The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.
Levi Meeuwenberg: How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?
Albert Bates: If you're a country and you've just signed the agreement along with 195 other countries, the first thing you did to get to that was to come up with an INDC — which is your pledged national commitment — your contribution to reduce climate change. It was a promise. You had to make a pledge. So all the countries that came to Paris had already put in their INDCs and if you add up all the sum of the INDCs we still get to three degrees by mid-century, five to seven degrees by end of century. The ambition was way too low.
We knew that. But don’t fret — that was the opening bid. if you're in a poker game that was the ante. You had to put in that much to get in the game. Coming out of Paris what they put in was what they called “stocktake.” This is a new word for Webster’s. Stocktake is what's going to happen for various parts at three or five year intervals. There are a lot of attempts by oil-based economies like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, the ones who have coal and stuff, to have the stocktakes taken out but the stocktakes stayed in the treaty so the Paris agreement requires a revision at close intervals now. There is a science stocktake in 2018, and then the next big one for the pledge system is in 2020. The stocktake which will happen in 2018 will look at the 1.5 goal and see what kinds of INDC revisions would be necessary to get and hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C.
Dare I say? We probably already know the answer. If you know anything about climate science you know that 1.5 is already baked in the cake. There's no way that we're not going to go sailing right through a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in global temperature of the planet. We're on that trajectory and there are so many feedback mechanisms, so many positive forcings which are already in play that 1.5 is a done deal. To try to set such an ambitious goal is ignoring the science to begin with, but I'm fine with high ambition so, sure, set that goal. It's kind of like building the Maginot line. If you're familiar with the history of Europe after WWI the French, who had fought all that trench warfare with the Germans which was really nasty, said we're going to pre-build a defensive line of bunkers – cement, barbed wire, trenches and all that – and massive earthworks all around our border so that we can never have this trench warfare slaughter again. We're going to build this giant wall – kind of like Trump's wall with Mexico – around France.
What happened in the Blitz? Germany just flew right over and dropped paratroopers on the other side. The French Minister of War, André Maginot, was fighting the last war. The Wehrmacht had a responsive strategic design process. They laughed all the way to Paris.
What they're doing now is building a Maginot line on the climate and saying that they're going to hold the line at 1.5. Well, I've got news for you, we're already past 1.5. But that's o.k. because what they're doing in that process is education, an interactive education process. We understand that when we're talking about governments and making them change, they change all the time. There are elections and changes in government and you get crazies in and you get different kinds of things happening, two steps back and one step forward. That's just normal in government. Just look at the difference in Obama in the first term and Obama in the second term in terms of climate change. I think partly that's laid at the feet of John Holdren who's the White House Science Adviser who got to meet with Obama on a regular basis and educate him.
I think that in the future we're going to have the same problem of educating governments over and over again. The weather is doing a lot of that for us so we don't really have to worry that much. The underground cities they built on the Maginot Line might even be good examples for urban design in coming decades, as long as they are not on coasts. But the idea of changing the way we farm is going to have to involve a major shift away from Cargill, Monsanto, and the agro industry and the way things are done now.
How do you make a shift like that? Frankly, I see it through tools like permaculture, home gardens, victory gardens, urban gardens. People looking for food security in these turbulent times when the economy is doing really badly and there issues with energy and the absence of energy after the crash of the fracking industry. So we're going to find ourselves where everybody is going to want food security and to do that they're going to have to learn how and to do it in a way that sequesters carbon. If we can produce electricity using clever stoves and things which sequester carbon as well as boost nutrient density that way — that’s the revolution. That can happen worldwide and the seed for that revolution, the starter in the yogurt, is all these little permaculturists running around like a yogurt starter culture.
A lot of different strategies are around to try to deal with climate and I don't begrudge their particular strategy. I think all of them are needed and I think that one of the things that we are going to see in the future is the idea that Bill McKibben launched in Paris and afterward and we’ll see it coming from him, Naomi Klein, Greenpeace, and others, which is that the new standard is 1.5 degrees by mid-century.
So essentially, the international agreement is to go carbon negative in the second half of the 21st century, which is in the actual language of the treaty – which requires 196 countries to eliminate fossil fuels by around mid-century, maybe a little bit after. I think that the ratcheting process may speed it up because the more we learn about the science and the more weather events happen, the more incentive there will be to ratchet up.
But the slogan that Bill McKibben coined was 'every pipeline, every mine — you said 1.5' and I can hear that chant in the back of my head as companies try to send railcar loads of shale oil through cities or carve new strip mines in the mountains or open new fracked gas wells which have already been leased but have not been drilled: “Stop! Every pipeline, every mine, you said 1.5!”
From a science standpoint it's absolutely impossible to hold to the Paris limits if you open up new fossil fuel mines and pipelines. You cannot have any new ones. You cannot have any more. You should be starting to shut down the ones we have. That's the only way to get there. We saw a lot of Fortune 500 companies signing on to this whole notion of going carbon negative or at least carbon neutral. There were one hundred and fourteen companies that signed the science-based initiative of going completely neutral and several of them have already achieved that. That's actually a coalition between environmentalists and business that's happening so now it's up to the environmentalists to hold the feet of these people to the fire, including the governments. So the protests are completely justified.
I had trouble with a lot of protests earlier because I'm a student of Mahatma Gandhi. I read Mahatma Gandhi when I was a high school student. I read pretty much all of his writings when he was a newsletter editor and his various collected writings so I understood the principles of Satyagraha which is seeking truth through peaceful means. One of those principles is to give your opponent every possible opportunity to correct their actions peacefully before you do anything to obstruct them or otherwise cause them harm – economic harm, I'm not talking about physical harm. When Gandhi would plan a march he would notify the authorities – “here's where we're going to be, come and arrest us if you want” – and when he goes into court (and remember he began as a lawyer in South Africa) he asks the judge to give him the maximum possible sentence. “Let's just go ahead and dispense with the trial, I'm guilty, put me in jail for as long as you want.” That's Satyagraha.
Here we have every pipeline, every mine and the moral justification is now there. Everyone's on notice. Everyone has been notified. There is no excuse now. Everybody has already agreed in principle that this must be done – no new pipelines, no new mines. So I think it's completely within everyone's privilege and in fact their duty to oppose anything new in the way of getting fossil fuels out of the ground.
Levi: What are some of the most effective ways? Let's say that we know that there are existing frack wells nearby, which is the case, should we approach the company, should we approach the government, should we go through legal means, or should we just occupy the space? What approach would you say would be best for getting that message out?
AB: I'm not going to dictate local initiatives. I think that this should come from the locality and everybody can best judge in their own location what is the best strategy. I think it's a little more problematic when you're talking about existing structures because those have to be withdrawn in a gradual way so there's a certain amount of latitude that must be there. I understand that. On the other hand if there's a new one then I think that it's perfectly justified to block the well-drilling rigs. It's perfectly justified to oppose them at every stage. For instance, they have to get state permits in every state to go in and drill. They have to get state permits to use the roadways. They have to have NPDES permits which are pollution discharge permits. All of those are places of entry where citizens and groups can go and make statements at those meetings and even protest those meetings if the state decides to ignore the legal requirement. They're outlaws if they ignore the legal requirement.
What needs to happen is the elevation of general public awareness about what the law now says. We're talking about international law which is the supreme law of the land under the U.S. constitution.
Levi: I hear a lot of talk about renewable energy, solar and all that – maybe too much. People who don't have an understanding of permaculture solutions or more holistic solutions or soil solutions see renewable energy as solving everything in some way. How do you see that being part of the picture?
AB: I spent a lot of my book, The Paris Agreement, on this. I blogged for a year leading up to Paris and took all those blogs and wrote an introduction and did a daily blog while I was in Paris. Then I spent a week or two afterward summarizing, synthesizing, and putting it all together to make the book. I put the book out on December 19th which was seven days after the Paris Climate Conference ended. It included the entire text of the treaty along with the year-long analysis that led up to it and I think the point of the book and what I spent a long time talking about was renewable energy and the myth surrounding renewable energy which I saw a lot of in Paris.
It's kind of this idea, this notion to just take out the dirty, greasy, black gooey stuff, the dirty smelly stuff, and the dirty powdery coal and all that which makes our hands black. We'll get rid of all that dirty stuff and we'll put in this shiny polished stainless steel, poly-composite graphite windmills and solar arrays and thermal mirrors and all these fancy new devices, this whole new tech industry which will suddenly transform the world and employ our entire population and give us clean energy, green growth jobs and so forth.
That's the utopian vision and there's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world. In the real world there are natural laws and one of those is energy return on energy invested. So we have to look at what is the actual cost in the life cycle of a solar cell or the life cycle of a windmill and how much energy is required to make a windmill? Are there steel components? How was that steel made? Was it made with sunlight? I don't think so. What about aluminum? What about some other fancy composites? What about the silicon wafers in the solar cells? Where did they come from and how were they made? What kinds of facilities do that?
Actually, I have to take an aside here and say that some years back, probably 20 years ago now, Solarex, a big solar company, built the first solar breeder which was a factory in Hyattsville, MD which was solar powered and which made solar cells so that's actually something which can be done. But if you look on the energy return on investment and the life cycle and so forth what you suddenly discover is we have been running on high-entropy, high-return, energy density. For instance, oil and coal and these other dense forms of stored solar energy pack a lot of calories per unit of weight or volume, but took 500 million years of sunlight to make. They're concentrated sunlight which has been stored in the earth.
That was our savings account which we went through in about 200 years. We're now switching over to a checking account, based on daily income – how much sun falls on the planet? Most of that's on the ocean. How much of that can be transformed into useful energy, how much can make liquid fuels? What we find is caloric return per unit weight or volume is much lower, an order of magnitude or more lower than what we were getting from fossil. So it's the first time in history that we're going from a denser form of energy to a less dense form. Every other time we've moved from whale oil to shale oil, from wind from canvas to wind from hydraulics and electromagnets and now we're going back the other way.
There's enormous power stored in ocean waves and tides and things like that. We can and will tap all those things to our benefit but compared to fossil fuels they're going to be a step back. We're actually going to have to contract. The economy is going to have to contract. It already is. What we're seeing now with the broader global economy is a major contraction that's already under way. It's what James Kunstler calls the long emergency. It's going to last a long time and it's going to be in stair steps. It's not going to come all at once.
But if we think that somehow solar power is going to change that trajectory, it's not. We're still going to have to step down. There's a lot of ground to be gained from increased efficiency and from employing low tech solutions and so on. Lifestyle is going to have to shift to reflect that change too. Most people don't understand that.
Personally, I think that megacities are doomed, especially coastal ones. Megacities are based on the import of resources from the periphery to the center. That's going to become much harder when transportation fuels are at much more of a premium. I think that the bioeconomy is the future. We're going to learn to cascade our crops to be able to get ecosystem services from the way in which they are designed and then some food and maybe some fuel and energy from that. Then biochar and carbon, which we're going to put back in the soil, is going to make a reversal in the climate trend and that cycle – actually already – of using bioenergy is seven times more cost-effective from an energy production standpoint than photovoltaics.
If you're going to install photovoltaics in a remote location on a village scale you'll find you'll have seven times more bang for the buck if you go with a biomass kiln and a local crop of food which produces a waste stream for that kiln and the kiln is pyrolytic, it's gasified and so it makes biochar and is therefore a whole business for you. It gives you pharmaceuticals, animal feed and other kinds of things which are of benefit to you. I think that's the future. The problem is that it's a much different future than most people envision and is certainly different than governments coming out of Paris thought was going to happen.
Levi: I would go as far as to say many people can't imagine or have lost this ability to imagine a world that is so vastly different from what it is now. Especially kids nowadays who have access to TV shows and the internet so they don't have to use their imagination as much so I think it withers a bit.
AB: Let me jump in and say something about that. I think that some of the things that people do with permaculture design courses and with introductions to permaculture, and through lectures to the public and so forth, those kinds of entries into what we do in that world are ways of re-educating the population not just to the crisis that we face but also to the things that you can do to make your life better even while the world is undergoing this monumental shift.
I've been teaching this course in Belize for many years. It's the eleventh time we've taught this course at this one farm, an experimental research station in Belize. It is the 50th permaculture design course that I've taught. The thing that I'm getting out of that is that we bring people from North America and Europe into this setting which is a very rural, rustic place. It's the Mayan world. If you go deeply enough into the Yucatan peninsula you find the Mayan world which hasn't changed a lot since Columbus. It's been globalized to a large extent. People wear the same clothes as people in the outside world and they have bicycles and drive cars so the outer things have changed. But the first language is still Mayan. It's still an indigenous population which has indigenous ways. I just attended a funeral ceremony here where I am in the Yucatan right now and it's as much Mayan as it is Catholic.
In the Mayan mountains where we go to the course we're really putting people into a time portal. It's like an adventure where you get to go to a different planet because we're tucked into the foothills of the Mayan mountains two miles up-river from the village of San Pedro, Columbia in southern Belize. You have to get there by an hour in a dugout canoe being poled up river. That's the only way to get there. There's a trail but you probably wouldn't want to try that with a pack, and you still have to ford the river. When you get there, suddenly there's this beautiful sight that's all renewable energy. The food for the course comes from the land every day. For twenty years they've been doing integrated agro-forestry, what the UN calls eco-agriculture, and applied biodiversity. For a quarter of a century really, twenty-six years, they've been there growing organic food and converting citrus and cattle farming to a biologically diverse polyculture. So when you make this trip, when you go through this time portal, you're transported back to a society which existed a thousand years ago and was in complete harmony with the seasons, kept its population within the limits of production of the local watersheds, and had an elegant, simple, wonderfully fruitful life and a community society. You stumble over stones which are parts of old pyramids. This is a long lost city complex of the Maya and was there at its peak a thousand years ago. This is actually the best way to live the future, to see steady-state economies of the past which had it figured out and which actually can change the climate back to the holocene from the anthropocene, given the tools. So I recommend not just our course in Belize which anyone can attend but also other courses in similar settings where there are still indigenous cultures, for a wonderful experience in seeing what the future holds.
Levi: I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing all your great messages, all this information, and spreading it and all that you're doing.
AB: Thanks. It's been great talking to you.