Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Arithmetic of Plastic

"Isn’t it time we asked why we design a material to last forever and then put that into objects intended to be discarded after a single use?"

The late University of Colorado mathematics professor Albert Bartlett is said to have given his classic lecture on the exponential function more than 1000 times. I show the YouTube video of that lecture at the start of my permaculture courses and I suspect many other instructors do the same, so the eyeball count continues to grow each year since Bartlett passed. In that one hour lecture, the professor says:
Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for a king. The king was very pleased. He said, “I want to reward you.” The mathematician said “My needs are modest. Please take my new chess board and on the first square, place one grain of wheat. On the next square, double the one to make two. On the next square, double the two to make four. Just keep doubling till you’ve doubled for every square, that will be an adequate payment.” We can guess the king thought, “This foolish man. I was ready to give him a real reward; all he asked for was just a few grains of wheat.”
But let’s see what is involved in this. We know there are eight grains on the fourth square. I can get this number, eight, by multiplying three twos together. It’s 2x2x2, it’s one 2 less than the number of the square. Now that continues in each case. So on the last square, I’d find the number of grains by multiplying 63 twos together.
Now let’s look at the way the totals build up. When we add one grain on the first square, the total on the board is one. We add two grains, that makes a total of three. We put on four grains, now the total is seven. Seven is a grain less than eight, it’s a grain less than three twos multiplied together. Fifteen is a grain less than four twos multiplied together. That continues in each case, so when we’re done, the total number of grains will be one grain less than the number I get multiplying 64 twos together. My question is, how much wheat is that?
You know, would that be a nice pile here in the room? Would it fill the building? Would it cover the county to a depth of two meters? How much wheat are we talking about?
The answer is, it’s roughly 400 times the 1990 worldwide harvest of wheat. That could be more wheat than humans have harvested in the entire history of the earth. You say, “How did you get such a big number?” and the answer is, it was simple. We just started with one grain, but we let the number grow steadily till it had doubled a mere 63 times.
The greatest failing for the human race, Bartlett was fond of telling his students, is its failure to understand the exponential function.
Now there’s something else that’s very important: the growth in any doubling time is greater than the total of all the preceding growth. For example, when I put eight grains on the 4th square, the eight is larger than the total of seven that were already there. I put 32 grains on the 6th square. The 32 is larger than the total of 31 that were already there. Every time the growing quantity doubles, it takes more than all you’d used in all the proceeding growth.
Each doubling produces twice the amount previously produced

At another point in the lecture, Bartlett gives the example of bacteria filling a bottle. The doubling rate is every minute, so Bartlett poses this challenge to his students:
If you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realize you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1/8th; then a 1/16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realize there’s a problem?
Which brings us to plastics, which are now in their fourth doubling since 1968. By any fourth doubling the curve’s trajectory is still at the bottom of the J and only beginning to bend upward. By 2030 the slope up will be much more obvious, just as it is for climate change, or feral rabbits.

If we had one Pacific Garbage Gyre twice the size of Texas in 2015, by 2035 we will have one the size of four Texases, and eight Texases by 2055. If the present Pacific Garbage Gyre kills 100,000 marine birds yearly, by mid-century it will be killing 8 times that many.

If each human baby born now has detectable microplastics in its blood, in 20 years its child will have twice that much, then double that, then twice that again as we go through this century.

Isn’t it time we asked why we design a material to last forever and then put that into objects intended to be discarded after a single use?

I almost ended this post right there. Many activists would have; posed the question and provided no answer. That may be the right way. It might even be the best way. But it is not the cowboy way. So we are traveling on.

An honest assessment of why we, the clever bipeds, make such gargantuan faux pas in cultural design is because we seldom reason together. Mostly we reason separately, or in small groups. We run in packs. So, when we consign decisions of this type to the pack having the skills or inclination, more often than not they are in that specific business for their own profit — in this case chemical companies — and so will decide the course that most favors them. You can’t say sustainability doesn’t factor, but it is economic sustainability over the course of one or more business cycles that gets consideration. Environmental and social costs only matter if they threaten profits.

The chemists working in corporate-financed labs are only doing what they are told — design something:
  • Cheap (without reference to social, environmental, disposal or clean-up costs);
  • Durable (even indestructible by natural decay processes);
  • Lightweight (even buoyant) and compact.
These design parameters apply equally to bio-based plastics, now growing at 40% per year (doubling time of 14 months for Bartlett fans), thanks to green consumer demand. Of course, bio-plastics are still plastics; still cheap, durable and lightweight, and just as much of an environmental problem. They just don’t consume as much fossil fuel to produce. Priced at a premium over their fossil cousins, they assuage guilt while building bottom line. They are like papal indulgences.

Confronted by the NextGen market challenge to go ever greener, producers have come up with replacements for heavy metal-based additives and coatings, halogenated flame-retardants, carcinogenic styrenic petrochemicals, endocrine-disrupting phthalate plasticizing additives, and ozone-layer-depleting foaming agents. They have not found a substitute for the chlorine in PVC, even with corn- or cane-derived bio-PVC. There is just something about vinyl that’s … better.

Recycling is largely an illusion when it comes to plastic. Plastics are recovered at lower rates from US municipal solid waste than all other major material types, and for good reason. Even when uncontaminated, separating by type and form is as hard for recycling facilities as it is for consumers. Moreover, there are technical limits on the amount of recycled resin that can be used in a given product, most resins can only be reused once, the cost of recycled plastic may be higher than virgin plastic, and the range of products containing recycled content is limited.

Global Plastic Production 1950 to 2016 (in million metric tons)

Where we wind up is with a challenge both to NextGen corporatists and NextGen chemists. Stop digging us into a deeper hole. To place the burden entirely on consumers, as most activists do, is unfair. In the next few years we need new products designed to degrade under natural conditions. At a minimum, all plastics should break down into harmless components in saltwater. Products that need to function in marine environments must be replaced with whatever was used before plastics.

That is a problem for our Anthropocene culture, whether you believe in market forces or social democracy as your favored regulatory authority. We need that change, and we need it quickly.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Cool Alternative to Climate Apocalypse

"How much better that our bad habits fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges."

After the biochar tour of Cuba’s experimental agriculture stations with researchers Hans Peter Schmidt and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, described in this space last week, I hopped over to Dominican Republic to visit my friends Santiago Obarrio and Carolina Chicero.

When I first came here a few years ago, there were no paved roads and in some cases not even anything resembling a road. The slopes our host Tomás drove his four-wheel-drive truck over were no more than rocky landslides that slid away as we traversed.

Erosion was easy to see when we pulled the LANDSAT images for El Valle. There were long bare swaths across hillsides that wildfires burned away during the dry season. In rainy seasons these turned to mud, and the mud into rivers. Why such burns? Too many unpicked coconuts and dead palm fronds on the forest floor. The solution was simple: Santiago found a buyer so there could be immediate returns to anyone wishing some quick income for a little investment of labor in gathering coconuts.
By last winter my friends had broken ground for their hotel enterprise and Kathleen Draper and I included their story in our soon-to-be-released book from Chelsea Green, Burn:
Obarrio enlisted a few friends to join with him in a business partnership for the purpose of developing an ecological plan for the valley. They called the business Qi. Their business plan consisted of three elements — Cool Farms, Cool Lab, and Cool Design. His partner, Carolina Chicero, told us, “Watching how other developers are slowly destroying paradises with ‘eco-development,’ especially there in the Dominican Republic, we decided to take this example as far as we could envision. More than thirty experts came to design this ecoregion. The 3,000 hectares [7,400 acres] are a watershed sanctuary where six defined ecotones interact, creating astounding biodiversity of trees, birds, turtles, and soils.” It is little wonder the local residents can live on fishing and agriculture with little need for the outside world much of the year.
“We are currently working with the local community and building our own lodge, which will be sustained entirely by products coming from El Valle. We use the mineral water from the land, leave no wastes, and plant more food. We have already regenerated a spring and are harvesting freshwater fish and shrimp.”
The company brought in an ecovillage architect, Greg Ramsey, to design the master plan for the entire district. Ramsey convened valley residents, spoke with the farmers and fishing families, and together they worked up a code of covenants and restrictions. Much of the car traffic will be kept at the periphery. Within the district, marked by an entrance gate and transition point, transportation can be restricted to slow micro-vehicles, including motorized bicycles and tricycles, hoverboards, and electric carts that can operate within the pedestrian paths. Gradients are restricted and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour (24 km/h). Landscaping must comply with standards for organic land care and the native plant species list. Development will be held to a 90:10 offset density ratio, meaning that only 10 percent of the land area of the valley will be permitted to be developed. The remaining 90 percent will be kept wilderness or mixed age, mixed species ecoforestry.
Lacking deep-pocket investors, Obarrio’s company pulled itself up by its own bootstraps with its Cool Farms. Assisting local farmers to do what they knew best, Qi introduced organic, regenerative methods such as biochar-compost blends, compost tea inoculants, mineralization, and hybrid seed for fast-growing plant strains. Leading with this allowed Obarrio to get going at minimal expense but maximum impact. From the carbon fixation point of view, the drawdown is better than 10:1 over solar or wind power, and the energy return on energy invested is better, too. The internal rate of return is 90 percent, ten times the usual rate of return for solar power.
“We expect to cover our operating costs for the company in the Dominican Republic for the next eight to ten years with this operation alone,” Obarrio said. “Although there are many products we can produce after we fix carbon from the air, we have decided to focus on the most essential commodities and the ones that can virally grow inside huge markets. One hundred and fifty dollars invested in a Cool Farm erases the carbon footprint of an individual for ten years and can double your investment in four to six years.”
The first of QI’s commodities are biofuel feedstocks made from hybrid perennial grasses produced at net drawdown — Cool Fuels. For the clients who are purchasing these, Cool Farms are able to meet their needs for 33 percent less than what they had previously been spending on fossil fuel. Second-tier commodities, planned for 2020, will be nutrient-dense Cool Foods, both those that grow in the tropical valleys, and the proteins and medicinals extracted from leaves of biomass crops or seaweed before they are used to make electricity and biochar.
According to the World Economic Forum, if public-sector investment (governments and international agencies) was increased to $130 billion and more effectively targeted, it would eliminate the investment gap between the Paris climate goals and actual drawdown projects by mobilizing around $570 billion in private capital. Cool Farms illustrate how that could happen.
After their first season, which included being battered by Hurricane Irma, Obarrio’s Cool Farms, now 100 percent organic and massively making and applying biochar, were able to show a 33 percent increase in soil carbon. The company’s projection is an average drawdown rate of 10–20 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
Once their lodge is complete, the couple plans to construct more cabins for guests and vacation home owners. Wild side ecotourism will help pay the way for cool development of the ecodistrict. Obarrio says, “Since our energy source is carbon negative (microhydro plus gasifier and generator), if a guest turns on the LED lights he will be cooling the planet. His trip will become carbon negative by adding biochar to soil with waste wood from the forests turning it into fertilizer for local producers. This is how we are teaching locals not to cut their trees but to value the forest as their source of high yields for their farms.”
The other element that can help pay the way is phase three — a village Cool Lab. Qi is taking its profits from the Cool Farms and other projects and, rather than selling raw farm commodities to outside buyers, will develop value-added cascade products.
Obarrio says he expects to pay the early investors around 24 percent profits per year on the first model. After that, the company says it can use El Valle as a showroom to help others construct Cool Labs at scales of anywhere from $1 million to $100 million. It may even help finance them by offering Cool Bonds.
Obarrio told us, “We are open source. We need this to go viral. The fight between economic growth and sustainability starts from a mistaken premise. Regenerative systems can fuel economic growth. The only difference in our development is that this time carbon must come from the atmosphere and go under the soil, cooling the planet rather than warming it. It is very simple, but also very revolutionary. It will change the lives of the poor, the rural people, those who have suffered from the old way. It will energize the protection of nature.”
It is now nearly two years since the visit and interviews that led to those passages and I am a guest in the newly finished El Valle Lodge. Tucked into the highlands at the inland edge of the floodplain, it survived last year’s Hurricane Irma tides that swept a meter over the tabletops in the beachside restaurants. The surge subsided just at the corner of the hotel’s property. From Carolina’s restaurant, as I watch trout jump in the freshwater stream and wild ducks come and go, I realize how elegantly chosen their site was.
Bob Cirino and Greg Ramsey in El Valle Lodge's restaurant

The Lodge, now just 3 cabins but soon to be 8, then 16 and more, recalls the eco-chic decor of Tulum, Ibiza or Bali: thatched roofs, tropical hardwood furnishings and trim, handcrafted details in local stone, shell and fabric, tasteful art, spacious rooms and airy en-suite bathrooms with high-end hardware and local herbal soaps, and high thread-count linens on the beds. You may be deep in nature (the sound of waves breaking on the beach lull you to sleep), but seldom out of your comfort zone.

Reversing climate change with solutions of this kind are a radical diversion from the usual conception that pits ecology against economy and insists on a hair-shirt approach to lifestyle change and de-growth. Those things will happen, but how much better that they fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges.
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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Indio Hatuey

"Cuban agriculture has moved beyond carbon neutral and into drawdown territory."

Worm Farm, Centro de Beneficio de Hortalizas u Minindustria UBPC Vivero Organopónico Alamar

The Cuban experimental station of Indio Hatuey, in the Matanzas state near Perico, is a perfect example of what nations can do when they undertake to respond to climate change in a serious way. 
Indio Hatuey was inaugurated in March 1962 to research sustainable agriculture, not just for Cuba but for the Caribbean region. Its name is very revealing because if one wants to become food-secure in the poor soils and alternating wet-dry extremes of the tropics, one needs to approach those challenges very differently than the European conquerors did. They imported African slaves and planted sugar. While that might have supplied plenty of rum, it is not all that great at feeding a human population or securing its health and well-being.
Hatuey was a cacique (chief) from the island of Hispañola, where Columbus first set up his odious operations of torture and ethnic cleansing. Seeing what the Spaniards did to the Taíno people because they refused to be enslaved, Hatuey led 400 warriors in wooden canoes across the difficult sea passage to Cuba to warn his Taíno brothers and to organize resistance. “They are cowards,” Hatuey said. “They cover themselves in iron rather than fight like men.” Tragically, his warnings fell on deaf ears. His stories of men mounted on tall beasts using weapons of lightning and thunder that struck down warriors at a distance with invisible arrows were thought crazy fantasy.
When the Spanish arrived their Toledo swords, arquebuses, muskets, and Andalusian warhorses made minced meat of the Taíno. Hatuey was burned at the stake on February 2, 1512.
The population that existed on Hispañola before European contact has been studied by archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists. Calculations vary but given the density of cities and network of roads, Hispañola’s pre-contact population was between 2 and 18 million. The combined population of the two countries occupying Hispañola today, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is 21 million.
The Taíno knew how to farm in these difficult conditions. They drew upon the techniques of terra preta soil formation originating to their South, chinampas aquaculture and milpa agroforestry used so successfully to their West, and the fishing communities to their North and East.
Hans Peter Schmidt of Ithaka Institut captures integrated aquaponics and agroforestry at CENSA in Matanzas
The Taíno of Cuba, with a third more agricultural land than Hispañola, likely had an even greater population. Within a century, or two at the most, the Taíno were virtually extinct. Today only one remnant group of a few families is left in Cuba. The race died because they lacked immunity to foreign diseases. They died because they made poor slaves and did not convert to Catholicism. They died because to the Spanish they were expendable.
If you consider for a moment what it was like to be in Cuba in March of 1962 it is all the more remarkable that Castro should endow a research station named after a Taíno cacique. Before 1959, Cuba was one of the poorest countries in the world, even compared to Haiti, an African-American nation whose economy was bled of 51 billion dollars over 150 years to repay France and the Western powers for the value of the slaves liberated by independence. 
Havana slums, 1955, in the shadow of a casino
After four centuries under the thumb of Western powers, Cuba was in even worse condition. Infant mortality stood at 80.69 deaths per 1,000 live births, among the worst in the world. While the average industrial salary in Cuba was the world’s eighth-highest, more than a third of the population was kept in abject poverty. Schools and teachers did not exist in rural areas and 41.7% in the countryside were illiterate.
Cuban author and martyr, José Marti, whose image is ubiquitous in Cuba today, wrote in 1804:
There are men who can live contentedly even if they live undignified lives. There are others who suffer as if in agony when they see people around them living without dignity. There must be a certain amount of dignity in the world. There must be a certain amount of light. When there are undignified men, there are always others who have within them the dignity of many men. There are the ones who rebel ferociously against those who rob nations of their freedom, which is robbing men of their dignity.
The ones who rebelled ferociously were Hatuey, Marti and Castro. When Cubans toppled the US puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista on December 31, 1959, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA-Chief Allen Dulles, were so appalled they cajoled President Eisenhower to allocate $13.1 million to a CIA plan for an amphibious invasion supported by B-26 bombers out of Guatemala. When the five infantry battalions and one paratrooper battalion of CIA mercenaries landed at Playa Giron — the Bay of Pigs — Castro stood atop a tank and directed fire himself. As the invaders were encircled and captured, President John F. Kennedy, who had inherited the operation when he took office in January 1961, decided the venture was folly and refused to authorize further air support. He told the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”
When the dust had settled, Kennedy’s general approval rating actually increased from 78 percent in mid-April to 83 percent in late April and early May. Although 63 percent of Americans did not want the US to remove Castro, Kennedy authorized Operation Mongoose to do precisely that, by assassination. He imposed a complete trade embargo against Cuba. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he imposed strict travel restrictions for U.S. citizens. All the while, Kennedy knew that these policies, although politically important in holding off Republican hawks, were counterproductive.
I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my countrys policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, interview with Jean Daniel, 24 October 1963. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Cuba has survived the aggression of its northern neighbor. Article 50 of its revolutionary Constitution declared:
Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The state guarantees this right by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centers; by providing free dental care; by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease.
In 1961 it launched the Literacy Campaign, with 1,000,000 Cubans directly involved (as teachers or students). The US struck back, training and funding counterrevolutionaries to reduce support. Young teachers and students were shot, lynched, tortured and murdered by CIA-funded militants. And still, by 1962, the country’s literacy rate had reached 96%, one of the highest in the world. By 1986, Cuba had achieved 100% literacy. By 1990, Cuba’s infant mortality rates of 13 deaths per 1,000 live births were the lowest in Latin America.

Indio Hatuey’s microorganism lab produces 24000 liters of EM per month.
In 1962 when Castro named the research center for Hatuey, he was honoring a fellow revolutionary, but he was also honoring the indigenous wisdom of the Taíno. The research coming from that institution, and from the branches it spread across the country, revived interest in native grasses, plants, and trees. During the Special Period, Cuba revived oxen, shifted to all-organic, and took up Permaculture. Cuba developed integrated pest management, organic certification, agroforestry crops, specialty breeds of farm animals, urban agriculture and the widespread use of effective micro-organisms (EM). 
Hans Peter Schmidt tests electrical conductivity in biochar-aided fermentation.
This past week we saw some of the most sophisticated science experiments underway anywhere in the world. In the laboratories of Indio Hatuey, Cuban scientists are making biochar in Kon-tiki kilns, fermenting lactobacillus cultures in closed vats of biochar, worm composting liquids, and moringa leaves, inoculating that “bokashi” into thermophilic compost and adding EM from their own microbiota breweries to charge the biofertilizer. 
Their composting operation has fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and better bacteria and fungi. The biochar takes Cuban agriculture beyond carbon neutral and into drawdown territory. The soils being revitalized produce spectacular bounties of crops in good seasons and bad, resist the damage of exotic pests, droughts, and hurricanes, and take nutrient densities of food to new highs.
Hasta la revolución siempre.




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