Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fracking Culture

"We are right at that spaghetti junction where all the lines converge with population and resources, food supply, energy, water and the rest. We’re at that point right now, in exactly the decade The Club of Rome predicted we would arrive here. We have to somehow get through this collapsing passageway and into the next paradigm."

This past week, before leaving to attend the gathering of the Ecovillage Network of Canada at La Cité Écologique in Quebec, we were asked to speak at a forum hosted by Nashville Peace and Justice Center concerning hydrofracking, mountaintop removal, and nuclear power in Tennessee. This is a rough transcript of those remarks.
First I want to start with setting a context, because usually you begin with a problem statement. A lot of what we address at the Ecovillage Training Center and in our curricula for trainings and workshops are methodologies for a switch — a massive transition — from the past paradigm that is failing us now to something entirely new that has the potential for success — to make us successful as a species in partnership with all the other species on the planet. 
To do that, you have to understand the need for a realistic framework to get us from where we are to where we are going, and to, in some sense, reverse engineer it, seeing where we want to be and then backcasting to see what steps are necessary to get us where we want to be within a reasonable time frame.
Phasing out of emissions from coal, oil and natural gas — particularly methane — is an enormous challenge. To change over the entire fossil fuel paradigm to a post-petroleum paradigm is an enormous challenge. You have to think about how such a transition is even possible. The current administration’s plan — the Obama/Boehner/Bachmann drill baby drill menu — is all about Canadian tar sands, a pipeline from Canada, the Marcella Shale, the Bakkan and various other plays, offshore deep wells and ways to accelerate the fossil end game. If that succeeds, it is essentially game over. There is no way we are going to take all that carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere in the timeframe that we need to. We’re going to get runaway warming, the methane clathrates bubbling up from the bottom of the oceans, and various other nightmare scenarios.
Nuclear power has been held out as a carbon-free alternative source of energy, but that is the same PR bull we have been handed since Our Friend The Atom was foisted upon innocent schoolchildren, and was also given to the Japanese schoolchildren, by the way. If you look at the entire nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear is black carbon dirtier than natural gas and not quite as dirty as coal. Coal is more radioactive than natural gas but not as radioactive as nuclear. All of them kill people in order to do what? Boil water. They kill unborn children in future generations, and expose them to horrible birth defects and cancers in order to brew coffee and dry hair.
We are all the victims of TVA’s efforts to feather its own nest at our expense. This goes back a century to the battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison for control of the electricity market in New York City. Westinghouse won, and what we got was energy that was ever more expensive every year, non-renewable, and unsafe at every turn. Those are the people who built the Fukushima nuclear plants, as well as the reactor that is getting flooded in Nebraska now. They are the mountaintop removal cabal.
The grid was created to suit itself, not the people it was supposed to serve. Edison wanted to charge people by the number of lights they had. Instead, George Westinghouse charged people by the kilowatt-hour and sold them the most inefficient lightbulbs he could make. And so it went for 100 years – they encouraged people to add more and more gadgets to their homes, and to buy appliances with planned obsolescence, and to then make you need a bigger house to store all that stuff. It was a sales campaign dressed up as labor saving, or civilized living. What we got was an unhappy, disastrously wasteful and soon-to-be-extinct culture. Coal, gas, and nuclear — they are part of that same paradigm. It is a huge conspiracy being foisted on us by the best government corporations could buy. It is all suicidally insane. TVA is clinically insane. What do you call someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over, never proving what they claim they are doing, getting the exact opposite result, but telling you this time the result will be different? I mean, other than a Republican? Clinically insane. That’s clinically insane.
And so, if you look at where are we now, we are right where Dennis and Dana Meadows said back in 1972 we would be in the Limits to Growth study. We are right at that spaghetti junction where all the lines converge with population and resources, food supply, energy, water and the rest. We’re at that point right now, in exactly the decade they predicted we would arrive here. 
We have to somehow get through this collapsing passageway and into the next paradigm. And so what we do at the Ecovillage Training Center — what ecovillages around the world are all trying to do — is to provide models, transition pathways, to get us to that next step, to get us to where we are going. And some of that is food supply, some of that is energy, some is building materials and how we get our buildings, some of that is microeconomics, like complimentary currencies. Some of that is new methods of social networking and alternative education and midwifery and alternative health care and doing things in ways that we have known for hundreds of thousands of years and we need to get back to.
Show of hands: how many people here either saw the sunrise this morning or were up at that time? (some laughter, about 20% raise their hands). That’s pretty good. Your average audience – none. But in point of fact, that’s when the light came on. And you could get up and do chores and it was still cool for several hours. And we’re going to be here until after that light goes out tonight. We’ll be here after dark, and we will spend coal energy getting home, feeding our family, putting ourselves to bed, whatever, which we could do without all that dirty power if we just got up earlier.
So ecovillages are about that. They are trying to find ways that are relatively painless, in comparison to the kind of pain that civilization is about to experience — to lead the way, so that people can jump into these new models and start doing it for themselves and avoid the shock that comes of collapse. Because that is where this previous paradigm is heading us, and taking along a lot of other species, too.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tea Baggers Tickle the Dragon’s Tail

Outside the Fukushima plant and for some distance at night, can be seen the intermittently sparkling blue glow of re-criticality, as the melted fuel from four reactors, moderated by fresh water pumped from fire trucks, puts on a light show of ionized air over the coast of Japan. This is a requiem display, a salute of fireworks, because Japan, mortally wounded, is dying the same way the Soviet Union did, killed by the nuclear dragon it thought it had tamed.

Louis Slotin's Los Alamos ID
This same light show was once observed in 1946, with fatal consequences, by physics students working in Los Alamos on advancements to the atomic bomb. Louis Slotin, their 35-year-old Canadian instructor, had been the criticality math whiz of the Manhattan Project and had personally assembled the core of the Trinity device. His method of establishing critical mass values was very bold, not to say reckless. Slotin would push fissile masses together slowly until they displayed early onset signs of criticality to clickity-clacking Geiger meters. On May 21, 1946, Sloton demonstrated his technique, which Richard Feynmann had by then coined “tickling the dragon’s tail,” to the six star-struck students in his lab.

Using his bare hands, Sloton slowly moved a screwdriver out from between two beryllium half-spheres lined with uranium reflecting neutrons back to a 3.5-inch-diameter (89 mm) plutonium core. At exactly 3:20 p.m., the screwdriver slipped and the upper beryllium hemisphere fell. The room flashed iridescent blue and Slotin, reacting heroically, used his other hand to knock the spheres apart. He died horribly, nine days later, from the exposure, but he saved the rest of the people in the room, not to mention everyone within a 5 mile radius of Los Alamos.

The Idiotcracy that staged a palace coup in the US Congress last fall is now tickling the dragon’s tail of the full faith and credit of the United States. Refusing to give up tax breaks for the rich and powerful, the Exxons, BPs and Haliburtons, the tea baggers and their millionaire Republican allies are demanding elimination of medicare, privatization of Social Security, and a blather of deep social welfare cuts that any impartial accountant (the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, or the Office of Management and Budget,for instance) recognize as not only ineffective (pushing the USA into far greater, and more expensive, problems down the road), but purely political gamesmanship. The goal of that game, for millionaire Republicans, is to get as close to the brink as possible, elicit as many concessions for the wealthy as possible by beggaring the poor, and then to pass a new debt ceiling and repeat the process.

The goal of the Tea Baggers, for whom nuance and strategy are not strong suits, is to play to the cheers of the Colosseum as they give thumbs down to federalism and separation of powers and toss the Moorish President to the lions.

The US is now officially without a fiscal budget, living on holdover spending, mere wax and string that runs out on August 2nd. The millionaire Republicans want to strike a deal on August 1st and ham it up for the cameras until then. The Tea Baggers want to strike a deal on August 3rd, if then, to give both the Democrats and Republicans a taste of the lash. Neither have any idea of what kind of dragon the tail they are tickling belongs to.

The US Treasury is limited by Congress to borrowing up to a debt limit, originally established in 1939. Since Congress originates all federal activities requiring funding, such as insanely expensive foreign war adventures or sending rockets up into space, Congress has to annually increase the debt limit to keep up. The last increase was in February, 2010, to $14.294 trillion. George W. Bush increased it 8 times, moving it from 57% of GDP to 84% of GDP. Under Obama, it has risen to 97% of GDP.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1935 that Congress does not have the power to void a government bond, so if any loans come due, it is obligated to pay them or default. Here is what happens if the Tea Baggers’ screwdriver slips:

There would be widespread banking collapse, not just in the US, but everywhere dollars are traded as the currency of choice for oil and other commodities. If economic transactions are halted, then trade and supply-chains break. The longer goods are stalled in the pipeline the more consumables and perishables decay in transit and storage or are consumed by present holders or returned to sender. Pipelines and machines rust, factories close, unemployment and starvation turns to riot.

The longer the down time and the wider the scale, the harder the re-boot once the idiots see what they have done. The dollar ceases once and forever to be the world’s reserve currency. Suddenly, instead of getting everything in the global economy at a discount, the US pays top dollar to buy, say, Swiss Francs, so it can pay for its addictions.

FEASTA’s David Korowicz, writing last month on large-scale risk management, said, “The wonder of our globalized economy is that in all this globalized integration and complexity there is no one in control…. So, while national economies may have an individual character, they have no autonomous existence in anything like their present form outside the globalized economy, just as an arm, lung or heart cannot declare independence from the human body.” Korowicz was underscoring the point that we are all coming to realize: the global economic body is delicately interconnected, and hungry, but there is no brain.

In the US, a Zombie Congress is dragging itself through the angry streets in search of fresh blood. It may, in the end, have to settle for consuming its own. This dragon does not like to be tickled.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spain’s Irish Spring

 Twenty-one and a half years ago we wrote:
“What will it be like when this world food crisis arrives? We can make some educated guesses. The decline in living standards will be felt everywhere. At the lowest level of poverty, the price of food will rise above the power to purchase. There will be food riots in major cities…. At the upper levels of wealth, the pain will be felt, but it will be less acute…. Inevitably, such stark differences in purchasing power will deepen animosities and elevate world tension.”
— Bates, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do (Book Publishing Co, 1990).

This past week we were sitting in a sidewalk restaurant with the leftist candidate for mayor of a city in Spain on the night before the election. As he got up to leave, we wished him well.

“Suerte,” we said (“good luck!”). He turned and looked at us with cow’s eyes. “Graçias,” he said, but he had a tone of sorrow, more than hope.

On May 15, a few activists had gathered in Puerta del Sol, a large public plaza in the center of Madrid, to protest the coming election and to register their general dissatisfaction with the situation in their country. Last year unemployment rose from 20.5% in August to 20.8% in September, the highest rate in the European Union, and probably in the developed world. Food and fuel prices had crossed a tipping point for many, where it was no longer other things that were being given up to pay for food, it was now food that was being given up.

Spain is a microcosm of the collapse phase Global Civilization finds itself in and the protest camps in many cities are an example of the bankruptcy of political ideology — it is adrift and uncomprehending. Neither the right nor the left are remotely proposing the degree of change that is needed (essentially, an end to oil addiction and a epoch of ecosystemic healing). The street protests have nothing further to offer — they are reactionary, but not revolutionary.

Spain elected a socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004 (and last month he announced he will not stand for re-election in 2012). Zapatero instituted liberal reforms, such as the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the Bush wars; legalization of both same-sex marriage and abortion; numerous gender equality laws; peace negotiation with the rebel ETA; unpopular tobacco restrictions; recognition of regional autonomy, particularly for the Statute of Catalonia; and the idea of an Alliance of Civilizations, co-sponsored by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. What was not anticipated by Zapatero, however, was the housing meltdown; the financial crash of 2008; euro deflation along with food and energy price escalation; and all of it against a background of Spain slowly obtaining the climate (and some of the population) of Northern Africa.

For many years, Zapatero’s government ran a current accounts deficit of 10% GDP, forcing Spain to borrow 7 to 8 billion euros every month, until, by 2010, the value of Spanish government paper debt had sunk so low that lenders simply stopped lending. Zapatero had inherited the same banking crisis Obama had, and it came to a head in the burst bubble of the housing sector. The Spanish economy had been hooked on household and corporate debt steroids with not just sub-prime but negative interest rates from early 2002 until mid-2006, causing "massive overheating" in the Spanish economy, which sucked 5 million immigrant workers from Africa in 8 years. But, just as in Iceland, Ireland and the USA, chickens invariably do come home to roost.

As the EU, IMF and Spain’s lenders started to pick up the pieces of their shredded balloon, severe austerity imposed by the Banksters put 5 million young Spaniards out of work and on the streets. As in Ireland, Spain responded by moderating its social programs (entitlements), cutting welfare spending, raising the age of retirement, and chipping public pension benefits by 20%. And, as in Ireland, discontent swelled.

The medicine had some effect because the ‘Bikini Graph’ that Zapatero’s emergency measures produced ran deeper and somewhat ahead of Obama’s.

Spain's 'Bikini Graph' showing its rebound in GDP (before IMF austerity controls take effect).

The problem is that both Ireland and Spain are trying to make major corrections to their economies while participating in a monetary union. Neither has a currency to devalue, or a central bank with capacity to print money and issue or recall bonds. Instead, both must achieve “internal devaluation” by cutting wages and prices until its accounts are back in line with its Eurozone partners.

On May 16, people wandered into Puerta del Sol to see what was going on with the protestors of the preceding day and were arrested for “illegal protest.” In response, the protests grew, and extended to rallies in central plazas of other Spanish cities. People came and camped. The police stopped evicting. It became Spain’s Tunisian Spring. Thousands are now camped out in central Madrid along with 60 other sites nationwide, creating temporary cities of the dispossessed. The mainstream media in Britain and the West have chosen to largely ignore this phenomenon,

On May 22, Spain held its regional and local elections and our acquaintence, the mayor, lost, as he may have expected to. Even though the Socialists had made real progress in setting Spain back on track, half the population stayed away from the polls and over a million ballots were turned in blank. The elections were a landslide victory for the conservative People's Party (PP) which took control of all of Spain's largest cities, including Barcelona, a Socialist base since 1979.

Interest rates on Spanish Debt
This is what had already happened in Ireland, with a left-leaning, green coalition alienated its base with austerity measures while being unable to control the on-barreling peak oil and climate change freight trains, so whomever was in office caught the blame for everything that was wrong — both the disease and the medicine.

While the young, unemployed protesters camped out in Puerta del Sol demanded “Democracy Real Ya” (“real democracy now”), right-wingers, some of them previously under indictment for corruption, swept the democratic vote. 

Spain is now as forked as Ireland. It not only has all the problems of a crumbling paradigm — the religion of endless growth — but it has elevated the high priests of that paradigm to its seats of power.

Will the protests grow? Yes. Will they spread to other countries? Probably. Do the protesters have an achievable goal, some realistic strategy to get their countries out of this huge bind? No.

So, good luck with all that.

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.




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.