Sunday, January 25, 2009

Slouching Towards the Barackalypse

Watching the drama unfold in Washington last week, and listening to the sound as it echoed around the planet, I was struck by how bi-polar our shared political reality has become.

Many of us, probably the majority, are still hoping and praying that now that the wicked witch is dead, the Wizard will whisk us back to Kansas and Auntie Em will have a hot apple pie waiting. People in that category think either the recession will be shortened by Keynesian infusions and Rooseveltian public works, or if that fails and it enlarges into The Greater Depression, it will rebound eventually, perhaps a decade hence, just in time for the bulk of the baby boom to retire to their gated communities and golf courses, bent but unbroken.

The other hemisphere of our brain is populated with EROIers, Malthusiasts, the Club of Rome, 2012ers, and The Doomsayers of various stripes. Of course, one is only a “doomer” if one turns out to have been wrong. If one turns out to have been right, the better term is “visionary.”

We inhabit the bicameral mind of Joan of Arc or Nostradamus, and wonder, are the voices to be taken literally, or can we just write them off to hallucination?

President Obama’s inaugural address, a bouquet of big tent politics with fragrant notes of a tent revival meeting, embraced both ends of that schizoid spectrum.

Who could argue with this:
… our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
The problem is, those two very agreeable sentences were preceded by this:
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But…
Now, saying we are of undiminished capacity is something a great many people would take issue with, and have. Let me quote a few.

On the bioregional list, David Haenke said,
We no longer have the vast bounties of nature to burn, and the enormous capacity of nature's sinks to absorb, dilute, and neutralize the entropies of a deliberately wasteful economy. Mr. Obama purports to go back to the playbook of 1933 and Lord Keynes and rev up the economy (viz.: burn resources, primarily fossil energy) to get us back "growth." As well, the total level of public and private debt for the U.S. has reached levels that are barely calculable, and then unfathomable. It's neither 1933 nor Kansas anymore. China took it as collateral.
To the Clusterfuck Nation, James Howard Kunstler said,
Credit may be in extremely short supply this year, and hence crops may be in short supply as we turn the corner into spring and summer. Just as in the case of WalMart versus Main Street, the reform of farming in America is one of those "changes" much larger than most of us imagine. I'd go so far to say that a large proportion of young people now in college will find themselves not working in office cubicles, but in some way or other in farming….
At Club Orlov, Dmitry Orlov said,
According to the latest International Energy Agency projections, the half-life of industrial civilization can be capped at about 17 years: it's all downhill from here. All industrial countries will be forced to rapidly deindustrialize on this time scale, but the one that has spent the last century building an infrastructure that has no future -- based on little houses interconnected by cars, with all of the accompanying moribund, unmaintainable infrastructure -- is virtually guaranteed to fall the hardest. An American's two greatest enemies are his house and his car. But try telling that to most Americans, and you will get ridicule, consternation, and disbelief.
From The Automatic Earth, Malibu Barbie edition, where Ilargi said,
Our economies are shrinking, not growing, and they will continue on down that path for a very long time. Perpetual growth is over, and if you look closely, it has been for at least 30 years. Education, health care and many other fields have become more expensive and less affordable during that time. Who needed day-care in the 1960’s? Who could not afford to go to a doctor? Today, both parents need to work full-time -or more- just to pay the monthly bills. It wasn't like that in the 1960's. Not at all. So were our parents so much less happy than we are? Not at all.

The fallacy of perpetual growth has led us into a sense of entitlement that is based on complete blindness and utterly wrong assumptions. If we are not awake enough to leave that behind, we will be the reason for fighting in the streets, in our own [Malibu] Barbie neighborhoods. If we want to prevent that from happening, we need to take not one, but 826 steps back. But the president of Hope and Belief talks about resuming the economy of growth. That is not possible. People need a reality check. They need to adjust to living on less personal, corporeal, space. If you think or hope that the PM of Iceland is the last one to be thrown out by the wayside, you need to start thinking instead of believing.
Obama was right about one thing. This is not a crisis that can be solved by government. It won’t be fixed by printing more money. It will be a rough slog, no matter what, but to repeat again what our first President said at Valley Forge,
Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.
Now, truth be told, old George knew that the odds of the American Revolution succeeding at that point were slim to none, and this is as much a wishful recruiting statement as a St. Crispin’s Day rallying cry but it contains some nuggets of eternal truth. As Mr. Kunstler opined,
Many Americans of good will also stand ready to face reality, to roll up our sleeves, ditch the video games and the Nascar and the microwaved cheese treats, and the internet porn and all the other noxious, narcolepsy-inducing distractions of our time, and put our shoulders to the wheel to haul this nation into a plausible future.
So if, in distant days, our progeny look back to where we coalesced our will, assembled our tattered permaculture army, joined hands between city and country, laid back the carbon under our desertifying farmland, and Hudson-River-landed our rusting steel spaceship into a brighter, more realistic future with a sustainable volume of frugal humans once again living in harmony with nature, then let them say this is where it began.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Farewell to George

I really don’t like harping on torture with a new administration coming in next week, unable to signal their intentions until they have the helm, but we are hearing a lot of equivocating on the closing of Guantanamo and so I have join this discussion one more, and hopefully my last, time.

One of the issues that seems to be slowing the process of closing GTMO is what to do with the prisoners. As indicated by the unwillingness of the Kansas congressional delegation to receive them at Fort Leavenworth, there is a NIMBY fear that bringing them to the USA is inviting toxic prisoners into the homeland. The countervailing fear is that allowing them to be released to other countries equates to putting them back on the streets, where they can seek revenge against us.

Who are these guys? An anonymous commenter named Mary posted the 76th reply to Emptywheel’s January 14th blog (I have way too much time) that seemed to hit the nail squarely:
[L]ess than 10%, using very “aggressive” measures of what constitutes a “battlefield” of GTMO detainees were picked up on a “battlefield.”

You had a boatload of people kidnapped from Pakistan, where we were paying the Bin Laden-affiliated intel forces all kinds of money for anyone ‘they said’ might be Taliban or al-Qaeda.

You had a boatload of Afghans who belonged to tribes that were crossways with Northern Alliance warlords like Dostum. Actually - you had railroad cars of those guys, until Dostum suffocated or shot into the containers to kill most of them. But some of the survivors.

You had the cab fares from Dilawar’s cab, when he was seized and beaten over days, with his beaten legs turning from bruised to pulpified and unable to stand on them, and his Palestinian hanging wildly “successful.” Meanwhile, the warlord who turned him in was actually the one probably responsible for the missile attacks they were trying to find out about, and the witnesses to his torture killing by the US were shipped out to GTMO.

You had students taken in their non-Afghan dorm rooms; British citizens arrested for having a current converter in Africa and then disappeared to GTMO, you had prisoners of the Taliban who were turned over for cash.

You had a British chef in Pakistan sent to years of solitary confinement and other torture as an “al-Qaeda General” based on paid-for “info” that he ran a terrorist training camp (when it was clear to anyone who looked at anything that he was making soufflés in Mayfair when he was supposed to be running the camp.

You had assortments of children, also kidnapped and handed off for cash, including one who was treated as a funding mastermind for al-Qaeda because he used to be sent to the market to buy tomatoes for the local Taliban. [or Mohammed El Gharani, a citizen of Chad held at GTMO since age 14 on coerced terstimony, or the 12-year-old boy who was singled out for “harsh interrogation techniques” because he was defiant towards his guards – ab.]

Then there were the Chinese Uighurs who had fled to Pakistan and were sold to us there. Not to forget the Algerians that we kidnapped, in violation of a court ruling there, and shipped off to GTMO because a disgruntled relative of one of them spoke nonsense. There was also the German, Kurnaz, on whom we had compiled a couple of hundred pages of info - all exculpatory, except for the torrid observations in one memo that he prayed.

So now we can’t decide what to do about these people. Some are easier than others. They died in custody. Others have been tortured to the point they are no longer able to tie their own shoelaces or speak in coherent sentences. A top CIA analyst reported to the White House in 2002 that at least a third had nothing to do with terrorism. The Commander of the Base concurred with the analyst, but put the percentage at closer to 50%. And now we have the senior pentagon prosecutor at GTMO revealing to Bob Woodward that none of the likely terrorists can be tried because they have been tortured.

Personally, I would just let them all go. We really don’t have any choice in that, although in fairness, we need to provide for their lifelong medical and re-hab expenses now. But then, I would not close GTMO.

Just as Spandau stayed open for the lifetime of one prisoner, Albert Speer, GTMO needs to stay open for the lifetime of Dick Cheney. And in the cells on either side of the big man should be Donald Rumsfeld and David Addington. Down the row or in another wing can be the patsies — Gonzales, Yoo, Bolton, Tenet, Rice, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, and, lastly, lest he be pardoned only to be later (embarrassingly) tried and convicted in Italy, the Netherlands, or 20 other countries, George W. Bush, the Decider.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Soylent Black

Punto Primero
There is considerable debate within the biochar community over the origins of the mysterious dark earths of the Amazon. How and why were they made? While scientists since Wim Sombroek have been experimenting with re-creating the recipe — a gruel grail Sombroek dubbed “terra preta nova” — many in the soil science/permaculture world have to concede, as Bruno Glaser is fond of saying, biochar-and-compost mixes, while beneficial supplements, are not the same as terra preta. To get terra preta may take centuries, or at least decades, as the fertile biochar supplements are processed in, fully networked, included in the family meetings and celebrations, and ultimately committed to the world beyond, by the Community of Living Soil.

This is not the same as saying that it is not worth charring as much as we can, as quickly as we can. David Yarrow reminds us, “… field research data clearly reveals there is a time lag between introduction of char and development of its full effects in soils. This may be a few weeks in the case of soil that's already alive with a working soil food web, or it may be one or two years if you start with very inert, sterile, infertile soil….”

Still, what is the alternative? Even if we go for the top shelf version, we don’t have a thousand years any more. We have probably less than a decade before the next, really severe, tipping points click into place and lock.

“More power, Mr. Scott!”

“Captain, the dilithium crystals are overheating. We have to get south of 350 before she blows.”


My point is that we have lost the recipe the ancients used, and while the questions surrounding reconstruction of that recipe are many, we can nonetheless make some approximations. People who have read my cookbooks know I am a big fan of substitutions. Sean K. Barry of Troposphere Energy LLC in Stillwater, Minnesota, offers his mama’s real dirt recipe:
“The Terra Preta soil recipe = clay like dirt, biochar, microorganism inoculants, composted microorganism food — sugars, urine, cow-manure, sea minerals, molybdenum, fish bones, banana peels, food wastes, charred wastes, human wastes — mix[ed] and pile[d], aerate[d] and age[d], wetted, dried, pyrolyzed, and infused with living biota. Then plant[] into [it], grow things in it, let them die in[] it, pyrolize some of those plants back into the soil, age it some more, mix it with more organics. Patience, years of patience and generations after yours of more patience and additions of more and more organics and biochar, etc. into that soil, along with rotating crops in and out of the soil.”
Barry continues, “Clearly, this TP was grown over years and years, more than some human lifetimes of years. Making Terra Preta is joining a cycle. It doesn't just happen with a "magic bullet". It begins and goes on and on.”

Point Deuxième

In my research, I have come across a piece of the recipe that others have missed, although the reference work I found it in is often cited. The observation comes from the visit by Confederate veteran Ballard S. Dunn to the Amazon basin in 1865 in search of a place where the South could rise again. At a black-slave-dependent plantation known as Taperinha, built by a family of USAnian ex-pats, the R.J. Rhomes, Dunn reported:
“ …there are lines of swampy forest, and strips of arums, and clumps of bushes, all running parallel to the channel: seams left by the Amazons in sewing this patch-work together. Back of us the great cane field stretches half a mile or more in every direction, fresh, green, waving — the prettiest sight a planter's eye’s could find. The cane is cut by hand, and brought to the brow of the hill on ox-carts; there it is thrown into a long shoot, which deposits it cleverly in the mill-house. No wonder that the cane thrives here; the ground is a rich black loam, two feet thick; we see it in the road-cuttings, and it spreads away beyond the field far into the thick forest.

“It is curious to note what gave this land its richness. The refuse of a thousand kitchens for maybe a thousand years, together with the numberless palm-thatches, which were left to rot on the ground as they were replaced by new ones. For the bluffs were covered with Indian houses, “so close together," says Acuña, “that from one village you can hear the workmen of another.” The people made coarse pottery and marked it with quaint devices. We find fragments scattered everywhere, and for years Mr. Rhome has been making archaeological collections, including all sorts of curious things: a whistle, vultures' heads, frogs, and a cock with comb and wattles complete.*

“The Indians were cremationists: burning their dead and burying them in jars under their floors; and several of these burial urns have been obtained at Taperinha. Stone implements are not common: a few handsome axes and arrowheads were picked up here, and below the hill.

“Generally this black soil does not extend more than half a mile from the face of the bluff; after that the land is red sandy clay, for mold does not form in the forest as it does at the North: the leaves fall singly and are never packed together by a blanket of snow.”
* Acuña says that the Indians had chickens, descended from Peruvian stock which had been passed from tribe to tribe down the valley. [AB: my additional footnote is that this is another confirmation of Gavin Menzies’ contention that the Asian chicken reached Peru by Chinese trade in the 9th to 15th Centuries].

Ballard S. Dunn, Brazil, The Home for Southerners: Or, A Practical Account of what the Author, and Others, who Visited that Country, for the Same Objects, Saw and Did While in that Empire, publication by G. B. Richardson, 1866, pp 696-697.
So here is yet another explanation for the secret: terra preta derives, at least in part, from a thousand years of burying the dead under the floors of the houses, in clay jars.

As Walt Whitman so elegantly explained it (at about the same time as Dunn was writing):
What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
Whitman, This Compost, in Leaves of Grass (posthumously in 1900).

Soylent black is people! We are, as Allen Ginsberg said, just “in the total animal soup of time … with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of [our] own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

Derde punt

Picking up again on Barry’s point about “making Terra Preta is joining a cycle,” it is more than mere speculation that the so-called “Fertile Crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates may not have been alone among great river valley cradles for seminal civilizations. From the work of Jared Diamond, Charles Mann, and many others we can say (albeit not without controversy) that the likely populations of the Americas before European contact exceeded Europe and Africa, with cities of far more substance and wealth than those of Renaissance Europe or even Ming Dynasty China.
Soil tillage practices, typically involving cruel slave and animal labor, attending the rise of Western Civilization reversed the carbon flow between earth and sky from negative (earth-collecting) to positive (sky-collecting) and later bequeathed us the deserts of the Middle East and Northern Africa, pretty much the whole Silk Road — and, coming soon to a neighborhood near you, the Great American Midwestern Breadbasket — leaving only saline dust, blowing in the wind. This is the style of agriculture known well to the Italian navigator, sailing for Spain, as he followed his Chinese charts to the Americas.

The kill-rates necessary to obliterate all traces of the megacities of Western Brazil and Northeastern Bolivia, where there were supportive terra preta deposits covering an area the size of France, or the cinampas and milpa cultures of Mesoamerica, with their raised causeways, pyramids, arts and sciences, were unequaled save by paleoastrophysical extinction events now being parsed and revealed from within the human genome.

Mann’s estimate of 95 to 99 percent depopulation is probably pretty close to the mark. Mosquitoes must have been a very effective vector for a host of blood-borne swine and avian flus. What was left unattended, for land-starved European conquerors, landing with cross and sword, was not a “virgin wilderness” but a cultivated ecology gone feral, a cornucopian Lost World, and the myth that immediate misunderstanding created was none other than the “American Dream” of infinite growth and profits – all men can be Donald Trump — now being experienced as the “American Nightmare” of tumbling credit default swaps, turbo-warrants, and shattered expectations, that Richard Heinberg describes as the beginning phase of our “L” shaped recession.

In truth, what was killed in the Mississippi and Amazon valleys were the Earth-saving Leaver culture memes that had succeeded in disproving the waste-and-conquer, conquer-and-waste Taker culture standards of Europe, Africa and Asia. In the Americas they got it right, even if it wasn’t always pretty. You want to stick around on this blue marble in space? Put more back than you take out. Pay it forward. Make soil. Make it your religion, your culture, your lifestyle. Love your Pacha Mama.

The Ghost Dancers got that. So did the Mojo in the upper Xingu. Their conquerors never did.

At least not before now.




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