Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pour Evian on Your Radishes

Evian is making a killing in Japan. With bottled water in scarce supply (rationed to 2 liters per person when it is available at all), it's seller's market. And yet, one of the best uses of Evian in northeast Japan might be pouring it into the dirt.

When we were contacted by the Permaculture Institute of Japan about what they should do regarding Fukushima radioactivity, we had a number of immediate suggestions, and over the weeks more have trickled in from our extended permaculture family. GE's Japanese Nuclear Disaster still has the attention of the world. It is like the BP Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, a slow-moving monster, chewing up rich, diverse, biological ecosystems and leaving a toxic cancer on the landscape that will fester for decades, if not centuries.

It was with a sad shake of our head that we read George Monbiot's  and David Strahan's  recent posts in defense of nuclear electricity. They have so imbibed the British atomic KoolAid that they actually seem to believe that burning the genes of future children to power PlayStations today is a better idea than, say, teaching our children how to build windmills. They have been duped even on the underlying premise, that nuclear power is carbon-free.


Studies in 2005 and 2007 by J.W. Storm van Leeuwen's group in the Netherlands still provide the best look at the carbon cost of the nuke lifecycle. Storm van Leeuwen looked at every single subcomponent of the fuel cycle from uranium mine to waste disposal and estimated 112-166 gCO2/kWh. (Storm van Leeuwen, J.W., Smith, P., 2007. Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance). In 2008, Benjamin Sovacool screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear facilities to identify a subset of the most current, original, and transparent studies (see: Sovacool, B.K., 2008. Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey, Energy Policy 36:2940-2953). Not surprisingly, most of the studies had to be discarded.  Thirty-nine percent of lifecycle studies reviewed were more than 10 years old. Nine percent, while cited in the literature, were inaccessible. Thirty-four percent did not explain their research methodology, relied completely on secondary sources, or were not explicit about the distribution of carbon-equivalent emissions over the different stages of the fuel cycle. All in all, 81% of studies had methodological shortcomings. Storm van Leeuwen's group's studies stood up to Sovacool's rigor.

What Sovacool found was that estimates of nuclear's carbon footprint varied widely, from 1.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh (gCO2e/kWh) to 288 gCO2e/kWh, but that the high estimates took the most into account. The low estimates were a product of reducing the scope of the footprint to be studied.

Obviously, there are problems in estimating lifecycle impacts, especially using data limited to a single reactor or component, or historical data that may or may not represent future trends. So, for instance, every time uranium ore grade declines by a factor of ten, energy inputs to mining and milling must increase by at least a factor of ten. Storm van Leeuwen pointed out that this can greatly skew estimates, as uranium of 10% U3O8 has emissions for mining and milling at just 0.04 g CO2/kWh, whereas uranium at 0.013% grade has associated CO2 emissions more than 1500 times greater. The same trend is true for the emissions associated with uranium mine land reclamation. As Amory Lovins said in reference to estimating nuclear fuel cycle emissions in 1974, an error by a factor of 2 (half or double) at each stage of a 20-stage process can produce a million-fold error.

That said, rigorous lifecycle analyses for 15 separate distributed generation and renewable energy technologies found that all emitted less CO2 than the mean reported for nuclear plants.

While nuclear power may produce less CO2e than fossil fuels, it produces considerably more than most renewables, and at a considerably higher price per either kWh or installed Watt. Why Monbiot and Strahan, both skilled reporters, fail to grasp this is puzzling.
Now, in light of the ongoing events in Japan, I want to just take a minute to talk about nuclear power.  Right now, America gets about one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy.  And it's important to recognize that nuclear energy doesn't emit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  So those of us who are concerned about climate change, we've got to recognize that nuclear power, if it's safe, can make a significant contribution to the climate change question.
- President Barack Obama, Georgetown Univ., March 30, 2011.

The Fukushima complex is now exceeding allowable limits for effluent discharge by millions of times. The “accident” is far from over, and the worst parts of it continue to worsen. Fukushima may be for Japan what Chernobyl was for Russia - a complete economic game-changer and a transgenerational gigadeath event - but awareness of that is only slowly dawning. “The earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear accident may be Japan's largest-ever crisis,” the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, told his Parliament last week. Viewed centuries hence, that will be regarded as a cruel understatement.

We predicted this, going back more than 40 years, but it is small consolation. Is there a remedy? No, there is not. When speaking of man-made elements like plutonium, the damage is essentially forever. We are diminished. The world of our children will always be less safe and more sad than it was for our parents. That is on us.

It is also slowly dawning on the Japanese that radioactivity is not something that can be scrubbed away with soapy water. It has a Midas touch. Everything it contacts becomes fiendishly toxic. So every drop of water, concrete, foam, rubber glove, fire hose, or anything else that comes into Fukushima's arc becomes a lethal assassin.

With water gushing into the sea and steam droplets and soot dropping for hundreds of miles around, Fukushima's hot touch is spreading. Already, more than 50 municipalities are contaminated. Shoppers are being told to peel the outer layers off of cabbage and celery.

After the cores decay to just one percent of their original temperature, they will still be giving off enough heat to evaporate 200 tons of water a day. Everything contaminated transforms into an agent of contamination, and so the virus spreads. This will go on for nonconsensual generations.
Blame Steven Chu, then, because when it comes to America's energy predicament, the President has been woefully misinformed. Mr. Obama pawned off a roster of notions and proposals already product-tested in the public meme-o-sphere. Almost every one of these ideas is inconsistent with reality, based on faulty premises, or represents some kind of magical thinking. What they have in common is that they're ideas the public wants to hear, whether they are truthful or not, because we don't want to change the way we live. 

Making lemonade out of sour lemons is no easy trick, but we try. We recommended to PIJ, which is close to Tokyo but outside the immediate danger zone, that they build hoophouses, bring in safe soil, and monitor everything that goes in an out of their food production space for radioactivity - including water and people. That is how they will make food. It is not sustainable to rely on canned goods. We recommend using bottled water to help the plants grow if local tap water is found to be radioactive. Hence the Evian on the dirt, or for rinsing jars of sprouts. Forget eating local fish. That's done, unless they are grown in tanks of Evian.

Helping poisoned soil regain its health will be a very long process. Mycologist Paul Stamets recommends creation of a Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone. There have been some studies on forest processes in controlled exposure areas at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Los Alamos in New Mexico and a mixed oak-pine forest near Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, but they are more cautionary than encouraging. At Oak Ridge, for instance, pine needles still contain radioactive elements in significant quantities 40 years after exposure.
That is actually the good news. By collecting and deep burying radioactive pine needles and fallen trees, we can gradually cleanse the contaminated soil a Nuclear Forest is rooted in. We have to handle byproducts carefully, and also bury our gloves and tools along with the wood products, but this is the technique.

Radioactivity doesn't go away except by the process of radioactive decay. For each element there is a particular rate of decay, or half-life, and there is nothing that can hasten that process. By bombarding radioactive material with neutrons (such as in a reactor) we can change one radioactive element into different fission products or isotopes of itself, and some of those will have shorter half-lives, but some will not. That process is expensive and also like sending King Midas back into the lab to do the cleanup.

Stamets recommends planting native deciduous and conifer trees, along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal mushrooms, particularly Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and Laccaria amethystina (all native to pines). G. glutinosus has been reported to absorb - via the mycelium - and concentrate radioactive Cesium 137 more than 10,000-fold over ambient background levels. Many other mycorrhizal mushroom species also hyper-accumulate. That speeds up the accumulation by radioactive pine cones and other forest materials and when the mushrooms form you can also harvest those under radioactive HAZMAT protocols.

At Oak Ridge they have also demonstrated ways to reduce waste volume by using a closed venturi incinerator with HEPA filters to dispose of flammable radioactive waste (i.e.: pine needles, Hazmat suits, used HEPA filters). We can only hope the Japanese government will be more scrupulous in regulating their incinerators than US and Tennessee regulators have been. The Oak Ridge incinerator, today the site of annual protest marches that you will never see on television, has contaminated a wide area around itself that is a long-neglected SuperFund site, championed and then abandoned by successive administrations. Also neglected is the facility that vitrifies the ash into glass and ceramic forms for long-term disposal. And so will be most of Oak Ridge, eventually.

Paul Stamets asks, “How long would this remediation effort take? I have no clear idea but suggest this may require decades. However, a forested national park could emerge -The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone - and eventually benefit future generations with its many ecological and cultural attributes.”

That may be a bit optimistic. While tourism is now being permitted in Chernobyl, the long-term damage to animals there, the soil food web, and especially the fungi has yet to be fully assayed. What has been observed - listless woodchucks, punch-drunk badgers - is disturbing.
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love`s bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge
- Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

Cleaning contaminated bodies of water can be done in much the same manner, by building artificial wetlands, harvesting grasses, reeds and hyacinths, and deep-burying the biomass, either before or after secure incineration. Wetlands are the fastest growing media for aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, and those plants have rapid life cycles so the throughput times are dramatic.

However, there is no free lunch when it comes to radioactivity. After gathering and burying reeds and hyacinths, you still have to bury your Hazmat suit and scrub.

It is possible, though untested to our knowledge, that vermiculture could accelerate bioremedation of damaged soils and might be a way to work at a smaller scale, such as in hoophouses or with indoor container plants. Worms plow through soil and run everything through their bacterially-rich gut, depositing castings in their wake. It might be worth examining how much radioactivity bioaccumulates in the worms, as opposed to their castings. If it is significant, a worm farmer can continuously harvest, destroy, and geosequester his herd.
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of the fury in the final hour.
- Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

If this entire discussion gives you a queasy feeling, that's good. You are still human. It is now worth saying again that none of this kind of thing happens with wind, solar, or tidal energy, and there is, and has been, more of those kinds of energy sources available to Japan, and everyone else, at a cheaper price, since the beginning of the nuclear age. What we are witnessing is the (partial) meltdown of a massive public relations lie that began right after Hiroshima and serves solely the economic interests of companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, Halliburton and Bechtel.

It bears repeating. We are diminished.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Itsy Bitsy Spiderwort

"Permaculturists are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick."

Since the reactor meltdown in Japan we have been in communication with the Permaculture Institute there, offering advice, equipment and public health-related resources. They were quick to inform us that the shelves in stores were becoming barren of canned goods and water, that fresh produce and tap water was no longer reliable, and that people were afraid to garden because the possibility of soil contamination. While there is no quick and easy solution to these problems, there are things that dedicated permaculturists can do. We are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick.

Firstly, lets have a look at the problem. Like most developed countries, Japan has gone from a nation of people who walked and used animals for transport, to one that depends on cars, trucks, trains, and high tech. Using first coal and oil, and then nuclear power, they have been able to hire versatile energy slaves for every purpose, and have become utterly dependent on many technological prosthetics. With high speed rail and fast highways carrying food from country to city, Japan has urbanized its population to more than 15,000 people per square mile in its cities.

So, when a collapse of the nuclear house of cards finally came — and it is inevitable everywhere they have been built, it is just a matter of time — it affected a great many people. Lets briefly recap where the Japanese ‘accident’ stands at this writing.

The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake of Friday, March 11, 2011, has been long expected. Japan is located near the boundary of three plates (the Boso Triple Junction) that have been relatively quiet since a 8.3 magnitude quake in 1923 that killed 142,000 people. While Japan has engineered its buildings to withstand such events and prevent great loss of life, the 2011 quake produced maximum ground accelerations that exceeded the design specifications for 4 of the 6 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (as well as for all of the nuclear plants in the United States). Although Fukushima was protected by a seawall that was designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 metres (19 ft), the wave that struck the plant, which is on the coast, was estimated to be more than twice that height at 14 metres (46 ft). At least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that built up within their containment buildings after cooling system failure.

At the Fukushima complex, roughly 70 percent of the core of reactor No.1 suffered severe damage, but is now being hosed down, so that the oxidizing fuel in the core is no longer melting. Still, a witches’ brew of long-lived radionuclides are being carried away in steam and ocean runoff. The melted rods have been encrusted with salt from seawater, which will make them a continuing health hazard until they have cooled and are encased in concrete.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it has found a crack in the pit at its No.2 reactor, generating readings of 1,000 millisieverts of radiation per hour in the air inside the pit. For those old enough to remember the rads and rem nomenclature, that would be 10 rem per hour. Actually, they probably meant to say 10 grays per hour, but they got it wrong.

The nuclear industry switched from rads and rem a decade or more ago to grays and sieverts because that made the worst cases seem much more minor. A sievert is 100 rem so a rem is 10 mSv. A millisievert is 100 millirem (0.1 rem). Rem (for “radiation equivalent for man”) is a health physics term that attempts to calculate what portion of a rad (rate of disintegration in dry air) is biologically absorbed. Grays are the new rads, sieverts the new rem. Decimals have been shifted to confuse us.

While no amount of radiation is safe — the tiniest fraction has the potential to either kill you or leave you undisturbed, much like taking a stroll through a mine field — the industry allows its workers to receive an annual dose of 17 rem or 170 mSv in the US and 20 mSv in Japan. The limit for workers during Fukushima emergency has now been elevated to 250 mSv/year. Therefore the observed dose in Reactor No. 2 exceeds the annual allowable dose in about fifteen minutes. To work inside that space, TEPCO would need to replace every employee every fifteen minutes, and the retiring employees would need to go somewhere far enough away to be uncontaminated for a year before they could return to work.

Workers at Reactor #2 are attempting to plug the crack with concrete, presumedly working in 15 minute shifts.

Over at Reactor #3, which violently exploded on YouTube on March 14— some days before TEPCO and the Japanese government admitted it had a serious problem there — a long vertical crack is running down the side of the reactor vessel itself. Since the surrounding containment building has been blown away, it is easy to view the reactor from Google Earth. According to TEPCO, the crack runs down below the water level in the reactor and has been leaking fluids and gases since the explosion. “It’s up and down and it’s large,” TEPCO said. “The problem with cracks is they do not get smaller.” Number 3 is where they were using MOX fuel, or a mixture of plutonium and uranium. When you blend in plutonium in that volume, the public health threat is cubed.

Reactor #4 was out for service and the core was being stored in a swimming pool when the earthquake and tsunami took out offsite power. The heat from the fresh fuel quickly evaporated the coolant and once exposed to air the zirconium cladding oxidized (burned away) allowing the uranium and transuranic elements in the fuel pellets to collect at the bottom of the pool and melt together like radioactive lava. The hot mass has now cracked the concrete bottom of the pool but water is being poured in at a faster rate than it is going out, so for now the fuel is being cooled. Nonetheless, because of the random configuration, the potential for recriticality of the pile cannot be excluded, and in such an event a rekindled chain reaction could produce considerably more heat than fire hoses can cope with, meaning the core would once more uncover and burn.

As of last Friday, the fuel in the #4 pool was once more uncovered and burning. Observed “blue flashes” above the plant at night suggest that a rekindled chain reaction is indeed taking place.

High levels of radiation have been measured 40 km from the complex, well outside the evacuation zone. Low airborne levels, and contamination of fresh food and tap water have been measured in Tokyo, 140 km to the South. Some operating problems have also been reported at other nuclear reactor complexes in Japan that are attempting to go to cold shutdown status but have not succeeded.

With that situation in mind, we were asked by people in Japan what they should do with respect to food. Our reply has been three-fold. Firstly, people should eat only foods packaged prior to the March 11 earthquake, or imported from well outside the zone of potential contamination.

While we initially thought it a wives’ tale, we discovered some scientific support for miso soup and presumedly other fermented foods as well (natto, ontjom, tempeh, kim chi, sauerkraut, etc.). According to a group of Japanese researchers at the Department of Environment and Mutation, Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, Hiroshima University, miso (a fermentation product from soybeans) has a radioprotective effect on mice. Miso at three different fermentation stages (early-, medium- and long-term fermented miso) was mixed into biscuits at 10% and administered from 1 week before irradiation. Animal survival in the long-term fermented miso group was significantly prolonged as compared with the short-term and medium-term fermented miso. Delay in mortality was evident in all three miso groups, with significantly increased survival. At high doses (10 and 12 Gy X-irradiation at 4 Gy/min), the treatment with long-term fermented miso significantly increased survival. Thus, eating foods with prolonged fermentation appears to be very important for protection against radiation effects.

See: Ohara M,  et al, (2001) Radioprotective effects of miso (fermented soy bean paste) against radiation in B6C3F1 mice: increased small intestinal crypt survival, crypt lengths and prolongation of average time to death, Hiroshima Journal of Medical Sciences 50:4;83-86.

Secondly, food producers who are threatened with contamination should either evacuate the area, or if the contamination is slight or indirect, they should move growing operations indoors, erecting glass houses and polytunnels as needed. We recommended to the Permaculture Institute of Japan that they build a bioshelter and monitor anything going into the enclosed growing area as it came in — soil, water, seed, tools, people, etc. — to maintain radioactive sterility. Of course, there is no way of knowing if a single hot particle of plutonium carries in on someone’s clothes, but you do what you can. We are supplying Geiger counters from SE International here on The Farm.

Thirdly, obtain KU-9 Tradescantia cuttings from Dr. Sadeo Ichikawa at the University of Saitama, Uruwa, and clonally propagate those. Distribute them widely. For those unfamiliar with Tradescantia, our illustrated 1978 book, Honicker v. Hendrie: A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power, describes them in detail. Professor Ichikawa, while doing genetic research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY in the early 1970s, studied the effects of gamma radiation on reproductive integrity of stamen hairs in polyploid Tradescantia. After studying effects on chromosomes of various Tradescantia species (commonly known as spiderwort), Ichikawa was able to select and clonally propagate a number of cultivars in a species he named Tradescantia nonukes.

Tradescantia nonukes has two genes for color in the cells of the stamen hairs and petals. The dominant gene codes cells to display blue. The recessive gene codes cells to display pink. Spiderwort produces its flowers daily, so a change from blue to pink, or blue with purple splotches, would instantly signal the presence of an environmental mutagen. Well, “instantly” may be a stretch. Since mutagens can reach the sites of cell division by air, water and soil mineral uptake, the display may lag the exposure by some days.

Nonetheless, this is a very low cost and accurate biological Geiger counter. How accurate? By taking daily cell counts for color change along the single-cell strands of stamen hairs under a low-power optical microscope, Ichikawa and his SUNY-Brookhaven students were able to chart subtle changes in background radiation from day to day. In field trials outside a nuclear plant in Japan, Ichikawa accurately correlated known emissions data to responses by his plants.

The clones are highly sensitive, and moreover, they are not measuring ionizing radiation by static charge in dry air the way a Geiger tube does, using a mathematical model to extrapolate biological dose from studies of mice and dogs to humans. The plants are measuring biological uptake in the first instance and therefore monitoring all possible exposure pathways.

See C. H. Nauman, A. G. Underbrink and A. H. Sparrow (1975) Influence of Radiation Dose Rate on Somatic Mutation Induction in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs. Radiation Research 62:1; 79-96; Ichikawa, S. (1981), In Situ Monitoring with Tradescantia around Nuclear Power Plants, Environmental Health Perspectives 57:145-164, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); and Ichikawa, S., et. al., (1995), Flower production, stamen-hair growth, and spontaneous and induced somatic mutation frequencies in Tradescantia cuttings and shoots with roots cultivated with nutrient solutions, Japanese Journal of Genetics 70:5;585-600.

To those in Japan, and others, we urge that it is important to obtain genuine Tradescantia nonukes and not some common garden variety that does not have genetically dipolar coloration. The KU-9 clone is a perennial that can overwinter from Texas and Florida into Southern Canada, going back to its roots while dormant and re-emerging again in the Spring after last frost. In a greenhouse it can bloom all year. Every temperate climate permaculturist should have a supply.

We met Dr. Ichikawa in Louisville, Kentucky in 1976 and returned to Tennessee with samples of clonal Tradescantia nonukes that we have propagated since that time. Because of genetic variation, it should never be grown from seed, and any Spiderwort you get from a seed packet will not be a reliable radiation detector.

To clone Tradescantia is very easy. Select a long strand with at least three nodes between root and flower. Cut the strand near the root zone and then trim it back so that there are two extant nodes on the cut stem. Remove flowers and trim the leaves to one-half or one-third size (this reduces stress, since the plant cannot supply leaves and flowers until it has re-established roots). The cutting can remain dry for a few days, but the root end should be wrapped in moistened bathroom tissue to keep it from drying out. As soon as feasible, place the root end into a small vase or water glass. This will allow it to retain moisture and begin to grow new root hairs. Within a few days of cutting, or even immediately, the clone can be placed into moistened soil. It should establish there within a few weeks and in a month or so be making new flowers. The original stem will likely die back before flowering, but then re-emerge from its roots with fresh growth.

Reconditioning damaged soil is the next challenge, and we will discuss that here next post.

And by the way, smoking 1.5 packs/day gives you a radiation dose of 13-60 mSv/year. Tobacco is grown using superphosphate fertilizers that contain thorium, which decays to radium and its radioactive daughters (lead, bismuth and polonium). These particles are deposited on the sticky hairs of the tobacco leaf and then burned into the smoke you inhale, lodging in your lungs for decades, or being carried by your bloodstream to various long-term residences in your body. Just because you don’t work in a nuclear plant or live in Japan doesn’t mean you are free of risk from inhaled radioactive particles.

Try blowing smoke on a spiderwort plant and watch what happens.

(serves 2)

3 ounces dried soba noodles
2-4 tablespoons white miso paste
2-3 ounces firm tofu, chopped into 1/3-inch cubes
Handful of spinach, washed and trimmed
2 green onion, tops removed, thinly sliced
3 small shiitake caps, preferably hanadonko grade (white with black cracks)
Small handful cilantro, optional
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Cook soba noodles in salted water according to package directions. Drain and run cold water over the noodles to stop them from cooking. Set aside.

Stem, clean and slice the shiitake caps. If dried, rehydrate for some hours. In an iron skillet brown them lightly in olive oil and shoyu. This brings out the mushroom flavor. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan bring 4 cups water to boil. Reduce heat to gentle simmer and remove from heat. Pour a bit of the hot water into a small bowl and whisk in the miso paste…this allows the paste to thin out and prevents clumping. Stir the paste back into the pot. Add the tofu and shiitake, remove from the heat and let sit for a minute. Split the noodles between 2-3 bowls and pour the miso broth, shiitake and tofu over them. Add some spinach, green onion, cilantro, and (if desired) red pepper flakes to each bowl and serve.

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.





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