Sunday, September 24, 2023

Comic Book Billionaire Accelerates Earth’s Demise to Populate Mars

"He obviously is a divisive individual and a person who acts as a catalyst…."

Besieged by 99 counts of criminal conduct, former President Cobblepot is doing his best to avoid thinking about life in house arrest for his pathological narcissistic tendencies. Banished to the Tower penthouse overlooking Central Park, he may become as Sauron in the tower of Barad-dûr, until age and obscurity combine and, as Tolkien described:

…it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

I have been “reading” four books lately. By “reading” I mean listening to the audiobook. I move back and forth between them. The four books are Greta Thunberg’s Climate Book, Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed, Matt Winning’s A Hot Mess, and Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson. Musk just rolled off the press last week but quickly moved to the top of my queue.

Musk is being loosely portrayed by Jon Hamm’s Paul Marx character in the third season of The Morning Show on Apple TV+. “He obviously is a divisive individual and a person who acts as a catalyst for so much of the drama and the conflict inside of the season,” says showrunner Charlotte Strout, “but he’s also a living, breathing human being who subverts expectation in really interesting ways.”

My first takeaway is that Elon Musk should read Thunberg and Frankopan’s books and Winning should read Elon Musk.

I came to Musk wondering why a comic book billionaire was so obtuse on climate change but came away thinking there is more there than meets the eye. Musk resigned from various government advisory committees back when soon-to-be Fulton County inmate no. P01135809 pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. Musk made electric cars cool for the proclaimed purpose of putting fossil oil companies out of business. He tried to do the same with Solar City, chopping the cost of solar electric home installations and advancing battery technology before eventually absorbing all that into Tesla. He funded an X-Prize for entrepreneurs in the Carbon Dioxide Removal space.

It was only passing strange then, that on August 25, 2023, Musk tweeted, “Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming. Mark these words.”

In 2020, SpaceX needed to keep Starship moving onward to Mars without the hassle of bureaucratic processes and red tape it had at NASA sites, so it built its own Starbase launch center on the Gulf Coast of Texas. There a 90,000-acre federally managed wildlife refuge was home to more than 200 migratory species. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nest on the beach shore each spring. Endangered ocelots roam the mud flats. Starbase filled in 20 acres of estuarine and non-tidal wetlands that had served to cool the Gulf and buffer the coast from hurricanes. As I posted here on September 3 in My New Trillion Dollar Annual Budget, “large-scale restoration of destroyed, degraded, and damaged ecosystems is the sine qua non for stabilizing climate at safe levels.” As one of the fastest and safest ways of withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere while providing myriad known and unknowable co-benefits, wetlands are part of the “blue-carbon” path to reversing climate change.

Blue carbon can sequester the most carbon in the smallest area at the lowest cost, but only if we stop destroying mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes, and coral reefs, and start growing them back.

— Biogeophysicist Thomas J. Goreau

[T]he first integrated Starship launch on April 20… created a rock tornado that flung debris over 385 acres and a dust plume that coated Port Isabel 6½ miles away. And the 400-foot-tall rocket tumbled out of control before exploding over the Gulf of Mexico.

San Antonio Express News

“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Musk reportedly said at a press conference in 2018.

The Guardian

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), under the Clean Water Act Section 404, regulates dredge and fill in national wetlands, and requires compensatory mitigation (i.e., no net loss of “water resources”) for most projects. EPA, which would normally handle such permits, informed the Corps that the site changes could have “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance.” SpaceX’s contracts to launch defense satellites may have had something to do with the Corps’ special treatment in issuing waivers.

Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law at Rice University, said complaints about a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations are common. “A lot of people think that because we have these laws, the environment is protected, but that’s not how it works. People working on the ground for these agencies are often well-meaning, but if the political will is there to allow a project like SpaceX to go through, that’s what happens.”

— The Guardian

I find it odd that in none of Isaacson’s interviews by the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christiana Amanpour, or Farzad Mesbahi following the release of the book did the word “climate” come up. Yet, in his WaPo interview with David Iglesias, Isaacson explained why Musk’s provocative tweets on the subject should not be surprising.

One of the things I learned about him is that he loves drama, he loves storm, and if things are calm he’s going to either call a surge in which excitement happens or he’s going to push chips back on the table and take more risks and excitement is guaranteed. And for me as a writer I like excitement as well but maybe don’t relish it quite as much as Elon does. And so I sometimes had white knuckles as I was holding onto my seat and we were riding through all of these storms.

Hmmm, sounds suspiciously like that malignant narcissist I mentioned earlier.

This apparent contradiction about climate change is all the more weird, maybe even improbable (Musk enjoys taunting his critics), because as Isaacson went through Musk’s formative years in the book’s early chapters, he described a youthful fascination with comic books and science fiction. Elon’s oldest son is named after the mentalist mastermind X-men character, Xavier.

Among the SciFi books young Elon loved was Asimov’s Robots and Empire. In that book, the villain, Levular Mandamus, plans to destroy the population of the Earth using a newly developed weapon, the “nuclear intensifier” that accelerates natural radioactive decay making the surface of the Earth radioactive. His base is at the site of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. The idea is that by forcing humanity into leaving the Earth, vigor will be reintroduced into humankind and the new settlers will populate space until all the governments of the interstellar colonies form the Galactic Empire.

So, on the one hand, Musk was fascinated as a child with Asimov and other SciFi writers who depicted humans precariously surviving in limited uncontaminated areas of Earth following a nuclear war thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years before the time of the plot — a common post-apocalyptic subgenre in the 1950s. On the other hand, Musk seems oblivious to the toxic dangers of nuclear energy and fancies that colonists will somehow make it across the long cosmic-radiation-bathed distance to Mars and set up camp in the intense radiation fields there that are antithetical to cellular biological systems. Asimov solved the space travel problem by (1) developing faster-than-light (hence invulnerable to radiation) parsec drives and (2) dispatching, as the earliest space explorers, robots that could withstand radiation when not in warp, only later to be replaced by engineered human wetware that had better immunity or repair abilities.

Jennifer Mercieca, author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, says that over a lifetime, some of that under the tutelage of famous fixer Roy Cohn, the Gotham Crime Boss who later became President developed a repertoire of strategies to avoid accountability for heinous conduct.

So, in some cases, he is ingratiating himself with his followers because he knows he can use his followers as cudgels to defend him and protect him from being held accountable. In other cases, he is using strategies that allow him to demonize; to turn people into hate objects; to turn them into people he can then scapegoat or blame for the things he has done.

Asked about comparisons between Trump and Musk, Mercieca said there are many.

It is unfortunate that the world’s richest man has this platform (X). It does prevent him from becoming accountable. He has so much power. He has so much access to communicate with the public and like Trump, he wields it like a cudgel. He gathers followers. He attacks others and has the followers attack. It’s incredibly dangerous. It is incredibly authoritarian. And it’s very anti-democratic, unfortunately.

This could lead us into a reprise of the discussion begun with our reviews of Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet and the conflict between engineering mind and nature-solutions mind, but in a recent interview on The Great Simplification with Nate Hagens, Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky took us through a different mind portal that framed both wizards and prophets within a greater context. Sapolsky unpacks how the innate qualities of our entangled biological organisms shaped by past and present hormone levels, hunger, stress, and much more, make what we think are free will decisions but are in fact driven by unseen and unremarked external determinants, some in the moment, some gained over a lifetime or in utero, and some the product of tens of thousands of years of adaptation to our environments.

Given this invisible determinism in our behavioral psychology, it is little wonder that we find ourselves up a climate cul-de-sac without understanding or being willing to make the essential changes required for survival, or that our cravings for stimulation astonishingly produced a narcissistic criminal mastermind turned reality TV star at the head of the world’s pre-eminent nuclear superpower during a time when the world was under attack from a climate-induced zoonotic mutant virus (likely the first of many).

It would make for a great Asimov story if old Isaac were still alive or could be revived in machine form (like his protagonist psychohistorian Hari Seldon). Until then, I have pre-ordered Sapolsky’s latest book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will, which releases October 17.

The Morning Show releases new episodes Wednesdays on Apple TV+

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Muddling Our Way to Earth 2.0

"Putting ourselves onto a global 11-percent decline slope, we could be back at 1960 climate change levels by 2035. We needn’t be so harsh. Let’s give ourselves to 2045."

pparently, President Obama missed the climate briefings given to Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. While he was in office he pursued a “drill baby drill” policy to boost US fossil exports. Earlier this year, his daughter Malia, now 25, came to him asking where he stood on the issue.

This is his reply. You be the judge.

My take on this is, first, for a guy who has followed this issue closely since the Copenhagen COP, he is living in a weird reality where a three-degree warming world will flood Bangladesh and cause 100 million migrants, but a 1.45°C warmer world (today’s) won’t. He really needs to look at TV more, or at least surf YouTube for this week’s climate porn. All those scenarios he predicted way out into the future for 3 degrees are already happening. Weekly.

We shouldn’t be too hard on him. Most of us likely cannot conceive of how a society as complex and populous as modern techno-consumer culture could transition within the space of a few years, or perhaps decades, to something capable of surviving Earth 2.0.

Inertia is our greatest enemy.

In a recent vlogcast with Kevin Anderson, Johan Rockström laid out the latest numbers game. You don’t have to watch the full hour, I can single out some of the high points.


What’s the highest mitigation pace we can think of in the world economy? Well, anything above two percent per year of reductions is what we would normally call ‘revolution pace.’ The Green Revolution, with increased food yields of rice and maize, was 2% per year. 2% per year is non-linear. It’s a doubling in one generation. It’s big. 2% per year is a really rapid pace. So we’re increasing emissions today between 1 and 2% per year. [actually, 2.225% from 1955 to 2019 — ed.] Now, to reduce emissions even in the global model runs we have, with optimistic — I mean, overly optimistic — negative emission technologies, assume mitigation pathways, as you know, between 5 and 7% per year. So that is three times revolutionary pace, at the current modeling runs. If you take away negative emission technologies, you would exceed 10% very rapidly. You would be more around 10 to 15%. I would call that… that’s not revolution, that is a complete disruption of the global economy. It’s like a pace that is beyond… I mean then you need to bulldoze down coal-fired plants, basically. You would be in a complete global Marshall Plan. It’s a war zone agenda.

Indeed, when I ran the numbers some years ago, I reached much the same conclusion. To have any hope of preserving stability with a 2-degree increase (nearly a degree more than we are currently experiencing) we would need a negative eleven percent economic (GWP) glide slope each year and, achieving zero, thereafter continue withdrawals of carbon at the same pace, banking carbon underground on millennial time scales as rapidly as humanly possible.

By way of comparison, the global pandemic in 2020–21 reduced fossil emissions by 7 percent. Nearly every country nearly shut down its economy. Many closed their borders for a time. It was not pretty, but it approximated what Rockström called “not revolution … a complete disruption.”

That lasted one year and then we resumed business as usual, increasing emissions by around 2 percent per year.

Our impediments are not physical. They are psychological.


It would be interesting to see other parts of the world looking at this, because, I would have a guess, when we say ‘that’s not feasible’, many people elsewhere in the world are saying ‘well of course it’s feasible, we’ve been doing… we’ve been living like that for years!’


That I agree, too. Definitely. But remember that, you know, again, including negative emission technologies gives us a pace of emission reductions, which is in the order of 5 to 6% per year, which is… so massive, because it has to happen at the global level, that it’s, in itself, a challenge equally big as just scaling the negative emission technologies.

In that earlier post reaching the 11 percent number I described life on the North American Prairie before European settlers arrived. The example I gave was a Sauk-Fox village as recounted by the great chief Black Hawk to a biographer in 1833. I was trying to convey that life can still be good, and in some ways better, without our taken-for-granted addiction to mass-produced consumer goods and the wonders of modernity

Ponder that for a moment. The wonders of modernity we take for granted today likely pale in comparison to what might come to be, given another half-century of progress. We might have cures for every disease, vaccines against every virus, and universal basic standards of living. Would a New Yorker in 1833 even grok what it is like to live in a world where you can reach California in six hours for the price of a day’s labor? Where you can ask a ChatBot a question and it can return an answer from any or all of ten million books, in nearly any language? Where a prick of blood from your finger can reveal your ancestry 50,000 years earlier?

Rather than traverse the years to 1833, I could as easily have described my own childhood in the 1950s and 60s. Although we were by then centuries into mass-produced consumer goods, the total annual emissions of greenhouse gases stood at only 9.4 tons CO2e. I will grant you that is more than 7 times the footprint of Sauk-Fox culture, but it was still only a quarter of what is being emitted today.

Putting ourselves onto a global 11-percent decline slope, we could be back at 1960 levels by 2035. We needn’t be so harsh. Let’s give ourselves to 2045. If the glide slope is 7% we could get back to a 1960 lifestyle by 2045 even if we took until 2025 to ramp up. Suppose we took a 2% glide path of emissions reductions (equal but opposite in sign from our current trajectory)? We do not return to 1960 until 2087. It may be marketable, but is it survivable? Likely not.

Unlike the majority of people alive today, I remember 1960. Sure, there were some nasty bits like duck and cover drills, the French nuking Algeria, Ike sending the first special forces to Vietnam, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Doris Day. But by and large, it was not all that bad, and although the world counted only 3 billion in human flesh, if we could extend that quality of life to everyone today and still be at only 9.4 GtCO2/yr emissions, we likely could scale negative emission technologies enough by 2045 to cancel that climate impact and then some.

But can you persuade people to go back to the future? Could we all become, say, Amish with internet?

Just as I went to press with this week’s post, Dr. Robert Chris, an Associate Professor at the Cambridge Centre for Climate Repair, wrote:

The underlying reason for our failure to confront climate change is that we are in denial about its cause. Current policy assumes it is caused by an excess of [greenhouse gases]. Well, that’s true, but the excess GHGs are caused by a combination of ultra-growth in consumption and the externalisation of the environmental costs of the fossil fuels used to power that consumption. The growth in consumption is caused by a human predilection for instant gratification and the externalisation of environmental costs is caused by a combination of factors but most particularly urban dwellers’ loss of intimacy with nature and capitalism’s voracious capacity to exploit free resources in what Garrett Harding named the Tragedy of the Commons. An adequate response to global warming has to go right down that causal chain. We’ve hardly dealt with its first link.


However, it is important to recognise that just because humans have the power of rational thought, it doesn’t follow that their collective decisions will be expressions of such thought. Scientists and engineers are especially steeped in the Cartesian/Baconian Enlightenment thinking of the scientific method. That is not how public policy is fashioned. To understand that, it is necessary to embrace complex adaptive systems theory that explains how self-organising systems progress through their adaptive cycle. Humanity is such a system and while rational thinking is important, it is by no means the determining factor in the emergence of the route we take into the future.

We are confronted by the challenge of selling an unpalatable menu, knowing that what goes down easily doesn’t nourish. To sell broccoli instead of beef will require something more potent than the disruptive innovation of Madison Avenue advertising firms adopting Freudian psychology in the 1960s. It will require a whole human population effort borne of either heroism or panicked horror.

We can take the former course now. We’ll be stuck with the latter soon enough.



Meanwhile, let’s end this war. Towns, villages, and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are 70 sites in Ukraine and 500 around the region. As you read this, 40 Ukrainian ecovillages and 300 in Europe have given shelter to thousands of adults and children and are receiving up to 1400 persons (around 200 children) each month. We call our project “The Green Road.”

For most of the children refugees, this will be their first experience in ecovillage living. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those who do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

Those wishing to make a tax-deductible gift can do so through Global Village Institute by going to or by directing donations to

There is more info on the Global Village Institute website at or you can listen to this NPR Podcast and read these recent articles in Mother Jones and The World. Thank you for your help.

The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID — and we failed. 6.95 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; and incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talents as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we can call upon some magic power that will arrest all our planetary-ecosystem-destroying activities?

As the world enters a new phase of the pandemic, there is growing recognition that we must learn to do better. We must chart a pathway to a new carbon economy that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backward — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience. We must lead by good examples; carrots, not sticks; ecovillages, not carbon indulgences. We must attract a broad swath of people to this work by honoring it, rewarding it, and making it fun. That is our challenge now.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger or Substack subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Thank you for reading The Great Change.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Cool City Design: Stockholm’s Urban Forest Experiment

"“People really love trees already, especially in Stockholm and in Sweden. I don't think that's the problem really…. It's more a problem with civil engineers that are responsible for road construction""

Björn Embrén began working with the green infrastructure
in the city of Stockholm in 1976, eventually rising to the position of City Forester managing around 5060 employees. He was plagued by trees, especially older ones, beginning to die along the streets and in the parks, which of course aggravated the growing city heat island effect. By taking away the cooling effect of an urban forest, Stockholm was becoming Barcelona in the summertime. Worse, much of the dirty runoff from city streets that used to be absorbed by vegetation was now flowing into the lake that provided all of Stockholm’s drinking water. The city needed trees, but they were dying. Embrén looked deeper. He began to study the microsphere.

“Soil for me is a substrate that will support life below the surface, support the life of the trees, support life for the microorganisms and mycorrhizae—everything that should be in the ground.”—Embrén

Embrén traveled Europe, attending conferences, meeting with soil scientists and forest specialists, and looking for solutions. He also researched methods used by the early builders of the city, and why trees seemed to be so happy in earlier centuries but not today. One idea he came across was biochar. In fact, that was how we first met, at the 3rd International Biochar Conference, September 12-15, 2010, in Rio de Janeiro. 

When Embrén tried biochar on the verges of city streets he was astonished by the result. After three years, trees that were planted at the start of his trials looked like they were 30 years old. In other parts of the city, he was used to seeing 30-year-old trees growing only as large as three-year-olds.

But there was more. Under the streets, the biochar absorbed rain and let it flow through large rock channels Embrén had constructed, or sponged it up in the biochar for slow time-release later. Nutrients were likewise retained and dispensed on demand to the roots of the trees. The compost and biochar mixes he made— 3 cubic meters of his biochar/compost fit into the void spaces between the stone but added nothing to the overall volume of 20 cubic meters of structural soil. If you want to try this, an easy-to-use spreadsheet to calculate the components required is available for free download. Designs for water inlets and aeration wells and PDF files of key reference texts are also available at

To protect the freshwater lake, Embrén started to work with the Stockholm traffic department to take up roadways and sidewalks and underlay them with biochar. So much biochar was required, he had to look abroad to find more. Eventually, he persuaded city authorities to begin transforming municipal wood wastes. The woody organic waste from backyard branches and leaves, Amazon boxes, and paper trash of the citizens of Stockholm began to circle back to those same citizens as free biochar the city bagged and handed out to use in home gardens. Stockholmers then were able to directly engage in the excitement and esprit of fighting climate change without flygskammen or having to sit outside Parliament on Fridays holding up skolstrejk signs.


Greta Thunberg outside of the
Swedish parliament (Sveriges Riksdag), 2018

“Politicians love it. It's a part circular economy and you upgrade something that was a waste, something usable… and now they can even get 6000 Krona [$540] paid for one tonne of biochar.”—Embrén


Embrén discovered more than just a way to solve for climate change, urban heat, storm and melt flooding, air pollution, water pollution, and municipal waste reduction. He discovered a way to engage people in the regenerative practices now required for their own collective survival.

“People really love trees already, especially in Stockholm and in Sweden. I don't think that's the problem really and most people just want to protect the trees…. It's more a problem with civil engineers that are responsible for the road construction.”—Embrén

Slide from Tom Miles, US Biochar Initiative
Embrén made the engineers listen. They were skeptical at first but eventually the proofs—in the many benefits Stockholm received—became undeniable. Stockholm won the Bloomberg Challenge and used the prize money to expand Embrén’s work. Other cities sat up and took notice. All across Sweden, and then in its Scandinavian neighbors, then in the EU and USA, old highways and sidewalks started getting replaced with porous, cool, biochar alternatives.

This idea could be coming to a street like yours soon. If it doesn’t you should complain to whoever is in charge.

Embrén, B. (2016). Planting Urban Trees with Biochar. The Biochar Journal (tBJ). Arbaz, Switzerland. ISSN 2297-1114, pp 44-47.

Embrén, B. (2009). Planting Beds in the City of Stockholm, A Handbook. City of Stockholm.

Construction Industry Research and Information Association (2015). CIRIA 753: The SuDS Manual. CIRIA, London.

Trees and Design Action Group (2014). Trees in Hard Landscapes: A Guide for Delivery. TDAG, London.

Greta’s first leaflet. Translation: “We kids most often
don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do.
And since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future,
I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade.
And I refuse school for the climate until the Swedish general election.”


Sunday, September 3, 2023

My New 12 Trillion-dollar Annual Budget

"We’ll not have to tighten our belts anywhere."

Three trillion per year in borrowing doesn’t seem like that much when you consider that the world spends twelve trillion to subsidize fossil energy exploration, exploitation, delivery, and use. Of course — and this is something deficit hawks will never tell you — borrowing trillions carries vastly more benefits than it may appear.

1. Produce Biochar

2. Grow Forests On Land

3. Grow Forests Under the Sea

4. Recover Wetlands and Regenerate Ecosystems

5. Remineralize

6. Increase Albedo

Show me the Money

1. Produce Biochar

2. Grow Forests On Land

3. Grow Forests Under the Sea

4. Recover Wetlands and Regenerate Ecosystems

5. Remineralize

6. Increase Albedo


  • Biochar — 36 billion — 0.3%
  • Reforestation — 170 billion — 1.4%
  • Kelp and Seaweed — 30 billion — 0.25%
  • Wetlands — 9.5 trillion — 79.1%
  • Remineralization — 400 billion — 3.3%
  • Albedo — 1.9 trillion — 15.5%


Sunday, August 27, 2023

Drey’s Challenge

"Many of the financial incentives that stripped the forests of Missouri in 1910 are still present in 2010."

Leo Drey at 87 in the Pioneer Forest
In 1899, the sawmill at Grandin, Missouri, east of the Current River, consumed 70 acres of woodland a day and produced in excess of 250,000 board feet of lumber, lath, and shingles. Many sawmill towns came into existence in rural Missouri around the turn of the century, using river power, animals, or coal to turn the Ozark forests into timber and sawdust. By the 1920s, all but a few acres of Missouri’s virgin forests were gone, the mills were shut down, and all those jobs were lost.

The erosion of the soil was so severe that farming also entered a crisis, and many farmers sold out and left. The streams were choked with silt, and wildlife declined to only about 2000 deer and a similar number of turkeys in the entire state. Eventually, in the 1930s, the federal government bought the barren landscape and sent in the Civilian Conservation Corps to fight fires, build roads, and plant trees.

Among those taking an interest in the Ozark forests was a young businessman named Leo Drey. In 1951, Drey used some of his inheritance from his father’s business, Drey Perfect Mason Jars, to purchase 1407 acres of oak and pine, much of it rotten, for $4 an acre. Drey was 34 years old and a 1939 graduate of Antioch College, whose founder, Horace Mann, had told students, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Recognizing his own limitations, Drey hired a forestry instructor at the University of Missouri to help him locate and buy forested land. Over the next few years, he expanded his holdings to over 125,000 acres, including a single purchase in 1954 of nearly 90,000 acres from the National Distillers Products Corporation of New York. He called it Pioneer Forest, not only because he intended to manage it as a model of sustainable forestry, but also because Pioneer Cooperage Company of St. Louis had originally assembled the largest tract. Pioneer Cooperage had begun a sustainable harvest of white oak for barrel staves under professional foresters Ed Woods and Charlie Kirk. The company was then sold, in 1948, to National Distillers, with its forestry team intact, but several years later the distilling company decided to liquidate the forest and sell out.

Woods and Kirk alerted Drey, who entered into negotiations to purchase the land and tried to save as much as he could, but National Distillers insisted on the right to cut all white oak over 15 inches in diameter. As Drey and his new forestry team watched helplessly, 12 million board feet of oak were cut in 1954 alone, and another 12 million were lost to the cataclysmic drought and fires of the era. 

Much of the forest that Drey, Woods, and Kirk began with was severely degraded, but they maintained long-term records of inventory, species composition, stand volume, and other indicators of systemic health. Important for forest health and productivity, they believed, was to maintain diverse species and ages of trees on every acre. To do that, they practiced uneven-aged silviculture through single-tree selection, marking and taking out the weak, deformed, and crowded trees, and paying careful attention to slope, soil, and canopy openings to favor young reproduction and continued growth of the best trees of varied species and sizes. They were more concerned about what remained than they were about what was removed. They also kept logging equipment out of stream bottoms, maintained forested stream buffers, and rarely cut more than 40 percent of the volume in any given stand.

During the 1960s in the West and South and by the early 1970s in the Ozarks, professional foresters on federal and state forests and in forestry schools shifted to a more intensive commercial model of forestry based on even-aged management by clearcutting. Industrial-scale harvesting equipment often abused the terrain and watercourses. Regeneration or planting favored the most commercially valuable species, often monocultures of hybrids designed for fast growth. For decades, most forestry research, funded by the federal government or private industry, was directed to even-aged management to improve industry profitability. Until recently, little consideration was given to uneven-aged management or to ecosystem health, carbon sequestration, or biodiversity.

Many of the financial incentives that stripped the forests of Missouri in 1910 are still present in 2010. Landowners can get more quick cash by liquidating their forests than by managing them.

The lasting accomplishment of Leo Drey and his small team of foresters was to prove that their uneven-aged management system was both sustainable and profitable. They proved they could secure the natural regeneration of commercially valuable species while also producing a full array of ecological, social, and cultural values.

In 2002, the volume of the standing trees in Pioneer Forest was more than three times what it had been in 1952, and asset value had increased nine-fold since 1972. A 2002 study found that in the previous six years income had exceeded expenses by about 50 percent. For the landowner, the forest had almost certainly been as profitable as it would have been under an even-aged regime. Moreover, once an acre of Ozark forest is clearcut, it requires 80 to 100 years to regrow. During this same period, four or five harvests could be made under the uneven-aged system.

The difference between the two models is more than money, however. Every acre of Pioneer remains a true forest. In studies of salamander populations, microarthropods in leaf litter, black bears, and migrant songbirds, Pioneer Forest wins easily over even-aged forests, and the value for recreation is continual. The average turnover rate for Pioneer’s canopy is 189 to 228 years. Its soils are a rich carbon sink, and it is more resistant to drought, disease, and pest damage than any monocrop plantation could ever be.

The transition to a carbon-aware economy will lead the world away from fossil fuels and into reliance on renewables, including forest biomass. The good news is that sustainable forest ecosystem management may be more economically productive than the industrial tree farms and cattle ranches that replaced wilderness old growth. We can regain wilderness old growth in many parts of the world the way Leo Drey did, and we can do that in a single lifetime.

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