Saturday, October 19, 2013

Post-Modern Moonshots

"New ways of looking towards a cooler planet: biochar textiles that serve as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins, lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes."

Mobile burn at New England Small Farm Institute
As Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, reminds us, "If the world is to be saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs."

Actually, it may not be the lack of programs, per se, but more to do with new ways of looking at the world — as Proust said, “not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Many of us who have been fretting over near term human extinction, a prospect recently bolstered by the advance release of the summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if not the near death experience of the global economy at the hands of a tiny political faction, have been probing this idea of new ways of thinking. That is what led us to travel up the Amazon river some years ago, and there to discover a secret climate control mechanism involving dark earths. Ever since then we have been using this space to report on new steps along that path, or new vistas we can discern with our new eyes.

We are fresh back from the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium and, as usual, dazzled by the latest vistas. To condense a 5-day conference into a short post is impossible, but fortunately the organizers had the foresight to video capture not just the plenaries but every one of the more than 100 presentations in the breakout sessions. These will soon be posted for public viewing on the UMass Amherst and/or Pioneer Valley Biochar web sites.

Highlights are many but here are just a few:

The conference served the first ever cool banquet — food items grown in biochar amended soil or foods/beverages that, in the course of production, provided feedstocks to be made into biochar. Entrees included biochar-fed smoked pulled pork, biochar-fed chicken sausage, charcoal pasta, biochar-wrapped goat cheese, biochar-covered peanuts and a variety of salad greens and vegetables grown in biochar conditioned soil.

Kelpie Wilson provided a little-known piece of the history of biochar in the story of Justus von Liebig and the evolution of the theory of humus. Most fascinating was a vignette of the argument between Liebig and Pasteur over whether soil fertility could be attributed to “vitalism” (biology) or the presence of elemental compounds (chemistry). Liebig believed that plant growth could be explained entirely by the availability of soil minerals until Pasteur proved conclusively there was more to it, and that humus is, in fact, teeming with forms of life that make plant growth possible. Liebig was an early pioneer in studying the uses of biochar and when he died, left instructions to be buried in a coffin filled with biochar. 

Who knew NASA’s budget has a $160 million/year line item for educating US schoolchildren? The federal shutdown canceled attendance by many participants from USDA, USGS, USFS and ARS but Doris Hamill of NASA’s Langley Research Center paid her own way to give a plenary keynote on the children’s educational packet she and others at NASA developed for distribution to middle schools across North America. For reasons one can only speculate, her superiors deemed her effort “off mission” and did not elect to go public with the packet, but the developmental work is not in vain. Watch for this to be independently funded and distributed soon, in English and Spanish.

Among the many 5-minute “Insight” talks were nice little tricks-of-the-trade visuals from Kelpie Wilson (how to build and operate a conical open “wok” kiln); Josiah Hunt (large-scale batches using the pit method); and Thomas Reed (instant biochar from pinecones on wet newspaper). 

CoolPlanet Biofuels, now supplied ample funding from Google, GE, BP and Conoco, is building mobile reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of biogasoline and 1/3 ton biochar.

In his opening keynote, Erich Knight reminded us that if CoolPlanet processed the entire projected US biomass harvest in 2030 (1.6 Gt), the yields would be 120 billion gallons of tank-ready fuel (the US now consumes 150 billion gal/year), and 0.3 billion tons of biochar, with a farming application of 300 million hectares, or 1.2 million square miles. The land area of the United States (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) is 2.9 million square miles. Of course, there is no possibility that CoolPlanet could process the entire annual biomass harvest of the United States! Their more modest goal is 100,000 one-million-gallon capacity plants, each at village scale. A typical village of 1000 residents with such a plant would net $1 million/yr besides making all the fuel they need and 60kW of electricity, with a capital payback of 2-3 years. CoolPlanet’s founder, Mike Cheiky, says that with 2% of the world’s arable land they could drag industrial civilization back to carbon neutrality. With 3%, they could cleanse 100 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere in 40 years (to 300 ppm if we begin right now). Meanwhile, the projected price of the Cool Fuel produced would be $1.50/gal in today’s dollars. Only time will tell whether this is a realistic projection or just so much more snake oil.

Meghana Rao, who dazzled us as a High School sophomore from Beaverton, Oregon, at the Sonoma conference a year ago, delivering a PhD level talk on the effect of particle size and feedstock on physical and chemical stability of biochar, was back as a 17-yr-old High School junior having now presented in Kyoto, Japan, become a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — which gave her 15 minutes of face time with President Obama at the White House to better educate him on the climate restoring value of biochar — and also being named the Young Naturalist of the year by the American Museum of Natural History. Her presentation this time, which was again jaw-dropping, was on the “Novel Implementation of Biochar Cathodes in Microbial Fuel Cells – Phase I.” Having earlier noted the high surface area and cation exchange capacity of biochar, she is conducting a longer study on replacing platinum and rare earths in fuel cells with biocathodes. Preliminary results suggest biochar is somewhat less efficient (10-15%) but up to 400 times more cost-effective and of course can be recycled to later uses, such as water filtration, toxin-scavenging or as an organic soil amendment.

And, speaking of stacking uses for biochar, many more wonderful contributions came from Hans-Peter Schmitt at Ithaka Institut in Switzerland who described his “55 uses for biochar” in greater detail, including a number of cascading processes that sequence the same batch through an array of uses. Schmidt pointed particularly to the digestive qualities of biochar, noting that the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey eats char daily to detox the phenols in its leafy diet, that we currently spend $20 billion per year on animal pharmaceuticals, and that adding a tiny bit of biochar to animal feed would cut Germany’s GHG emissions by nearly 1%, not including methane. Hans-Peter circulated a charred wool product, looking like a rasta dread that had gotten too close to Jock Gill’s charbecue, that was, in fact, a slow release fertilizer stick containing 8% nitrogen. He described biochar textiles that served as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins (like black mold spores), lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes.

There was much more here than we can possibly describe, but we invite readers to visit the UMass site and take in some of the videos and powerpoints from the program as they are posted. With 4 concurrent sessions at any given time, you can’t see everything even if you attend in person, but thanks to the magic of new media, we will shortly be able to shift time and space and attend any session, on demand.

These video-on-demand features may be the next best thing we have to giving everyone new eyes.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Movable Feast

"We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution."

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow,
in the dead of winter, war spreading
families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside sowing clover.
— Wendell Berry, February 2, 1972 

This past weekend we had a difficult choice to make between some very important events. We were invited to participate at the consultative level at the final meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and at the opening meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HPFSD) that coincided with the convening of the 68th UN General Assembly in New York. We were also invited to speak and give biochar workshops at a Mother Earth News Fair in rural Pennsylvania. We chose the latter.

Mother Earth News Fair is tucked in up the valley at a Pennsylvania ski resort
As we posted in greater detail from Rio de Janeiro last year, the 20-year run of the CSD was ended and replaced with the HPFSD as one of the Rio Earth Summit outcomes. To some, this was seen as a promotion. Sustainable development moved from the desks of underpaid staffers laboring in a dimly-lit back rooms in Geneva and Nairobi to being openly discussed by 198 world leaders in the glare of TV lights in the grand hall of the UN General Assembly in New York. To others, ourselves included, the shift was viewed as a demotion, because it meant long-range sustainable development (almost an oxymoron) would now be relegated to lip-service while the command-level sessions discussed more pressing matters of the moment, such as tensions in the Middle East or the Snowden disclosures.

How small people move heavy objects
Our preliminary impression has been borne out these past few days, although the New York UN session has not been without its moments. One such moment was when US President Barack Obama, entering the GA Hall just prior to his scheduled address at the 68th GA convocation, was forced to listen to the preceding speaker, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, call him out as a war criminal and scoff-law. Addressing the Snowden file, Rousseff looked directly at Obama and said:

Recent revelations concerning the activities of a global network of electronic espionage have caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world. In Brazil, the situation was even more serious, as it emerged that we were targeted by this intrusion. … Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Office of the President of the Republic itself, had their communications intercepted. Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of International Law and is an affront to the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations.

After demanding a public apology, the President of Brazil then took it a step farther and proposed a new international legal standard for the internet:
Time is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries. … We need to create multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network that are capable of ensuring principles such as:

1 - Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.
2 - Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments and the private sector.
3 - Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.
4 - Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.
5 - Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

Building a masonry stove, the easy way!
Of course, practical suggestions like Net Neutrality are far removed from the political agenda in Washington, which is driven by the interests of corporate donors to political campaigns, the Koch/Murdoch Tea Party arsonists, and the Security Industrial Complex, including, yes, the major internet providers.

Turning to Obama’s war crimes, Rousseff said:

We must stop the death of innocent civilians, of children, women and the elderly. We must cease the use of arms … There is no military outcome. The only solution is through negotiation, dialogue and understanding.

Whatever the case, we repudiate unilateral interventions contrary to International Law, without Security Council authorization, which … only worsen the political instability of the [Middle East] region and increase human suffering. … The time has come to heed to the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians for an independent and sovereign state.

The history of the twentieth century shows that forsaking multilateralism is a prelude to wars and the consequent human misery and devastation. It also shows that the promotion of multilateralism brings benefits on ethical, political and institutional levels. I renew, thus, an appeal in favor of a wide and vigorous convergence of political wills to sustain and reinvigorate the multilateral system, which has in the United Nations its main pillar.
Earthineer's alternative to Lead-Acid batteries

After the cheers subsided, Obama took to the podium and delivered a familiar litany of excuses as to why the United States rejected multilateralism in favor of American exceptionalism, including the right to undeclared acts of aggression such as drone attacks on wedding parties and the razing of Gaza (not mentioning those by name). With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama avoided repeating his previous position — now recanted — that Israel withdraw to pre-1967 borders with some land swaps. Laying political groundwork for Hillary Clinton to succeed him in 2016, he parroted the AIPAC party line, “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state.” Translation: there will be no end to brutal Palestinian apartheid and imprisonment for at least the next seven years.

Ed Begley Jr. brings his line of
anti-obesity beverages and
composting toilets
Only a week before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had taken to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to warn Obama,
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Standing at the UN podium, Obama replied:
The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake.  I believe America must remain engaged for our own security.  But I also believe the world is better for it.  Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all. I must be honest, though.  We're far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us, that invest in their people instead of a corrupt few….

The President glad hands Jamie Dimon
While he could not resist the counterslam at Putin, Obama’s final point was nonetheless both revealing and prescient. Here is a man who is getting daily morning briefings, not just on the situations in China, Syria or Greece, but on the looming geopolitical implications of climate change and peak oil. Surely by now he knows we are in an end-game for growth-based economic systems and at the gateway to a climate hell-on-earth. While seemingly oblivious to the corrupt few (Larry Summers, Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon come to mind) he invested in (instead of targeting them with drones, or sending them to Guantanamo) who ran the United States into a ditch, he hinted at that emergent end-game in his closing lines, perhaps the only part of the speech that actually addressed the legacy of the UNCSD.
This leads me to a final point.  There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial that the international community will be called upon to act.  This will require new thinking and some very tough choices.  While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.  And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing — places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions. … [T]here are going to be moments where the international community will need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.

While we share the notion that the way to world peace and prosperity within limited means lies in reallocating effort and resources towards projects that target long-term sustainability and human creative development (as opposed to infinite material development), we part company with the assertion that nefarious spycraft and dronewars against nebulous and allegiance-shifting enemies, foreign and domestic, or boots on the ground in distant economic riot zones, is any way to bring peace.

Which is why we went to the Mother Earth News Fair instead.

Joel Salatin demonstrates chicken-plucking
These fairs have been going on for a few years now and the next one is scheduled for Lawrence, Kansas in two weeks. Next year they will be held in Puyallup, Washington; Seven Springs, Pennsylvania; Lawrence, Kansas; and Asheville, North Carolina. They are weekend trade fairs for sustainability books, products and services and multifaceted seminars that share the best thinking on real on-the-ground sustainable solutions with and amongst some of our top experts in these fields.

We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution for the better. In a panel discussion on the closing day of the most recent fair, Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, described his “beautiful and abundant” vision of what we could be looking forward to. We don’t have a transcript of that, but we can lift a similar passage from his recent writings:

People who design modern zoos use a criterion they call “flight distance.” Most animals have a prescribed distance they would run, if frightened, before they turned to look back. If a zoo enclosure is built at least a little larger than the animal’s flight distance, the creature is calmer and healthier. If designers don’t allow for flight distance, the animals are neurotic, combative and less healthy. 
Besides beauty, wilderness also provides us with our own flight distance. As long as there are empty places on the planet, our minds can flee to those places of wild beauty when they have the need.
So in my vision, some quantity of every unique ecosystem across the globe will be preserved in its natural state. Perhaps we can reserve at least 20 percent of each continent’s landmass for wilderness, allocated to each biome, each ecosystem. In the United States, 20 percent of our grasslands, 20 percent of our forests, 20 percent of our swamps and at least 20 percent of our deserts will be permanently preserved as God created them, open to visitors but not vehicles. Whatever natural resources they contain will remain unexploited, by popular consent, forever — as a testament to our commitment to beauty, and to abundance.
I want my great-grandchildren to live in a world that is not only beautiful, but abundant.
This is a powerful vision, although we would have to note that in our rapidly changing, post-Holocene epoch, wilderness preservation will not be enough. We also need to think about wilderness restoration and resiliency. We are attending the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium next month, or instead we would be going to the Fifth International Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration.  That meeting, in Madison, Wisconsin, will bring together an estimated 1,500 attendees for a 4-day program on climate change, biodiversity conservation, environmental policy and sustainable livelihoods.

This is our Movable Feast. At the sunset of the age of growth and the dawn of the age of recovery, we walk the hillside, sewing clover.

Left to Right: Deborah Neimann (Homegrown and Handmade, Raising Goats Naturally); Sara Reeves and Ingrid Witvoet (New Society); Lyle Estill (Biodiesel Power, Small Stories Big Changes); Diane Ott Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange); Bryan Welch (Beautiful and Abundant); Carol Peppe Hewitt (Financing our Foodshed).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Post Peak Reflections

"At US$25 per barrel — the historic average — 90 million barrels would be US$2.25 billion every day on oil expenditure. At US$105 per barrel, that amounts to US$9.45 billion per day. This is a difference of US$7.2 billion every day, an extra cost to the global economy which is primarily a result of crude oil having peaked … or US$2.6 trillion every year. — Dr. Samuel Alexander, Univ of Melbourne, September 11, 2013"

We did not feel the Korowicz Crunch circa 2005 (named after Dublin economist David Korowicz), when conventional oil peaked, nor did we go over the Seneca Cliff  (after Lucius Anneaus Seneca who wrote around 50 CE, “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.") We instead found new, unconventional sources to fill the gap — sources that were both more expensive and more damaging to the climate and the environment. The economic damage keeps the lid on growth in demand, albeit sustains a wicked production level that may kill us all in the end.

We, and our fellow prognosticators of the mid-2000ies, for the most part did not see this present state of affairs coming, and we all admit that. Colin Campbell predicted the mad scramble and undulating plateau phase pre-1995, but even he did not realize how much ready substitution the unconventionals held, and how close they were to being exploited, once the financial capital began pouring down those holes. Since most of that giddy capital flow is fictional debt (or real debt with fictional repayment, if you will), it is theoretically unlimited, as is the damage it can do.

Well, it’s not quite as unlimited as that. Korowicz warned:
 “Firstly, we have reached the limit in the credit backing of our financial, monetary and banking system. We are at the same time hitting profoundly destabilizing ecological limits. Preeminent at this time is that we are almost certainly at the peak of global oil and food production. Put another way, we are at the limits of the system of trust and solvency that underpins the trade upon which we depend. We are at the limits of the least substitutable energy source that, by the laws of physics, is necessary for economic maintenance and growth. We are at the limits of our most fundamental human sustenance. They are the three most critical structural pillars of the globalized economy. Like a three-legged stool, the whole system can become destabilized by the buckling of just one.”

Our own Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) gave recipes for downsizing and weatherproofing your home, changing your job, storing water and growing food, but it completely left readers unprepared for the slowly stagflating situation we face now. As Dr. Alexander puts it:
When oil gets expensive, everything dependent on oil gets more expensive: transport, mechanised labour, industrial food production, plastics, etc. This pricing dynamic sucks discretionary expenditure and investment away from the rest of the economy, causing debt defaults, economic stagnation, recessions, or even longer-term depressions.
Rather than a crunch or a cliff, what we are seeing play out now is gradual erosion rather than steep decline. Economic decline is not pacing the decline curve of petroleum production, it is leading it. There are large islands of unreality — academics, economists, popular media, governments, city planners, industrialists — who are still constructing a post-recession vision of the future and putting all their finest resources there, but their projections bear no relationship to the stagnant, jobless, eroding zeitgeist. As James Howard Kunstler  puts it:
The stock market is a proxy for the economy and a handful of giant banks are proxies for the American public, and all they’ve really got going is a hideous high-frequency churn of trades in conjectural debentures that pretend to represent something hidden in the caboose of a choo-choo train of wished-for value — and hardly anyone in the nation, including those with multiple graduate degrees in abstruse crypto-sciences, can even pretend to understand it all.
We really should be learning to grow food and do all the things we spoke of in that 2006 book, but we are not being compelled by either the current economy or our mainstream cultural narrative to do that.
The IEA World Energy Outlook reports get more accurate every year – by 2030 it’ll be spot on. —Craig MacIntosh (2008)
What the current reality, and not the cultural narrative, is saying is, “keep spending,” and so we go deeper in debt, waste time and our youthful energy, and set ourselves up for a bigger fall, or perhaps just more of a long slide down into reduced opportunities. We observe the prices paid by courageous self-sacrificers — the pioneers who go off grid and focus on sustainable homesteading — you know, isolation, giving up creature comforts, having to struggle to learn and adapt to the change. Spending more to put up homegrown preserves than to buy cheap canned goods. The transition cost is daunting, and not entirely in economic terms. Pioneers need to give up a lot of comforts before the rest of us have to, and that is a real deterrent for others contemplating taking the leap. Denial and procrastination is so much easier.

Renewables pioneer and author Dan Chiras says that if you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to put solar electricity on your home or business what you are really doing is buying a quarter century of electricity and paying for it in advance. And you are secure in the knowledge that as long as the sun shines your electricity will keep being delivered every day. Your neighbors who pay by the month cannot say the same. You cannot say the same of the benefits supposed to come from your Social Security check, or of the money you have in a certificate of deposit, IRA or savings account. Viewed in this way, a solar system for your roof might even be worth borrowing money to install.

David Korowicz said, “Collapse now, avoid the rush.” Richard Heinberg put it another way, proposing that the sooner you begin living more independently, the easier it will be for you and your family as the future descent curve unfolds. Still, few are listening, and that makes being out in a front of the herd a lonely undertaking.

The map illustrates the global distribution of the climate stability/ecoregional intactness relationship. Regions with both high climate stability and vegetation intactness are dark grey; those with high climate stability but low levels of vegetation intactness are dark orange. Regions with low climate stability but high vegetation intactness are dark green, while those with both low climate stability and low levels of vegetation intactness are pale cream.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Your Food from a Firehose

"If we want to stop global warming, we need to hold more carbon in soil organisms and the residues of those organisms for the longest possible time."

We have been delving into the dirty secret behind our food, which is that it comes from bacteria, primarily, with considerable assistance from a social network of fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and soil-dwelling microbes of various descriptions, many of which make the Star Wars café scene characters seem tame. Most people, asked what plants eat, answer something like, “sunlight, water and dirt.” Water and sunlight play an important role, for sure. Using the energy of photons from the sun, sugars and carbohydrates are constructed from carbon dioxide and water, discarding oxygen. But the real denizens of the deep are bacteria.

Thanks to O2-generating bacteria at work for a billion years, Earth is now habitable for oxygen-loving creatures such as ourselves.

In general terms, the strategy for solar energy utilization in all organisms that contain chlorophyll or bacteriochlorophyll is the same. Here is how some of our ancestors, the purple bacteria, do it:

  1. Light energy is captured by pigment molecules in the light harvesting or "antenna" region of the photosystem, and is stored temporarily as an excited electronic state of the pigment.
  2. Excited state energy is channeled to the reaction center region of the photosystem, a pigment-protein complex embedded in a charge-impermeable lipid bilayer membrane.
  3. Arrival of the excited state energy at a particular bacteriochorophyll (BChl), or pair of BChls in the reaction center triggers a photochemical reaction that separates a positive and negative charge across the width of the membrane.
  4. Charge separation initiates a series of electron transfer reactions that are coupled to the translocation of protons across the membrane, generating an electrochemical proton gradient [protonmotive force (pmf)] that can be used to power reactions such as the synthesis of ATP.

If your eyes glazed over at that explanation, don’t worry. Much of photosynthesis still remains a mystery. Over the past several decades scientists examining oxygenic bacteria known as prochlorophytes (or oxychlorobacteria) have discovered a light harvesting protein complex. The intriguing thought arises, given how much of the bodies of plants are actually made up of bacteria (as also are our own), of whether photosynthesis is actually dependent on bacteria at one or more of the steps in the process.

Recently Drs. Jianshu Cao, Robert Sibley and three MIT graduate students studied purple bacteria, one of the planet’s oldest species, and discovered a special symmetry. Ring-shaped molecules are arranged in a peculiarly faceted pattern on the spherical photosynthetic membrane of the bacterium. Dr. Cao says, “We believe that nature found the most robust structures in terms of energy transfer." Only a lattice made up of nine-fold symmetric complexes can tolerate an error in either direction.

Spinning Photon Nets

Another discovery (by Sabbert et al. in 1996) is that in order to optimize sunlight, the nine-fold symmetric lattice has to spin. Moreover, it has to spin quite fast — nearly 100 rpm. We know of some bacterial flagella that spin at high rpm.  Might spinning flagella propel the photon-capturing process? Too soon to say, but its an intriguing idea, and yet more evidence for quantum entanglement of all life, big and small.

The Encyclopedia of Applied Physics (1995) says:
The amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms is massive. It is estimated that photosynthetic organisms remove 100 x 1015 grams of carbon (C)/year. This is equivalent to 4 x 1018 kJ of free energy stored in reduced carbon, which is roughly 0.1% of the incident visible radiant energy incident on the earth/year. Each year the photosynthetically reduced carbon is oxidized, either by living organisms for their survival, or by combustion. The result is that more CO2 is released into the atmosphere from the biota than is taken up by photosynthesis. The amount of carbon released by the biota is estimated to be 1-2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. Added to this is carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels, which amounts to 5 x 1015 grams of carbon/year. The oceans mitigate this increase by acting as a sink for atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that the oceans remove about 2 x 1015 grams of carbon/year from the atmosphere. This carbon is eventually stored on the ocean floor. Although these estimates of sources and sinks are uncertain, the net global CO2 concentration is increasing. Direct measurements show that each year the atmospheric carbon content is currently increasing by about 3 x 1015 grams. … Based on predicted fossil fuel use and land management, it is estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach 700 ppm within [this] century. (references omitted)
What needs to happen, quickly, to reverse our rush to a climate from which there can be no near-term recovery, and to avoid Earth becoming as uninhabitable as Venus, is to accelerate photosynthesis while decelerating carbon emissions. Our allies in this are bacteria and fungi, as they were billions of years ago. They will do the heavy lifting if we just give them a little support. They need good growth conditions (like heat and moisture, which we should have in increasing abundance this century), nutrients, and space to breathe. Lose the antibacterial soaps and sprays, please.

Planting gardens and tree crops is a start. Ecological restoration, where damage can be slowly unwound by greenery, is another step. Living roofs, tree-lined hardscapes, earth-sheltered homes: all of these are both adaptive and mitigating strategies for a recovering climate stasis. But there is something even more powerful.

Tea from a Firehose

This week we asked Joey “Mr Tea” Thomas to come dose the Ecovillage Training Center with his eclectic brew of liquid compost. Mr Tea’s recipe is as good as any batch of Biodynamic Preps or EM (Effective Micro-organisms) you might already be using. It is inestimably superior to MiracleGrow® or other commercial, bagged soil amendments.

In a large stainless steel tank retrofitted with aerating pipes, Mr Tea combines de-chlorinated warm water and…

  • Kelp
  • Humates
  • Folic Acid
  • Fish Oil Emulsion
  • Bat Guano
  • Feather Meal
  • Virgin Forest Soil
  • Deep Pasture Topsoil
  • Composted Animal Manure
  • Composted Kitchen Scraps
  • Composted Poultry Litter
  • Worm Castings & Liquor, and
  • Biochar

The kelp, fish oil, and most of the composts provide rich food for the microbes while they brew. The humates are million-year old deposits with diverse paleobacteria. The bat guano is drawn from distant caves rich in trace minerals and packed with still more varieties of exotic bacteria. The two kinds of soil contain a complex of two discrete living microbiomes, one the fungally-rich virgin forest and the other a bacterially dominated grasslands. The fine biochar particulates provide enough soil structure to retain water – about 10 times the volume of the biochar itself — and aerobic conditions, while providing a coral reef-like microbial habitat. The animal manures, worm castings, feather meal and compostables all contribute to the biodiversity of available microfauna.

In the world of bacterial epigenetics, dictated by the particular demands of diverse members of the web in different seasons and weather conditions, this is a supermarket of genotypes that allow the bacteria to switch up and morph into whatever might be needed for soil health and fertility, capturing passing genes and unlocking regions of their DNA and RNA to provide new or ancient solutions to current conditions.

Bandwidth permitting, you can watch this video that's so sexy it should be x-rated. This is a revolution disguised as organic gardening. The sex is going on right in front of the camera, you’d just need a microscope to see  it. Use your imagination.

If we want to stop global climate change while still surviving unpredictable and changing weather patterns, we’ll need to hold more water, nutrients and carbon in the soil. We can do that with a good diversity of healthy microorganisms and their byproducts. 

We're trying to increase the retention time of carbon in its solid form in the land for as long as possible, as opposed to allowing it to become gaseous, because that's when it becomes dangerous to our future.

That is what climate farming, or what my friend Darren Doherty calls regrarianism, is all about. Its about improving the soil to heal the atmosphere.

As we say in the clip, this is agriculture that builds rather than mines the soil and can transform our beloved home back into a garden planet.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

While I sip my tea I stop the nuke

Passing through an airport lounge en route back from teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Europe, we were captivated by CNN reporting, along with Atlantic dolphins’ worst beaching year by a factor of 7 and the discovery of a giant, horned sea creature resembling Cecil the Sea Dragon washed up on a Spanish beach, that Fukushima had just surpassed Chernobyl in radiation severity. In fact, if the smell of rotting dolphins and sea dragons is keeping you away from the beaches, you can now get the kind of suntan that would end nuclear workers’ careers in just 1 hour by visiting the Japanese Riviera. What CNN omitted to say, among many significant points of public interest, is that the radiation will only keep going up.

What seems amazing is that anyone still assumes the 2011 accident, like the present economic malaise, is over, or ever will be. Both of these unnatural phenomena are still in their earliest stages, will soon become progressively worse, and are paradigm-shifting events. Fuke threatens the entire Pacific fishing industry, not the least Japan’s, will rival Falujah for birth defects in that Prefecture, and is rendering a vast land area unsafe for habitation, including a huge chunk of Tokyo’s already precarious breadbasket.

It is game over for nuclear power. As Arnie Gundersen, nuclear engineer for Fairewinds, told Dr. Helen Caldicott in a June interview Fukushima was for the nuclear industry forty good years and one bad day. But it was one day they could not afford to have. Gunderson said they kept saying, “’As long as there’s no earthquake, it’ll be okay.’ But that’s a big if where you’re sort of counting on an earthquake not occurring is a country that’s prone to earthquakes.”

Fuke’s problem de jour has to do with its shifting foundations. That entire Pacific side of Japan dropped 3 feet seaward during the March 11, 2011 event. Seawater is now pouring into the reactor buildings at the rate of 400 tons per day. Says Gunderson, “The net effect is we’ve got pieces of nuclear fuel, small powdery nuclear fuel, mixing in on the floors of these buildings that are now getting large quantities of radioactive water. So you have two choices: you can either stop the water from going in; or you can stop the [water] from going out.” TEPCO, after long procrastination, opted to do the latter and has filled 1000 steel tanks with corrosive radioactive seawater. None of the tanks is seismically qualified and leaks are now in evidence. Water in puddles outside steel and sandbag barriers surrounding the tank farm 5 football fields up from the shore cherps 100 milliSieverts per hour – enough to give a repair worker her year’s allowed dose every 20 minutes and retire her from permanent employment in about an hour.

TEPCO acknowledges that 75% of the seawater flowing into the plant — 300 tons per day — flows back into the Pacific. They’ve set Fuke on the wash cycle. This past week, South Korea asked Japanese officials to explain how the leaks will affect Pacific ecosystems, especially theirs. Asiana Airlines, South Korea's second-biggest carrier, announced it is suspending flights between Seoul and Fukushima. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a (literally) entrenched supporter of nuclear energy, says he has lost confidence in TEPCO’s ability to deal with the crisis and promised more government money to prop up the stock value of the company, and to pay more human fodder to jump in and stanch the leaking dikes and build trenches. Finally, it comes back to discount rates, doesn’t it? They are discounting the genetic heritage of Japanese children expected to be born centuries from now in order to salvage a Disneyesque science fiction fantasy of the 1950s: power too cheap to meter.

The response of the Obama Administration in this regard is predictably spineless. The President, afraid of offending the dumber and dumberer US Congress, sitting like Humpty-Dumpty on the wall of Big Nuke, acceded to presidential heir-apparent Hillary Clinton’s pressure, while Secretary of State, to order suspension of monitoring of radiation along the West Coast, six weeks post-accident and shortly after EPA stations confirmed the detection of Fuke fallout in precipitation, drinking water and milk.

Following a meeting between Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, Clinton agreed to fight “rumors and reputation damage” that might harm Japan’s place in the international seafood industry. Shortly thereafter, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced they were suspending tests of seafood, saying, “FDA and NOAA do not anticipate contamination of living marine resources in U.S. waters at this time. For this reason, sampling of U.S. harvested seafood is not currently planned.”

The agencies went on to explain:

“During that time needed for a fish contaminated by radiation in Japan to migrate, be caught and reach the market, the level of short‐lived radionuclides such as I‐131 would drop significantly through natural radioactive decay.”
... which neatly finesses the point that ongoing seawater releases, coming from destroyed reactor cores, contain much greater proportions of long-lived radionuclides, such as U-238 and transuranics, than short-lived, largely airborne contaminants seemingly lifted from emergency evacuation planning manuals. 

So what is the anti-Obama Congress busy doing about this choice nugget of scandal? Opposing health care and immigration. What is the President doing? Jawboning about lowering student loan interest rates. It is what has been described as the A-frame of two party politics — each side props up the other by agreeing to argue on inconsequential matters while starving important matters of any media oxygen.

Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, said "a cocktail of more than 100 radioactive chemicals" from the Fukushima reactors presents hazards when the material is ingested into the body through the food chain or by breathing tainted air. Potential health risks include birth defects and thyroid cancer, he said. In March, 2013, the organization published a report indicating that the number of West Coast babies born with a condition called hypothyroidism — underactive thyroid glands — rose by 28 percent within nine months of the Fukushima disaster compared with the previous year. The thyroid is especially sensitive to radioiodine. Mangano said that the American Medical Association has already called for the testing of all fish sold in the U.S. for radiation contamination, but that the FDA has so far resisted. The USDA has also resisted testing imported Japanese foods, despite citizen monitoring showing high gamma counts (5x background) in organic matcha green tea, among other products.

If the suppression of testing was intended to save the Japanese economy, it is a dismal failure. There is a cancer on that economy, just as there is on the Eurozone and the Fed. It will not respond to radiation therapy.

And while we are passing through airports, the subject of these ridiculous security whole-body scanners comes back. Why are so many people still sending their innocent children through these death rays? These devices are now banned in Europe where the dangers have been thoroughly scientifically documented, and they were supposed to have been removed in the US, but for the court order being flouted by the Obama TSA. They remain in service at many US airports. If enough people simply opted for pat-down, these child-killers would be gone tomorrow. How about going to and ordering little stickies you can wear on your lapel — “To Avoid Cancer I OPTED OUT. Did you?”

And now, deep sigh, it also seems like we have to opt out of Japanese green tea.   

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Epigenetic Fermaculture

"The living communities within our bodies are our first responders, and their fast adaptive capacity depends a great deal on the diversity of their epigenetic choices."

Yesterday Sandor Katz joined us to combine his knowledge of gastroenteric culture with ours of the soil-food-web to produce a 5-hour seminar we were billing as Fermaculture.

Sandor had many interesting things to say, but one of the more interesting to us was about how bacteria from food — the juicy benefactors we get from fermented wonderfoods — actually perform probiotic functions in our bodies.

We know that in sheer numbers, microbes and their genes vastly outnumber our own genetic material in what we like to think of as “our” bodies, Realistically, we are far more than our flesh (or even our astral energetic bodies or our vibratory quantum self). As Michael Pollan reminds us, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this 'second genome,' as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.”

According to Sandor, when a foreign bacteria enters your body, it is not necessarily met with a friendly reception, a lot of buddy bacteria backslaps and a toast. More likely it is tracked, attacked, and generally made to feel most unwelcome. That’s because the available niches began being given away in utero, and your body assembled almost all its microbial ecosystem in the first 3 years of your childhood.

Catherine A. Lozupone, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, observing that rural people spend a lot more time outside and have much more contact with plants and with soil, says its no surprise that confers a greater diversity of gut bacteria. Also, being raised in extended families and being passed hand-to-hand as an infant may provide a wider range of “host” bacteria and a stronger, more responsive, immune system as an adult.

The American Gut project, which is DNA sequencing the communities of tens of thousands of people, is trying to uncover patterns of correlation between people’s lifestyle, diet, health status and the makeup of their microbial community. Pollan observes:

“Your microbial community seems to stabilize by age 3, by which time most of the various niches in the gut ecosystem are occupied. That doesn’t mean it can’t change after that; it can, but not as readily. A change of diet or a course of antibiotics, for example, may bring shifts in the relative population of the various resident species, helping some kinds of bacteria to thrive and others to languish. Can new species be introduced? Yes, but probably only when a niche is opened after a significant disturbance, like an antibiotic storm. Just like any other mature ecosystem, the one in our gut tends to resist invasion by newcomers.”

Sandor Katz
So how, then, can probiotic fermented foods, like yogurt or pickled bean paste, improve your health? Sandor offered an epigenetic explanation. Rather than being interested in new bacteria taking up residency alongside the established community in your gut, your host bacteria, via the magic of viral gene transfer, are more interested in the new genes that are constantly coming through on parade.

When you were just a zygote – remember that? — totipotent stem cells become the various pluripotent cell lines that allowed you to evolve into an embryo, which evolved fully differentiated cells in much the same way. From a single fertilized egg cell, you developed into a semi-organized collection of neurons, muscle cells, epithelium, endothelium, blood vessels, etc. Switching on an off like the lights on a Christmas tree, your coding activated some genes while inhibiting others. The code did not change, but the gene expression, or replicative (RNA) behavior, did.

An "epigenome" is similar to the word "genome", but referring to the overall epigenetic state of a cell. Where is the switch positioned at this moment?

In general, proteins fold into discrete units that perform distinct cellular functions, but some proteins are also capable of forming an infectious conformational state known as a prion. Prions are infectious forms of proteins.  They are epigenetic change agents. They catalytically convert other native state versions of the same protein to an infectious conformational state. In the context of our immune response, infectiousness is not always a bad thing. It just means that cells switch gene coding to make new versions of cells that may be needed to perform some function. Some food components epigenetically increase the levels of DNA repair enzymes such as MGMT and MLH1 and p53. Other foods components can reduce DNA damage, such as soy isoflavones and bilberry anthocyanins.

Fungal prions are considered epigenetic because the infectious phenotype caused by the prion can be inherited without modification of the genome. PSI+ and URE3, discovered in yeast in 1965 and 1971, are the two best studied of this type of prion. In PSI+ cells, the loss of the Sup35 protein (which is involved in termination of translation) causes ribosomes to have a higher rate of read-through of stop codons, an effect that results in suppression of nonsense mutations in other genes.  The ability of Sup35 to form prions may be a conserved trait. It could confer an adaptive advantage by giving cells the ability to switch into a PSI+ state and express dormant genetic features normally terminated by stop codon mutations.

Another possibility is more intriguing. Sup35 might be produced by prions selecting its code from the available pool of genetic carriers, including foreign bacteria that just happen to be passing through your body, and find themselves in the right place at the right time. Their genes are transcribed, re-encoded, and switched on by your native cells to express just what the body needs at that moment.

The federal Centers for Disease Control is investigating an outbreak in eight states, affecting nearly 300 people, of a stomach illness caused by Cyclospora, the one-celled parasite that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and other symptoms normally associated with a viral stomach bug. Ten people have been hospitalized this month. Indigenous to the tropics, it is rare that cyclospora would be found so far north, but it is yet one more portent of what we can expect from climate change and global weirding. Niches of some species will expand while niches of others will shrink. We may get pandemics of many new or exotic bugs, and there may be little our bloated, sclerotic, top-down, corporate-captured, financial-house-of-cards-addicted Big Pharma medical system can do to respond in a timely fashion.

The living communities within our bodies are, and always have been, our first responders, and their fast adaptive capacity depends a great deal on the diversity of their epigenetic choices. What gene codes do they have to draw from?

The abilities of our bodies to respond to future threats may come in large measure from our own lifestyle choices, such as a probiotic diet and rural living, and from good plant nutrition, which comes, ultimately, from healthy soil and its diverse soil-food-web biology.




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