and sequester carbon." It positions farmers as the pioneering climate heroes of the next generation.
But then what happened? At COP-22, France still featured 4 pour 1000 in its literature and displays, but it had attracted few new adherents or pledges in the year since Paris. There were no real success stories to point to, no carbon fields waving in the sunlight. Just hot air.
Food writer Michael Pollan, in a Washington Post Op-Ed during the Paris summit, wrote:
Marin County ranchers have found that applying a single layer of compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in the soil – more than 1.5 tons per acre. And research has shown that this happens not just once, but year after year.
If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, roughly equal to all the CO2 emitted by the State's electric utilities each year. Adding an inch of compost to all the rangelands each year would sequester as much as electric utilities, residential and commercial emissions combined.
What is left out of that calculation are the big gorillas in California's emissions picture: the industrial sector (77 million metric tons) and transportation, most notably the freeway system (200 million metric tons). California would need to convert its deserts to rangelands to get that much carbon locked away every year.
That is really the problem with 4 pour 1000: the math doesn’t pencil out. Le Foll’s goal of adding 0.4 percent carbon to just existing farmlands will not revert the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial harmony. Spreading an inch of compost, as Michael Pollan suggests, won’t do it either.
While compost stimulates soil organisms and that moves carbon down from the surface into the root zone for longer sequestrations, most compost decomposes closer to the surface and emits greenhouse gases in the process. That is just the labile carbon cycle, get used to it.
There is also this problem in Allan Savory’s chemistry. When those advocating Holistic Management, after the fashion of the Savory Institute and others, claim that they can build deep carbon in soils by mob grazing on rotational pastureland, they are speaking of labile carbon. Labile carbon never stops going around. More ominously, climate warming accelerates soil outgassing. One of the standard nightmare scenarios that could even be playing out as we write this involves long-stored labile carbon in swamps, peat bogs, grassy plains and permafrost that may be liberated in one enormous carbon pulse that sends Earth's atmosphere to something akin to that of Venus in a very short time.
Personally we love compost, dung beetles and mob grazing. Compost is the nearest farming gets to a cure-all: it holds the key to recovering dead and damaged soils. It’s cheap and easy, works anywhere, and once it has time to do its magic, any of the common problems of farming and gardening go away. Plants get healthier, animals get stronger, and societies become more secure. Our foods become more abundant, disease-resistant and nutritionally dense.
Compost can be seen as the basic food supply of any garden. It provides a circular economy. It closes the loop between human uses and what gets left afterwards. It supplies the microbial decomposers, re-arrangers and transporters who turn wastes back into resources and deliver them in forms and on schedules that plants need.
But if you are a microbe or a dung beetle, you need more than food. You also need shelter. You need a habitat that helps you survive and encourages you to thrive. And if you are a climate scientist, or just someone concerned with rapid warming of the planet, you are looking for a real solution — something capable of rebalancing the various carbon stores between land, ocean and atmosphere.
And that’s where biochar comes in.
The Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (C-AGG) is a multi-stakeholder coalition whose participants include 150 organizations including agricultural producers and producer groups, scientists, environmental NGO’s, carbon market developers, methodology experts, and investors, and other proponents of voluntary agricultural GHG mitigation opportunities and benefits. According to their website:
Despite the critical and pivotal role the agricultural sector can play in climate change mitigation and adaptation, climate change policies and programs are largely directed at point-source emissions reductions activities and approaches. Agricultural and land use GHG mitigation opportunities pose a different set of challenges that require different approaches more appropriate to the sector. Diversity and change are inherent characteristics of agricultural systems.
- Developing appropriate incentives, tools, and decision support systems to scale sustainable agriculture and climate change solutions
- Achieving agreement on monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) frameworks and metrics to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services
- Supporting asset value generation for sustainably managed landscapes and development of thriving carbon and ecosystem service markets and results-based payments
Once you begin to measure whether and when what happens in the soil stays in the soil, some conclusions become unavoidable.
The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon up for thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water, which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the nitrogen cycle, another thing that is seriously out of balance but seldom mentioned.
By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely.
And that’s where fake news comes in.
We encountered critics of biochar even before we wrote The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelwatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious and friendly correctives. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational proclamations against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be not merely without merit, but ridiculous.
In our book we discussed the critics' arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits — and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't follow the rules.
But the outlandish claims by Biofuelwatch, repeated loudly and frequently — statements like “No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution,” “soil carbon is not so much determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather by surrounding soil ecosystem properties,” or “pyrolysis is difficult to control and remains largely unproven for commercial application” continue to find traction both in the alternative media and in policy reviews.
These spurious arguments continue to engage a series of very public but false debates. They happen at high profile events and in respected journals but they are false in the sense that those arguing for biochar are using science — laboratory testing, review and re-testing in the real world — while those arguing against are using only polemic, and will not waiver from patently absurd, well-disproven claims even when backed into a corner.
Biofuelwatch’s Rachel Smolker occasionally gets it right, as when she argued:
Forests, soils, ecosystems all are far more than agglomerations of carbon. They are intricate, multidimensional, interconnected, and complex beyond our imaginings and hence beyond our ability to measure, manipulate, and control.
In that, she may not be far wrong.
These previous essays have laid out the different dimensions of our problem: a runaway climate threatening near term human extinction; a mode of social organization in conflict with fixed biophysical limits; trusted authorities failing to get it right; confirmation and normalcy bias obscuring our vision; and orphaned solutions sitting it out while the clock ticks. In our next post we will begin to explore a way out of this swamp.
This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. The next installment, the introduction to Book Two: The Solution, appears next week. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.
Published on Peak Surfer on February 6, 2017
Discuss this article at the Geopolitics Table inside the Diner
When we watch the near-hysteria going on in the United States as the country tries to come to grips with the consequences of its recent choice of government we notice how completely out of touch the usual pundits in print and broadcast journalism have become. Their world has been turned upside down. The tired nostrums that provided a handsome living for them before no longer apply.
Analysis is cheap and abundant. However, done well it takes time, and those now in charge are using that delay to advantage.
Most who try to make sense of the rapid changes we are witnessing fail to appreciate the important work on cognition provided by Gregory Bateson (ecology of mind), Alfred Korzybski (general semantics) and Noam Chomsky (transformational grammar), among others.
The polish-born Korzybski (1879-1950) was a Russian intelligence officer in the First World War. His first book, Manhood of Humanity (1921) set out a new theory of humankind as a "time-binding" class of life (humans perform time binding by the transmission of knowledge and abstractions through time, which are accreted not in pack knowledge, but in cultures). Korzybski suggested that humans are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems and (2) the structure of their languages. Humans cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). This provided the foundation of general semantics. His best known dictum is "the map is not the territory," meaning that no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain's responses to reality.
In November, 2011, we posted here:
So why don’t more people seek shelter from the coming storm? Why don’t election year debates get real? Two reasons: confirmation bias and normalcy or optimism bias. In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities.
Our fondness towards normalcy and predilection for optimism, both acquired through Darwinian selection, let us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allow us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination, or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software, even if it means, in the case of 9/11, that we must repeal the laws of physics.
You will have noticed a fairly common response when the 9/11 massacre enters a discussion. Smart people will say that they “will not go there”, which brings to mind the “here be dragons” warning on uncharted bits of medieval maps. That response is not stupid. It hints at an understanding that there is no way back once you enter that realm. There is simply no denying that if you accept the essential conclusions of the official 9/11 report you must also concede that laws of nature stopped working on that particular day. And, true enough, if you do go there and bear witness publicly to what you see, you may well be devoured; your career in many government positions, the media and even academia is likely to come to an end.
A recent book on human evolution, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, makes clear our metaprogramed biases are what allow us to carry the knowledge of our own mortality and still take risks like flying in an airplane or crossing the street. We are hard wired to ignore danger if it stands between us and a more immediate goal. As Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, points out, we are likely to think everything will work out with big challenges like a right wing coup d'état, nuclear deterrence or climate change because we are genetically predisposed to assume it will.
Varki and Brower explain that the mechanism within the brain that denies reality works in much the same way the fear suppression module does. When mammals need to fight, they not only deny their own mortality, but also tend to deny anything they find unpleasant and often deny rational logic that conflicts with what their limbic (primitive) brain wants to do. And thus, while we can perform impressive intellectual feats such as visiting the moon, we do so by rapidly depleting non-renewable resources and destroying the habitat we need for survival on Earth.
Every religion has some form of life after death story. Religions can and do tell every conceivable oddity of story but religions do not need a life after death story to unite a group. It might be reasonable for a few random religions to include life after death in their stories, but it is not reasonable that every religion has a life after death story.
The genetic justification for religion is that having a false story about life everlasting allowed intelligence to evolve to permit self-awareness, including awareness of one’s own mortality. Our ability to delude ourselves — something we tend to ritually practice on a regular schedule — kept us from going crazy from the kinds of knowledge that our rapidly expanding neocortex opened up to us.
Groups frequently devote all of their surplus wealth to constructing structures to please and communicate with gods in the after life. Pyramids and cathedrals being two of many examples. The … behavior remains strong in modern times because new religions, like Scientology, continue to have life after death stories.
This is our truncated version of Rob Mielcarski's outline for our predicament:
- The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth;
- The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption;
- All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity;
- The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline;
- The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction;
- Citizens have wildly different beliefs about our predicament: there is no problem; there is a problem but it’s not caused by humans; I don’t want to think about it; technology will save us; it’s in the hands of God; I’ve already done enough; someone else needs to do something first; my actions won’t make a difference; someone else will consume whatever I give up; it’s too late to do anything;
- The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump
- The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter
- We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil
- Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: energy extraction cost + debt
- The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists
- The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett
- The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists
- The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities
- All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines; natural gas for fertilizer
- All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)
- Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars
- The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet
- The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news
Recently the activist collective, TheRules.org, used data analysis visualization to look more closely at “Fake News.” The team included data scientist Federico Cruz, complexity researcher Mehul Sangham, visual artist Lucila Sandoval, and cognitive linguistic Joe Brewer.
Two conversations about the same topic —
yet they are largely disconnected from each other.
Our team took a unique dataset of 60 million tweets referencing the US election on Twitter during the week following its completion (November 8th to the 13th). This was a global media conversation that spanned at least 74 countries. We used visualization software to create images of the relationships throughout this massive web of information. The graphic above was generated from this dataset. The colors represent webs-within-webs for each meshwork of tweets that connect with each other in some way.
When we drilled into the data, we saw that many conversations are disjointed and don’t overlap with each other. Individual people can have as much influence on the information that spreads as the “official” media outlets. One lesson we can learn from this is that stories can come from anywhere that resonate with the feelings people have in the moment.
Another lesson is that the facts-on-the-ground don’t really matter. People share what feels true to them and now they have communication tools to organize around. Those of us working to tackle the global threats to humanity must cut through the many layers of meaning to make sense of things ourselves. Then we’ll have even more challenges to communicate what we discern about reality once we’ve done this.
What we all need to do now — collectively as a species — is build the institutional capacities to make sense of big data on a regular basis. Having a biased meshwork of corporate media outlets won’t be sufficient. Neither will the “democratized” independent people in the grassroots who have shown us how biased they can be in their own worldviews as they interpret the world to serve themselves.
In 2004, David Suskind interviewed White House spokesman Karl Rove about the layers of unreality in the Bush-Cheney policies, foreign and domestic. Rove's reply was prophetic. First, he took the journalist to task for working in “the reality-based community.” Then he said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
With President Obama as a mere spectator, the neocon/liberals could – without being ridiculed – pass off as a popular revolution the coup d’état they fomented in the Ukraine.
Putin was held personally responsible in much of the media for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner flying over the Ukraine, which killed 298 people. No serious investigation was undertaken.
As the fighting in Syria reached a phase when contradictions in the official Washington/NATO story demanded a stepping back for a fresh look, editors were forced into contortions to make sure that the baddies stayed bad, and that no matter how cruel and murderously they went about their occupation in Aleppo and elsewhere, the jihadi groups fighting to overthrow the secular Assad government in Damascus remained strictly labeled as moderate dissidents worthy of Western support, and the Russians as violators of Western values.
How could Rove’s predictions so totally materialize? There’s a simple answer: ‘they’ got away with momentous lies at an early stage. The more authorities lie successfully the more they are likely to lie again in a big way to serve the purposes of earlier lies. VanWolferen continues:
We have experienced massive systemic intimidation since 9/11. For the wider public we have the absurdities of airport security – initially evidenced by mountains of nail-clippers – reminding everyone of the arbitrary coercive potential that rests with the authorities. Every time people are made to take off their belts and shoes – to stick only to the least inane instances – they are reminded: yes, we can do this to you! Half of Boston or all of France can be placed under undeclared martial law to tell people: yes, we have you under full control!
How can anyone quarrel with Rove’s prophecy? Mainstream media and social media are in a tizzy to try to keep up with newly created realities. Rove's words made it very clear: you have no choice! This is what the White House strategy is all about. Shock and awe, nonstop. You go ahead and study the last move we made while we are busy making our next.
Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story?
The science of climate change, as we have been showing in this series of essays, is not seriously in doubt, at least not when rationally scrutinized by any objective standard. What is in serious doubt is the ability of superstitious, authoritarian-cleaving, greedy, fecund and destructive humans to muster the social cohesion to follow the science and do the right thing, and soon.
Joe Brewer says,
The deep truth about fake news is that a great deal of moral integrity and analytic skill is needed to make sense of the world in our complex media environments today. These cultural capacities are desperately lacking today. This is about connecting the dots, revealing system-level patterns, and searching for root causes.
It is also about having the luxury of enough time to do that.
We cannot be sure we will get to where we need to be before it is too late for our species. Maybe the next round of evolutionary biology will get some form of life there — perhaps Earth will be re-seeded from the microbes we left on Mars. It may take a few hundred million years to find that out, and by then Earth would be perilously close to drifting out of its orbit of habitability as the Sun radiance gradually enlarges. Any recapitulation of life as we know it would be relatively short-lived compared to the potential we have if we act to save the current enterprise.
Next week, in the meantime, we will examine some corollaries that proceed from this analysis.
Published on Peak Surfer on January 29, 2017
Discuss this article at the Newz & Multimedia Table inside the Diner
Jazz musician and iconoclast Harry Shearer observes that Donald Trump’s ability to openly lie and then deny he did and then move on to telling the same lie again is “profoundly transactional.”
This trait is not new in US presidents, merely less concealed in our era by the RealPolitik that kept it more discrete before. We could go back and find examples from the very first presidency, but let’s just retrace to Franklin Roosevelt who, besides concealing his infidelities, of necessity had to dissemble about wartime secrets, as did Truman and Eisenhower when the wars grew cold. Nixon was profoundly secretive, arrogating to his office a false claim of constitutional authority, that, while it cost him his job, was kept around for his successors to use, more liberally with each administration.
To dissemble lubricates a slippery slope. Nixon was impeached for lying about the Watergate cover-up. Clinton was impeached for dallying with an intern. Mountains of lies invite being tunneled into and mined, and mining tools are getting better all the time. Is it any wonder then, that ‘secret’ lying by Reagan, Clinton, Obama, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and others begat the baldface lying of Drudge, Fox, Trump and the new generation of fake news on steroids?
In the days before Christmas it easily escaped attention — certainly that of the mainstream echo chamber — that the US Lame Duck in Chief signed into law the LDNDAA (Lame Duck's National Defense Authorization Act) which legalized government propaganda — fake news — when deployed for national security against the citizenry of the US. The law gave the government sweeping powers to feed its minions — CNN, ABC, MSNBC — and covertly take down any competing news outlets that might dare to put out an alternative narrative or question the veracity of the fakes. RT Commentator Max Keiser called it a bailout for the bankrupt mainstream press.
If you can't maintain the dominant paradigm, at least you can subvert the emergent ones.
When our souls are mollified, a bee can sting.
[T]he Democrat / Prog coastal elite, hardcore Hillary, PC-and-unicorn crowd are moving through their post-election Kubler-Ross Transect-of-Grief from denial to anger….
Lately the Democratic Party in the US has adopted its own form of birtherism, which is using the “Russians hacked my homework” excuse for losing the last election. The evidence is flimsy, but that does not stop the handwaving, pompous haranguing, or other forms of smoke and mirrors. Lets look at the evidence.
According to the Obama spook estate, Russian hackers sent out volleys of phishing emails hoping someone would click. If you have email, you’ve seen this. They tell you that you won something, you qualify for a free trip, there is a bank error in your favor, or you have to upgrade some common piece of software like Java or Flash. Maybe, as in the case of a Russian hacker group that successfully phished Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party for 6 months in 2016, they’ll use un.org as their trojan domain. If you follow the link, they get your credit card info or your password. Maybe the password you are prompted for is the same one you use for gmail. That’s what happened to John Podesta.
He got a suspicious mail, sent it to an aide to look at, the aide thought it was legit and some lucky hackers in Moscow downloaded 60,000 messages from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s gmail account. So what do you do with 60000 messages if there is no money in it? Give it to Wikileaks.
At least one targeted individual activated links to malware hosted on operational infrastructure of opened attachments containing malware. APT29 delivered malware to the political party's systems, established persistence, escalated privileges, enumerated active directory accounts, and exfiltrated email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure.
That was the normal part. Now comes the nasty part. Unnamed “security experts” in the employ of the Democratic National Committee but now cited by the White House and cyberwar apparatchiks within the beltway “believe two Kremlin-connected groups were behind the hack.” Take that apart: Two hyphen connected groups. For Kremlin, substitute Vladimir Putin, because surely nothing in the Kremlin happens unless he directs it (?). So boom: frontpage stories that Putin stole the US election and gave it to Donald Trump, and media cheerleaders go with that because, boy does that boost ad revenues. Soon to be a major motion picture. Saturday Night Live is having a field day.
The two groups were Moscow hackers known to Microsoft as APT (“advanced persistent threat”) 28, a.k.a. Fancy Bear, and APT 29 or Cozy Bear.
“We were shocked to find our names there,” Aleksey Gubarev [who alongside his IT company, has been listed in an FBI report as the cyberlink connecting Trump and Russian hackers, told RT-TV, saying he had “never met” anyone listed in the report. “Nobody from the intelligence agency contacted me about this story… to verify this information,” he said. Neither did any journalists reach out to him.
We are reminded of the Italian Memo. In a story for Vanity Fair in 2006, Craig Unger recalled:
Though it may be unprepossessing, the Niger Embassy is the site of one of the great mysteries of our times. On January 2, 2001, an embassy official returned there after New Year’s Day and discovered that the offices had been robbed. Little of value was missing—a wristwatch, perfume, worthless documents, embassy stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. Nevertheless, the consequences of the robbery were so great that the Watergate break-in pales by comparison.
In his January 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush let this shoe fall: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” What came next is too horrible to recount, and it continues today, with each U238-mangled baby born in Fallujah. [Footnote: The new US Secretary of Defense is General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who ordered his marine tank corps to put a depleted uranium shell in every house in the city. More than 300,000 DU rounds are estimated to have been fired. The uranium dust in the air turned sunsets green. Birth defects are now much higher than those recorded among survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.]
The British government, of course, had learned nothing of the sort, although Tony Blair jumped on the Cheney bandwagon, calling it the “Dossier of Doom.” Within months, polls showed 90 percent of USAnians believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, “There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Unger reported:
On the same day the “mushroom cloud” slogan made its debut, The New York Times printed a front-page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller citing administration officials who said that Saddam had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” Specifically, the article [planted by White House Aide Scooter Libby] contended that Iraq “has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”
It was a clever hoax. Well, actually, not all that clever. Just repeated often, and loudly, from the bully pulpit. “That was their favorite bureaucratic technique —ruthless relentlessness,” Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell told Vanity Fair. The CIA had a mole inside Saddam’s war cabinet who told them there was no WMD program. The White House told the CIA that it no longer mattered and by the way they were the designated fall guy for the ensuing “intelligence failure.”
Disinformation of this kind was not new and the Italian bit players in the Niger ruse had entered the American political arena twice before. The first was during Reagan’s election campaign when embarrassing “facts” about Billy Carter, the President’s bubba brother, taking slush money from Libyan president Mohamar Khadafi to meet with Yassir Arafat. Never mind that Billy denied it, the news came out the last week in October, just before the election, and by then it was too late to track down the source: an Italian covert agency run by militant anti-Communists that had infiltrated the highest levels of Italy’s judiciary, parliament, military, and press, and was tied to assassinations, kidnappings, and arms deals around the world.
In 1981, the same covert network orchestrated a disinformation campaign saying Mehmet Ali Agca, the right-wing nut who shot Pope John Paul II, had been taking orders from the Soviet KGB and Bulgaria’s secret service. As Unger put it:
In light of the ascendancy of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Pope’s homeland, the Bulgarian Connection played a role in the demise of Communism in 1989.
When Nixon stepped down in 1974, two individuals ascended to positions of almost unlimited power in the Ford White House. Donald Rumsfeld was the sixth White House chief of staff. Dick Cheney was the seventh. Cheney was House Minority Whip during the Reagan years, Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and later the Ranking Member of the Select Committee to investigate the Iran-Contra Affair. He became Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and Vice President under Number 43.
Did Cheney and Rumsfeld pull the Italian strings in Billygate and the Bulgarian Connection? No one is telling. What we know is that stationary stolen from the Niger embassy was used for a forgery and ultimately combined with other papers that were already in Italian secret service archives. A codebook and a dossier with a mixture of fake and genuine documents were delivered to Blair. Among the fakes, embassy stationery was used to forge a two-page memo purportedly sent to the president of Niger concerning the sale of 500 tons of pure uranium per year to Iraq.
The forged documents were full of errors. A letter dated October 10, 2000, was signed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Allele Elhadj Habibou — even though he had been out of office for more than a decade. Its September 28 postmark indicated that somehow the letter had been received nearly two weeks before it was sent. In another letter, President Tandja Mamadou’s signature appeared to be phony. The accord signed by him referred to the Niger constitution of May 12, 1965, when a new constitution had been enacted in 1999. One of the letters was dated July 30, 1999, but referred to agreements that were not made until a year later. Finally, the agreement called for the 500 tons of uranium to be transferred from one ship to another in international waters—a spectacularly difficult feat.
* * *
Over the next two years, the Niger documents and reports based on them made at least three journeys to the C.I.A. They also found their way to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, to the White House, to British intelligence, to French intelligence, and to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist at Panorama, the Milan-based newsmagazine. Each of these recipients in turn shared the documents or their contents with others, in effect creating an echo chamber that gave the illusion that several independent sources had corroborated an Iraq-Niger uranium deal.
A story by Seymour Hersh for The New Yorker suggested that retired and embittered C.I.A. operatives had intentionally put together a lousy forgery in hopes of embarrassing Cheney’s hawkish followers. If that was true it backfired. Never underestimate the gullibility of the press.
First Case in point: the fake National Guard documents that cost Dan Rather and Mary Mapes their jobs at CBS News.
Second Case in point: Russian hackers stole my election.
Another point we observe as we follow this thread was how language is used to frame subject. The “mushroom-cloud” and “smoking gun” visuals were so visceral they were repeated by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and became standard NeoCon talking points in the run-up to the Second Gulf War.
When RT says that President Obama leaves behind a “vast, unaccountable permanent warfare state,” or that levels of economic inequality in the West are “obscene,” or that Trump “terrifies European leaders,” it’s worth asking if it might be Russian disinformation. But it’s also worth asking if it might be true. Distrust but verify.
With the power to persecute and prosecute journalists, the American government is a dangerous media critic. Judging by the report on RT, it’s also a lousy one.
The Russian hacking story gets reframed to appeal to different echo chambers. For the left wing it assuages the cognitive dissonance that comes when you try to wrap your mind around President… Donald… Trump. Never mind that what is said to have bent the election at the 11th hour was the content of the Podesta emails, not their source. For the right, it’s a chance to blame Obama for the “Cyber Gap” and the anticipation of another wondrous pot of gold at the end of a forthcoming defense authorization rainbow. Of course, neither side questions the veracity of electronic voting machines.
Next week we will look at how the same genetic program that allows us to swallow a yarn like the Russian hacker tale keeps us from doing the right thing about climate change. Later, we will learn how to turn that gene off. In the meantime, the best antidote to fake news is to take yours from as broad a spectrum of opinions as you can find and make your own judgment.
Published on Peak Surfer on January 22, 2017
Discuss this article at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner
Naysayers about the potential for a radical shift in the foundational structure of civilization argue by looking backward, not forward. “It has never happened before and so it cannot happen now.” But there are three fundamental differences.
First, the change of our climate away from the Holocene and into the Anthropocene is without any historical analog, even looking back hundreds of millions of years. Nafeez Mosadeq Ahmed terms this "Earth System Disruption."
Industrial civilization is undergoing a second geophysically driven change that will shake it to its roots. It has never happened before and it cannot happen again. You can call this “peak oil,” but as Richard Heinberg pointed out, it's really "peak everything."
The thin driving wedge that will crack open our assumptions about what is normal will be financial collapse, but that is just a reflection of what the peak oil community has been saying since M. King Hubbert presented a paper to the 1956 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute:
[W]e are living on a finite world and infinite growth of material consumption is simply not possible.
Nor, as Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned nearly half a century ago, is exponential population growth. Ahmed terms this "Human System Destabilization."
The unprecedented part — something few advocates for a renewables revolution yet grasp — is that each time humans moved from one dominant energy supply to the next it was towards greater caloric density at lower cost. We went from firewood to charcoal, to whale oil, to coal and coal gas, to petroleum and natural gas, and each time we got more bang for our buck, production and automation revolutionized, and our population and its footprint leaped another notch. After conventional oil peaked in the first years of the new millennium (just as Hubbert forecast in 1974), unconventional sources like fracked gas and oil shales filled the gap, but with a significant hitch — they cost more.
The same is true of renewables. We set aside discussion of nuclear energy here — even though it has the greatest power density of any — because that industry is a colossal con-game when it is not busy concealing its silent death toll. Even Hubbert was misled on that point. One might also boil water to make steam to make electricity by burning human embryos, children and old people, but it would cost more and have the same stranded ethics as atomic energy. Just imagine for a moment a gigawatt-sized Auschwitz- or Buchenwald-like furnace powering every major city. Fukushima is morally indistinguishable from that.
Solar and wind energy is now cheaper across much of the world than coal, oil or nuclear energy, but the real cost is not the market price, but rather the non-renewable components made from rare earths like ion-absorbing lanthanum, super-magnetic neodymium and luminescent, paramagnetic europium. At present China mines 90 percent of the world supply of those rare earths (at untold human and ecological cost) but a 2012 government assessment put the reserves to extraction ratio at 15, meaning a 15-year supply at then rates of removal.
Last week Barack Obama wrote for the peer-reviewed journal Science (with ghostwriting by John Holdren and Brian Deese):
[T]he business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies."
Unless a new Saudi Arabia of rare earths magically emerges in the next 10 years (or a date far sooner, given the exponential expansion of the solar industry), renewable energy will meet a hard biophysical limit.
After climate and energy, the third onrushing constraint to our present civilizational structure is “Whole System Disruption.” The global consumerist culture seems nearly oblivious to its dependence on a web of life — the inability of humans to go it alone. We seem unaware that our solar orbit is at the inner edge of the zone where biological life is possible this close to the Sun.
Our political capital — the wiring diagram for modern societies — is built on denying these three pillars — climate, peak everything and respect for limits. Dysfunctional systems have a way of disassembling themselves, with no assistance required. In his new book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Naffiz Ahmed gives the recent example of Syria (forgive the extended excerpt but this may soon be behind a paywall and it's worth it):
The conventional narrative of the causes and consequences of the 2011 'Arab Spring' tends to focus on the idea of a democratic deficit in the region as the primary trigger, but fails to integrate this with a wider vision of the range of factors involved.
It is increasingly recognized that climate change played a major role in establishing conditions of societal vulnerability for the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring (Johnstone and Mazo 2011). Others argue correctly that the uprisings of the Arab Spring itself were triggered by unprecedented global food price spikes, (Lagi et al. 2011) while still others show that peak oil occurred in Egypt and Syria prior to the uprisings (Hallock et al. 2014). However, these studies neglect the systemic interconnections across these different factors. They thus fail to offer a truly systemic understanding of these phenomena.
In reality, the string of state failures across the region, and the inexorable swing toward multiple conflicts spurred on by the rise of various Islamist militant groups, can be traced directly to ESD (Earth System Disruption) phenomena unravelling the local sub-systems underpinning state integrity. In short, HSD (Human System Destabilization) in the form of the escalation of political violence has been fueled by ESD driven by interconnected biophysical processes of climate change, energy depletion and food crises.
The collapse of Syria into internecine warfare is, as with the Arab Spring, largely viewed as a direct consequence of the extreme political repression of President Bashar al-Assad, and the competing role of outside powers. To that extent, international policy has focused on viewing the conflict through the lens of geopolitical interests and regional security.
There has been some important recognition that climate change played at least an indirect role in catalyzing the Syrian conflict by creating a drought that led to social pressures conducive to civil unrest. Yet there has been no recognition at all that a primary factor in the Syrian state's extreme vulnerability to such pressures was peak oil.
Prior to the onset of war, the Syrian state was experiencing declining oil revenues, driven by the peak of its conventional oil production in 1996 (Ahmed 2013). Even before the war, the country's rate of oil production had plummeted by nearly half, from a peak of just under 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010 (Department of State 2014).
Since the war, production dropped further still, once again by about half, as rebels took control of key oil producing areas. Faced with dwindling profits from oil exports and a fiscal deficit, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May 2008—which at the time consumed 15 % of GDP. The price of petrol tripled overnight, fueling pressure on food prices (IRIN 2008).
The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided the most compelling research to date on how climate change amplified Syria's drought conditions, which in turn had a "catalytic effect" on civil unrest. The authors found that the 2007-2010 drought was the worst "in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers", and was made three times more likely than by natural variability alone: "We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict" (Kelley et al. 2015). Compounding the impact of climate change, between 2002 and 2008, the country's total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste (Worth 2010).
Syrian refugees in Bulgaria – Milwaukee Jewish Federation
Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria has become increasingly dependent on increasingly costly grain imports, which rose by one million tonnes in 2011-2012, then rose again by nearly 30% to about 4 million in 2012-2013. The drought ravaged Syria's farmlands, led to several crop failures, and drove hundreds of thousands of people from predominantly Sunni rural areas into coastal cities traditionally dominated by the Alawite minority. The exodus inflamed sectarian tensions rooted in Assad's longstanding favouritism of his Alawite sect—many members of which are relatives and tribal allies — over the Sunni majority (Agrimoney 2012).
Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics was increasingly repressive even by regional standards, while Assad's focus on IMF-backed market reform escalated unemployment and inequality. The new economic policies undermined the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empowered the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy. Then from 2010 to 2011, the global price of wheat doubled — fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities — impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation (Friedman 2013).
As of 2010, Syria's then 20 million-strong population had one of the highest growth rates in the world, at around 2.4 %. In the first two months of 2011 alone, Syria's population grew by a monumental 80,000 people, most of whom were concentrated in the poorest eastern regions most badly affected by drought conditions (Sands 2011). The food price hikes triggered the protests that evolved into armed rebellion, in response to Assad's indiscriminate violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara'a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests. The emerging Syrian conflict then paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups. Regional and international geopolitics fanned the flames of various rebel movements who moved into the widening vacuum of Syrian systemic state-failure to build new proto-state criminal enterprises.
Yet parallel processes have also been at play across the border, where ISIS is also active. US meteorologist Eric Holthaus specifically points out that the rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq, recognized as being the warmest on record to date, from March to May 2014. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have also played havoc with Iraq's agriculture. With water supplies dwindling, and agriculture waning, Iraq's US-backed Shi'ite-dominated government has largely failed to address these burgeoning challenges, even as ISIS has moved quickly to exploit these failures, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war. Holthaus points out that climate-induced droughts have accompanied rapid population growth and agricultural stagnation, both of which are straining the capacity of the central government to feed its own population and deliver basic goods and services. As that state-level failure has been exacerbated, ISIS has rapidly filled the vacuum (Holthaus 2014).
|Outgoing UN leader Ban Ki Moon and Bashar al-Assad|
Lamenting lack of progress on climate change, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, said:
“Too many leaders seem content to keep climate change at arm’s length, and in its policy silo. Too few grasp the need to bring the threat to the center of global security, economic and financial management.”
It is easy to understand why policymakers ignore the elephant in the room. In a 2015 study by the George C. Marshall Institute, Fossil Fuel Energy and Economic Wellbeing, the NeoCon think tank turned the need for change on its head, arguing that everything we’ve just argued above is a reason not to change.
Despite the obvious reliance of the entire world on fossil fuels and the prospect that such reliance is likely to continue for decades, particularly in the developing world, it has become fashionable to argue that such fuels must be phased down and perhaps discarded entirely. The targets tend to be longer range, but they involve drastic proportions. For example, the European Council calls for an 80-95% reduction in CO2 emissions in advanced countries by 2050 which, because fossil fuels account for the great majority of these emissions, almost certainly would require an enormous reduction in their use. In 2009 the Obama Administration pledged the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but made clear this is just a first step towards much more stringent goals in future years.
It is simply a mistake, conceptually and practically, to propose a drastic phasing out of fossil fuels. Even a relatively high cost assigned to anthropomorphic climate change does not imply such a phase-out, and given the tremendous value of these fuels to country economies everywhere, no such phase-out is likely.
Worldwide gasoline consumption is at least 2 1⁄2 times U.S. consumption, so we are speaking of at least 25 billion miles traveled every day worldwide. This mobility enables people to take jobs they otherwise would find hard to access and to move about more within those jobs as needed. It also enables them to access more goods and services, visit family and friends more, etc. The result is that people are more productive than they otherwise would be, and are able to experience a higher quality of life. It is hard to overstate how important mobility is to people around the globe.
Yes, mobility becomes extremely important when you are leaving an area struck by famine, having lost its energy and agricultural underpinnings, and climate change is beating at your back as you confront hard physical barriers like the Mediterranean or Caribbean Seas. The disconnect between the risk assigned to something that might potentially damage the global economy by reducing mobility and that assigned to the alternative — auguring near term human extinction within the space of a lifetime — is stark. It is only made possible by the denial of the three pillars of this analysis — ESD, HSD and WSD — which of course can only be expected by the author of the paper, an oil industry flack working in a right wing echo chamber. His variety of “fake news” is what provides a lavish standard of living for the legions of ear whisperers in the Power Zone.
The curious thing about what just happened in 2016 is that mostly the ear whisperers were exposed as clueless or misinformed. Most, like the pundits of K-Street, MSNBC and FOX, the President’s National Security Advisor, or the seers of Silicon Valley, assumed that BREXIT would be defeated, Hillary Clinton would become President of the United States, ISIS was a spontaneous anti-American insurgence, Assad and Erdogan would be deposed, and the Cubs would lose the World Series. If they had placed a $5 bet on Trump, Brexit and Leicester City they would have earned $15 million. Instead, rather than admit they were wrong, they create a kind of new “birtherism,” demanding that Vladimir Putin be held accountable.
Imagine for a moment a country that unexpectedly has their national presidential elections tampered with, not through the balloting process but by media buys, leaked documents, last minute revelations of corruption and millions of foreign dollars flowing in to boost the lagging candidate who gets a last minute, 10 percent surge over polling predictions. Imagine further that the new president is immediately surrounded by advisors from the same foreign power who trash universal medical coverage, abandon free education, and slash away the social welfare net while feathering the nests of a new class of billionaire oligarchs made fat off privatization of the former treasures of the state. Millions of the unemployed, sick and elderly simply die. The national economy of the country is in tatters.
If you think we are describing Trumpageddon you would be mistaken. We are describing the 1996 election in Russia, when the party stalwart Gennady Zyuganov was defeated by the enormously unpopular drunken buffoon Boris Yeltsin by a margin of 13.7 points, riding on a wave of support openly engineered by George Soros and the Clinton White House.
He vowed to transform Russia's socialist economy into a capitalist market economy and implemented economic shock therapy, price liberalization and nationwide privatization. Due to the sudden total economic shift, a majority of the national property and wealth fell into the hands of a small number of oligarchs. The well-off millionaire and billionaire oligarchs likened themselves to 19th century robber barons. Rather than creating new enterprises, Yeltsin's democratization led to international monopolies hijacking the former Soviet markets, arbitraging the huge difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities and the prices prevailing on the world market.
Much of the Yeltsin era was marked by widespread corruption, and as a result of persistent low oil and commodity prices during the 1990s, Russia suffered inflation, economic collapse and enormous political and social problems that affected Russia and the other former states of the USSR.
|Clinton, Yeltsin, Trump and Zyuganov —Russian Universe|
To imagine that something similar to this could have occurred 20 years later and that it was engineered by none other than the aspiring young apparatchik who replaced the disgraced Yeltsin when he resigned in 1999, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, beggars belief. Nobody is that cunning. Or possessing such a deliciously ironical sense of humor.
We have described the challenge. We need to move on to provide the solution, but first let us reiterate a phrase used by Bill Mollison: “the problem is the solution.” By pushing the system beyond the brink, the status quo protectors have now put it into free fall. It will crash, and there is really no way to avoid that. Nafeez Ahmed puts the date at 2018. James Howard Kunstler says don't count out 2017. But make no mistake: the coming collapse is a blessing in disguise.
Had Syria not experienced the twin curses of peak oil and climate change in rapid succession, it would have continued to grow its population at exponential rates until it invited the Whole System Disturbance. The outcome, even as bad as it has been, would have been exponentially worse. Now, with the benefit of experience with severe and radically transformational change, the Syrian people are more favorably disposed to something completely different.
What that might be, precisely, will be described in future installments.
The current recession is just a prelude. We have passed biophysical limits. This explains the current era of political weirding but it doesn’t help us to avoid or soften it. We shall get to that, but we have to concede, our situation will very likely get much worse before it gets better.
Published on Peak Surfer on January 15, 2017
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
We are in a crisis of civilization but most people, by and large, have not realized it yet. It is as if we are a prizefighter in the ring with a stronger opponent and we have just been dealt a knockout punch but we are still on our feet, uncomprehending of what has just happened. It is not as though the fight can continue. We will shortly be on the floor. It is not as though we will suddenly bounce back, alert and still fighting. We are done. We just don’t know it yet. If we are lucky, our opponent will relent for the moment it takes us to go down, sparing us another, potentially lethal blow from which we would be completely defenseless.
Lets bore in on the illusion that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), having been awarded the Nobel Prize, has prescribed a rescue remedy to “avoid dangerous interference with climate” if nations are willing to take it.
Perhaps you concur with that conventional wisdom even while lamenting that national governments lack spine.
“The scientists have been the finger-pointy adults in the room on this issue,” said Andrew Revkin, former NY Times reporter and author of the dot earth blog. But the IPCC quickly learned that not only did it not have any authority to set policy, it was an object of ridicule. It came to expect that any advice it gave would be resisted and so it took measures to soften its approach. It fed governments baby food — sugar coated, easy to digest, and somewhat shy of full nutrition.
Case in point: the IPCC future scenarios (RCPs for “Representative Concentration Pathways”, and ECP’s for “Extended Concentration Pathways”).
Over the course of many years the IPCC science community produced RCP and ECP models representing a broad range of climate outcomes, based on the peer-reviewed literature. The RCPs and ECPs are defined by their total radiative forcing (cumulative measure of human emissions of atmospheric pollution from all sources expressed in Watts per square meter) starting in 2005 and accumulated change by 2100 in the case of the RCPs and 2300 in the case of the ECPs.
In 2011 the figure to the right appeared in the journal, Climatic Change:
The dark grey area contained the range of estimates previously deemed to be 90% certain. The blue line — RCP 8.5 — is tracking closest to actual data at the moment, and so the light great area was added to extend the range to a 98% certainty for 2050-2100.
If you were assigning likelihoods, you would probably give RCP 8.5 a pretty high probability now, but bear in mind you are just looking at where the line begins to arc upwards in 2016 and there is no real evidence that the arc will then settle into a straight line and even bend back down a little in the 2090s. It could as easily turn straight up and shoot off the top of this chart in the 2040-2075 interval.
The other three lines were chosen in 2011 to represent a few selected RCPs that expressed the confidence range. Each RCP could result from different combinations of economic, technological, demographic, policy, and institutional futures. For example, the second-to-lowest RCP assumes technological improvements and a shift from manufacturing economies to service industries but does not make any efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions as a goal in itself. The highest line represents industrial expansion as usual, or, alternatively, industrial contraction supplanted by runaway methane releases, radical deforestation, change of arctic albedo or some other phenomenon, or combination, that keeps the rate of forcing growing even though industrial GHG emissions decline.
The scenario process then moves to translating what effect each Watts per meter change would have on the biosphere.
These scenarios have been developed by the same means humans have planned for their future since we first started keeping history: by observing past events and projecting that process of development into the future. It is entirely linear. Pattern recognition.
Granted, when you are projecting an observed exponential rate of growth into the future (such as a doubling rate for CO2 concentration, which can be taken from Keeling’s Mauna Loa data) at some point the curve turns a corner and rockets upward until the distinction between linearity and non-linearity becomes moot. Like a broken clock, even linear models will be right occasionally in a non-linear world. What the IPCC models do not do, and cannot do, is predict the geobiological results of non-linear change. That’s unknowable.
[T]he present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. We suggest that such a ‘no-analogue’ state represents a fundamental challenge in constraining future climate projections.
— Zeebe, R., A. Ridgwell, and J. Zachos. 2016. Anthropogenic Carbon Release Rate Unprecedented during the Past 66 Million Years. Nature Geoscience 9:325–29.
|Observed decline in global sea ice to Jan 2017|
A second problem is that the RCPs only look from 2005 to 2100, a little less than a century. Consequently, they do not consider what changes may occur before Earth’s systems may recover equilibrium with the new forcings, a process that can require millennia. For example, estimates of global average sea level rise were recently revised to 2 meters this century, based on observations of ice loss in Antarctica. Those studies did not include observed loss of ice in Greenland and so the revision is still too low. And yet, we know from the geologic record and the equations of thermodynamics that equilibrium for present concentrations of GHGs take global sea level to about 23 m (75 feet) higher than today and average global temperature to about 17 degrees C (30 F) warmer. (Goreau, T.J.F., 2016. Regenerative Development for Rapid Stabilization of CO2 and Climate at Safe Levels, Soil Carbon Alliance White Paper). Even applying the ECPs, the equilibrium state will not likely be achieved by 2300. It could take a few thousand years.
The only thing holding this global tsunami back is the cold depth of the deep blue sea. Deep sea holds around 95% of the heat in the climate system. It is the biosphere’s thermal battery. The deep sea is now just above freezing, but it is warming. If we stopped adding GHGs today, it would take about 1600 years for the ocean to stop warming. Additions are not slowing down however — they are speeding up.
Implicit in the failure of the IPCC to model non-linear dynamics and long-term equilibrium is the gap in information being communicated to decisionmakers regarding the potential for the unexpected. One “known unknown” is the capacity of critical failures to cascade complimentary forcings. Any sound policy response should be building resilience and antifragility to buffer against these unknowns. Employ nature as a hedge. Instead, nature is being rapidly removed and in its place we are being sold risky geoengineering schemes.
IPCC prides itself on taking the conservative approach and being non-alarmist, but it does not offer hedges. To the contrary, it makes grand speculations based on science fiction. The most recent annual reports assume that as we pass some as yet unknown threshold of political pain, presumedly around mid-Century, human civilization will implement large scale CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and begin pulling legacy carbon back from the atmosphere.
Anyone who has seriously studied this assumption (the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, for instance) has concluded it is one part wishful thinking and 9 parts fairy dust.
CCS does not exist.
Experiments at putting liquefied carbon dioxide into geological storage have been both horrendously expensive and remarkably ineffective — leaking back to the atmosphere relatively quickly. The technology only holds promise for those unwilling to crunch the numbers. In that camp are most of the national delegations to the UN climate talks and much of the business world.
Technological fixes, after all, would be so much easier than systemic social change.
Of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of no more than 2°C warming . . . 344 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. Even more worryingly, in all 56 scenarios without negative emissions, global emissions peak around 2010 . . . In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2°C target work on the basis of either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies.
— Anderson, K. 2015. “Duality in Climate Science.” Nature Geoscience 8:898–900.
Over the next few months, this weekly blog will sketch our manifesto. We will try to set forward a multitrack approach that has a realistic chance of reversing climate change within the short window of time required. It is no secret — it does it by building resilience and letting nature do the heavy lifting.
Motivating this change is another matter. It is our view, born of our experience, that nothing short of extreme social change is capable of relieving the existential crisis of climate change and nothing short of extreme crisis will be capable of motivating that kind of extreme social change. If we learned anything from 2016, it is that people are clamoring for change.
So, buckle your seatbelts. We are going to crash. What it looks like on the other side of that crash, however, is utterly charming. It is not like being hit by Conor McGregor and going down hard in the first round. It is more like a snowboarder’s crash in powder or a kiteboarder on water. You can get back up.
We need not fear the power zone, but we should be cautious as we approach.
Published on Peak Surfer on January 8, 2017
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
|Fire in the New Valley, Egypt – PlanetLab|
2016 was a year for revolutions. Really it was only a continuation of the Tunisian Spring that began in 2010 or, even before that, the Arab labor strikes that ran from 2006 to 2008, followed by insurgencies and civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt, large street demonstrations in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan and minor protests in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the Western Sahara, then the 2008 financial crash, Occupy, the collapse of Greece, the Ukrainian civil war, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey, many more and eventually Brexit and Trump. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world was Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam ("the people want to bring down the regime"). It applied equally well to Brexit and Trump.
It is no coincidence that all this revolutionizing started with the crash of the world’s energy pyramid in 2005 and the climate chickens coming home to roost about the same time. It has been papered over by financial fictions in the West (Ponzinomics), but 2005 marked the start of the long emergency and the decidedly different times in which we now live. Historic, concurrent and rapid state failures in the Middle East, Northwest Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Europe and North America are either coming, or have already arrived. This week we are witnessing the implosion of México, next week it could be Japan.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yet while policymakers and media observers have raced to keep up with events, they have largely missed the biophysical triggers of this new age of unrest – the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels, and its multiplying consequences for the Earth’s climate, industrial food production, and economic growth.
What we are about to undertake is to write a prescription. Essentially, over the next 10 or 12 weeks, we are going to write a book comprised of a string of these blog posts, chapter by chapter. We intend to lay out the whole philosophy of the change required, and then describe, in mechanical detail, not only what must be done, but how it can be accomplished without bloodshed but with plenty of gaity, song and dance. We are calling this our Power Zone Manifesto.
Power Zone: A kite wind window is the area where the kite can fly. This is a three-dimensional semi-dome. In the wind window there are three components: the power zone, the intermediate zone and the edge of the wind window. When you can feel the wind in your back, you will find the power zone lying in front of you. In the picture you see the red and orange colored areas where this is indicated. This is the part where the kite catches wind the most and thus where the kite generates the most power. A Power zone is a risk zone where you should go with caution, but this does not mean it’s dangerous. It’s a learning process on how to use it.
Manifesto: (1620, Italian, from manifestare — denunciation, and Latin, manifestus) a written statement that describes the policies, goals, and opinions of a person or group
We are embarking, with this first installment of the New Year, on a journey together. We are sending a kite into the power zone. Our subject is climate change, but more importantly, civilizational change. The two are a coupled pair, like matter and anti-matter. Not everyone understands that yet, or appreciates the gravity of the situation, and that is unfortunate but okay. The full horror will reveal itself gradually, in fits and starts, and in times and places not of our choosing. Here, in 2017, we take it on faith that we still have options. That faith could be entirely misplaced but from the available evidence we cannot say either way — the climate juggernaut is in motion but perhaps still reversible. Faith gives us agency. Apostasy does not. We are creatures that exercise agency as an inherited condition. Take that away and we psychologically shatter, wither and die. We need to feel we have choices. We need to be able to exercise will.
So, feeling the wind at our back, we edge the kite closer to the power zone.
|Escondida Mine, Chile, PlanetLab|
It has been said that what distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to make tools. We disagree. Other apes make tools. A crow uses a stick dabbed with honey to catch ants. A humpback whale, having neither hands nor feet, may fashion a bubble net to snare its lunch, humming a song of its own composition as it reels in the harvest.
Perhaps one thing that distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to accumulate knowledge culturally, and to do so more rapidly than, say, the lessons passed by each generation of she-wolves to their young, or the nuanced dances of honey bees.
Climate change is occurring so rapidly now, and with such apparent acceleration, that it forces us to go beyond even our high rates of cultural cataloging. We do not have the luxury of slow, generational change. Already born are children who will experience an Earth four or five degrees warmer than it is right now, maybe even much hotter.
Graeme Taylor, in A Realistic (Holistic) Approach to Climate Mitigation, World Future Review 2016, Vol. 8(3) 141–161, writes:
In general, a realistic climate mitigation strategy must (1) clarify the requirements for a safe global climate, (2) develop a viable strategy for managing critical risks and ensuring safe outcomes (e.g., a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation), (3) progressively build scientific and political support for this strategy, and (4) develop national and international alliances to educate, encourage, and pressure decisionmakers at all levels to take effective action.
Diplomats and politicians have been slow to come to agreement about the requirements for averting catastrophic climate change. Rather than clarify, they have generally done everything possible to obscure. Scientists, by contrast, have been gradually moving into consensus for the last century or more and now are at nearly complete unanimity, with piercing clarity.
In broad stroke, to reestablish the relatively stable climate of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene epoch, we must restore the relationship between energy arriving and leaving Earth’s land, oceans and atmosphere.
By any reasonable measure, we are outside the zone of safety already.
The physical requirements to return to a safe climate zone are these:
- Humans must stop adding carbon to the atmosphere (and thereby to the oceans);
- We must stop throwing off the balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and other critical cycles that maintain photosynthetic equilibrium and the energy balance of the Earth in relation to the Sun;
- We must reverse desertification;
- We must arrest the degradation of biodiversity;
- We must restore the naturally regenerative systems and allow them to heal the damage that has been done.
These five physical requirements are not negotiable. They cannot be bargained down, discounted, or put on a layaway plan. This creates a dilemma for human societies, because, as far back as our emergence from the past ice age and the adoption of agriculture, we have been marking progress by measures that result in the precise opposite of these requirements.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide, at least a third attributable to agriculture, is on track to peak after 2050 at 600 ppm, more than double the Holocene mean. But agriculture was only made possible by the advent of the gentle Holocene.
Agriculture made us sedentary, created a system of division of the commons and private property, installed capitalism (to borrow and lend lands and seed and to apportion risks and profits) and militarism (to protect property, stored harvests and contract rights), codified laws beyond the moral variety handed down on tablets from God, and gave rise to cities and monumental state architectures.
Could it be that to meet the five requirements we next need to undo all that? Is that even possible?
This is what regime change looks like
Taylor’s second point is more difficult to address than his third and fourth. We have been building political support the same way we built the scientific support, only much more slowly. National and international alliances have been forged, across all parts of civil society, and those continue to exert pressure on decisionmakers. To find “a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation,” however, is a much bigger ask.
Taylor correctly summarizes the state of international negotiations:
Critics argue that the Paris Agreement failed to deal with many crucial issues. These include assessing and managing the real risks and costs of climate change; defining greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration safety limits; determining a time frame for emissions to peak; stopping fossil fuel subsidies; imposing carbon pollution taxes; limiting both fossil fuel supply and demand; developing clean substitutes for nonelectrical uses of fossil fuel energy; ensuring that climate change costs are borne equitably by rich and poor nations; reducing resistance to climate mitigation through developing alternative, nonpolluting uses for fossil fuels; and planning the transformation of the global political economy into a sustainable system.
Because it does not take a holistic, precautionary risk management approach to climate modeling, it does not recognize that biophysical limits and timelines are nonnegotiable, and that passing critical thresholds creates the potential for systemic failure or state change. For instance, the Paris Agreement does not place safety limits on atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations, an absolute cap on ocean and atmospheric temperature increases, an absolute cap on ocean acidification, or a specified timeline for reducing GHG emissions.
None of these deficiencies was corrected in Marrakech, nor are they expected to be corrected in COP-23 in Bonn next year. This does not make the UNFCCC multi-stakeholder process useless, it just means it is very slow. Like climate itself, it moves in fits and spurts. We can agree: it is probably not up to the challenge posed by exponential chaos.
|Plutonium Valley, Nevada Test Site, PlanetLab|
If you are toying with some of these ideas, before you throw in the towel and say its hopeless, lets start by naming the deluding passions.
The world is not easily divided between those who deny climate change is a problem and those content to criticize the political stalemate as the karma of capitalism. Nor is it easily divided between those who assume that governments have the matter under control and those that believe the AI singularity will deal with it by dint of human ingenuity.
There is a spectrum of opinion out there. One may overlap with another, or the roles reverse without warning. What is “conservative” actually? What is “liberal?”
One might think from the plain definition of the word that conservatives are those who seek to protect and “conserve” the resources that confer wealth upon societies. Those would be things like soil, water, clean air, biodiversity and a system of social contracts that prevents despoliation of the commons. And yet, whether you are speaking of conservatives in the US, UK, Europe or somewhere else, they all have in common a disdain for these very things, and are doing everything possible to use up, trash, and deregulate the expropriation of resources while at the same time relaxing restrictions on pollution and habitat destruction.
On the flip side of that coin we have the liberals — like deer in the headlights when it comes to net energy and peak everything. “Liberal” should mean broad-minded, generous, and progressive. Instead, in an era that screams for rapid build-down of over-extended economies, liberals champion expansion, whether it be programs to resettle, educate and empower refugees, conferring rights to “sustainable development” on non-industrialized, rapidly overpopulating countries or sending out a high-tech military empire in search of the final drops of fossil sunlight in order to sustain the nonnegotiable.
Caught between these polar conflicts are masses of sheeple, running this way and that, trying to escape the pull of the power zone. Knowing that Ash-sha`byurid isqat an-nizam is the dominant sentiment, regimes are running scared, whether they are regimes of government, economics, academia, or science. Regime change is in vogue. The world has become a free-fire zone.
Cooler heads will eventually prevail. Some pain may have to be experienced first. A change is coming, and next week we will continue to tease out some of its outlines.
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Published on Peak Surfer on January 1, 2017
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
For a couple of months prior to my trip I had been working on my Facebook Page, Frackfree Tennessee, trying to assemble every news story out there about Standing Rock in one place in order to spread the word. I also got involved in organizing shipments to Standing Rock and raising money to fund them. I began to get to know the people working on the issue and to talk to those who had made the Journey. Some Middle Tennessee Standing Rock supporters had a meeting at my house. “When are you going?” people would ask me. Then it came together in a matter of four days.
Michael, Lynn, and I set out on December 1st for Standing Rock. We rented a four-wheel drive, high-clearance pickup truck because we were told that we would encounter mud and ice. We were glad we did. We managed to raise $5,000 in four days. On board we carried a wood stove, a new chain saw, a cooler full of donated meat, $500 worth of herbal remedies, and lots of food. We made the thousand-mile trek in 24 hours.
According to plan we went straight to the home of a Lakota family that Michael had gotten to know on a previous trip. Frank and Rochelle Bullhead were our gracious hosts for the next four days and even though we did not sleep at the camp, we found ourselves right in the middle things. Frank and Rochelle were central in the various “actions” over the past few months. Frank showed us where he had been shot with rubber bullets and bean bags and described how the police had jabbed him in the kidney, the only one he had left, and arrested him; they put a number on his arm and put him in a dog cage. The Morton County army sprayed them with water in 25-degree weather. Rochelle wore her traditional dress and faced down the national guard on numerous occasions. Both had been sprayed a number of times with mace, pepper spray and tear gas while praying.
We went to the camp shortly after our arrival. My first impression of the camp was one of awe and excitement; it was huge and full of life. Tents and tipis and yurts, Indian youth on horseback, drums and whoops, people of every description setting up camp, a line of cars and buses that poured in all day long. Three thousand veterans and a host of new water protectors swelled the population from four thousand to over twelve thousand. The energy in the camp was electric.
The line of flags along the road represented the 350 indigenous tribes who had made the journey from all over the world, from South America to Alaska, from Hawaii to Siberia. This was unprecedented, and many of these tribes had been enemies in the past. What they had in common was the threat of exploitation by energy extraction companies and polluters who have made their billions at the expense of indigenous people. As each tribe arrived they did their dances and were welcomed in prayer ceremonies. The site of so many different colorful flags was awe inspiring.
There were challenges ahead, of course. The infrastructure was not set up for these numbers, and the strain on the organizers was beginning to show. Many newcomers had arrived in small two-wheel drive cars and Michael and I found ourselves pushing cars and trucks that were getting stuck on Facebook Hill. We met one large group of young people from Chicago who were just getting off their bus and were pretty sure they had just landed on the moon. They intended to spend the night in their bus and did not seem very warmly dressed. Being from Chicago myself I thought I had seen winter, but later I saw what a North Dakota winter was like.
Facebook Hill, so-named because it was one of the few places you could get a signal, had a great view of the camp. One of four camps, Oceti Sakowin was growing by leaps and bounds. From there you could see that tents were set up amid several frozen ponds in the flood plain of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. Come Spring most of the camp would be under water. We met a man there who was charging his cell phone on a stationary bike. And we were told to beware of the helicopter that was omnipresent overhead. No one was really sure if it was the helicopter or the semi-trailer peaking over the hill that was intercepting data and draining cell phone batteries: 21st century cyber warfare.
Frank and Rochelle’s son-in-law, Isaacs, was head of the Oceti Sakowin camp. The tall, very spiritual 28-year old warrior explained to us the arrangement of tipis at the center of the camp. This was the sacred Lakota Council Fire Circle that had not been seen in a hundred and fifty years. The seven tipis were in the shape of buffalo horns and represented the different branches of the Lakota tribe. Each tipi was occupied by a representative of the different branches. Isaacs, who had been staying in the camp since its inception, represented the Lakotas of the Great Plains. In the center was the fire circle and a campfire that had been burning for eight months and had fire keepers that never left who were very serious about their jobs. The field around the Fire Circle was kept free of tents and we were told not to stand on the east side of the fire where the buffalo horns came together because that is the direction the spirits came from.
That first night we made supper over our camp stove and sat around the Council Fire talking to people and listening to organizers discussing strategy. We heard that earlier that week a gift had been delivered to the Morton County Sheriff’s office, a peace offering of food and supplies. The Sheriff had sent out a plea for local residents to help them because all their money had been spent “protecting” the pipeline. The water protectors wanted to share the bounty of the camp.
Many of the veterans who had arrived seemed ready to tangle with the Morton County Sheriff and the national guard. The elders and camp organizers met and voted to refrain from marching in the morning in order to keep peace. It was rumored that the Sheriff had moved one mile back from the barricaded bridge, evidently wanting to avoid a confrontation. Things were happening fast.
Michael, Lynn, and I decided to go to the Prairie Knights Casino for a cup of tea and to check out that scene. Eight miles south, the casino was filled with people from the camp, easily recognized by their heavy winter gear. Being on the reservation and controlled by the Lakota, the casino proved to be an invaluable resource: a place to get warm, grab a hot meal, and get cell phone reception. All the rooms were full, mostly with gamblers on weekends, but the camps had reserved a few. When the snow storm hit two days later over a thousand campers took refuge in the hallways.
After spending a cozy night on the Bullheads’ floor we returned to camp. The place was buzzing with activity. Cars and buses continued to pour in. The veterans were organizing for some sort of action and the horse-mounted young security force was herding people assembling on the road back to camp. There was to be a prayer meeting of all twelve thousand people at the main fire. As we were heading in that direction we came upon the Bullheads. Frank, with tears in his eyes, said two words: “We won.” The Army Corps had revoked the permit for the pipe line!
What ensued was joyous celebration on a grand scale. Hugs and whoops and big smiles everywhere. The drums were beating, everyone was dancing and singing and praying. Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II gave the announcement and then invited the elders to pray at the Council Fire. One Indian told me that the tribes had not won such a victory since Custer. And it just happened to be Custer’s birthday!
The Council Fire circle was a powerful gathering of chiefs and elders. It was both celebratory and solemn at the same time. Stories were told, reminders given of the importance of the victory over the pipeline company. And of course no one was under the illusion that the fight was over. This was only a chapter in the ongoing struggle to preserve the earth and all its inhabitants.
That evening we once again met with friends in the cafeteria of the casino. A snowstorm was on the horizon and getting around would soon be difficult. That night, sleeping on the Bullhead’s floor, we got our first hint of what was coming as the wind howled and whistled outside. I had never experienced unrelenting 30-50 mile an hour winds and total white-out conditions. I got pinned against the truck trying to fold our large tarp! As Michael said, “Feels like the wind could just cut you in half.”
We tried to make it back to camp or to the casino in our four-wheel drive but gave up after a couple of miles. The Lakota people said that this is what you do in a blizzard: hole up and wait. And so we spent the next 28 hours snowed in, eight Indians and three whites in a small house. It proved to be pretty enjoyable as we shared cooking and cleaning duties and got to know each other. We watched movies, including a family favorite, Avatar. Albert Red Bear, a Lakota religious leader who had dropped by the day before, was full of stories. Reba was delightful and a great cook. Lynn gave “readings” with her Earth Cards. Dawson, the seven-month-old, was so good. There were endless discussions about the day’s events and the future of the camp.
Unfortunately, we were under a deadline to high-tail it home. When the sun peaked out the next afternoon we decided to make a run for it. Albert was headed back to Pine Ridge and would lead us south. The snow was blowing sideways so thick it was like driving through a cloud, but all I had to do was follow our Lakota guide. By the time we got to South Dakota, the snowstorm was behind us.
That night we spent in another native-owned casino in Iowa. There we met a couple of Indians who had just come back from the camp. When we asked how it had been going, instead of a horror story about the snow, they said, “We had fun.” Another lesson…
And so, after another marathon drive, we made it back to Tennessee where it was a balmy 33 degrees. All three of us are still processing what we experienced on the Great Plains. Part of my process is to write this. And to organize meetings where we can share our story of Standing Rock, as we were asked to do by our Lakota friends. We are thinking of returning in the Spring with tools and money and solar panels to help fix up the Bullhead house. If the camps are still there we will be joining the Water Protectors along the banks of the mighty Missouri River.
Stand With Standing Rock
Two Lakota families from the Standing Rock reservation are coming to Tennessee! They want to share with us their stories from the #NoDAPL struggle and to sing and dance and pray with us! Frank and Rochelle Bullhead were in the front lines at Standing Rock many times. Isaacs Weston was Head of Camp at Oceti Sakowin. He is accompanied by his wife Mimi and baby Dawson. They will be at five locations in ten days, including Chattanooga, Sewanee, Franklin, The Farm and Nashville.
Nashville: January 8th, Friends Meeting House, 530 26th Ave. N., 7:15pm.
Suggested donation: $10+
Please join us and help support the ongoing fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and meet these brave and powerful brothers and sisters who are leading the way in saving our planet!
For more information contact: Eric Lewis
Published on Peak Surfer on December 25, 2016
Discuss this article at the Geopolitics Table inside the Diner
In Nanjing they have banned gas and diesel powered motorbikes, scooters, and trike-cabs or trike-trucks and replaced them with electrics. While most vehicles are retrofits, new electric bikes and trikes are sold in showrooms and all around the city repair shops, battery stores, and parts dealers are easy to find. As a result, the air is fresher, the streets are clean, and the city is much quieter. It is a pleasure to sit in an outdoor café without having to breathe two-stroke engine fumes or listen to their din. They have not yet banned petrol-fueled cars and buses, but that can’t be far away, once they have the replacements lined up.
We confess Nanjing has been on our bucket list since we read Gavin Menzies’ flawed but enticing 1421: The Year China Discovered The World. We wanted to see the Nanjing Shipyards where Admiral Zheng He had constructed the great treasure fleet that traveled the seven seas by discovering an ingenious method of calculating lines of latitude, marking and recording the timing of eclipses and the transit of Jupiter’s moons at different observation points.
|Zheng He Shipyard Park, Nanjing|
Whether Zheng reached the Americas is still disputed, and the official Chinese version has him going no farther than the Cape of Good Hope, but it is undisputed that he built a floating city of wooden ships like nothing the world had ever seen, before or since. Six hundred years ago the Ming armada weighed anchor on the first of seven voyages almost a century before Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama. If a 1763 replica of a 1418 chart is any evidence, Zheng’s geographers accurately charted the entire world’s coastlines. Each continent of the world has correct shape, mass, latitude and longitude, and position. All oceans of the world are displayed, along with many major rivers (the Potomac to present-day Washington DC) and innumerable islands.
|Replica of Troop Ship|
Decades later, the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined would have fit on the main deck of a single vessel of Zheng’s fleet. One such design, likely a troop transport at 71.1-meters (233.3 ft), was reconstructed in 2010 and is in the old drydock of Longjiang shipyards. Its stability was created by a V-shaped hull, a long keel, and heavy ballast. The keel is made from wooden beams bound together with iron hoops. In stormy weather, holes in the prow would partially fill with water when the ship pitched forward, lessening the turbulence.
National Geographic in June 2005 wrote:
Treasure Ship drydocks
The greatest seafarer in China's history was raised in the mountainous heart of Asia, several weeks' travel from the closest port. More improbable yet, Zheng was not even Chinese — he was by origin a Central Asian Muslim. Born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan, he had been taken captive as an invading Chinese army overthrew the Mongols in 1382. Ritually castrated, he was trained as an imperial eunuch and assigned to the court of Zhu Di, the bellicose Prince of Yan. Within 20 years the boy who had writhed under Ming knives had become one of the prince's chief aides, a key strategist in the rebellion that made Zhu Di the Yongle (Eternal Happiness) emperor in 1402. Renamed Zheng after his exploits at the battle of Zhenglunba, near Beijing, he was chosen to lead one of the most powerful naval forces ever assembled.
We used Trip Advisor to find Zheng He’s museum at the shipyard. We took an iPhone screen shot of the Chinese characters for its address and showed that to the taxi driver, who agreed to take us there for about $7. It was an hour ride across the city, made nearly twice that long by an official motorcade with helicopter escorts that forced us off the six-lane expressway and onto the crowded back-streets, but we got there eventually and the driver agreed to wait for us while we toured the museum.
That museum, really a large and quite tranquil nature park in the middle of the city, was one of our best experiences in Nanjing. You enter through an ornate gate and pass through a large plaza with roller skaters and hot dog carts until you reach the edge of the canals, originally constructed by Zheng in the early 15th Century to get his ships from their cradle and crane assembly lines to the Yangtze River and thence down to the ocean.
Zheng was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. His grandfather and father had the title hajji suggesting that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and also that young Zheng knew Arabic. His later names of Ma Sanbao (三保 ("Three Protections") and Sanbao Taijian (“Three Treasures”) suggest he may have also had Buddhist training.
|Hardwood drydocks >600 years old|
Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored seven naval expeditions. Vast forests were cut in Southeast Asia to supply the cranes, masts, mahoganies and teaks required not just for the ship but for the dry docks. Zheng He's first voyage departed 11 July 1405, from Suzhou and consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 crewmen. To the lands he visited, the Admiral presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; he returned with ostriches, zebras, camels, giraffes and ivory. On his 4th voyage he brought envoys from thirty states to pay their respects at the Ming court. One stone stelle says he visited more than 3,000 nations.
During the reign of the Yung-Lo Emperor Zhu Di, the Ming fleet consisted of:
- More than 250 Nine-masted "treasure ships" (宝船, Bǎo Chuán or Pao chuan), ranging from 400 to 600 feet long (from one to two football fields) by 170 feet (55 m) beam (more than the width of a football field) and manned by 400 to 1000 crew. Contrast this with a Ford or Nimitz class aircraft carrier, with only 1/3 more length and a more narrow beam.
- Eight-masted “Equine ships” (馬船, Mǎ Chuán), about 103 m (338 ft) by 42 m (138 ft) (roughly the size of a football field), carrying horses and tribute goods and repair material for the fleet.
- More than 400 seven-masted supply ships (粮船, Liáng Chuán), 78 m (256 ft) by 35 m (115 ft), containing staples.
- Some 400 six-masted troop transports (兵船, Bīng Chuán), 67 m (220 ft) by 25 m (82 ft).
- 1350 five-masted 50-meter Fuchuan warships (福船, Fú Chuán), Zheng He’s destroyer escorts.
- 1350 eight-oared 37-meter patrol boats (坐船, Zuò Chuán).
- Water tankers (水船, Shuǐ Chuán) with at least 1 month's supply of fresh water, especially for the horses.
Zheng He set sail with anywhere from 300 to 800 of these ships in each voyage. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described the fleet’s largest ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their translated accounts. Niccolò Da Conti, who witnessed the fleet in Southeast Asia, estimated the Treasure Ships at 2000 tons.
Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing has been repaired and a small museum built next to it. We did not see the tomb, and anyway he is reported to have been buried at sea, but we traced the routes of the slips where the ships had launched, amazed to see teak timbers still in the ground and dating to that period. We went to the statue of Zheng He and visited the windlasses, steering wheels, and rudders from his ships, and two 2.5 m (8 foot) iron anchors weighing over a thousand pounds each, Walking among bronze statues of the shipyard workers, we watched a child play the giant ship’s bell from the Admiral’s flagship.
Zheng He reshaped Asia. The maritime history in the 15th century was essentially the Zheng He story — a story placing peaceful trade and cultural exchange above conquest and cultural destruction.
Leaving the museum we rushed back to the hotel for a rendezvous with our student guides who were taking us to meet Professor Pan Genzing, top biochar researcher at Nanjing Agricultural University. Professor Pan had arranged a welcoming supper for the distinguished members of the board of the International Biochar Initiative and because we were in China at the time, and on the board of the US Biochar Initiative, we were fortunate to have been invited.
Over the next two days we were also invited to observe the IBI board meeting, attend the unveiling of the Asian Biochar Center, take a field trip to a biochar research station, and speak at an international biochar seminar, where we gave a short slide talk on cool microenterprises and the drawdown economics of cool villages. All of these events were accompanied by elegant feasts of pretty much anything with wings, tails, fins or carapaces, served nearly whole and whirling around on huge lazy-susans. We were reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
While this cuisine is quite different than what we enjoyed at Wu Ling (and had almost no rice), it demonstrated the scope and breadth of Chinese culture, enriched in so many ways 600 years earlier by the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.
Less than a day in paradise,
And a thousand years have passed among men.
While the pieces are still being laid on the board,
All things have changed to emptiness.
The woodman takes the road home,
The haft of his axe has rotted in the wind:
Nothing is what it was but the stone bridge
Still spanning a rainbow, cinnabar red.
— Meng Chiao (9th Century)
Nanjing, October 19, 2016
As this is the fourth and final memoir in this series, we thought it best that we step back and paint the broader context.
|Annette Cowie at Nanjing International Biochar Symposium|
As we described in our book, The Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook (2d Ed. 2014), the Bretton Woods economic system of the West is poised at the precipice of collapse. Historically, this is normal. All civilizations cycle between growth and retraction, and when growth has been exponential, contraction will track the reverse curve. We are passing over the peak at the top of the roller coaster.
When the first cracks in the delusion of infinite fossil energy consumerist cornicopia appeared in the form of the 2008 market crash they were papered over with new and bigger debt. Money was fiated out of thin air by an exponential expansion of government lending. China sees that.
|L-R: Pan, Lehmann, Renaud, Miles, Sohi|
Russia sees that. Europe is in a condition of Keynesian extend and pretend. The United States simply doesn’t discuss the subject. It imagines that in a pinch it can just lend again. And again. 2008 is viewed as a liquidity crisis, solved by creating more liquidity, ie: debt.
The new guys on the block, knowing nothing of petrocollapse or ponzinomics, figure that the one thing the US has going for it still, empire wise, is its military power. So like Roman Senators, the architects of the Third Reich, or the Mayan Overlords, the Pentagon crazies continue along a course of conquest, intent on sucking more resources to the center from the periphery to fuel even greater military expansion. Since the early 90s the US has been busy ringing China and Russia with more than 400 military bases and modernizing its now dangerously archaic nuclear arsenal.
China, for its part, has had a quite adequate supply of atomic rocketeers on low alert for the last 40 years. Their missiles and warheads were in separate buildings. After the recent US election, that changed. China has moved to high alert, mounted its warheads and prepared to fuel its missiles on short notice. Both Russia and China have said they do not seek war but, echoing Bismarck, "If you want war, you shall have it.”
|Vegetables growing in sand at China Biochar Research Center|
In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy said, “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May you live in interesting times.’” He was not far wrong, although the proverb was not Chinese. In Cantonese, "interesting" can mean dangerous or turbulent, therefore the phrase could, in Chinese, be something of a curse.
Make no mistake: the empire in decline is the United States. The empire in ascent is China. But both suffer the fatal disease of addiction to exponential fossil-fuel based consumer culture and the cancer of biological degradation of the ecosystems required, not just to sustain empire, but for human life on the planet. Any ascent by China that adheres to the Western growth model will be short-lived.
|Yellow Bikes, Nanjing|
China is the world's top holder of U.S Treasuries — $1.16 trillion as of September — and any decision to dump those would have impact. President-Elect Trump, who has financed his personal fortune by borrowing heavily and plans to do the same for military and infrastructure spending, will surely understand that. He may want to trot out the big guns in order to make offers that cannot be refused.
A clash of declining empires is not something to look forward to, especially when both are armed to the teeth with suicidal weapons and at least one side thinks they should be free to use those to get their way.
“I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody,” Donald Trump told GQ. “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them.”
|Stephen Joseph and Annette Cowie|
The Chinese, along with the rest of humanity, can only hope he is sincere. Given the choice between slow extinction later this century when warming passes 5-degrees C (while holding out for the possibility of rescue by a cadre of energized young emergency planetary technicians) or immediate, but nonetheless painful, death-by-atomic-holocaust, which would you choose? The pistol or the poison?
It is all so silly, and so unnecessary. Is there something in the water, or some worm eating away at our brains? Why are we behaving as if we actually deserve to go extinct?
Chinese milennials are hip, intelligent, highly educated and well-traveled. They suffer a naïvete similar to their Western counterparts when discussion turns to the advanced state of climate change and the future availability of energy and other resources. To set them up as patsies for the ideological insecurities of USAnians is nuts. To engage China militarily is suicidal. Why can't we all just get along?
Published on Peak Surfer on December 18, 2016
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
Even here in Xu Ling, where the air is relatively fresh, one needs to shower daily or the scalp itches. Yesterday we were asked in a class making Oregon cob whether you could use bean vines instead of straw. “Yes, but then it would not be Oregon cob. It would be Zhejiang cob,” we replied.
A woman from the Southwestern mountain region tells us she has only rock, not soil. “How do you store carbon in a place like that?” she asks. We ask where her rice comes from. “Far away,” she says. So we tell her that her yard would be a good place to build soil and store carbon. It is not a very satisfactory answer so later we find her and resume the conversation. We ask if her home has wooden doors and window shutters. It does. “That is stored carbon,” we say. We tell her that if she makes biochar and builds garden beds she can grow food almost anywhere and also store carbon. If she has a wood stove to heat her house and modifies it into a wood gasifier, she can be taking carbon out of the atmosphere while making fertilizer all winter. She could even get a little power for her house.
We didn’t bring along the Biolite so we have to settle for showing the Beaner and using the whiteboard to diagram how thermocouples make electricity. We find an old community kitchen wok and make biochar from dried bamboo splits, baking some potatoes while we do. We are informed that the Chinese word for “cool” is “ku.”
It is more than a little odd that some of these crafts have been so recently forgotten. In a recent study of composting practices for the State of Washington Department of Ecology, the authors recall the contributions of USDA scientist Frederick King:
The traditional farming practices of China, Japan and Korea recycled massive amounts of human waste, ash, crop residue and other biomass into agricultural fields. In 1909, the American agriculturalist F. H. King embarked on an eight-month tour of China, Japan and Korea in order to view and document agricultural practices. The resulting book, Farmers of Forty Centuries has become an agricultural classic. Part of King's purpose in the book was to contrast the enduring agriculture of Asia with what he viewed as destructive and wasteful practices then advocated by the US Department of Agriculture (Paull, J. 2011. The making of an agricultural classic: farmers of forty centuries or permanent agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, 1911-2011. Agricultural Sciences, 02(03), 175–180). King declared, "One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well-nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food" (King, F. H. 1911.
Farmers of Forty Centuries. Dover, p. 193). As an indicator of the commercial value of this human waste he found that the city of Shanghai sold concessions to waste haulers, charging one contractor $31,000 in gold for the right to collect 78,000 tons of human waste for sale to farmers outside the city (p. 194). He found compost making to be a high art in Japan where prizes were offered in each county for the best compost. Winners at the county level went on to compete for a prize for best compost in the prefecture (p. 397). Although he did not specifically describe the use of charcoal in these composts, he observed that ash materials were added in large amounts. Moved by the thrift and care for conservation of nutrients that he observed on his travels, King expressed his frustration with the wasteful practices of his own country, "When we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century's service, and upon the enormous quantity of mineral fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secure paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries" (p. 193). Contrasting these Asian practices with those in America he said, "The rivers of North America are estimated to carry to the sea more than 500 tons of phosphorus with each cubic mile of water. To such loss modern civilization is adding that of hydraulic sewage disposal…" (p. 197).
Makato Ogawa, who studied charcoal traditions in Japan, described how biochar has been in used in Asia since ancient times, and that rice husk charcoal has likely been used since the beginning of rice cultivation. Wood charcoal was not generally used in agriculture as it was too valuable as fuel. (Ogawa, M., and Okimori, Y. 2010. Pioneering works in biochar research, Japan. Australian Journal of Soil Research, 48(7), 489–500.)
Nor was mixing biochar into smelly wastes to remove the smell confined to Asia. "Poudrette" comes from a French term meaning "crumbs" or "powder," the main ingredient, after humanure, being powdered charcoal. As European city sanitary standards gradually improved, the contents of "dry closets" (as opposed to "water closets" that flowed into cesspools and sewers and thence to the river) were emptied and their contents hauled to the outskirts of cities and mixed with ashes, peat, gypsum, clay, lime and more charcoal. It seems likely this was also the origin of the dark earths of the Amazon.
“A dead rat, nicely buried in a cigar box so as to be surrounded at all points by an inch of charcoal powder, decays to bone and fur without manifesting any odor of putrefaction, so that it might stand on a parlor table and not reveal its contents to the most sensitive nostrils” (Unknown Author, The Garden, 1873).
“Charcoal also possesses the property of absorbing and retaining the odoriferous and coloring principles of most organic substances… From this deodorizing property, charcoal is frequently mixed with night soil, and other decaying manures; which it keeps free from smell, and at the same time aids in preserving, by absorbing the gases which would otherwise escape.“ — A Cyclopedia of Agriculture (Morton, 1855)
Here in Xu Ling we are nearing the end of the weeklong ecological module. From the morning check-ins we know that most everyone in the class is starting to really “get” quantum entanglement and the ties between holistic management, the three permaculture directives, and the How Wolves Change Rivers film we showed. What is less clear is how they are going to be able to use this new understanding. The Chinese government is used to taking a long time to decide things and then ordering that they be done immediately, with near absolute powers of enforcement and draconian penalties. When we hear this we think of the IRS.
This exercise of raw power causes all manner of dislocations, as when the time-tested methods of organically farming these terraces for millennia were suddenly reversed by edicts from local authorities, requiring collection and “disposal” of all biowastes. That policy has reduced soil fertility and increased chemical dependencies, as well as burdening the already weak sewage treatment infrastructure.
Another example is when the Xu Ling labor force was suddenly uprooted and sent off to work in Apple and Microsoft gulags in Shenzhen. Now that these earnest young farmers know they must begin to rework the neglected hillsides to manage bamboo and mixed forests in order to restore biodiversity and save the valley’s fragile climate and water, will they be allowed?
We don’t know the answer to that, but we suspect they will. We are told Xi Jinping’s government plans to convert 5 billion square meters of Beijing reinforced concrete real estate into natural buildings. One of the students who has tracked China’s role in the Paris Agreement says that is probably the reason why. Another student has taken a Ianto Evans-style cob course from a US instructor named Leo. Leo apparently was pretty good because the kid knows his stuff. He could teach the builders that will be needed to transform that district in Beijing.
There are more than 40 different kinds of tofu here, but we have to say the real Godsend for us was the kind that is fermented to taste like miso. Chinese are particular about their rice, and since they eat it three times a day we have found it passing strange that while tofu comes in all styles, textures, flavors and colors, rice comes in only two: fluffy and soupy. Never is any salt or other flavoring added. You are supposed to discern the subtle flavors in how rice is bred or grown in much the way a sommelier knows wines.
For us that little red cube was the perfect addition to bland, soupy rice. Our chopstick skills that we thought were pretty good (sushi being a favorite food for us) suddenly seemed pretty lame, as the mute testimony of our shirt-front confirmed. While we were dropping greasy asparagus tips and picking our lima beans from the lotus roots and slimy okra stir fries in our lap, our host Haichao was sipping soup with his chopsticks after the fashion of a kitten lapping milk from a bowl. Personal highpoint: the baked lotus tunas that look like sunchokes except that you are supposed to peel them before eating.
The second week we concluded the first permaculture teacher training workshop in rural Zhejiang and left behind a few dozen certified permaculture teachers. We travelled North to Nanjing to attend a seminar hosted by the International Biochar Initiative and the Asian Biochar Research Center at Nanjing Agricultural University. While living in a rustic mountain village has not been easy, spending time in a busy Chinese city is not something we are looking forward to.
On our final day we decide to visit the grandmother who is the village tofu maker and watch her perform her weekly ritual. She starts very early boiling the beans and skimming off the skins, then grinding the milk and bringing it back to a boil. For a small, frail woman with skin like leather, she refuses to let anyone help her as she moves heavy buckets and stirs her cauldrons. The boiling milk is ladled into a wooden basin and she doses it sparingly with a liquified potassium salt to get it to curdle. It takes several small adjustments of the curding agent before it begins to separate the way she wants, and then she ladles off the curds into her pail — an old 5-gallon metal paint can — and carries the full bucket of hot curd out to an alley, where she sets up the wooden press and lines it with a well-worn cheesecloth. After several more trips, the press is full and she squeezes the cloth and sets a wood lid on the press and a full bucket of whey to weight it down. The tofu will sit this way for perhaps a few hours to form a solid block, which she then comes back to invert onto a tabletop, unveil, and slice into half-kilo bricks. As we wait for the pressing, we look around her shop at the tools, the old Mao posters and calendars, an award of some kind from her younger days, and the barred windows that keep thieves from stealing her soybeans.
— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 14, 2016
This is third in a continuing series.
Published on Peak Surfer on December 11, 2016
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
We were expecting 25 students but got 40, and on some days it even goes up to 50. Initially our hosts wanted to have a Permaculture Design Course but after we told them such an undertaking would require 2 weeks, including 72 hours of classroom time, and multiple co-instructors, they asked instead for a week-long introduction to the Ecological Key, part of the Ecovillage Design one-month curriculum offered by the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education Associates. We helped author that module so we agreed, but then they needed to cut it to 6 days to factor in the national independence holiday and also asked if we could do an introduction to natural building as part of the course.
Reluctantly, we agreed, since it was only introductory workshop in any event, but then we had our expensive Japanese finishing trowel confiscated by airline security and lost our shiitake mushroom plug spawn to agricultural inspection in Beijing. Undeterred, we pushed on, arriving a day early to sleep off jet lag and get oriented to the venue.
An able team of young Xu Ling villagers and volunteers rushed about cleaning up an old hall in the center of town, laying in bulk food for the cooks, re-wiring everything and setting up wifi, a PA system with bluetooth microphones, and a big projection screen.
As we walked the steep stone steps of the village we saw essentially a ghost town. Eighty large family houses stood empty, abandoned to the elements. Skinny dogs picked through the central garbage bins, scattering plastics and bits of foil into the bubbling mountain brooks that wove through and under the ancient stone stairways. Chickens and ducks, apparently the only domestic animals raised for food here, wandered the streets and picked through scraps the dogs missed, or raided the kernels of corn laid out on cement terraces to dry.
The old townspeople looked favorably towards the arrival of young ecovillagers but knew all too well that they were gardening greenhorns, unused to the seasonal ebbs and flows, city kids with city addictions, so they tried not to get too involved with them, not expecting they would last long. How many winter mass starvations had they witnessed in their long and difficult lives?
The students begin to arrive, coming in from all four corners of the Middle Kingdom. We have a Mongolian student who shaves his head and wears the traditional topknot. We have several from the mountainous Southwest, along the Tibetan plateau, and some from North of Beijing where there are ecovillages being born on splendid and historic royal estates and former monastery grounds. The government is committed to assuring their success by giving them some of the best land in that part of China. Among the students are architects, ecovillage designers, professors, gardeners, post-grad ag students, city recycling activists and engineers. They come because either they support this back-to-the-land movement or they are getting serious about joining it.
Here in Xu Ling the land is not bad, just in need of TLC. The elderly farmers descend to their terraces every day and work them over with hoes and sickles. They bare the ground, again and again, a practice that destroys whatever microbiome is close to the surface and that somehow survived the heavy use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, federally subsidized and liberally applied. The health clinic, still bearing slogans from the Cultural Revolution, is shuttered and padlocked and people go to distant hospitals to die so it would be difficult to look at the chemical fallout of this style of agriculture in an epidemiological way.
After a day of introductions and a village tour, we tackle the harder subjects. We don’t have a subtitled version of the late Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, so we recapitulate with the assist of our able translators. We put up the equations for doubling times on the board and tell the story of the mathematician who introduced the game of chess to the emperor. This tale resonates well with the daytime TV soaps in most parts of China — a mix of KungFu and Mandarin intrigue. The emperor was very pleased with the mathematician and asked what he would like in reward. “Oh nothing much, sire, only a few grains of rice will do. Just place one on the first square of the board, and then two on the next, four on the next, and so on, until you have covered the board.” The emperor thought him a very foolish man, thinking he had been prepared to offer great treasures but instead the man wanted only a few grains of rice.
“Well, just how much rice is that?” Bartlett had asked his college mathematics class. The answer was, once you got to the 64th square, it was more than 400 times the global rice harvest this year, and perhaps more rice than had ever been grown in all of human history.
Our Chinese students ponder this, as we begin to describe the exponential function in terms of various percent growth rates and doubling times. We point to a few commonly understood rates like coal mining or fish catch. Then we introduce the bacteria-in-a-bottle analogy and the point is hammered home. If you have a bacterium in a bottle and it doubles every minute and at the stroke of midnight the bottle is full, then at what point is the bottle half full? Answer: one-minute to midnight. And we ask, as did Bartlett, when the bottle was 7/8 blue sky, “just yearning for development,” how much time was left? Answer: 3 minutes. Did the bacteria realize they had a problem? Probably not. But suppose by the time the bottle was 1/4 full (2 minutes to midnight) they did, and sent out astronauts in search of more bottles, and were extraordinarily lucky and in the final minute those bacteria astronauts came back with three new bottles. How much time would they have now? Answer: 2 minutes. To go another minute they would need 4 more bottles, and so on.
One hardly needs to hammer home this analogy with the pollution problems being experienced throughout China, or the global Ponzinomic pyramid of financial debt from deadbeat creditors that is knocking at their door.
China property prices rose at the fastest pace on record in September, fueling fears of a market bubble in the world’s second-largest economy. Property prices climbed 11.2% on-year in September in 70 major cities while prices were up 2.1% from August, according to Reuters calculations using data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In August, prices rose 9.2% from a year ago. Home prices in the second-tier city of Hefei recorded the largest on-year gain at 46.8%, compared with on-year gains of 40.3% in August. Top August performer Xiamen posted an on-year rise of 46.5% against an increase of 43.8% in August. Prices in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing rose 34.1%, 32.7% and 27.8% on an annual basis respectively, according to Reuters.
We discuss with the class the concept of anti-fragility, as opposed to robust or resilient investments. Anti-fragile investments do well when things go south. Ecovillages are a good example. If you lose your net worth, you still have food security. If you produce a surplus in hard times, the world is your oyster. That leads to a discussion of organic gardening and soils.
After lunch we construct a compost pile near the kitchen. Our host community had been mixing organic wastes with the plastics and other non-renewables and just trucking it all down the mountain to the city landfill. We give our usual talk on epigenetic coevolution and quantum entanglement — we are our microbial selves — much to the consternation of a whole team of translators trying to keep up. We talk about the spiderwebs of biomes, fermentation, sick buildings, and end the day screening a subtitled version of The Man Who Planted Trees.
When we think of the stereotypes of Red China that pass for most USAnians as good reasons to vote Republican, we had best remember that this giant over there is largely our doing now. They are starting to wish they had not been lured into where they find themselves. It is best for all our sakes to encourage that.
The fourth day began with a mixed blessing. Walking back uphill from breakfast — indistinguishable, really, from the other two meals of the day — and pining for a Starbucks double espresso, we heard the shouts of a farmer down in the terraces below. He was pointing up to the village, shouting, and running. We watched in amazement as this man in at least his sixties sprinted up the steep stone steps, his conical bamboo hat bobbing behind his head as he shouted and pointed. Turning our gaze to where he was pointing, we saw the column of black smoke rising from the center of the village while around us other elderly villagers were rushing uphill, some passing by us at a dead run up the steps, carrying empty pails and plastic dish basins.
When we reached the fire, huffing and puffing and feeling pain in our knees, the students were already there, organizing themselves into a long chain to pass buckets from one of the many streams or taps to positions surrounding the building. It was clear that the first building, which had been storing winter firewood, was a lost proposition, as flames extending up through the roof now reached twice the height of the building. The attention of our makeshift fire brigade, led by our young cadre of engineers and architects, shifted focus to the adjacent home, and started dousing the outer walls and roof of that with all the water that could be brought to bear. When the Hangzhou fire department arrived, after about 45 minutes, the students and villagers already had it under control.
This was a blessing in unexpected ways, because it allowed the old resident villagers to feel the strength of our youthful ecovillage spirit. Where they had been running in ones and twos back and forth to the spring, we had set up a bucket brigade and delivered a lot of water where it was needed in a hurry. We responded rapidly and self-organized efficiently. It also let us feel our strength as a group in a pretty profound way, even though most had only met three days earlier. Lastly, it gave a good reality check to city kids accustomed to having things like fire departments they could speed dial on their smart phones.
Rather than jump back into the planned lesson, we chose to take an hour or two and let the adrenaline subside. We went around the circle and let everyone release what they wanted to say. It was a good chance to talk about planning for catastrophe, a standard element in any permaculture curriculum. We looked at how we had responded, what could have been better, and what was missing in the village’s own response.
Normally, when we do this virtually anywhere else in the world, the greatest concern is always climate change. Not one of the fourteen or more groups even mentioned that.
We had our work cut out.
Ripe persimmons and chestnuts
leaves starting to fall
summer heat lingers too long
— Xu Ling Village, Zhejiang, October 2, 2016
Published on Peak Surfer on December 4, 2016
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
It is Wednesday September 28 and we are sitting on the plane in Nashville waiting to take off for Hangzhou via Detroit and Beijing. This China trip is merely a warm-up for our Fall itinerary that has us traversing four continents in four weeks, including six ocean crossings. It is almost like a presidential campaign whistlestop tour, except they never utter a word about the thermometer in the room and everywhere we land we are making our pitch for reversing climate change by the redesign of the built environment. It is understandable that politicians won’t touch this subject. We are shredding the mystique of the land use patterns, collectively called civilization, that have served humans so poorly for the past eight millennia.
We spent August in Tennessee developing the lesson plans for the introductory workshops that will train a couple dozen soil activists in the People’s Republic and we are feeling pretty good about this stage of the trip now.
Then, in the run-up to blast off, we were tagged teamed by John Dennis Liu and Daniel Wahl, who wrangled us into cancelling scheduled events for late October and going straight from China to London for a meeting to assist British Commonwealth countries to prepare a new plan for COP-22 in Marrakech, one that will raise international ambition and stake out “plausibly impossible” but attainable goals to push the envelope of the Paris Agreement and the UN multilateral process. On October 28-29, a design charette, dubbed Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, will give us the opportunity to make our elevator pitch to a very receptive audience of big wigs.
Now it is September 29 and we have left Hangzhou airport and driven 3 hours up winding roads into the mountains at night, eventually arriving at the Xu Ling village where our workshops will be held. Quail are singing to each other in the terraces, frogs croak from the creeks, and from the forested mountains there is the sound of a distant owl. Three hundred years before Lao Tsu, this small village was home to a sage named Wu Xixu, later to become the first Premier of the country. The mountain pass above the village is a relatively low one, so for thousands of years the main stone road between Shanghai on the coast and inland Nanjing, capital city for many empires, ran through here. When the pass was blocked in winter, porters would use a cave passage that crossed from Zhejiang to the adjacent province under the mountains.
As we rose the morning of October 1st we jotted a quick Suessian limerick:
There was a young man named Wu
Who came from the village of Xu
They thought him so fair
They made him Premier
This fellow they called Wu from Xu
XuLing village is at 29 North so having 29C days in October is not unusual, kind of like Mississippi or Alabama. They get snow in winter but they also have thatch palm and heliconia trees. The valley is a South-facing parabolic with mountains backing it to the North. The upper slopes of the valley are very steep but varied with different woods and bamboos. There is plenty of water; it flows through stone channels everywhere. Some of the trees we see are more than 1000 years old.
The stonework is of varying age; the oldest being most mostly massive freestack and then smaller, cut freestack, then fine mortared walls, then mud brick and cinderblock. Mud brick is illegal now — an overworked resource that has left ugly scars in many places. Cement brick and block is mandatory. Not even fired brick is permitted unless it is imported.
As we meet some of the villagers and students who have arrived for our workshops we observe that Chinese clothing is very westernized. Shoes are almost always state-of-the-art Nikes, Converses, Adidas and T-shirt slogans are usually in English even if the wearer doesn’t speak a word and may have no idea what it means. But surprisingly, many have done at least a year at a US university. Sometimes the ensemble of hair, glasses, clothes and iPhone 7 is so western you think the kid is USAnian except that when you ask them something they can’t comprehend a word. In contrast, there are kids who’ve learned almost perfect English just by watching internet movies and TV and prefer to affect old-style Chinese dress and hair styles, even the round glasses from a century earlier.
This contrast between the old and the new will be a recurrent theme of our month here. While many Chinese youth are enamored of consumer culture and willing to make great sacrifices to attain it, the Chinese ecovillage movement is mostly retrofuturist, showing deference, if not nostalgia, for lost culture. They seek as much a return to villageness as a breath of cleaner air and sip of cleaner water.
They are bucking a big trend, but lately they have been finding support in unusual quarters. Eleven years ago, the current President of China, then Governor and Party Committee Secretary of Zhejiang, went on a State visit to the rural villages to assess the needs of the people. What he discovered was a brewing catastrophe.
Globalization has been drawing people from the country to the cities for many decades, and until recently government policies encouraged it in order to fill the need for a gargantuan factory labor force. It recognized that this policy meant sacrificing agricultural capacity, but like most developing countries, was willing to make that trade-off because it figured that it could import food with its newly favorable trade balance, and a whole lot more.
What Xi Jinping saw nearly broke his heart. Long a champion of “Chinese values” and the “Chinese Dream,” Xi had hoped to revive Taoist practices of harmony in culture and nature. "He who rules by virtue is like the North Star," he said at a meeting of officials last year, quoting Confucius. "It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.”
What he saw in the rural countryside was that all the teenagers, young people and middle-aged had left. There were only the very elderly — the grandparents — and the very young — the grandchildren — being supported by a combination of welfare services and remittances from distant families working in the cities. The terraces, on land too steep to use machinery, were in disrepair, overgrown with weeds and emergent forest. Buildings were crumbling and stray dogs roamed the streets. Food production had plummeted. The old hand tools were rusted and broken. The forests on the hillsides had been raided by timber companies and now mudslides wrecked the streams and threatened the villages.
Back in Shanghai, Xi gave a speech calling for two mountains. The first was development, including basic services to make peoples’ lives better. The second he called his “mountain of gold” — return of nature. Pure forests and pure water was what he called the real gold of China.
This was 11 years ago. In 2013 he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the most powerful consolidation of power since before the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
We are told that one reason the Sunshine Ecovillage Network has been successful in winning official support for its plan for rural revitalization in China, with a goal of 100 ecovillages by 2021, is that it chose to launch here in Zhejiang province, where the two mountains were first revealed to Xi Jinping.
This is first in a continuing series.
Published on Peak Surfer on November 27, 2016
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"We think there’s an outside chance that humans may possess the collective will and presence of mind to do what must be done, and to do it quickly, even if it means radically altering, even abolishing, industrial civilization."
Two years have passed since we produced a video mashup for a winter Indiegogo campaign, our last big crowdfunding effort. It was a trifle dour, we admit, but as the Earth tilts its Northern Hemisphere away from the sun and daylight gets scarcer, the plant-world moves underground, and we bundle from the cold, it is easy to fall into thoughts of contraction and decline.
The 4 per 1000 initiative (the French government’s campaign — 4 grams increase of soil carbon per year in every kilogram of farmed earth) remains the best game in town, whether your town is Paris, Marrakech, or in 2017, Bonn. It would, in the French government's theory (supported by IPCC's notion of a "carbon budget" but called into question by the latest report cards from the Tyndall Centre and others) be enough to hold climate change at 1.5 degrees, if universally adopted.
That 2014 COP-20 proposal, “Soil for food security and climate” became part of the “Lima-Paris Action Agenda” and then, two weeks ago at COP-22, the “Global Climate Action Agenda,” but the word 'soil' only made it once into the Marrakech Action Proclamation at the end of COP-22, and that was in reference to the venue being "on African soil." The word 'agriculture' was completely absent.
However, if you read the outcome document liberally to assume the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), or the UN's pledge system, constitutes the action agenda at present, then there may still be some hope.
While the 4 per 1000 initiative gained no new additions to the 37 nations who endorsed in Paris, many NDPs are starting to reflect the realization that putting carbon back in the ground might be a cheap way to meet their goals. This includes the United States, which last May issued a “Climate Smart” agriculture and forestry plan. The word 'biochar' does not appear in that 60-page plan. Pyrolysis is only mentioned in the context of a way to reduce methane from concentrated animal farming wastes. This is the US-DUH, remember?
The influence of heroic biochar researcher Hans Peter Schmidt was evident at the margins of the event, where Swiss biotech company Zaluvida Corporate AG pitched for venture capital from business leaders to support its natural solution to reduce methane emissions in cows, Mootral(TM). Mootral is a feed supplement made from biochar infused with garlic and citric extract. Just 10 grams a day reduces bovine flatulence 30 percent while increasing weight gain and lactose production. According to the literature handed out by Zaluvida, feeding every cow a daily dose of Mootral would be the same as taking 200 million cars off the road. An antibiotic version is scheduled for release next year after it receives patent approval.
Published on Peak Surfer on November 20, 2016
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“Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us. And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
Last week, we recalled the words of Hitler’s social architect Albert Speer, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” And yet, despite all the entreaties to slay the beast and make sure its dead — from Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, Joe Brewer, whomever — we have to confess, after Paris and now after Marrakech, the only highway back to the Holocene that can support mammalian life such as ours is being constructed by and for monster corporations like Citibank and Monsanto.
At a side event in the business tent we sat down in a corner to have some local Arabica while we awaited the next session. We struck up a conversation with the elderly gent in the adjoining seat. He was John Scowcroft, Chief Credit Officer and Executive Managing Director at S&P. We showed him The Biochar Solution and the usual conversation followed. Turns out he is leaving S&P to start a CCS group to seize the profit potential in carbon management futures.
Later, at a side event called Beyond Paris: Investor actions to manage climate risk and seize low-carbon opportunities, we were listening attentively to James Close, World Bank; Erick Decker, AXA Group; Michael Eckhart, Citigroup; Pete Grannis, NY State Comptroller’s Office; Anthony Hobley, Carbon Tracker and others, when Rachel Kyte spotted our book, The Paris Agreement, and leaned over to ask, “Is that any good?”
“Fantastic!” we gushed.
A former Vice President of World Bank, she is Ban Ki Moon’s Special Representative to the business community.
Over the course of the two weeks in Morocco we had brief encounters like this too many times to catalogue. We tell you this not to suggest we are anyone special but to say that in this critical time we — you and I — have been given access.
Historically this is the rarest of moments. Crisis makes for strange bedfellows (ask James Comey and Julian Assange). Citibank, with branches in 160 countries, went from financing $12 billion in green project finance in 2013 to $24 billion in 2014 to $48 billion in 2015 and likely $100 billion this year. Deutsche Bank will tally $350 billion in investments aimed at decarbonization in 2016. More importantly, the big banks have dumped $500 billion in fossil asset portfolios since Paris and would have liked to dump much more if they only had a safe place to park it, even interest-free.
The board rooms have Trump-proofed the Paris Agreement and the whole paradigm shift that came with it. There is absolutely no way any clown show is going to hijack these negotiations now. Wall Street, the Illuminati, the Buddhist monasteries, NeoLib Academe, The Vatican, the Royals and the Chinese Triads are all 110 percent committed. They are shoulder to shoulder in the doorway.
Rachel Kyte told the crowd, “Carbon is an investment risk that is not yet priced in.” This situation is not likely to last much longer. We hovered longest in the venues that were looking at drawdown, and we could see that so much of the finance and political world is focused on technological fixes like geoengineering and CCS (carbon capture and storage) that putting a price on carbon and taxing the polluters is coming, Trump or no. It is the only way you can economically justify those uneconomical, harebrained, bait-and-switch schemes.
In a brief, airport encounter, an IPCC working group leader told us $45 per ton would be needed to make the 2-degree limit achievable with sequestered scrubber gas.
Of course, we know better. Putting carbon underground costs nothing and pays handsome returns if you do it by planting mixed species, mixed age, ecosystemically functioning, climate resilient and rainmaking forests and coppice, pollard and patch renew them periodically to derive food, fiber, building material and most importantly, biochar, to create cascades of products and services in a circular economy with no such thing as waste. That does not require a $45/ton price or even 4 cents. It will earn you vastly more. Real wealth.
The best way to raise land value is to increase its beauty with biodiversity, increase the organic matter in its soils, build humus, make biochar and be a contributing member of the local community. Just doing that reverses climate change and generates multiple revenue streams for any poor sod who stumbles into it.
The Secretary General of the British Commonwealth, Hon. Baroness Patricia Scotland, at the closing plenary of the Joint High-level Segment [COP agenda item 18 and CMP agenda item 14 and Item 4 of the provisional CMA agenda] uttered the word “permaculture” for the first time at a United Nations podium:
"Mr. President, I speak for the Commonwealth collectively, a family of 52 member states, among them countries in all continents and oceans that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Our priority is to move from agreement to action. Small islands threatened by rising sea levels and larger states vulnerable to flooding or desertification share the common advantages of a common language, common law, and closely related systems of governance. These similarities enable us to work together without distraction and get straight to the nub of issues.
"High on our agenda for 30 years has been the impact of climate change. This long-standing focus bore fruit a year ago when our Biannual Heads of Government Meeting assembled in Malta. Days before COP21, our member states, in their rich diversity, agreed to set ambition high and paved the way for the Paris Agreement. Our practical and distinctive Commonwealth contribution is technical support, offered by our Climate Finance Access Hub.
"A month ago, we convened a ground breaking and dynamic gathering on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change. It brought together biologists, ecologists, oceanographers and regenerative development specialists to consider ways of reversing the human impacts of climate change. Our focus was on developing positive action for the living world to restore climate balance, including biomimicry, permaculture, ecological engineering, and circular economies. It is through such pioneering approaches, I believe, that as on so many occasions in the past, the potential for our Commonwealth networks’ meetings will be mobilized to lay the foundations on which progressive global consensus can be built to create a safer and more sustainable future for all."
Contrast this to the buffoonery of the apparently tipsy US Secretary of State, obviously winging it:
While the national commitments, or NDCs, that were pledged at Paris in 2015 bend emissions downward, they are still not on a course correcting trajectory. Our planet is moving out of the Neutral Zone, the one location we know of in this galaxy where you may find life. The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report, even while understating the risk, says we are headed towards 3.4°C warming by 2100 (we think will likely get there much sooner). To get back to a 2-degree "safe" zone (with 66% certainty) we would need 25% lower emissions in 2030 than there are today. And yet, incredible as it may seem, emissions are still rising.
When you are racing against extinction you cannot afford to fritter away time or forget the first rule of holes. 2016 will be the 15th record-breaking year this century in terms of heat, since measurements began. That is 15 new records in 16 years, a pattern any sports fan should recognize as extraordinary. Globally we are already up 1.2 degrees, although closer to 5 degrees near the poles. Humans have never lived on a planet with 400 parts per million CO2 in its atmosphere before.
2ºC is a vanished target now. But this isn’t a 2ºC or bust fight. It’s a fight to limit consequences. It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2ºC, we have to fight for 2.1º; failing that, we battle on for 2.2º. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is still better than 4.1º.
It is useful to remember that in 2007 the Met Office produced a four-degree scenario on behalf of HM Government. Climate scientists from other institutions also contributed their most up-to-date research on climate impacts at the time.
As we mull (or bemoan) the average intelligence of Republican presidents, we recall that it was Group Captain James Stagg, also of the MetOffice, who changed the nail-hard mind of Dwight D. Eisenhower and got him to postpone D-day by 24 hours, despite Operation Neptune being already well underway. The MetOffice is not an outfit whose predictions should be trifled with.
- Heat changes will not be the same everywhere. Mid-continent North America and Europe and parts of Africa will be 6-7 degrees warmer. Most of Russia and Africa will be 8 degrees or above.
- In densely populated eastern China hottest days of the year are 11°F warmer. In Toronto, Chicago, Ottawa, New York and Washington DC, make that 22°F hotter. Europe is somewhere in between.
- The permafrost is gone across vast regions of Canada and Russia. Atmospheric methane, 100 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, spikes, inexorably pushing temperatures towards 5 and beyond.
- Half of the world’s population has inadequate access to water.
- Half of all Himalayan glaciers are significantly reduced, 70% of the water supply to India and China.
- In South America, many glaciers disappear completely, taking 75% of Peru’s water with them.
- Fish populations crash from acidification and coral loss.
- Forested areas burn, including a large area of the United States, Mexico, South America east of the Andes, Southern and East Africa, the Sahel, eastern and southern Europe and Australia.
- Maize and wheat yields reduced up to 40% at low latitudes. Soybean yield decreases in all regions. Rice yield declines up to 30% in Asia.
- Water supplies to rivers drops up to 70% in many regions.
- The loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet contributes 3.3 meters to sea level rise. Greenland ice losses add 7 meters globally.
- The Netherlands and Southeastern England are inundated. Seychelles, Miami Beach and the Hamptons have disappeared. The San Francisco Bay extends almost to Sacramento. Most of those displaced, however are in India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.
So, at four degrees, who would be left to fight for 4.1? What possible good would it do?
|Real world tracks scenario RCP 8.5|
As we left Marrakech we felt ambivalent about the outcome. Paris had sent the high benchmark and these follow-on COPs are supposed to fit the nuts to the bolts. There was still a very uncomfortable level of pushback amongst the underdeveloping, with India and Indonesia, both big coal users, saying that economic growth had precedence over near-term emissions cuts. Turkey is planning to build 70 new coal plants. These errors assure the already underdeveloping will continue digging a deeper hole for themselves. New Zealand, which talks a good disinvestment game, plans to increase petroleum exports from $3 billion to $30 billion per year by 2025.
All countries’ leaders need to take stock, a point that was made poignantly clear by this slide from the MetOffice:
It shows that the world cannot begin atmospheric carbon drawdown later than 2020 — three years from now — or the two degrees red line will be broken.
Clear next steps emerged from discussions: end fossil fuel subsidies (including fracking); phase out coal and then ban it; cancel all new fossil fuel infrastructure orders (including supertankers, arctic exploration and DAPL); set higher efficiency standards; subsidize agroforestry and renewables (down to zero cost); enforce LDN (Land Degradation Neutrality — no net land loss to sprawl, desertification or deforestation — 102 countries have signed on); and reform agriculture to an organic, no-till standard.
These next steps got no farther than discussions, however, and what emerged from Marrakech was more palliative statements and promises that next year will be better. Tick tock. Clown show. Tick tock. "Time is not on our side." (John Kerry) Tick tock. (Donald Trump) Tick tock.
Published on Peak Surfer on November 13, 2016
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We have always wanted to get to this town, ever since we were a young hippy hitching through Europe in 1966 and our rides took us along the southern coasts of France, Spain and Italy. Fate did not carry us here then, but perhaps we are making up for lost time now. Honestly, later in life is probably better.
We find ourselves in the company of brilliant people engaged in transforming the world. While nearly the whole of our 7 billion monkey minds seem transfixed by the US election result, a few of us are quietly sneaking around all that to sew the seeds of what comes next, after the Trumpocalypse.
We could say that the Trump victory was not a global disaster but we would be lying. Dmitry Orlov observed that we at least seem to have avoided World War III with Russia. Naomi Klein, Christopher Nesbitt and Richard Heinberg have eloquently pointed out that the Democratic Party neoliberal hegemony has been shattered, and Ugo Bardi reminds us that Italy survived 20 years of Berlusconi, after all. These are all pluses, but they will not prevent disaster if The Donald has an itchy trigger finger after a few scotches late one night and decides to nuke, say, Cuba.
For Cuba, and for any other country that lacks the means to acquire a missile defense shield, we recommend they immediately put a Trump Tower in their capital. Trump Casino Habana could be world class, totally revamping the weatherbeaten but still popular Malecone boardwalk.
We are watching this drama from within the halls of COP22 as it plays out on the plasma screens in the halls and media centers of Bab Ighli. Some may think what we are doing here is now totally irrelevant, but take it from us on faith, if not on our own warped logic, it’s not.
We have written in the past about the rise and fall of many civilizations and most, if not all, of those had their peak moment just before collapse when their capitals became a clown show. Recall, if you can, the Roman Colosseum, the Mayan pyramid sacrifices, or the Nazi extravaganzas choreographed by Albert Speer.
While the clown show has been playing out in North America, the 22d UN climate conference has kicked off in Marrakech. It has brought together tens of thousands of NGOs, governments and people from all around the world to respond to the existential crisis of climate change.
Existential crises don’t just disappear because the US holds an election. This one is still gathering momentum. It is coming at us like a bullet train.
Marrakech is the first post-Paris meeting of world leaders. It is an important one because having taken the enormous step of setting hard red lines last year — 2 degrees firm, 1.5 aspirational — countries now have to figure out exactly how those goals can be attained. On the negotiating table are mechanisms for finance, monitoring, increasing ambitions, and drawdown.
We are mainly focused on that last item. Emissions reductions are now a done deal. Fossil fuels, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, are on their way to being legally banned whether largely clueless USAnians understand that or not. (Which is not to say the Standing Rock water protectors are not absolutely right to try to preserve their patrimony in the meantime.) What logically follows is a need to start pulling carbon from the atmosphere and as quickly as possible to return both oceans and air to pre-industrial carbon concentrations. There is a scientifically validated and economical way to do that, using carbon farming, regenerative agroforestry, and waste-biomass-to-biochar energy systems, but the hitch is not science or technology. It’s people.
We need to have a carrier medium for this viral paradigm switch; one that can overcome cultural inertia and provide an inviting path forward — a bandwagon rolling through the clown circus. Hop aboard!
Ecovillages weave together the ecological, economic, social and cultural dimensions of the new circular economy (no such thing as waste) by pioneering innovative solutions that enable towns, districts, regions and nation states to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) is bringing to the table the ‘Pan-African Ecovillage Development Programme’ designed to radically reform current development practices and put communities, ecological generation, and nonmonetary, post-growth wealth creation at the heart of the development process. The full and inclusive participation of communities on the ground from conception to implementation, together with the sharing and transferring of expertise and personally grounded experience, is the key to success.
The results speak for themselves. Africa is home to some of the most innovative ecovillage programs in the world. In Senegal the success of grassroots ecovillage communities has led to the development of a National Ecovillage Agency working to transform 14,000 rural villages into ecovillages. In Egypt the Sekem farm and ecovillage is working with over 800 organic and biodynamic farmers, providing educational programs at the pre-school to university level, and delivering healthcare to more than 40.000 people from 11 surrounding villages. The President of Burkina Faso has declared his intention to implement 2000 ecovillages by 2020. GEN is in process of signing MOU’s with several national governments at COP22.
This success is an example of GEN’s ‘Transition Strategy’ in action – transitioning existing settlements to sustainable settlements and scaling up partnerships with governments, NGOs, and donors to implement policies and solutions at local, regional, and international levels. Building on 20 years of global networking, sustainable development, groundbreaking grassroots work and education, GEN’s intent is to continue to create these types of transformational alliances that grease the skids.
GEN is also using COP22 to announce the launch of the ‘GEN Consultancy,' a highly skilled and diverse network of expert consultants that seek to share some of the world’s best practices in the field of community sustainability and resilience. GEN’s solution is not top-down after the usual UNEP/UNDP model, but empowering the millions of small solutions from people and projects within their own communities.
If the Trump election, Brexit, and the recent anti-peace-deal vote in Colombia show anything, it is that we are across a threshold now where backroom deals, newspaper and politico endorsements, money and even common sense no longer dictate an outcome. Consider the fact that Hillary Clinton could rig the ballots in Honduras and Ukraine or bemoan (in emails) the failure of the State Department to rig the elections in Palestine, but could not rig her own election (though try as she did).
Social media, reality TV, yellow internet journalism and flash mobs are now in control. In this new world, the herd is driven by raw impulses of fear and pleasure-seeking. The ecovillage lure, whether dangled as a prepper redoubt or as a happy eutopia (Lat.: a good place), offers a clear choice. With cool villages that draw down carbon and give us energy, food and water security in exchange, ecovillages offer the right impulse at the perfect historical moment.
Which is why we are in Marrakech.
Published on Peak Surfer on November 6, 2016
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–> We are selling timeshares to help build residences for our trainees. "
- Local organic food
- Drinking water
- Waste treatment
- Weekly cleaning
- Trash collection
- 10yr maintenance and repair
- Booking, rental & admin.
In a few hours we shall be landing in Marrakech. We plan to hawk these timeshares to some of our activist friends during COP-22. Our agenda is drawdown. We are betting that some of those attending will see the value of that too. But just to be sure, before we left home we planted more than enough trees to cancel out the climate costs of all this crazy travel.
Published on Peak Surfer on October 30, 2016
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Perhaps it is just an active imagination fueled by the ghouls and zombies roaming London’s streets this time of year, but the olde city seems unseasonably warm, almost as if we had been transported to Quintana Roo and were celebrating Dia de los Muertos.
What has risen from the dead here is not the spirits of the long departed, but hope.
Coming from first the USA and then China, two parts of the world that are nearly tone-deaf on matters relating to climate change, there is a maritime breeze blowing through the British Isles that is entirely refreshing. We are out after dark in light shirts and jeans with John Dennis Liu, Tom Goreau and Daniel Halsey, descending into a pub incongruously called The Coal Hole, to toast to the success of extraordinary events.
This time next week some of us will be gathered in Marrakech for COP-22, the twenty second conference of the 196 parties to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) inked in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This time last year we were readying ourselves for the uncertain outcome of COP-21 in Paris. The difference this time, both in our task and in the momentum being carried, is stunning.
Paris turned out to be an historic game-changer, setting the stage for a revolution in the affairs of men, already begun, promising an eventual return to a sacred circular economy seldom seen since the retreat of the Ice Sheets 12000 years ago.
We are gathering here in London to assist preparations of the British Commonwealth countries who seek to speak as a unified voice in this context for a second time. The first occasion came at a critical juncture during the second week in Paris, when it was looking like the best that might be salvaged was another unambitious resolution. Having prepared for that moment, the then 53 countries of the Commonwealth, representing the interests of 2.4 billion people on roughly half the land surface of the Earth, spoke with one voice in demanding a firm legal mandate of two degrees and an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees. Those goals were, and are, both unobtainable — given what known science and carbon cycle momentum dictate — and political dynamite, but to hear the Secretary General of the Commonwealth tell it, sticking to that and refusing to compromise was what pulled the Paris Agreement out of oblivion last year. Of course, we happen to the think the French had a bit a to do with the success too, as we described in our book, The Paris Agreement, but let the S.G. gloat if she wants, no harm.
|Eric Toensmeier with HRH|
She intends to repeat the performance in Marrakesh in November.
In another part of this balmy London town, HRH Prince of Wales has been hosting a Climate Friendly Landscapes meeting in Lancaster House off Green Park. Our friends Eric Toensmeier and Rattan Lal are there to share research into carbon removal strategies including tropical tree staple crops, intensive silvopasture and ecosystemic multistrata agroforestry rotations.
Charles could not attend our meeting but sent his representative, Justin Mundy of the Royal International Sustainability Unit. Her majesty’s government also sent a UK Economic advisor and others to participate in our two-day design workshop. Our task was to roll up our sleeves, shed the ties and heels, and give the Commonwealth an agenda best suited to taking the Paris Agreement where it needs to go next.
That destination is beyond zero. It will not do to merely reduce emissions at some set rate per annum, as has been the UNFCCC litany since Kyoto. That must happen too, but the important goal that needs to be set in Marrakech is drawdown. We need to get back below 350 ppm carbon in the atmosphere, and we need to do it quickly. 260 or 280 would be preferable.
When we received the brief for the meeting, a few days in advance, we expected to see academic gearheads hawking harebrained CCS (carbon capture and storage, or “clean coal”) schemes. There was none of that. The Economic Minister confided in us that it was the opinion of government, and the UK science community, that none of those were viable. How refreshing.
In fact, the consensus going in was precisely a breath of fresh air. It was our shared understanding that “clean coal” scrubbing technofixes were rubbish and that photosynthesis, and that alone, will get us out of this predicament, assuming escape is even possible at this point — even if “possibly implausible.”
So it was we found ourselves amongst extraordinarily like minds, such as Christopher Cooke from Savory Institute, David McConville from Buckminster Fuller Institute, Katherine Wilkinson from Project Drawdown, Marcello Palazzi of B-Lab Europe, Bill Reed and Ben Haggard of Regenesis, Louise Baker of UNCCD, Janine Benyus of Biomimicry for Social Innovation, Herbert Girardet of World Futures Council, Isabelle Dellanoy of Symbiotic Economy, Sam Muirhead of Open Source Circular Economy, Daniel Wahl, May East, Maddy Harland, and many others who know of active experience that only soil will save us, but that gaining the social capital to make such a switch is the real challenge we face.
We all seemed to agree in advance that our green buildings and ecovillages must become ecodistricts, eco-countries and eco-hemispheres. The S.G. wants her home country, Dominica, to be a net sequestering model. To save coral reefs we will need to reverse land degradation and put carbon where it belongs. John Dennis Liu kept chanting three simple metrics: biomass, biodiversity, soil organic matter.
For our part we can report from our own recent work in the Caribbean that natural climate ecoforestry outperforms Monsanto agrochem 10 to 1 in food provision (and certainly nutrient density) and the return on biochar/biofertilizer investments is 20 to 40 percent per year (in real money).
We tell them we can stop immigration in its tracks with green jobs and food security and we can do it faster and with less CAPEX than constructing refugee camps at every border.
Hollywood endings aside, how this meeting came about is almost in the realm of fairy tales. Quoth the oracle, Wikipedia:
Patricia Janet Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, PC, QC (born 19 August 1955) is a British barrister who served in junior ministerial positions within the UK Government, most notably as the Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland. At the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting she was elected the 6th Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations and took office on 1 April 2016. She is the first woman to hold the post.
The Baroness, who prefers to be called just S.G. (Secretary General) is a force of nature. The 10th child of 12 born to a Dominican mother and Antiguan father, she came with her parents to England in 1957. She excelled in school work and took a law degree from Mid Essex Technical College, joining both the British and Dominican bars. In 1991, Scotland became the first black woman to be appointed a Queen's Counsel. Her work on the Commission for Racial Equality earned her recognition by the Queen and a life peerage in 1997. She then became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where she was responsible for the UK Government's diplomatic relations with North America, the Caribbean, and Overseas Territories. In 2001 she was made a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. She was the minister formally responsible for civil justice and the reform of civil law including the comprehensive reform of land registration. In 2007 she was made Minister of State for the Criminal Justice System and Law Reform at the Home Office, where she created the Office of Criminal Justice Reform. She also created an advisory group on victims and the Criminal Justice Centre, Victims and Witness units.
She was then appointed UK Attorney General by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the first woman to hold the office since its foundation in 1315. She served the Labour government in that role until 2014.
At the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Scotland was elected as the 6th Commonwealth Secretary-General and the first woman to hold the post. She began her first of a maximum of two possible four-year terms on 1 April 2016. She told us that at her first meeting with the 53 High Commissioners she polled them to see what were the priority issues. Climate change came out on top. The threat to the small island states in the Commonwealth was existential.
“We are 2.4 billion people on half the land area in the world,” she told us. “It is 21 percent of the world’s forested area. We are joined by common language and common culture. And now we are joined in common purpose.”
She said Paris was a pivotal change. Prince Charles had called it a 100-trillion-pound moment. Money will not be an obstacle. Political will will not be an obstacle. We are here assembled to then answer the next question: “And, so?”
What we were in that palace for was to provide the solutions, as thin as their chances of succeeding at this late hour might be. We were not placed here to go into separate silos. We were brought here to bring it all together: permaculture, biomimicry, holistic management, agroforestry, climate finance, the circular economy, ecovillages and atmospheric regenesis. This was not the Shark Tank or the Dragon’s Den. We are none of us here to self-promote or compete for a prize. This is Extreme Makeover: Ecosystem Version. Disruption is the new norm. The tables in the temple have been upended. The moneychangers have been driven out.
What is your vision of what can happen next? Ours, cobbled together in two long days, is now what the Commonwealth countries will carry with them to COP-22.