Friday, December 27, 2013

Surfing into a New Year

"Changing climate and weather patterns will crash through food and energy systems, housing and commerce and social conventions like surf on a sandbar."

We are on an island off Southern Mexico at the moment, preparing our wares for the annual permaculture design course in Belize, and putting in a little beach time. We have a friend who runs the local kitesurf school here and over a Christmas dinner he told us a rather harrowing tale of what had happened to him the night before, on Christmas Eve.

After closing up shop for the day he had grabbed his gear and gone to the Western tip of the island, rigged the kite and stood on the beach for a bit looking up at the sky. It was quite menacing, a strong North wind and dark clouds moving quickly. He had expected there would be other surfers about, and the part of his brain concerned with personal safety told him to not go out alone, but the waves were good and he liked strong winds, so he threw off caution and launched anyway.

He had a good half hour or more in the strong winds and had settled into an area nearly a mile offshore where there is a sandbar with a good surf break. He worked the board on and off the surf line, spinning, leaping, making sharp cuts while controlling his kite. And then it changed.

The wind suddenly shifted direction and the kite fell out of the sky. He sat on his board and tested the air but he could not relaunch because everything was still. There was no wind to carry the kite up. The currents were strong and with the kite extending away from him on the ocean’s surface, he was being swept out to the northwest, in the direction of Cuba, 105 miles away.

He looked around for sharks, whom he knew also favored that sandbar. He could, of course, abandon the expensive kite gear and paddle his surfboard back to shore. Even in the strong current he could make it to the Yucatan coast farther to the North. He was lucky he chose the surfboard that day over the kiteboard, because the surfboard would be much better for such a task.

The rain came, quite strong, and he sat there waiting and drifting, as minutes passed. He still had options. One thing he knew. He could trust nature. It might be unpredictable in its details — the whens and hows — but it was predictable in its patterns — and change was a constant. And he was right, after the rain came more wind, from a new direction. He was able to launch the kite. But he was only up a few seconds when his emergency harness release opened — sitting in the surf for that long must have loosened the clasp — and the kite blew away, dropping him into the water again. Fortunately, he had a thin safety line running from his belt to the kite and was able to recover it again, but now the lines were all snarled, and difficult to untangle in the open ocean and rough seas, and the rain was coming down harder.

The tale ended well or he would not be sitting at Christmas dinner telling us about it. He got the kite untangled, the harness re-attached, was able to relaunch and he surfed all the way home, straight up to the beach in front of his school.

What it left us thinking though, was how much, or how little, trust we can place in nature anymore. In his case, he trusted the familiar pattern of winds and rain. He knew the calm was temporary, despite how long it seemed to take.

In our case, as we leave the comfortable Holocene epoch in which two-leggeds stood upright, learned to speak and write, and sent our kind to the Moon and back, and we step into the unknown Anthropocene, the uncertainty is exponentially greater. Even our most familiar patterns will become unreliable. Changing climate and weather patterns will crash through food and energy systems, housing and commerce and social conventions like surf on a sandbar.

And thus we drift, as Einstein predicted, towards unparalleled catastrophes. Happy New Year!

One last note as 2013 draws to a close. We have launched an Indiegogo campaign to better serve the needs of people wanting to take our sustainability and activism training programs. Its called Youre Inn at The Farm. If you are looking for an excellent tax deductible charity at this time of year, it would really help if you would take this moment to assist ours. Please donate now. Thank you and have a wonderful holiday!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Farm: Where we have come from and our plans for the future

"What is needed is a giant upgrade. We need a visitors’ center that can also serve as an ecohostel. We want to open up The Farm. We are calling our project Youre Inn at The Farm."

As we in the North approach the winter solstice – traditionally a time of slowing down, contemplation, and letting go of the past year — we are filled with gratitude for so much that we have been given, and only barely awakened to the new possibilities these gifts bestow. 

Our small non-profit educational and scientific organization, Global Village is headquartered in an ecovillage in Tennessee, The Farm, and in recent years has kept branch offices in Mexico and Palestine. We have been emergency planetary technicians since 1974, reorganized with tax-exempt status since 1984, and have current active projects on six continents. We have always matched our organizational rhythms to the rhythms of nature. Today we are looking inward, and down to our roots in the ground. Today we are undertaking some long needed repairs.

Our Hippy Heritage

The history of The Farm intentional community has been told in numerous books and films and even appears today in middle school social studies textbooks. We settled in Tennessee in 1971 as an exodus from the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, constructing, with chipped bricks and straightened nails, a utopian experimental village on a worn-out and abandoned tract of south central Tennessee’s rolling hill country.
Wholeo Dome
One of the community buildings in those early pioneer years was our machine shop, where lathes and presses bent windmill blades, fashioned concentrating photovoltaic arrays, and built some of the world’s first solar-powered automobiles. We tinkers called ourselves “Global Village Technology.” From those humble beginnings came what is today Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology.

Over the years we can point to many successes and more than a few failures. Our early success in prototyping solar cars — daily driven on parade through the Knoxville Worlds Fair in 1981 — led to a multi-million-dollar retreat for the Solar Car Company of Melbourne, Florida, Phoenix, Arizona and Groton, Connecticut a few years later. Like the Tucker, the Solar Car was too early and too radical for its time and was no match for entrenched market and political forces that quickly arrayed against it. 

The early success of our ideas, such as hybrid electrics that got more than 200 mpg or concentrating solar arrays that negated cloud cover and rain as a factor in solar gain, led to their widespread use today. In the early 1980s, we installed solar-powered cellular telephone service all over the remote regions of Brazil. We trained Brazilians at The Farm in ecovillage design, resulting in a vibrant, government sponsored programs, permaculture training centers and hundreds of emerging ecovillages in that country today. We provided similar programs in post-Apartheid South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Colombia, Argentina, and many other locations.

We like to work in areas with high strategic value, typically places just emerging from long eras of war and oppression and showing the spark of creative energy that often ignites a new era of opportunity for a large population.

What is Appropriate?

When we speak of “appropriate” we mean to suggest both an ethical dimension (all technology is not morally neutral) and also what technology is appropriate for the time and place where it is being deployed. We are entering the Age of Limits, and we, as a species, carry an enormous legacy of overdue bills to our biosphere that can only be repaid by devoting time and wealth to ecological and biodiversity restoration, carbon sequestration, and repaying cultural climate debt.
Our Bookstore
Fritz Schumacher spoke of “appropriate technology” being a “middle way,” as in Buddhism, a path of moderation between the very small scale (the home and garden) and the very large scale (industrial cultures). We can also express this as “village scale,” which implies not merely the development of material well-being, but also the invisible architecture of community — holistic wellness.

Global Village works in five specific areas. These are our designated zones of influence.

  1. Scale: the great shift to relocalization through voluntary simplicity and reskilling.
  2. Exchange: the new economics of local currencies, carbon accounting, and wealth revaluation.
  3. Solar Budget: meeting the hierarchy of human needs entirely from our daily income from our sun.
  4. Ecological Restoration: repairing and regenerating resilient natural systems and cycles.
  5. Climate: mitigation and adaptation.
Our strategy, being small but blessed with unusually good insight, is to join with others on parallel paths to magnify our collective efforts. We attend conferences and meetings, contribute to newsletters and journals, and find company among the many who recognize these global needs and are doing something creative and effective to address them. Among our common allies are bioregionalists, intentional communitarians, utopian scholars and ecovillagers, the permaculturists, ecological restorationists, and those NGOs in the United Nations community who focus on climate change and achieving sustainable development within limited means. Small as we are, we could easily spend US$20 million per year per initiative. We would love a 10-year, $100 million commitment up front. But we are realistic. Our track record and our knowledge and insights are not enough. There is a certain amount of luck and good fortune involved in finding like-minded benefactors and volunteers. Our fallback position has always been to keep doing what we do, as effectively as we can, with whatever limited resources we have. Quitting is not in our lexicon.

The Four Strategies

We have found over the past forty years that what works best to accomplish the most tends to fall into four distinct strategies:

Training. Applying our unique whole-systems immersion pedagogy, we seek out emerging young leaders and provide them with serious future-forging skills. We are not the Kennedy School at Harvard, training a future generation of world leaders, although we would if we could. We are rather a sponsor of and inspiration for distributed living and learning centers; co-creating a new curriculum and pedagogy for the coming stages of social evolution. Directly modeled on our Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm (1994) there are today scores of similar training centers in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Senegal, and many other places. We are awarding B.A. and M.S. degrees through our Gaia University distance learning program. We have an international training cadre, Gaia Education Associates, conducting regular ecovillage design certification programs under the auspices of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). We have partnerships or associations with David Orr’s community programs at Oberlyn, Wes Jackson’s Land Institute, Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute, Gunter Pauli’s ZERI, the Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka, and many Permaculture Institutes and EcoCentros around the world. 

Unity Center
. We have at various times played host to conferences of the North American Bioregional Congress, the National Conference of Alternative Community Schools, the Fellowship for Intentional Community, and many more. We founded the Ecovillage Network of the Americas and were the secretariat office for the Americas of the Global Ecovillage Network for its first 10 years. We serve today as UN liaison office of the Global Ecovillage Network and have consultative status at the UN headquarters in New York as well as regional UN offices in Geneva, Nairobi, Bangkok and elsewhere. Most recently we have become part of the Transition Towns movement and the Regrarians, serving in a leadership role. Our offices in Palestine and Mexico provide outreach along similar lines to the peace and permaculture movements in the Middle East and to climate change, transition and bioregional movements in the Caribbean Basin.

Publications and Web Resources. Our open technology internet library now includes more than 10000 pages and receives millions of views per month. We have authored a number of books and have written for sustainability trade publications, including Worldwatch State of the World, The Permaculture Activist, INFORSE, Communities, and many more. Our goal is to make the meme of green living sticky: to give it appeal and allure. We want sustainability to enchant.

Insulating the Octagon
Research and Development.
We continue to ply our early machine shop training and skills to the challenges that lie ahead. We are actively pursuing small scale microalgae for biofuels, solid state solar energy amplifiers, electricity-producing carbon-negative home heaters and air-conditioners, passive cooling home and business designs, organic no-till carbon farming and gardening, step-harvest re-agroforestation, and new methods of holistic net sequestration we are calling “cool village” technologies. We have research fellowships, internship programs, apprenticeships, and web-based placement networks amongst eCOOLvillages. Beyond the material sciences, we are also pioneers in, and now instructors of, non-violent communication and social change, consensus and conflict transformation, rebirthing and reconnecting with the fundamental forces that shape our culture and daily lives.

We are not doing this work in fits and starts, although it may seem like that as our budget swells and recedes with the winds of fate. We know what works, what doesn’t, and we are prepared to ride out good times and bad. We are in this for the long haul, and our dedicated personnel now span three generations and many, very different cultures.
Specific Institute programs have specific objectives, budgets and deliverables. Typical was a modular training institute proposal that was solicited by Geoff Lawton from us in 2010. At that time Geoff was forming a global support network for permaculture efforts, based in Australia, had some large donors lined up. He asked us to blue sky a $1 million grant. In seven pages, we laid out a 3-year, $1 million budget for the Ecovillage Training Center. We didn’t receive any funding, but that proposal still holds up pretty well as an illustration of what we really should be doing.

2009 Sketch of additions
Twenty years ago we broke ground on our “living and learning” facility at The Farm. With a mere shoestring of funding, mostly small donations and volunteer work, we scratched out the core elements for a useful visitor experience: a rustic dormitory; wooded campsites; examples of strawbale, cob, earthships and geodesic domes; solar showers and organic gardens. That served its purpose, and since the mid-1990s hundreds of students have received permaculture design certificates and learned many other skills with which to construct ecovillages of their own. But under the surface, there are problems. There are too few bathrooms and showers, a weak internet connection, building shambles that date from the early 1970s and are falling apart, and far many more people who want to come and visit than can be housed and fed.

Original building torn down, nail by nail, board by board
What is needed is a giant upgrade. We need a visitors’ center that can also serve as an ecohostel. We want to open up The Farm. We are calling our project Youre Inn at The Farm.

Tennessee’s most famous contemporary eco-architect, Howard Switzer, has designed a new building with dormitories, dining area, carbon-sequestering auditorium and industrial kitchen. With classrooms and workshops built below grade to eliminate the need for air conditioning, this 18000 sq-ft building will be solar powered, straw-, clay-, and biochar-walled, with roundpole post and beam framing, a living roof, bamboo floors, and carbon-minus winter heating.
Constructed wetlands reclaim all liquid wastes, while composting systems and cradle-to-cradle recycling recover all solid wastes. A second, smaller facility will house our biofuel and energy production laboratory. Visitors can relax in the comfort of our Prancing Poet dining hall, share home brews with friends in the Green Dragon Tavern, stroll the grounds of The Farm and explore the trails of our nature preserve.

Plastering the Dragon
We know from personal experience that a project of this scale can be done. We didn’t have any grants or loans and we could not get any mortgages when we started The Farm, but we are still here, hundreds of us hippies, with our own schools, businesses, roads, water systems, and farmland. We still can’t get mortgages or bank loans because The Farm is a conservation land trust, and none of its land holdings could ever be foreclosed, or pledged as collateral. And yet, we started the
Building the below-grade classrooms
Ecovillage Training Center 20 years ago and it has been running programs ever since. We began the Global Ecovillage Network with just 12 communities and now there are more than 20,000 ecovillages worldwide.

All we need are more crazy visionaries like us; people who share a dream of a better world. It is not a world based on avarice and war, but on love and understanding. Ours is a vision of peace with nature, of becoming partners with butterflies, birds, and those with roots in the ground; of living in harmony with all our relations.

What We Need & What You Get

Joining the roof of old building to the new
This campaign is just the first small step in our BIG IDEA. We are asking for $40000 this winter, but we could easily use ten times or a hundred times that, and the project would only become ever better. So this is an open request, and the beginning of a longer conversation. We want your participation, and we invite you to visit and stay a while, but what we really want is to have a larger effect on the world.

We welcome your help, in whatever form that may take.

Please visit our Indiegogo site, like our Facebook cause, follow us on Twitter and share this with as many of your friends as you can. In this holiday season, a place like The Farm would be a great gift to give your grandchildren.

State of construction December 2013

Prancing Poet Auditorium

Prancing Poet Auditorium

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


"What we are attempting, with permaculture, carbon farming and ecovillages, is to reverse the degradation of the quality of life that is the inevitable consequence of population expansion hitting the limits to growth. We are trying to claw our way back up Maslow’s heirarchy of needs; to push to the summit and hold that high ground.


Add caption
As I settle in for the winter I hope to catch up with more frequent posts, but at the moment I am in my 11th country so far this year, Cuba, and it has poor internet access and besides, my interest in the International Permaculture Congress here steals my attention from blogging. What I can offer at the moment is an advance glimpse of the talk I am preparing for my address to the Congress today. Regular readers may be familiar with much of this material, but this overview summarizes the core of my current work.

Our story really begins with the 8th International Permaculture Conference, in São Paulo, Brazil in May 2007, followed by the Permaculture Convergence at EcoCentro and the Amazon tours. This was my first exposure to the dark earths of the Amazon and it began for me an inquiry that continues to the present.

Within those dark earths is a mystery, one that puzzled scientists for 400 years. How could it be that there are large pockets of deep, rich humus all over the Amazon watershed, when just adjacent to these deposits are the more typical, nutrient-poor, tropical clay soils? Those latitudes closest to the Equator have not been periodically remineralized by glaciers, and many are in non-volcanic zones. Monsoon cycles, the parching sun, and erosion from wind and rain long ago washed most of the nutrients out of these soils and left what remains stored in living plants and animals, and when those die, the nutrients quickly transfer to the next generation of plants and animals.

The mystery was eventually cracked by soil scientists — Charles Hart, first Dean of Geology at Cornell University; Friedrich Katzer, whose early 20th century samples were destroyed during the shelling of Sarajevo; Wim Sombroek; Bruno Glazer, and several others — who proved beyond any doubt that these soils were man-made. The secret ingredient was recalcitrant carbon, formed by pyrolysis of woody biomass, or what we call today “biochar.” Some of the Amazonian deposits are more than 8000 years old, and the carbon that turns the earth dark has been remarkably stable over that time. The reason the soils are so fertile has to do with the porous quality of biochar and its high cation exchange capacity, which make it ideal habitat for beneficial soil microbes and a storage media for calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and other minerals that plants need.

We have known that putting charcoal in your garden is good for your plants for a long time, since at least the Nogyo Zensho, an agricultural encyclopedia written in 1697 during Japan’s Edo period by the wandering samurai-turned-Zen monk, Yasusada Miyazaki. What we have not known until more recently was how that works. Interestingly, it was the subject of a debate between Louis Pasteur and Baron Justus von Leibig. At the turn of the 20th Century, believers in vitalism thought soil contained an organic life force. Leibig contended it was all just chemistry and physics. Pasteur said, in not so many words, its the biology, stupid. In the end, Leibig conceded Pasteur was right. He became a biochar fan and had himself buried in a coffin filled with biochar.

Of carbon on land, 75% is Soil Organic Carbon, which cycles through living things. Very little was in Earth’s atmosphere—until recently. Carbon’s capacity to absorb energy causes air to heat up and in the upper atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, it also allows short-wave solar energy to pass to earth but traps the longer-wave reflected heat, warming the lower atmosphere and passing some of that warmth to ocean and land. The era of fossil fuels, beginning with coal mining and continuing today with fracked gas, has added gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, which has destabilized the heat cycle of the planet.

One way of thinking about it is to imagine you are about to cross a busy highway but three times out of ten, you must cross with your eyes closed. One of those three times, on average, an oncoming car will not be able to avoid hitting you. Those are approximately the odds that mammals, such as ourselves, have of surviving in a 3-degree warmer world. At Copenhagen the world agrees to not exceed 2 degrees of warming, which means 1 additional chance in 10 (we already were committed to 1 degree at that conference in 2009), of human extinction due to climate change. We will exceed the 2 degree limit by 2040, 4 degrees by perhaps 2080. By the end of this century, 6 to 7 degrees is the most likely scenario, even factoring in Peak Oil and financial collapse. That fate is already in the pipeline, as they say. To survive to the end of the century we will have to cross the highway 8 times in 10 with our eyes closed, and hope we get lucky. Human extinction is not a fait d’accompli, just becoming more likely by the year.

Imagine for a moment you are the non-linear, quantum entangled brain of Gaia. You have four organs that you are balancing for carbon (and nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other elements too — you have to keep them all in balance, but lets start with carbon). At present, there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, and reducing its concentration from 390 ppm to 350 means we’ve got to take 300 billion tons out. We can’t put that into the oceans and in fact 350 is probably too much so we really need to remove between 900 and 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it safely away.  Land plants hold 600 billion tons of carbon at present but Earth’s soil holds about three times that amount. That is the storage medium we need.

While we need to rebalance the sources humans contribute (cement, coal, fertilizer, population), we will also need to go to Net Minus for a while to dial the pressure down. To do that we need to find around 8 to 10 Gt of carbon we can lock up annually. After a century, that would bring us back to 350 atmospheric parts per million, or lower, and also repair ocean acidity. If by then we have managed to cross the road with our eyes closed, repeatedly, and survived, we might even be able to restart civilization.

So what are the wedges that find us 8-10 GtC to remove from the atmosphere annually? We have four main ones: steep reduction of our emissions (we currently emit 5.6 GtC/yr from fossil fuels); “carbon farming” (the suite of permaculture tools advocated by Yeomans, Savory, Salatin and others — about 1-2 GtC/yr); biochar (recreating the dark earths — 4-10 GtC/yr); and tree-planting (afforestation and reforestation, about 80 GtC/yr by UN estimates). These are our best options, and lo! we find we can get our 8-10 GtC from these wedges, working together in coordinated ways.

Clean Stove Initiatives

What are the paths to adoption? Every year in the two-thirds world, eight million children die of inhaled black soot from three stone cooking fires on dirt floored kitchens. Making smokeless stoves that make biochar and use 30% less fuel is a solution to that. Following the earthquake in Haiti, WorldStove went to the assistance of refugee camps, first setting up community kitchens that cooked 300 meals per day per stove, making biochar and then making microenterprise hubs to get people out of the camps and earning a living. They made stoves from earthquake rubble. The kitchens were all carbon-minus. Then they pelletized fuel from the same source, and later from grasses. They set up hubs for both fuel-making and stove-making.

In Haiti giving the biochar to people risked having it burned, because in Haiti everyone cooks with charcoal, so instead WorldStove gave it to aid groups making compost toilets. They used it to reduce the smell of the toilets and that effectively prevented the char from being diverted into the fuel market. Instead, it became fertilizer, which was then distributed to other NGOs planting trees to reforest Haiti.

Not everyone can access the materials to make a metal stove, so in Kenya, Dorisel Torres, a graduate student working on biochar as a soil amendment at Cornell University, developed a simple clay gasifying stove that is one-third more efficient than rocket stoves, is smokeless, and leaves no ash, only biochar. Anyone can make one, and no money is required. The results in the poor African soils were dramatic — double the yields for beans and maize in the first season.

In prepping biochar for the garden, David Yarrow has given us the rule of the 4 ‘M’s: Moisture, Minerals, Microbes and Microns. Straight out of the kiln biochar is bone dry. The product needs to be washed to cleanse it of tar and resin residues that make it hydrophobic and provide a little starter moisture for the microbial community. It has huge adsorption capacity and this is optimized for gardens by adding sea minerals and the major cations – Ca, Mg, K — and anions — N, P, S. Encouraging colonization by aerobic bacteria and fungi can be sped up by injecting existing communities of beneficials, or simply by blending the biochar with compost. The optimal particle size is rice grain size, down to dust — the size an earthworm could digest.

The biggest wedge we have is reforestation and agroforestry is one way to do that without diminishing food supply, but Carbon sequestration begins to diminish annually as a forest matures. The juvenile trees simply sequester more C as they grow, annually, than the older ones. We can optimize the sequestration capacity of forests by selective halving of the population -- tree culling -- at intervals of 6, 9, 12, 16 and 24 years. Nursery trees can be used for various things before being made into biochar. We can than either return the forest to clear (milpa) or slow-age the top grade timber (but that does not maximize C sequestration).

It is necessary for such management to be cautious and proceed with the same holistic management practices that you would apply to drylands pasture recovery. We are managing for ecological service capacity improvement, so we would want to look at the stocking of all parts of the system and try to redress any imbalances. Still, we have shown through projects like the Alford Forest and the Pioneer Forest that management for these goals actually produces more financial yield than the alternative, less sustainable, current industrial pulp, paper and timber harvesting models, even before you factor in the fossil fuel. We need to manage for mixed age, mixed species, maximum biodiversity and the full gamut of ecological services.

Ecovillage Living

So, now I have given you a scientific foundation for talking about effectively reversing climate change. It is time to move to the process by which we can bring that reversal into being. We can begin by getting rid of the politics of combat negotiations, where you have two opposing viewpoints and each tries to gain an advantage over the other. Instead, let us proceed from those things on which we can agree. All people, in all cultures have essentially the same set of wants. All communities want:
To reduce environmental pollution
To have a better quality of life
To strengthen their economy
To insure health and security, and
To have a nice place to live

Robert and Diane Gilman defined an ecovillage as “a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.” It is not particularly new idea, if you go back to Thomas Alquinus, Edward Bellamy, or the Victorian Era Garden City notion, the desire for utopia is a constant. In the Sixties we saw the emergence of separate alternative movements for sustainable building, energy, health, transportation, agriculture, and many other things. Ecovillages merely assemble all these alternatives into a holistic matrix and take them to village scale.

The oldest continuously functioning ecovillage in the world -- now 83 years old, is Solheimer in Iceland. It was begun by Sesselu Sigmondsdottir in 1930 as a home and school for developmentally challenged children. It had the benefit of a hot spring on the farm property that produced 30 liters per minute at 95°C. Today Solheimer is working to reforest Iceland, planting millions of seedlings from their geothermal nursery.

Torri Superiori is a European example of reinhabitation of an 8th Century village that was a ruin on the mountainous border between France and Italy, not far from Ventimiglia.  A design best practice should be to not take away from farmland or wild land, but instead to green up brown fields, and reinhabit suburbia. At Torri there is another best practice, which is designing for enchantment, and that is how we win hearts and minds.

Findhorn has been planting trees to reforest the Scottish Highlands that were deforested after the clearances. They enlist volunteers each Spring and Fall to trek the wildest parts of Caledonia and reinstate the missing bits of that uplands ecology.

A first Ecovillage Design Education Training Program was held in Guizhou Province in August and Sept 2010 with 29 participants. Later programs followed up, and now Tengtuo is China’s model ecovillage. It has the potential to become the first carbon-negative farming region in Asia, by using their coconut husk wastes to make biochar.

Ecovillages are engaged in the transformation of values in four ways that may make the transition to sustainability easier and more graceful:
  • delinking growth from well-being
  • reconnecting people with the places where they live
  • affirming indigenous patterns and practices, and
  • offering a holistic and experiential vessel for social experiments, educational methodologies, and transition paths.

One of the best examples is the Sarvodaya network of some 18000 ecovillages in Sri Lanka that now has more than 1 million people living in ecovillages. It is a “pay-it-forward” system of self-help, where each ecovillage adopts a sister village that is less fortunate than itself.

What we are attempting, with permaculture, carbon farming and ecovillages, is to reverse the degradation of the quality of life that is the inevitable consequence of population expansion hitting the limits to growth. We are trying to claw our way back up Maslow’s heirarchy of needs; to push to the summit and hold that high ground.

The Farm in Tennessee, where I live, inhabits a remnant mixed mesophtic boreal forest. The fabric of the Southeastern forest is wearing thin as population continues to cut into and haul away the forests to make suburbs and strip malls. Because of its forests, The Farm net sequesters 5 times its human carbon footprint.

We’ve found keyline management the fastest way to restore degraded soils. It does not release carbon to the atmosphere like normal plowing does. We have been augmenting the technique with the advice of Darren Doherty, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others, using compost tea, biochar in slurry, and remineralization. Using these methods you can add a meter of topsoil in 3-10 years. That is not just drought and flood-proofing, but also rebuilding the soil carbon reservoir.

We offer opportunities for people to come and learn these things at The Farm, we invite other teachers to use our venue for teaching, and we send our teachers and graduates out around the world.

The next agriculture will not be about chemistry. It will be about biology. We are just beginning to learn about the quantum entanglement of all life forms into a non-linear web of mutual support. Every time someone uses antibacterial soap or discards something made of plastic they are cutting strands of that web.

Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (approximately 1014 versus 1013). 205 identified genera exist in our body. The mass of microorganisms are estimated to account for 1-3% total body mass. Bacteria create the next generation by epigenetics - drawing upon a smorgasbord of available genes. Bacteria choose what to become. This is how Gaia heals.

The genius of biochar is that it provides habitat and sanctuary for microbial life. It is more than just a sponge, it is a soil coral reef. You can see how quickly diversity of soil microbes goes up if you add biochar.

Biochar serves as a helpful media in establishing living roofs, as well as gardens and orchards. Winter heating and cooking can supply enough biochar to provide for the gardens, and natural plasters, and food supplements. This is how we may come to inhabit the earth in the Anthropocene -- sheltered for coolth.

Earthaven, in North Carolina, is another example of an ecovillage that net sequesters a third more than than its carbon footprint from all activities, including businesses and visitors’ travel.

So how can we speed up the process of adoption? What can make the meme viral?

You would be amazed at all bamboo-biochar products that you can order on the web from China. Wearables become soil amendments when they are worn out and composted. Even sniper gulley suits and kevlar body armor are being lined with biochar woven material because biochar absorbs the heat-signature of the wearer.

At the recent North American Biochar Syposium they passed out biochar-coated peanuts that are recommended for improving your digestion. The peanut crust is five-year-old bamboo, burnt at around 800°C.

The anime show Yakitate!! Japan, is about a kid's quest to create a national bread for Japan. The 29th episode is about bamboo biochar bread. An evil bakery rips off the diet bread recipe of the good guys, who then counter with a bamboo charcoal bread. [spoiler alert] The bad guys are left in tears at its flavorful beauty. Somewhere in there they also manage a giant robot battle. You can also find charcoal in Japanese desserts, real-life charcoal bread, and a restaurant in Vancouver that sells bamboo charcoal ramen.

Cool Foods

Hozu Farming Coop started in 2005. 338 of 352 households in region belong. Total acreage is 150 ha. (370 acres) and that is 97% of the farmland in the region so you can see that most Japanese farms are under 1 acre, on average. Their Cool Food project was started in 2009 as a partnership between the Hozu Coop, the local university, and Kameoka City government. They called the partnership Carbon Minus. The idea was to harvest bamboo and dead wood from Satoyama (common) lands, make biochar, use biochar to grow vegetables, and brand the produce “cool foods” in stores. It succeeded dramatically. Hozu Coop calculates that if biochar were applied to all 2100 ha on Kameoka regions farms it would sequester 154000 tons of CO2 annually, a third of Kameoka’s CO2 footprint. At $40/ton the Coop could earn $6.2 million/yr from carbon credits.

A similar potential exists wherever cacao is grown. Craig Sams, who founded Green and Black’s Chocolate, and now Carbon Gold, is trying to do it on a large scale.  Chris and Celini Nesbitt are making biochar while they cook breadfruit for their hogs at Maya Mountain Research Farm and then after composting with the hog manure putting it into their gardens and cacao orchards.

I can imagine a charcolate bar being made now, not just merely with cacao from biochar-enhanced soils, but also with the crunch of charred bamboo and peanuts.

At the Hawaiian Mahogany Farm on Kauai, nurse trees are thinned to release mahogany and other overstory trees, then chipped or sawed into lumber. The chips make biochar and electricity and the heat is used to cure the lumber and also run an ice plant that supplies the local fishing fleet. The fertilizer and mulch are used to improve community gardens and forage pastures.

The Warsaw UNFCCC Conference — COP 19 — ended in grief and tears, but it is possible to proceed without UN support or carbon taxes or incentive programs. We can find the benefits without that, although having that could speed the conversion of modern agriculture and habitat design enormously.

The Baltic Sea Region Ecovillage project is a 6-year, 1.5 million Euro program by the EU augmented with contributions raised by the 9 partners. It is creating guidelines for regional development, new village-based technologies and recommendations to governments for speeding the process and ensuring success of new ecovillages. This could go entirely carbon minus, or “cool,” in a later stage.

Education, particularly of youth, is an important part of our Global Ecovillage Network strategy for accelerating change. Since 2006 Gaia Education and Gaia University have delivered more than 200 programs in 33 countries over 6 continents, graduating more than 4000 students. You can download our Ecovillage Design Curricula and our books, the Four Keys to Sustainability set, for free ( in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

We need to reach back from these secure places and pull up our brothers and sisters in Haiti, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Timor. That is the only real security that is possible – not whack-a-mole with drones and hellfire missiles to maintain failing Empire. Ecovillages are a one-world psychographic: the transitional vessel for the consciousness shift from me to we. There is no away, that is just basic ecology. It is one planet, a blue island in space. There are no lifeboats. It can no longer be Me first. We first. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Post-Modern Moonshots

"New ways of looking towards a cooler planet: biochar textiles that serve as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins, lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes."

Mobile burn at New England Small Farm Institute
As Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, reminds us, "If the world is to be saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs."

Actually, it may not be the lack of programs, per se, but more to do with new ways of looking at the world — as Proust said, “not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Many of us who have been fretting over near term human extinction, a prospect recently bolstered by the advance release of the summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if not the near death experience of the global economy at the hands of a tiny political faction, have been probing this idea of new ways of thinking. That is what led us to travel up the Amazon river some years ago, and there to discover a secret climate control mechanism involving dark earths. Ever since then we have been using this space to report on new steps along that path, or new vistas we can discern with our new eyes.

We are fresh back from the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium and, as usual, dazzled by the latest vistas. To condense a 5-day conference into a short post is impossible, but fortunately the organizers had the foresight to video capture not just the plenaries but every one of the more than 100 presentations in the breakout sessions. These will soon be posted for public viewing on the UMass Amherst and/or Pioneer Valley Biochar web sites.

Highlights are many but here are just a few:

The conference served the first ever cool banquet — food items grown in biochar amended soil or foods/beverages that, in the course of production, provided feedstocks to be made into biochar. Entrees included biochar-fed smoked pulled pork, biochar-fed chicken sausage, charcoal pasta, biochar-wrapped goat cheese, biochar-covered peanuts and a variety of salad greens and vegetables grown in biochar conditioned soil.

Kelpie Wilson provided a little-known piece of the history of biochar in the story of Justus von Liebig and the evolution of the theory of humus. Most fascinating was a vignette of the argument between Liebig and Pasteur over whether soil fertility could be attributed to “vitalism” (biology) or the presence of elemental compounds (chemistry). Liebig believed that plant growth could be explained entirely by the availability of soil minerals until Pasteur proved conclusively there was more to it, and that humus is, in fact, teeming with forms of life that make plant growth possible. Liebig was an early pioneer in studying the uses of biochar and when he died, left instructions to be buried in a coffin filled with biochar. 

Who knew NASA’s budget has a $160 million/year line item for educating US schoolchildren? The federal shutdown canceled attendance by many participants from USDA, USGS, USFS and ARS but Doris Hamill of NASA’s Langley Research Center paid her own way to give a plenary keynote on the children’s educational packet she and others at NASA developed for distribution to middle schools across North America. For reasons one can only speculate, her superiors deemed her effort “off mission” and did not elect to go public with the packet, but the developmental work is not in vain. Watch for this to be independently funded and distributed soon, in English and Spanish.

Among the many 5-minute “Insight” talks were nice little tricks-of-the-trade visuals from Kelpie Wilson (how to build and operate a conical open “wok” kiln); Josiah Hunt (large-scale batches using the pit method); and Thomas Reed (instant biochar from pinecones on wet newspaper). 

CoolPlanet Biofuels, now supplied ample funding from Google, GE, BP and Conoco, is building mobile reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of biogasoline and 1/3 ton biochar.

In his opening keynote, Erich Knight reminded us that if CoolPlanet processed the entire projected US biomass harvest in 2030 (1.6 Gt), the yields would be 120 billion gallons of tank-ready fuel (the US now consumes 150 billion gal/year), and 0.3 billion tons of biochar, with a farming application of 300 million hectares, or 1.2 million square miles. The land area of the United States (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) is 2.9 million square miles. Of course, there is no possibility that CoolPlanet could process the entire annual biomass harvest of the United States! Their more modest goal is 100,000 one-million-gallon capacity plants, each at village scale. A typical village of 1000 residents with such a plant would net $1 million/yr besides making all the fuel they need and 60kW of electricity, with a capital payback of 2-3 years. CoolPlanet’s founder, Mike Cheiky, says that with 2% of the world’s arable land they could drag industrial civilization back to carbon neutrality. With 3%, they could cleanse 100 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere in 40 years (to 300 ppm if we begin right now). Meanwhile, the projected price of the Cool Fuel produced would be $1.50/gal in today’s dollars. Only time will tell whether this is a realistic projection or just so much more snake oil.

Meghana Rao, who dazzled us as a High School sophomore from Beaverton, Oregon, at the Sonoma conference a year ago, delivering a PhD level talk on the effect of particle size and feedstock on physical and chemical stability of biochar, was back as a 17-yr-old High School junior having now presented in Kyoto, Japan, become a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — which gave her 15 minutes of face time with President Obama at the White House to better educate him on the climate restoring value of biochar — and also being named the Young Naturalist of the year by the American Museum of Natural History. Her presentation this time, which was again jaw-dropping, was on the “Novel Implementation of Biochar Cathodes in Microbial Fuel Cells – Phase I.” Having earlier noted the high surface area and cation exchange capacity of biochar, she is conducting a longer study on replacing platinum and rare earths in fuel cells with biocathodes. Preliminary results suggest biochar is somewhat less efficient (10-15%) but up to 400 times more cost-effective and of course can be recycled to later uses, such as water filtration, toxin-scavenging or as an organic soil amendment.

And, speaking of stacking uses for biochar, many more wonderful contributions came from Hans-Peter Schmitt at Ithaka Institut in Switzerland who described his “55 uses for biochar” in greater detail, including a number of cascading processes that sequence the same batch through an array of uses. Schmidt pointed particularly to the digestive qualities of biochar, noting that the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey eats char daily to detox the phenols in its leafy diet, that we currently spend $20 billion per year on animal pharmaceuticals, and that adding a tiny bit of biochar to animal feed would cut Germany’s GHG emissions by nearly 1%, not including methane. Hans-Peter circulated a charred wool product, looking like a rasta dread that had gotten too close to Jock Gill’s charbecue, that was, in fact, a slow release fertilizer stick containing 8% nitrogen. He described biochar textiles that served as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins (like black mold spores), lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes.

There was much more here than we can possibly describe, but we invite readers to visit the UMass site and take in some of the videos and powerpoints from the program as they are posted. With 4 concurrent sessions at any given time, you can’t see everything even if you attend in person, but thanks to the magic of new media, we will shortly be able to shift time and space and attend any session, on demand.

These video-on-demand features may be the next best thing we have to giving everyone new eyes.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Movable Feast

"We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution."

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow,
in the dead of winter, war spreading
families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside sowing clover.
— Wendell Berry, February 2, 1972 

This past weekend we had a difficult choice to make between some very important events. We were invited to participate at the consultative level at the final meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and at the opening meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HPFSD) that coincided with the convening of the 68th UN General Assembly in New York. We were also invited to speak and give biochar workshops at a Mother Earth News Fair in rural Pennsylvania. We chose the latter.

Mother Earth News Fair is tucked in up the valley at a Pennsylvania ski resort
As we posted in greater detail from Rio de Janeiro last year, the 20-year run of the CSD was ended and replaced with the HPFSD as one of the Rio Earth Summit outcomes. To some, this was seen as a promotion. Sustainable development moved from the desks of underpaid staffers laboring in a dimly-lit back rooms in Geneva and Nairobi to being openly discussed by 198 world leaders in the glare of TV lights in the grand hall of the UN General Assembly in New York. To others, ourselves included, the shift was viewed as a demotion, because it meant long-range sustainable development (almost an oxymoron) would now be relegated to lip-service while the command-level sessions discussed more pressing matters of the moment, such as tensions in the Middle East or the Snowden disclosures.

How small people move heavy objects
Our preliminary impression has been borne out these past few days, although the New York UN session has not been without its moments. One such moment was when US President Barack Obama, entering the GA Hall just prior to his scheduled address at the 68th GA convocation, was forced to listen to the preceding speaker, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, call him out as a war criminal and scoff-law. Addressing the Snowden file, Rousseff looked directly at Obama and said:

Recent revelations concerning the activities of a global network of electronic espionage have caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world. In Brazil, the situation was even more serious, as it emerged that we were targeted by this intrusion. … Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Office of the President of the Republic itself, had their communications intercepted. Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of International Law and is an affront to the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations.

After demanding a public apology, the President of Brazil then took it a step farther and proposed a new international legal standard for the internet:
Time is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries. … We need to create multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network that are capable of ensuring principles such as:

1 - Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.
2 - Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments and the private sector.
3 - Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.
4 - Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.
5 - Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

Building a masonry stove, the easy way!
Of course, practical suggestions like Net Neutrality are far removed from the political agenda in Washington, which is driven by the interests of corporate donors to political campaigns, the Koch/Murdoch Tea Party arsonists, and the Security Industrial Complex, including, yes, the major internet providers.

Turning to Obama’s war crimes, Rousseff said:

We must stop the death of innocent civilians, of children, women and the elderly. We must cease the use of arms … There is no military outcome. The only solution is through negotiation, dialogue and understanding.

Whatever the case, we repudiate unilateral interventions contrary to International Law, without Security Council authorization, which … only worsen the political instability of the [Middle East] region and increase human suffering. … The time has come to heed to the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians for an independent and sovereign state.

The history of the twentieth century shows that forsaking multilateralism is a prelude to wars and the consequent human misery and devastation. It also shows that the promotion of multilateralism brings benefits on ethical, political and institutional levels. I renew, thus, an appeal in favor of a wide and vigorous convergence of political wills to sustain and reinvigorate the multilateral system, which has in the United Nations its main pillar.
Earthineer's alternative to Lead-Acid batteries

After the cheers subsided, Obama took to the podium and delivered a familiar litany of excuses as to why the United States rejected multilateralism in favor of American exceptionalism, including the right to undeclared acts of aggression such as drone attacks on wedding parties and the razing of Gaza (not mentioning those by name). With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama avoided repeating his previous position — now recanted — that Israel withdraw to pre-1967 borders with some land swaps. Laying political groundwork for Hillary Clinton to succeed him in 2016, he parroted the AIPAC party line, “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state.” Translation: there will be no end to brutal Palestinian apartheid and imprisonment for at least the next seven years.

Ed Begley Jr. brings his line of
anti-obesity beverages and
composting toilets
Only a week before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had taken to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to warn Obama,
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Standing at the UN podium, Obama replied:
The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake.  I believe America must remain engaged for our own security.  But I also believe the world is better for it.  Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all. I must be honest, though.  We're far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us, that invest in their people instead of a corrupt few….

The President glad hands Jamie Dimon
While he could not resist the counterslam at Putin, Obama’s final point was nonetheless both revealing and prescient. Here is a man who is getting daily morning briefings, not just on the situations in China, Syria or Greece, but on the looming geopolitical implications of climate change and peak oil. Surely by now he knows we are in an end-game for growth-based economic systems and at the gateway to a climate hell-on-earth. While seemingly oblivious to the corrupt few (Larry Summers, Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon come to mind) he invested in (instead of targeting them with drones, or sending them to Guantanamo) who ran the United States into a ditch, he hinted at that emergent end-game in his closing lines, perhaps the only part of the speech that actually addressed the legacy of the UNCSD.
This leads me to a final point.  There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial that the international community will be called upon to act.  This will require new thinking and some very tough choices.  While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.  And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing — places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions. … [T]here are going to be moments where the international community will need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.

While we share the notion that the way to world peace and prosperity within limited means lies in reallocating effort and resources towards projects that target long-term sustainability and human creative development (as opposed to infinite material development), we part company with the assertion that nefarious spycraft and dronewars against nebulous and allegiance-shifting enemies, foreign and domestic, or boots on the ground in distant economic riot zones, is any way to bring peace.

Which is why we went to the Mother Earth News Fair instead.

Joel Salatin demonstrates chicken-plucking
These fairs have been going on for a few years now and the next one is scheduled for Lawrence, Kansas in two weeks. Next year they will be held in Puyallup, Washington; Seven Springs, Pennsylvania; Lawrence, Kansas; and Asheville, North Carolina. They are weekend trade fairs for sustainability books, products and services and multifaceted seminars that share the best thinking on real on-the-ground sustainable solutions with and amongst some of our top experts in these fields.

We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution for the better. In a panel discussion on the closing day of the most recent fair, Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, described his “beautiful and abundant” vision of what we could be looking forward to. We don’t have a transcript of that, but we can lift a similar passage from his recent writings:

People who design modern zoos use a criterion they call “flight distance.” Most animals have a prescribed distance they would run, if frightened, before they turned to look back. If a zoo enclosure is built at least a little larger than the animal’s flight distance, the creature is calmer and healthier. If designers don’t allow for flight distance, the animals are neurotic, combative and less healthy. 
Besides beauty, wilderness also provides us with our own flight distance. As long as there are empty places on the planet, our minds can flee to those places of wild beauty when they have the need.
So in my vision, some quantity of every unique ecosystem across the globe will be preserved in its natural state. Perhaps we can reserve at least 20 percent of each continent’s landmass for wilderness, allocated to each biome, each ecosystem. In the United States, 20 percent of our grasslands, 20 percent of our forests, 20 percent of our swamps and at least 20 percent of our deserts will be permanently preserved as God created them, open to visitors but not vehicles. Whatever natural resources they contain will remain unexploited, by popular consent, forever — as a testament to our commitment to beauty, and to abundance.
I want my great-grandchildren to live in a world that is not only beautiful, but abundant.
This is a powerful vision, although we would have to note that in our rapidly changing, post-Holocene epoch, wilderness preservation will not be enough. We also need to think about wilderness restoration and resiliency. We are attending the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium next month, or instead we would be going to the Fifth International Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration.  That meeting, in Madison, Wisconsin, will bring together an estimated 1,500 attendees for a 4-day program on climate change, biodiversity conservation, environmental policy and sustainable livelihoods.

This is our Movable Feast. At the sunset of the age of growth and the dawn of the age of recovery, we walk the hillside, sewing clover.

Left to Right: Deborah Neimann (Homegrown and Handmade, Raising Goats Naturally); Sara Reeves and Ingrid Witvoet (New Society); Lyle Estill (Biodiesel Power, Small Stories Big Changes); Diane Ott Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange); Bryan Welch (Beautiful and Abundant); Carol Peppe Hewitt (Financing our Foodshed).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Post Peak Reflections

"At US$25 per barrel — the historic average — 90 million barrels would be US$2.25 billion every day on oil expenditure. At US$105 per barrel, that amounts to US$9.45 billion per day. This is a difference of US$7.2 billion every day, an extra cost to the global economy which is primarily a result of crude oil having peaked … or US$2.6 trillion every year. — Dr. Samuel Alexander, Univ of Melbourne, September 11, 2013"

We did not feel the Korowicz Crunch circa 2005 (named after Dublin economist David Korowicz), when conventional oil peaked, nor did we go over the Seneca Cliff  (after Lucius Anneaus Seneca who wrote around 50 CE, “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.") We instead found new, unconventional sources to fill the gap — sources that were both more expensive and more damaging to the climate and the environment. The economic damage keeps the lid on growth in demand, albeit sustains a wicked production level that may kill us all in the end.

We, and our fellow prognosticators of the mid-2000ies, for the most part did not see this present state of affairs coming, and we all admit that. Colin Campbell predicted the mad scramble and undulating plateau phase pre-1995, but even he did not realize how much ready substitution the unconventionals held, and how close they were to being exploited, once the financial capital began pouring down those holes. Since most of that giddy capital flow is fictional debt (or real debt with fictional repayment, if you will), it is theoretically unlimited, as is the damage it can do.

Well, it’s not quite as unlimited as that. Korowicz warned:
 “Firstly, we have reached the limit in the credit backing of our financial, monetary and banking system. We are at the same time hitting profoundly destabilizing ecological limits. Preeminent at this time is that we are almost certainly at the peak of global oil and food production. Put another way, we are at the limits of the system of trust and solvency that underpins the trade upon which we depend. We are at the limits of the least substitutable energy source that, by the laws of physics, is necessary for economic maintenance and growth. We are at the limits of our most fundamental human sustenance. They are the three most critical structural pillars of the globalized economy. Like a three-legged stool, the whole system can become destabilized by the buckling of just one.”

Our own Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) gave recipes for downsizing and weatherproofing your home, changing your job, storing water and growing food, but it completely left readers unprepared for the slowly stagflating situation we face now. As Dr. Alexander puts it:
When oil gets expensive, everything dependent on oil gets more expensive: transport, mechanised labour, industrial food production, plastics, etc. This pricing dynamic sucks discretionary expenditure and investment away from the rest of the economy, causing debt defaults, economic stagnation, recessions, or even longer-term depressions.
Rather than a crunch or a cliff, what we are seeing play out now is gradual erosion rather than steep decline. Economic decline is not pacing the decline curve of petroleum production, it is leading it. There are large islands of unreality — academics, economists, popular media, governments, city planners, industrialists — who are still constructing a post-recession vision of the future and putting all their finest resources there, but their projections bear no relationship to the stagnant, jobless, eroding zeitgeist. As James Howard Kunstler  puts it:
The stock market is a proxy for the economy and a handful of giant banks are proxies for the American public, and all they’ve really got going is a hideous high-frequency churn of trades in conjectural debentures that pretend to represent something hidden in the caboose of a choo-choo train of wished-for value — and hardly anyone in the nation, including those with multiple graduate degrees in abstruse crypto-sciences, can even pretend to understand it all.
We really should be learning to grow food and do all the things we spoke of in that 2006 book, but we are not being compelled by either the current economy or our mainstream cultural narrative to do that.
The IEA World Energy Outlook reports get more accurate every year – by 2030 it’ll be spot on. —Craig MacIntosh (2008)
What the current reality, and not the cultural narrative, is saying is, “keep spending,” and so we go deeper in debt, waste time and our youthful energy, and set ourselves up for a bigger fall, or perhaps just more of a long slide down into reduced opportunities. We observe the prices paid by courageous self-sacrificers — the pioneers who go off grid and focus on sustainable homesteading — you know, isolation, giving up creature comforts, having to struggle to learn and adapt to the change. Spending more to put up homegrown preserves than to buy cheap canned goods. The transition cost is daunting, and not entirely in economic terms. Pioneers need to give up a lot of comforts before the rest of us have to, and that is a real deterrent for others contemplating taking the leap. Denial and procrastination is so much easier.

Renewables pioneer and author Dan Chiras says that if you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to put solar electricity on your home or business what you are really doing is buying a quarter century of electricity and paying for it in advance. And you are secure in the knowledge that as long as the sun shines your electricity will keep being delivered every day. Your neighbors who pay by the month cannot say the same. You cannot say the same of the benefits supposed to come from your Social Security check, or of the money you have in a certificate of deposit, IRA or savings account. Viewed in this way, a solar system for your roof might even be worth borrowing money to install.

David Korowicz said, “Collapse now, avoid the rush.” Richard Heinberg put it another way, proposing that the sooner you begin living more independently, the easier it will be for you and your family as the future descent curve unfolds. Still, few are listening, and that makes being out in a front of the herd a lonely undertaking.

The map illustrates the global distribution of the climate stability/ecoregional intactness relationship. Regions with both high climate stability and vegetation intactness are dark grey; those with high climate stability but low levels of vegetation intactness are dark orange. Regions with low climate stability but high vegetation intactness are dark green, while those with both low climate stability and low levels of vegetation intactness are pale cream.





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