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.




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