Sunday, August 20, 2017

Planting A Personal Forest

"If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals."

In 1979, with the birth of my second child, my mother followed me to Tennessee and bought 88 acres near our budding ecovillage. Since our intentional community used to sharecrop that land, the fields had been contour terraced and swaled in the late 1970s with The Farm’s bulldozer and road grader, using guidance from the local soil conservation service (another Roosevelt relic), so it was already in pretty good condition from a keyline management point of view. I took the local USDA extension agent’s suggestion and planted loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which, it turns out, was good advice. The loblolly is hardy, fast growing, drought-tolerant, and its range is expanding as the Southeast warms. I also planted hybrid American chestnut, mulberry, hardy citrus and bamboo.

In 1977–78, even before my mother purchased her farm, I began experimenting at my home with fast-growing hybrids of poplar, developed in Pennsylvania, comparing their growth characteristics with native tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I was looking for a sustainable winter heating supply and a substrate for mushroom production that could be harvested by coppice and pollard. In 1985 I applied that knowledge to plant a shelterbreak of hybrid poplar along one border of my mother’s property.

Walnut Hill Farm

Interior of the Prancing Poet, under construction in 2012
 In 1998, I planted out 3000 hybrid walnuts, comparing grafted rootstock developed by Purdue University for veneer with native black walnut used primarily for furniture and hardwood flooring and secondarily for a prodigious, oily nut crop. Nearly all of the expensive hybrid plantings were lost within 5 years to rabbits, insects, drought, and ice-storms. The native walnuts succeeded, and so have become a lasting part of my forest design at what our family now calls Walnut Hill Farm. We are using the oily husks this winter to stain the interior trim in a new addition to The Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center.

The late 1990s also saw the introduction of many bamboo stands, along the swales and in “canebreaks” where creeks would overflow in high water. I put in a half-dozen varieties in discrete patches, spread over about 20 acres. These have multiplied so quickly that they alone more than offset all the annual carbon consumption at Global Village Institute, including the Ecovillage Training Center and all its employees, visitors and volunteers, and all my annual travel around the world giving courses and workshops. Counting sequestration both above and below ground, 10 acres of bamboo locks up 63.5 tC/yr (metric tons carbon per year). 

I am told by Peter Bane, author of The Permaculture Handbook, that six tC/yr is consistent with back-of-the envelope figures for maize, another C-4 photosynthesizer. The difference with bamboo is that being an annual, edible corn is harvested and consumed each year and the stover decomposes rather quickly, releasing briefly stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Maize is therefore actually a greenhouse pump, because it draws soil carbon into the thick-rooted plant and makes it more readily available to the atmosphere. Bamboo, if it is landscaped into groves or incorporated into furniture, buildings or biochar, lingers much longer in the terrestrial environment.

The Albert Bates Forest (we do not call it that; I am being facetious) now occupies some 30 acres. After my mother died, the Institute leased 44 acres from Walnut Hill for the project and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, bamboos and cactus, as well as the tried-and-true local trees. We know that climate change will cause many of our most familiar tree species to out-migrate, and we are working to fill the void by planting species more likely to survive in semi-tropical conditions, albeit punctuated by winter blizzards.

Planting trees is not as easy as it seems when your experience is mainly hardy transplants of Loblolly pine provided by the Forest Service in tight little bundles. Most trees resist being transplanted and have to be encouraged and pampered. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape (2001) says “planting a tree is akin to shooting a man in the stomach.” His point is that trees are uniquely adapted to the angle of the sun, the flow of subsurface water and nutrients, the community of the forest and other factors we seldom consider. Starting trees in situ from seed or small seedling is often more likely to succeed than transplanting them as grafted rootstock or even semi-mature trees.

My planting method relies heavily on natural regeneration, followed by selection for desirable traits. Because of the poor highland soil in our region, cedars are a common pioneer species. Tulip poplar and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are also common. Most disturbed ecosystems will revert to woodland through natural succession if left un-grazed and un-mowed. We have mowed those areas we wanted to reserve for planting stands of higher value. Self-sown trees are generally stronger and grow faster than planted trees, so by allowing space between patches, we left plenty of room for natural succession through self-seeding.

Most tree work is done in our dormant season, roughly from mid-November to the end of April. My son now has a nursery established at Walnut Hill where he starts seeds in containers in polytunnels in the summer months, transplanting seedlings out in winter. He is good at scavenging plant leftovers from nursery sales and farmers markets, and although those trees have diminished survival rates from excessive handling and neglect, some always manage to survive and mature. From these, new generations are cultivated and encouraged.

I have been planting at densities of about 100 trees per acre, but those densities will increase substantially as the forest fills itself in. I imagine 400–1000 trees per acre to be more typical at climax, plus a wide range of understory plants. I asked Frank Michael, Global Village Institute’s engineer, to run these numbers for me. He used several approaches to cancel out the various unknowables. This is part of a work in progress that he plans to publish as a book in the near future.


Calculating Carbon Sequestration

For a mature mixed-oak-hickory mesophytic forest of the type we are planting in the Highland Rim region of south central Tennessee, hard data is not readily available, but the appendices to the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report of the US Climate Change Science Program (2007) are very helpful. Studies aggregated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 400 trees (one acre at maturity) would structurally absorb 2.6 tons of carbon per year (2.6 tC/ac-y or 5.84 tC/ha-yr,), based on studies at 6 sites over 34 years. Our 30 acres are now at about 5% of the eventual biomass density, so they are sequestering 3.9 tC/yr. At maturity they would sequester 78 tC/yr. Foresting the full 44 acres would sequester 114.4 tC/y.

Another approach is to use a coefficient for average forest sequestration. A standard reference for this work is Akihiko Ito and Takehisa Oikawa’s “Global Mapping of Terrestrial Primary Productivity and Light-Use Efficiency with a Process-Based Model,” in Global Environmental Change in the Ocean and on Land, M. Shiyomi et al., Terrapub, Eds. (2004), pp. 343–358. If we apply the number Ito and Oikawa cite — 0.5–0.6 kgC/m2-yr for second growth Northern woodland — to our 44 acres (178,000 m2), we arrive at 89–107 tC/yr at maturity, which is in the same ballpark as estimating structural mass using NOAA’s figures. Since we are only at 5% maturity on 30 acres, the forest is presently saving about 3 tC/yr.

Using the carbon calculator on the Dopplr web site, and tracking my average annual travel for the past five years, I produce about 10 metric tons/yr of CO2, or 2.72 tC, from my jet-setting lifestyle. In order to also include all the embodied energy amortized into my food, clothing, gadgets, workplace and home, let’s call it 5 tC/yr, although that is likely an over-estimate. So, at this point in time my tree plantings are not covering my footprints, although my bamboo plantings are, and I am also neglecting to mention my experiments with algae in constructed wetlands. Algae and bamboo are the number one and number two fastest photosynthesizing plants we know of.

The estimate of potential average annual sequestration by my forest at maturity, even without bamboo or algae, is 89–114 tC/yr at a stocking density of 400 trees/acre, in perpetuity. That will erase my footprints with the soils of time.



By 2050 this forest should be relatively mature, and so would only continue to stock carbon at the same rapid rates it did as a juvenile forest if it were to be selectively harvested. In The Biochar Solution I described the method proposed by Frank Michael for step-harvest. I presume that most of the wood harvested at that point would be used in buildings or for biochar, further sequestering its carbon rather than oxidizing it back to the atmosphere through decomposition or burning.

In the step-harvest method, mixed locally-native species are planted in a tight grid spaced to reach closed canopy in 4–6 years, at which point half the young trees are harvested and used for biochar manufacture (and accompany heat capture); the biochar is returned to the patch. In nine years, the remaining trees again close canopy, and half are harvested for biochar and lumber. This cycle is repeated at 12, 16.5, and 24 years, etc. At each point, there are several options:

 1. Harvest all the trees and start a whole new planting cycle;
 2. Insert a farming/gardening rotation in the open areas, adding mulch, compost teas, biochar and compost as soil amendments; or
 3. Allow remaining trees to mature and re-enclose the canopy, while allowing or adding useful understory plants.
 The first option yields greater than 6.2 times the biomass per unit of time and area than a conventional commercial forestry plantation.
“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.” — Gustave Flaubert, November
My hope is that long after I am gone, my life’s forest will continue to provide valuable ecological services of all types to those who inhabit it after me, whether that is for climate mitigation or for the sense of wonder that growing up among tall trees can give to a child.

I recognize that it is an extraordinary luxury for one human to have access to 40 acres of land and be able to devote the resources required to establish a lasting, productive and climate-resilient forest. I don’t wish to suggest that everyone could or should do this — just multiply 40 acres by 7.2 billion people and you see how impossible that would be. 

What I am saying is that the carbon footprint of millions of people who live at the standard of living I do, racking up air-, sea- and ground-miles and using server farms powered by fossil energy slaves to book our next business trip, will not just go away by itself. Earth’s carbon cycle is profoundly out of balance (as are the nitrogen, potassium and other cycles) — so much so that those conditions now threaten our extinction. 

If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus. 

So what is the prescription? While not everyone can plant a personal forest, everyone can estimate their own greenhouse footprint and begin reducing it. I have been giving seminars in how to heat your home with stoves that make biochar, and how to use biochar in your garden to grow more biomass, including winter fuel. I am also active in the ecovillage and transition towns movements, which are pioneering a brighter, happier, cooler future. Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough.

 This is the second of a two-part piece. The series was first published to The Great Change in January 2013.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Personal Forest

"Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle."

 When I was a young boy my parents moved from the Chicago suburbs to a hardwood forested area of Connecticut, which is where I grew up. My back yard was those woods, and I used to have play forts, many different camping or hiding areas, and a succession of tree houses. I liked to overnight on a mattress of pine needles in a small grove of pines, and sometimes even did that in a foot of fresh, powdered snow. My parents also let me climb trees and play on an old rug covering scrap timber I had placed across the lower boughs of a large post oak. Later I built a round pole tipi in that tree and spent many summer nights living there, learning to climb up and down with ropes. 

I guess you could say trees are as family to me. They remain a part of my life wherever I go. When I was 17 I learned to work horses on the long line, and later, when I arrived at the Farm in Tennessee, fresh out of grad school, I put those skills to use snaking logs from the forest with a team of Belgian mares. I built a tent home for my bride on a platform of hand hewn oak logs acquired that way. People would sometimes come to the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm and marvel at the small-diameter round poles used for rafters on the very large living roof spanning our Green Dragon tavern, but I knew when I built that roof that round poles were much stronger than milled lumber. They were like the tree limbs that had supported my tree houses.

Deep Well Injection

In my thirties I was a pubic interest attorney fighting against a chemical company in a town 15 miles from The Farm. The company was manufacturing organophosphate pesticides and herbicides and injecting its waste products, including its bad batches, into a deep well. The State Water Quality labs had tested the green luminescent effluent and said it was the most toxic they’d ever encountered. A single drop dripped into their fish tank killed all the fish within 24 hours. 

That deep well went nearly a mile down and pressure fractured bedded limestone — it “fracked” it — to make the rock more receptive to millions of gallons of this witches’ brew. The fracturing also opened pathways into the Knox Aquifer, one of the largest underground rivers in North America, and presumedly went on to contaminate other large, potentially important, fresh water reserves for the Southeastern United States over a very large area. Each test well the company drilled showed that the contamination had already travelled farther away from the site than the company was willing to track. The State did not have the resources to drill million-dollar test wells, so the full extent of the damage may never be known. As well water in the area gradually turned fluorescent green, the company bought out the landowners and sealed their wells.

When our local environmental group sued the company, the company told the judge that there was no reason to protect the aquifer because the Southeast region had plenty of fresh water on or close to the surface. In written briefs, I made two arguments against that: population and climate change. Freshwater resources were valuable, and would only become more so.

This was the early 1980s, and there I was, going into a Tennessee court and trying to make a case for global warming. It forced me to read nearly every study I could get my hands on and to contact experts and beg them to come and testify. I tried to simplify an extremely complex subject so that the average judge or juror could understand it, despite confusing and confounding webs of arcane psuedoscience spun by company lawyers, and exceptions in the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that you could pump a lake through.

As it turned out, the case never went to trial. The Tennessee Department of Health and Environment contacted me and persuaded me I should help them draft regulations banning deepwell injection and hydro-fracking, which I agreed to do. That was a much less costly route for the local environmental group, letting the State bear the expense of experts to fight off the well-funded and unscrupulous industrial lobby. We had won, although it took a few years before the victory was sealed and the chemical companies packed up and left town. Their toxic waste is still down there, for now.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. — M.L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).
In that time I had spent reading and speaking with experts I had scared myself. Global warming was a much bigger deal than I originally thought. We were up only a half-degree over the prior century at that point, but already there were signs the poles were melting, sea levels were rising, and more frequent droughts were coming to mid-continents. In 1988, the Mississippi River had gotten so low that barge traffic had to be suspended. My young congressman, Al Gore Jr., opened hearings on Capitol Hill. Scientists began going public to sound the alarm. Big Oil and Coal began funding campaigns to undermine the smear those scientists and to poison the public debate with bogus studies and conspiracy theories. The Bush Administration’s official policy was climate science censorship. All these signs were ominous.

Carbon Sinks

Fossil fuels have had such a profound change on civilization that it is difficult to imagine giving them up voluntarily. They issued in the industrial revolution and globalized the world with railroads and steamships. They ended a particularly odious practice that had been the traditional method of Empire-building for the previous 5000 years, supplanting the long tradition of human slaves with “energy slaves” and “energy-saving” home appliances. The American Civil War was a last gasp of plantation economics, and it ended with a crushing victory for steely industrialists and their fossil energy, who went on to extend their new empire with the Spanish American War and all the resource wars thereafter. Does the end of coal and oil mean a return to human slavery or can we learn to craft an egalitarian society within a solar budget? Time will tell.

On the other side of the ledger, there are a few promising signs that something can be done to reverse the effects of three centuries of oil and coal addiction. The forests of North America remain a net carbon sink, but when land goes from forest to farm, it generates a huge spike in atmospheric carbon. In Mexico, which is losing more than 5000 km2 of forest every year, logging, fires and soil degradation account for 42% of the country’s estimated annual emissions of carbon. In addition to the carbon lost from trees, soils lose 25–31% of their initial carbon (to a depth of 1 m) when plowed, irrigated and cultivated.

In the US, croplands increased from about 2500 km2 in 1700 to 2,360,000 km2 in 1990 (although nearly all of that occurred before 1920). Pastures expanded from 1000 km2 to 2,300,000 km2 over the same period. The fabled era of the cowboy was between 1850 and 1950, and the pattern was repeated in Canada and Mexico. But then something different happened.

Partly because of the Dust Bowl and the organized responses of the Roosevelt Administration, partly because of the Great Depression, and partly because of an emerging conservation ethic, after 1920 many farmlands were abandoned in the northeast, southeast and north central regions and 100,000 km2 were reforested by nature. Between 1938 and 2002 the US gained 123 million acres of forest from farm abandonment while losing 150 million acres to logging, primarily in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. This trend, net marginal loss, continues today in the US and Canada, in contrast to Mexico which is rapidly destroying its forests, and not re-growing them anywhere.

TABLE: Carbon budget for Harvard Forest from forest inventory and eddy-covariance flux measurements, 1993–2001. Positive values are sink, negative values are source. From Barford, C.C., et al., Factors controlling long- and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science, 294:5547;1688–1691 (2001).
TABLE: Comparison of net ecosystem exchange (NEE) for different types and ages of temperate forests. Negative NEE means the forest is a sink for atmospheric CO2. Eighty-one site years of data are from multiple published papers from each of the AmeriFlux network sites, and a network synthesis paper (Law et al., 2002). NEE was averaged by site, then the mean was determined by forest type and age class. SD is standard deviation among sites in the forest type and age class. From The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. A. W. King, L. Dilling, et al, eds. (2007), Appendix D, p 174.

The net sink effect of a recovering forest is variable but the average for Eastern deciduous successional forest it is 200 grams C per m2 per year, or two metric tons per hectare. This is calculated by considering annual growth and mortality above and below ground, the chemical changes in dead wood, and net changes in soil carbon. (Pacla S., et al., Eddy-covariance measurements now confirm estimates of carbon sinks from forest inventories, in King & Dilling, 2007).

Sometime around 1985 I began planting trees to offset my personal carbon footprint. Today that forest is about 30 acres (12 ha) and annually plants itself. I wrote a book, Climate in Crisis, pulling together my legal research and laying the climate science out in lay terms that non-scientists, such as myself, could grasp. In 1995, I retired from law to become a permaculture teacher and ecovillage designer. I continued to attend scientific meetings and international negotiations on climate, and I contributed a blog, many magazine articles and books to the discussion. I kept myself current with the latest findings, always exploring pathways that might provide solutions, not just for my personal footprint, but also to the coming climate catastrophe for us all.

Atmospheric Scrub Brushes

We could spend print here discussing geoengineering, replacements for fossil energy, biochar, and shifting to some form of ecological agriculture, but the truth of the matter is, nothing can heal our global chemical imbalance faster than trees.

As I wrote in Climate in Crisis, and later in other books, forests are scrub brushes. They absorb CO2 from the air, transform it to O2 with the magic of photosynthesis, and sequester the C in lignin and cellulose. They also transfer it deep into the ground through their roots and the soil food web. 
We, the humans, might be able, under optimal conditions, to get up to sequestering as much as 1 gigaton of carbon (petagram C or PgC) annually by switching to “carbon farming:” holistic management; compost teas; keyline; and organic no-till. Biochar’s full potential is estimated at 4 to 10 PgC per year, if the world were to widely employ biomass-to-energy pyrolysis reactors.

Forests, with all-out reforestation and afforestation, have a potential yield of 80 PgC/yr.

The climate cycle, with 393 ppm C in the air [this was written in January 2013. The number now is 407], is currently adding 2 parts per million to the atmosphere annually. That represents an additional retention of 3.2 PgC over what Earth is able to flush back to the land or the oceans. The oceans are acidifying — at a disastrous pace — because of the excess C being flushed, so what needs to happen is that more C needs to be taken from both the oceans and the atmosphere and entombed in the land, which is, in point of fact, where the excess came from in the first place.

Going Beyond Zero

To get back to 350 ppm — Bill McKibben’s goal — we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 42 ppm, or 67.4 PgC. If we wanted to accomplish that goal as quickly as say, 2050 (37 years from now), we would need to average a net C removal rate of 1.82 PgC/yr. So we need to go from plus 3.2 to minus 1.8, on average, over about 40 years. Of course, many, myself included, don’t believe 350 is good enough to pull our fat from the fire. I would prefer we aim for 320 ppm by 2050 if we want to escape the worst Mother Nature is now preparing to dish up.

A 320 goal in 37 years means we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 72 ppm, or 115 PgC; an average a net C removal rate of 3.1 PgC/yr. In other words, we need to flip from adding 3.2 PgC greenhouse gas pollution every year to removing about that amount. We have to go net negative, for at least the next 40 years. 

Organic gardening and soil remineralization, as Vandana Shiva, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others are so enthusiastic for, will not get us there, although it is a good start and an important wedge, with many other benefits. Biochar could get us there, but the industry is immature, poorly understood by environmentalists, and dependent on financing that may or may not be available in an era of de-growth and economic collapse. To scale up to 3 or 4 PgC/yr is likely to take longer than 40 years. 
Tree planting is our best bet. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps planted massive shelterbelts to end the Dust Bowl, and the jobs provided helped lift the USA out of the Great Depression. The same could be done in Spain and Greece, not to mention Africa. And, lest we forget, two of the world’s greatest reforestitians, Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan, demonstrated our species’ ability to rapidly change climate. They showed that we could even jump start a minor Ice Age if we wanted. Talk about air conditioning! Fageddaboutit.

Right now, the planet is still rapidly losing forest. I drew this illustration for my newsletter, Natural Rights, in the mid-1980s:

In 1988, borrowing from federal agency reports being suppressed from publication by the first Bush administration, I drew graphics to show what would happen to the Eastern forest in a 5 degree warmer world, and the kind of species migrations that might be expected:

A more important point, which I raised in Climate in Crisis, was that individual forest patch compositions are less important than the synergies that are lost when those compositions are broken up. It matters what happens between patches, and it is not just about plants, either. We need to consider the pollinators and seed storing animals. They can’t just have food in one season, they need it in all seasons, or they will leave. Some plants and animals are fast migrators (armadillos and spruce) and some are much slower (leafcutter ants and ginkgo). When you force a rapid system change, the network of connections is broken, and it may take some time to find new equilibrium. In the meantime, biodiversity crashes and ecological services are impaired. The web unravels.

GHG Footprints

In the early Nineties I used to quip that before I wrote my book on climate my greenhouse pollution footprint had been in steady decline for 10 years. After I wrote my book it went through the roof. Invitations to speak continue to increase, even now, 23 years later.

Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. Using a conversion formula from the book, I convert my personal energy slaves into tree-years. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle.

Planting trees as a personal offset requires a bit of advance planning, because the calculation depends on how long a tree will grow, how big it will become, and what it will likely give back to the atmosphere at the end of its life. Also, one has to anticipate the changing dynamics ushered in by rapid climate change. This led me to arrange for a long-term contract of some land and to acquire new knowledge on how best to plant and manage a climate-resilient forest.

I now have the benefit of visits to the Pioneer and Alford forests in the Ozarks, which I describe in The Biochar Solution (2010), as well as to wilderness old growth in Scotland, British Columbia, Northern Queensland in Australia, Muir Wood in California, the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, the Mesoamerican highlands and the Amazonian Basin, to name a few. I have studied permaculture, with special reference to the work of Christopher Nesbitt, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in designing a methodology for building food-resource forests. But, back in 1985, I had none of that, and so I began on a part of my parents’ farm that was in the process of transitioning from vegetable field production to low brush. 

In the second installment of this series, I will describe the planting of my personal forest and how I calculate its carbon sequestration impact.

Apologies to regular followers of our blog who may read the above when it was first published in 2013. We are re-running this two-part series this week and next while absorbed teaching a Permaculture course in Ireland.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Is God Serious?

"How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?"

We confess we have always found delicious humor in the tall tales that religions tell. If you are a certain kind of Muslim you may believe that the Prophet, may his name be blessed, ascended to his heavenly throne mounted on a centaur.

If you are Christian, you take it as an article of faith that 2000 years ago there was an Arab with a Mexican name (usually portrayed as handsome, white and with a stubbly goatee) who had more powers than Superman (although making time go backwards in Superman-I was pretty cool). The Naz, as Lord Buckley called him, was born from a virgin, could heal the sick, raise the dead (including himself), and turn water into wine (which is way better than having to run down to the package store in the middle of the party).

According to the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith used x-ray glasses provided by the Angel Moroni to locate the buried golden plates, inscribed in a heretofore unknown Egyptian dialect, which he translated with the assistance of seer stones. The plates revealed to Smith that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were actually descendants of the lost tribe of Israelites that left Jerusalem at the urging of God c. 600 BC. It was good advice, because the Babylonians showed up 14 years later and laid waste to the city. The escape of the Nephites was sort of like Arthur Dent getting tractor beamed out of the way of the Vogon Destructor Fleet that was clearing the path through Earth's orbit for a hyperspace bypass. 

The Book of Mormon said God cursed the Lamanites by turning their skin dark for disobeying him and rewarded the Nephites by making their skin “white and delightsome.” Presumedly the Native Americans of Smith’s time had drifted a bit from their more obedient ancestors.

Hindus, Buddhists, and Druids share with Jews, Christians, Mormons and Muslims the notion of an eternal soul, although the former believe it reincarnates and the latter think it gets to dwell in a heavenly or hellish afterlife. Mormons are especially cute in how they ritualistically rehearse entry into that afterlife, within the lily white bowels of their tabernacles.

So how is it that otherwise reasonably literate and well-educated people, some of them scientists, scholars or rational professionals, are so willing to believe this claptrap?

One explanation could be the yearning for tribe that we discussed here last month. Chalk it up to the modern world of alienated youth, helicopter parents and cyberamphibian cocooning.

While somewhat satisfying from an evolutionary biology perspective, it still would not explain, for instance, the Middle Ages.
Neurobiological adaptation, on the other hand, might. 

At a chance meeting tapside during a science conference in 2005, Danny Brower, insect geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Ajit Varki, evolutionary glycobiologist. Brower said he believed he could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species.

Brower asked Varki a question the latter couldn’t answer. Given the amount of spare brain capacity, Brower asked, why is there no humanlike elephant, crow or dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone seem to be able understand the minds of others?

Setting aside the anthropocentric hubris and physiological arrogance in that question, Brower and Varki’s book, Denial, proposed that when humans gained not just self-awareness but an understanding that other individuals are also self-aware and have independent minds, they suddenly became aware of their own mortality. Okay, we can accept that.

Muhammad’s ascent into the Heavens, a journey known as the Mi’raj, as depicted in a copy of the Bostan of Saadi.
Brower and Varki put forward the hypothesis that the overwhelming fear that such knowledge produced simultaneously developed a coping mechanism — a neural pathway for denying reality.

According to Denial Theory, this convergence of self-awareness and self-delusion was a highly unlikely event that has happened only once in the evolution of life on our planet. While some other species demonstrate features of self-awareness, the book argues that humans are unique in the mental ability to deny reality, which has led to the development of religiosity, death rituals and theories of an afterlife.

Of course, this is a long way from proven. We don’t know, for instance, that dolphins are not religious or that elephants do not fret about their own mortality, especially when administered 296 mg of LSD in CIA mind-control experiments. What is not easy to explain is why does every religion have a life after death story? And why are humans the only species that appear to need these? Varki explains that belief in life after death originates from a mutation to deny the reality of mortality and this improbable mutation has occurred so far in only one species.

Reality denial actually has profound physical benefits — allowing those near death to have tranquility, endowing healing powers through faith and well-documented “mind over matter” phenomenon. Some of these benefits extend to social cohesion, encouraging altruism and camaraderie, and self-improvement regimens.

There is also a dark side, and it is very, very dark. Suspension of belief in a scientific reality is grist for the mills of demagogues. It permits unethical manipulators of the faithful to get elected by denying climate change and peak everything or claiming that Russia’s leader possesses supernatural powers to control the rest of the world. 

The apostle Paul decreed that the persons who practice adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like” “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God”(Galatians 5:19–21).

Once you install a bouncer at the Pearly Gates, you can sell indulgences, demand unquestioning obedience to an arcane creed and slaughter apostates. Or simply anyone you don’t like. “Moral hazard” is a ready-made tool for tyrants.

Or, you can simply use your denial gene to ignore moral hazard. How cool is that?

Writes Varki:
As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.
If anxiety about death leads to belief in the afterlife and associated behavioral taboos, it also leads to religions that proclaim themselves exceptional, and not just from the laws of biology and physics.

Mormon membership is over 15 million and rapidly growing, yet Mormons consciously and intentionally retain their identity as a “peculiar people,” believing their unique relationship with God helps save them from “worldliness,” despite all the outward trappings of consumerism. 

Ditto Judaism. Ditto Catholicism. The list goes on. 

The division between Pakistan and India is all about religion. Same for Ireland, Rwanda, China and Tibet. Same for most of the conflicts in the Middle East. Choose an historic genocide and you will find religious intolerance at its root. How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?

There are, among all these strange fantasy cults, a few strains of stoical acceptance, non-attachment, magnanimity in the face of mortality. You can find such gnostic sects hidden away in most of the big religions. If there are heroic martyrs in human history, surely they are the Atheists. They don’t deny death. The higher power they clutch is called science.

Sooner than the 99 percent imagine, the exponential curve of human population will flip to its inverse. It must, because the physical world we inhabit has limits and we ignorantly (as in, to ignore) passed them by decades ago. In that cascading Age of Consequences, with out-scaled megacities nine meals from anarchy, will our religions console us or make matters even worse? 

Is coping with the hard realities of existence by supernatural feats of denial really a genetic endowment we should be thankful for?

Superman I


Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Gospel of Chief Seattle: Written For Television

"No bright star hovers about the horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the red man’s trail ... the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter."

This revised and update essay was originally written in 1989 by Albert Bates for the Spring 1990 issue of Natural Rights. A little over a year later, The New York Times broke the story of the Seattle hoax on page 1. The Times revisited the hoax with a second page 1 story some 5 years later. Nonetheless, writers as distinguished as the Prince of Wales and Albert Gore, Jr. continued to quote Seattle’s speech in books and articles as though it were authentic.

This we know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Pop quiz: Who said that? If you answered Chief Seattle you’d be wrong.

Those eloquent lines are one of the most oft-quoted, if not the most oft-quoted statements of deep ecology in history. We emblazoned them across the masthead of our first newsletter for the Natural Rights Center in 1978. They have since graced the pages of hundreds of magazines, from Newsweek to The National Geographic. We’re told that they are carved on a stone monument in the city of Seattle.

Trouble is, they were not originally spoken by Chief Seattle or any other Native American. They were written for television.

There really was a Chief Seattle, or more precisely, Chief Seeathl, of the Suquamish and Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) tribes of the Pacific Northwest. He lived from about 1786 to 1866. He was tall and broad for a Puget Sound native, standing nearly six feet tall; Hudson’s Bay Company traders gave him the nickname Le Gros (The Big Guy). Seattle claimed to have seen the ships of the Vancouver Expedition as they explored Puget Sound in 1792.

At a meeting with the territorial governor on Monday, January 22, 1855, Seattle was asked to respond to the governor’s long speech concerning the Point Elliott Treaty. He said, in Southern Puget Sound Salish or Lushootseed language, “I look upon you as my father. I and the rest regard you as such. All of the Indians have the same good feeling towards you and will send it on paper to the Great Father. All of them, men, old men, women and children rejoice that he has sent you to take care of them. My mind is like yours. I don’t want to say more. My heart is very good towards Dr. Maynard. I want always to get medicine from him.”

The following day, after negotiations were concluded in which the tribes made a very large cession of land, Seattle said, “Now by this we make friends and put away all bad feelings if ever we had any. We are the friends of the Americans. All the Indians are of the same mind. We look upon you as our father. We will never change our minds, but since you have been to see us we will always be the same. Now, now do you send this paper of our hearts to the Great Chief. That is all I have to say.”

Two other short speeches by Chief Seattle are in the National Archives. One was a fragment of a speech recorded in 1850 and the other, from May of 1858, was a lament by Seattle that the Port Elliott treaty had failed to win ratification in the US Senate, leaving the tribes in poverty and poor health. Those four short speeches are all we really know of the words of Chief Seattle.

The myth of Chief Seattle’s famous oration began thirty-two years after the event, on October 29, 1887. On that date, Dr. Henry A. Smith published an article in the Seattle Sunday Star under the heading “Early Reminiscences №10. “ Dr. Smith wrote of the Port Elliott negotiations,
Old Chief Seattle was the largest Indian I ever saw, and by far the noblest-looking. He stood 6 feet full in his moccasins, was broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and finely proportioned. His eyes were large, intelligent, expressive and friendly when in repose, and faithfully mirrored the varying moods of the great soul that looked through them. He was usually solemn, silent, and dignified, but on great occasions moved among assembled multitudes like a Titan among Lilliputians, and his lightest word was law.
When rising to speak in council or to tender advice, all eyes were turned upon him, and deep-toned, sonorous, and eloquent sentences rolled from his lips like the ceaseless thunders of cataracts flowing from exhaustless fountains, and his magnificent bearing was as noble as that of the most cultivated military chieftain in command of the forces of a continent. Neither his eloquence, his dignity, or his grace were acquired. They were as native to his manhood as leaves and blossoms are to a flowering almond.
His influence was marvelous. He might have been an emperor but all his instincts were democratic, and he ruled his loyal subjects with kindness and paternal benignity. He was always flattered by marked attention from white men, and never so much as when seated at their tables, and on such occasions he manifested more than anywhere else the genuine instincts of a gentleman.
Writing for the Spring 1985 edition of US National Archives’ Prologue Magazine, historian Jerry L. Clark observed:
Smith’s version of the speech does not square with the recollections of other witnesses; and as we have seen, Smith himself may not have been present as a witness. As a result of such discrepancies, staff of the National Archives in Washington, DC, concluded that the speech is most likely fiction.
This speech is indeed memorable, and one is left wondering how Dr. Smith managed to translate a lengthy address in the obscure Lushootseed language, after being first translated into Chinook Jargon, a limited trading language, into then such florid Victorian prose, or why he waited 32 years to publish his translation.

“It matters but little where we pass the remainder of our days. They are not many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark. No bright star hovers about the horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Some grim Nemesis of our race is on the red man’s trail, and wherever he goes he will still hear the sure approaching footsteps of the fell destroyer and prepare to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.
“A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of all the mighty hosts that once filled this broad land or that now roam in fragmentary bands through these vast solitudes will remain to weep over the tombs of a people once as powerful and as hopeful as your own. But why should we repine? Why should I murmur at the fate of my people? Tribes are made up of individuals and are no better than they. Men come and go like the waves of the sea. A tear, a tamanamus, a dirge, and they are gone from our longing eyes forever. Even the white man, whose God walked and talked with him, as friend to friend, is not exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers, after all. We shall see. 
“We will ponder your proposition, and when we have decided we will tell you. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition: That we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves of our ancestors and friends. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hill-side, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred….
“The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander away from the tombs of your fathers seemingly without regret. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you might forget it. The red man could never remember nor comprehend it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them by the great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people. Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.”
Another question is how Seattle, who had been a devout Catholic since 1848, could say something like “Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God.”

Giving Seattle, and Dr. Smith, the benefit of the doubt on the original Seattle speech published in the Seattle Sunday Star, there is still the question of the later Seattle speech, which is reprinted frequently. It bears little resemblance to Dr. Smith’s translation and nobody ever heard of it before 1972, when a completely different version appeared in the November 11 issue of Environmental Action. 

In 1974, it was displayed in the US Pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair. That same year, the entire text appeared in Northwest Orient Airlines’ Passages magazine under the title, “The Decidedly Unforked Message of Chief Seattle.” A Dutch translation appeared in 1975, followed by a Swedish translation in 1976 and a German translation in 1979. After the World Council of Churches reprinted it in book form, it saturated the Eastern Hemisphere from Finland to South Africa. It has since found its way into dozens of languages and is frequently quoted in books and magazines all over the world.
By this time it was no longer billed as a speech, but as a letter from Chief Seattle to President Pierce. The editor of Environmental Action had picked it up from Dale Jones, who was the Northwest Representative of the group Friends of the Earth. Jones himself has since said that he “first saw the letter in September 1972 in a now out of business Native American tabloid newspaper.”

Eli Gifford’s 2015 book, The Many Speeches of Chief Seattle (Seathl): The Manipulation of the Record on Behalf of Religious Political and Environmental Causes, retraced the steps of the National Archives in attempting to locate the letter. There is no record in either the private papers of President Pierce in the New Hampshire Historical Society or in the Presidential Papers of Pierce in the Library of Congress.
It would be quite improbable if not impossible for a letter from the Chief of an Indian tribe to the President of the United States not to have been recorded in at least one of the governmental offices through which it passed. For the letter to have made it to the desk of the President it would have passed through at least six departments: the local Indian agent, Colonel Simmons; to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, Gov. Stevens; to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs; to the office of the Secretary of the Interior and finally to the President’s desk — quite a paper trail for the letter to have left not a trace. It can be concluded that no letter was written by or for Seattle and sent to President Pierce or to any other President. (Seattle was illiterate and moreover did not speak English, so he obviously could not write English.)
The staff at the National Archives has been unable to locate any such letter among the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the National Archives and “concluded that the letter … is probably spurious.”

Where did Environmental Action get it? According to investigator Rudolf Kaiser, EA received a xeroxed clipping from the Seattle office of Friends of the Earth, which someone had cut from a Native American tabloid. The tabloid had transcribed it from a tape of a television show called Home, produced by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1972. The filmscript was written by Texas screenwriter Ted Perry in the winter of 1970–71, after listening to an Earth Day rendering of Dr. Smith’s Seattle oration read by Professor William Arrowsmith (who poetically enhanced the speech to remove what Arrowsmith called “the dense patina of 19th century literary diction and syntax”). 

Ted Perry picks up the story from there:
“I asked Professor Arrowsmith (he and I were both teaching at the University of Texas) if I might use the idea as a basis for the script; he graciously said yes… So I wrote a speech which was a fiction. I would guess that there were several sentences which were paraphrases of sentences in Professor Arrowsmith’s translation but the rest was mine. In passing the script along to the Baptists, I always made clear that the work was mine. And they, of course, knew the script was original; they would surely not have paid me, as they did, for a speech which I had merely retyped.

“In presenting them with a script, however, I made the mistake of using Chief Seattle’s name in the body of the text. I don’t remember why this was done; my guess is that it was just a mistake on my part. In writing a fictional speech I should have used a fictitious name. In any case, when next I saw the script it was the narration for a film called Home aired on ABC or NBC-TV in 1972, I believe. I was surprised when the telecast was over, because there was no ‘written by’ credit on the film. I was more than surprised; I was angry. So I called up the producer and he told me that he thought the text might be more authentic if there were no ‘written by’ credit given.”
Arrowsmith adds: “Perry tried to insist to his producer for the film (the Southern Baptist Convention) that the speech was not in any sense a translation. But they overrode his decision… Hence they talked glibly about a ‘letter’ to President Pierce… In the course of their work, the Baptists added still more ‘material’ to the speech. The bulk of their editions is the religiosity of their Seattle.”

Home’s producer, John Stevens, added a lot of elements to make the speech compatible with Baptist theology, including the words “I am a savage and do not understand.” Stevens said:
“I edited the speech to fit our needs [Baptists] more closely. There was no apple pie and motherhood and so I added the references to God and I am a savage to make the Radio and Television Commission happy … I had edited scripts that did not have the Baptists’ line dozens of times. This needed to be done so they could justify spending thousands of dollars on a film … I eventually quit my job as a producer because I got tired of shoehorning those interests into scripts.
The version of Chief Seattle’s speech edited by Stevens was then made into a poster and 18,000 copies were sent out as a promotion for the movie.

Now that the author, or authors, of Seattle’s famous speech is known, what comes of the myth? In our search for truth, are we losing sight of something more important? The Seattle speech captured the imagination of millions of people and has influenced ecological philosophy and environmental activism for more than four decades. Bruce Kent, National Chaplain of Pax Christi in Britain says, it’s a whole religious concept… I think its really a fifth gospel, almost …”

Ted Perry’s remarkable little piece destroyed the dualism of the sacred and profane; it united them into a holistic Web of Life. It was a profound statement precisely the moment western civilization was emotionally ready for it. If we quietly forget the attribution to Seattle, perhaps we can still retain the tremendous value of the speech itself.
“Every part of this earth is sacred to our people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

 “We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man–all belong to the same family…

 “We know that the White Man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers’ graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

 “This shining water that moves in the streams and the rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you this land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father…

 “The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go and taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.”
The intrinsic value of these sentiments is so enormous, that it hardly matters who wrote them, or whether they accurately reflect the philosophy of Chief Seattle or the Duwamish people, or even Native Americans generally. The important thing to notice is that the statements have a ring of truth. The message is that we have to stop being an adversary of nature and begin seeing ourselves as part of nature’s family. We have to live with, instead of in spite of, natural laws.

Whether that thought originated with Seattle, Smith, Arrowsmith, or Perry doesn’t matter. 

 • Callicott, J., American Indian Land Wisdom? Sorting out the Issues, J. of Forest History 33:1:3542 (Jan. 1989).
 • Editorial, The Gospel of Chief Seattle is a Hoax, Environmental Ethics 11:3:195–196 (Fall 1989).
 • Kaiser, R., “A Fifth Gospel, Almost” Chief Seattle’s Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception, in C.F. Feest, ed., Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays (Aachen: Rader Verlag, 1987).
 • United Native Indian Tribes, Inc., Chief Seattle Speaks (leaflet).
 • Vanderwerth, W., ed., Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U. of Okla. Press, 1971).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Can Foodies Save the Planet?

"Facing all of these grave threats, humans collectively have chosen to go insane."

Having at times gone into rehab for our addiction to climate porn — wilderness retreats with no internet, long distance travel, remote natural building projects — we always fall back when we return to default world. Nowadays we could say we’ve become a high-functioning addict. We sip our morning coffee while surfing through RSS feeds from Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Paul Beckwith, Bru Pearce, Nick Breeze, James Hoggan… the list goes on.

These porn themes are redundant and recursive. Honestly, they have not changed since 1988 when Jim Hansen let both shoes drop in his Congressional testimony. To summarize:
  • We are in the lower curve of acceleration for man-made climate change.
  • We can see an expressed effect of 0.8°C in average global temperature, 20 cm. sea level rise (varies by location), and the Sixth Great Extinction. These have already happened.
  • On our present trajectory by mid-century a Sandy-scale superstorm will strike some major city approximately every other year and halting the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is no longer possible.
  • What we cannot yet see is the implied effect. The one that locked in when we crossed beyond 300, then 350, then 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Still to come, although not yet unavoidable, are 3 to 7 degrees of warming, dustbowls in the centers of continents and untold meters of sea level rise.
  • Lots of bad stuff happens at 1 degree of warming. It is exponentially worse at 1.5. Two degrees is unimaginably horrible for mammals and many higher life forms. The warming now ahead even if the Paris Agreement is followed to the letter — 3 degrees, possibly more — won’t really matter for humans because we will have died out before then.
“This is not tenable. No moral society would risk this. No moral society would ever come near this. I think we will get desperate in ten years. I had hoped we would get desperate this decade rather than next decade. We are serious this decade, finally. Hopefully we will be desperate next decade and then in the 2030s we will be so far beyond desperate it will look like World War II.”
This chart from Hansen & Sato shows continued actual global
emissions versus the IPCC optimal target (RCP 2.6) which
requires a 3% decline slope.
Facing all of these grave threats, humans collectively have chosen to go insane. We are greening our homes, buying electric cars, climbing stairs over riding the elevator. We are changing lightbulbs, buying local stuff, putting solar on the roof. Meanwhile CO2 and methane emissions continue to rise.

Why such a disconnect? Why are we, as Martin Lukacs asks, “bringing a flyswatter to a gunfight?”

The places we get our information — mainstream media, television ads, school textbooks, church sermons, even the campaigns of mainstream environmental groups — have all gone soft. They are dumping out fake news by the bushel. Even Al Gore and Bill McKibben soft-pedal human extinction.

But, hang on, there are a few lose threads in our sweater. What if we just pull … here?

At the terminal phase of complex civilizations, just before they implode and the great cities all crumble as their populations disperse back into nature, typically accompanied by famine, disease, wars, waves of refugees and precipitous decline in stored knowledge, there are the grand eras of spectacle, theater, and peak excess.

You can put that pin in the human timeline now, marked “You Are Here.”

We are at or close to the summit of Peak Excess, where we shall have the best views of the splendid dawn of the Age of Consequences.

The sweater thread? Foodies.

Foodies are a fragile thread could alter that trajectory. Gourmet feasts and fads, celebrity chefs and gastronomic tournaments are also standard fare during Peak Excess periods, but the contemporary variety bears a slightly different flavor. We have begun, at the edges of that movement, to compute nutrient density and score it along with flavor and tradition.

Nutrient density is a function of growing healthy plants and, in some cases, feeding them to healthy animals. These become food by ways and means that do not rob their nutrient stores and may even enhance them.

For example, organically grown carrots, onions and cabbages might be hand processed into slaws and krauts that allow friendly lactobacillus to join your gut microbiome to help digest your food and boost your immune system.

Perhaps — because they are organically certified — they came from soils that are teeming with happy aerobic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods and earthworms (as opposed to being deadened by the wasting effects of chemical addiction or hyperactive genes).

Plants garden, too. They cultivate the soil microbes they most desire by feeding them the sugars those life-forms most crave. Out of gratitude or greed, the microbes build zones of protective communities around the roots of the plants. They excrete enzymes to absorb, concentrate and convert those nutrients.

To pay their rent and get more of those great sugars, they give back to the plants the nutrients they have converted, using runners like root nematodes.

This nutrient-cycling system been going on in our soils for about the last 3.5 billion years. It is highly sophisticated now. When dumb two-legged agronomists arrived they proclaimed that only three essential nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) are needed for plant growth. So now we run down to the store and buy a sack of chemical fertilizer, made from and by fossil fuels, and we expend enormous energy — a caloric deficit of 10 to 1 or greater — and besides producing food with all the nutrition of cardboard we bank existence-threatening greenhouse pollution.

Elaine Ingham says,
“Everything in balance. And that is what the biology is so good at. Releasing all the nutrients in the proper concentrations so nothing is lacking. It’s like calling up for a pizza — the exudates are the telephone, calling up and asking for exactly what it needs, and the bacteria and fungi are the cooks who pull all the right ingredients together, based on what the plant ordered, and the protozoa etc. are the pizza delivery guys, who deposit those nutrients right where the plant needs them, in the root zone. Isn’t that cool?”
If we wonder why we get sick all the time, maybe it is no wonder. We are missing nutrients just the same as our plants are. Mostly, we are missing the same nutrients are plants are.

When it comes to growing nutrient dense foods, nothing outperforms biochar. There is a good reason for this. The micropore structure works in the soil the same way a coral reef works in the ocean — as a platform for biodiversity. That it also converts carbon into long-term storage away from the atmosphere is of minor concern to foodies. What it does to the life of the soil, it also does for the health and the nutrient-density of the plants. That not coincidentally translates into deeper, richer flavors.

Nutrient density measuring devices (beyond your nose and tongue) are not yet available to consumers, but the day is not far away when they will be. Before then, we may start to see food labeling based on ND codes. We already do for some “cool” foods grown in biochar-amended soils.
We only need a fraction of the Earth’s soils to be converted to nutrient density. The French initiative 4 Pour 1000, calculates an 0.004 increase in the carbon density of soils would be enough to turn back the Anthropocene.

If we are as we eat, then perhaps we can eat our way out of this.

Lorin Fries, the head of Food Systems Collaboration for the World Economic Forum, says that food tech is changing as rapidly as iPhones: 
A decade from now, the food we eat today — and the systems behind it — may seem as outdated as a phone without apps. Technology is accelerating change everywhere. The question is not whether it will reshape how we make food, move it and eat it; the question is how.
Imagine opening your fridge in 2030. Maybe that pork came from a single pig cell, grown into “clean meat” in a lab. Perhaps that leftover rice was gene-edited with CRISPR-Cas9 or the lettuce was produced with a personal “food computer” in a city building, through a data recipe.
To which we reply, eeeeewww! No thanks.

In Mexico City there is a restaurant that serves only traditional indigenous foods from chinampas, the superabundant aquacultural systems that built the Aztec Empire. The purchasing power of foodies is helping to revive the ancient chinampas of Xochimilco.

What’s wrong with terroir? Not terror, which is what comes to mind when we think of CRISPR rice, but terroir, the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype — its unique environment contexts, farming practices and specific growth habits. Think varietals of wine, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, chili peppers, hops, agave (tequila and mescal), tomatoes, heritage grains, maple syrup, tea and cannabis.

We would take a deep humus with faint hints of cherries and chocolate over synthetic hydroponic media any day. Perhaps the CRISPR can design to boost an ND score, but we tend to doubt it. It’s the bacteria, stupid. And for those you’ll need recalcitrant soil carbon and plenty of it.
Food, glorious food!
 Hot sausage and mustard!
 While we’re in the mood — 
 Cold jelly and custard!
 Pease pudding and saveloys!
 What next is the question?
 Rich gentlemen have it, boys — 

 Food, glorious food!
 We’re anxious to try it.
 Three banquets a day — 
 Our favourite diet!

 Just picture a great big steak — 
 Fried, roasted or stewed.
 Oh, food,
 Wonderful food,
 Marvelous food,
 Glorious food.

 Food, glorious food!
 What is there more handsome?
 Gulped, swallowed or chewed — 
 Still worth a king’s ransom.
 What is it we dream about?
 What brings on a sigh?
 Piled peaches and cream, about
 Six feet high!

 Food, glorious food!
 Eat right through the menu.
 Just loosen your belt
 Two inches and then you
 Work up a new appetite.
 In this interlude — 
 The food,
 Once again, food
 Fabulous food,
 Glorious food.
— Oliver!




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