Saturday, February 26, 2011

Interview with a Climate Zombie

  David Brin, Contrary Brin 11 Feb 2010

On February 16th, we were interviewed by a student. Her questions provide a glimpse into why we’ve been so keen to promote Gaia University as an alternative to what currently passes for higher education.

Student:  How urgent and concerning of a matter do you think current global warming is?

Mr. Bates: Climate change is the greatest threat that humans have ever faced. I would put the chances of human extinction at 99.9 percent within 500 to 1000 years. Saving polar bears is useful to focus attention on the problem, but in reality, mammalian life is unsuited for even the climate change now likely to be experienced this century, never mind the centuries still to unfold once pending tipping points are passed.

Student:  Do you believe current warming is caused by human actions?

Mr. Bates: Yes, like the vast majority of the serious scientists, I think that has been well established as a fact now. To think otherwise is to appeal to faith, not science.

Student:  Do you find flaws in the Greenhouse gas theory or do you think it is a completely accurate explanation for the changing climate?

Mr. Bates: Greenhouse warming is no longer a theory. It passed through that phase more than 100 years ago. If there were not a greenhouse effect, there would be no life on Earth.

I have written about this before. In my book, The Biochar Solution, I tell the story this way. In 1824, while working in a Paris laboratory on observations of the Earth, Joseph Fourier described the greenhouse effect for the first time: “The temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.”

It was a remarkably prescient discovery, given the science of the time. We know now that “heat in the state of light” arrives as high-energy shortwave radiation, able to penetrate atmospheric clouds (or glass windows), and is transformed by contact into infrared, or what Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat), which attempts to depart as low-energy long-wave radiation, only to bounce back if obstructed (such as by airborne soot or clouds of greenhouse gases). Fourier appreciated the infrared effect from the work of a contemporary, William Herschel, and was quick to realize that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse.

Thirty-seven years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall demonstrated that water vapor is one of the important components of Earth's greenhouse shield. “This aqueous vapour is a blanket more necessary to the vegetable life of England than clothing is to man,” Tyndall remarked.

In 1898, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned that industrial-age coal burning would magnify the natural greenhouse effect. In the 1930s British engineer Guy Callendar compiled empirical evidence that the heat effect was already discernible.

By the 1950s, measuring equipment had improved to the point where Gilbert Plass could detail the infrared absorption of various gases; Roger Revelle and Hans Suess could show that seawater was incapable of absorbing the rate of man-made CO2 entering the atmosphere; and Charles David Keeling could produce annual records of rising atmospheric carbon levels from observatory instruments in Hawaii and Antarctica.

In 1965, an advisory committee warned Lyndon B. Johnson that the greenhouse effect was a matter of “real concern.” With estimated recoverable fossil fuel reserves sufficient to triple atmospheric carbon dioxide, the panel wrote, “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment.” Emissions by the year 2000 could be sufficient to cause “measurable and perhaps marked” climate change, the panel concluded.

Since then, every President has been warned by the best scientists in the world that the problem is serious and getting rapidly worse. None except Jimmy Carter has done anything to even slow the problem, and Jimmy Carter demonstrated that it is a political liability to try.

That is why it is so certain that humans will go extinct. Our political systems do not evolve even as slowly as our scientific understanding.

Student:  Please comment on the opinion that global warming is caused completely by a naturally fluctuating climate cycle. If this is your view, do you acknowledge any additional human impact or no?

Mr. Bates: We are trending precisely the opposite from the naturally fluctuating climate cycle, so no, one cannot attribute rapid global climate change to natural processes. It is caused by an imbalance in the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles that will take tens of thousands of years, possibly millions, to correct, assuming it does correct and we don't just go the way of Venus.

Student:  Do you think the intensity of the current warming period has surpassed all previous warming periods or is this level of warming nothing new in Earth‘s history?

Mr. Bates: At this moment we are only a degree warmer than normal, and that is not dissimilar to the Medieval Maximum, when the rapid  deforestation going on in many parts of the world contributed to a significant warming in Africa and Europe (leading the Moors to invade Spain and parts of France). The Medieval Maximum was finally reversed in the 15th to 18th centuries when initially the burst of reforestation from the Black Death and then the depopulation of the Americas so increased the leafy biomass cover of the planet that it brought about the Little Ice Age in Europe.

However, one degree is not what has been predicted going forward. On May 19, 2009, Woods Hole Research Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study involving more than 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate data currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago, and the probable median of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2°C, compared to a finding of 2.4°C as recently as 2003. Moreover, the study rated the possibility of warming to 7.4°C by the year 2100 (and still accelerating thereafter) at 90 percent.

Another report, released in 2009 by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate-change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That figure could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of a temperature change of less than 1°C.

At 5 to 7 degrees by 2100, the current trend would take us to something similar to the Eocene epoch, when crocodiles roamed the arctic regions. However, we have moved the carbonization of the oceans and atmosphere far beyond the levels that pre-existed the Eocene, principally with the extraction of 500 million years of fossil hydrocarbons but also by reckless land use and desertification. It will take centuries or millennia for the effects of those human-induced factors to fully manifest and so, it now seems probable that what is coming will be far hotter than the Eocene. That is why the Venus Effect has to be taken seriously.

Student:  Do you think there’s a hidden political agenda behind the global warming debate? If so, to what extent do these hidden motives affect the topic?

Mr. Bates: Yes, of that there is little doubt. Science has already reached a consensus, although it took thousands of scientists many decades to reach it, something, by the way, that has never occurred like that before. The debate is now a political one. The principal drivers are the oil and coal interests (Exxon, the Koch brothers, Saudi Arabia, etc.) that have almost unlimited money to spend buying political favors. By almost unlimited, I mean billions of dollars each year, many, many times the amounts that are usually spent on political campaigns. The success of unknown politicians with wacko views in this last election is a direct result of that. It is no accident that the key Congressional committees charged with addressing climate change have been disbanded, the EPA is under attack for regulating carbon, and President Obama's climate advisor resigned. The Koch brothers paid for that. The corruption of the US Supreme Court (specifically the Koch Brothers buying the votes of Justices Scalia and Thomas in the Citizen's United case last year — see this week's New York Times) has now allowed direct and secret donations to climate deniers to come into the US political process from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrein, UAE and others. Big Oil and Big Coal have proven far more powerful than Big Science. That is another reason I put such low odds on human survival.

Student:  In your opinion, should federal action be taken to control greenhouse gas emissions in the United States? Would this achieve enough success in order to offset disadvantages such as possible harm to the U.S. economy?

Mr. Bates: The US economy would benefit from emissions control. Coal costs the U.S. $500 billion per year in externalized social costs. Other countries (China, South Korea, Germany, Denmark, South Africa, Brazil) have already discovered a little secret: the faster you go green, the greater your competitive advantage. Those that can go completely carbon neutral by 2030 (like Germany and the UK) will have a strong economic advantage over those who wait until 2050 (like Canada and Australia) or don't go at all (like the US and India). There is an international race on, with real winners and losers. The US has been losing that race for 20 years, which is why our economy is tanking, and that will only get worse. The phony "War on Terror" is really just a futile oil grab while creating a security state at home in anticipation of food and price riots. So far, Brazil has been winning this economic game, but South Korea is making a strong challenge to catch up. Their economies may be several times the size of the United States in a few years, while we are already at negative net worth and going trillions deeper by the year.

Of course, carbon neutral is not enough, and we need to seriously begin thinking about carbon-negative economies, which is the subject of my new book. It seems likely that is where Brazil may become totally dominant, since carbon-negative agriculture originated there 8000 years ago. And in that is the one tenth of one percent chance that we might still survive as a species, although in a much warmer world.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fishing the Yucatán Channel


 For all the changes in fishing technology, for the typical Mayan fisherman little has changed in the past 200 years. Daid is fairly representative of the younger generation, those that learned to fish from their fathers and grandfathers as soon as they were old enough to walk. In this village they rise well before dawn to be out on the grounds in the Straits, in the lagoon, or near the mouth of a river when it gets light enough for their would-be catch to see the bait sparkling close to the surface in the rising sun.

Everybody has their favorite places but anywhere along this coast the fish are almost certain to be biting unless a cold thermal has driven them south towards warmer waters. The Straits of Cuba are a vast conveyor belt returning schools from the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico, there to mate and spawn and return new fry to the Atlantic. Where the channel narrows like a funnel at Cabo Catoche the catch is always good. The migratory route feeds the tourists in Cancún today just as it fed the Mayan Empire 1000 years before.

When he gets to a good location to begin his day, Daid tosses out his line, a simple monofilament with a hook knotted at one end, baited with a small fish gathered the previous day, using a hand-held, hand-knotted net.

The line feeds out with the current and trails the sideways drifting boat. He waits 5 minutes, 10, 15. No strikes, so he pulls in the line and moves to a better place, maybe one shown by circling birds or jumping fish. He repeats the process and this time he gets a strike within 2 minutes, pulls it rapidly hand-over-hand into the boat, resets his hook, and tosses the line again. Then another strike, then another. After a while the sea grows calm, so he moves once more. This process repeats until he has used up his bait, used up his fuel, is satisfied with the catch, or has just been unlucky and now grown bored and hungry.

Most days the men are back in port while it is still morning, with an adequate catch to pay everyone a living wage and take the best fish home to the family to eat.

Some of the fisherman go after bigger commercial fish, but they have to go farther out to sea for that. Some set nets for shrimp, or drop cages for lobster. Some snorkle to spear rays, octopus and squid, or gather conches. Some are drift-netters, and sell their catch to the factory boats, never bringing it ashore. Lately taking tourists along has been a good way to get a newer boat or bigger motor, and you can make big money with deep sea fly fishing or whale shark watching if you can master the competition. Most of these young guys do a little of everything, but the hook and line is their standard.

Daid says the restaurants will buy anything he can bring them in the morning, and sometimes all day. Covina and Mero will fetch 20 pesos per kilo, Corel and Esmadregal 30, Pompano 50. We caught a large Barracuda and asked if we should throw it back. “No,” Daid said, “ceviche.” When he decided we’d caught enough, we pulled up onto a sandy beach and he turned our barracuda into Mexican sushi.

Barracuda Ceviche
Serves 5

5 medium fish (~1 kg fresh weight)
5 limes
2 tomatoes
1 red onion
1 bunch of fresh cilantro
1 habanero pepper
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper

Filet the fish, removing skins, heads, tails, bones and innards. Dice the filets and place them into a large serving bowl. Dice the tomatoes and finely dice the onion, cilantro and habanero pepper. Halve and press the limes, rendering the juice into the bowl. Add salt and pepper and stir. Serve chilled with tostada chips.

Are these fishermen an endangered breed? Yes and no. Yes, because tourism in the Mayan Riviera is driving up the cost of living faster than what people can earn fishing. The breakneck and carefree development is also having a horrific environmental impact on bays, estuaries, rivers, and freshwater breeding grounds. If a catastrophe from offshore oil drilling or a tanker wreck were to happen near here, it would destroy the fishery instantly. Climate change is slowly destroying coastal living in a variety of ways, from stronger storms to eroding beaches. And of course, overfishing by multinational seine-netters to feed distant humans and their pets is constantly making it harder for local fishing village economies.

But no, because the price of oil will be tougher on those big guys than on the little ones, who can still row or sail to their fishing grounds. This place is naturally abundant from a confluence of factors, and, for the most part, these families don’t over-exploit that good fortune. A Mayan fisherman is content when he has caught enough. He doesn’t need to work more than about 4 hours in any day, nor does he have any motivation to work beyond that. He doesn’t have a savings account in the bank unless he is has need to pay off his boat or some other big expense. Neither did his father or grandfather. He is rich not because of what he owns, but because of what he expects.

He expects that tomorrow the fish will come by again, the same as they did today.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Master of his Trade

The man they call “Bananas” is about 20 years old, 5 foot four — a stocky Mayan with a distinctively Roman nose and short black hair done in a greased-up crew cut style. He wears a non-descript blue T-shirt and shorts and flip-flops. His workshop is behind a typical 10-foot by 10-foot palapa of palm poles and rusted tin roof over a dirt floor. It has no sign. People know him by reputation. His backyard is bare dirt with a few coconut trees and further back, beyond the fishing net fence, is a mangrove swamp. The yard is cluttered, as any shop would be, with a detritus of discarded parts, rusty tools, cans of used oil and gas, and an air compressor. Around the perimeter are an assortment of parts for both for bicycles and motorcycles, which he has been repairing to keep busy, although bicycles are his first love.

When I come around the house into the yard there already two fishermen waiting for him to work on their motorscooter and tricycle carrier cart, respectively. Both of those jobs will take more elaborate work than my bicycle, so when I come in, pointing to my deflated front tire, I am bumped immediately to the front of the line. “Aire?” says a man in a red baseball cap, hoping I need only the compressor and the mechanic can get back to his motorscooter. “No, puncta,” I say, and he concedes the inevitable pecking order, repeating, “Ah, puncta.”

Watching the young man work is better than any ballet. With a swift move, he flips the bicycle on its handlebars and seat and reaches to his table for a yellow-handled screwdriver. While continuing a steady and off-color banter with the fisherman perched on the motorscooter and not even looking down at my tire, he breaks the bead around the rim and removes the tube.

This is why I came to him. Left to my own I would have inverted the bicycle as he had done and then removed that front tire from the frame, using an adjustable wrench. I would've used a specially curved and coated bike tool to break the bead on both sides of the rim and very carefully extracted the tube. That whole process might have taken me five minutes. While not even stopping talking, he accomplished the same feat in 15 seconds, entirely by braille.

He reached for his air hose and filled the tube. He immediately spotted the leak but with the tube still bound within the front fork of the bike he brought over a bucket and ran the tube delicately through water to see if there were any more. Then he went into a shop and brought out a power drill with a grinding wheel mounted on the front. He carefully sanded the area of the leak, then he reached to his table and got a patch and faster than I could even observe planted it on the tube. He repeated the process of running the tube through the water bucket. Satisfied the patch was good, he quickly deflated and ran the tube back into the tire and, using his bare fingers, reseated the tire into the rim. Once more he used the air hose, filling the tire to a pressure designated by his fingertips. Then he screwed on the nozzle cap, squeezed the back tire, determined it needed a little air too, inflated that, and, still holding the air hose in one hand, flipped the bike back up on its two wheels.

For his five minutes of work I handed him a 50 peso note, a little over 4 dollars. He went to his cashbox and returned me 40 pesos change. The repair had cost me 83 cents. I would have insisted on giving him more pesos but in front of his friends it would have dishonored him.

In a tough economy this artisan will do well, because people will come to him even though they could do the job themselves. They will come to him not just to save themselves time and work, but to enjoy a display of acrobatic grace and poise; to witness a master at his trade.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt’s Demographic Whammy

— former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato

The pyramids of Egypt everyone is looking at these days are not the ones built from sandstone, but those created from excess testosterone, ovulation and the explosion of youth. It is a demographic pyramid; skinny at the top but wide at the 15-to-30-year-old band.

Recently we were in the recording studio taping the audiobook version of The Biochar Solution. We were reading the Introduction ourselves, in first person singular, and leaving the remainder to more professional-sounding narrators.

As we read into the microphone, we had a strange out-of-body experience, transposing with the listening audience, and hearing that chapter for the first time from the point of view of a stranger.

It was a bit worrying.

In the United States in particular, and that is where the majority of sales for the book are expected, there is no general acceptance of the fundamental premise of this book — that climate change is the most serious threat homo sapiens face, more serious in fact than any we have ever faced.

But if you don’t believe you have the disease, its unlikely we’ll be able to sell you the remedy.

Some nervous second thoughts are to be expected, we suppose, but then we have always been speaking to a smaller, presumedly wiser audience — those who read. (And we’re not talking about TV Guide, USA Today or People Magazine, but actual books.) Perhaps, like us, our audience also surfs the web for emerging sector news feeds, and looks to the edges of science and intellectual debate for their perception of the future. They are less concerned with Lindsay Lohan’s latest court date or Gerard Butler’s abdominal exercise regimen than with the effects of the drought in the Amazon, the rising price of grain stocks, or the gitmoization of Bradley Manning.
Recently Peter Coy, of Business Week,  reported on the growing malaise of unemployed youth. “In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall,” he said. “In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they're ‘boomerang’ kids who move back home after college because they can't find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its ‘ant tribe’ — recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.”

This is where population pressure begins to unravel economies. The revolution in the Middle East is being driven by demographics: youth with iPods and a serious case of consumer lust are demanding their share of the American Dream. There is as yet no recognition that the suburban middle class with a two-car garage and cable TV that they watched in movies, growing up, has been purchased at the expense of indigenous peoples and a rich matrix of bioregional ecosystems, both reduced to slavery before being nearly extinguished.

Fifteen- to 29-year-olds account for 34% of the population in Iran, 30% in Jordan, 29% in Egypt and 21% in the USA. As government belt-tightening extends retirement age, shaves public sector jobs and pensions, and cuts benefits to the unemployed, the old eat the jobs of the young.

For every group of disenchanted freeters, there is a corresponding group of extinct species. Mileuristas have been purchased at the cost of cork forests, salmon and Pyrenees bears.
The banal neoliberal prescription from governments hoping to reset to a status quo ante is to provide more education, jobs and a bigger safety net. Dream on. All three of those cures only feed the cancer. The highest rates of youth unemployment — typically a quarter of the population — are now found in the Middle East and North Africa, but that will change. China and India can’t possibly hope to keep pace with booming populations once the cheap energy peak tips into a steep energy decline. Food supply — double whammied by fuel and fertilizer panic and climate chaos — will be the great leveler.

And, in a curious twist, that may be when people come around to reading The Biochar Solution, or getting the audiobook.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cool food, cool fuel, cool climate


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We typically typically teach within established ecovillages, but the setting in Belize is difficult to match anywhere else we’ve been. From Punta Gorda, the capital of Toledo District, you ascend toward the pyramid ruin of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia. This was a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926.

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

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up from that bamboo bend. The Source emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, sanctuary to howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt decided to buy a piece of land on the river back in 1988. After leaving Antioch College at 19 he took a job in Belize as a caretaker then worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

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

After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Chris dug swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means “food of the gods.”

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

You could live quite comfortably on the breadnuts, avocados, corn, bananas, coffee, fish, beans and all the rest. You could drink from the river, although Chris harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. If you glance around his open-air kitchen, you’ll see purchased cans and jars containing items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet but not indispensable here. Successive civilizations did just fine without them.

Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period, although climate change is making it less predictable. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so Chris has learned to hold the design course in March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for dory traffic, and the trails are more easily negotiated.

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

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

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

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

But there is another way and it involves butterflies.

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

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Cancún Butterfly

Combating climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, and we don’t yet know whether tipping points have already been passed that will make it impossible to reverse its trajectory. Regardless of whether the challenge has now become insurmountable — that it has become a dilemma rather than a problem — we can say for certain that the choice of inaction is still suicidal. If there is a glimmering of hope that we might pull out of our descent towards catastrophe and extinction, we are compelled by our survival instinct to act.

Critics, ourselves included, like to sneer at changing light-bulbs, but when light-bulb-changing reaches millions of homes and businesses, that strategy takes giant coal plants off line. What became clear in our years of research into The Biochar Solution, it is that each one of us has a much larger effect on global climate than most of us imagine.

One day in the winter of 1961, exactly 50 years ago, Edward Lorenz was working on an ancient 8-bit computer at MIT trying to understand weather patterns. When he arrived at work that morning, he decided to take a shortcut on his simulation and rather than start from the beginning of the run, he typed in the numbers from a previous point. He walked down the hall for his morning coffee and left the dot matrix printer to re-plot the graph. As he sipped his coffee, a new branch of mathematics, chaos theory, was born.

When Lorenz walked back to his office and looked at the printout, what he saw was something odd. Instead of the same weather pattern as before, the computer had created something new. The repeat pattern started at the same point and followed the previous pattern closely for a short time, but then began to diverge. It continued to diverge until all resemblance to the original sequence disappeared. Lorenz could have assumed something was wrong with his computer, or his program, but he guessed, correctly, that he had stumbled upon something more profound.

Lorenz’s diverging pattern was caused by the significant difference between the six-decimal numbers used by his computer (ie.:.506127) and the rounded-off three-decimal numbers appearing on the printout from which he had re-keyed (ie.:.506). When he typed in the shorter number, he could assume that one part in ten thousand, or a million, would be inconsequential. After all, in numbers referring to windspeed, one part in ten thousand represents only an imperceptible puff of wind, not an entire weather system. But as the difference propagated itself in equation after equation, the entire weather of the earth changed. Lorenz named the phenomenon the “butterfly effect” — because it now seemed that a butterfly stirring the springtime air in Peking could transform the course of summer storms in New York.

Lorenz reasoned that sensitivity to initial conditions was no accident, but is necessary to all natural systems. The influence of small perturbations is what endows larger patterns with such rich variety. It is what gives weather its unpredictability.

There are four parts of the carbon cycle (or the N cycle or the K cycle, whatever you want to look at). Earth (both living topsoil and deep geological reservoirs, including fossil sunlight), Air (the atmosphere), Fire (life in all its forms), and Water (especially the oceans). Labile carbon cycles through these four reservoirs on periods as short as 12 to 15 years on average, but longer for deep earth and oceans. Recalcitrant carbon (biochar or terra preta) cycles through on millennial time scales. Any labile carbon that can be diverted to the recalcitrant cycle can starve the atmosphere and oceans of carbon in the near term -- decades to centuries.

We sometimes wonder why the fungi and bacteria we evolved from wanted us to be here. We can assume that when they made a decision to branch off into plant forms, they needed the stable photosynthetic process to further their exchanges and increase their scope and diversity -- anaerobic vs aerobic, for instance. Likewise, animals gave them a greater range, by pollinating and transporting easily over greater distances, and by complex guts and manures that refined their cuisine with inordinate elegance. So why humans? As we ponder this, what we've come to appreciate is that we provide disturbance. Disturbance in ecosystems increases biodiversity. That is our gift to our bacterial forebears, who still course through our bloodstreams and organs and make up some tiny fraction of our weight. We give them disturbance.

Perhaps they did not anticipate just how much disturbance we two-leggeds are capable of. Or maybe they did.

We took 500 million years of sunlight stored in carbon form and moved it from the Earth to the Air. The Air said, whoa, wait, too much for me, and passed it to Water. Every time a plow cut a field in Sumer, or a Ming dynasty farmer stuck a stick in the ground and diverted water for irrigation, carbon went from dirt to sky to ocean. Agriculture is 40% of greenhouse emissions, but that reckoning is flawed, because it mostly just accounts for the tractors, rice paddies and cow flatulence, not the off-gassing of bared soils. Land disturbance; that is what the two-leggeds do best.

There was a very excellent paper just recently published: Dull, Robert A. , Nevle, Richard J. , Woods, William I. , Bird, Dennis K. , Avnery, Shiri and Denevan, William M. 'The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 01 September 2010. The implications are really important. Dull, et al, argue that the re-growth of Neotropical forests following the Columbian encounter led to terrestrial biospheric carbon sequestration on the order of 2 to 5 GtC, thereby contributing to the well-documented decrease in atmospheric C recorded in Antarctic ice cores from about 1500 through 1750 AD (or CE for Buddhists and pagans) previously ascribed to the Columbian encounter by William Ruddiman. Decoding that: When European disease and slavery swept the Americas, so much land was released, much of it with millennial build-up of fertile terra preta, that the trees and vines and rainforests that covered everything took so much carbon away from the cycle that atmospheric C plummeted and Europe literally froze. The Swedes invaded Denmark. Louis XIV put down parquet in the palace at Versailles. Hans Brinker won his silver skates on the frozen canals.

While the paper does not extend to the Medieval Maximum, from charcoal in lake bed studies it documents increased biomass burning and deforestation during agricultural and population expansion in the Neotropics from 2500 to 500 years BP, which would correspond with atmospheric carbon loading and global warming 1100 to 650 years BP. Decoding that: During the rise of the Classic Maya in the Yucatan, the Great White Cities witnessed by Orellana in the first transit of the Amazon, the vast palisade cities along the Mississippi encountered by DeSoto, and trade centers like Cahokia and Teotihuacan, so much carbon was released from forest and field that the atmosphere loaded and the northern hemisphere heated. At the same time there was desertification in N. Africa, driving the Moors into Spain.

Besides hinting at a human-Gaian umbilical far more reciprocating than imagined, what this shows is that the potential exists to return us to pre-Anthrocene concentrations of atmospheric C by reforestation and terrestrial carbon loading, assuming we are not thwarted by Jevon's Paradox and political inertia but also bring down emissions that currently exceed biospheric sequestration by 3.2 GtC/y (although to save the coral reefs, we need to also decarbonize the oceans and that means much more than 3.2 GtC/yr).

In The Biochar Solution we describe the various approaches and compare them in terms of potential for gigaton sequestration on decadal time scales. Jim Bruges does this in his book, The Biochar Debate, also. The main carbon farming advocates (Lal, Ingham, Yeomans) put the organic/holistic farming potential at 1 GtC/y. Biochar advocates (Lehmann, Larson) give a best guess of 4-10 GtC/y for biochar in all its forms. After delving into the Pioneer/Alford Forest model for mixed age/mixed species management, optimizing for ecosystem services and biodiversity but employing step harvest patch disturbance, we put the forestry component at perhaps 40 GtC/y, clearly the dominant wedge.

Recently DemocracyNow! profiled a boy from South Africa who started planting trees at age 9 and organized his classmates to plant a million trees. In our book that is the strategy we talked about: youth tree-planting competitions.

But the catch is that long before we get to 40 GtC/y, we run out of available land. And this, also, is where the versatility of biochar comes into play. We have a chapter about how we can re-green the deserts, much in the way Geoff Lawton is working in Jordan and the Middle East. The Sahara Forest. The Gobi Forest. The Sonoran Forest.

The lifestyles of the pre-Conquest Americans, during the centuries they were clearing land for their cities, likely contributed to pushing the Moors out of North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. It was ironic that to expel the invaders the medieval Spanish developed the tools and tactics (such as naval ships, the Andalusian horse and the cavalry charge) that then allowed them to conquer the vastly larger armies of the Americas.

How finely tuned is the human relationship to the climate? What hand might social convention among Paleolithic societies have had in creating Holocene stability? These are large questions we are only just beginning to know enough to ask. Perhaps we will be around long enough to answer them.

Next: Cool food, cool fuel, cool climate.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cancún and Four Degrees

In the previous posts we looked at the Cancún Climate Summit from the trenches, where what seemed at first another impasse suddenly broke open with some astonishing and foresightful developments. Quite the opposite of another Copenhagen and more akin to what happened to the World Trade Organization when they met here many years ago, Cancún showed the power of small, rhyzomal networks to bend the arc of history.

In monasteries and convents from Bhutan to Trieste, monks and nuns gathered up their robes and booked flights to the Mayan Riviera. There they met and linked arms with backyard inventors from Guatemala, bicyclists from Nova Scotia, Amazonian Indians, climate scientists, Lapland herders, political games-theorists, bloggers, tweeters, Chinese youth, Greenpeace Warriors of the Rainbow, Mariachis, Yucatecans, the poor, and the powerful. They joined in common cause. And their voices were heard.

We are in the final throws of the collapse of the Industrial Empire, which began at about the turn of the 20th Century and will conclude, probably with the same abruptness as experienced in the former Soviet Union, some time soon. That event is a minor blip in history, however. What drew young and old, weak and strong to Cancún was the end of history, as Bill McKibben put it, 20 years ago.

All of the international dickering and jostling for position between the world’s politicians falls against the backdrop of historically unprecedented changes that will be overtaking the climate and will radically alter the gameboard long before most newer and more effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation can evolve. Unlike in Copenhagen, where a debate about purloined emails seemed to consume the world press contingent and threw the discussions back on their heels, everyone in Cancún arrived with the same set of assumptions. Even if the UN is broken, we cannot afford many more years of worsening fires across Russia, floods in Pakistan, and blizzards in London, Paris and New York. People now get that all that, in one year, was the effect of less than a single degree of atmospheric warming, over the course of a century. What will 4 degrees change look like, they are asking, by, say, 2060?

The UK Met Office was on hand to answer such questions. All that heat is not distributed equally. It is hotter and dryer in the center of continental landmasses. It is getting warmer faster at the poles than at low latitudes. The Northern Hemisphere, which has global dimming from soot and greater heat absorption by the lower atmosphere than the Southern Hemisphere, has been slipping its jet stream track. Oceans have absorbed 22 times more heat than the atmosphere. In the water cycle, a warmer ocean evaporates more and a warmer atmosphere holds more. Hence, intensity of rainfall (and snowfall in winter) is accelerating. In the Arctic so much ice has melted there is now a near-permanent high pressure system over the North Atlantic, driving severe weather and flooding into Europe and sponging out precipitation elsewhere. The result is chaotic weather volatility.

This has enormous implications for global food production and reliable water sources for cities.
As we describe in our new book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, the dawn of agriculture coincided with an extraordinarily long epoch of mild climate geologists call the Holocene. Mild climate variation provided predictability and reliability of temperature and precipitation that made broadscale organized agriculture possible. Agriculture made civilization possible.

All of that is about to unravel. We are now in the Anthrocene, an epoch of human-moderated climate chaos, also called the Age of Stupid. Extreme variation is the new order of business. Our system of global agriculture, really no more than a method of transforming oil into marginally nutritious food for much of the world, is about to fail us, massively.

The Green Korea Program, for all its great ideas, is probably about 30 years too late. China’s ambitious solar power goals should have begun when Chairman Mao was still in charge. Germany may have some of the best technology development programs going, but the train may have already left the station.

One thing that was barely addressed in Cancún was the issue of lifestyle. While it is no longer taboo to talk about this, as it was just 5 years ago, no-one apart from indigenous peoples, ecovillagers and Transition Towners seems to grasp what much of it entails.

In 1966, the American economist Alfred E. Kahn described a situation where a number of decisions, individually small in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in an outcome which is not desired by anyone. Kahn called his concept “The Tyranny of Small Decisions” after watching the fate of the Ithaca passenger rail service.

For more than a century, the railway was the only reliable way to get in and out of Ithaca. It provided services regardless of conditions, in fair weather and foul, during peak seasons and off-peak seasons. The local airline and bus company skimmed the traffic when conditions were favorable, leaving the trains to fill in when conditions were difficult. The collective individual decisions made by travellers did not provide the railway with the revenue it needed to cover its incremental costs, similar to the circumstance of the U.S.’s and other postal services with the advent of Federal Express.

Later, in 1982, William Odum introduced the “Tyranny of Small Decisions on the Environment,” saying that none of us would consciously choose dirty air or water but collectively our small decisions do. Its all about lifestyle choices which seem inconsequential because of context.

Threatened and endangered species owe their predicament to series of small decisions. Polar bears, humpback whales, wolves and bald eagles suffer from the cumulative effects of single decisions to overexploit or convert their habitats.

Permafrost is now melting in Alaska. Methane clathrates are bubbling up off Norway. We may already be across a threshold where tipped forcings cascade us into a much hotter world. Even if not, we’ll need to withstand the shockwaves of our past 30 years of foot-dragging as they rattle our windows with firestorms and thunderblizzards for the next several centuries.
The hard choices are actually easy ones, which you can see if you visit your nearest ecovillage or go to an Open Café hosted by a node in the Transition Network. Lose the SUV. Get a bike. Grow a garden. Make friends with your neighbors. Disinvest in the tape worm. Follow the Popsicle Index.

And eventually, as you gain traction, mobilize the vote. Develop and protect higher levels of decision making and responsible regulations. There is a need for politicians and planners to understand large scale perspectives. High school science teachers should include large scale processes in their courses, with examples of the problems that decision making at inappropriate levels can introduce.

Cancún’s system of voluntary pledges and economic incentives for private actors is only a partial approach to the problem. It tries to use only a carrot, but sometimes a stick is also required. So far, the political will for a stick approach is not there. Activists have to align with the pro-stick people. Get used to it: at a planetary level the U.N. is the only one with that large a stick.

If there is a way to still get out of our predicament, the Cancún Agreements at least point us in that direction. Now it is up to all the participants to pick up their tools and get working.

Is it too little? Yup.

Does it lack teeth? Yup.

The Cancún Agreements are merely a prod.  They offer a way forward. The next step is yours.

Next: The Cancún Butterfly. 




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