Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Colombian Renaissance

"In Colombia, the ecovillage movement is ceasing to be seen as the alternative, hippy, or maladjusted parts of society, but rather are coming to be known as 'the people.' The are the 99-percent, the cultural center and point of reference."

After a 2 week permaculture course in southern Belize — the part that Guatemala is making noises about annexing — we returned to Colombia, a place we last visited at the height of La Violencia 15 years ago.

In the late-90s our hemisphere-wide ecovillage network had decided to host a series of meetings around Colombia and we were fortunate to have among us some skilled negiotiators able to obtain safe passage between the various factions, traversing areas where kidnappings and atrocities were commonplace. In one town where the mayor invited us to speak, he was killed shortly after we left. It was near there, in February, 2005, that a joint army/paramilitary “anti-terrorist” battalion funded by the United States moved in and massacred members of the peace movement, most of them displaced refugees, killing eight people, including 3 children.

Biogas from sewage
Less than a month later, then-President Uribe justified the killings, saying, “The peace communities have the right to establish themselves in Colombia thanks to our regime of liberties. But they cannot, as is practiced in San José de Apartadó, obstruct justice, reject the Public Force… In this community of San José de Apartadó there are good people, but some of their leaders, sponsors and defenders ... want to use the community to protect this terrorist organization.”

On February 13, 2013, Colombia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of the claims of the survivors of that massacre, who now urge supporters to send a letter to President Santos, urging him to use this historic court ruling to recover the relationship between Colombia and the peace community.

Since we visited and gave our first village design courses more than a decade ago, the ecovillage movement has been wedding Colombian grassroots organizations – the Campesinos, Indigenous and Afro-decendant people — into action-oriented environmental networks. The ecovillagers, Red de Ecoaldeas Colombia when we last visited, reformed 7 years ago into Renace Colombia. RC is developing a multilayered strategy for greater communication with other networks, sectors and movements in the country, as well as developing capacity to incubate new ecovillages and other varieties of experimental human settlements.

There are 16 ecovillages throughout Colombia, five or six of which are still in the formative stages. The longest existing ecovillage is 28 years old.

Some recent achievements of Colombian ecovillages:
  • Pachamama Ecovillage in Quindio is exporting full containers of their organically treated bamboo as building material in Spain and the Caribbean.

  • Aldea Feliz in Cundinamarca won the Fulbright Commission grant to build an ‘ecoshop’ with high green architectural standards. 

  • By the end of 2012, all the major ecovillages in Colombia will have their own Maloka — an ancestral house of gathering in the Amazonic tradition. 

  • Atlántida ecovillage in Cauca is the main training center for Latinamerica for leaders of Dances of Universal Peace. One of Colombia’s indigenous traditions is the “mambeo,” artistic decontamination of the world, merging the mind with the heart.

The movement is ceasing to be seen as the alternative, hippy, or maladjusted parts of society, but rather are coming to be known as “the people.” The are the 99-percent, the cultural center and point of reference. Another Colombian tradition is the “minga,” the whole community working together for a purpose, whether to build a house or make a garden — what those of us who live in Amish country call “barnraising.”

Renace brought the “Vision Council” (Consejo de Visiones) methodology to Colombia from Mexico in 2012, and changed its traditional annual ecovillage gatherings into an open space with clear facilitation for dialogue between alternative movements, of which the ecovillages are just one part. For the 2013 Vision Council, they decided to deliver 4 different parallel and simultaneous gatherings in 4 different bioregions of the country, as a contraction/expansion dynamic, to be introduced as a new national initiative in 2014.

We are also directly involved in the production of the first Ecovillage Design Education programme (EDE) in Colombia with the full 160 hours curriculum from Gaia Education, as a pioneer course offered sequentially in 3 different ecovillages. We were invited to instruct the ecological module and for that week we lived in the Pachamama village, just down the lane from the bamboo drying sheds. We also got to visit La Pequeña Granja de Mama Lulu, a one-hectare permaculture agroforestry project that rivals the best examples of futuristic eco-agriculture we have seen anywhere in the world.

Two of those attending the EDE were the founders of the EcoBarrios (eco-neighborhood) Project in Bogotá, Carlos Rojas and Anamaria Aristizabal. That program produced remarkable transformations in the lives of urban dwellers, with a period of government funding in 2000-2003 enabling 180 city-neighborhoods to plant gardens, create public art and develop seed exchanges, among other improvements.

The Ecobarrios Project convened hundreds of neighborhood leaders, provided training courses in each district, designed projects according to particular needs of a neighborhood, and employed transparent participatory processes and the labor of the community. A survey in 2003 showed an increase in social capital with new micro-enterprises employing some 15,000 people. While 70% of urban garden and similar projects gradually diminished without Colombian government financing and the continuity of a support organization, 30% were still operating ten years later and replicating EcoBarrio projects had spread to Venezuela, Mexico City and Chile.

Bamboo Drinking Cup
From 2003 until 2010, after the government suspended EcoBarrios’ support, Aristizabal and Rojas went to work in the creation of ecovillage Aldeafeliz near Bogota and Renace Colombia. Rojas is now one of South America’s delegates to the Global Ecovillage Network board.

Renace is in dialogue with several government branches and regional institutions about a project for the transformation of 100 indigenous villages that were victims of forced relocation. What is planned are 100 healthy and thriving ancestral ecovillages, combining the best practices of the native heritage with those of the modern sustainability movement.

Each member community of
Renace is building a
Maloca, the traditional meeting
hall in Amazonia.

After examining models of ecovillage networks in Brazil and Senegal, Renace sees their incubator program evolving into a non-profit, quasi-governmental agency, establishing quality standards and transferring technology and green enterprise models. In the fertile ground of post-civil-war social rebuilding, these young ecovillagers are capable of opening up historically closed circles of politics and economics, in a kind of reverse “disaster capitalism.” They have a plan, they are ready, and the opportunity is now.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Returning to the Deep

"Like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis."

Claudia Gonzales takes the Bicimachina for a spin
We originally posted a version of this piece to The Great Change in March, 2009, as a two part essay we called “Going Deep.” We find ourselves now, in 2013, back in Belize for our annual permaculture design course and, rather than reinvent, we are revising and republishing that earlier post, now even more relevant to these times.

These days we speak in many venues of food forests, or edible forest design, and our audiences may look back at us very skeptically. Western Civilization was founded on savannah grasses, irrigation and the plow, and, like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses of grains, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis.

No green chlorophyllic cells can photosynthesize 100% of the sunlight that falls on an unfiltered square inch of ground in a day, so most of that solar energy is bounced back to space or lost to heat. Multistoried polyculture forests with climbing vines and groundcovers, on the other hand, share dappled rations of light as a community and have far greater absorption, production of oxygen, retention of nutrients, and a greater potential to provide food, should they be so directed.

So it is, that when we learn that in the collapse now underway resides the seeds of a different style of agriculture that does not carry all the historic baggage that burdens us, we may, with good justification, rejoice. Our space here in this corner of the cyberverse has become a string of such celebrations.

We have an elderly friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, we asked him what they had to say.

“They are sad,” he said. “Nostalgic for what was, but is gone. Each year there are fewer of them, and they want the world put back the way it had been. They are a bit frightened at the unfamiliarity of everything now. The seasons have changed. Everything has changed. They are sad.”

It was very strange that we were having this conversation while standing in one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, a broadnecked peninsula at midpoint on the migratory flyway between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. It rang true for us, though. We also miss the familiar, and are worried for the planet, if not for our own family, our remaining years here, and what will unfold in this decade to come. That is why we welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each year at this time.
Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Because of its British heritage and Commonwealth status, English is the official language, although only about half the people of Belize speak it and for more than half of those it is a second language. Kriol, Spanish, and at least three Mayan languages are more common to most children. With only 320,000 people, Belize’s population density is the lowest in Central America — comparable to Iceland. Less people live here today than during the classic Maya period. Unfortunately, as a Catholic country with easy immigration, the population growth rate is 2.21 percent, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. Given its natural wealth, that is small wonder.

When Christopher Nesbitt invited us to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, we immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway —  and our previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center in 1991, told us that this was a very special location. The students we have attracted are even more impressive than our teaching cadre and include Culture Change’s Jan Lundberg (2011), Local Future’s Aaron Wissner (2012) and now, The Automatic Earth’s Nicole “Stoneleigh” Foss (2013).

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – we recommend the 8-seat air shuttle from Belize City that takes about 45 minutes with 3 stops along the way – and then by bus (daily at noon) or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, the little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is the jumping off point for the river travel up to MMRF.

Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least globalized and most rustic district in Belize. The pyramid city of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia, is a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926. Chris quips that on the Research Farm you can’t throw a Frisbee without hitting a Maya ruin. In the Classic Era this was the settlement of Uxbantun, a suburb of Lubaantun.

The journey in travels up river past Lubaantun by the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande. A boy with a dugout “dory” canoe takes you up river for $24 Belize dollars — US $12 — per person. All of the dory men know the location, 2 miles (1 hour) up river at the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore. Alternatively, with the help of a hired guide, you can take the rugged mountain trail there.

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

Christopher Nesbitt had come to Belize at age 19 and decided to emigrate and buy a piece of land on the river two years later in 1988. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today. Chris is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor.

Christopher worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association from 1997 to 2004. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

In 2004, Christopher and a board of directors comprised of Belizeans working in agriculture formed a non-profit organization and made the Research Farm its principal asset. After years of gathering specimens of vanilla, the farm established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. In 2007, they formed the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA).

Vanilla — the kind we find in little brown bottles or in ice cream — is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rare endemic found in the under-story of lowland forests of Central America. Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, rather than on a plantation. For this reason, most of the world’s commercial vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 5 acres.

Christopher is demonstrating how vanilla can be grown most profitably in the way that the ancient Maya did it, as part of an agroforestry polyculture. His hillside landscape is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the native ecosystem, providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention and wildlife habitat.

In Belize, as in other parts of the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated, and untold genotypes lost. With its low population density, Toledo District still has many wild remnant stands. This research has identified 27 distinct species so far, including a self-pollinating variety.
As Christopher takes our small class on a walk around the hillside above the river, we are shown the products of two decades of careful plantings. Christopher divides his new seedlings into three categories, depending on when they can be harvested. Vanilla vines climb cacao and peach palm trees. The near-term pioneer crops are the annuals like corn and beans, or the pineapple, pigeon pea, squash and melons planted between the corn contours, along with perennials like nopale cactus, yam, purslane, basil, amaranth and gourds. The intermediate crops are perennials like avocado, golden plum, zapote, sea almond, allspice, bamboo, palms, breadfruit, coconut, coffee, coco-yam, banana, citrus, mango, cacao, papaya, tea tree, euphorbia, noni, blackberries, gooseberry, chaya, ginger and pineapple. They will yield sweet fruits, jams, wines, basket-fiber, soaps, beverages and medicines after a few years of fast growth. The long term crops are samwood, mahogany, cedar, teak, Malabar chestnut, sea chestnut and other slow-growing trees that will close the over-story. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the government agronomist’s bottom line.

An important feature to the tropical landscape design is the creation of soil. Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast. Loss of soil by over-exposure, short swidden cycles (15 years was traditional but population pressure has been collapsing rest periods to 3 to 5 years), and erosion during the intense rainy season, is the normal pattern on most farms, and many farmers struggle to supplant those losses by increasing fertilizer applications, at unreckoned cost, both to farm profits and the soil.

We have a number of local agronomists in our class and last night Nicole Foss took the opportunity to give a short slide show on farming in the context of peak oil. While Belize doesn’t have a lot of oil, it does export some when the prices are high enough to justify extraction, but it has no refineries. Nicole explained why farming with fertilizers, GM seeds and all the usual petrochemical inputs of modern agriculture was such a bad idea, pointing to the example of what has happened to rural India, where agrochemical dependency has led to one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

At MMRF, pioneer species like banana, vetiver grass, pigeon pea, corn and a mixture of timber trees have been seeded out into the areas adjacent to the buildings. Swales and terracing have stopped hillside erosion during the rainy period and Chris continuously seeds out fresh milpas, so there is always plenty of food to be harvested. There is no shortage of fresh food in every season, and today we will be eating a half dozen varieties of fruit, and equally diverse carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Many of the Research Farm’s neighbors in the Toledo District have been mis-educated in government-run ag schools subsidized by seed and chemical companies. They see trees and farm crops as in opposition — one or the other, but not both. Through the work with the cacao cooperative, and now in creating the vanilla co-op, MMRF is spreading an old meme — resiliency and profit from polyculture agroforestry. Students of ours from prior years’ courses are models of self-sufficency and innovation that are spreading a viral meme in a dozen local villages.

Christopher pauses in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he says, pointing upwards.  He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus avocados. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He also plans a tank and pond aquaculture system.

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

Raw cacao beans contain magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, anandamide, phenylethylamine, arginine, polyphenols, epicatechins, potassium, procyanidins, flavanols, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Long before Belgium chocolate, the ancients mixed it with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey to make beverages and confections. The Aztec and Maya cultures used the beans as currency, a practice that persisted out in the Yucatan until the 1840s. Given world prices in the US $1200 (industrial grade) to $5000 (fair trade organic) per metric ton range, the beans are a form of currency still.

When Mayan women go into labor they are given a big thick mug of toasted cacao, cane sugar and hot water. Because it is rich in calories and healthful, that big mug can see them through days of labor and the recovery afterwards.

While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. This makes cacao less vulnerable to some of the problems associated with other pollinators. Cacao trees do not require fertilizer or other agro-chemical inputs, and are only rarely attacked by blights, fungi and viruses in small holdings. Moreover, every time an old cacao tree falls over, it throws out a new main stem, so many trees in Belize that are now in production are original stock — centuries old.

On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Christopher has a bowl of cacao beans fermenting. They are left there for a week and grow a fine white spiderweb of hyphae as they incubate.  He didn’t need any starter, the airborne yeasts did the job. After 7 days, it is rinsed, ground, and toasted. This year we brought with us a new cacao grinder for the farm, donated by a new branch of Bicimachina in Mexico. It is a modified recumbent bicycle that lets you grind many kilos of cacao in a short amount of time. Chris is salivating at the wow factor this will have when his neighbors see it.
Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so normally we hold the permaculture design course well into March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for taxi traffic, and the trails to Lubaantun are more easily negotiated. This year we are catching a bit more rain because we are personally overscheduled, leaving here March 2 to teach an Ecovillage Design Course in Colombia.
Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varies through the course of a day, but it never ends from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher puts the chickens and ducks into the coop and latches the door. They do well feeding on the leaf cutter ants during the day, but they are domestic creatures, and this is still a jungle.

Coming back to this place has become an annual migration for us, to get back in touch with the inner heart of nature. Back to the source. It may be that in the coming years, trips of this distance will become less simple than hitching rides on great steel birds via Travelocity and might instead involve booking sail passage from Key West or traversing Mexico by donkey cart, but for now, we are using whatever tools we still have to learn as much as we can about how to grow food this way while also restoring the planet to the garden it is trying to be. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Naming Superstorms

"A reckoning awaits in the largest write-down of assets in history. We rate these companies a strong sell."

After Superstorm Sandy struck New York and New England, Bill McKibben suggested in the Daily News that we should be naming storms after the principal purveyors of climate change.

In that spirit, here is our suggested list for the National Hurricane Center to use in naming storms this coming year:

Abu Dhabi
J&L Supply
Royal Dutch Shell
YPF Repsol

And, by the way, if ever there were a good use for Credit Default Swaps, investors could do worse than to short these companies, because their assets, largely oil and gas still under the ground, are works of fiction. That carbon cannot be extracted without killing us all, so a reckoning awaits in the largest write-down of assets in history. While we claim no special expertise in stockbroking, we’d rate these companies a strong SELL. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Personal Forest, Part 2

"If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals."

In 1979, with the birth of my second child, my mother followed me to Tennessee and bought 88 acres near our budding ecovillage. Since our intentional community used to sharecrop that land, the fields had been contour terraced and swaled in the late 1970s with The Farm’s bulldozer and road grader, using guidance from the local soil conservation service (another Roosevelt relic), so it was already in pretty good condition from a keyline management point of view. I took the local USDA extension agent’s suggestion and planted loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which, it turns out, was good advice. The loblolly is hardy, fast growing, drought-tolerant, and its range is expanding as the Southeast warms. I also planted hybrid American chestnut, mulberry, hardy citrus and bamboo.
The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. NOAA/NCDC, National Climate Assessment 2013 (advance draft).

In 1977-78, even before my mother purchased her farm, I began experimenting at my home with fast-growing hybrids of poplar, developed in Pennsylvania, comparing their growth characteristics with native tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I was looking for a sustainable winter heating supply and a substrate for mushroom production that could be harvested by coppice and pollard. In 1985 I applied that knowledge to plant a shelterbreak of hybrid poplar along one border of my mother’s property.

Walnut Hill Farm 

Interior of the Prancing Poet, under construction in 2012
In 1998, I planted out 3000 hybrid walnuts, comparing grafted rootstock developed by Purdue University for veneer with native black walnut used primarily for furniture and hardwood flooring and secondarily for a prodigious, oily nut crop. Nearly all of the expensive hybrid plantings were lost within 5 years to rabbits, insects, drought, and ice-storms. The native walnuts succeeded, and so have become a lasting part of my forest design at what our family now calls Walnut Hill Farm. We are using the oily husks this winter to stain the interior trim in a new addition to The Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center.

The late 1990s also saw the introduction of many bamboo stands, along the swales and in “canebreaks” where creeks would overflow in high water. I put in a half-dozen varieties in discrete patches, spread over about 20 acres. These have multiplied so quickly that they alone more than offset all the annual carbon consumption at Global Village Institute, including the Ecovillage Training Center and all its employees, visitors and volunteers, and all my annual travel around the world giving courses and workshops. Counting sequestration both above and below ground, 10 acres of bamboo locks up 63.5 tC/yr (metric tons carbon per year).

I am told by Peter Bane, author of The Permaculture Handbook, that six tC/yr is consistent with back-of-the envelope figures for maize, another C-4 photosynthesizer. The difference with bamboo is that being an annual, edible corn is harvested and consumed each year and the stover decomposes rather quickly, releasing briefly stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Maize is therefore actually a greenhouse pump, because it draws soil carbon into the thick-rooted plant and makes it more readily available to the atmosphere. Bamboo, if it is landscaped into groves or incorporated into furniture, buildings or biochar, lingers much longer in the terrestrial environment.
The Albert Bates Forest (we do not call it that; I am being facetious) now occupies some 30 acres. After my mother died, the Institute leased 44 acres from Walnut Hill for the project and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, bamboos and cactus, as well as the tried-and-true local trees. We know that climate change will cause many of our most familiar tree species to out-migrate, and we are working to fill the void by planting species more likely to survive in semi-tropical conditions, albeit punctuated by winter blizzards.

Planting trees is not as easy as it seems when your experience is mainly hardy transplants of Loblolly pine provided by the Forest Service in tight little bundles. Most trees resist being transplanted and have to be encouraged and pampered. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape  (2001) says “planting a tree is akin to shooting a man in the stomach.” His point is that trees are uniquely adapted to the angle of the sun, the flow of subsurface water and nutrients, the community of the forest and other factors we seldom consider. Starting trees in situ from seed or small seedling is often more likely to succeed than transplanting them as grafted rootstock or even semi-mature trees.

My planting method relies heavily on natural regeneration, followed by selection for desirable traits. Because of the poor highland soil in our region, cedars are a common pioneer species. Tulip poplar and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are also common. Most disturbed ecosystems will revert to woodland through natural succession if left un-grazed and un-mowed. We have mowed those areas we wanted to reserve for planting stands of higher value. Self-sown trees are generally stronger and grow faster than planted trees, so by allowing space between patches, we left plenty of room for natural succession through self-seeding.

Most tree work is done in our dormant season, roughly from mid-November to the end of April. My son now has a nursery established at Walnut Hill where he starts seeds in containers in polytunnels in the summer months, transplanting seedlings out in winter. He is good at scavenging plant leftovers from nursery sales and farmers markets, and although those trees have diminished survival rates from excessive handling and neglect, some always manage to survive and mature. From these, new generations are cultivated and encouraged.

I have been planting at densities of about 100 trees per acre, but those densities will increase substantially as the forest fills itself in. I imagine 400-1000 trees per acre to be more typical at climax, plus a wide range of understory plants. I asked Frank Michael, Global Village Institute’s engineer, to run these numbers for me. He used several approaches to cancel out the various unknowables. This is part of a work in progress that he plans to publish as a book in the near future.

Calculating Carbon Sequestration

For a mature mixed-oak-hickory mesophytic forest of the type we are planting in the Highland Rim region of south central Tennessee, hard data is not readily available, but the appendices to the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report of the US Climate Change Science Program (2007) are very helpful. Studies aggregated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 400 trees (one acre at maturity) would structurally absorb 2.6 tons of carbon per year (2.6 tC/ac-y or 5.84 tC/ha-yr,), based on studies at 6 sites over 34 years. Our 30 acres are now at about 5% of the eventual biomass density, so they are sequestering 3.9 tC/yr. At maturity they would sequester 78 tC/yr. Foresting the full 44 acres would sequester 114.4 tC/y.

Another approach is to use a coefficient for average forest sequestration. A standard reference for this work is Akihiko Ito and Takehisa Oikawa’s “Global Mapping of Terrestrial Primary Productivity and Light-Use Efficiency with a Process-Based Model,” in Global Environmental Change in the Ocean and on Land, M. Shiyomi et al., Terrapub, Eds. (2004), pp. 343–358. If we apply the number Ito and Oikawa cite — 0.5-0.6 kgC/m2-yr for second growth Northern woodland — to our 44 acres (178,000 m2), we arrive at 89-107 tC/yr at maturity, which is in the same ballpark as estimating structural mass using NOAA’s figures. Since we are only at 5% maturity on 30 acres, the forest is presently saving about 3 tC/yr. 

Using the carbon calculator on the Dopplr web site, and tracking my average annual travel for the past five years, I produce about 10 metric tons/yr of CO2, or 2.72 tC, from my jet-setting lifestyle. In order to also include all the embodied energy amortized into my food, clothing, gadgets, workplace and home, let’s call it 5 tC/yr, although that is likely an over-estimate. So, at this point in time my tree plantings are not covering my footprints, although my bamboo plantings are, and I am also neglecting to mention my experiments with algae in constructed wetlands. Algae and bamboo are the number one and number two fastest photosynthesizing plants we know of.
The estimate of potential average annual sequestration by my forest at maturity, even without bamboo or algae, is 89-114 tC/yr at a stocking density of 400 trees/acre, in perpetuity. That will erase my footprints with the soils of time.

By 2050 this forest should be relatively mature, and so would only continue to stock carbon at the same rapid rates it did as a juvenile forest if it were to be selectively harvested. In The Biochar Solution I described the method proposed by Frank Michael for step-harvest. I presume that most of the wood harvested at that point would be used in buildings or for biochar, further sequestering its carbon rather than oxidizing it back to the atmosphere through decomposition or burning.

In the step-harvest method, mixed locally-native species are planted in a tight grid spaced to reach closed canopy in 4-6 years, at which point half the young trees are harvested and used for biochar manufacture (and accompany heat capture); the biochar is returned to the patch. In nine years, the remaining trees again close canopy, and half are harvested for biochar and lumber. This cycle is repeated at 12, 16.5, and 24 years, etc. At each point, there are several options:
    1. Harvest all the trees and start a whole new planting cycle;
    2. Insert a farming/gardening rotation in the open areas, adding mulch, compost teas, biochar and compost as soil amendments; or
    3. Allow remaining trees to mature and re-enclose the canopy, while allowing or adding useful understory plants.
    The first option yields greater than 6.2 times the biomass per unit of time and area than a conventional commercial forestry plantation.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.” 
      — Gustave Flaubert, November

My hope is that long after I am gone, my life’s forest will continue to provide valuable ecological services of all types to those who inhabit it after me, whether that is for climate mitigation or for the sense of wonder that growing up among tall trees can give to a child. 

I recognize that it is an extraordinary luxury for one human to have access to 40 acres of land and be able to devote the resources required to establish a lasting, productive and climate-resilient forest. I don’t wish to suggest that everyone could or should do this — just multiply 40 acres by 7.2 billion people and you see how impossible that would be.  
What I am saying is that the carbon footprint of millions of people who live at the standard of living I do, racking up air-, sea- and ground-miles and using server farms powered by fossil energy slaves to book our next business trip, will not just go away by itself. Earth’s carbon cycle is profoundly out of balance (as are the nitrogen, potassium and other cycles) — so much so that those conditions now threaten our extinction.

If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus.

So what is the prescription? While not everyone can plant a personal forest, everyone can estimate their own greenhouse footprint and begin reducing it. I have been giving seminars in how to heat your home with stoves that make biochar, and how to use biochar in your garden to grow more biomass, including winter fuel. I am also active in the ecovillage and transition towns movements, which are pioneering a brighter, happier, cooler future. Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough. 

This is the second of a two-part piece. The first part was published to The Great Change on January 22, 2013. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Personal Forest

"Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle."

When I was a young boy my parents moved from the Chicago suburbs to a hardwood forested area of Connecticut, which is where I grew up. My back yard was those woods, and I used to have play forts, many different camping or hiding areas, and a succession of tree houses. I liked to overnight on a mattress of pine needles in a small grove of pines, and sometimes even did that in a foot of fresh, powdered snow. My parents also let me climb trees and play on an old rug covering scrap timber I had placed across the lower boughs of a large post oak. Later I built a round pole tipi in that tree and spent many summer nights living there, learning to climb up and down with ropes.

I guess you could say trees are as family to me. They remain a part of my life wherever I go. When I was 17 I learned to work horses on the long line, and later, when I arrived at the Farm in Tennessee, fresh out of grad school, I put those skills to use snaking logs from the forest with a team of Belgian mares. I built a tent home for my bride on a platform of hand hewn oak logs acquired that way. People would sometimes come to the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm and marvel at the small-diameter round poles used for rafters on the very large living roof spanning our Green Dragon tavern, but I knew when I built that roof that round poles were much stronger than milled lumber. They were like the tree limbs that had supported my tree houses.

Deep Well Injection

In my thirties I was a pubic interest attorney fighting against a chemical company in a town 15 miles from The Farm. The company was manufacturing organophosphate pesticides and herbicides and injecting its waste products, including its bad batches, into a deep well. The State Water Quality labs had tested the green luminescent effluent and said it was the most toxic they’d ever encountered. A single drop dripped into their fish tank killed all the fish within 24 hours.

That deep well went nearly a mile down and pressure fractured bedded limestone — it “fracked” it — to make the rock more receptive to millions of gallons of this witches’ brew. The fracturing also opened pathways into the Knox Aquifer, one of the largest underground rivers in North America, and presumedly went on to contaminate other large, potentially important, fresh water reserves for the Southeastern United States over a very large area. Each test well the company drilled showed that the contamination had already travelled farther away from the site than the company was willing to track. The State did not have the resources to drill million-dollar test wells, so the full extent of the damage may never be known. As well water in the area gradually turned fluorescent green, the company bought out the landowners and sealed their wells.

When our local environmental group sued the company, the company told the judge that there was no reason to protect the aquifer because the Southeast region had plenty of fresh water on or close to the surface. In written briefs, I made two arguments against that: population and climate change. Freshwater resources were valuable, and would only become more so.

This was the early 1980s, and there I was, going into a Tennessee court and trying to make a case for global warming. It forced me to read nearly every study I could get my hands on and to contact experts and beg them to come and testify. I tried to simplify an extremely complex subject so that the average judge or juror could understand it, despite confusing and confounding webs of arcane psuedoscience spun by company lawyers, and exceptions in the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that you could pump a lake through.

As it turned out, the case never went to trial. The Tennessee Department of Health and Environment contacted me and persuaded me I should help them draft regulations banning deepwell injection and hydro-fracking, which I agreed to do. That was a much less costly route for the local environmental group, letting the State bear the expense of experts to fight off the well-funded and unscrupulous industrial lobby. We had won, although it took a few years before the victory was sealed and the chemical companies packed up and left town. Their toxic waste is still down there, for now.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. — M.L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).

In that time I had spent reading and speaking with experts I had scared myself. Global warming was a much bigger deal than I originally thought. We were up only a half-degree over the prior century at that point, but already there were signs the poles were melting, sea levels were rising, and more frequent droughts were coming to mid-continents. In 1988, the Mississippi River had gotten so low that barge traffic had to be suspended. My young congressman, Al Gore Jr., opened hearings on Capitol Hill. Scientists began going public to sound the alarm. Big Oil and Coal began funding campaigns to undermine the smear those scientists and to poison the public debate with bogus studies and conspiracy theories. The Bush Administration’s official policy was climate science censorship. All these signs were ominous.

Carbon Sinks

Fossil fuels have had such a profound change on civilization that it is difficult to imagine giving them up voluntarily. They issued in the industrial revolution and globalized the world with railroads and steamships. They ended a particularly odious practice that had been the traditional method of Empire-building for the previous 5000 years, supplanting the long tradition of human slaves with “energy slaves” and “energy-saving” home appliances. The American Civil War was a last gasp of plantation economics, and it ended with a crushing victory for steely industrialists and their fossil energy, who went on to extend their new empire with the Spanish American War and all the resource wars thereafter. Does the end of coal and oil mean a return to human slavery or can we learn to craft an egalitarian society within a solar budget? Time will tell.

On the other side of the ledger, there are a few promising signs that something can be done to reverse the effects of three centuries of oil and coal addiction. The forests of North America remain a net carbon sink, but when land goes from forest to farm, it generates a huge spike in atmospheric carbon. In Mexico, which is losing more than 5000 km2 of forest every year, logging, fires and soil degradation account for 42% of the country’s estimated annual emissions of carbon. In addition to the carbon lost from trees, soils lose 25-31% of their initial carbon (to a depth of 1 m) when plowed, irrigated and cultivated.

In the US, croplands increased from about 2500 km2 in 1700 to 2,360,000 km2 in 1990 (although nearly all of that occurred before 1920). Pastures expanded from 1000 km2 to 2,300,000 km2 over the same period. The fabled era of the cowboy was between 1850 and 1950, and the pattern was repeated in Canada and Mexico. But then something different happened.

Partly because of the Dust Bowl and the organized responses of the Roosevelt Administration, partly because of the Great Depression, and partly because of an emerging conservation ethic, after 1920 many farmlands were abandoned in the northeast, southeast and north central regions and 100,000 km2 were reforested by nature. Between 1938 and 2002 the US gained 123 million acres of forest from farm abandonment while losing 150 million acres to logging, primarily in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. This trend, net marginal loss, continues today in the US and Canada, in contrast to Mexico which is rapidly destroying its forests, and not re-growing them anywhere.

TABLE: Carbon budget for Harvard Forest from forest inventory and eddy-covariance flux measurements, 1993-2001. Positive values are sink, negative values are source. From Barford, C.C., et al., Factors controlling long- and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science, 294:5547;1688-1691 (2001).

TABLE: Comparison of net ecosystem exchange (NEE) for different types and ages of temperate forests. Negative NEE means the forest is a sink for atmospheric CO2. Eighty-one site years of data are from multiple published papers from each of the AmeriFlux network sites, and a network synthesis paper (Law et al., 2002). NEE was averaged by site, then the mean was determined by forest type and age class. SD is standard deviation among sites in the forest type and age class. From The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. A. W. King, L. Dilling, et al, eds. (2007), Appendix D, p 174.

The net sink effect of a recovering forest is variable but the average for Eastern deciduous successional forest is 200 grams C per m2 per year, or two metric tons per hectare. This is calculated by considering annual growth and mortality above and below ground, the chemical changes in dead wood, and net changes in soil carbon. (Pacla S., et al., Eddy-covariance measurements now confirm estimates of carbon sinks from forest inventories, in King & Dilling, ibid, 2007).

Sometime around 1985 I began planting trees to offset my personal carbon footprint. Today that forest is about 30 acres (12 ha) and annually plants itself. I wrote a book, Climate in Crisis, pulling together my legal research and laying the climate science out in lay terms that non-scientists, such as myself, could grasp. In 1995, I retired from law to become a permaculture teacher and ecovillage designer. I continued to attend scientific meetings and international negotiations on climate, and I contributed a blog, many magazine articles and books to the discussion. I kept myself current with the latest findings, always exploring pathways that might provide solutions, not just for my personal footprint, but also to the coming climate catastrophe for us all.

Atmospheric Scrub Brushes

We could spend print here discussing geoengineering, replacements for fossil energy, biochar, and shifting to some form of ecological agriculture, but the truth of the matter is, nothing can heal our global chemical imbalance faster than trees.

As I wrote in Climate in Crisis, and later in other books, forests are scrub brushes. They absorb CO2 from the air, transform it to O2 with the magic of photosynthesis, and sequester the C in lignin and cellulose. They also transfer it deep into the ground through their roots and the soil food web.

We, the humans, might be able, under optimal conditions, to get up to sequestering as much as 1 gigaton of carbon (petagram C or PgC) annually by switching to “carbon farming:” holistic management; compost teas; keyline; and organic no-till. Biochar’s full potential is estimated at 4 to 10 PgC per year, if the world were to widely employ biomass-to-energy pyrolysis reactors.
Forests, with all-out reforestation and afforestation, have a potential yield of 80 PgC/yr.

The climate cycle, with 393 ppm C in the air, is currently adding 2 parts per million to the atmosphere annually. That represents an additional retention of 3.2 PgC over what Earth is able to flush back to the land or the oceans. The oceans are acidifying — at a disastrous pace — because of the excess C being flushed, so what needs to happen is that more C needs to be taken from both the oceans and the atmosphere and entombed in the land, which is, in point of fact, where the excess came from in the first place.

Going Beyond Zero

To get back to 350 ppm — Bill McKibben’s goal — we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 42 ppm, or 67.4 PgC. If we wanted to accomplish that goal as quickly as say, 2050 (37 years from now), we would need to average a net C removal rate of 1.82 PgC/yr. So we need to go from plus 3.2 to minus 1.8, on average, over about 40 years. Of course, many, myself included, don’t believe 350 is good enough to pull our fat from the fire. I would prefer we aim for 320 ppm by 2050 if we want to escape the worst Mother Nature is now preparing to dish up.
A 320 goal in 37 years means we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 72 ppm, or 115 PgC; an average a net C removal rate of 3.1 PgC/yr. In other words, we need to flip from adding 3.2 PgC greenhouse gas pollution every year to removing about that amount. We have to go net negative, for at least the next 40 years.

Organic gardening and soil remineralization, as Vandana Shiva, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others are so enthusiastic for, will not get us there, although it is a good start and an important wedge, with many other benefits. Biochar could get us there, but the industry is immature, poorly understood by environmentalists, and dependent on financing that may or may not be available in an era of de-growth and economic collapse. To scale up to 3 or 4 PgC/yr is likely to take longer than 40 years.

Tree planting is our best bet. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps planted massive shelterbelts to end the Dust Bowl, and the jobs provided helped lift the USA out of the Great Depression. The same could be done in Spain and Greece, not to mention Africa. And, lest we forget, two of the world’s greatest reforestitians, Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan, demonstrated our species’ ability to rapidly change climate. They showed that we could even jump start a minor Ice Age if we wanted. Talk about air conditioning! Fageddaboutit.

Right now, the planet is still rapidly losing forest. I drew this illustration for my newletter, Natural Rights, in the mid-1980s:

In 1988, borrowing from federal agency reports being suppressed from publication by the first Bush administration, I drew graphics to show what would happen to the Eastern forest in a 5 degree warmer world, and the kind of species migrations that might be expected: 

A more important point, which I raised in Climate in Crisis, was that individual forest patch compositions are less important than the synergies that are lost when those compositions are broken up. It matters what happens between patches, and it is not just about plants, either. We need to consider the pollinators and seed storing animals. They can’t just have food in one season, they need it in all seasons, or they will leave. Some plants and animals are fast migrators (armadillos and spruce) and some are much slower (leafcutter ants and ginkgo). When you force a rapid system change, the network of connections is broken, and it may take some time to find new equilibrium. In the meantime, biodiversity crashes and ecological services are impaired. The web unravels.

GHG Footprints

In the early Nineties I used to quip that before I wrote my book on climate my greenhouse pollution footprint had been in steady decline for 10 years. After I wrote my book it went through the roof. Invitations to speak continue to increase, even now, 23 years later.

Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. Using a conversion formula from the book, I convert my personal energy slaves into tree-years. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle.

Planting trees as a personal offset requires a bit of advance planning, because the calculation depends on how long a tree will grow, how big it will become, and what it will likely give back to the atmosphere at the end of its life. Also, one has to anticipate the changing dynamics ushered in by rapid climate change. This led me to arrange for a long-term contract of some land and to acquire new knowledge on how best to plant and manage a climate-resilient forest.

I now have the benefit of visits to the Pioneer and Alford forests in the Ozarks, which I describe in The Biochar Solution (2010), as well as to wilderness old growth in Scotland, British Columbia, Northern Queensland in Australia, Muir Wood in California, the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, the Mesoamerican highlands and the Amazonian Basin, to name a few. I have studied permaculture, with special reference to the work of Christopher Nesbitt, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in designing a methodology for building food-resource forests. But, back in 1985, I had none of that, and so I began on a part of my parents’ farm that was in the process of transitioning from vegetable field production to low brush.

In the second installment of this series, I will describe the planting of my personal forest and how I calculate its carbon sequestration impact.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bittman, Beyoncé and Cool Memes

"Brands have moved to the top of the Maslow Hierarchy and must now fulfill our self-expressive needs as well as our emotional and spiritual needs. This idea of reframing the climate debate goes to the core of our tribal psychology. We want giraffes and zebras to be here for our great-great-great grandchildren. We all want that. We just haven’t figured out how to get it. "

Mark Bittman, Food columnist for the New York Times and bon vivant travel franchise for public television, has made more than a few enemies for criticizing the choices celebrities make in their food and beverage endorsements. Said Bittman, “[Beyoncé] Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

Others Bittman labels “soda shills” include LeBron James, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Christina Aguilera, David Beckham, Cindy Crawford, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby and Elvis.

He is right, and when you take a few steps back, he gets even righter.

Beyoncé, her Pepsi commercials annually luring another generation of impressionable youth to the sodium benzoate scaring of their arterial walls and caloric expansion of tender waistlines, recently inked a $50 million deal to rep Pepsi as an official spokesmodel.

Shame on her, said Bittman. Shame on all the snake oil carnies hawking sugar water to tiny tots.

The irony with Beyoncé, whose net worth is somewhere north of $750 million for the miraculous athletic ability to perform vigorous dance moves in impossibly high heels while belting diaphragm distorting vocals, is that she also founded the Let’s Move! charity, endorsed by Michelle Obama, to promote healthy diet and activity to reverse childhood obesity.

Be sure to watch for the new Pepsi logo soon to be appearing on the First Lady’s Let’s Move! t-shirt. The big picture is all about branding.

Says Carolyn Kelley, marketing strategist at Brand Amplitude, LLC, a customer insights and strategy firm and author of the blog,, “What do Deloitte, Mercedes, ABC Family, MTV, Miracle Whip, Ford Fiesta, Herbal Essences, State Farm and the U.S. Army all have in common? Each has recognized the importance of generation-specific marketing targeting Millennials.

“Candy and snack marketers might also want to adapt their strategies to reach this latest generation. These marketing savvy, technologically adept and socially empowered consumers demand more from brands — more value, more personalization and more giving back — than consumers ever have before. The investment might be worth it, because once you earn their loyalty, they can serve as your greatest brand advocates.”
Millennials are the 72 million USAnians under the age of 34 in 2012. Millennials are also, judging by where Coke and Pepsi are spending their advertising rupees and yuan, 793 million Indians and 110 million Chinese (including 5 million Taiwanese).

Because of their wired, multitasked social lives, Millennials tend to snack far more than older generations and the line between meals and snacks is blurring, Kelley says. It is very common for Millennials to regularly snack in the mid-morning, mid-afternoon and late at night. It's the hobbit diet: breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. This is an opportunity McDonald’s has seized with menu items such as Snack Wraps and Chicken McBites. Taco Bell leveraged it with its “FourthMeal” campaign.

Millennials, raised on “just-in-time” delivery from Amazon and eBay, tend to be impulse buyers who want what they want, when they want it. Smartphone applications such as GrubHub, OpenTable and Yelp make it easy to quickly find fast food and places to eat any time of day.

Beyoncé’s appeal to Pepsi goes back to Madison Avenue agencies using credibility and attractiveness to persuade. An advertising theory called the Halo Effect suggests that one trait influences the perception of another. The product is a neutral stimulus, the celebrity endorser an unconditioned stimulus. It is Pavlovian. Potential consumers associate feelings about the celebrity as a function of repeated exposure. Nicole Kidman boosted Chanel No. 5 sales by 16 percent. Air Jordan sneakers viralized the notion that you can be “like Mike” and soar through the air to take your impossible shot, if you wear those $200 shoes.

Air Jordans were first released in 1985 and nearly 30 years later, 86.5 percent of all basketball shoes sold with a price over $100 are Nike Jordans. Mike earns $1 billion per year in residuals. That’s a lot to like.

A brand provides a vehicle by which a person can proclaim a particular self-image, but a particular brand’s identity is really its marketer’s vision. Branding is about creating sustainable competitive advantage. The identity is what the marketer aspires the brand to be. Your imagination supplies the glue.

Brand adviser Carol Phillips draws upon polls by ad world legends David Aaker and Jean-Noël Kapferer to detect six identity facets: capabilities, personality, shared values & community, aspirational self image, internal culture & values, and noble purpose. She tells her clients that differentiation ideally should occur in more than one of these. Identity associations seldom come from a product’s feature or functional benefits. They come from tribe. Your subculture determines your choices.

This is, after all, the basis of fashion. We dress and groom to blend in, to become part of our social group. We become what we aspire to be by dressing the part and by accessorizing. We are hard wired as herd animals. Uniforms are how we signal each other.

Early advertisers created fictional identities to make it easier for consumers to relate to their products. Betty Crocker was the Martha Stewart of 1921. General Mills created a kitchen, a portrait, even a signature for its all-American homemaker. The brand was a hit, so we started seeing characters like Sara Lee for coffee cakes, Little Debbie for cupcakes, Aunt Jemima — the embodiment of pancake mixes and syrups — and the Marlboro Man.

Roger Sterling (played by actor John Slattery): 

“Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation we drink because it's good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it's what men do.” 
Mad Men Episode 1.4 (2007)

For Nike, corporate identity is Just Do It!, for Kashi it’s Seven Whole Grains on a Mission, for Pepsi it’s The Choice of a New Generation, for Pampers it’s Happy Baby, for United Airlines it’s Friendly Skies. These are more than words on a page, they are compelling stories that resonate with workers within the company and sustain loyalty from customers.

In his Master’s thesis from Aarhus University in 2009 (“Creating and communicating a brand identity: The case of Somersby”) Tobias Laue Friis argued: “Saatchi and Saatchi have presented a theory on the evolution within the role of brands, which explains that brands in the past only were required to fulfill the functional benefits. As time progressed and the use of branding grew, brands had to move up the Maslow Hierarchy of needs and fulfill the emotional needs. In present time, brands have moved to the top of the hierarchy and must fulfill the self-expressive needs as well as the two prior. The evolution in branding has moved from fulfilling the functional and rational needs to the spiritual and emotional needs.”

Of course, who could be more emotionally needy than tweens and teens? As author Alissa Quart points out in her book, Branded, 150 US school districts in 29 states have Pepsi and Coke contracts. Textbooks regularly mention Oreo cookies, and math problems contain Nike logos. Companies from Disney to McDonald's promote themselves within school walls by holding focus groups about their new flavors, toys, and ad campaigns. Teens who register their objections can be punished, as in the case of the student suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt to a Coca-Cola sponsorship day at high school.

In 2002, America's distillers spent $350 million to test market “Alcopops;” sweetened, fruity alcohol drinks ostensibly aimed at 21-year-olds but packaged like soda, with cartoonish brand names, like Bo Dean’s Twisted Tea. The distillers are trolling for adolescent adopters; selling fire water to the innocents.

In the TV series, Mad Men, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) says: 

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.” 
(Episode 1.1, 2007)

Real life ad-man Emeritus David Aaker says:

 “The fact is — customers are not logical and functional benefits rarely provide a basis for sustainable differentiation or a deep customer relationship. Look instead toward emotional and self-expressive benefits. Thus, a customer can feel safe in a Volvo, excited in a BMW, energetic with Coca-Cola around, or warm when receiving a Hallmark card. A person can be cool by buying clothes at Zara, successful by driving a Lexus, creative by using Apple, a nurturing mother by preparing Quaker Oats hot cereal, frugal and unpretentious by shopping at Kmart, or adventurous and active by owning REI camping equipment.”
Attraction may also involve social conscience. Millennials are passionate about making a difference. Some 63 percent of Millennials polled by Aaker and Kapferer say that knowing a company is mindful of its social responsibilities makes them more likely to buy its products or services, and 58 percent are willing to pay more if part of the purchase price helps support a cause they care about. They embrace a cause and a brand if it contributes to the greater good.

Ben & Jerry’s policy of providing one percent of their product, time, and sales revenues to public service reflected shared values within a generation, and that in turn led to a respect-driven relationship that produced product loyalty.

Winning trust means winning market share, and losing it can be a brand disaster. The US brand of Perrier never fully recovered when benzene was detected in bottles. In 1998, Coke experienced a similar glitch with a bad batch in Belgium that made people sick. Brands survive on trust. And, live by celebrity, die by celebrity. Think Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer, OJ Simpson and Hertz, Lance Armstrong and US Postal Service, Lindsay Lohan and Mitt Romney.

According to a survey by Isabelle Schuiling and Jean-Noël Kapferer in the Journal of International Marketing (Vol. 12, No. 4, 2004, pp. 97–112), brands seek to convey particular, endearing attributes (in order of global frequency): high quality; trustworthy; good value; simple; down to earth; friendly; traditional; trendy; healthy; original; reliable; distinct; social; kind; authentic; fun; sensual; and prestigious.

Price point may have something to do with “high quality” or “good value,” but as seen in products as diverse as diamonds, Glock handguns and Red Bull, price advantages can be outweighed by combined appeal to trendiness, fun, reliability and prestige. Ad Guru Philip Kotler says, “Cost is of no importance in setting the price. It only helps you to know whether you should be making the product.”

Kotler also says, “It is no longer enough to satisfy your customers. You must delight them.”

Which brings us, thank you Mark Bittman, to the impasse in climate negotiations. Bill McKibben has lately taken the Bittman tack of calling out climate evildoers, wherever they lurk. His “Do the Math” piece for Rolling Stone shattered the false economics defense that deniers — like the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Congress — had been hiding behind. The Koch’s millions spent to stall climate treaties are comparable to Coke’s millions spent to addict children.

The way most climate advocates’ presently define the problem — using worry words like “climate chaos”, “global weirding” and “superstorms” — and strategies for addressing the problem like “emissions reduction”, “carbon-negative”, “carbon-minus”, “carbon tax”, and “cap-and-trade”, viewed from the standpoint of branding and cognitive attraction, are at best confusing and at worst counterproductive.

The brand-related conceptualization of climate is so unenlightened as to be dysfunctional. What is needed is an entirely new frame, one that clings like a pair of jeans from The Gap. If we want this thing to go viral, we need a stickier meme.

Recently Joe Brewer and Balazs Lazlo Karafiath, founders of the San Francisco based DarwinSF decided to calculate the potential of sticky memes to impact the way the world thinks about climate change. Brewer says:

“A little known fact about cultural change is that it builds up slowly and shifts quickly. This is because culture is a complex adaptive system that exhibits threshold effects and tipping points. The units of culture are a combination of human minds and social structures that shape their relationships with one another.  Human minds converge with social structures to create stable frameworks of meaning — what George Lakoff calls a frame and Richard Dawkins describes as a meme.

“The dynamics of tipping points can be summarized as ‘builds up slow, reorganizes quickly’.  This is the classic case of the small slip that cascaded into a major earthquake.  Pressure builds up in the system and then flows quickly across its entirety.”
Brewer and Karafiath are producing a meme map by gathering bite size mentions of climate change from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other sources and correlating those with viral potential. Using techniques from epidemiology, systems theory, and cognitive science, together with statistical analysis and coding, Brewer and Karafiath aim to build a better climate frame. Climate change memes with strong sticking potential are compared and rated. The ratings are passed along to a network of foundations and NGOs. They have put up a Facebook page inviting people to give suggestions of climate change memes. According to Joe Brewer, it is only how people think that constrains our world views. To change how people think is to change the realm of possibility. Please help their Indiegogo campaign by clicking on this sentence:
I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”  — Henry David Thoreau

How about cool?

What needs to happen to obstructionist states, corporations and powerful individuals bent on blocking climate treaties is they need to be labeled uncool. So, for instance, Canada’s policies on emissions caps, energy efficiency, renewable energy and preventing catastrophic warming are so bad that it ranks 58th out of 61 countries, ahead of only Kazakhstan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now it wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline to drain its tar sands and doom the planet to 6-degrees of warming. That’s uncool. Say it. Uncool.

When Microsoft got into a dispute with its utility over electricity charges to its server farm — to avoid a $210,000 penalty charge from the power utility for not needing as much power as it had contracted for the utility to build in order to have on hand — the company ran air conditioners and heaters simultaneously around the clock, forcing the utility to kick in diesel generators to keep up. That’s uncool. Very uncool.

In October, 2012, Cool Planet Energy Systems announced a major breakthrough in the commercialization and affordability of biofuels from non-food, waste-product biomass that can run in any vehicle on the road today. Using a simple, portable mechanical process, Cool Planet will produce high octane gasoline at the cost of $1.50 per gallon, without any need for government subsidies. Moreover, the process generates biochar, not greenhouse gases, which will actually remove carbon from the atmosphere during the course of production and keep it in the soil for 1000 years. That’s cool.

Learning from the example of the Hozu regional coop in Japan, which branded “Cool Slaw” in 2009, Kansas permaculturist David Yarrow is launching a campaign to certify cool foods grown in the US. Yarrow proposes a trade label to identify foods in markets that reverse our carbon footprint and sequester carbon.  This requires a simple, uniform way to define and mark foods by their carbon-sequestering character, and to track them from farm-to-market to assure point-of-sale authenticity.  To use the mark, growers must adopt probiotic methods to increase soil biology, and to assess living biomass in their soils. That’s very cool.

Millennials should scarf that up. The only question is, can cool product producers scale up fast enough to meet demand?

When they do, Jan Lundberg will be ready to move cool cargo by water with his Sail Transport Network. STN plans to launch daily passenger ferry service in San Francisco Bay (Sausalito-Embarcadero, Berkeley - SF Peninsula, Oakland - Peninsula) by high-tech catamaran; to transport organic produce from the Sacramento Delta and other areas around the Bay; to import fair trade coffee, cacao, maté, cigars, and spices from abroad; to export bicycle parts, wine, olive oil, rice, art, and crafts; and to re-inaugurate long distance passenger travel by sail.

For example, the 32 meter brigantine Tres Hombres, just disembarked St. Lucia January 10th, bound for Barbados, Antiqua, Grenada, Dominican Republic, Bermuda, Azores, England, Oostende, Den Helder, and Amsterdam. She is carrying a cargo of rum, honey, massage oil, sea salt and crafts. She will pick up cacao beans from the Dominican Republic to take to Amsterdam to be made into chocolate. All cool.

This idea of reframing the climate debate goes to the core of our tribal psychology. We want to survive, and we want our planet to survive. We want giraffes and zebras to be here for our great-great-great grandchildren. We all want that. We just haven’t figured out how to get it. Maybe Bittman’s critique of Beyoncé points a way forward.

We lack leadership and role models. We lack sticky memes that help us change direction as a global culture. These things won’t come fast enough if we wait for White House task forces, Congressional legislation or international treaty negotiations, and they probably won’t come from the ad budgets of megacorporations, either. But they can happen fast. They can go viral. They can change the way we see the world, almost instantaneously. In fact, that is the way things normally happen.

We all want to be cool. We can act in our own best interests just by being cool, buying cool, doing cool.

Wrecking the climate is uncool. Saving it is cool. What about you, Michael Jordan? Are you cool? Come’on, man. Are you? And what about you, Beyoncé?




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