Monday, March 21, 2011

Another Chernobyl Moment

We have been getting a fair amount of mail and social media comments asking us what we think of the situation in Japan with multiple nuclear meltdowns now underway.

Our position remains unaffected by these events. What occurred is no accident. We challenged precisely this kind of malfeasance all the way to the Supreme Court (itself a malfeased product) in 1977 and wrote two books that specifically described these kinds of scenarios and what their public health consequences would be. Our two books, Honicker v. Hendrie and Shutdown! describe the earthquake vulnerabilities of Mark I reactors, as well as the anti-regulatory, anti-public-safety mindset of those charged with preventing catastrophes.

For 15 years we published a quarterly, Natural Rights, that drew attention to these issues. Natural Rights ran special issues on Chernobyl, the nuclear Black Market and related topics. We have written in the Post Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) that without the highly enriched uranium warheads to beat into fuel rods in places like Tennessee, nuclear power’s tank would be out of gas within the decade. Perhaps that warning influenced a recent Senate vote to renew de-weaponizing steps with the Russians.

The Great Change has focused on these subjects from time to time, too. We published an exposé of the Bush war crimes in Thanksgiving in Fallujah (11/22/09) involving gross radioactive contamination of a large urban population. In Barry and the Dinosaurs (2/28/10) we took the terrorist President and his millionaire Republican buddies to task for his plan to quadruple US nuclear power capacity by throwing aside all cautionary restrictions, much the way they did for offshore drilling shortly before the Macondo blowout. We then published in Nukes on the Loose (April ’10) an indictment of the Obama failure to observe the NPT and his decision to arm nuclear rogue states, as well as sending toadies out proliferating weapons technologies under the guise of Safe! Clean! Too-cheap -to-meter! nuclear energy.

In Standing Up To Bullies (Memorial Day, May ‘10) we described how Obama did everything but nuke the Nuclear Non-Proliferation talks, using every tactic available to him to undermine a regime of international safeguards being crafted by the UN expressly to prevent new nuclear weapons from being built. He surely did his benefactors proud then.

We ally ourselves with the remarks of Stoneleigh at The Automatic Earth, who asked, rhetorically, what responsibility natural events had for both the Japanese reactor “accidents” and the damage to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, the answer is "almost none."

There are dark forces loosed in the world. In the collapse of complexity brought about in no small measure from the radionuclides lodged in our brains, we will soon lose, if we have not already, the ability to safely operate, never mind fix, these monstrosities. Lets call them for what they are: corporate socialism; welfare for the super-rich; a cheap carnie scam to bottle physics and sell it as a wonder drug.

In the Ring of Fire that circles the Pacific plates there are a few faultlines waiting to awaken that are now overdue. These run down the middle of a number of active coastal reactors and their highly lethal waste pools, and one is quite near to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the Cold War’s hot legacy sits in rusting tank farms, waiting for their special moment in predictive physics. Simple math and the geologic record informs us it won’t be a long wait. Those tanks are in such bad shape they don’t even need an earthquake or tsunami. A short-circuited agitator might do the job.

We stand beside Dmitry Orlov at Club Orlov who said, simply, “Shut it all down. All of it. Now. Please.”


Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Real El Dorado

"Resiliency demands something quite different than specialization and diligent professionalism. Resiliency calls for an equally amazing and profound rise in competence on the part of citizens, consumers, eccentrics, dissenters, minorities... in other words, the generalist talents of amateurs."
— David Brin, Essences, Orcs and Civilization (2007)

We occasionally write for Terra Nuova, the Italian environmental/alternative living magazine, and we were recently interviewed by one of their writers who lives in Spain. Here is the original interview, conducted February 24, 2011, in English.

TN: Saludos de Espana, Albert….

AB: Saludos, Simon, and if you have any contact with Spanish publishers I would love to find one to translate and publish The Biochar Solution. Here in México there is great demand for a Spanish edition. Same goes for the Post-Petroleum Cookbook. Terra Nuova arranged a contact for us with EcoHabitar in 2007 but then came the crash of Madrid banks and the publishing loans stopped and the book project aborted. I need a Spanish publisher!

At least Terra Nuova is bringing out The Biochar Solution in Italian, the way they did for the Post-Petroleum Cookbook.

TN: How do you see biochar integrating into small, sustainable farms in countries with heavily industrialized agricultural systems like Italy?

AB: Biochar has application to both small scale and large commercial operations, but I see the future as one of the smallholder coming to predominate. There are many reasons for the shift but the two largest drivers will be Peak Oil and Climate Change. Industrial agriculture will attempt to fight against the onslaught of astronomically high fuel prices and unpredictable and catastrophic weather, using GMO seeds, government subsidies, and hi-tech machines, but Big Agriculture will be at a gradually increasing competitive disadvantage to small farmsteads and backyard growers who can substitute labor in the form of tender loving care and watering. Big Ag is stuck with highly-capitalized, hydrocarbon-intensive and wasteful mechanization and a chemical dependency that would make William S. Burroughs blush. With steadily declining returns eating up their profit margins, I don’t know where they will find bankers willing to finance them.

Biochar, as one part of the natural, organic style of farming, is symbolic of the advantage that small growers will have, because it can be produced at any scale, works best if used in combination with compost and compost teas, and produces dramatic results almost immediately. Another competitive advantage is the "Facebook Revolution" that is now toppling dictators in the Middle East. Small growers can take away the large market advantage held by Big Agriculture by using local food cyber-cooperatives and groceries-by-subscription. Biochar production will probably follow that same path, being small and local in production (on-farm is best) rather than bagged and sold in WalMart or Tesco.

TN: Do we have time, climate-wise, to do in-depth field research and testing on biochar before applying it on a large scale?

AB: Fortunately, plenty of the in-depth field research and testing has already been done — at least all the most critical parts. We know enough to say with confidence that, provided it can go through some kind of quality control, biochar is (a) safe and (b) effective. Remaining research primarily is about optimization, and that will evolve with time. Biochar can be used safely and profitably now, at any scale we can imagine.

The standards being developed by the International Biochar Initiative, in a global, transparent, scientifically-based process, will help bridge the remaining gap to assure commercial product quality, define acceptable feedstocks, and provide uniform chemical and physical properties tests to be applied by governmental and third-party certification agencies. Disclaimer: I am on the board of the US Biochar Initiative so my views of the importance of this work may be somewhat prejudiced.

TN: How does biochar fit into food sovereignty of developing nations? Will its uptake tend to encourage small, diversified farms or large, monocultures in these countries, and why?

AB: One of the great pieces of scientific research undertaken in recent years was the economic analysis of big and global versus small and local in the production and use of biochar. The results were surprising to many, not the least the university researchers who are mainly funded by Big Ag. What they found by doing sensitivity analysis of the bottom line is something permaculturists have known for a long time. We call it "stacked function." If a large central facility hauls biomass in from a great distance, using big trucks, big grinders, a drying and curing stage, and then a multi-story pyrolysis kiln, it can produce massive amounts of biochar, which then has to be packaged and transported to distant farms and gardens. All of that is extraordinarily capital, energy and fuels intensive, and the process heat is usually just wasted in the manufacturing, adding to global warming.

Alternatively, a small- to medium-sized farmer (a good example is Thomas Harttung in Denmark) might produce biochar from farm wastes like chicken manure, straw, corn stover, etc. in a kiln inside a greenhouse. None of the heat is wasted. It warms the areas being used to produce vegetables in winter, or to heat the animal barns. In summer it might run a Stirling engine and make electricity, or a heat engine to pump water. All of these energy services represent profits to the farmer that are in addition to the production of biochar. Because it is produced on site, the distances traveled to bring feedstocks and send soil amendments is very short and can even be done with human and animal labor.

The government of Senegal now has an interior Ministry of Ecovillages, with a goal of converting 10,000 traditional rural villages to model African ecovillages within the next decade or so. Two aspects of this work will be energy and soil fertility, the two sides of the biochar coin. One can easily imagine a village that harvests vetiver grass or moringa branches to pelletize into fuel for smokeless stoves of the type being built in village-scale kit micro-factories like WorldStove’s. The villagers cook their food efficiently, make biochar instead of smoke and ashes, and then put the biochar into their composting toilets. The carbon-rich humanure goes to tree-planters or to areas where more vetiver is being sown. This is a model that exemplifies both full-cycle carbon-negative living and sustainable village development in the best sense intended by the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism.

TN:  Taking local and regional ‘resilience’ (in the Transition movements sense of the word) as paramount, where does biochar fit into resilient food and energy systems?

AB: One of the characteristics of the terminal phase of the Anthropocene, which we are now entering, is volatility. Certainly we see that in climate, as we leave the extraordinarily tranquil Holocene, with 10000 years of amazing weather stability (caused at least in part, I would argue, by the ethical land care practices of indigenous peoples) and enter a period of wayward monsoons, super-hurricanes, historic droughts and other calamities. We see it also in the end of the fossil fuel era, beginning with petroleum but quickly following with depletion of natural gas and coal. That expanding collapse has been responsible for both the reversals in our financial markets and the civil turmoil we are seeing around the world, from Tunisia to Wisconsin, although it is masked by the long-simmering inequalities and repression that set the conditions for the crisis to boil over.

Well, what does 'resilient' mean? It means the ability to buffer the storm; the capacity to take a hit and then stand back up. I am famous for saying that the time to mend sail is not in the heart of the gale. Now, while times are still relatively calm, is the time to be building stores in preparation for what is coming. In the case of biochar, we are building the health and fertility of our soils, which is better than any money in the bank. It will continue to give us food when all around us plants are shrivelling in the heat or waterlogged by flood. It will supply us carbon-negative heat and energy (soothing Gaia's fever to restore her tranquil nature) and keep our houses moderated and well lit when air conditioning and fuel oil become nearly unaffordable. Carbon farming in the broader sense (including not just biochar but no-till organic, keyline management, holistic grazing, compost teas and agroforestry) will provide us something that no amount of military expenditures can: security.

TN: What can people do to help spread the production and use of biochar?

AB: The best way to begin is by having some char on hand somewhere between your kitchen and your compost pile. In Tennessee I make most of my biochar in the winter, when I am running a woodstove. I have a small metal insert that I fill with wood scraps or bamboo (I grow a lot of bamboo) and I save a pile of that that I can use every time I take out my compostable kitchen scraps. In México I get my “carbon” from the local Mayan tradespeople who make it the traditional way that I describe in my book.

I open a hole in my compost pile, put in the char (if it is already pulverized, otherwise I bag it and pound it with a mallet first), and then put in the fresh kitchen scraps. Then I turn it all into the pile, mixing it well in the process. With a little luck, earthworms will digest both the biochar powder and the compost together, making a wonderful worm-casting that is ideal for the garden.

The next best way is to buy a case of my book, The Biochar Solution, and give one to each of your friends.

TN: How important is biochar to tackling climate change in any significant way? 

AB: I am fond of reminding people that carbon is stored in only 4 possible places: Earth -- both the topsoil and the deeper parts, including oil fields and coal mines; Air -- the atmosphere; Water -- oceans, lakes, rivers and ice; and Fire -- us! the living, moving, breathing parts, including all the plants, trees, algae, fish, birds, animals, bacteria and people. The problem of climate change is that Gaia has become unbalanced by human activity, and so too much carbon (and other elements) have been taken out of the Earth and put into the Air. Air said, "Whoa. I can't handle that" and passed it to Water. Water now has so much it has become poisoned with carbolic acid and the corals are bleaching and the shellfish are dissolving, so it is trying to send it back to Air. Where it belongs is back in Earth.

The way to get it back into Earth is through Fire, much the same way it came out. We, the fire people, have to make coal and bury it, reversing the past 500 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The good news is, once we start doing this we discover we actually can make more and better food that way. Our soils grow deeper and darker with each passing year. This was no secret to the makers of terra preta in the Amazon, who grew their food this way for 8000 years, but we are only just rediscovering this ancient wisdom.

The amount of excess carbon being held by the atmosphere each year is 3.2 gigatonnes. This raises the concentration somewhere between one and two parts per million each year. Bill McKibben has said, "Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin won't exist, at least not for long, as long as we remain on the wrong side of 350." By that he means we need to get back to 350 parts per million. This year we will cross over 390 parts per million, about the same time we cross over into 7 billion humans, this season’s people. So the problem is certainly to reduce the number of humans, hopefully gracefully, but then to bring down that excess carbon below 3.2 GtC net.

Advocates of carbon farming, such as the switch to organic farming advocated by Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan and others, put the potential at around 1 GtC/yr. IBI scientists say biochar’s potential is 4-10 GtC/yr, because you can incentivize the use beyond the immediate food payback, such as through clean stove programs. However, the really big gorilla, in terms of fast sequestration, is tree planting, which I have estimated to have an 80 GtC/yr potential, once you start re-greening some of the major deserts of the world. All three of these strategies, working in conjunction, provide a path to restore the carbon balance in both the atmosphere and the ocean, on decadal timeframes, before the worst tipping points can kick in and send us screaming towards the climate of Venus, something none of us wants.

There are those who will naturally oppose this sort of large-scale tampering, calling it "geo-engineering," "the next market bubble," or other epithets. My feeling is that the ship has already sailed; farmers already know about the benefits and will begin using biochar anyway, and whether there is a market bubble or dangerous climate interference it will not be much different, although probably better, than what is happening right now. What we are doing, after all, is re-creating conditions that existed in the New World before the encounters by Zheng He, Columbus and Pizarro. In the case of Europe, we are bringing home, finally, the real gold of El Dorado.

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. 




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.