Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ground Up

" This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any. "


Ever since William Woods, Wim Soembroek, Bruno Glazer and other dirt dorks started revealing the miraculous capacities of terra preta do indios, the dark earths of the Amazon, the story of climate change and our species impending extinction became all about agriculture. By the time Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph published Biochar for Environmental Management, it was clear (and validated by excellent science) that reinvigorating agriculture with ancient practices involving biochar, taken to scale, could restore Earth’s atmosphere to pre-industrial health.

Native stewardship of the Americas was all but invisible to the sensibilities of European conquerors. Worse, 500 years of unremitting ethnic cleansing destroyed unknowable riches of ecological knowledge, along with much of the rich, deep philosophy of how humans can inhabit Earth as citizens, not pirating rapists.

We confess we were among those who took the pilgrimage to Brazil, returned baptized in the soil, and predicted that billions of hectares would soon be biochared, drawing gigatons of carbon into eternal sequestration.

So what happened?

Decades on, you still can’t buy biochar fertilizers in most garden stores. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with the corpses of companies that ramped up biochar production, or packaged microbial mixes, and then couldn’t find enough buyers to pay the office rent, never mind their payroll.

In the animal probiotic supplement area, federal laws were passed banning biochar.

A few gardeners and farmers made their own, tried it out and were sold. They evangelized their neighbors. But the vast majority were skeptics or took clueless Master Gardener courses and took no notice. While those with relatively good soils, typical of the temperate zones, saw 40 percent productivity gains, those in the tropics and other areas of poor soils, saw gains of 400 percent and more. And yet, the nascent industry continued to tank.

This past week we have been hosting a workshop at The Farm Ecovillage Training Center called Biochar from the Ground Up. We are taking biochar up from the ground and putting it to other uses that might have better business potential.

Over and over again during the workshop we heard that “farmers are conservative,” “nobody is going to pay for something that takes years to show its worth,” and “unless you spend the time to make it, you won’t even be able to get any.” This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any.   

Because we are busy with the workshop we can’t easy cut out the time to pen a blog, so we taped (feebly, using a collection of devices such as phones and voice recorders) a segment of one talk we gave during the week.  Enjoy.   



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Paleofuturism

"We haven’t hit the temperature levels we can expect from current CO2 levels, and by the time we do, CO2 levels will be even higher."

According to Danish politician Karl Kristian Steincke, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Steincke was cataloging a comment made in the 1937–38 session of the Danish Parliament (without translation: “Det er vanskeligt at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden”), which if you consider what befell Denmark shortly thereafter, was prescient.

It was too good a line to attribute to Danish politicians, so it fell to less rigorous quotists to ascribe it to Yogi Berra, Mark Twain or Sam Goldwin.

It seems especially apt when we read predictions of what the world will be like at mid-century or later. Truth is, nobody can know — and less now than before. This is not your parents’ future any more.
At the risk of serving our readers more dollups of doomer porn — after only just telling ourselves to stop doing that because it frightens people — we have been reminded of the Michael Mann hockey stick chart published more than a quarter century ago, recently updated and retweeted by climate scientist Joe Romm

Romm says that historically,
[R]ecord CO2 levels are accompanied by record temperatures and record sea level rise. We haven’t hit the temperature levels we can expect from current CO2 levels, and by the time we do, CO2 levels will be even higher. Sea level rise can take even longer to catch up but the latest science says we are headed towards worst-case scenario levels, 3 to 6 feet (or more), by century’s end.But now CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.



While man-made emissions may have peaked in 2014 and, following the wave of national pledges of the Paris Agreement (and a deepening global recession), are starting to slightly decline now, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.

Monthly levels of heat-trapping CO2 hit nearly 410 parts per million (ppm) in May. How do we explain that? Only one way. What were once natural sinks have become sources, as CO2 reservoirs trapped in permafrost, ocean clathrates, forests and soils heat up and start to release their stores.

While man-made carbon additions actually declined slightly in 2015–2016 according to official data (admittedly an inexact accounting because fracking sources are still undertabulated and military departments keep theirs secret), Keeling’s Mauna Loa data for
2015 and 2016 showed the two biggest annual jumps in actual atmospheric CO2 levels.

Has the clathrate gun fired? Its too soon to say. 

Weeds alert! We are about to follow a rabbit trail into the briar patch of recent reports.
Methane hydrate is likely undergoing dissociation now on global upper continental slopes and on continental shelves that ring the Arctic Ocean.

Rachael James and 12 co-authors, writing for the J. of Limnology and Oceanography in Nov 2016, Effects of climate change on methane emissions from seafloor sediments in the Arctic Ocean: A review (Volume 61, Issue S1, Pages S283–S299), concluded that the present scientific consensus converges on pegging methane stored in gas hydrates at a few hundred gigatons. This is high by US Geological Survey standards, but an order of magnitude below pegs by Arctic Methane Emergency Group and Professor Guy McPherson.

If the consensus view of total reserve is a few hundred Gt spread over billions of hectares of cold regions and yet Near-Term-Human-Extinction proponents keep repeating the possibility for a 50 Gt burp, bringing death to our species within this decade, they are really stretching the truth. Its a vivid yarn not backed by evidence. 

From May 3 to May 11, 2017, the R/V Hugh R. Sharp manned by British Geological Survey with support from the USGS and NOAA went on expedition to explore seafloor methane seeps on the northern U.S. Atlantic margin. Their data is not in yet, but very soon we shall get to hear what they say.

Ruppel and Kessler, writing for Reviews of Geophysics, Volume 55, Issue 1 Pages 126–168, March 2017 write:
Many factors — the depth of the gas hydrates in sediments, strong sediment and water column sinks, and the inability of bubbles emitted at the seafloor to deliver methane to the sea-air interface in most cases — mitigate the impact of gas hydrate dissociation on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations though. There is no conclusive proof that hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now….
We are less sanguine about that statement also. Hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now. There are YouTube videos of it being ignited out of holes in frozen lakes. In some places are brewing morning coffee that way. It is a question of volume, and whether there is enough to explain the gap between our current emissions slowdown and the Scripps readings of 410 ppm.

The most revealing of Romm’s charts was, for us, this one from Yale360, to which we have added a few labels for clarity:









This chart dovetails very neatly with news accounts of a discovery of fossil skulls in Morocco, pushing back the date of homo sapiens’ appearance in Africa to 300,000 years B.P.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelle and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
Newsweek reported: 
“We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in East Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa,” study author Jean-Jacques Hublin said in a statement.

“CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.”
By adding more labels to the Yale360 chart, we can date the appearance of our bipedal, hominid-like ancestors to a recent point along the timeline when climate — and particularly the weather in Northern African savannahs — went from considerably warmer and wetter to highly variable but within a hospitable range (180–280 ppm CO2 and plus or minus 2 degrees C). That describes the period 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. Then, suddenly in geological terms, 11,700 years ago the last glacial maximum passed and in rushed the extremely comfortable and stable Holocene, that flat blue line across the chart. For as long as we have had stomachs and skeletons, we have never existed outside a 180-280 ppm world.

Humans looking much the same as today’s took up residence in every corner of the world. In what is to biological evolution the blink of an eye, they built great cities, sailed across vast oceans, forged steel, split the atom, sequenced their own genome, and landed travelers on the Moon and returned them safely back to Earth. It took some two billion years to create thousands of minerals during the Great Oxidation Event, but we humans added hundreds of thousands in just the short time since the industrial revolution.
Even if sea levels rise 300 feet and cover coastal cities, those minerals will still be visible in the sedimentary record. That’s because landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian will collapse into piles of rubble — signatures that are later preserved as highly unusual lens-shaped pockets underground, distinct from their surroundings in both shape and minerals. The Washington Monument, for example, will eventually be a lens-shaped pocket composed of limestone where no other limestone is found. And the pocket that was once the Smithsonian will contain so many rare minerals that they could not possibly have formed so close together in nature. To boot, they will be surrounded by the vast array of the man-made minerals we use every day.

And there, at a glance, is the problem confronting futurists. Most assume that even if the worst happens and seas rise 300 feet or nuclear bombs descend from the heavens, humans will persist as they always have and civilization will recover, in the fullness of time. We wonder.

In that same article from Scientific American, Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, says of the mineral divergence, “One of the most distinctive vertical lines on the graph is the growth of mineral species… It’s one of the most striking changes.”

His choice of words is insightful:
There is nothing at all like this in the geology of the past 4.5 billion years on Earth,” Zalasiewicz says. “It is tragically different.”
There is a change unfolding, and the way it is headed now is profoundly tragic. While it is not too late to reverse climate change, the momentum already gathered suggests that recovery will be a slow process even if we could apply the full potential for human social organization to the task — and we are, by no means, doing that now.

We enjoy romps through science fiction, even fantastical retrofutures like John Michael Greer’s steampunk Retrotopia or James Howard Kunstler’s nostalgic World Made By Hand series, but realistically, when we step out to inhale the brilliant clean air on a beautiful new day, we do so with a sense of foreboding that will not be shaken off so easily.

There is a ray of hope coming from another chart. This one is a chart of opinion in the United States about who thinks imposing more regulation on coal burning would be a good idea. The darker counties are for more regulation, the lighter counties for less. As expected, many of the old coal towns are centers of light. The surprise is where dark pockets are found in new and unexpected corners of the map.






We expect to find intelligent responses to climate change in the over-educated northeast, or liberal pockets around Austin, Albuquerque, Boulder or the Left Coast. We don’t usually expect it in South Wisconsin, West Central Mississippi, Alabama and Southeast South Carolina, the border towns of the Southwest, Las Vegas and Miami-Dade. So what is that about?

We would guess it might have to do with the weather. If that is so, there is plenty more weather just ahead.

 Come gather ‘round people
 Wherever you roam
 And admit that the waters
 Around you have grown
 And accept it that soon
 You’ll be drenched to the bone
 If your time to you
 Is worth savin’
 Then you better start swimmin’
 Or you’ll sink like a stone
 For the times they are a-changin’.

— Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Way

"Patterns of regenerative thinking augur regenerative patterns of living and the reverse is also true."



  Ten years ago, Brian Eno suggested a word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. The word he came up with is “scenius.” Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes.

In a Wired interview  in 2011, Kevin Kelly described the idea this way:
Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Historical examples are the Yosemite rock climbers Camp 4 in the 1930s, Building 20 at MIT, the Algonquin Round Table, Silicon Valley, Soho, Burning Man, the North Beach of the Big Island in the 1950s, Greenwich Village, the Panhandle flats in the Haight in the 1960s, Glastonbury, Akwesasne, the affinity groups at Seabrook, the bioregional congresses, the World Social Fora, the UN climate summits, and the Amazonian Shamanism conferences.

We have been lucky to stumble into a number of those scenes; so many we sometimes wonder if we are Forrest Gump.

Lucky stars have led us to be present at the birth of the Noho loft art and music scene, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier hearings, a blithering Nixon at sunrise on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the first Earth Day in Central Park, the Longest Walk, the conspiratorial Leningrad public baths on Saturday nights, the bioregional Consejos de Visiones at Meztitla and Condor, sundry Earth Summits, the ecovillager gatherings at Findhorn in 1995 and Istanbul in 1996, Viridian design, the post-millennium peak oil conferences, and the Kinsale College birthing of Transition.

The scenius we are most familiar with, although it encompasses and interpenetrates many of these others, is of course The Farm. As one of the longest floating crap games of the past century, it remains a dynamically evolving scene: a creative hub for the world midwives’ conspiracy, the cabal of alternative education advocacy, an incubator for progenitors of cool tech, and lately, a climate-reversal counterdevelopment seeding group, including, but not limited to, we ecovillage, regrarian, permaculture and alt.fuels evangelists.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors that Kelly described:

  • Mutual appreciation — risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — as soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success — when a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties — the local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

What Brian Eno called scenius, Stephen Gaskin used to call “the juice.” In a paper we delivered to a history conference in Illinois in 1987, we attempted to describe a series of intellectual and technological steps that guided the first 16 years of The Farm, but cautioned that we could not try to fathom how it came into being. “How juice moves from place to place and time to time would be an interesting exploration,” we said.

Lao Tsu (literally the “Old Boy” because he was born with a small white beard), put these ideas into poetry. We think it silly when we have to take off shoes and give up our toothpaste at the airport, but when Lao Tsu tried to leave China they told him he couldn’t leave until he had written down all he knew. In the Tao Te Ching, the 72 gems of wisdom left with a border guard, Lao Tsu summarized his findings in order that he be allowed to leave.

The first verse is the Old Boy’s disclaimer: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Alan Watts observed that this famous opening line also showed Lao Tsu to be a punster, but you have to understand a bit of Chinese to get it.

“Tao” means the way, or course, of nature, but it also means to speak. So in Chinese, the first character is this:


The first character is “the way.” The next is “can” or “can be.”

The third is again “the way,” but it could also be “spoken”


What Lao Tsu says in one entendre is that he can’t really describe the way, because it is ineffable; if he could describe it then it would not be true. The way that can be spoken is not the way.
In the other entendre Lao Tsu says it cannot be taken as a way. The way that can be “way-ed,” or traveled, is not the way.
Do you think you can make the world a better place? I do not think you can. It is already perfect.
— Lao Tsu

This is also the point Kelly labored to underscore, which is that scenes, and hence scenius, cannot be created. The best we can hope for is to recognize them when, for whatever extraordinary confluence of good fortune, they seem to arise. And when that happens, the best we can do is to not step on them.

That may be so, but maybe not. Scenius with the grand historicity of a Yosemite Camp 4 cannot be stamped into existence. But the conditions to potentialize scenius can be laid by design. Daniel Wahl, in Designing Regenerative Cultures, provides these basic ingredients:
  • Transformative Innovation
  • Biologically Inspired
  • Living Systems Thinking
  • Health and Resilience
In his forward to Wahl’s book, David Orr offers a nuanced challenge. It is Patricia Scotland’s “And, so?” question.  We have developed an ecosystem of solutions. How do you get this to scale? Holistic design is akin to the core nature of religion, Orr says, “a discipline binding us all together in our stewardship of the Earth as a shared habitat and the underlying assumption to be shared is that we are more worthy together than apart.”

Orr then takes it a step farther. He says the five billion poor, soon to be 7 or 9 billion, must be empowered with free energy, free clean water, free pressed-brick shelters, and free Internet access. In return they will innovate and create infinite wealth with a regenerative aspect. We hear this, and we shudder a bit.

This is also what Buck Fuller used to say, and many others before and after him. It’s become kind of holy grail   in Silicon Valley or at Burning Man — liberating ideas will liberate masses. It philosophically underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goals — the essence of neoliberalism. But….
If I am worthy then show me the way.

First, the whole modern amusement park ride is scaffolded on cheap, available, abundant energy, soon to be a bygone. Sooner than you imagine, those Microsoft server farms that are allowing you to read this will brown out, flicker, and die. Kevin Kelly again:
A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
Second, imagining 7 billion hominids empowered with free everything opens the gates of Hell unless they are restrained from reliving the patterns of their collective past, only worse. Historically, when provided abundant food and energy the hairless two-leggeds have been as locusts. Without some countervailing ethic of restraint, should Orr’s wish comes true, this fragile blue orb becomes Easter Island.

Wahl says that which must change is more mental than physical, and in this we are agreed. Lately with the climate march for science, Paul Hawken’s Drawdown tour, and the debate over fake news and science suppression we have been hearing, over and over, people we respect make pledges of allegiance to the gods of science as if they were saying a rosary. But we know that scientists — and even more-so academics —  are inherently conservative defenders of the rote and two or more steps behind the vanguard. Who are the vanguard? Artists like Brian Eno, or the cabal that gathers in a scenius to thrash out the hard truth. Moreover, they then endeavor to actually make the change they've lived go viral.

Patterns of regenerative thinking augur regenerative patterns of living and the reverse is also true: living together or coming together can change your mind or open new frontiers. We have witnessed this phenomenon in ecovillage communities all over the world. Designing the future — any future beyond mid-century  — requires redesigning a collective consciousness, our psychodemographic. We are already doing this with the hardware gateways to cyberamphibian transits, and with permaculture, ecosystem restoration camps and ecovillages in the non-virtual world.

Ecovillages do it with eco-covenants; social contracts that build all eight forms of capital,  externalizing nothing.

Our travels to Marrakech and Zhejiang last year made clear to us that the role of ecovillages is key. They are a viral carrier — patient zero. Don’t be put off by the hippy or elitist veneers of many of the prototypes; those were leading edge experiments by the fringe-dwelling creatives.  Any change for humanity arrives only after extreme vetting. At that point they become nearly inevitable.

To quote Wahl,
“Sustainability is not a fixed state to reach and then maintain, it is a community-based learning process aimed at increasing the health and resilience of our communities, our bioregional economies, ecosystems, and of the planetary life-support system as a whole.”
We say “nearly inevitable” because there are still countercurrents and eddies that can drown us. There are no guarantees. The odds against success are high.

Feeling the wind at our back, we edge the kite closer to the power zone.
If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
— Lao Tsu


This post is the last of a series we dubbed The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We’ll continue to post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. If Power Zone makes it to print, our Power-Up Patreon donors will receive an autographed copy.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Rollerblading the Halls of Power

"This is what solutions look like. Some are very large. Some are very small. They are all important."



“It is important to understand that humans have never lived here on Earth at above 300 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere.” On May 18 this is how Paul Hawken began his talk at Marlborough House.

On one side of the 12–meter cherry mahogany bubinga table sat the Secretary General, Her Excellency The Right Honourable The Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal, QC PC, the 6th Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations. To her left were Mary Robinson, the seventh, and first female, President of Ireland (1990-97) and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997- 2002); Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, a country of some hundred thousand citizens, which is disappearing under the sea; His Excellency High Commissioner Jitoko Tikolevu of Fiji, 2017 next chair of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP-23); Johns Kharika of UNCDD, and their Excellencies, the representatives of the 52 member nations of the Commonwealth.

To her right sat our team of advisors from Cloudburst Foundation, Drawdown Project, Regenesis, eCO2, Buckminster Fuller Institute, Project NOAH, and Global Ecovillage Network, along with invited guests Marcello Palazzi of B Corp, Permaculture Magazine editor Maddy Harland, coral reef scientist Tom Goreau, Gregory Stone of Conservation International, scientists from Greenwich and Southhampton universities, and actor Colin Salmon, among others.

Between the departure of Mary Robinson and the arrival of HRH the Prince of Wales, the Baroness asked us to take the chair to her left, giving us a strange feeling, not unlike being asked to sit between Kirk and Sulu on the Command Deck of USS Enterprise as a Romulan Warbird uncloaks on the viewer.

Hawken methodically wove his spell. He showed an IPCC chart of atmospheric carbon going back 400,000 years and the associated warming and cooling. “It is important to understand that humans have never lived here on Earth at above 300 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere,” he urged.
His voice is soft and high pitched, but he speaks from experience, and he reaches his audience at a deeper level than words express.

He runs through an introduction to his research team and the scope of their work over the past few years. The task of Project Drawdown was not to create new data but to look at the hundred most promising solutions to climate change and rank them, based on cost, readiness, impact and scalability. The results were just published April 18 by Penguin as Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. It is already the number one bestseller and at this writing is sold out on Amazon.

He explains that there was no “one size fits all” solution. Small island states would have different needs and opportunities than large countries like Australia, India and Canada. The ability to reforest, grow marine kelp farms, or to produce rice and other crops more ecologically would be different from place to place.

One problem is how the subject has been framed, he says. We speak of this as a gargantuan challenge, an existential threat, something that must be combatted as an unprecedented evil. It may be all those things, but looking at it that way evokes a response that may not be what is needed. People hide.

“Instead, let us think of this as an opportunity.” He went into what has been called “marine permaculture,” the seeding of kelp forests.  “We are talking about trophic cascades, with phytoplanckton, zooplankton, algae, kelp products, up into the higher orders of fish that regenerate in weeks to months, providing protein, reversing eutrophication. The oceans are a tremendous source of regeneration.”

He moves along to slides of renewable energy, building materials and cattle management practices that cut methane. “This is what solutions look like. Some are very large. Some are very small. They are all important.”

“Some things surprised us,” he said. Food waste has a tremendous impact. The food sector, from how it is produced to how it is consumed matters more than energy, or buildings, or any other sector. He describes how he, as a much younger man, spent time in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. He was given one small bowl of rice per day. He soon learned to not waste a single grain.

Most, if not all, of global warming can be traced directly to family planning. "When a girl is allowed to become a woman on her terms she has an average of 2 children, which is very different than what has been happening. Educating girls, combined with family planning, may be the number one solution to global warming.”

“I don’t know about you, but all I hear is solar this, solar that and literally, no one had done the math.”

Is it possible to reverse global warming? Yes. Hawken continued, “The returns from the solutions are far greater than the costs of the problems. Our focus on the problem has not allowed us to see this. People have focused on the problem, and the solutions seem to make no economic sense when you monetize them, they only add to the problem. When we look at the data, the opposite is true. The net savings from the solutions are in the trillions. There is money to be made there.”

Dawn Danby and David McConville
“What are the costs? We are seeing social unrest, we are seeing poverty, income inequality and the effect that has on social cohesion.”

What changes do these proposed solutions bring? “Increasing food supply, increasing knowledge, increasing education, increasing equality, increasing health outcomes, increasing productivity.”
“The goal is very doable. But I want to emphasize that the Commonwealth has a key role. The UN is very limited in what it can do because of how it is structured.”

The Commonwealth’s 2012 charter was the model for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “Right down to the choice of colours,” the Secretary General reminds us. Before that the UN had a lame set of Millennium Goals based upon a premise of endless, unsustainable growth on a finite world. Not much different than Donald Trump’s budget numbers. The pivot the Commonwealth will be bringing to COP-23 in November is Regenerative Design. That is why the right side of the room is seated here.

John Elkington, Paul Polman, Ben Haggard
In David McConville’s presentation is an exponential curve. Call it what you will — human population; greenhouse gases; ocean plastic; wealth inequality. It is unsustainable. Then he shows the reverse — a logarithmic curve. The Fibonacci sequence  — a snail shell, a nautilus, seeds in a sunflower, fruitlets of a pineapple, flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern, a pine cone, and the family tree of honeybees. It is recursive, fractal, the K-sere stage in ecosystems.

After short presentations from Anote Tong, Jitoko Tikolevu, Mary Robinson, Mohamed Amersi, Janine Benyus, Ben Haggard, John Elkington and Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) and a brief intervention from the Prince of Wales, there is time to go around the table. It is clear that many of those whose jobs involve attending official functions and trolling for development grants and who have little interest in, or even cynicism towards, climate change are deeply moved. His Excellency the High Commissioner from Tonga, Sione Sonanta Tupou, provides such an example. The Secretary General later confided that in all his years at this table Mr. Tupou had never spoken. Today he rose to say these words, with tears in his eyes: “I came here with an empty cup. I leave with it overflowing.”

Clockwise from L: Paul Hawken, Rola Khoury, David McConville, Janine Benyus, Dawn Danby, Santiago Obarrio,          Ben Haggard, Harsen Nyambe, Mauro Paolini
Others came up to the Secretary General. The small island nations were always skeptical because they felt betrayed by the UN process. Now they felt hope. One of the High Commissioners told her, “Forgive me for being such an idiot. We are behind you 100 percent.” She said many present had experienced a “Road to Damascus” moment.

Tom Goreau, Sybilla, Bernd Neugebauer
Behind us, across St. James Park, the closest building at our back is 10 Downing Street. We can hear the clip clop of the Royal Horse Guards and the whistle as they wheel into their stables. This room is part of the town house constructed by Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough in 1711. The architect was Sir Christopher Wren.

Descendants of the Marlboroughs occupied the house until 1817 when it returned to the Crown, where has been the London residence of five Dukes and Duchesses, three dowager Queens, three Princes of Wales, the future Kings Edward VII, George V, and Edward VIII, and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who was crowned King of the Belgians in the adjoining foyer in 1831. The same foyer, the Blenheim Saloon, served the wedding banquet for the marriage of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.

All of this means very little if the Atlantic reclaims London or Earth’s atmosphere becomes unbreathable. The guardians of the old order seem to have gotten that. If knowledge is power, then the reverse is also true. Those at the center of concentrated power are cursed with knowledge they would rather not have.

In 1959 Queen Elizabeth placed Marlborough House at the disposal of the Commonwealth. With the advent of Brexit and Trump, its strategic importance has emerged. Today’s Commonwealth is a third of the world’s population, 20 percent of Earth’s landmass, 40 percent of its forests and 17 percent of global purchasing power parity, about $10 trillion. These nations share a common language, similar legal and administrative structures (including somewhat astonishing and far-reaching improvements to the civil and criminal codes crafted by the Secretary General that are still below the radar), and fundamental values such as commitment to democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, equal rights, and faith in economic and social development.

Given this background, one has to ask, in what way, exactly, is the Commonwealth any better positioned than the UN to do something about climate change?

Staring around at the trappings of empire — Louis Laguerre’s murals of the Battle of Blenheim (1704), Queen-Empress Alexandra’s gilded oak overmantles, the plaster busts of George V and Queen Mary, the tables that served Edward’s Derby Day dinners for members of the Jockey Club — the incongruity overwhelms our senses. And yet, there she is, at our right elbow, the dark-skinned 12th child of a Dominican mother and Antiguan father, the indefatigable Patricia Scotland, rollerblading through the halls of power.

We can do this, she says. We must. Over a late supper in the basement of a restaurant past closing hours she says, “My mum told me every person is given a gift from God. Each gift is different. You need to find it and hone it and that is how you will have a good life.”

If the climate crisis can be seen as a gift from God, maybe there is something, and some people now, that we can start to work with, to tease out the best thing to do for this fragile, rapidly changing world.

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