Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Hawkwood Elephant

"Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions. They require only small-scale solutions within large-scale frameworks."

The author’s book signing circuit for small publishers like New Society and Chelsea Green is more likely to have you at something in Marianne Williamson’s comfort zone than Joe Biden’s, and it often brings me to scenic places with biodynamic gardens, blacksmith shops, and vegan cafés. The latest was the Hawkwood Centre for Future Thinking in England’s scenic Cotswold’s region, with panoramic vistas of the Severn valley and an annual Seed Festival of Ideas.

For me, the best thing about these kinds of events is always the people you get to rub shoulders with, cross-pollinate, and generate the kinds of seeds the hosts are hoping for.

Rob Hopkins draws from his new book on

imagination, From What Is to What If
One of the first ripe pollinators I encountered at Hawkwood was Shaun Chamberlain of Dark Optimism, a young man I have long admired for having rescued the work of a late departed mutual friend, David Fleming, by locating and finding a publisher for the economist’s masterpiece, Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. Had Shaun not done that, the manuscript could have been either boxed and shelved in some university letters collection, or worse, consigned to a rubbish bin by unsympathetic relatives. Fleming’s life’s work, which Chamberlain has since synthesized into the more accessible Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy (Chelsea Green 2016), is a robust prescription, in stunning detail, of what Odum called “the prosperous way down.” Drawing upon a wide range of scientific disciplines, Fleming provided a practical and easily imagined way to walk our civilization back off the plank and recover the ship of state from the pirates, using neither cutlass nor rum.

 Shaun said of his relationship to David (I paraphrase), “When you lose someone you love, the best thing you can do is to keep a part of them alive in the world.” I later mentioned this statement in my talk, in reference to Frank Michael, a recently departed friend of mine. Frank did the original calculations on tree-planting I published in The Biochar Solution and that we later revised in papers for conferences and a science textbook on biomass energy. I noted how much more accurate Frank had been in estimating the area, photosynthetic efficiency, and effort that will be required for forests to remove the legacy greenhouse gases from the industrial era from both atmosphere and ocean than are the most recent estimates of provided by Bastin, et al, published in Science on July 5, 2019.

In 2009–2015, Frank Michael and I ventured well out in front of the current crop of negative emissions technology studies to examine not only how an area the size and aridity of five Spains could be permaculturally reforested every year, eventually reaching 3 Gha, (3 billion hectares) but how those forests could afterward remain healthy and reach maturity in an epoch of rapid climate change and extreme weather events. The solutions we proposed were along similar lines to the story woven by another Hawkwood speaker, Ian Redmond, OBE, who held up a ball of elephant dung (I later asked him how he manages to take that through customs) and gave a marvelous explanation of how elephants plant trees. David Attenborough has made a film series describing this, which it turns out Redmond advised. The elephants eat the seed pods of acacia trees, digest the pods, and excrete the seeds in their rich manures. As they rove the dry savannahs, forests of acacia spring up in their wake.

I have previously described to The Great Change and to Grist Magazine (October 2000) similar phenomena observed in the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, where monkeys select the fruits they most like and then build orchard gardens of those trees in the high mountain sanctuaries safe from two-legged predators.

The takeaway points are (1) that we cannot reverse climate change without also arresting biodiversity loss and (2) that to hang onto our freshly-seeded forests we have to also develop (or recover) woodland ways and norms where cultivation and maintenance — deriving useful and valuable products and services — are done because it profits us in the short-term to do it.

The same holistic approach applies to most (but not all) of the other 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And yet, if you were to take our planet’s 4.6 billion year history and reduce it, as Shaun Chamberlain did in his talk, to a 4.6 km walk along a footpath, anthropogenic climate change arrives only in the last 0.1 mm of the walk (four-hundredths of an inch). One-half of all species that existed at the end of the last Ice Age have been lost to extinction in that last 0.1 mm already. The remainder, ourselves included, are threatened in the next four-thousandths of an inch.
David Fleming once said that large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions. They require only small-scale solutions within large-scale frameworks.

Allowing elephants to roam freely, for the sake a wild aesthetic, or to assist us as woodlands people to gather roundwood for thatch, baskets, and braided fences, or elephant dung for our gardens and bamboo groves, bypasses a deeply embedded neurological discount algorithm that inclines us to select immediate rewards over distant, conceptual good. It points that maladaptive pistol away from our temple.

There is a second maladaptive gene that inclines us to select a single “best” solution instead of a holistic approach to problems. For those who think climate change is the sine qua non problem we must solve, before all others, think again. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else….”

Elephants plant forests. We should too. Then we need to keep the elephants and nurse the trees. That is a seed idea worth spreading.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

How the gourd killed the whale

"It was a dried gourd that brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 19th Century. "

For some time now I have been writing in this space that our Achilles Heel as a species may have come at a fork along our evolutionary biology pathway many millions of years ago. Relatively few others of our fellow creatures decided to follow our lead, and for good reason. We decided to sweat.

Having sweat glands conferred an immediate advantage, the type of advantage our kind also seems to select for, rather than thinking through the more distant implications. Only primates — such as humans, monkeys, and apes — and horses have skin covered by sweat glands to regulate their body temperature through evaporation of water. Maximum sweat rates of an adult human can be 2-4 liters per hour or 10-14 liters per day. Dogs and cats, which have just a few such glands, accomplish temperature regulation by panting, which evaporates water from the moist lining of their oral cavity. Elephants manage it with capillaries in their giant, flapping ears (Woolly Mammoths, unfortunately, lacked those and were hunted to extinction).

As bipedal athletes, our ancestors could not dash as fast as deer, boar, or zebras but had the advantage of sweat. We could keep up a fast pace longer than our prey could. As the prey overheated, they were forced to slow down. As we overheated, we only needed to refill our water reserve— hence the gourd. It became as important as the spear. Fear, anxiety, stress, and pain can also cause us to sweat because our biological instincts kick in and prepare us to run. 

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. I have been following his writing on biophysical economics, system dynamics modeling, and metahistory for more than 20 years. His blog in English is Cassandra’s legacy. His most recent book in English is Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green 2014). He was also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

In essays just this month so far, he seems to have debunked the notion that the Roman Empire fell from climate change, but raised the possibility that its fall caused a climate change; described how Earth’s ecosystem controls climate by the biotic pump; how the mountain Ebih “melted into a vat of sheepfat” in the 3rd Millennium BCE; and how in times of crisis the panicked elite do not react with reasoned debate, but with the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda.

I was delighted to have the chance to experience Ugo in person when he gave a lovely workshop entitled, La Grande Transizione — Da Dove e Per Dove (The Great Transition — From Where and To Where) at the annual convergence of GEN-Europe in Comune di Bagnaia, Italy, this week. What was surprising was not what he said, because he left many of the questions he raised unanswered, but how he lectures.

Describing how Herman Melville developed his empathy for the whale, Bardi donned Ahab’s top hat and fastened his sister-in-law inside a raincoat so that her arms were replaced by empty sleeves for fins, then set out with a spear to chase her around the tent.

How did these small humans in their rowed boats kill these leviathans, he asks. Why didn’t these mammals, who were much faster and stronger, merely swim away? He holds up the gourd.

In whaling, the gourd takes the form of an empty oak cask, attached to a line. If the harpooner can toss a barbed dart into the thick skin of the whale as it passes his boat, the whale is doomed. The barb may cause some superficial bleeding but is not fatal by itself. Attach a cask to its line, however, and now the whale is unable to dive to safety. As it swims, pursued by the rowboat, the drag of the line wears it out. Eventually, the boat overtakes the whale and delivers the coup de grâce, usually by a lance driven through the creature’s heart.

 In a 2004 post to the Oil Drum, Bardi wrote:
In his 1878 book, Alexander Starbuck cited several factors for the decline of production of the whale fisheries in times that for him were recent. He seems to have believed that it was not the extermination of the whales that caused the decline but, rather, the increase of the human population which led to “an increase in consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” But it was also clear to him that the cost and the length of voyages had increased beyond reasonable limits. He did cite “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a problem, but he stops short of saying that the whale stock was depleted beyond recovery. Most likely, the concept of “extinction” was alien to him, as it was to most of his contemporaries.
Our perception problem with crude oil is equivalent to that of Starbuck, and indeed it is perhaps more severe. The concept of the terminal depletion of a mineral resource is alien to us, since there have been no worldwide precedents. In addition, we are apparently just near the midpoint on the production curve, so we still have to experience the peak, the associated price rise, and the decline. What the future has in store is uncertain: perhaps an energy equivalent of the “rock oil” of Starbuck’s times will materialize in the near future. But if it does not materialize we will have to live with depletion and before long begin to see lamps going out.
So what is our lesson here? Bardi never really got to that, but my takeaway was that we humans have immense technological hubris but little empathy. Bardi said we have developed empathy for honeybees, pandas, and whales but are unlikely to do that for mosquitoes and cockroaches. Unless we can imagine ourselves within the web of life, instead of seeing ourselves as its masters, we are doomed.

I think we risk destruction by many separate routes. We can fill our gourds to slake our thirst, but these days the water is likely contaminated with microplastics. The plastic spear Bardi used to illustrate his whale story is killing more whales now when it is discarded than Ahab could have with forged iron at the tip of a wooden pole.

One real problem we will face stems from that evolutionary decision about sweat glands that our ancestors made. 

Orcas, thanks to subcutaneous fat stores, can withstand water temperatures ranging from 0° to 30–35°C (32–95°F). Certain species of tardigrade, including Mi. tardigradum, can withstand and survive temperatures ranging from –273 °C (near absolute zero) to 150 °C in their anhydrobiotic state. Humans have no such tolerance.

Certain sharks, tuna, billfishes, birds and mammals, including ourselves, are endothermic, or “warm-blooded” in common parlance. We have a larger number of mitochondria per cell than ectotherms, enabling us to generate heat by increasing the rate at which we metabolize fats and sugars. If we get too hot, we sweat. If we get too cold, we shiver, sit in strong sunlight, bundle in furs, or burn fat faster. 

To sustain higher metabolism, we need several times the food intake of ectothermic animals. Endothermism has its advantages, such as a constant core temperature for optimum enzyme activity. We are not only ourselves under the skin but an entire community. Our human microbiome is optimally advantaged at 37°C (98.6°F). 

But endothermism also has disadvantages. If we get too hot we try to slow our metabolic burn. That is what happens during sleep when our core temperature drops typically 1°C. It’s also why the greatest threat to life during heat waves may be during the night when bodies cannot stay cool enough to survive. 

When relative humidity is 100%, sweating does nothing to cool us. Hotter air can store more water than colder air. When the human body is exposed to constant temperatures of approximately 55°C (131°F) longer than a few hours, death is almost inevitable. In the early stages, we may try to slow heat generation by ceasing activity. If the heat persists, the effects of our diminished metabolism damage our central nervous system first, especially the brain and those parts concerning consciousness; then heart rate and respiration decrease; judgment becomes impaired as drowsiness supervenes, becoming steadily deeper until we lose consciousness. Mammalian muscle becomes rigid with heat rigor at about 50°C (122°F), with that sudden rigidity of the whole body rendering life impossible. 

Humans may catch lethal hyperthermia when a wet-bulb temperature (heat index) is sustained above 35°C (95°F) for six hours. In these conditions, if the temperature of the surroundings is greater than that of the skin, the body actually gains heat by radiation and conduction.Peter Sinclair writes: "Stepped outside yet today? Today in the midwest is what a normal summer day will be like in a few decades." National Geographic: "In less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous "off-the-charts" heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more...."

Sadly, hyperthermia occurs in birds, insects, fishes, land animals, and plants of course, too. The sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) can sustain 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) above air temperature while flowering by breaking down starch in their roots, consuming oxygen at a rate of a flying hummingbird, but lacks a similar ability to cool itself. Many plants do not flower, do not fruit, and do not reproduce themselves when it is too warm.

We will need better tools than gourds if we are going to survive this time. We need to discover empathy. And then plant a whole lot of trees.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Get me out on the road to these interesting networked connections. Help me plant enough trees to make up for that travel footprint. Dare me to get my blog posted every week, regardless of the time zone or jet lag! All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Good Times Traveled

"Water may stain the frescos, earthquakes may close the tunnels, but the temples will survive."

I had only just posted somewhere that I was on my way to Damanhur when a friend texted me to make sure I visited the Time Travel Chamber. I never discovered that but it did not matter. The entire Temples of Humankind project was designed as a conversation through time, easily on par with sending the music of Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry beyond the Solar System (in the sense of passing the termination shock) into the Kuiper belt and then, in about AD 41977, to Andromeda.

For those who put humanity’s odds at surviving the present century past what any respectable bookmaker would take, which is where Carl Sagan stood when he dispatched Chuck Berry to the stars, the Temples offer an opportunity to ink our species’ final tableau.

Falco Tarassaco (Hawk Dandelion), nee Oberto Airaudi (1950–2013), was born with the unusual gift of remembering not only all his past lives but all his future ones, some 600 in all. Doubtless, this was quite a burden for a little boy, but in one future incarnation he had been an interplanetary delegate to a council of elders and was appointed to be pre-incarnated in Turin in 1950 in order to rescue our planet. He was able to un-shoulder some of that responsibility eventually to thousands of followers, who crafted his vision and mission into Damanhur, a federation of spiritual communities launched in Northern Italy in the early 1970s.

In some 30 books, Falco described a distant point in space from which our consciousness arose and then crossed light years to reach us, the earlier civilizations that came and went in the quest for utopian living arrangements worthy of that gift, and his sense of indefatigable optimism that everything was all happening to a grand plan with a very, very happy outcome. If your unbounded soul could resonate with any of that, you were more than welcome to join him at Damanhur.

The community ran into a patch of trouble with authorities for a few years when an ambitious public prosecutor tracked rumors to the secret entrance of the temple complex, where Damanhurians had for a dozen years been quietly (using loud music to conceal the sound of jackhammers) hewing subterranean chambers in the mountain behind their home without benefit of licensed engineers or the required permits. After four intense years of legal battles to save the excavation from demolition, in 1996 the temples were given legal recognition as a national treasure and, a decade later, Damanhur was proclaimed a model of a sustainable society by the United Nations.

As one wanders from brightly-lit chamber to chamber within the temples, moving alternately between levels hand-hewn into the hard myanite of the mountain, one is struck not only by the amazing skills and artistry of the Damanhurians but by the pervasive optimism that each face etched into the marble floors, murals, and statues portrays. Here, In fresco and tile, are some 800 individual smiling Damanhurians, past and present, immortalized now and forever in the deep rock inside this Alpen landscape, kilometers above sea level.

Longyearbyen, Norway, the Arctic home of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, was chosen for its stability to safeguard millions of the world’s most genetically important seed — 13,000 years of agricultural history — from nuclear war, asteroid strikes and other disasters, but it is already at risk because it turned out to be in the fastest-warming part of the world. Heatwaves have partially melted the permafrost, flooding the vault with water, forcing caretakers to dig drainage ditches. The seeds are stored at a cautious -18℃, cool enough to remain viable for 1,000 years, but the cooling system relies upon the surrounding natural permafrost, snow, and ice, and if the present warming trend continues, the average temperature at Svalbard will increase by 8.3℃ (14.4°F) by 2100. Farewell, sweet corn.

When surface temperatures exceed the capacity of mammalian sweat glands to hold our bodies within the narrow bounds of organ function, calibrated over the course of a billion years within a climate that never varied more than 5 degrees; when melting glaciers and expanding water molecules add scores of meters to sea levels around the coastlines of the world; and when green methane skies send fireball lightning rolling across the lifeless Sandhills of Nebraska; these Damanhurian chambers will abide. Water may stain the frescos, earthquakes may close the tunnels, but the temple will survive. They are a postcard through time.

Some bright blue day millions of years from now, Martian astronauts, the progeny of microbes hitching aboard an unsterile rover to the Red Planet, may return to a restored Earth and discover this cavern and all the treasures it holds. Perhaps one of them will be Falco himself! The message this great work of art conveys, while poignant, is joy-filled and grateful for good times had. What more noble work could there be? Hodor!

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Clash of the Negative Emissions Titans: Cannabis, Meet Biochar

"These signs and portents point to a coming Anthropocene that will not be your daddy’s World War II."

  If you are a billionaire captain of industry, what are you willing to spend to assure some legacy — any legacy — remains of the contributions you’ve made, after you are gone? Not many would say none. It is a human trait to want to be remembered.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of our future towards the prospect of leaving behind near-term human extinction — possibly the extinction of life on Earth — it kind of puts a crimp in that kind of thinking.

If you are in that category, how now do you spend a billion dollars to be remembered; to have anyone even around to remember anything?

This past week a few hundred researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and climate activists huddled together in Ft. Collins, Colorado, which bills itself the “Napa Valley of Beer,” at the Biochar and Bioenergy Conference put on by the US Biochar Initiative.

The first speaker, Erica Belmont from the University of Wyoming, was a co-author of the recent study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. She spoke about the various pathways for getting to net zero and then negative emissions (drawdown) by 2100.
I actually found the NASEM study lacking in ambition, mainly because even under the best of all worlds it estimated the most humans could hope to achieve was a drawdown rate of 20 GtCO2/y (billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year) by 2100 using all technologies at almost any cost. Kathleen Draper and I had already shown how the world could achieve a drawdown rate of more than 50 GtCO2/y by 2060 or thereabouts from just setting a biochar content standard for all new asphalt and concrete. When you consider that the entire human emissions of greenhouse gases is already 47 GtCO2/y and rising, after which we need to calculate additional methane from permafrost, CO2 from wildfires, and other effects of climate change, the difference between her 20 Gt and our 50 Gt is an existential one.

UNEP 2017, The Emissions Gap Report
There are a number of options for NETs (Negative Emissions Technologies) that need to go from theory to field trials to industrial scale at a pace akin to that of the mobilization for war in 1941. Back then, the nation spent hundreds of millions to go from producing Fords and toasters to making
Shermans and bullets, overnight.

This time we are talking about trillions and there will be no country or industry left untransformed. The heat waves now crossing Europe on one side of the world and Alaska on the other should focus attention the way California wildfires were a wake-up call for climate deniers in John Birch country. These signs and portents point to a coming Anthropocene that will not be your daddy’s World War II.

Once you get religion about it, what next? The tendency is towards action; to throw money around wastefully at first, but then to gradually distill down solutions that work. You have to be nimble and responsive because this is a fluid theater of war and stuff happens fast.

But don’t worry. Sit back and roll a fatty (assuming you live in a full-legal state like Colorado). Hemp might just save us all.

Slide Deck courtesy of Wilson Hago and VGRID via USBI
 Shortly after Dr. Belmont left the stage, Wilson Hago of VGRID Energy Systems gave his powerpoint in a breakout session, in which he showed the various products and services now coming to market that use biochar and, once at scale, will massively reduce atmospheric carbon and reverse climate change. Just four of those emerging markets will bring $170 billion in sales in 2020.

Kathleen and I toured a production site owned by Biochar Now just outside Fort Collins and saw what Hago was talking about. Using technology no more complicated than could be made in the early 19th Century, Biochar Now was producing hundreds of tons of biochar for everything from cleaning algae blooms off lakes and ponds to carbon filament for 3D printers. They have $10 million in orders from hemp producers who like theirs blended with bokashi.

So, Mr. Captain of Industry, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Gaze out at the horizon and think of all the good places you should invest.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.