Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cool food, cool fuel, cool climate


Appropriate technology is all about finding low-impact, small-footprint ways to meet our needs, while supporting the ecological niche we are mere parts of. Whether you are watching TV, vacuuming your house, getting ice cream from the freezer, or riding your electric scooter, you could be removing carbon from air and ocean and replacing it into soil and forest at the same time. How? Appropriate technology.

Here is an example: say your electricity came not from a dirty coal-steam plant but from algae that grew in a wetland cell that treated the effluent from your kitchen and bathroom? Suppose that once you had wrung out the algae mat for its rich gardening nutrients, you separated the oils from the biomass and refined those into fuel for your car. Then you took the leftover biomass and fed it to a pyrolyzing stove, which cooked your meals, heated your house, made your electricity, and left you not with ash but biochar — recalcitrant carbon ready to enrich your garden for the next 1000 years, staying out of the atmosphere all the while. Cool food, cool fuel, cool waste treatment, cool climate.

Painting the choice as a harsh dichotomy between your current standard of living and something resembling that of a prisoner on Devil’s Island is a blown meme. Stick a fork in that. Its done.

The future will be one of more conscientious design: more food with net carbon and fertility soil gains; warmth, light, mobility and other energy services based on solar income, not distilled dinosaurs. Elegance of multidimensional solution, not cascading fixes requiring greater additional fixes.

“Cool food” cooperatives have emerged in Japan to reinvigorate the rural economy and restore the neglected satoyama marginal areas between farm and wilderness. Now satoyama bamboo is being harvested for biochar, the biochar returned to the farms for soil health and carbon credits, and the produce sold as carbon-negative “cool food.”

In 2009, the first “cool” cabbage was processed into slaw by a supermarket chain, sold at a premium price and it sold out. Cool Slaw and other carbon negative products may represent a new way to revive rural economies by redeeming ecological services.

Cool food is healthy, wholesome, nourishing food that puts more carbon into the soil than is removed in the process of growing it. It thus moves carbon from sky and oceans to soils, plants, animals and people. By making cool food, using biochar, aquaculture, agroforestry and carbon farming, that revolution is now in our grasp.

This is the future, and it is one that is both hopeful and delicious.

For our lifetime we have been tinkering with what has been called “technology transfer.” Those words have a conflicting meaning in the climate negotiations context, so we prefer “appropriate technology” as a better description, although “sustainable development” also works.

Note: “sustainable development” in a business-as-usual economic growth context is an oxymoron. In a degrowth context, sustainable development implies meeting the needs of society in renewable, regenerative and responsible ways.

After the Cancún climate talks concluded, we went to work with our Mexican partners who are attempting to graft some of these concepts into existing villages not far from Cancún. While we have been employing the standard Transition Towns methodology, we find that what is often needed as a predicate is a good grasp of permaculture design. Permaculture seems to be indispensable for anyone trying to bring about broadscale collapse-proofing, especially in a limited-finance setting.

We are giving a permaculture trainings every weekend in January and February in Spanish, and then a full permaculture design course in English at the Maya Mountain Research Farm in San Pedro Columbia, Belize, March 5-13, 2011. While these courses are going on in México and Belize, Jude Hobbs and Andrew Millison will be back at the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee, preparing another generation of instructors to provide similar trainings all over the world. They are our “butterflies.”

We have come to see permaculture as an essential building block because it brings about a shift in awareness in those who study it. Permaculture is about designing cultivated ecosystems to meet your needs, and about cultivating people to be part of ecosystems instead of their agents of destruction.

When we first starting giving these courses two decades ago, we would notice a phenomenon where by about the fourth or fifth day of a 2-week course people starting having emotional breakdowns and we would have to pause the class and rebuild tattered egos. You might call this the chrysalis phase in butterfly morphology.

We get that less these days, either because people now are generally emotionally overwrought to begin with, or because we have modified our pedagogy to make the transformation easier to assimilate. One of the things we have learned is to pay more attention to set and setting.

We typically typically teach within established ecovillages, but the setting in Belize is difficult to match anywhere else we’ve been. From Punta Gorda, the capital of Toledo District, you ascend toward the pyramid ruin of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia. This was 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.

From San Pedro you go up the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande in a cedar dug-out poled by a dory man. The site is 2 miles (1 hour) up river at a shallow bend with tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up from that bamboo bend. The Source 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, sanctuary to 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 decided to buy a piece of land on the river back in 1988. After leaving Antioch College at 19 he took a job in Belize as a caretaker then worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association. 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.

Everything Chris learned about cacao, agroforestry, solar power, and self-finance he put into his farm. On one occasion as we walked the farm, he paused in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he said, pointing upwards. The same is true of his mangoes. He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus fruit. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He has built a tank and pond aquaculture system, although most of the fish in his kitchen still come from the river or the Caribbean Sea.

After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Chris dug 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.”

This is where we choose to teach permaculture. The place is its own best instructor.

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 Chris harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. If you glance around his open-air kitchen, you’ll see purchased cans and jars containing items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet but not indispensable here. Successive civilizations did just fine without them.

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, although climate change is making it less predictable. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so Chris has learned to hold the design course in March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for dory traffic, and the trails are more easily negotiated.

We are hosting introductory permaculture trainings outside Cancún through January, in Spanish, but for those interested in getting the whole design methodology at one location, in English, we direct you to our course in Belize. If you want to eat local organic food, sleep in dorms powered entirely by renewable energy, and bathe in a sparkling pure river, please contact Chris or visit his web site.

The transition work we are doing in México is especially urgent because, in our humble opinion, it will not be China or Al Quada that brings down the Death Star, but México. It was just 4 years ago that the president of México’s state owned oil company, Pemex, told a press conference that México would exhaust its oil reserves in six years. Since then, its largest field, Cantarell, has plummeted from 2.9 million barrels per day to just 464,000. It had been providing 40% of the Mexican government’s revenues and México had been the second largest source of oil flowing into the United States. Now Pemex is $40 billion in debt and México’s export spigot is squeeking shu
What will happen when México can no longer afford to buy expensive gasoline from Houston’s refinery row because it cannot send any more crude oil North? To quote Colin Campbell, describing peak oil generally,

“Initially it will be denied. There will be much lying and obfuscation. Then prices will rise and demand will fall. The rich will outbid the poor for available supplies. The system will initially appear to rebalance. The dash for gas will become more frenzied. People will realize nuclear power stations take up to ten years to build. People will also realize wind, waves, solar and other renewables are all pretty marginal and take a lot of energy to construct. There will be a dash for more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment. The poor will not be able to afford the investment or the fuel. Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas will become completely frenzied. More and more countries will decide to reserve oil and later gas supplies for their own people. Air quality will be ignored as coal production and consumption expand once more. Once the decline really gets under way, liquids production will fall relentlessly by five percent per year. Energy prices will rise remorselessly. Inflation will become endemic. Resource conflicts will break out.”

To that we can add trade union and tax protests, student riots, food shortages, government debt defaults, currency devaluations, market crashes, local service terminations, and wide unemployment, homelessness and civil chaos. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it is not coincidental. We are not talking about México. This is what is happening to the United States.

But there is another way and it involves butterflies.

After the past 2-week flurry of posts we’ll be taking a brief hiatus now. Your homework assignment is to read The Biochar Solution. 

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