Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twelve More Years To Do Nothing

"The future is changing, with or without us."

When the latest IPCC report landed with a thud on government desks around the world, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists opined: 
“There have been many climate warnings issued in the past few decades, but the latest one is more like an air-raid siren than an alarm clock with an overworked snooze button.”
Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (high confidence). — IPCC
To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, the report says that human emissions of carbon dioxide must fall dramatically: by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to “net zero” around 2050. The real situation is worse than that.

Depending on where you start, we are already close enough to 1.5 that we can feel its hot breath on our collar. The IPCC did a nifty trick of shifting the starting point nearly a century forward from its earliest reports, the ones the set the temperature goal. They literally moved the goal posts. If they can keep doing that, we will never warm 1.5 degrees. Pretty cool, huh? The report’s authors say that 1.5 degrees is still financially and technologically feasible, and maybe this is why. We can always just manipulate the numbers.

Most of the media, from Democracy Now! to the Wall Street Journal, reported the news as a chance to procrastinate for another decade more. 

For its part, deep in a 500-page Transportation Department environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling admission: On its current course, the planet will warm 4°C by end of century. Placed against that background, it is foolish to tweak minor things like automobile fuel standards because they would have almost zero impact in comparison.
The magnitude of the changes in climate effects that would be produced by the least stringent action alternative (Alternative 1) by the year 2100 is roughly a 0.6 ppm higher concentration of CO2, three thousandths of a degree increase in temperature rise, a small percentage change in the rate of precipitation increase, about 0.06 centimeter (0.02 inch) of sea-level rise, and an increase of 0.0004 in ocean pH.— NHTSA
“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.
Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence) — IPCC
Alternative 7, the lowest CO2 emissions alternative, would result in CO2 concentrations of 687.4 ppm, an increase of 0.15 ppm compared with the No Action Alternative. — NHTSA
You have to wonder why the administration made such a stark admission. MIT Sloan School of Management professor John Sterman explained it this way:
“First, the administration proposes vehicle efficiency policies that would do almost nothing [to fight climate change]. Then [the administration] makes their impact seem even smaller by comparing their proposals to what would happen if the entire world does nothing.”
NHTSA’s 4°C rise revises IPCC’s chart to look like this:
 

As we have observed in this space before, to have a realistic chance of averting disaster, the global economy would need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).
An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.
Bates and Draper, Annual Meeting of International Society for Biophysical Economics (2018)

Human economics, like modern humans themselves, evolved in an era of favorable climate and nearly unfathomable natural abundance. To classical economists, nature’s abundance was never really in the equation. Merely an endowed capital resource. A given. A neglected externality. It is just always there. Sure, you can run it down, deplete it, use it up. The cost is still just the extractive cost — paying for miners or lumberjacks. The penalty is having to meet the higher replacement costs. Whether there even is a replacement is seldom considered. As long as the money is there it is assumed there will always be replacements, and probably better ones. And you can always just print more money.

Some peak oil theorists, eschewing classical economics, imagined twenty years ago that climate change, like many other types of pollution, would suddenly abate when we ran out of economically extractable fossil reserves. That assumption failed to account for atmospheric residence times, lag and feedback effects and thermodynamic inertia.
The warming from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea-level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence). 
— IPCC
We passed that peak point for conventional fossil sources around 2005, but kept going, moving into the domain of more expensive, still marginally affordable, unconventional sources (oil shale, tar sands, fracked gas). Now unconventional sources, along with what remains of coal and sweet crude, are being exhausted more quickly than ever before, their discovery, extraction and refining costs ratcheting up but subsidized to the tune of $5.6 trillion per year, not counting military adventures and foreign intrigues (add another trillion for just the US military). At some point the unconventionals, like the conventionals, will move over into the “unaffordable” column because the Paris Agreement, like the new IPCC report, puts subsidies on death watch, and without those they are, each and every one eventually, money losers for those who mine and drill. When that process will start is anyone’s guess. For now, buying politicians is a better business model for oil companies than exploring biofuels.

We use dinosaur carbon in many ways. Look around you. Almost everything you touch owes its existence to an invisible army of fossil energy slaves. From your computer, to the truck that transported it, to the road the truck drove down, to the chair, bed or floor you are sitting on. Fossil slaves cater your most basic needs. They provide food from farm to factory to store. They shear the sheep and weave your sweaters.

Energy is their heartbeat. If the energy flow slows, the blood flow weakens, slave labor grinds to a halt, and the invisible army falls dead in its tracks. Unless we can summon new reserves of energy, or learn to do with far less, a withering away of the industrial economy is inevitable.

We should free our fossil energy slaves as quickly as possible and recruit solar replacements. Down that road lies clean, renewable energy — carbon neutrality — and farther along, the cleansing transformations of agricultural and consumer wastes into continuous soil amendments and enduring passive sequestration — carbon drawdown. But make no mistake, after the revolution, it will not look like your daddy’s industrial world any more.

If only by virtue of the fact that we are going to be running on a budget of sunlight and not a million-year savings account of hi-octane fossil energy our future will be much more sedate. As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling says,
“Switchgrass is also aptly known as “Panic Grass,” a pretty good coinage for an attempt to run a superpower on hay.”
Until now, biomass energy crops like corn or cane have pushed their negative impacts onto ecosystems — deforestation, land and sea degradation, loss of biodiversity, erosion, water pollution, coral destruction and scarcity. With the newest IPCC report urgently telling us we need Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) for carbon dioxide removal, governmental and non-governmental institutions, academy, and society in general have raised concerns about the whole Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) scheme. What is the sustainability of using land to grow crops for energy? What is the longevity and safety of geological storage of CO2? What will this mean for forest and farm communities? What will all this cost?
Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).— IPCC
Despite what modern herdsmen might tell you about the power of managed grazing to store carbon in grassland soils, nothing matches trees when it comes to socking away greenhouse gases. Even when the leaves have dropped for the winter, leaving only bare bristles raking the sky, they are still atmospheric scrub brushes. At their roots mycelia never sleep, transporting carbon exudates below erodible soil crusts, snow and respiring humates.

A plantation is not a forest any more than a CAFO is a farm. We need more forests, all over the planet, to remove more carbon and return it where it belongs. Old growth should be protected. Newer forests should be managed, at least in the near term, to optimize growth and carbon drawdown, and that will involve the gainful employment of hundreds of millions of us. China had the right idea when it deployed 60,000 soldiers to plant trees over an area the size of Ireland.

Broadscale reforestry must also consider the social, economic and environmental dimensions of that social restructuring — including: food competition, basic services, family involvement, equal opportunities, land tenure rights, access to land tenure, retirement benefits, regulatory regimes, scientific and technological innovation, self-financing, income diversification, soil health, chemical safety, net land use degradation, biodiversity, waste management, availability and reuse of water, training, family health care, childrens’ education, child labor, lateral organization, and open, transparent participation.

From the standpoint of ecosystem services and biodiversity both above and below ground — not to mention the human social impacts — the industrial bioenergy model imagined by climate capitalists would be a disaster. Bioenergy as a side-product of forest harvesting, food and wood processing, can be inherently a local enterprise — optimally a family enterprise. We should plant healthy forests everywhere, not ship forest products halfway around the world.

Planting and then keeping healthy forests is going to be very challenging in a rapidly warming world. One thing we know will help is biochar, confering upon every seedling the blessings of favorable soil biology, fungal mass, drought and flood resilience, and pest resistance required to reach maturity.

Air Burner turning forestry slash to biochar—courtesy Kelpie Wilson
Fortunately there is no shortage of waste biomass to be carbonized. That orphaned resource represents energy, which means economy, which can mean happiness. Look around! We are positively drowning in wasted organics; sewage sludge, livestock manure, invasive species of plants attacking mono-crops, green waste, food waste, and woody biomass scraps from various industries from papermaking to home furnishings, pallets to packaging, and the list goes on.

Apart from bacteria, the total live biomass on Earth is about 560 billion tons C. The total annual primary production of biomass, wild and domesticated, is just over 100 billion tons C/yr. Of that, farmed annual cereal crops are about 2.3 billion tons. And more than half the cereal biomass by weight is considered “waste.”

When we consider available “food-grade” wastes that could be turned into biomass energy, bio-fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and other uses, there is ample supply waiting to be tapped to turn the carbon cycle around and begin drawing down legacy emissions. Are those sources enough to accomplish the task of avoiding “dangerous” or “catastrophic” climate change? Probably not, so we can go beyond “food-grade” wastes to employ municipal solid wastes or hog manure to blend into carbon polymers, cement buildings and asphalt highways. There are untapped gigatons of unconventional feedstocks, and many more potential products and services that can cascade into fun and profit.


Cereal and agroforestry crop waste can go through several transformations — mashed for leaf protein extraction, fed to cattle or fish, fermented and distilled, dried for barn fodder, placed into rainwater filters, and carbonized for energy — before returning to the soil to support new crop growth as compost and biochar. Ultimately rewarded in this way, soils are rejuvenated, robust, resilient and ready to provide again for future generations.

If we begin to look at paper mill waste, poultry litter, waste treatment plant slurries, mountains of old tires, red tides of seaweed and algae or any of scores of present-day pollution nightmares, we quickly discover how easy it is to pyrolyze those feedstocks at local scale and at negative cost, with negative emissions and positive energy yielding a future we can all live with. It just needs a more honest form of economics to support it, or at least stop knocking it down.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

How Joe Hill came to coin Pie in the Sky

"When Christine Blasey Ford spoke of sound-memories embedded in the hippocampus she was attempting to explain principles of cognition to old men whose religion eschews science."

 
Saturday night in the Integrity House at The Farm we all gathered to a performance of the Joe Hill Roadshow by the Shelby Bottom Duo. The Integrity House is an old-timey microtheatre somewhat resembling the 1920s Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; ornamental curtains, stained glass and slow-whirling ceiling fans, wooden pews navigating a maze of columns supporting balustraded balconies, and superb acoustics.

The Joe Hill Roadshow is an narrative musical, weaving the audience through the life and times of the immortal labor activist with sing-along choruses penned by Hill himself. One of those I found especially striking.

The Preacher and the Slave
Sung to the tune of In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

Long-haired preachers come out every night
 Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
 But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
 They will answer with voices so sweet

Chorus

You will eat, bye and bye
 In that glorious land above the sky
 Work and Pray, live on hay
 You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

And the starvation army they play
 And they sing and they clap and they pray
 Till they get all your coin on the drum
 Then they tell you when you are on the bum

If you fight hard for children and wife
 Try to get something good in this life
 You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
 When you die you will sure go to hell

Workingmen of all countries unite
 Side by side we for freedom will fight
 When the world and its wealth we have gained
 To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain

Last Chorus

You will eat, bye and bye
 When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
 Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good
 And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye

Its a lie!

The back story on this song is that during the first decade of the 20th Century the IWW was organizing unions across the nation, using rousing anthems by Hill and others to inspire workers to join the cause. In Chicago the bosses hired a brass Salvation Army Band to drown out the a Capella Wobblies, so Hill wrote this song especially for those occasions.
When we all joined in on the chorus, 
You will eat, bye and bye
 In that glorious land above the sky
 Work and Pray, live on hay
 You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
Nell Levin explained that this is where the expression “Pie in the Sky” came from. 

This year I’ve recommended several books, but two in particular seem to keep bouncing back into my meditations in some way. Those are The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann, and How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan.

To those I would add another I reviewed here last year, Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, that rattles my brain like a pinball that won’t go down the hole.

The trouble I have seeing the world through the lens of a union organizer like Joe Hill invariably comes back to a human attribute that lies at the root of so many of our problems, and which Junger exposed so well in Tribe. We are herd animals. 

The decision to hunt in packs like wolves and lions rather than as solitary individuals like bears was made millions of years ago, possibly when we were pond slime or still up in trees but not yet lemur-like (lemurs are herders). The strategy confers distinct advantages, as you can see in harems of zebras crossing a crocodile-filled stream or bunched together to ward off night predators, but it also carries some nasty baggage, as witness recent gang wars in Chicago or German exceptionalism in the run-up to World War II.

Another book I reviewed here a year ago introduced us to Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s “Mind over Reality” theory. Denial tells the story of a different fork in our evolution giving us the mental flexibility to cope with realization of our own mortality, typically with illusions of life after death, other dimensions of existence, or individualistic exceptionalism.

In The Preacher and the Slave, Joe Hill went after The Salvation Army (he called them “The Starvation Army”) for offering pie in the sky instead of soup for the hungry. It is notable that 20 years later The Salvation Army became famous for crossing that very bridge, with its bread lines and soup kitchens in the Great Depression.

And yet Hill, not unlike the Shelby Bottom Duo, fell into the same trap as others who employ our tribal gene to their own strategic advantage: they set “workers” off in a separate category of humans from “bosses.” When POTUS rails at the UN General Assembly about American Exceptionalism, he is playing to his base among the downtrodden in the Rust Belt who have been told their jobs were taken by the Chinese, and actually believe that. When POTUS enacts his Muslim Ban, he is playing to his base in the Religious Right (it should really be called the Religious Wrong) that is committed to Christianity über alles (John 3:16). When Senate Republicans vote to confirm a misogynistic Supreme Court justice, they are only taking one for the tribe, knowing the tribe will reward them in Valhalla, if not the next election.

The tribal gene is frequently employed by despots, but if you trace back the origins of über alles in music, it comes from the German national anthem from 1922 to 1945, Die Deutschlandlied. The anthem is from the German linguist and poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben set to a Hadyn hymn written in 1797 for the birthday of Francis II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The first two, more racist and sexist, stanzas were deleted after the West German Republic (later Germany) re-adopted the anthem in 1952 and again in 1990.

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
 Über alles in der Welt,
 Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze
 Brüderlich zusammenhält.
 Von der Maas bis an die Memel,
 Von der Etsch bis an den Belt,
 Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
 Über alles in der Welt!

[Germany, Germany above all,
 Above all in the world,
 When, for protection and defense,
 It always stands brotherly together.
 From the Meuse to the Neman,
 From the Adige to the Belt,
 Germany, Germany above all,
 Above all in the world!]

Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
 Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
 Sollen in der Welt behalten
 Ihren alten schönen Klang,
 Uns zu edler Tat begeistern
 Unser ganzes Leben lang.
 Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
 Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang!

[German women, German loyalty,
 German wine and German song
 Shall retain in the world
 Their old beautiful chime
 And inspire us to noble deeds
 During all of our life.
 German women, German loyalty,
 German wine and German song!]

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
 Für das deutsche Vaterland!
 Danach lasst uns alle streben
 Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!
 Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
 Sind des Glückes Unterpfand;
 Blüh’ im Glanze dieses Glückes,
 Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

[Unity and justice and freedom
 For the German fatherland!
 Towards these let us all strive
 Brotherly with heart and hand!
 Unity and justice and freedom
 Are the foundation of happiness;
 Flourish in the radiance of this happiness,
 Flourish, German fatherland!]

The intention of von Fallersleben, Haydn and reformed Germany was not to further divide the world but to celebrate overcoming factions and achieving unity in common cause. Haydn was celebrating the Holy Roman Empire that brought unity to long-warring Europe. Von Fallersleben was egging on a German unification that would overcome loyalties to the local kingdoms, principalities, duchies and palatines endlessly bickering and letting blood.

The opening line of the third stanza, “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (“Unity and Justice and Freedom”), is widely considered to be the national motto of Germany, although it has never been officially adopted. It appears on Bundeswehr soldiers’ belt buckles (replacing the earlier “Gott mit uns” — “God with Us” —  of the Imperial German Army and the Wehrmacht). “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” appeared on the rim of earlier 2- and 5- Deutsche Mark coins and currently can be found on 2-Euro coins minted in Germany.

Pulling in those other books I mentioned, The Wizard and The Prophet is about how tribal divisions have hampered communications between engineers and naturalists, such that two diametrically opposed world views now obscure our vision, threatening human survival. How to Change Your Mind provides a case in point: the mindless war against psychedelics, or more specifically, the prohibition on elevated states of consciousness, borne of religious dogma and legislatures’ loyalties to rote Boy Scout codes. The more people experience these states, especially young people, the more bankrupt become the philosophical underpinnings of authority. Both Wizard and Mind expose civil wars going on just below the surface, fighting for separate world views at the expense of unity in the face of a common threat — near term human extinction. Our tribal gene impels us towards one of these poles, where we align with the most compatible team and join the war on their enemy.

When Christine Blasey Ford, in her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, spoke of sound-memories embedded in the hippocampus she was attempting to explain principles of cognition to old men whose religion eschews science. Their response was, huh? 
“…[T]he level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that sort of, as you know, encodes ― that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift….”
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two….”
These embeds are not proof. See Memory Distortion and False Memory Creation by Elizabeth Loftus, or No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times by Dorothy Rabinowitz. But Blasey Ford was accurately describing how psychologists now think cognition works, and it was completely lost on her intended audience. When your body releases adrenaline in response to stress, almost simultaneously your brain releases norepinephrine in your amygdala, the almond-shaped structure in the brain which perceives and responds to danger. Norepinephrine strengthens the memory of the threat to make you better able to avoid or escape it the next time. That burst also dims or blots memories on either side of the trauma. Whether POTUS chooses to mock the phenomenon or not, it is biology.

Are the copper bosses who killed Joe Hill the enemy? As long as we keep thinking that, we’ll have no chance to unify enough to recognize and counter the real threat: our genetic baggage, including tribalism, denial and manipulated memory, including cultural memory. Epigenetics, moderated by diet, environment and the microbiome, offers some clues about how we might chose to switch off our worst instincts and select those that favor survival. Psychedelics lift the veil on cultural conditioning.
Pollan poses an interesting challenge, asking whether the antonym to “spiritual” is “material” as commonly assumed by the hippies, or whether it is “ego.” If there is a rescue remedy for our collective death wish, it will likely be found there, by tempering many of the things we hold most sacred, including entrusting identity to tribe.

Culture must begin to speak of the whole of humanity, or even of all life, as our tribe. Imagine there’s no countries, and no religion, too. Is that pie in the sky? Or is it, as Joe Hill wrote:

When I hear that melody, with its rhythmic harmony,
 Then I feel just like I’d be in a dream entrancing,
 And I’d like to float through space, softly glide from place to place,
 With the fascinating grace of a fairy dancing.

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Ponzinomics

"Tolerable parasites are those that have minimum pain and cost to the host."


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, AT THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY: In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America is so thrilled.

(LAUGHTER)

I did not expect that reaction, but that’s OK.

(APPLAUSE)

America’s economy is booming like never before. Since my election, we have added $10 trillion in wealth.
Back when horse and dog race results were sent to betting parlors by telegraphy, bookies realized that for a small cut, a telegraph operator could be enlisted to delay racing results long enough for confederates to place sure bets. As the ruse became overused and bettors complained, local bunko squads made busts and grifters moved on. In its next iteration, long con artists created merely the illusion they could delay results, setting up fully staffed, but fake, betting parlors. A “roper”  lured the mark in with promises of guaranteed wins.

Today the grifters are licensed stockbrokers, specifically high frequency traders, and the roper is a popular software platform called Robinhood offering unlimited free trades. The marks are millennials, 4 million users lured by the creed of “information should be free” into trading billions on the platform. So how does the service pay itself? Simple — by selling its data to a handful of HF traders, at a premium. With a small investment in the right hardware, the HF traders can get a millisecond-or-more jump on the millennials’ trades (the platform may even have an admin knob that can turn up or down trading speeds) and the HF traders can opt to enter the other side of the trade just before the price rises to reflect the new buy. Millennials pay a few pennies more and the HF traders make their gains on volume.
We’ve designed Robinhood from the ground up for the next generation of newcomers and experts alike.
It’s fast, dead simple and just works.
Where are the bunko squads? There is no need for them in an economy booming like never before, adding $10 trillion in wealth.

While it will likely be some time before it makes it first nickel of profit, Fortune reports Robinhood’s valuation as $5.6 billion, following a Series-D investment round. It is now the second most valuable private fintech startup in the U.S. after Stripe, the online payments company. Its user-base is doubling every 12 months. Its founders say that before long it will be bigger than Bank of America.

In the wire game, the mark may be allowed to place, and win, smaller bets before placing a significantly larger one that he will, of course, lose, generally when a small planned miscommunication leads him to make the wrong bet. In this updated version, the only thing millennials have to lose is their data. Maybe they believe information wants to be free, but whenever anything on the internet is free, the commodity is them. Their small trades are making someone somewhere very, very rich.

The entomologist E. O. Wilson said, “Parasites, in a phrase, are predators that eat prey in units of less than one. Tolerable parasites are those that have evolved to ensure their own survival and reproduction but at the same time with minimum pain and cost to the host.”

Maybe Robinhood is a tolerable parasite, or maybe it is a saprophyte, living on the decay of a dying Empire. It was on the assumption underpinning that second scenario that the audience at the United Nations laughed.
 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Somewhere, a Tiger Yawns

"Simple, scalable, and shovel ready. China is moving negative emissions from laboratory to field trial to massive industrial scale."

Oldest known agricultural village, Jianping China
It's no secret that The Paris Agreement, humanity’s best attempt to date to thwart our own extinction, is inadequate to the task, although it provided some mechanisms by which to raise ambitions as we collectively arrive at that realization. 

As it is now, the Earth will likely be between 3.6 and 7 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of this century (continued expansion of fracking, which releases massive stores of methane to the atmosphere, could accelerate that to mid-century), and we would soon thereafter go extinct. A 7°C change would induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible.

Tipping points for positive feedback mechanisms triggered by the Anthropocene anomaly assure that the already warming condition will persist for thousands of years, placing the entire experiment of life on this third planet from the Sun at risk. Earth’s orbit is already at the innermost edge of a habitable range, and a small nudge like Hothouse Earth could push it inside the arc, to a climate resembling Venus.

Before this recent trip to China there was a path out of our climate catastrophe that had become clear to me, as it was to the scientists advising the Paris negotiators. We merely (wry smile) need to promptly curtail fossil emissions (something we are not doing — they are growing at a quickening pace, with renewable energy only adding to the rate of growth of energy use, ie.: consumerism); and we will need to deploy negative emissions technologies as quickly as humanly possible; akin to the Manhattan or Apollo programs, or Moore’s Law. My own Global Ecovillage Network’s nuanced approach to that solution involves adding ecovillages into the blend, as models of graceful de-consumerism, carrier media for the transition, and a more palatable carrot to the stick of draconian, government-imposed degrowth. Ecovillages shield degrowth from cultural blowback with a force field of iconic fashion memes.

The nascent negawatts industry was given a shot in the arm by Paris. With the world in serious need of a fix, all the wanna-be fixers got going. This past May the Stockholm Resilience Center — at present the world’s Manhattan Project for reversing climate change — hosted the First International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions with 11 keynote speakers, 150 powerpoint presentations, 231 abstracts and 30 poster presentations. Presentations were provided on BECCS, DAC, Enhanced Mineralization, Carbon Farming, Marine Macroflora and Climate Ecoforestry. These are subjects I have been discussing in this space since at least 2009, with our first Carbon Farming course at The Farm, and before that, pre-blog, in articles and books since the early 1980s. Nonetheless, the Goteborg conference was a watershed, and it changed my mind about the practicability of several of these schemes.

Still, I have been advocating, and continue to advocate, for a “least pain” strategy that could stand a better chance of overcoming the main obstacle: social inertia. My strategy, first laid out in a proposal to the MacArthur Foundation in their 100 Million and Change competition two years ago and then more elegantly in a forthcoming book from Chelsea Green with Kathleen Draper, is a combination of natural climate solutions, cool farms, ecovillages, and microenterprise hubs called “cool labs.”

In China I discovered we are not the only ones thinking of this. In many ways, the Chinese have taken it much farther, much faster. After teaching an ecology module for a month-long ecovillage design course provided by the Global Ecovillage Network at the UNESCO-China Dujiangyang Training Center, I flew to Nanjing and then traveled by train to Jianping, in Western Liaoning Province, far in the Northeastern part of China near the Korean border, to attend the International Biomass/Biochar Green Technology Conference for Rural Revitalization sponsored by Nanjing Agricultural University.

A massive birds' nest dome shelters the birthplace of Chinese argiculture
 Jianping is known for being the archaeological epicenter for explorations of the origins of Chinese agriculture 7700 years ago. It is therefore very fitting that this should also be the site of China’s new agricultural revolution. After walking through one of the huge museum domes erected to protect a 4500 BCE village site, we went to Xiaopingfang, sometimes called China’s “first village.” Xiaopingfang is now in the process of becoming an ecological village, called a “Dream Village” by President Xi Jinping, “according to the overall requirements of building a new socialist countryside; a new rural construction road of relying on resources to strengthen industry, relying on industry to feed agriculture.” I reported two years ago about China’s plan to construct 100 new ecovillages in 5 years. Now I was looking at one of those.

There are altogether seven natural villages in Xiaopingfang, thirteen villagers’groups, 3167 people, 881 households, covering an area of 28,000 mu (4613 acres). While the co-housing arrangement of the streets, and the provision of garden space to each home seemed to make the lives of the elderly farmers better, I had a hard time seeing how this fancy new village would support itself in this remote rural region, but then I got the second half of the tour.


We stopped at a vast expanse of grain fields where villagers were out harvesting millet, sorghum, maize and soybeans by hand. In 2007, the total output value of industry and agriculture of Xiaopingfang Village stood at 150 million yuan, 24 million yuan of taxes paid, 18 million yuan of collective economic income, and 7500 yuan of per capita net income of farmers. Today it is several times a multiple of that, thanks to biochar. Today a farmer can make 250 to 500 yuan more per day than before while paying little to nothing for fertilizer and getting a 15% or better yield from his farm.


Two years ago Kathleen Draper and I toured an experimental biorefinery near Nanjing where a prototype Beijing Sanju rotary kiln produced 1.5 megawatts of electricity while daily processing 30 or more tons of rice straw into biochar and wood vinegar. The biorefinery had discovered a 15% boost in fertilizer effect on rice and vegetable yield when it quenched the hot char with wood vinegar, comparable in many ways to quenching with urine. Another benefit of the new fertilizer was the water normally required in dry times of the year — with biochar no extra water was needed. Now, here in Jianping, one of the driest areas east of the Gobi, we saw that technique taken to scale with one of the 25 larger Beijing Sanju rotary kilns that had been plunked down around China to exploit Nanjing Agricultural University’s breakthrough.


In this dry region, the drought-proofing organic fertilizer business allowed farmers to plant 3000 mu of Nanguo pear, build a large-scale fresh storehouse and two water storage ponds. A grass-fed organic egg industry joined the organic green Nanguo pear industry. As we walked through earthen-walled shadehouses for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, we could see a dramatic difference between test plots without biochar and test plots with. The vegetables grow faster and bigger, do not require water in the dry season, have fewer pests and can be harvested sooner. While not certified organic (macronutrients are still supplemented and some pesticides used) it is marketed as “Grade A Green Food.”

Taking advantage of Shuangwang Mountain’s rich historical legends and natural resource attractions, such as Wofoling, Shenxian Cave and Eighteen Arhats, a new eco-tourism draw, an asphalt road to the mountaintop Yuanzhao Temple has been built and the Tianxiu Mountain Forest Park in Chaijiaying has been developed. China’s rural revitalization investment for Jianping’s eco-tourism is now 5 million yuan.

Pan Genxing in earth-sheltered shadehouse
China has 200 more of these Cool Lab projects on its drawing boards, each shiny new $2 million Beijing Sanju reactor converting 100,000 tons of formerly burned crop wastes into biofertilizer custom blends for the particular plants, soils and climate of the region — every one a 66 megaton/year carbon sink. 

As I shifted my travel mode from tour bus to chauffeured limousine (occasionally in a cavalcade with black suited bodyguards in bulletproof SUVs) I was directed to the design studios of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Architecture Design and Research. Here, where all of China’s major construction projects must apply for approval, the same rapid process is moving biochar into buildings, roads and bridges. Simple, scalable, and shovel ready. China is moving negative emissions from laboratory to field trial to massive industrial scale.

China’s “ecological civilization” concept was first announced by Xi Jinping in 2007, in a report to the 17th National People’s Congress. At the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in 2013, China mandated Eco-Civilization as a national goal in its Constitution. In April 2015, China began performing natural resources audits when local officials leave their posts, so as to force officials pay attention to environmental protection while in office, or be held to account when they leave. A pilot scheme or rural revitalization such as in Jianping is being carried out in five different locations, in three stages: launch in 2015, expansion in 2016, then in 2017 full audits in the trial locations, with regular audits every year from 2018.

Biodegradable plastic wares in department store
Treatment of crop residues has been an increasing challenge for China, as it is for India, Indonesia and many other populous countries. China placed a ban on burning these residues to try to alleviate the smog in Beijing and other cities. Introducing pyrolysis changed the issue from a liability to an asset. It gave China an indisputable lead in building soil carbon and developing “green agriculture.” Biochar from wastes has moved out of the laboratory and into commercial production in a mere 3 years. Soon it will be ubiquitous in Chinese agriculture, and then, as part of Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road, will spread to Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. The same could happen for carbonized municipal wastes entombed in urban infrastructure. We are no longer talking about mere megatons of carbon dioxide removal. Now we are speaking of tens of gigatons.

Even as Neocon economists levied $200 billion in tariffs to keep Chinese goods out of US markets, we watched President Xi meeting with President Putin in Vladivostok and signing trade and technology exchange deals that could combine Russia’s science and manufacturing might with China’s to deploy negative emissions plants such as these everywhere in the world.

Except, well, you know where.

 
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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Cherry Blossom Soap

"China’s real wealth is not yuan but cherry blossoms."

No longer having a television at home I occasionally, stuck in a hotel room overnight, will turn to the luminous box to see who is speaking and listen to what the conversation is about.
In the USA the content is usually so banal and rote that I can only stay with it a few moments, flicking around the channels in search of something more enlightening. Most of it seems as though it were designed by Edward Bernays to addict some faceless, brainless masses and make them more easily controlled. It is no different in Russia or China, or anywhere else in this respect—a very inexpensive and relatively effective mental reform school or internment camp.
Nighttime fare in China can include Game of Thrones, Handmaid’s Tale and Peaky Blinders, same as in the West. You can also watch old episodes of Batman, Twin Peaks, China Beach or Star Trek. What was interesting to discover in China, however, is the soaps.
There are no daytime series that revolve around homosexuality and adultery. The gay-themed show Addicted was pulled by censors who said it exaggerated the dark side of society.
Chinese TV leans towards relatively few genres for their daytime dramas. Many have historical settings the way the US does with its westerns, colonials and WWII. In China these range from costumed set pieces of Medieval dynasties, with court intrigues, sword battles and steamy love affairs, to wartime novellas with Japs as the Nazis (at the same time, a few channels over on CCTV news, we can watch Li Xinping forging stronger ties with Shinzō Abe at the Asian Economic Summit). The Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) still burns in the memories here, much the way the first 9/11 does for Chileans, or Fallujah will for Iraqis generations from now.
Most popular at the moment is the flying kung fu romance story, Three Lives Three Worlds, also called Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms. Number two is Dr. Qin: Medical Examiner. Crime dramas are also big. Doctors, lawyers and detectives are starting to pluck eyeball counts from sorcerers and princesses.
Clicking through the channels I stopped at one that had a lovely backdrop of cherry blossom time. I can’t tell you the name because it was all Chinese and so far Google images hasn’t helped locate it. As I came into the story I thought at first it was a movie because it was so well filmed. A somewhat plump woman was trying to land a job in an outdoor countryside restaurant, and after being told by the owner he had no work for her, she made some delicious food in her wok and took it around to the tables singing as she went and giving servings to each of the guests, who tasted and applauded her. Later, the owner collected the tips and brought them to her, offering her a job. Seeing how poor she and her three children appeared, he also gave them a bag of corn and some other food to take and then she and her young ones left and climbed the mountain back to their village in the rain, wearing her wok as a hat.
There we learn she is the main provider for her sister and her mother also, and every day she and her children work the fields before journeying to the restaurant to work. Where is dad? Cutaway to the city and here is dad, his hair starting to grey but his body still muscular as he shovels coal and digs ditches. He scrapes by and saves money, ignoring the easy temptations of the city. Then one day his young friend takes him downtown and as they wander a busy alley filled with shops he hears a familiar voice shouting angrily at a customer who did not pay.
He stops at the outside of a beauty parlor, really just an open alcove with a chair, mirror, and lights, and stares at the young woman cleaning up after the customer she has just ejected. He steps up into her light but she does not look up, she just tells him to take the seat, he is next.
Remember, I don’t actually speak Chinese. I am lip-syncing here, but the acting is good so I will risk it. Anyone familiar with this series, feel free to correct my version.
He obediently sits, expressionless, and she distractedly throws a towel around his chest, stirs some water and begins to shampoo his hair. It is only then she looks up into the mirror and sees his face. It is her father.
Fighting back tears, she continues to massage his scalp with shampoo and pretends she is someone else. He listens quietly and only when she is done speaking, he begins to speak, softly, of how much he and her mother have missed her, how they wondered how she is doing, and when she will return. Tears are now streaming down her face as we see them both in the mirror.
She now switches to her true identity and tells him that she has missed them also, but that her business is doing well, she is prospering, and that she will not return with him. He begs her. He is crying now too. Her fingers have stopped moving through his scalp. They both weep.
She gives him a roll of bills to take home to the mountain. He at first refuses, saying he only wants her to come back with him. She will not, so he takes the money and leaves.
Back in the mountain village, which is always stunningly beautiful, he returns to great rejoicing by his family who are eager to hear of his time in the city. He puts the money he earned on the table and his mother seems very proud. His wife says she has work now and he can remain if he wishes. Then he puts the second money wad on the table. They all stare.
When he says it is from the daughter, his wife becomes outraged at him for not bringing her home. He explains that he tried and failed, but that she is happy in her new life and sends her love. All weep.
Like any soap, this episode was preceded and succeeded by scores more episodes recounting the rural/city life of this one family. I had only stumbled into one vignette, but I thought it was so well scripted, well made and well acted it should be on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The bigger backdrop, of course, is ongoing globalization that is just as traumatizing as was the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Great March or the Mongol conquest. Families that have lived in balance with nature in the same place for hundreds of generations are being cast off their lands, atomized, and assimilated into Charley Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Chaplin’s prophetic vision of this experience was explained by film critic Gregory Stephens:
The man-eating-machine theme came to Chaplin at age 12. Apprenticed to a printer, he found himself dwarfed by a huge printing press. “I thought [it] was going to devour me.” As an adult he reframed this view. Charlie is a trickster (playfulness is the essence of monkey-wrenching), and the machine has swallowed something indigestible, giving it indigestion. In the second lunch-time feeding, all but the mechanic’s mouth has been immobilized. If in the earlier scene, the machine-men had tried for force their workers to ingest progress, on this lunch break, Charlie has engineered a bit of humble pie. Work and the irascible mechanic’s mouth are brought to a standstill. Soon this scene devolves into something like a loving son feeding his invalid father. That he first attempts unsuccessfully to feed the mechanic through an oil funnel, and then successfully through the opening of a whole cooked chicken, seems to suggest the need for both mechanic and machine to be brought closer to natural processes.
And so we stand, like Chaplin, staring down the gullet of the all-devouring machine. It is hard to imagine how China can possibly back down off this perch and return to its Confucian and Taoist values, those Li Xinping has called its “Mountain of Gold.”
Eco-civilization lies up that winding mountain trail, not down in the grimy city. China’s real wealth is not dollars, rubles or yuan but in those cherry blossoms.
If soaps are a reflection of innermost desires, the Chinese people want this, and miss it, even if they cannot quite see how to get there yet.

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