Sunday, February 22, 2015

Leaf Cutters

"Most biological "catastrophes" are man made, with monocultures being the biggest biological catastrophe, sustained through work and inputs."

 We are up river in Belize at the Maya Mountain Research Farm these next two weeks, teaching our tenth annual Permaculture Design Course here. This year we have 16 local Mayan farmers, healers, businessmen and women, trainers in development work, and students from the US, UK, Russia and Greece. Our own essay this week, about a different topic, is being guest-published at Club Orlov on Monday, so we thought we would publish here a short piece by our host, Christopher Nesbitt.

The Ants

This is a small nest of a leaf cutter ant queen, establishing a colony. We tend to see them in tired land, rebuilding soils, assaulting the biological obscenity of monoculture, especially citrus, and aerating soils, hauling carbon down to the subsoil, allowing oxygen and water to infiltrate soils. They will do some damage to native species, like cacao, but mostly concentrate on introduced species. Chemicals are not a constant necessity. I have been farming in a tropical setting since 1988, and I have NEVER used any biocides.

I am farming about 15 acres of a 70 acre piece of land. Most of the land I am working right now is old cattle pasture or abandoned citrus. You would not be able to tell looking at it. I live in a pretty lush forest of trees, with hundreds of species. Most of what I am doing is creating a stacked polyculture with a large diversity of species, ranging from banana, papaya and pineapple, to timber, to fuel wood, to tree legumes, to food, to medicinals and market crops that fit into the matrix of the farm, things like cacao, coffee and vanilla. We do have some gardens, and we are expanding on the periphery of the land to create coconut dominated polycultures and feed banks for pigs, but the majority of the farm resembles the primary rainforest in structure, with less diversity, and with all the species being selected by us. We get both termites and leaf cutter ants. While they can both be a nuisance, if we step back a bit, we can see some of the services and products they provide.

Think of the presence of leaf cutter ants as being an indicator of an ecosystem out of balance, of being a cure for damaged soils. The lack of leaf cutter ants may mean a healthy ecosystem, or massive use of chemicals, including aldrin. I think of leaf cutter ants as being nature's way of rehabilitating damaged soils. You really only see leaf cutters in the wake of a biological catastrophe, hurricanes, fire damaged land, or places like played-out milpa, after the window of 3-6 years of annuals productivity has dwindled out, and the return on energy invested is not worth the effort, and the land in question is being fallowed, or in the wake of the life of a citrus grove, abandoned banana plantations or damaged cattle pasture.

Most biological "catastrophes" are man made, with monocultures being the biggest biological catastrophe, sustained through work and inputs. These systems are only sustainable in simplistic economic models of capital invested in input and labor versus kilograms per hectar x dollar per kilogram. Often, in terms of calorie based accounting, they are net losses of energy. Without cheap petroleum to subsidize their profitless existence, they would not exist.

I have lots of leaf cutter ants here in Belize, and while they can be a nuisance, they seldom damage a tree beyond the capacity of recovery. The biggest problem is that, if one is looking to produce marketable quantities of a single species, you have painted a sign on your ass that tells nature "bite me." Nature obliges. While working industriously to undo the biological abomination of a monoculture the ants are the rescue squad, aerating the soil, allowing water to percolate in, and hauling carbon, all things that help damaged soil to recover.

Monocultures lead to leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutters have adapted to citrus in particular, with a preference for Washington navels and Valencia oranges. They are less excited by grapefruit or limes. What we call Jamaica lime here in Belize is practically immune to leaf cutter ants (and tolerates poor soil). One way to avoid leaf cutters is to have a diversified farm in the first place, but any young polyculture in the lowland humid tropics is going to be prone to leaf cutter ants. When the land is more mature, it will be less susceptible, but not immune.

We see a lot of leaf cutter nests. I periodically dig up the mounds, looking for their fungus gardens, the subterranean chambers where they use the leaves for a substrate for their fermentations. When the young flightless queens are in the embryonic stage, they are like milk shakes for chickens. Even whacking on the surface of the nest will excite the colony. Ants, being social insects, react to any perceived threat to the queen by swarming. Any disturbance on ground level will result in massive retaliation by the soldier ants, which are like micro pit bulls.

My chickens have visually imprinted on soldier ants and queen ants as being food. Soldier ants come out, looking to attack the source of the disturbance, and chickens happily eat them, racing about to snatch them up, converting a problem into eggs, meat and manure. I invest a bit of energy in harassing the colony, and the result is a smorgasborg of insect protein for my chickens. I have eliminated a few nests with this technique.

You can also make barriers of lemon grass, or vetiver, which leaf cutter ants do not like, lay cannavalia ensoformis leafs in their trails, which has antifungal properties and eventually, accidentally, will be taken into their nest, working better than a Stuxnet virus. If I put the soil from one nest across the trail of another nest they will not cross the trail (for a while). All of these are more about management than destruction.

The important thing is to see the inherent limitations of sustainably managing your farm. Certain crops are leaf cutter ants' favorite foods. If you want to grow citrus, you need to walk your land regularly, looking for new nests. How much land can a farmer adequately monitor? When you find a new nest, you must dig it up and find the queen, and kill her. I find a certain spiteful glee of throwing the helpless queen out into a flock of chickens, and watching them fight over her. If the colony is young enough that it has no capacity to requeen itself, you have killed the colony. If not, you will need to dig it several times to kill the colony. Sometimes, its just going to be there. In Costa Rica and Panama, I hear they use pig manure to discourage the leaf cutter ants, pouring in a foul slurry into their home.

The key is to have a diversified system whereby you can use that energy in a useful way. Without poultry, we would have little use for either leaf cutter ants or for termites. With them, they both become assets.

Industrial mentality: the solution is the problem. Have leaf cutter ants. Apply biocide. Poison soil, water, self. Support nasty earth destroying chemical company.

Permaculture mentality: The problem is the solution. Damaged soils is a problem. Natures solution is to send leaf cutter ants. Leaf cutter ants are a problem. My solution is to use them to solve another problem, what to feed our chickens. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unburnable Valentines

"The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.  

   Whether you like it or don’t, the path back to the Holocene after this brief dalliance with the Anthropocene lies through that big steel and glass edifice at One United Nations Plaza. No amount of biochar and holistic management will get us back to the habitable planet we evolved on without also addressing issues like population, biodiversity, poverty, water, eliminating the twin scourge of nuclear weapons and power, Palestine, banksters, or even the Drone King’s hegemonic cyberwar ambitions. We have to bake, and then eat, the whole enchilada.

The Climate Action Network, based in Germany, reported this past week, "2015 will be a trek. One summit followed by another, ending with a steep climb to Paris."

The first peak crossed on our pilgrimage was the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. Part 8 of the 2d session (ADP 2.8) concluded Friday in a swank resort nestled in Lake Geneva's snowcapped mountains.

The second peak was going on simultaneously in New York at the High Level Thematic Debate on "Means of Implementation for a Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda" presided over by the President of the General Assembly and the Deputy UN Secretary General. In some ways this arcane debate is more important than the piece of paper that goes to COP-21 in Paris, because the final Convention will only address a post-2020 world and the next five years are critical. 

Peak 3 will be reached next month with delegates meeting at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan to finalize a new framework for DRR. The shadows cast by Fukushima over that location should lend perspective as delegates arrive to their penthouses with suitcases stuffed full of bottled water and MREs.

Two other summits are coming soon to New York: one about Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and one for Development Finance Goals. As we scale these, some paths will cross. And always, in the thin air zone, there are risks of summit storms, avalanche and landslides.

In 1979 the UN hosted the first World Climate Conference. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (#IPCC) was set up and in 1990 issued its first assessment. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, countries joined an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (#UNFCCC), to cooperatively consider what they could do to limit climate change and cope with whatever impacts were, by then, already inevitable.

By 1995, most countries had realized that emission reduction targets in the Convention were inadequate. They launched negotiations to strengthen ambition and, two years later, adopted the Kyoto Protocol. The KP legally binds developed countries to targets and even though the United States did not ratify, it is still legally bound by its ratification of the UN Charter. The Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. Needless to say, the big players — US, UK, Australia, Canada — not only missed the assigned reduction target (4.7% in the case of the US), they had increased emissions by huge amounts and were trying to paper over the embarrassment by moving around dates and bringing in nutty numbers. The second commitment period began in 2013 and will end in 2020.

There are now 195 Parties to the Convention and 192 Parties to the KP. The UNFCCC secretariat organizes climate change negotiations called the Conference of the Parties (COP). COP-1 was in Berlin in 1995. COP-21 will be in Paris in December, 2015 and it is planned for that meeting to adopt a legally binding treaty to safely protect the planet from climate change. Right?

We believe that today, more than ever before, we live in a global and interdependent world. No State can stand wholly alone. We acknowledge that collective security depends on effective cooperation, in accordance with international law, against transnational threats. We recognize that current developments and circumstances require that we urgently build consensus on major threats and challenges. We commit ourselves to translating that consensus into concrete action, including addressing the root causes of those threats and challenges with resolve and determination.
— from the 2005 Heads of State UN Summit Outcome Document

The second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face.
— James Howard Kunstler

In the Ol' Yodler Sausage Shop down in Lake Geneva, one can take giggling children to watch the words come through the grinder and have their appropriate brackets added, to better help delegates pick and choose only the best to take home.

11 February 2015 @ 08.20h

Option (a): Being guided by the principles of the Convention as set out in its Article 3, including that Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with historical responsibility, common but differentiated responsibilities and the provisions of Article 4 of the Convention / evolving common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities / evolving economic and emission trends which will continue post-2020, in order to progressively enhance the levels of ambition,

Option (b): In accordance with the principles of the Convention as set out in its Article 3, including in particular that Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with historical responsibility and common but differentiated responsibilities,

[Recognizing the importance of long-range efforts to transition to low-carbon economies, mindful of the global temperature goal of 2°C,]

Option (a): Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and net emission levels near zero gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent or below in 2100,

Option (b): Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2°C or 1.5°C relative to preindustrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and zero emissions within the second half of this century,

[Further recognizing that economy-wide emission reduction budgets provide the highest level of clarity, predictability and environmental integrity,]
[Acknowledging that carbon pricing is a key approach for cost-effectiveness of the cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions,]
[Recognizing the special characteristics of land use systems, including the importance of food security, the diversity of global land management systems, and the need to manage multiple sustainability objectives, may require particular consideration within actions under this agreement,]

etc., etc.

Negotiators for 195 countries are trying to craft specific goals, with ways and means ratcheted up or down based upon ongoing, up-to-the-minute authoritative assessments of what works and what doesn't. 

Assumptions are to be tested and mandates enforced either by market forces or government regulation, or some combination. In the conference chambers, the tensions over language merely reflect subliminal panic as what the numbers actually stand for gnaws at the reptilian brain. 

These young mid-level diplomats well know that any gap in mitigation ambition left now makes later adaptation a whole lot more expensive, well nigh impossible. Crafting language like a "public adaptation finance goal" are an attempt to bridge a neurobiological gap between hominid discount rate calculus and immediate benefit stimulation, particularly in the political arena.

For example, a "loss and damage fund" was not gaining traction amongst the criminal climate syndicate members (you know who you are) because it was punishing rich countries for historical fossil fuel use. The accused demanded waivers, a statute of repose, or blanket amnesty. The same mechanism, once reframed as re-insuring and then relocating vulnerable communities, something that by accounting logic should be given its own source of finance, has few opponents.

One option, backed by strong science, is to replace the 2°C limit threshold with 1.5°C. You could say that once we surpassed 400 parts per million CO2 in the air, 1.5 became the new 350 on the placards waved outside the building. It was harder to pimp for 350 when everyone was already breathing 400. It is easier to advocate 1.5 because unless you live in Greenland, we are still at around 1.0.

The 1.5 trajectory can only be achieved (if at all) through a rapid, nearly instantaneous, phase-out of fossil fuels and phase-in of 100% renewable energy, combined with changes to land use patterns that net sequester carbon and rebalance the potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, mainly by doing away with artificial fertilizers. Still, 1.5, or even 2.0, requires more profound change than the galley-slave delegates, straining at their oars, are revealing, or perhaps even comprehend.


Kate Sheppard, writing for Huffington Post, (Scientists Warn We're Ever-Closer To The Apocalypse) parsed the hidden meaning:
While world leaders have set a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the current emissions trajectory puts the world on path to more like 3 degrees to 8 degrees C (5 degrees to 15 degrees F). "It only took modest 3- to 8-degree warming to bring the world out from the frigid depths of the last ice age," said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute specializing in climate risks. Warming on that level again, he said, raises "the specter of a future where the surface of the earth is again radically transformed."

In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated how much carbon we can emit and still keep a decent chance of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is known as a carbon budget. Two degrees is the internationally-accepted point beyond which climate change risks become unacceptably high.

As of 2010, we could release a maximum of about  1000 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide and still have a 50:50 chance of staying below two degrees, according to the IPCC.

Today's paper compares this allowable carbon budget with scientists' best estimate of how much oil, gas and coal exist worldwide in economically recoverable form, known as "reserves".

Were we to burn all the world's known oil, gas and coal reserves, the greenhouse gases released would blow the budget for two degrees three times over, the paper finds.

The implication is that any fossil fuels that would take us over-budget will have to be left in the ground. Globally, this equates to 88 per cent of the world's known coal reserves, 52 per cent of gas and 35 per cent of oil, according to the new research.
In the "new research" cited by Sheppard, a University College London team used a complex energy system model  to investigate the fraction of "unburnable" fossil fuel reserves in 11 specific regions worldwide.
The results suggest the Middle East holds half of total global unburnable oil and gas reserves, with more than 260 billion barrels of oil and nearly 50 trillion cubic metres of gas needing to remain untouched if we're to stay within budget. This "unburnable" fraction equates to two thirds of the region's gas and 38 per cent of oil reserves. Russia accounts for another third of the world's total unburnable gas, as the map below shows.
McGlade, C & Ekins, P. (2015) The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2C. Nature,

"When I was chief scientific advisor, it was my responsibility to worry about a big outcome with a low probability," Sir David King, the UK's former head scientist, and current envoy for climate change, said this week. "And, what I mean by low probability is 1%. So, when we look at a 1% probability now, we are running the risk of heading towards a 7 degrees Celsius world. And, quite frankly, we ought to worry about that. We can't discount these low risk, high impact events." 


It is unclear whether any life on earth would survive a 7 degrees celsius temperature rise. And yet, the IPCC's last assessment put our current trajectory, a 2-degree rise by mid-century, 5-degrees by 2100, at an 80% probability.

Climate change is a systemic challenge. Any agreement that does not start with a systemic response simply will not work. That is the juncture we are at, now, as we survey the peaks stretching out ahead on our trek. The fate of our species, and of life on Earth, hangs in the balance, no exaggeration required.

CAN provided this handy quiz to delegates as they departed Geneva:

Test your knowledge about the legal form of the Paris agreement. Multilateral choices possible!

1.    Does the legal form of the agreement matter?
  • a) Yes, it ensures that all Parties will fulfill their promises.
  • b) Yes, otherwise the carbon market will collapse.
  • c) Yes, as long as it’s possible to achieve it.
  • d) Yes, because it could help countries meet the objective of the climate convention.
2.    Many Parties call for a Protocol. What is a “protocol”?
  • a) An unwritten rule on how to behave, like here in Geneva or on the Internet, often referred to as ”etiquette”.
  • b) An instrument tied to and often seen as extending or deepening a treaty (see Montreal Protocol to the Ozone Treaty and other well-known protocols).
  • c) Something to expect in Paris, because we like the enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol.
  • d) Something to expect in Paris, because we like the lack of effective compliance we have now.
3.    What would “legally binding” mean for this agreement?
  • a) That it is written in such a way that everyone knows what to do and what to expect.
  • b) That if a polluter has to pay, it really has to pay.
  • c) That the word “shall” appears more times than “will”, “should”, “can” and “may” in the text.
  • d) It has provisions to ensure compliance, and is, at least in principle, judicially enforceable.
4.    Does a Party need to establish domestic climate legislation?
  • a) Of course! An agreement (see 1) requires this.
  • b) Of course! Parties refer to this in an agreement.
  • c) Of course! So civil society can sue the state to make it comply with the obligations.
  • d) No! If a Party signs and ratifies an agreement, it will always comply.

There is a story told in economics classes about 20 young people standing around in a singles bar hoping to get lucky that night. If all 10 women hit on the same guy, at most there will be 2 people satisfied at the end of the night and 18 disappointed. To maximize satisfaction and minimize disappointment, the men and women in that group need to think rationally together. They need to conspire (word origin: 1325–75; Middle English and Latin: conspīrāre; con for 'with,' spīrāre 'to breathe'; also 'with spirit').

People trade with each other because they expect to gain from the exchange. So long as a trade is voluntary and honest, it leads to a win-win outcome and all trading parties expect to benefit. However, if there are preference rankings in the group that prohibit settlement of expectations, the process reverts to winners and losers, irrational and coercive gaming, and the competition destroys more than it serves.

Whether these young UN negotiators will get over irrational expectations and coercive gaming between now and Paris in December is anyone's guess. Maybe the best place to find out is not in the fluorescent halls but in the candlelit chalets after dark.

Says CAN:

The old binary distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries is unacceptable to (ahem) developed countries. Meanwhile, developing countries will not accept a new accord without a distinction between groups of countries.

So, what to do? Ideas are flying! We have Brazil’s “concentric circles” proposal and South’s Africa’s equity reference framework. There’s also America’s rather tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a formulation in which emissions and economic indicators are used to define dynamic groups called “Annex X” and “Annex Y”. Then there’s Ethiopia with their different formulation of dynamic annexes, based on per capita GHG and GDP indicators. And just about everyone’s future features “cycles.”
Which rules should apply to which groups?

The rules of participation and responsibility are not expected to be the same for all groups. The MRV rules will differ according to groups, and so will plenty of other things.
How do we define equitable shares?

A positive cycle of increasing ambition requires an equitable regime. Grouping countries is insufficient because it won’t define national “fair shares” in the common effort to stabilize the climate system. You already know our five equity indicators: adequacy, responsibility, capability, adaptation need and development need. South Africa’s equity reference framework and India’s recent “Section K” suggestion on differentiation are not too different.

Which brings us a Valentine’s Day when it’s not just love in the air — but conspiracy. By June we will need commitment. The baby is due in December.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gigatons from the Sky

"Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.— Tom Price"

Orbiting Carbon Observatory

A decade ago the sprawling artist compound just off of Ashby Avenue in an industrial part of West Berkeley, Calif, was filled with flame-throwing robots, stacks of shipping containers and towering Burning Man-inspired sculptures. During my college years at the University of California, Berkeley, and for several years afterwards, the place — then called The Shipyard — was the stuff of legend, hosting shows where huge metal art machines battled each other, and organizing events titled things like How to Destroy the Universe Festival.

Today it’s the headquarters of All Power Labs, an energy startup that emerged out of the ashes of the collective as a way for engineer artist, and all-around-noncomformist Jim Mason to provide power for the compound after the city of Berkeley repeatedly turned off their electricity. “The city was not excited about our interpretation of the building code,” Mason recalled of the group’s offgrid beginnings last week during an interview in All Power Lab’s offices, which sit just above their open machining and fabrication workshops.

Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason, and Director of Infrastructure, Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front of the Power Pallet, in the headquarters of All Power Labs, Berkeley, Calif. Dog and mascot Dulie in the foreground.
Co-founder and CEO Jim Mason,
and Director of Infrastructure,
Nick Bindbeutel, [L,R] stand in front
of the Power Pallet, at
the headquarters of All Power
Labs, in Berkeley, Calif.
Dog and mascot Dulie in
the foreground.

Instead of art machines, the place now produces machines that make distributed clean energy and are mostly shipped to the developing world. Over the past seven years, the group has been building devices called gasifiers that take plant waste (like walnut shells and wood chips) and turn it into electricity with a byproduct of biochar. It’s decades old technology — which was popular during World War II and is still used on a large industrial scale today — but Mason’s vision was to shrink down the tech to a personal scale, not just to run The Shipyard off the grid, but also to make it available to anyone who wanted to make it or buy it. 

Now after years of refining the systems, All Power Labs has shipped 500 products and employs 40 workers. The team — a combination of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry execs — has been gaining momentum, transitioning from their early DIY days into what they hope is a stable and predictable product-oriented energy company.

The group reportedly generates upwards of five million dollars in revenue a year, has been awarded several recent patents around core technology, and last month won a $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission to build out a large gasifier in a shipping container that can turn the waste from fire-prevention forest thinning in the Sierra Nevada mountains into usable, on-demand, local electricity. The award still needs to be officially voted on and approved by the CEC.

This week the team officially brought on Cal-Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen as a founding board member. Kamen described All Power Labs’ products to me as “very exciting as a technology and a systems solution.” While All Power Labs has long operated off of sales to support its growth, the company is now looking to take advantage of this recent momentum to raise funding to scale up and keeping refining its products.

All Power Labs' latest gasifier is large enough to fit in a shipping container, and the company is using a grant from the CEC to finish work on it.
All Power Labs’ latest large gasifier
fits in a shipping container, and
provides over 100 kW of power from plant waste.
The company is using a grant from the
CEC to finish development work on it.


A backwards evolution


It’s taken a good seven years for the team to get to where they are today. “This wasn’t the plan,” explains Mason, who has a degree in anthropology from Stanford, the mind of a mechanical engineer, a background working in open source online communities and the spirit of a Berkeley radical. All Power Lab’s Director of Strategic Intiatives, Tom Price — who has been an environmental manager at Burning Man and spent years working on community solar projects — describes the company’s evolution as “completely backwards.”

In the traditional Silicon Valley tech startup world, co-founders might build a prototype or a basic app and then start raising money from investors to build out and launch the product. In contrast All Power Labs has been entirely bootstrapped, and slowly meandered around to their current commercialization strategy. Their development has been as organic as the produce being sold across the street at the health food coop Berkeley Bowl.

Originally, Mason’s idea was to take the open source, participatory, and collaborative culture that they’d fostered in the art collective and at Burning Man, and bring it to energy. Mason looked to the personalized, layered, and meaning-filled relationships that humans have developed around resources like food and transportation in modern times (picture all the foodie movements and hot rod culture) and wondered if the same type of relationship could be fostered around energy generation and use.

An All Power Labs' gasifier being run in Liberia.
An All Power Labs’ gasifier being run in Liberia

Soon after the city shut off their power, Mason started reading about gasifiers via an old Swedish gasifier manual; Sweden has long been a world leader when it comes to converting waste into energy. Gasifiers use heat to transform plant waste into a gas similar to natural gas that can be used to run an engine and produce electricity. A basic gasifier is about as complex as a traditional wooden stove and can be assembled with simple tools like a hammer and wrench.

Gasifiers are also interesting from an environmental, and emissions perspective, because they can produce “carbon negative” energy. Plants and trees harvest carbon from the atmosphere, and when they are later put into a gasifier as waste, the remaining energy is extracted and the leftover byproduct is the carbon-based biochar, which can go back into the soil. As Price said, “Solar is great, but we need to harvest gigatons of carbon from the sky.”

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

The by-product of the gasifiers is that they produce biochar, which can be added to soil as a fertilizer.

In the early days, and partly to cultivate the personal energy experience, All Power Labs made kits called Gasifier Experimenter Kits (GEKs), which were free CAD files that walked users through the steps of making the gasifiers from off the shelf parts. While the kits received a lot of attention from enthusiasts (many in the U.S.), even the early adopters sometimes found the notoriously tempermental tech difficult to get up and running and operating for substantial periods of time.

Over the course of several years, the team slowly decided they wanted to provide a product that was much easier for their customers to use, instead of just providing them the means to create the technology. All Power Labs also started to get an increasing amount of interest from local entrepreneurs in developing areas in Africa and Asia that needed low cost, off-grid power to run their businesses, had access to abundant biomass (many operated in agriculture regions) and wanted to replace their expensive and dirty diesel generators with something else.

Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube, a mobile gasifier.
Tom Price, Director of Strategic Initiatives
at All Power Labs, stands next to the Power Cube,
a mobile gasifier.

All Power Labs no longer sells these kits and the tech has evolved into the company’s three current gasifier products. The first is the company’s staple, the Power Pallet, which produces 15 kW to 18 kW of power, fits in the bed of a truck, costs $30,000 or $1.50 per watt, and represents the bulk of the shipments.

All Power Labs now has Power Pallets operating in 40 countries, including in Liberia using old rubber trees, the Philippines using coconut shells, and in Haiti, gasifying corn cobs. They had to temporarily halt their on-the-ground work in Liberia when Ebola hit.

At that $1.50 per watt price point, a customer that buys a Power Pallet to replace a generator and diesel fuel can recover their costs in 15 months, Price said. That price also significantly beats the cost to install solar panels, which can cost $2.27 a watt for large rooftop solar systems for companies and organizations, and $3.60 a watt for residential systems, according to GTM Research. And unlike a solar panel, the Power Pallet can run around the clock, whenever it’s got plant waste to gasify.

All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.
All Power Labs works out of a 11,000 square foot former artist collective space, in Berkeley, Calif., filled with shipping containers. Dog Dulie wanders around the space.

All Power Systems has two other products in the works. There’s the Power Cube, a regulation compliant version of the Power Pallet for the European market that is just starting to go into production. And there’s the Powertainer, which is the larger, 100 kW unit that the company is working on with the CEC grant, and which isn’t yet on sale publicly (they’re shooting for 2016).

Despite the fact that the tech is centuries old, All Power Labs is still able to claim at least three patents for new gasifier innovations. Price said that they’re also using state of the art materials like cast in place ceramics in the reactor, and the electronic brain of the systems — which use Arduino sensors — are utilizing the latest in electronics, helping the gasifiers bypass many of the messy problems that plague older systems.

Gasifiers, in general, are messy systems, and produce tar, a dirty pollutant. They also can be very temperamental, which is one of the reasons why the technology hasn’t taken off on a broader scale. In addition to those two hurdles, the lifetime of the systems are dependent on how often the owner runs them; the basic four cylinder engine in the Power Pallet might need to be replaced after two years.


What’s next?


A Power Pallet operating in Uganda.
A Power Pallet operating in Uganda

It could be difficult for All Power Labs to raise funds from traditional venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Many of the larger firms that were once aggressive on cleantech have now moved away from new investments. The firms that are continuing to invest in energy now tend to take a lighter approach, opting to support digital energy focused startups that might require less capital to scale.

But there’s a growing amount of money being invested in clean energy in general in the world (much of it in solar projects and offshore wind), and there’s still some money for equity in early stage technology, though much of it is coming from outside the Valley. Corporations, like Shell, Siemens and GE, are looking to make energy investments as part of their corporate R&D strategy. And more family offices are willing to support energy startups that have a triple bottom line.

The Altaeros, high altitude wind turbine.
Altaeros’ high altitude wind turbine, which Softbank invested in.
Some of the deeper investor pockets can be found in Asia. For example, telecom giant Softbank has a new fund to invest in early energy generation and storage technologies that can be implemented in Japan and Asia. Japan is struggling to remake its energy generation mix after the nuclear disaster.

Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has backed some of the harder to fund startups out there. Some startups have been able to scale dramatically with funding in China, like Boston Power, LanzaTech and EcoMotors.

And there’s still some funding in the Valley for big energy ideas. Cleantech heavyweights Nancy Pfund and Ira Ehrenpreis have teamed up at DBL Investors for a new fund. Groups like Other Lab and M37 are testing out new models around developing energy innovation that are part government lab, part corporate lab and part Valley incubator. And perhaps the few VC-backed energy companies that have done well, like Tesla and SolarCity, will help produce the next-generation of entrepreneurial energy investors willing to make bigger, and smarter, risks in new energy startups.

I do wonder how the team at All Power Labs would feel at the end of the day about joining up with the sometimes slick, and always-optimizing, investors of Silicon Valley, or even investors outside the Valley. It would help them reach another of level of efficiency and growth, but it could also mean giving up some of their core tenets and lifestyle.

But whatever happens to the group going forward, they have the enthusiasm, momentum, and innovative thinking rarely seen in such an organically-emerging startup. And if their gasifiers are ever able to reach any substantial scale, they could have a profound effect on the emergence of off-grid power in the places that need it most.

This open source blog post by originally appeared in Gigaom on 4 Feb 2015.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


"According to Takasi, bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to or even capable of chemically transforming and detoxifying radionuclides."

Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo,

Hoodle ah da wa da,

Scatty wah !

Oh yeah !...

Well, it ain't necessarily so

Well, it ain't necessarily so

Dey tells all you chillun

De debble's a villun,

But it ain't necessarily so !

To get into Hebben

Don' snap for a sebben !

Live clean !
Don' have no fault !

Oh, I takes dat gospel

Whenever it's pos'ble,

But wid a grain of salt.

- George Gershwin , Porgy & Bess

In The Biochar Solution we suggested that biochar's highest purpose might lie less in its capacity to increase global food security and more in its power to restore Earth's ecological balance and return us to the comfortable Holocene that was the cradle of civilization — the only Earth we have known until very recently.

Now that our sciences have cracked the ancient code for Terra Preta — the Amazonian Dark Earths — and discovered the miraculous quantum entanglement of a microverse below our feet, in our guts, in the transfers between ocean and atmosphere, in the flow of nutrients from sunlight to cells there are a great many new biochar solutions that are rapidly coming into view. One of these solutions may be remediation of radioactively damaged soils.

That story can be found amid a remarkable collection of science articles recently published by CRC Press under the catchy title, Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase, edited by Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe.

Chapter 31 of Geotherapy is an insightful look at the Fukushima disaster and the reaction and response of soil microbes (Kazue Tazaki, Teruaki Takehara, Yasuhito Ishigaki, Hideaki Nakagawa, and Masayuki Okuno, "SEM-EDX Observation of Diatomaceous Earth at Radioactive Paddy Soils in Fukushima, Japan"). In case you were thinking, after reading our post last month, that all hope for Japan is lost, hold on. It ain't necessarily so.

A small group of Japanese scientists began using diatomaceous earth, which as a soil amendment works essentially the same way that biochar does. Diatomaceous earth is a white powder made from the remnant shells of fossil diatoms and clay minerals. It has long been useful to organic gardeners because of its calcium content, micropore structure and abrasive shell edges that can deter ants and termites. It is widely used for soil improvement, compost, fertilizer with oyster shells, as a desiccant, or for filtration and other purposes.

Diatomaceous earth works to increase soil bacteria and fungi in the same way biochar does. Biochar, however, can be made anywhere, by anyone, and diatomaceous earth must be mined and transported from places, such as coastal areas, where it can be economically recovered.

According to Tazaki, et al., diatomaceous earth collected from coastal rice paddies around Fukushima in the months following the accident showed, at first, a concentration of  radionuclides such as I, Cs, Ba, Nd, Th, U, Np, and Pu, "suggesting absorption of both radionuclide and stable isotope elements from radioactive polluted paddy soils."

Coastal areas in Minamisoma City, Fukushima, Japan, were seriously damaged by the radioactive contamination from FDNPP accident that caused multiple pollutions by the tsunami and radionuclide exposure, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, on March 11 and 12, 2011. FDNPP leaked 17 kinds of radionuclides, such as 134Cs (1.8 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 2.1 years), 137Cs (1.5 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 30.0 years), 90Sr (1.4 × 1014 Bq; half-life time 29.1 years), and 95Zr (1.7 × 1013 Bq; half-life time 64.0 days) to the atmosphere and seawater in Japan (Atomic Energy Safety Agency, 2011). The paddy soils in Fukushima Prefecture have heavily been contaminated by radionuclides, especially by Cs (134Cs, 137Cs) and Sr (89Sr, 90Sr), even though more than 30 km north of the FDNPP.

Tazaki's group took samples from several of the most heavily contaminated Fukushima soils and transported them to test plots. There the group set up more than 20 control garden beds measuring 2m x 2m, filled them with radioactive soils (averaging 1135 "cpm" or gamma counts per minute); and then applied different materials, such as zeolite, fossil shell, and chaff. The most effective reduction in radiation cpm were in the radioactive soils sprinkled with diatomaceous earth. What the group observed, over the course of 13 months (from August 8, 2011 to September 24, 2012) was a gradual down-migration into the soil profile for the radioactivity, and then a gradual elimination (equal to background) beginning at around 6 cm.

In case you are saying, "Well that is to be expected with the decay of radionuclides," or "Must have just washed away in the rain," think again. Some nuclides, like 1-131 or Zr-95, are short lived, but others have half-lives of 30 years and more. Also, the scientists controlled for rain transport and measured that.

The radiation decreased by about half in the first 3 months as the radionuclides migrated from the surface to 2 cm deep. It decreased by half again as it reached 4-6 cm. Nothing survived to reach 8 cm. The thicker the sprinking of diatomaceous earth (2 cm vs. 1 cm) at the surface, the more rapid the decrease in dose rate.

What is the mechanism?

Looking for possible explanations, Tazaki looked to see if it might have to do with chemical reactions. Diatom shells, 10–100 μm size, are mainly made of hydrous amorphous silica (SiO2  94% and H2O 6%). Diatomaceous clay is mostly SiO2 (67–75 mass%), Al2O3 (8.0–13 mass%), Fe2O3 (3.0–5.0 mass%), TiO2 (0.35–0.60 mass%), CaO (0.9–1.4 mass%), MgO (0.15–1.5 mass%), K2O (1.2–1.9 mass%), and Na2O (0.6–1.0 mass%), with pH of 3.5–4.5 (acidic).

However, the chemical components of the diatomaceous earth were not significantly different than some of the other rock powder treatments used as controls, without any similar effect. Chemistry and ionic attraction could not explain the drop in radioactivity.

Then Tazaki looked at the biology, and here is where we start to glimpse the potential for a biochar solution in the offing. "Abundant organic bubbles were found after H2O2 treatment, suggesting large amounts of microorganisms and organic materials" in the diatomaceous earth, the group reported. Moreover, when a chunk of biologically "charged" diatomaceous earth was dunked in muddy water containing 1135 cpm fallout from Fukushima, it sponged up radionuclides.

The chunk of diatomaceous earth dipped in the muddy water absorbed large amount of dosage which transferred from the bottom (15 cm) to the surface (0–5 cm). … The diatomaceous earth showed high capabilities to adsorb radioactivity.
In the soils, Takasi concluded, due to elemental similarity of K+ and Cs+, both ions are taken up by the same biological-metabolism-dependent transport systems. Bacteria, eukaryotic algae, fungi, and moss plants are known to absorb most radionuclides. Cs-137 and Sr-90 are partially adsorbed on the surface of clay minerals and fixed by microbiota, reacting the same as might potassium and ammonium. The stability of Cs-137 and Sr-90 depends on coexisting cations in the soils. Some radionuclides will move more quickly through the soil profile with rainfall, others more slowly.

Microorganisms can interact with radionuclides via several mechanisms, some of which may be used as the basis of potential bioremediation strategies. Mechanisms of radionuclides–microbe interactions are biological sorption, bioaccumulation, biomineralization, biotransformation, and microbiologically enhanced chemical sorption.

So, this explains how and why soil microbes concentrate radioactivity, and from what we already know of the "soil reef" effect, we can say that diatomaceous earth, like biochar, serves to give the microbes a conducive habitat in which to flourish, thereby speeding the sequestration process. But how does that explain the acceleration of decay in long-lived radionuclides?

According to Takasi, bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to or even capable of chemically transforming and detoxifying radionuclides. He compares what is going on in the Fukushima soils to the microbial mats that biomineralize radiation in the radioactive natural hot springs in Japan, something that he studied and reported from 2003 to 2009.

The bacteria produce extracellular polymers around the cells, which form capsules and slime layers, defending them from radiation. It is possible that radioactive biofilms and microbial mats are capable of immobilization of radioactive materials and can be used to counteract the disastrous effects of radionuclides polluted water and soils.

So what apparently happens is that not only are radioactive materials concentrated by bacteria and fungi, but they are also absorbed into biofilms and microbial mats, where they are digested and made part of a slime layer that apparently absorbs errant electrons, neutron/proton-pairs, gamma and x-rays so that they cannot escape to be detected by radiation metering equipment, or for that matter, to damage healthy cells or disrupt delicate DNA/RNA exchanges.

You can set your atomic clock by the standardized rate of decay (as the Navy's Bureau of Standards does), and that will never change. Once set in motion, only time can defuse a nuclear decay chain. Takasi does not suggest that the radiation has vanished. What his study suggests is nonetheless hopeful, because it says biological systems, given the right conditions, can safely entrap radionuclides and their emissions in a slime that keeps them inert and unable to harm anyone.

In Mycelium Running, mycologist Paul Stamets describes a similar process, where fungi excrete a digestive fluid that entombs toxic salts inside a waxy coating so that the toxins are incapable of solubilizing or being transported up the food chain. This is precisely what Geoff Lawton observed and reported in Greening the Desert, when he was able, through the magic of the soil-food-web, to "desalinate" (actually entrain) a swath of Jordanian desert and turn it back into a garden.

We are surrounded by allies who want nothing more than to heal the planet and take us back to the garden. It is time we got out of their way and stopped giving them more work than they can reasonably handle all at one time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

SOU Reboot

"I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; building the next generation of sailing ships; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; and undertaking the vital work of ecological restoration on a scale unseen since Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps."

Jan. 20, 2015:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans:

We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.

But tonight, we turn the page.

Tonight, after   Some see the past 12 months as a breakthrough year for America, with an economy growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. But these numbers belie the truth. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis only because so many have given up looking for work and are no longer included in the workforce statistics. More of our kids are graduating than ever before, but there are no jobs waiting for them when they get through, and they have accrued massive and unforgiving debt to get that education, debt that could limit their freedom for much of their adult lives. ; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we've been in almost 30 years. (applause)

Where we stand right now, in Washington, D.C., 50 percent of the children are living in poverty. And yet, more than 50% of this legislative body have individual net worth exceeding one million dollars. Inequality is the central reality of the economy that exists in our country and around the world. Right now the 80 wealthiest people in the world control as much wealth, own as much wealth, as the bottom 50 percent of the population of the world, more than 3.5 billion people.

We have a booming stock market not from earnings or wage growth but from pure financial alchemy, with 80% of trades done by high speed computer algorithms running not on price discovery or productive value but on each other's exuberance. This will not end well.

Tonight, for the first time since 9/11 we withdrew our forces, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over ramping up again. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain, but that is changing. And Although we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe and We are humbled and grateful for your service, and although we hope we can find an equal number to fill your shoes, this must change. We cannot keep doing this forever. This is a war no one can win, at least not this way, and we need to stop putting our young men in harms' way.

America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has not passed, and the State of the Union is strong growing weaker. The leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face.

At this moment – with a growing stagnant and shrinking economy, shrinking growing deficits, bustling moribund industry, and booming energy undiminished greenhouse gas production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth have arrived at a moment of truth. It's now up to us to choose who we want to be over whether we still want to exist after the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well for their brief remaining lifetimes? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort a serious course correction that might allow our children a chance to see the second half of this century, and possibly even bequeath a decent, but less wasteful, standard of living to their children?

Will we approach that world, the way we have these past 15 years, fearful and reactive, drugged by mass media, a diseased health service and nutritionally bankrupt national diet until we are dragged unresisting into costly conflicts that strain our military, set back our standing, and squander the little time remaining to arrest climate change? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?

Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another – or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?

In two weeks, I will send this Congress a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan. And in the months ahead, I'll crisscross the country making a case for those ideas.

So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.

It begins with our economy.

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler ... 11 million new jobs.

Lately we seem to be rejoicing over the low price of gasoline and the strong US dollar, but as R. Buckminster Fuller reminds us:

The requisite pressures and heat that must be maintained continuously and steadily over the multimillenia involved in the natural production of liquid fossil fuels, when accounted at the kilowatt-per-hour prices charged to retail customers by the public utilities for that much energy for that vast span of time, amount to well over a million dollars per each gallon of petroleum.

We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil, coal and natural gas and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump. We still have a ways to go to reduce our dependence in dirty fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power, and that is why tonight I am proposing that we remove all federal subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy and give them instead to our conversion to energy efficiency and renewables, with a goal that the nation be carbon neutral by 2020 and carbon negative, meaning net sequestering, by 2025. To accomplish this I propose a Carbon Tax and Dividend to be modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund, with those who extract carbon from the ground paying into the fund and the fund providing dividends to every citizen that more than compensate for the higher cost of non-carbon energy. Those who add carbon to the soil will be rewarded, and we all will benefit from better tasting, nutrient dense foods.

We believed we could prepare our kids for a more competitive world. And today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before. All of those achievements take our nation to 36th in the world, the lowest we have been since No Child Left Behind was first uttered in these halls. Our nation is behind Singapore, Korea, Liechtenstein, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Hungary, Tunisia, Mexico and Vietnam, and yet, or because, it is among the most expensive, social-economically unequal, and computerized in the world. This needs to change and that is why I am proposing we stop injecting religion into our curricula, start assisting the poorest performing schools, and expand Head Start and other proven programs for the youngest and most disadvantaged.

We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition. Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. And Despite scores of attempts to repeal Obamacare in this chamber, in the past year alone, about ten million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage, but at an enormous cost to both the country and their own future. Instead of a sensible, single payer system that provides universal care, bloated insurance companies have, though their paid lobbyists, inserted themselves into every step of the medical process, inflating billables, extorting the sick and handicapped, denying care to those in greatest need, and defrauding the government. We need to rid our medical system of that scourge and simply provide a common standard of care to all our citizens with the money saved by wholly eliminating private insurance participation.

At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we've seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years. (Applause.)  This is good news, people.  (Laughter and applause.)

So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way. We can't slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we've got a broken system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it. It will have earned my veto.

Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives. Wages are finally starting to rise again. We know that more small business owners plan to raise their employees' pay than at any time since 2007. But here's the thing – those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn't halt the progress we're making.
We need to do more than just do no harm. Tonight, together, let's do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

Because families like Rebekah's ...  help families get ahead.

In fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort and their dreams will take them.

That's what middle-class steady state economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don't just want everyone to share in America's success – we want everyone to contribute to our success.

So what does middle-class steady state economics require in our time?

First – middle-class steady state economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks understand and prepare for the freight train of climate change and peak resources that is barreling our way afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year into by getting off of climate-changing non-renewable resource and back on a track that is in partnership with Mother Nature and can be sustained indefinitely into the future.

Here's one example. During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority – so this country provided universal childcare. In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have – it's a must-have. It's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us. And that's why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per yearby funding affordable free childcare, beginning with every large workplace and poor neighborhood in America, and steadily expanding that until there is universal access.

Here's another example. Today, we're the only advanced country on Earth that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I'll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let's put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of right to paid sick leave. It's the right thing to do.

Of course, nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages. That's why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It's 2015. It's time. We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they've earned. And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise. And while we are at it, let us increase the minimum social security benefit to $15,000. The idea that your father and mother should have to live on $3,600 per year because of how little they were paid in their working careers is a scandal.

These ideas won't make everybody rich, or relieve every hardship. That's not the job of government. To give working families a fair shot, we'll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter's earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company's long-term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice. But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage – these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That is a fact. And that's what all of us – Republicans and Democrats alike – were sent here to do.

Second, to make sure folks keep earning higher wages survive the enormous changes just down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.

America thrived in the 20th century because we were not very far from our roots in the farm, and the life skills that gives a child. To level the playing field between urban and rural, rich and poor, we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best modern workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more. That peaked in the post-world war-II years, and has been declining ever since. We are too far removed from those roots, and we can't go back, but we can go forward, if we recognize what will be required in the years ahead.

By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher basic skills education. Two in three. We are talking about carpentry, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and people who know how to use picks, shovels and hoes. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need have no idea how to do any of these things, or think they should have to. What do they expect to do when the oil runs out and the fracking hoax is shown for what it is, a colossal Ponzi scheme? Unless we change our educational paradigm now, it's not fair to them, and it's not smart for our future.

That's why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community and vocational colleges – to zero.

Keep in mind — Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you've got to earn it – you've got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. Lets stay ahead of the curve.  And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn't derail anyone's dreams.

Thanks to Vice President Biden's great work to update our job training system, we're connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics learn 21st century jobs like carpentry, horse farming, windmill repair, and commercial sail navigation. Tonight, I'm also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying secure jobs even if they don't have a higher education.

And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we've made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care. We're slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we're making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs. Joining Forces, the national campaign launched by Michelle and Jill Biden, has helped nearly 700,000 veterans and military spouses get new jobs. So to every CEO in America, let me repeat: If you want somebody who's going to get the job done, hire a veteran.

However, let me stop here and say that in an era when social media connects us all in real time, you and I and everyone around the world shared a tragic event this year. Together, we watched, on TV, a black man, Eric Garner, father of six, who was being polite, and whose only alleged offense was selling cigarettes by the single, rather than by the pack, choked to death by NY police officer Daniel Pantaleo while he said, repeatedly, politely, and with respect in his voice, "I can't breathe." And after we watched him stop breathing, and his body lay unattended in the street until he died of a heart attack in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, we watched the young man who filmed that crime be thrown in jail and we watched the policeman who committed that crime go unpunished, and we learned that that Daniel Pantaleo had a long pattern of misconduct.

In Ferguson, Missouri, violence and chaos erupted after a grand jury elected not to indict a white officer, Darren Wilson, for the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager.

We also watched, again on TV,  12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was carrying an airsoft gun that shoots non-lethal plastic pellets, shot repeatedly, and fatally, within 1½ to 2 seconds of officer Timothy Loehmann pulling up in his police cruiser to a WalMart children's play area.

That is why tonight I am proposing that police departments and police academies all across America be excluded from the initiatives we are creating to hire veterans, and that laws be enacted prohibiting veterans from working in any job involving lethal weapons. We trained them to be killers, we subjected them to brutality that scars them still, and we have no business sticking a gun in their hand and sending them out onto the streets of America to attack cigarette vendors, teenagers in hoodies, or children with plastic guns.

Earlier this year I ordered an end to our war on whistleblowers. We dropped all our demands of Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen and we will stop jailing those who reveal high crimes and misdemeanors in government, the military and the workplace. If journalism is not a crime, why are we criminalizing journalists? Is it because we are frightened of their power? Are we like the Saudi kingdom, that feels it necessary to order 1000 lashes for a blogger who challenges authority, or to publicly decapitate women who refuse to wear the veil?

I ask Congress to amend or repeal the Espionage Act so that this kind of abuse can never happen again.

I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world. We need to hear the voices of others around the world, whether it is from Anonymous, YouTube, Netflix, Silk Road, Wikileaks, Al-Jazeera or Russia Today. The Voice of America does not have a corner on the truth — we need to hear all sides. Freedom of speech demands it.

I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; building the next generation of sailing ships; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; and undertaking the vital work of ecological restoration on a scale unseen since Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. ; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it.

Now, the truth is, when it comes to issues like infrastructure and basic research, I know there's bipartisan support in this chamber. Members of both parties have told me so. Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don't mind paying our fair share of taxes, as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They've riddled it with giveaways the superrich don't need, denying a break to middle class families who do.

Just before I took office 6 years ago, when the captains of Wall Street ran the country into a ditch, the country chose to bail out the banks in hopes that they would lend more to Main Street. They didn't, and we find ourselves more in debt today, and the giant Ponzi schemes they ran up before the last crash are now ten times larger. No one can bail out anyone when they crash, as surely they will. As James Howard Kunstler has said,

"The collective failure of authority, whether of intention or oversight or mental deficiency boggles the mind. And it leaves us where we are: in a compressive deflationary contraction, a.k.a. the long emergency.  This is not a cyclical recession. It's the end of one thing and the beginning of another thing, another phase of history in which people will have to learn to live differently or perish."

This year, we have an opportunity to change that insanity. Let's close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, or buy more yachts and private islands for their top 1 percent, and reward those that invest in America. Let's use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home.

Lets revoke the charter of any company found guilty of the kinds of financial fraud we uncovered in 2008. Some people are calling this corporate capital punishment.

Finally, as we better train our workers, we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill.

Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.
Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs. Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist ten or twenty years ago – jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla, jobs that may not exist in another 20 years. We need to phase out our private automobile-based transportation system, powered by fossil energy, and replace it with light rail, powered by renewable energy.

No one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future. But we do know we want some of them here in America. That's why the third part of middle-class steady state economics is about building the most competitive advanced economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire. We need to build an economy that understands degrowth, and that prospers in advancing higher social goals and quality of life, not damaging, unsustainable and antiquated patterns of consumerism.

21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure – modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains, large cargo-carrying sailing ships, and the fastest internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come. Lets do it. Lets get it done. Lets get it done.

21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more quality American products overseas to Americans, not ship cheap junk halfway around the world. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher grossly inadequate wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. We should let them do that. Asia is their domain. In an energy-constrained world we are disadvantaged by distance. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen?  But when we speak about America, we should write those rules. We should level the playing field. We should sell to ourselves, the products we need, that last, and that make sense for the coming years. That's why I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair. It's the right thing to do.

Look, I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype ... give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.

Let's simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. And let's close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth and property. We can use that money to help more families pay for have help with childcare and sending their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy, and we can achieve that together. We can achieve it together.

Helping hardworking families make ends meet. Giving them the tools they need for good-paying jobs in this new economy. Maintaining the conditions for growth and competitiveness. This is where America needs to go. I believe it's where the American people want to go. It will make our economy stronger a year from now, fifteen years from now, and deep into the century ahead.

Of course, if there's one thing this new century has taught us, it's that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.

We need to end the threat of nuclear weapons once and for all. We cannot tell others they cannot have these weapons when we possess them ourselves. That is why I am urging Congress to expedite the process of global nuclear disarmament by funding new diplomatic initiative that would eliminate all nuclear weapons and the means to produce them by 2020, the same year we complete our phase-out of nuclear power plants.

My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to be sure that the men and women we have placed in harms way can safely return home when the airlines no longer have fuel to fly and the ships that sail are too few to transport hundreds of thousands of troops back to home shores. For that reason, I am ordering a gradual drawdown of military forces stationed abroad and a phased closure of our military bases overseas. We will return Kiev to the popular vote of all Ukrainians, without manipulating the election. We will return the Guantánamo Naval Base to Cuba. We will return Okinawa to Japan. We will return Pearl Harbor to the people of Hawai'i.  We will divest and boycott Israel and insist on legal proceedings by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and atrocities against Palestinians.

We will release all of those uncharged and unjustly held for 13 years at Guantánamo for nothing more serious than being in the wrong place at the wrong time or having the wrong name, and many of them tortured with no possible justification. Tonight I am asking Congress to provide these victims reparations to establish them in life better than when they were when they were taken to Cuba, with our sincere but always inadequate apologies for what happened to them.

defend the United States of America. In doing so, The question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That's what our enemies want us to do. In the 21st century less is more. We will do greater good by staying away from conflict.

As John Adams said,
"America is a friend of freedom everywhere, but a custodian only of our own."
I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy that comes only of moral force, something we seemed to have forgotten in these past 15 years. ; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don't let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That's exactly what we're doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference. What is a terrorist? Is only someone of a different faith than our own who seeks to impose their habits on us? Or is it the young, gum-chewing Air Force specialist sitting in a cubicle in Las Vegas holding a gamer's joystick, unleashing a Hellfire missile to destroy, without any warning, a childrens' school in Pakistan? Is an Arab child seeking revenge for the squalid internment camps and CIA black sites by blowing up an airplane or a sporting event, or is it the Tuesday morning meetings in the War Room of the White House selecting targets for assassination, regardless of whether they are our own citizens, or even correctly identified as threats?

First, we stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists – from a those children at school in Pakistan who were blown up by that Hellfire Missile to the streets of Boston or Paris. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their our own terror networks, and we will do our best to reclaim our moral compass. reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we've done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.

At the same time, we've learned some costly lessons over the last thirteen years... That's how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you're doing doesn't work for fifty years, it's time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of "small steps." These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we're overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.

Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we've halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material. Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions urged by AIPAC and the Israeli government passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn't make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.

Third, we're looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.

No foreign nation, no hacker ... unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.

In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola – saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn't be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts. But the job is not yet done – and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.

In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief. And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.

2014 was the planet's warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn't make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists; that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist, either. But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

That's why, over the past six years, we've done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That's why we've set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that's why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement – the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world's two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we've got.

But to combat climate change at this point in time, after all the years of delay, will require more than cutting emissions. We will need to launch an effort to net sequester more carbon than we emit, but putting it into our soils and returning American soils to some of the most fertile on the planet.

There's one last pillar to our leadership – and that's the example of our values.

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It's why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It's why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they're right, but because they make us safer.

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice – so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down and give that land back to Cuba. It's not who we are.

As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties – and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven't. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.

Looking to the future instead of the past. Making sure we match our power with diplomacy, and use force wisely. Building coalitions to meet new challenges and opportunities. Leading – always – with the example of our values. That's what makes us exceptional. That's what keeps us strong. And that's why we must keep striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards – our own.

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn't a liberal America, or a conservative America ...  I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and our sister's keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America's hopes. I've served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn't what you signed up for – arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand – a better politics isn't one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears.

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than "gotcha" moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives.

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

If we're going to have arguments, let's have arguments – but let's make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is snatched from her child, and that it's possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. I've talked to Republicans and Democrats about that. That's something we can share.

We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves all of us. Am I right, Shirley?

That's a better politics. That's how we start rebuilding trust. That's how we move this country forward. That's what the American people want. That's what they deserve.

I have no more campaigns to run. (applause) My only agenda (laughter) -- I know becuase I won both of them (applause). My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol – to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.

Because I want this chamber, I want this city, to reflect the truth – that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, to help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world.

I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are to working on behalf of  for our own kids.

I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen – man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino, Asian, immigrant, Native American, gay, straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability. Everybody matters.

I want them to grow up in a country that shows the world what we still know to be true: that we are still more than a collection of red states and blue states; that we are the United States of America.

I want them to grow up in a country where a young mom like Rebekah can sit down and write a letter to her President with a story to sum up these past six years:

"It is amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to...we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We've laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let's begin this new chapter – together – and let's start the work right now.

Thank you, God bless you.  God bless this country we love. Thank you. (Applause)





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