Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dawning

We read on Stoneleigh and Ilargi’s blog that:
“Americans are in a collective state of financial depression as many admit they could only cover their bills for two months at most if they found themselves suddenly jobless, a nightmare more and more worry may come true. The results of a bevy of surveys found a growing number of consumers are only a couple paychecks away from a household collapse even as many scramble to shore up savings. Rainy-day funds appear to be a distant memory as households burn cash to cover food and energy bills as well as mortgage and car payments. A large number of households say that even one missed paycheck would spell financial ruin. And even in households that remain well off, the surveys show a festering fear that financial problems are lurking.

“‘This is flashing so bright red,’ said Paul Ballew, senior vice president of Nationwide Insurance Co. ‘Roughly 60% of the population was ill-prepared (financially) before the meltdown.’ ... Twenty-nine percent of those making $100,000 or more a year said they would have trouble paying the bills after more than a month of unemployment.”

Elsewhere in the blog we are told that California's unemployment rate rose to 10.5% in February from 10.1% in January. For the Golden State that’s the highest since Ronald Reagan’s social network (based in Houston) tanked Jimmy Carter’s War on Energy in order to help move their guy from Sacramento to Washington in 1981. Ten percent out of work in a state where $100,000 is thought a fair wage is a big deal, although probably still only an early return, given the Long Emergency stretching out in front of us.

What strikes us as odd, looking at this from our solar-powered laptop on a rough-cut wooden table in a Belizian jungle pagoda at the midpoint of a permaculture course, is how absurdly large that $100,000 per year was, and how easily and quickly that amount of money passed through the hands of those receiving it, year after year.

Seen through the eyes of a 2/3-worlder, being handed such a huge amount of money for banging nails or typing memos would be like winning the lottery, and — is it true? — those people in the North get paid that every year!

What on earth did they do with all that money, a Mayan corn farmer might ask — a million dollars every decade, four or five million in a typical working life? Did they lose it in Las Vegas? Build a marble palace for themselves? Buy the presidency of a small country?

A more forlorn line of inquiry, and the fodder of many a competing blog, tries to imagine what USAnians could have been doing with all that money if they had not been teetering about in Iraq and other places, inebriated in the delusion that foreign adventure was indefinitely sustainable.

Perhaps they could have been socking away permacultural wealth – in fruitfully abundant and constantly improving landscapes, arrays of solar cookers and durable wind machines, super-insulated zero-energy houses with rainwater catchment, carbon-sequestering Victory Gardens and bamboo groves, fish ponds and chicken coops, tidy repair shops full of useful tools, and fully-featured ecovillages and ecocities, instead of fluffernutter in the form of college degrees in Economics, MacMansion ARMs, and SUV loans from GM’s Quixotic credit division.

So who let these poor schmucks down? Was it their teachers, preachers and televised role models who filled children’s heads with dreams of lollypop consumer utopias, even while the Club of Rome, Worldwatch, and plenty of wise sages were cautioning their parents with warnings of immutable limits?

Was it the short-horizoned political-business-media cycle? Was it a steady diet of plastics and GM-high fructose corn syrup that turned their brains to mush and guts to flab? Well, it was probably all of the above, and many more things, if we wanted to take the time to enumerate them.

A better question is what is keeping them from waking up now? Hello? Do you hear us yet? We are talking about you. Yes, you.

Even if The Magic President shows that he can make a dead cat bounce a few times, it still doesn’t mean he can dribble with it. So, if the economy mends for a little while (a stairstep pattern called catabolic collapse), USAnians, and everyone else, should seize that moment to change their wasting ways, at least long enough to salt away some of the things they will need for the longer haul.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Deep, Part 2

"More avocados than can be eaten by one family"

Christopher pauses in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he says, pointing upwards. He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus avocados. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He also plans a tank and pond aquaculture system.

After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Christopher put swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods".

Raw cacao beans contain magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, anandamide, phenylethylamine, arginine, polyphenols, epicatechins, potassium, procyanidins, flavanols, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Long before Belgium chocolate, the ancients mixed it with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey to make beverages and confections. The Aztec and Maya cultures used the beans as currency, a practice that persisted out in the Yucatan until the 1840s. Given world prices in the US $1200 (industrial grade) to $5000 (fair trade organic) per metric ton range, the beans are a form of currency still.

When Mayan women go into labor they are given a big thick mug of toasted cacao, cane sugar and hot water. Because it is rich in calories and healthful, that big mug can see them through days of labor and the recovery afterwards.

While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. This makes cacao less vulnerable to some of the problems associated with other pollinators. Cacao trees do not require fertilizer or other agro-chemical inputs, and are only rarely attacked by blights, fungi and viruses in small holdings. Moreover, every time an old cacao tree falls over, it throws out a new main stem, so many trees in Belize that are now in production are original stock — centuries old.

On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Christopher has a bowl of cacao beans fermenting. They are left there for a week and grow a fine white spiderweb of hyphae as they incubate. He didn’t need any starter, the airborne yeasts did the job. After 7 days, it is rinsed, ground, and toasted.

When we first visited there in early 2008, the Research Farm was already fully self-sufficient. You could live quite comfortably on the breadnuts, avocados, corn, bananas, coffee, fish, beans and all the rest. You could drink from the river, although Christopher harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. As I glanced around the open-air kitchen, the purchased cans and jars contained items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet, but for the most part, not indispensable.

Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so Christopher has learned to hold the permaculture design course well into March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for taxi traffic, and the trails to Lubaantun are more easily negotiated.

Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varied through the course of a day, but it never ended from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher has to put the chickens into the coop and latch the door. They do well feeding on the leaf cutter ants during the day, but they are domestic creatures, and this is still a jungle.

Seventy-five percent of Belize is native forest and savannah, and 50 percent of the country’s land and water is in protected status of some form. This does not mean that these large tracts are uninhabited, like a big national park. Quite the contrary — Mayan and Garinigu villages are found inside most of the reserves.

For more than two thousand years the Maya of Central American practiced a milpa style swidden agriculture, something that has gotten a bad name (“slash-and-burn”) but was actually a very effective and productive way to farm in the tropics while building soil and sequestering carbon. As Toby Hemenway described in Permaculture Activist No. 51, milpa starts with clearing a forest plot, taking out most of the trees but leaving some nitrogen fixers, timber trees, or other valued species. The Maya, like the Amazonian creators of the terra preta soils and the Aborigines of Australia, fired the remaining brush, which had the added benefit of depositing char, nutrient-rich ash, and curing firewood and construction-grade trees. The short term annuals then fill much of the opened space for the first 2 to 4 years while seedlings of plantains, avocados, fruits and fiber plants are set in place and mulched, and leguminous trees and bushes, and cacao, are stump-sprouted. Over the next five to eight years the canopy closes and the farmers stop planting annuals and start training vanilla and interspersing coffee, ginger, allspice and other understory plants. Cattle and poultry forage between the emergent trees.

The managed-forest stage was typically 15 years, but could be double that time in a milpa of particularly fruitful serendipity. The managed-forest stage is the most productive part of the cycle. Then the land was cleared and the cycle and soils renewed.

In sharp contrast to traditional milpa, today’s farmers employ a modified milpa that burns the corn and rice fields every year, goes for the highest paying crops to the exclusion of nitrogen-fixers and wildlife habitat, and plants into steep terrain without swales or terracing. It is these kinds of farming practices that nearly erased the Maya Mountain Research Farm from the map in 2008.

On the evening of May 19th, Christopher and Dawn saw a glow on the horizon. The absentee landowner neighbors, the “Tropical Conservation Foundation” had allowed their tenants to burn off farming stubble, and two hills over, those neighbors had lit their annual fire to clear for rice. By the next night, the fire was only one hill away. The following afternoon, it crested the hill above them and began moving down to the classroom and staff housing. Buckets of water, machetes to chop firebreaks and hot, hard work without pause saved the structures. By 11 pm they ate and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next afternoon, the far end of the pasture caught fire. Floating embers ignited spot fires throughout the farm. By 3:30 Christopher and his fellow fire-fighters had to acknowledge defeat and evacuate to the river. Amazingly, though the fire then swept across the farm, the solar and wind-powered buildings and most cultivated areas were spared. Spot fires continued to spark up until, on the seventh day, it finally rained.

This uncontrolled milpa fire burned an estimated 300-400 acres. Of the 70 acres of MMRF, a little over 50 acres were completely burned, leaving mostly ash and open sky. The fire spared MMRF’s cultivated areas, which had been surrounded by fuelwood-managed sectors that deprived the fire of fuel and held moisture in the ground, but they lost coconuts, cacao, pineapples, some large teak trees and many other species. The fire burned the natural remnant forest and destroyed thousands of young timber trees that had been planted. With the canopy opened and the native habitat destroyed, wildlife were forced to migrate elsewhere for food – toucans have since been coming right inside the kitchen to eat bananas. Jaguar, brocket deer, peccary, ocelots, tayra and other animals that had used the forest cover to access water in the dry season became threatened and left. When the rains came in July, the soils washed downhill, silting two small creeks and displacing still more wildlife.

Restoration after the fire is ongoing. Five acres of corn were planted and a mix of other plants followed between corn patches, including timber species, leguminous species, fruit trees, and bio-mass accumulators. Christopher says no one on site has experience in restoration of tropical eco-systems devastated by fire and he would welcome anyone with interest or expertise in this area. Seeds for reforestation are being generously provided by Trees for the Future.

Pioneer species like banana, vetiver grass, pigeon pea, corn and a mixture of timber trees have been seeded out into the areas adjacent to the buildings. Christopher wants to replace the flammable heliconias, which were part of why the fire traveled so easily. Thousands of linear feet of vetiver rows have been planted on contour to control erosion in a part of the land that was damaged. Thousands of trees and pineapples were planted out between the rows of vetiver.

Swales and terracing have stopped the worst effects of erosion during the rainy period and when we started the course March 20 we were well into the dry season again. There will be lots of opportunities to seed out fresh milpas, and plenty of food ready to be harvested again.

Last night Christopher gave a chalk talk on chinampas, the aquatic soil-building technique used by the Aztecs, Maya, Inca and many others in the Americas to create a system of agriculture so sustainable that its fertility persists even after the earthworks at its core were discontinued 400 years ago. Such systems require considerable labor to establish, but have huge net EROIE and caloric profitability annually thereafter. When we think about the swamp that Washington DC was built upon, it occurs to us that the Obama family could do worse than to design the White House Victory Garden with milpas and chinampas, making biochar from bamboo on the South Lawn, and using the blackwater from the West Wing to add nutrients to the system.

Whether you already have a permaculture design certificate or diploma, or are just interested in coming back in touch with the inner heart of nature, give a thought to traveling back to beyond beyond with us. Back to the source. Our mother needs help there, and you will be in good company.


Alcorn, J.B., 1990. Indigenous Agroforestry Systems in the Latin American Tropics, in Agroecology and Small Farm Development, Altieri M, and Hecht, SB eds.

Hemenway, T., 2003. Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle, The Permaculture Activist No. 51 Winter 2003.

Nigh, R., 2008. Trees, Fire And Farmers: Making Woods and Soil in The Maya Forest, Journal Of Ethnobiology 28(2) Fall/Winter 2008.

This article was originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009 and then updated for posting today.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going Deep, Part 1

"Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast."

Watching the world spin out of control (and recognizing that control was illusory anyway) the soul yearns to touch the truly authentic, to caress it just once more, perhaps to say goodbye. I have a friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, I asked him what they had to say.

“They are sad,” he said. “Nostalgic for what was, but is gone. Each year there are fewer of them, and they want the world put back the way it had been. They are a bit frightened at the unfamiliarity of everything now. The seasons have changed. Everything has changed. They are sad.”

It was very strange that we were having this conversation while standing in one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, a broadnecked peninsula at midpoint on the migratory flyway between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. I think it rang true for me, though. I also miss the familiar, and I am worried for the planet, if not for my own family, my remaining years here, and what will unfold in this century to come. That is why I welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each March.

Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Because of its British heritage and Commonwealth status, English is the official language, although only about half the people of Belize speak it and for more than half of those it is a second language. Kriol, Spanish, and at least three Mayan languages are more common to most children. With only 320,000 people, Belize’s population density is the lowest in Central America — comparable to Iceland. Less people live here today than during the classic Maya period. Unfortunately, as a Catholic country with easy immigration, the population growth rate is 2.21 percent, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. Given its natural wealth, that is small wonder.

When Christopher Nesbitt invited Andrew Goodheart Brown and I to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, I immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston Stark, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway — and my previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center back in 1991, told me that this was a very special location.

Andrew, myself and a team of special guest instructors — Andrew Leslie Phillips, Maria Martinez Ros and Hector Reyes — are returning on the Vernal Equinox of 2009 to teach another PDC in this wonderful environment.

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – I recommend the 8-seat air shuttle from Belize City that takes about 45 minutes with 3 stops along the way – and then by bus (daily at noon) or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, the little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is the jumping off point for the river travel up to MMRF.

Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least globalized and most rustic district in Belize. The pyramid city of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia, is a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926.

The next stage of the trip travels up river past Lubaantun by the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande. A boy with a dugout “dory” canoe takes you up river for $10 Belize dollars — US $5 — per person. All of the dory men know the location, 2 miles (1 hour) up river at the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore. Alternatively, with the help of a hired guide, you can take the rugged mountain trail there.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up river from that bamboo bend. It emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, replete with howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt had come to Belize at age 19 and decided to emigrate and buy a piece of land on the river two years later in 1988. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today. Chris is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor. His former partner, Dawn Dean, and he have two beautiful and resourceful children, Esperanza and Zephir.

Dawn, like Christopher, is an ethnobotanist, with a specialty in vanilla to compliment Chris’s interest in cacao. Dawn wants to establish an organic vanilla industry in the Toledo District, and to empower women, maintain the viability of the traditional village lifestyle, and promote agriculture that provides ecological services while increasing the income return to small farmers.

Christopher worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association from 1997 to 2004. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

In 2004, Christopher, Dawn and a board of directors comprised of Belizeans working in agriculture formed a non-profit organization and made the Research Farm its principal asset. After years of gathering specimens of vanilla, they established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. This, along with an extended literature review, and site visits to growers in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, prepared them for their current work, an extension service and pilot project for vanilla cultivation and marketing. The success of this project, and the enthusiasm it has generated are so high, that in December of 2007, they decided to form and register the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA) which Damn now directs.

Vanilla — the kind we find in little brown bottles or in ice cream — is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rare endemic found in the under-story of lowland forests of Central America. Although it was a crop enjoyed and traded by the ancient Maya, there is no commercial vanilla being grown today in Belize.

Owing to a combination of hybridization and the loss of native bees, the production of vanilla fruits (called beans) requires the hand-pollination of each vanilla flower. The resulting bean must remain 9 months on the vine to reach full maturity. At the time of harvest, vanillin, vanilla’s primary flavor component, is not yet present but develops in the beans during the curing process which is comprised of scalding, sunning/sweating, drying, and conditioning. This curing process can take up to 9 months to complete, and in most countries is done in a centralized curing facility.

The majority of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico and Papua New Guinea although it is consumed primarily in North America and Europe. The world market price for vanilla fluctuates, and is currently trading at an historic low of US$10 per kilo for top grade cured vanilla beans. By contrast, in 2003, vanilla prices were at US$500 per kilo. What changed was that the high prices brought new artificial vanillas to market, driving out the original.

Even at the lower prices, cultivation and production of vanilla is a non-gender specific activity that can create alternative livelihoods for those who grow and sell vanilla, and also for those in the vanilla-based industry, which includes many speciality products.

Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, rather than on a plantation. For this reason, most of the world’s commercial vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 5 acres.

Christopher is demonstrating how vanilla can be grown most profitably in the way that the ancient Maya did it, as part of an agroforestry polyculture. His hillside landscape is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the native ecosystem, providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention and wildlife habitat.

In Belize, as in other parts of the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated, and untold genotypes lost. With its low population density, Toledo District still has many wild remnant stands. Dawn has identified 27 distinct species so far, including a self-pollinating variety.

As Christopher takes our small class on a walk around the hillside above the river, we are shown the products of two decades of careful plantings. Christopher divides his new seedlings into three categories, depending on when they can be harvested. The near-term pioneer crops are the annuals like corn and beans, or the pineapple, pigeon pea, squash and melons planted between the corn contours, along with perennials like nopale cactus, yam, purslane, basil, amaranth and gourds. The intermediate crops are perennials like avocado, golden plum, zapote, sea almond, allspice, bamboo, palms, breadfruit, coconut, coffee, coco-yam, banana, citrus, mango, cacao, papaya, tea tree, euphorbia, noni, blackberries, gooseberry, chaya, ginger and pineapple. They will yield sweet fruits, jams, wines, basket-fiber, soaps, beverages and medicines after a few years of fast growth. The long term crops are samwood, mahogany, cedar, teak, Malabar chestnut, sea chestnut and other slow-growing trees that will close the over-story and send Esperanza and Zephir through college when they are ready. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the university agronomist’s bottom line.

An important feature to the tropical landscape design is the creation of soil. Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast. Loss of soil by over-exposure, short swidden cycles (15 years was traditional but population pressure has been collapsing rest periods to 3 to 5 years), and erosion during the intense rainy season, is the normal pattern on most farms, and many farmers struggle to supplant those losses by increasing fertilizer applications, at unreckoned cost, both to farm profits and the soil.

Many of the Research Farm’s neighbors in the Toledo District have been mis-educated in government-run ag schools subsidized by seed and chemical companies. They see trees and farm crops as in opposition — one or the other, but not both. Through the work with the cacao cooperative, and now in creating the vanilla co-op, MMRF is spreading an old meme — resiliency and profit from polyculture agroforestry.

This is the first part of an article originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009.

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Extinction Metaphor

While speaking at Hanover College last week, we were given a tour of the Natural Sciences building there, and this display case caught our eye.

It held a scrimshaw sculpture of a Union Pacific locomotive carved from a wholly mammoth tusk found in melting Siberian permafrost more than half a century ago.

We found it a curious kind of metaphor for our condition as a species approaching extinction on a fragile planet whose eco-stasis has been upset by our addiction to coal and oil. Here, in a glass case, in a literal ivory tower, was an homage to a coal-burning icon, carved from the tusk of an enormous mammal, hunted to the brink of extinction 100,000 years ago, and then finished off by climate change.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


"[E]xisting levels of production … are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices."
— The International Monetary Fund, to Zimbabwe, ten years ago

We recall a visit to Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, when that country had become one of the world’s bright microeconomic lights, illuminating the way for a future Africa of enterprise and empowerment. The Zimbabwe miracle was exciting everyone, and we purchased a pullover and pants from a company called Zimbabaloola that were emblazoned with colorful art in the style of ancient pictographs crossed with rude rock reggae. Zimbabwe had some of the most productive farms in the world and they were going organic. Permaculture and ecovillage design courses were fully subscribed. The arts scene was in blossom and world beat radio stations carried Zimbabwe’s music around the globe. And then it abruptly unraveled.

Backing up a step, Zimbabwe was never at peace for very long. It had as troubled a colonial history as Bolivia, Nigeria or anywhere else rich in resources and poor in defensive foresight. In the 13th Century it was known as Mwene Mutapa, a port of call on the gold and copper trade routes of Arab dhows and Chinese junks. In the early 17th century it was conquered by Portugal and utterly plundered. In the 19th century refugees from the Zulu wars erected the state of Matabeleland there but then were ravaged by the Shona Empire, leaving the region open to invasion by Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company in the 1880s. The fertile watershed became known as Southern Rhodesia for nearly a century, as its deeper mineral resources were systematically excavated and removed to Europe.

In 1978, the white government, supported by apartheid South Africa, was under siege by black liberation opponents and as its last alternative to collapse opened negotiations with the leaders of the Patriotic Fronts — the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe had spent 11 years in Salisbury prison, during which he earned three degrees, including a law degree from London and a bachelor of administration from the University of South Africa, by correspondence courses. He had friends in high places, including anti-colonial leaders throughout Africa. After a raucus transition to independence mediated in part by Henry Kissinger, tainted elections were held in 1980 that brought Mugabe to the center of a ruling coalition. Using mass-murder of his opponents, rigged ballots and intimidation, Mugabe was re-elected three more times. Mugabe was no Mandela.

Initially, the coalition did quite well for itself and the people of Zimbabwe. Mugabe saw a prosperous economy as his ticket to personal wealth and Swiss bank accounts, and encouraged local enterprise. That was the golden period of the 1980s and 90s, when infant mortality and malnutrition were halved, life expectancy rose to 64, and literacy jumped to an all-time high, nearly 90 percent. The labor market was unable to absorb all these young, educated Zimbabweans, however, and by the late 1990s, the World Bank and IMF were brought in to address a growing economic crisis. The IMF observed that for the poor farmers working communal lands, "existing levels of production in these areas are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices" and recommended greater environmental regulation.

In 2000, Mugabe offered a constitutional amendment that would allow government to confiscate white-owned land for redistribution to black farmers without compensation. It was defeated by the voters, but he instituted the practice anyway. Self-styled "war veterans" roamed the country, invading white-owned farms and those who did not leave voluntarily were tortured or killed. Political opponents were rounded up and interred in prison camps where wives and children were sexually abused by AIDs-infected prisoners and "war veterans" and then released to live in cardboard shantytowns that were periodically bulldozed. These atrocities were well documented by eyewitness accounts published in the daily papers of South Afica when we attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002, so one can only assume that the hundred or more Heads of State and thousands of NGOs and UN agencies also attending were abundantly aware. Millions of Zimbaweans have since perished, average life expectancy has fallen to 34, AIDs is rampant and unchecked, and inflation, last measured in June 2008, was running at 11,250,000 percent.

Mugabe has extended his presidency beyond the expiration of his elected term, and blames the trouble in Zimbabwe on homosexuals and Great Britain, especially Tony Blair. We can’t help wonder whether Henry Kissinger, Milton Friedman and the IMF might have also had something to do with it.

The Mugabe model of pillaging and laying ruin to a prosperous economy was used by the cabal that took down the US economy in the first decade of this century, and the world economy trembled and fell in the wake of that. What might we now expect? Inflation at 11,250,000 percent, average life expectancy of 34, and endemic disease all seem plausible.

Let us be clear. We are not comparing Mr. Obama to Mr. Mugabe. We could compare Mr. Mugabe to Mr. Bush, except that Mr. Mugabe is still president, apparently for life. What we might say by way of making this discussion relevant is that Mr. Obama is no economist, and that is probably a good thing.

But, because of that, he did what anyone might have. He bought an insurance policy from Tim Geithner. Mr. Geithner took a meeting with him and promised he could get the USA out of this ungodly mess. He had managed a successful bailout once before, in South Korea in 1997. He’d worked in three administrations, served Kissinger Associates for three years, was New York Fed president in 2003, chairman of the G-10’s Committee on Payment and Settlement Systems of the Bank for International Settlements, and a member of the Group of Thirty. He knew where the skeletons were. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Obama bit.

Geithner’s job, re-inflate the bubble. You, know, that rapidly deflating one with the big flapping hole in its side. So with duct tape and spit, he has closed the hole, a little, and now is puffing furiously.

Can Geithner rescue the world economy by re-inflating the bubble? No more than Zimbabwe can recover with Mugabe still in the presidential palace.

Ultimately it goes back to the IMF’s prescient observation that "existing levels of production in these areas are now threatened by the environmental fragility of the natural resource base and the unsustainability of existing farming practices." It’s just that the areas of unsustainable practices we are talking about are now the whole world.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Peak Firewood

"Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water."
—Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind

We read Nate Hagens recently reposted piece from 2007 on The Oil Drum re: firewood. Hagens ran some interesting calculations. What if everyone got woodstoves? How long before peak forest?

In 2002, the forested area of the United States contained 856,000,000,000 cubic feet of tree volume, of which 364,000,000,000 cf were hardwoods. (This is the forest capital). (Due to larger amounts of creosote and much lower wood fiber density in softwoods, they are not suitable for conventional firewood and I assumed are not used for heating –in a more advanced analysis this assumption could be relaxed as people could harvest softwoods and replant with hardwoods at least to some extent and/or install external wood burners).

The current annual volume growth is 10.1 billion cubic feet annually (or about 2.5%). Existing usage rate is 5.7 billion cubic feet with an annual mortality rate of 2.7 billion cubic feet. (Interestingly, the mortality rate was at a 50 year high and the USFS admit they do not know the reason for it). For ease of calculation let’s be aggressive and assume that humans can access all of the dead wood for burning. We then have 4.4 bcf of annual growth of potential firewood that is not otherwise being utilized for lumber, electricity or current home heating. At 128 cubic feet per cord, this equates to approximately 34.7 million (more) cords of wood that can be accessed sustainably, without dipping into the forest ‘capital’. If we discontinue other current market uses for the wood we would have 10.1 billion cf or 78.9 million cords of potential firewood per year.

Freshly cut wood has over 60% moisture and therefore takes much more effort to release the energy in the wood fibers. Seasoned wood approaches 20% moisture content and releases about 6,400 BTUs per pound of wood. (Pure bone-dry wood tops 8,000 BTUs per pound but is not practical for home use). Almost all wood types create the same amount of BTUs per pound (6,400), but depending on their individual densities and other properties, differ in how many pounds make up 1 cord.

This analysis assumes one cord of wood typically is about 2400 pounds. We then arrive at 2,400 X 6,400 BTUs =15,360,000 BTUs per cord. Therefore, in the 52 US states, we have 34.7 million cords of annual volume growth of wood available times 15.36 million BTUs per cord => 533 Trillion BTUs that can be presently be accessed sustainably from hardwoods. (If we eschew all other forest products, this number roughly doubles, and if we include softwoods, it roughly doubles again)

[This compares to 7000 Trillion BTUs contributed by natural gas for home heating at present. - ab]

So the good news is if we were really cold and sans fossil fuels, we could chop down trees for at least 4 years before the US would resemble Easter Island (24,024/5,074= 4.74 years). [If we could keep out poachers, TN could go about 10 yr -- ab]
Last week we had a brief warm spell, and we were back working on the wood pile, with plenty to meditate on. Good thing we did. The fresh snow this morning makes it hard to find the chopping block (see our Facebook wall for more photos). One of the Oil Drum commenters, Don in Maine, remembered (and here we reverse his paragraph order):
Scott Nearing, when he went to friends to have dinner always wanted a spell at the wood pile first, than some home grown food and dandelion wine, and talk of economics into the wee hours.
In a society that answers every problem with a pill, splitting wood is zen. Your anger, your frustration, your doubts are gone. The body kicks in and the mind gets the rest it needs. I never come in from the wood yard in a bad mood, I look back outside and what I see is that I have been highly productive. So many of the ills some people face actually seem much less of a problem with some fresh air and work. Depression is a big one, anxiety another, hard to be either when you made a big pile of split wood, raised a good sweat, and are tired.

Mostly you end up hungry.

We would also add that arm exercise is much more exhausting than leg exercise. More adrenalin is released, your heart beats more rapidly and beats harder. But, after that cardio-flush, you have elevated levels of the brain chemicals that lower anxiety.

Exercise sends norepinephrine to brain regions involved in the body's stress response, according to work being done at the Univ. of Georgia. Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain's supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the other regions involved in emotional and stress responses. The chemical is also thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent, neurotransmitters.

It isn’t entirely neurochemical, however. Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body's physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system, and so on.

So, before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water. Another Japanese saying is “He who chops wood is twice warm.” Except, it now appears, not all of us can stay warm in the winter that way any longer.




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