Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Horseradish Trees and Hummingbirds

Some of the species of life that share this planet really want to be our friends, and have gone to great evolutionary lengths to prove it.

The leaves of Moringa oleifera, or the horseradish tree, originated in the southern foothills of the Himalayas in India, near the source of the sacred Ganges. By the end of the Sumerian Empire it had spread to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Today it is widely cultivated across Africa and Central and South America, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It has more Vitamin A and beta-carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas. The many uses for just this one species include alley cropping (biomass production), animal forage (leaves and treated seed-cake), biogas (from leaves), domestic cleaning agents (crushed leaves), blue dyes (wood), fencing (living trees), fertilizer (seed-cake), foliar nutrient (juice expressed from the leaves), green manure (from leaves), gum (from tree trunks), honey- and sugar cane juice-clarifier (powdered seeds), honey (flower nectar), medicine (all plant parts), ornamental plantings, bio-pesticide (soil incorporation of leaves to prevent seedling damping off), pulp (wood), rope (bark), tannin for tanning hides (bark and gum), and water purification (powdered seeds and charcoal). 

Moringa seedling at 4 months age.

Moringa seed oil (yield 30-40 percent by weight), also known as Ben oil, is a sweet non-sticking, non-drying oil that resists rancidity. It has been used in salads, for perfume and hair care products and as a sewing machine lubricant. The high protein seeds are eaten green, roasted, powdered, curried, or steeped for tea. Leaves, flowers, seeds, pods, roots, bark, gum, and oil have medicinal properties and have been used since the times of the Egyptians and Greeks variously as antiseptic, pain-reducer and birth control, and to treat arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, common colds, dental caries, dysentery, earaches, epilepsy, fever, headaches, herpes, hypertension, infections, joint pain, low back and kidney pain, lupus, parasites, prostate, rheumatism, scorpion-bites, skin disorders, snakebite, syphilis, thrush, toothaches, typhoid, ulcers, urinary tract infections, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

Moringa grows best in dry sandy soils and is especially well suited for drought areas because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce. Propagated either from seed or by planting limb cuttings, the tree starts bearing edible pods in six to eight months.

Moringa at 1 year, now being plucked for pesto for the kitchens of the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. It will grow to 30 feet in height in 7 years.

Because African villagers are familiar with it, Moringa will likely be among the quarter-million trees Trees and Life will start in each of the 90 villages in Casamance, Senegal over the next 3 years. Eventually Trees and Life will create six central tree nurseries to support the network of 60 village-managed nurseries. From each women-directed village cooperative, the organization will offer production and marketing support and micro-finance for local forestry enterprises (fruit products, bee-keeping, gum arabic, medicinal extracts, salves and decoctions, guinea fowl, etc.).

For Trees and Life the final phase will be monitoring and reporting the progress and integrating the data into the Total Cooling Project of the NASA Land Atmosphere and Resilience Initiative. As added incentive, a prize is being offered to the village whose rate of survival of the trees is strongest after 3 and 5 years, respectively. Nicolas Metro told a gathering at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen he hopes to determine the impact on temperature and hydrological cycle at the local, regional and global level. His home organization in France, Kinomé (Japanese for “the viewpoint of the tree”), is already planning the next greater scale for Trees and Life in the tropics, planting 15 billion trees over ten years.

The Kinomé plan is that eventually the villagers can be paid for the carbon sequestered by the trees and the “carbon avoided” by protection of the existing forests that would have been deforested. Ground readings taken in several forests near Casamance recorded carbon at 260 tons of CO2 per hectare, including 74 tons in above-ground biomass (30 percent) and 186 tons in the soil (70 percent). That survey provides a useful baseline from which to calculate family-managed carbon sequestration services in the future.

In 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist. In the early 1970s, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya’s social problems was environmental degradation. She connected her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed by founding Envirocare, a company that employed people to plant trees. On June 5, 1977, marking World Environment Day, she led a march from downtown Nairobi to the outskirts of the city where she planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt” in what would become the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged Kenyan women to start tree nurseries using heirloom native species. With money from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women, she was able to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings and to the husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of success rates.

Wangari Maathai’s struggle, in which she was repeatedly arrested while planting trees, beaten by police and paramilitary groups, placed under house arrest, besieged in her home, and periodically forced into exile, was ultimately vindicated when, in 2002, her Rainbow Coalition defeated the ruling party of Kenya. Within her district, Maathai won 98 percent of the vote. She became Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya to support candidates who embodied the ideals of the Green Belt Movement.

In the 1990s, when the Green Belt movement planted 20 million trees, that seemed like a very large number. In 2006, the U.N. Environmental Program launched a “billion tree campaign” for world plantings by the end of 2007. That goal was surpassed in 2005 and had to be raised to 7 billion by the end of 2009 (one tree per person). Plantings of 6.3 billion trees were achieved, but no one knows how many of those trees actually survived. In Palestine, where Murad Al Khufash led an effort to plant olive trees under the sponsorship of a Global Village Institute trees-for-airmiles program,  two years of plantings were chain-sawed to make room for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such experiences are not uncommon in places where the value of forests is still of far lower priority than population and commercial demands.

Still, tree planting has been gaining momentum, and a friendly rivalry has begun. Pakistan has apparently set a record for aquatic tree plantings, with volunteers wading through chest high water and knee-deep mud to plant an average of 1,800 mangroves per day, each. In a single day and without any mechanical equipment, volunteers planted 541,176 young mangroves in the Indus River Delta to best the previous Guinness World Record of 447,874 trees in a day, held by India.

Richard Garstang, head of the program, said, “We hope that tree planting competitions will become as popular as cricket matches.” 

Little by little, the treeplanters are growing forests. The forests are halting desertification and preserving shorelines. They are sequestering carbon in their trunks, leaves and roots, rather than the atmosphere. They are feeding a hungry population and saving wildlife at the same time. They are restoring the rain cycles and feeding springs and rivers. When we feel overwhelmed by the collapse all around us — the death song of Gaia — we would do well to remember the story of the hummingbird Wangari Mattaai tells to children:

“The story of the hummingbird is about this huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals in the forest come out and they are transfixed as they watch the forest burning and they feel very overwhelmed, very powerless, except this little hummingbird. It says, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So it flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It puts it on the fire, and goes up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it can. In the meantime all the other animals, much bigger animals like the elephant with a big trunk [that] could bring much more water, they are standing there helpless. And they are saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time.’ But as they continue to discourage it, it turns to them without wasting any time and it tells them ‘I am doing the best I can.’”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ecosystem Modeling

We're in Day Three of the permaculture course in Belize and today our assignment was ecological systems. This lesson also seems relevant to The Great Change so lets recap.

One favored source from which to purloin instructional material is the Centre for Alternate Technology’s MSc program in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies in London and Machynlleth, Wales. CAT has developed a series of modules that should, in the society to come, replace a very high percentage of the courseware now being peddled in most tertiary schools. We are particularly fond of Damien Randle’s lecture on world resources, which comes towards the end of the first AEES module.

An ecosystem is no more nor less than the sum of individual responses of diverse cooperating or competing organisms to stimuli from events in their environment. Diversity is a sign that there is a high number of stimuli and that the system has become dynamic in response. A great many small parts, making separate and nimble adjustments, solve problems better than a few large parts responding ponderously.

Randle, referencing Limits to Growth, Vital Signs and State of the World studies, describes four possible scenarios for coming to grips with carrying capacity. The first is no discontinuity — the resource or resources are able to expand and grow, so use can grow; population and carrying capacity expand together. An example of this might be late 19th century transportation that was becoming constrained by horse manure and coal smoke in cities and barge canal, sail or rail capacities across greater distances. Gasoline and diesel fuels rendered those old limits obsolete (for the time being).

The second is a sigmoid response. There is a good signal that the resource is constant (seasonal daily sunlight, for instance) and a responsive organizational or systemic structure aware of that limit and diligently proactive. The population demand or economic growth self-limits as it approaches the ceiling. An example in gardening would be the size of one’s yard. One can still squeeze additional yield by layering in understory and going vertical with trellises and “living walls,” but the prospect of spilling over into a neighbor’s yard imposes an unmistakable psychological boundary.

The third type is an oscillating overshoot, where the signals are delayed, time-lapsed or masked but the systemic erosion caused by temporary overshoot is not permanently damaging. As the signals vascillate between positive and negative, there is uncertainty, and shifting response — on again, off again. The organizational structures are not nimble enough to quickly recognize the pattern and anticipate the volatility, but respond well enough to allow the resource to recover without suffering permanent damage. An insecure and disruptive economic oscillation, rather than a steady-state, is sustained.

The fourth type is more serious. The signals are not recognized. Perhaps they are too obscure or too rapid for the sophistication of the dependent organization. No adjustments are made as carrying capacity is reached and exceeded until it is too late to avert lasting damage to the resource. There is a permanent erosion in the resource’s capacity to support production even after the system recognizes its condition of overshoot and adjusts demand downward. This is what has happened to many fisheries, forests and agricultural landscapes. It appears inevitable now for a great many non-renewable resources, whether they be oil, coal, uranium, or many of the rarer elements that go into hybrid cars, wind generators and photovoltaic cells.

After reading John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, we added a fifth type to the CAT scenarios — catabolic collapse. Once more, the signals are not recognized because the reality of the problem challenges the core beliefs of the dependent organization, such as a classical economics that admits of no limit in supply as long as there is demand. Greer postulates that overshoot may not follow a straight linear decline but rather may vacillate between plunges and temporary states of repose, using up “banked” resources that are retasked and recycled. The descent curve resembles a stair-step, arguably the experience of the global economy since peak production of liquid fossil fuels and their substitutes was reached in the 2006 to 2008 period.

As Richard Heinberg recently observed, the catabolic model was explained in the seminal Peak Oil article in Scientific American that petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote in 1998. Heinberg recapitulates that prediction:
Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

Looking at ecosystems, we can say that they respond to stress by shifting quickly and altering their biological makeup. Most changes in the natural world occur as sudden bumps rather  than gradual evolutions: earthquakes raising the Andes; oceans claiming coastlines in the wake of hurricanes; wildfires shifting forest to plain. An ecosystem is the result of the sum of individual responses to catastrophe, or any stimuli that forces a change upon the status quo. Biological diversity, indicative of a high level of stimuli, provides insurance for the system. Global extinction of an entire species is very rare (or was before the Anthrocene), but local extinction and replacements are common. Ecosystems clean house, recruit, re-diversify and recharge.

The antidote for the solastalgia that comes of recognizing the now undeniable human overshoot and collapse trajectory is very simple. Permaculture. Earth care. We can cultivate our human ecosystems the same way forests, coral reefs and mountains restore an optimal balance of habitats and food webs in response strong external stimuli. We can reskill and retask our children, grow diversity around ourselves like a cocoon, line up redundant sources of support for each and every need, and learn to swim within, not against, the prevailing current.

It is good to bear in mind that Gaia will be doing this, too, with or without us. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Designing for Catastrophe

We are back in the Mayan Mountain watershed in Southern Belize in what the locals call “the forgotten district.” It is so ignored by the goverment in Belize City that a few years ago a local politician was successfully re-elected after going to the UN and asking if his district could be taken away from Belize and given to Guatemala. In political terms, that would be like the governor of Texas appealing to the UN to give his state back to Mexico. The campaign button could be “Forget the Alamo.”

We are a dory-pole up river at the Maya Mountain Reseach Center teaching a permaculture design course. Half the class is a collection of nationals from other countries and the remainder are Belizians, mostly local Mopan Mayan villagers. Hector Reyes did an interesting session today on “Designing for Catastrophe,” and a part of that bears repeating here.

The U.S. Geological Survey puts last month’s Haitian quake at  7 on the Richter scale. The scale is logrithmic, meaning that each whole number represents ten times the size of the next lower number on the scale. Chile’s disaster was 8.8, 501 times larger than Haiti’s. 

The difference in casualties was very different, however. Haiti's government estimates some 220,000 people died. Chile's death toll is put in the hundreds.

Here is the diagram we drew on the chalkboard:

Many recent natural disasters reflect an essential component of our modern world, namely our addiction to growth. With global population in fecundity overdrive, even normal cycles of earth movement are producing casualties in exponential excess.

In the permaculture class we called this a design failure. Many Haitians grabbed cement pillars only to watch them crumble in their hands. Chileans, whose earthquakes have been the basis for architectural design since the mid-19th century, have cities and villages built to ride out quakes by rolling and flexing (which, granted, provides no protection from middle-of-the-night tsunamis). Haitians, like those in population centers on the New Madrid fault running through the US heartland, have no similar preparations.

Design for catastrophe is something oddly missing from the Obama domestic program, as it is from the domestic policies of most nations. Few yet acknowledge peak oil, climate chaos, or the collapse of our globalized consumer civilization as threats, and so only the most cursory of preparations are being made.

So, most of us are Haitians, waiting for the next Big One, rather than Chileans, making plans to weather the inevitable shake-up that we can be certain is coming.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Various Bubblings

— Icelander Eiríkur Bergmann, to The Irish Times

Two bubblings have been pounding at our attention this week. The first is the bubbling of anger and resentment, primarily from masses of people being disenfranchised from their acquired entitlements. They resent having spent lifetimes, whether those be long and arduous or still fresh and relatively easy, under the expectation that all this stuff around them was more or less permanent and just the way things are.

They resent it when they get a bill for their utilities that doubled from what it was last year (or last month). They resent being washed over in the real estate tsunami and being told their underwater house is now worth less than their mortgage. They resent health insurance premiums rising faster than the cost of medical treatment. They resent being sold a glowing promise on hybrid cars that have to have batteries changed out at a third the cost of the new car, or whose acceleration won’t stop even when you turn off the key and stand on the brake. They don’t like losing their job, or getting out of college and discovering no one is hiring, or trying to get a loan to start a business and being turned down. They are angry. They want to blame someone.

So they poke sticks at government. They poke sticks at bankers. They poke at the media. They poke at scientists, liberals, right wingers, Al Gore, Halliburton, the Federal Reserve, Congress, election finance, the drug lobby, Israel, the hippies, Jimmy Carter, or talk radio.

They point at schoolteachers. Anyone they can blame for feeding them a pack of lies — material wealth will make you happy; hard work will make you materially wealthy; everyone can find a job if they look; any child can become a president or an astronaut; save more than you spend and you will become rich; and our system is the best on earth.

This past week thousands of Greeks stoned their parliament after being handed a 25% sales tax, stripped of pensions and vacation time and taking a drop in wages in the public sector. The trade unions called for public works stoppages, strikes and daily marches

Across the United States the clash is over the school system, with nearly every State raising tuitions, canceling scholarships, freezing hiring and cutting programs. Net result: students with no place to left to go and plenty of time to protest. In Mexico they have begun charging children to attend public school, even down to the kindergarten level. As in the US, parents will find they now have the children staying home (like their parents) and eventually that will dumb down the population so that they understand even less about who is to blame, and so waste even more time pointing fingers and protesting (although it is at least arguable that they were getting dumbed down faster in school or at work).

In Iceland citizens are protesting having to pay back the investors in the UK and Europe who sank billions into Icelandic Ponzi bank schemes. This makes good sense. Caveat emptor, investors! It is such a good idea that Congressman Barney Frank was heard to effuse that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should deliver similar haircuts to their bondholders.  Nobody seems to have mentioned to the Congressman that the bondholders in the main are the Chinese government, which holds about 1 trillion in US sovereign debt, followed by Japan at 750 billion.

Japan would not have much it could say if given a haircut by the US home mortgage market, but China would probably have quite a bit to say, and one thing would be to say nothing, just stay away from the next T-bill market, and the next, and the next.

More interesting, really, is who stands third in line at that barber shop — the oil exporting countries. If you insist on giving them a haircut, they can just sell their oil elsewhere, to China and Japan, for instance. What does one imagine would happen to schoolteachers, salaries, vacation time, pensions and sales taxes then? Can you throw a brick through the window of Kuwait?

Our second ominous bubbling is occurring in the Arctic, and it was something we predicted in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, although we have to say we did not expect to see it this soon.

Last summer we reported observing the bubbles coming up in methane “chimneys” off the coast of northern Norway. Now we are noting chimneys off Alaska on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The bubbles are from the frozen clathrates on the ocean floor. They were formed by the decomposition of organic matter in those sediments over millennia, and perhaps from abiogenic sources bubbling from farther down, but until now the oceans have been cold enough to keep the methane trapped in submarine permafrost. Davy Jones’ hold is an Ice Locker.

The permafrost chimney effect only works in shallow seas. Elsewhere the bubbles dissolve before they reach the surface. We’ve been observing ocean acidity rising at least 10 times faster than was previously thought, and the negative effects that is having on shellfish species, coral reefs and the entire marine food chain. We’ve been warned by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that the ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century.

"This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems," the UN committee said.

One explanation of the acidity is how much CO2 is being rained out as industrial emissions fill up the atmosphere. Ocean acidity is now higher than it has been in 65 million years.

A more ominous explanation is that the acidity is caused in part by the methane being produced from deep clathrates.

A fifth of world coral reefs are dead and the rest may be lost in 20–40 years because of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification. Last year the world ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any June–August season since 1880. If we burn all the fossil fuels — the gases released by fracturing, the oil shales and tar sands, all the deepest deposits, many gigatons of carbon — where do we get to? There’s some chance of getting above Cretaceous levels, where the seas could reach 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the human body. Today sea surface temperature is 16.4 degrees C, or 61.5 degrees F. We have quite a way to go to get to the Cretaceous, but the speed at which we are moving is breathtaking.

Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative — 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward's book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, "The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

Somehow the four principal drivers of our civilizational collapse in progress — overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, and military adventurism — while they are getting the notice of some scholars and military think tanks have yet to come to the notice of schoolteachers.

Maybe they should be fired.




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