Sunday, April 15, 2018

How Many Trees Do We Need?

"A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 55.8 million trees to provide its oxygen."

Is it possible that we could wreck the atmosphere enough that humans would suffocate for a lack of air to breathe? Probably not. Still, it’s not a chance worth taking.

Earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen and human activities add only very slightly to that, although now more than all the natural sources. 20.9 percent of what’s up there is the oxygen we need to breathe. Water is about 1 percent. The remainder — less than one percent — is all the other gases, including all the greenhouse gases.

Most people think we get our oxygen from trees, and this is true in part. Trees release oxygen when they make glucose from carbon dioxide and water — a net gain of one molecule of oxygen for every atom of carbon layered into a tree. Estimates vary on how many trees it takes to produce the oxygen required by one human, and one might expect that because the amount of oxygen produced by a tree depends on its species, age, health, and surroundings.

A human breathes about 9.5 metric tons of air in a year, but oxygen only makes up about 21 percent of that air and we only extract a little over a third of the oxygen from each breath. That works out to a total of about 740 kg of oxygen per year.

A 2-ton sycamore tree produces about 100 kg of oxygen per year. A 100-ft Northern Spruce, according to Northwest Territories Forest Management, 18" diameter at its base, produces 6,000 pounds of oxygen (2,727 kg).

According to Environment Canada, the average tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen per year (118 kg). If we accept that as a good estimate, we each need about 6 mature trees to support ourselves.
A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 112 million trees to provide its oxygen. It has those — in the Taconics, Adirondacks, Poconos, and Berkshires — although it shares them with Newark, Philadelphia, Hartford, Albany and others, so maybe not enough for everyone. Cities like Mexico City (21 million), Mumbai (21 million), Sao Paolo (21 million), Shanghai (24 million), Delhi (25 million) and Tokyo (38 million) are straight out of luck.

Fortunately for all of us, ocean phytoplankton and coastal mangroves also make oxygen. Not so fortunately, both of those sources are being destroyed by climate change and reckless development.

Are we in trouble? Not any time soon.

Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event, when oceanic cyanobacteria learned to produce oxygen by photosynthesis, setting off the greatest mass extinction in history. Say goodbye to all the happy anaerobes. They either went underground or died.

Over the next 2.4 billion years, cyanobacteria made a lot of oxygen. That said, we are not entirely out of the woods, so to speak. Most organisms have evolved to live in an environment that has a very specific set of conditions. We have come to rely on air containing about 21 percent oxygen.

That concentration has varied over time, with the normal equilibrium up to about 600 million years ago being about 15% but then rising and peaking at about 30% around 280 million years ago and gradually declining since. It has never been less than 20% in human evolutionary history. How low it can go before humans feel a need for some breathing space is anyone’s guess. By destroying all the natural sources — forests, corals, mangroves — while also polluting the atmosphere, we are putting a lot at risk.

That blue halo that colors the Earth in space is less about the color of our oceans than the scattering of light from the wavelengths of the gases in our atmosphere. As we destroy that balance, particularly the relative proportion of oxygen, we may just lose that halo. We could lose a lot more.

Originally published at

Sunday, April 8, 2018

First they locked up the Knowledge

"If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose?"

“Putting food under lock and key was one of the great innovations of your culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key — and putting it there is the cornerstone of your economy…. Because if the food wasn’t under lock and key, Julie, who would work?”
— Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael

Some years ago, game makers found a way to suck you into to playing online games for free and still make money. Like Amazon, Facebook and YouTube, they set special features behind paywalls. You could only reach the higher levels of play if you were willing to shell out hard cash.

It wasn’t long before most of the reputable scientific journals latched onto the same model to monetize their websites. Tease you with free summaries or the occasional open article (and sometimes authors can pay to permit that) but then lock up the hard science unless you can shell out hard cash.

Recently Nature Geoscience received correspondence from some leading IPCC climate scientists including Michael Mann. The letter was published online under the title, Interpretations of the Paris climate target. The editors solicited a response from ten other IPCC scientists and published that as Reply to ‘Interpretations of the Paris climate target’. 

Staying true to game theory, in both cases the journal published only the title of the letters. If you want to actually read the letters, you need to shell out $59. Each. For those of us who try to stay abreast of developments in climate policy, or the UN structured expert dialog that is taking place per the Paris Agreement, that paywall is a poke in the nose and the bum’s rush.

We have been watching Bitcoin for a while and have decided it is pure evil. Sorry about that, Max and Stacy. We were glad to hear that Google banned all cryptomining extensions to the Chrome app.

It is not that we don’t like the blockchain, but Bitcoin is based on the Etherium backbone which uses far too much energy — at current rates of growth, all the world’s energy by 2020. Bitcoin could switch to Hedera very easily but doesn’t. That’s evil.

Current estimated annual electricity consumption for Bitcoin mining is 56.71 TWh. Twenty-eight U.S. households could be powered for 1 day by the electricity consumed for a single transaction. Bitcoin’s carbon footprint per transaction is 408.42 kg of CO2-e. That one transaction produces more greenhouse impact than the average Bangladeshi or Vanuatuvian do in an entire year. Bangladesh and Vanuatu are going under water and their citizens forced to relocate because Bitcoin gives no thought about where its computing power comes from. It is an externalized cost. Same for Climatecoin, or Nori — Silicon Valley techno-cornucopian libertarians with no concept of thermodynamic laws or biophysical ecology.

Analysts at Credit Suisse examined Bitcoin’s potential to consume all the world’s energy and concluded for that to happen the price of a coin would have to rise to $1.1 million. It could happen in 5 years, or next month, or later today.

The power demand of Bitcoining likely pales in comparison to the power demand of clandestine superpower cyberwars now underway. The reason the Empire came so hard after Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning was not because leaked videos of Apache helicopters strafing civilians or John Podesta’s emails were dangerous to HRC and her election rigging. It was the same reason they are still after Snowden. These people know too much, will tell all, and have too much of a following. If they can’t be decapitated, they can be isolated until they atrophy and die. Blame the rest of it on the Russians. 

From their dim dungeons, Assange and Snowden accurately predicted Cambridge Analytica, which flipped both the BREXIT vote and the US election of 2016. They predicted the leaked NSA cyberwar tool, EternalBlue, allowing hackers everywhere to hold companies and agencies for ransom. They predicted the changes to be wrought by machine intelligence, well, at least some of them. Last year Stephen Hawking joined in when he said:
Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.
In 2017 he amended his prediction that humanity only had about 1,000 years left. He reduced the horizon by an order of magnitude — to 100 years unless we could arrest AI. 

Consider this. If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose? If you are like most of us, you will wait to give up the latter until forced to, and even then, not without a fight.

Call us neoluddite, but were our lives in the 1970s so primitive before the Mac, Windows and the World Wide Web that we would never want to give up what we have in 2018 and go back to that, even if to keep what we have comes at the cost of our own extinction?

We are just asking. And wondering why more people are not, also. Should it not, by now, be obvious what is happening? There is not a good ending to this.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Just One Word: Bioplastics

"Any carbon that does not go back to the atmosphere can just chill. It can be a building or a bicycle, it doesn’t matter. Just chill a few centuries while we get our act back together."

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
— The Graduate (1967)
A “composite” is when two or more materials are combined to create a superior and unique material. The prefix, “bio,” means the composite takes natural fibers, including wood, leaves and grasses, and blends them with a matrix (binder) made from either renewable or non-renewable sources, like lime, clay, plastics, or old tires.

Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) is an extremely strong and light plastic with carbon fibers woven in. These are highly prized by many industries but at the moment they are very expensive to manufacture.

High-end users like Ferrari or Jaguar can absorb the added costs and pass those along to their upscale clientele. When Elon Musk’s Space X Shuttle needed a way to reduce launch vehicle weight without compromising strength or other qualities, they turned to carbon fiber polymers.

The substitution of lightweight carbon for heavier aluminum-lithium at the same strength gave Space X the ability to place a 300 ton reusable vehicle — potentially either an interplanetary spaceship or a cargo freighter — into low Earth orbit. A problem their engineers encountered, however, is that the carbon fiber polymer tended to degrade from prolonged contact with one of the shuttle’s essential cargoes — liquid oxygen.

Could a solution lie in a non-bonding, non-oxidizing form of carbon?

CFRPs have been used in high-end automobile racing since Citroën won the 1971 Rally of Morocco with carbon fiber wheels. Low weight is essential for automobile racing and carbon fiber is also ten times stronger than the steel it replaces. Racing car manufacturers went on to develop omnidirectional carbon fiber weaves that apply strength in all directions, making the cars stronger than they had been when they were pure polymer.

Building engineers were quick to adopt what they learned from Formula V. Carbon fiber polymers were soon being wrapped around steel-reinforced structures such as bridge or high-rise building columns. By enhancing the ductility of the section, they increased the resistance to collapse under hurricane, earthquake or avalanche loading.

In some countries pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes (PCCP) account for the vast majority of water transmission mains. Due to their large diameters, failures of PCCP are usually catastrophic and affect large populations. Now carbon polymers are being retrofitted as PCCP liners that take strain off the host pipe.

As recently as 7 years ago BMW was using water cutting for parts, but today, in partnership with Airbus Helicopter and others, the carmaker has moved to carbon cutting tools — coated with ground diamond that can double feeding speeds. The carbon tools have a geometrically-defined cutting edge and are sharpened by a plasma process. For BMW and Airbus, production costs are being reduced 90 percent.

Bicycle frames of carbon polymer give the same strength as steel, aluminum, or titanium for much less weight and can be tuned to address different riding styles. Carbon fiber cellos, violas, violins, acoustic guitars and ukuleles are selected by discerning musicians for the quality and fidelity of their sound. Other commercial products already available:
  • bagpipe chanters
  • billiards cues
  • carbon fiber posts in restoring root canal treated teeth
  • carbon woven fabrics
  • drones
  • drum shells
  • fishing rods
  • guitar picks and pick guards
  • helicopter rotor blades
  • high reach poles for window cleaning
  • laptop shells
  • loudspeakers
  • passenger train cars and furnishings
  • suitcases and briefcases
  • tent poles
  • thermoplastic films for moisture and corrosion barriers
  • tripod legs
  • turntables
  • violin bows
  • walking sticks
Even though the unique properties of carbon make it a superior choice for these applications, up to now the high cost has been a challenge. What if that barrier could be breached by recycling and blending carbon — from agricultural, municipal and industrial wastes that might otherwise return to the atmosphere or ocean — and plastics, like polystyrene, that are poisoning soils, waterways and the ocean with a non-degradable toxin?

Combining biochar at rates of 5, 15, 25, and 40 percent by weight with wood and plastic to make alternative composites to traditional wood-polypropylene binders, scientists found:
  • All biochar rates increased flexural strength by 20 percent or more
  • Tensile strength was highest with 5 percent biochar
  • Tensile elasticity was highest with 25 and 40 percent biochar
  • Water absorption and swell decreased
  • Biochar additions showed improved thermal properties.
Wood plastic composites (WPCs) have annual growth rates of 22 percent in Northern America and 51 percent in Europe. Often polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride use wood flour or fiber as fillers, and more recently, resin impregnated paper waste from particleboard and fiberboard manufacture. The advantages of using bio-based components in these plastics is that wood and paper are non-abrasive, low in cost, widely available, low density and weight, flexible and recyclable.

Decking for outdoor applications represents the largest market for WPCs. In Europe, the WPC market, outside automobiles, is 120,000 tons, with more than half going to decking. Now manufacturers are shifting product lines to include siding, roofing, windows, door frames, and outdoor furniture. Some are already incorporating nanoscale reinforcing fillers like nanoclay and carbon nanotube into the composite material.

An extrusion technology called “waxy technology” recycles and transforms more than 12 different types of post-consumer plastics and packaging materials into long lasting, termite-resistant plastic lumbers, potentially sparing many forests from the axe. An ideal product for building, construction and furniture making, extruded lumber costs 32 percent less than pressure-treated timber, avoids arsenic and other eco-toxins, and last more than 40 years without replacement even in sunny, windswept, and coastal areas or in underwater applications. Applying cascade carbon thinking to this scenario could supply both process heat and a low cost, high value filler material, and sequester ever more carbon.

Any carbon that does not go back to the atmosphere and does not go back to the oceans can take a break from the carbon cycle. It doesn’t have to burn to become CO2. It does not have to digest or decay to become CH4. It doesn’t have to kill coral reefs or warm the Earth. It can just chill. It can be a building or a bicycle, it doesn’t matter. Just chill a few centuries while we get our act back together.

Impregnated paper waste is a major challenge for recycling due to the large amounts produced, potential toxicity and low biodegradability. Just a medium sized paper impregnating factory can produce 400 tons per year. One option is oriented strand board, but that just kicks some of those problems down the road. A better option would be pyrolysis.

Until recently, all carbon fiber came from a chemical called acrylonitrile, made from petroleum, ammonia, and oxygen. The process for making acrylonitrile produced potentially explosive heat and made toxic wastes, including hydrogen cyanide gas. In 2017, a team of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a process for producing acrylonitrile from corn stalks and wheat straw that doesn’t make heat and has no toxic byproducts.

The MAI Carbon Cluster — an initiative from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research — has been looking at high volume production processes that could cut the cost of carbon fiber by as much as 90 percent and raise recycling rates to more than 80 percent. The effort, which has seen Audi and BMW working together despite initial reservations, now involves a total of 114 partners including Airbus, BASF, Eurocopter, SGL and Voith.

During a workshop at the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee in 2017, we made cascaded concrete with various biochar concentrations. We made composites by melting soy-foam packing peanuts and the kinds of styrofoam clamshell containers they use at take-out in restaurants (and typically wind up in landfills, rivers or the ocean). We made chardobe brick and compressed CINVA ram brick. We made grout for a tile bench. These exercises were only scratching the surface of the potential, but they showed what lies ahead.

By melting extruded polystyrene foam packing peanuts and clamshell containers — (C8H8)n — in an acetone bath — (CH3)2CO — and adding powdered biochar (C) until it stiffened, a char-tile is produced that is light, structural, fracture-resistant, and can be molded to any shape. It could be kitchen tiles, surfboards, iphones, tennis rackets, boats or biodomes.

The potential for these kinds of innovations is huge. The global automotive industry produced about 63 million passenger vehicles and 21 million commercial vehicles in 2012. By 2020 production could grow to 100 million vehicles per year, with China accounting for about 18 to 20 percent of the total.
The typical passenger vehicle curb weight ranges between 3,000 and 4,000 lb (1,364 and 1,818 kg). The weight of sport utility and crossover utility vehicles (SUVs and CUVs) is usually 500 to 1,000 lb (227 to 454 kg) more.

Some quick math tells us that each year more than 150 million tons of new cars and trucks hit the roads around the world, including 120 million tons of steel and 10 million tons of aluminum. Composites make up less than one percent by weight, and CFRP currently only about 9000 tons, a minuscule 0.05 percent of the total global automotive materials.

Every 100 lb (45 kg) reduction in weight cuts the fuel need by roughly 2 to 3 percent. Designers have discovered, however, that weight reduction in one area sets up further weight reduction in other components and systems — resulting in a virtuous spiral of weight reduction. Composite bodies weigh 50 to 70 percent less (250 lb/113 kg) than steel, and that allows engineers to downsize chassis members, body panels and exterior accessories, structural and cosmetic interiors, suspension, drivetrain, exhaust and engine bay pieces, brake systems, fuel systems, wheels and other components.

As weight becomes an increasing concern for fuel mileage, as the impact of new carbon emissions regulation hits the steel and aluminum industries, and as the potential for automobiles to go from carbon producing to carbon removing is better understood, some big changes and opportunities lie directly ahead.

Old automakers that find themselves asleep at the wheel may find the marketplace is a cruel master — the penalty for not staying current increases each design cycle, and design cycles are getting shorter — moving from about nine years to six or less.

It is projected that by 2025, the auto industry (including race car teams and aftermarket accessory vendors) will consume about 25 percent of the global carbon fiber production capacity. Airlines may consume another 25 percent. Although CFRP is a growth industry, there are drawbacks. Metals are readily repaired, reused and recycled and there is a huge global marketplace in all those areas. The same cannot yet be said of CFRP. To avoid material wastes, landfill expenses and exposure to fines in some regions, the industry is going to have to get a better grasp of carbon cascades.

The market addressable by recycled carbon fiber (rCF) is 55,000 MT/yr with 50,000 MT/yr of CF scrap available to fill this. That 5000 ton gap represents an immediate opportunity, but more important is the long term — designing recycling into the whole process. Lux Research cites present CF capacity of 120,000 tons/yr versus projected near-term demand of 225,000 tons/yr, as rail cars, bridges and buildings increase their CFRP content. The CF industry must grow rapidly and rCF should play a major role in meeting demand.

A new CFRP rail bogie frame is being made using 80 percent compression molded rCF and 20 percent virgin fiber (vCF). These carbon rail cars reduce weight over their steel counterparts by 75 percent, cutting wheel-to-rail loads by 40 percent.

According to an industry insider’s report,
For vehicles priced less than $120,000 with production volumes greater than 20,000 units per year, the inclusion of recycled carbon fibers will be critical to meeting the economic performance required to make money from automobile sales. Further, the energy it takes to reclaim carbon fibers is small compared to that required during virgin fiber production. Added to a reduced need for petroleum-based feedstocks, recycled carbon fiber adds an extra green dimension to CFRP solutions.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: Luxury automobile manufacturer X, which sells 100,000 vehicles annually in the North American market, can raise its average fuel economy from today’s 29 mpg to 40 mpg by 2025, a 33 percent improvement. But it still fails to meet the 55 mpg target. The current fine assessed to the manufacturer is $55 per 1 mpg under the standard, multiplied by the manufacturer’s total production for the U.S. domestic market. In this scenario, manufacturer X would be fined approximately $82.5 million. Similar incentives exist in Europe, but they are even more onerous. In the U.K., failure to meet emissions standards results in a fine of €95 ($123 USD) per gram of CO2 per kilometer over the limit per vehicle. For flagship Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. (Whitley, Coventry, U.K.) sedans or Aston Martin (Gaydon, Warwickshire, U.K.) sports cars, this represents as much as an additional $20,000 or more per vehicle.
Retired or scrap carbon fiber for reuse in manufacturing is a first stage cascade — easily accomplished by a combination of compression molding and thermoplastic films that provide shape and cohesion to the rCF content. A second stage could be separation of the carbon content in an exothermic process — burning or dissolving away the non-carbon portion and leaving behind cascade carbon that can be put to new uses. A third cascade might be capturing the heat from that second stage and transforming it into process steam, electricity, or commercial heating and cooling. The fresh carbon supplied by these processes offers scores of possibilities.

Carbon, arranged into chains and rings by photosynthesizing plants, then rearranged to weave into fabrics, fibers and filaments, will soon surround us in our buildings, modes of transportation, and much, much more. Much better there than the atmosphere or oceans.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper, coming from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Sunday, March 25, 2018

NTHE is a Four Letter Word

"Collective neurosis can be attributed to a concatenation of causes — diet, electrosmog, epigenetic triggering by microplastics in our toothpaste — take your choice."

Drawn by TedE, wikimedia commons
We are not talking about climate deniers now, who have their own brand of insanity, but we keep hearing the same mantra chanted by otherwise respectable scientists and policymakers that, “climate change may be catastrophic but it won’t be the end of us.”

We hear that so often we almost never challenge it, not wishing to divert an otherwise productive conversation into what we know to be a blind alley. Nonetheless, we think the statement is at best deluded and at worst just a milder form of denialism. It is not science. It is faith. It is also human neurophysiology.
Brain imaging research has shown that a major neural region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex — specifically two areas known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Additionally, the vmPFC was of interest to the researchers because past studies have revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs. For example, one study showed individuals with vmPFC lesions rated radical political statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while another showed a direct connection between vmPFC damage and religious fundamentalism. For these reasons, in the present study, researchers looked at patients with lesions in both the vmPFC and the dlPFC, and searched for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism questionnaires.
Bobby Azarian, Raw Story, March 14, 2018

In the quote above, Azarian is referring to a study published a year ago in Neuropsychologia that connected cognitive flexibility with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and proved that damage to that part of the brain hinders adaptive or flexible behavior, locking out world views that run contrary to some preconception. The study correlated brain-damaged veterans with religious fundamentalism.

The preconception most often grasped by NTHE deniers is the notion that “humans survived far worse cataclysms to arrive at their present condition” —  the Toba event 70,000 years ago, for instance, when the human population was reduced to perhaps 10,000–30,000 individuals — “and we invariably rebound.” 

The example most often cited is the 2005 Rutgers mDNA study showing all pre-1492 native populations of the Americas  —  well over 1 billion by some estimates  —  having descended from 70 or fewer individuals who crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America.

This is a variant of the techno-cornucopianism of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, but in their cases — building new desert cities in Arizona or seed colonies on Mars — that being externalized, absent a cold fusion Spindletop, is biophysical economics.

We have previously reviewed the hypothesis of Danny Brower and Ajit Varki that an evolutionary leap allowed homo to access higher consciousness by hard-wiring a neural pathway for denying reality.

Arguably that same pathway induces otherwise rational-seeming people to allow for the possibility of catastrophic climate change (already well underway) while denying the possibility of it leading to near-term human extinction (NTHE).

In our view, this colors the debate over what we should be doing by reducing the urgency.

Ironically there may have been human genotypes that suppressed their denial gene better than ours does. One of the effects of genetic bottlenecks is that selected genes (such as those offering a more balanced use of denial) fail to be passed along to succeeding populations. 

Our personal view is that while we think NTHE can yet be avoided, the time for action grows short and as we as we walk out onto the razon’s edge and grow more desperate we will likely make many foolish mistakes, any one of which could trigger NTHE. Appointing John Bolton the National Security Advisor, for instance. In 2016 USAnians fed up with the tweedledee-tweedledum two-party system opted to just hurl a hand grenade into the White House and stand back. If one grenade was not enough, we still have President Bannon to look forward to in 2020 or 2024 if Cambridge Analytica can keep up with the AI revolution with respect to Big Data.

Collective neurosis can be attributed to a concatenation of causes — diet, electrosmog, epigenetic triggering by microplastics in our toothpaste — take your choice. Visionary forebears who saw these bottlenecks coming — Garrett Hardin, R. Buckminster Fuller, M. King Hubbert — all argued that the best antidote was better public education. But at least in the US, public education was hijacked in the ‘90s by the vmPFC-lesioned hoards of Zombie Fundamentalists before being handed over to Betsy DeVoss for the final coup d’gras. Whatever long wave or ergot diet issued humanity into the Dark Ages seems to be replaying now, and it could hardly arrive at a worse time from the standpoint of the organized climate solutioneering required to avert Anthropogenic NTHE. 

We need to be in top form to survive this next bottleneck. We’d do better without the denial. Too bad climate scientists can’t afford to hire Cambridge Analytica themselves.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Symbiotic Recycling

"Solutions that endure usually begin at the bottom. They build regenerative, circular economies based upon local assets — human and natural. "

The road to energy efficiency is in theory a sustainability sweepstakes… Who needs Russian gas, if we could get all the heat we need from our own surplus? Who needs Middle Eastern oil, when we can integrate limitless renewable sources in our smart grids?

— Jens Martin Skibsted, World Economic Forum 2018 Annual Meeting

The conversation about “development” today is generally phrased in words like growth, jobs, stock market highs and lows, gross domestic product, or trends in consumerism. Some of the more far sighted use metrics like inclusion, intergenerational equity, longevity, marriage stability and happiness. Yet, just as all politics is local, all economics are personal. It comes down to how well any community — be it a rural cluster of farms or an urban neighborhood — fends for itself in the volatile world of the 21st century.

Solutions that endure usually begin at the bottom. They build regenerative, circular economies based upon local assets — human and natural. They care for all, protect the planet, and reach out to help their less fortunate neighbors. They are organic, resilient, and anti-fragile.

A few years ago in Wada, India, Shri Gauranga Das established Govardhan Ecovillage and its philosophy of “Symbiotic Recycling” — a merger of science and Vedic teachings that integrates organic farming, biogas and green buildings into a circular local economy.

Today half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 the proportion in India is expected to be 80 percent. Three quarters of India’s 83.3 million rural villagers earn less than five thousand rupees ($78) per month. Half do not own land. Those that own are often indebted to banks for equipment, fertilizer and pesticides, charged interest rates they cannot pay. Suicide rates in the countryside are double those in urban areas.

Govardhan’s symbiotic model stops all that. Organic fertilizers, compost and mulch are produced locally at practically no cost. Biogas replaces wood or gas for cooking. Construction wastes like broken cement poles make raised bed gardens, cob houses and infill for infrastructure. Green buildings of compressed stabilized mud bricks are cool in hot weather and warm in cool weather. Broken bricks become waterproofing on roofs.

Rainwater management irrigates in dry months and recharges aquifers from monsoons. Greywater and blackwater flow to bioreactors that use plants, earthworms and aerobic microbes to remove suspended solids, pathogens and odor, returning energy and fertilizer.

India has long been one of the leaders in biochar, thanks in no small part to the work of Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy Nakka at the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in Phaltan, a short distance south of Govardhan. For more than 20 years, Reddy has been taking biochar compost blends to farmers, making biochar bricks for green buildings, using biochar powders for waterless cleaning, and designing efficient home stoves. Worldwide, the three-stone open home fire is currently responsible for more childhood deaths than malaria — 8 million last year. Reddy has personally trialed more than 50 designs of low cost gasifiers for homes and businesses.

Now Govardhan Ecovillage is passing its symbiotic practices to 16 nearby tribal villages. Four hundred families have come together to plant more than 100,000 food, forest and medicinal trees that will absorb 2000 tons of carbon-dioxide as they grow. Das calculates that if even 1 percent of India’s villages follow the model of Govardhan, 4.7 million tons of CO2 will be drawn down annually.

Gauranga Prabhu graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 1993. It is difficult to convey the significance of such an accomplishment outside India, but IIT is like the MIT or CalTech of India, only far smaller and more selective. Only 1000 graduates take degrees each year. The odds against even getting in are very long. In a December TED talk at Thapar University, Gauranga described how the academic pressure could drive students to suicide.

While at IIT, Gauranga studied Vedic scripture with H.H.Radhanath Swami Maharaja, and grew an interest in Krishna Consciousness. After school he began conducting Bhagvad Gita seminars in all prominent engineering colleges, medical colleges and management institutes. His design for Govardhan brought together all of these different elements into his symbiotic recycling. Gauranga Das describes the concept in a TED talk last June:

Unlike the anthropocentricism that pervades the principal Western religions (deriving from oppressed Middle Eastern desert cultures three thousand years ago), the Vedas, which are a thousand years older, present an ecocentric view of creation that places humans on a level footing with animals, birds, insects, trees, rivers, mountains, clouds and all the other parts of nature.

The anthropocentric worldview has failed us rather dramatically. The cultural pioneers at Govardhan Ecovillage are exploring what the alternative looks like in the real world.

Originally published at
Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Punctuated Equilibrium

" If the old answers are wrong, or become wrong over time, new answers are required. Civilizations that stay nimble enough to adopt the new answers begin a new chapter of life. "

We tend to conceive of evolution as a process that occurs over millions of years, but lately discoveries in genetics have changed that perception. We evolve in fits and starts — very slowly for long periods, then in sudden spurts of rapid change. Often the trigger is a particular event or convergence of upheavals that shake up the order of things. Within a very short time after each catastrophe, new life-forms emerge, ecotones form, and long-established orders realign. Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould called this process “punctuated equilibrium.”

Cultural evolution proceeds in much the same fashion, as we can learn from the work of historians, sociologists and anthropologists such as Joseph A. Tainter, William R. Catton, Jared Diamond, and Dmitry Orlov.

Civilizations are living entities with regular cycles of birth, growth and death. They may evolve and grow for as little as a century or two (as for the Inca) or thousands years (as in India and China). When a civilization begins, it is a child — it tries new things and adopts behaviors it likes. As it matures its social norms become more rigid, embedded and brittle. It loses abilities to respond to change or adapt in new ways. Each generation is taught to accept “the way things are” without questioning. This phase ends in corruption, decay and decline.

Many of us can sense the next punctuation coming. It has already begun. Globally, the starting point for the next phase may have come three centuries ago. At that moment humans had only just discovered how to harness coal to make steam but had yet to employ the far greater energy density of oil and gas, never mind nuclear fission. The mere addition of coal to the human energy portfolio was enough to augur the end of the global civilization we know today.

Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BCE but it was the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in the 18th century that gave fossil energy traction, literally. In perfect parallel, expansion of the human population tracked expansion of the supply of available energy, railroads and factories. In 1965, Thomas McKeown put forward the then controversial but now widely accepted hypothesis that human population growth since the late eighteenth century was due to improved economic conditions and better nutrition.

Svante Arrhenius, running the mathematical equations for climate change, and Thomas Malthus, doing the same for population, accurately predicted the outcome once humanity was swept up in the enchantment of seemingly unlimited energy growth.

As we progressed in our ability to harness energy, we moved from a nearly stable world population, fluctuating little over the course of thousands of years, to a steady growth rate of 30 percent every 20 years. As our mechanical technology exploded, we went from adding one billion more people to the planet every 120 years in 1927, and the fraction of a part per million of carbon dioxide that required, to adding one billion people and 25 to 30 parts per million of CO2 every 12 years.

A reckoning awaits. When, exactly, that may occur is difficult to predict. It could occur suddenly, as the fictitious debt instruments engineered to cover the real life-support deficit can no longer be serviced. It could occur slowly, as we continue squeezing out the last tons of brown coal, barrels of tarry shale oil, and cubic meters of unconventional gas, using ever-advancing technologies to find, refine and burn them as quickly as possible, while ignoring the horrific climate consequences we are locking in.

Catton called our modern humans Homo colossus — those among our kind living in industrial countries and consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to motivate and control machines that do orders of magnitude more work than humans or animals could do otherwise. Homo colossus is gradually replacing Homo sapiens as development spreads like a cancer across the Earth.

While Homo sapiens, with a stable population under one billion, might have had a reasonable chance of being around for another two or three million years, Homo colossus hasn’t a prayer.

In 2004, the Astronomer Royal in Britain, Sir Martin Rees, assigned humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the 21st century. He was being generous. Earth has already passed tipping points in seven of ten essential life support systems for humans — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, ocean acidity, land fertility, and freshwater availability — and the other three — ozone, atmospheric aerosols and chemical/radioactive pollution — have yet to be fully quantified but may have already been exceeded as well.

In evolutionary biology a population bottleneck is where radical changes to the environment causes a species to lose of all but the most hardy of its population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. If there are no sufficiently hardy individuals left, or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to repopulate, the species goes extinct. We are quickly approaching that reckoning for Homo colossus but we have yet to understand what is happening, never mind change course.

Fossil fuels artificially boosted the carrying capacity of Earth for human occupancy. There is zero likelihood that deriving energy from capturing current and benign solar influx (as we did for thousands of years) could replace our belovedly potent but toxic concentrates of ancient sunlight gathered and stored over millions of years. It simply can’t. A steep population decline is coming. Whether extinction will be avoided is still an open question.

Evolutionary biologist Bruce H. Lipton says there are three questions that form the base paradigm of civilizations. If the old answers are wrong, or become wrong over time, new answers are required. Civilizations that stay nimble enough to adopt the new answers begin a new chapter of life. Those that don’t disappear. The three questions are:

How did we get here?
Why are we here?
How can we make the best of it?

The first question is a very unusual story no matter how you approach it. You could say we are here because billions of years ago astronomical collisions occurred as objects moving out from the Big Bang ricocheted like billiard balls and in an extraordinary chance occurrence one of those collisions produced an elliptical orbit in the third planet from a star, an orbiting moon just the right distance from that planet to pull tides, a spin that secured climate gradients between the poles and equator, and an eccentric tilt of the axis that permitted annual seasons — and the ebb and flow of photosynthesis. In these extraordinarily auspicious circumstances of birth we were also given the rarest gift — the presence of surface water, arriving during the collision like a water bag breaking at the start of labor.

The collision that struck off Earth’s moon enveloped the young Earth in a hot metallic vapor — 230°C (446°F). Over a few thousand years that vapor condensed, perspiring water and leaving behind a sweltering carbon dioxide atmosphere. Liquid oceans formed despite the temperature because of the pressure of the heavy atmosphere. Gradually, subduction by plate tectonics and absorption by ocean water removed most CO2 from the atmosphere, cooling the world and yielding a benign atmosphere of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen — and the perfect conditions for life to arise.

Or, alternatively, this may just be a dream that Vishnu is having.

If a civilization answers the third question in a way that ignores the energy and resource flows and storages of the planet — “get more stuff,” “watch out for number one, or “this world doesn’t matter, it is the next we want to get into” — they are destined to fail. If a civilization says to the third question, “maintain harmony,” “don’t anger the gods,” or “live lightly and plant for the future,” they may succeed.

Right now the majority of people in the world cling to self-destructive ways. They are set in old patterns and don’t realize how fragile and brittle those are. A growing minority see better ways and are putting together the building blocks for the next phase.

We have that choice before us now, individually and collectively. Civilizations undergo transformations. We can leave behind the old one that is poorly adapted and design and build a more advantaged new society. This book is part of that visioning process. The dying civilization was founded upon carbon. The new one will be too, just in different forms.

As the planet teeters on a climate precipice and the global economy is running full-speed towards a fossil carbon-induced bubble, many people see no viable solutions to these looming interconnected disasters. 

Those few among us who have glimpsed the possibility for a new carbon economy grounded in vast legions of energized and empowered youths spreading out across the landscape regenerating soils, forests, oceans, whale populations, migratory waterfowl and a garden planet may seem crazy.

But these are not moonshots, or science fiction. They are economically viable and applicable reconceptions for many different industries. Some solutions are already being field tested while others have yet to leave the laboratory.

It is an exciting time to be carbon beings on a carbon world, learning how to grow and prosper with the natural cycles of carbon.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Tainter, J., (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Catton, W., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press (1980); Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Xlibris US (2015).
Diamond, J., (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, Revised Edition.
Orlov, D., The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, New Society Publishers (2013); Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, New Society Publishers, Revised edition (2011).
Rees, M., (2004) Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond, Basic Books.
Lipton, B., (2016) The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles, 10th Anniversary Edition, Hay House, Inc.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Carbon Cool

"These stories have three things in common. They reverse climate change by gaining new respect for the element carbon upon which all life depends. They are powered by human ingenuity, working as part of, not against, nature. They are driven and emboldened by the astonishing, illimitable, force of youth."

 Sustainability is an overused and misused word in most languages. In the physical world absolutely nothing is sustainable. Nothing. We need to accept that. What sustains us is change, and our ability to adapt and innovate.

Sustainability is a bit like treading water. What is it you are trying to sustain? The endless economic growth industrial paradigm? Creature comforts that require long supply chains and toxic pollution that hopefully you never have to see? A consumerist ethos backed by military might, sewing discord and terror around the planet? 

These are the things that must change, quickly, or the change we shall experience will be a very unpleasant human extinction.

Continuing on a thread here, we are bringing you more stories of change and innovation that are seldom covered by mainstream media. But then, we all know mainstream media is going extinct anyway, so who cares about that?

These stories have three things in common. They reverse climate change by gaining new respect for the element carbon upon which all life depends. They are powered by human ingenuity, working as part of, not against, nature. They are driven and emboldened by the astonishing, illimitable, force of youth.

In the rural regions of the world, particularly in the tropics of Latin America, Africa and Asia, precious vaccines and medicines that need to be kept cold wither and spoil in the heat of the midday sun.

It’s not merely a lack of refrigeration but also a lack of electricity and the lack of money. Clinics must often store vaccines for days or weeks before they can be administered to those arriving from distant villages. Keeping live cultures fresh for such a long time is nearly impossible without being able to lower storage temperature. Every year, vaccine spoilage costs billions of dollars and impacts millions of lives.

In 2009 a team of Engineering Students from Michigan State University traveled to a workshop organized by the Appropriate Technology Collaborative in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Their task: a refrigerator that can be built from locally available materials almost anywhere and run without power.

Design an adsorption refrigerator capable of maintaining a temperature between 2°C and 8°C that utilizes passive solar energy and can be built in developing countries. The team’s final product will be a clear and comprehensive set of instructions for building the device.

The students built a vaccine refrigerator that does not use electricity. It does not have any moving parts. You simply place it in the sun and it chills or freezes things.

ATC Solar Vaccine Refrigerator
This very remarkable machine runs on pyrolytic carbon. The char does not need to be food grade, as for biochar or activated carbon. It stays inside a closed loop. It could be cascade carbon from a variety of feedstocks. Its essential service is evaporative cooling. The total cost for the prototype was $917.39. Estimated worker cooperative production cost at the scale of three per month, including labor, would be under $300. Their report reads:
Based on the design decision matrices, a solar-powered adsorption refrigerator was selected for the design of the vaccine refrigerator. This refrigerator has no moving parts aside from a few valves. It uses no toxic materials, generally available materials, and should be simple to build and operate. The refrigerator has an intermittent cycle. It will “charge” during the day and remove heat from a cooling volume at night.

Some previously used adsorbent/refrigerant pairs used for solar adsorption refrigeration systems are zeolite and water, silica gel and water, activated carbon and methanol, activated carbon and ammonia, and activated carbon and ethanol. It has been determined that the performance of each pair depends greatly on the climate in which it is tested.

The students looked at all of these adsorbents and the most promising were methanol and ethanol. Methanol is highly toxic and difficult to handle while ethanol is easily obtained from alcoholic beverages in most places, so ethanol became the refrigerant of choice.

The kind of carbon needed has to be able to adsorb ethanol in its vapor form almost instantaneously, so a well-developed pore structure. There are three kinds of pores in pyrolyzed carbon:
  1. Macropores (>500 Angstrom*)
  2. Transitional Pores (20–500 Angstrom)
  3. Micropores (0–20 Angstrom)
*Angstrom = 0.0000001 mm.

Macropores are mostly used for water filtration systems and treating solid waste. Transitional Pores are more suitable for adsorbing large molecules, such as in soil remediation or to remove discoloration. Micropores are the most useful for trapping vapors of any kind.

When analyzing different kinds of activated carbon for this project, there are two main parameters which must be given great consideration. The porosity or the abundance of micropores, and the grain size of the carbon. Powder carbon is not very useful for our application due to its hard handling characteristics. Although more surface area can be achieved with powered carbon, it is difficult to package inside the adsorber bed. Therefore, activated carbon of granular form is preferred instead. The larger grain size makes it easier for packaging inside the adsorber bed and allows the design to be more flexible.

The refrigerator has three parts: collector, condenser, and evaporator. At the top is an adsorbent bed/solar collector — a flat tray of wood filled with activated carbon, oriented towards the equator to catch the sun. The entire energy input for the system is solar radiation. As the temperature rises in the morning hours, vapor is rejected out of the charcoal bed. The vapor is forced into the condenser from the pressure of desorption (it is a sealed system). Refrigerant moves from condenser to surrounds, gives off its heat and returns to liquid form.

At night, as the carbon bed cools, its capacity to adsorb vapor increases and the fluid in the condenser is drawn back into the evaporator. As it begins to vaporize in the warm evaporator, it provides the cooling effect. Once the adsorbent bed has reached capacity, it awaits sunrise and the cycle begins again. Meanwhile that “coolth” is circulated into an insulated cooler where the vaccines are stored, lowering its temperature for the following day.

A somewhat simpler charcoal refrigeration example comes from the women of the Bidii Farmers Group in the arid Kambi Sheikh Village in Isiolo County, Kenya. Using charcoal, a wire mesh and a water tank, the women have made an innovative cooler to store their produce for market. Explains Catherine Wanja,
“Charcoal is an ideal material for refrigeration because it has pores, which absorb and store water. This reduces heat from outside. And because wet charcoal does not allow easy passage of heat, it results in low temperatures inside the cubicle.”

Kambi Sheikh Cooperative Charcoal Cooler
The cooler is made from charcoal filled in between six-inch cavity with double wire mesh walls.
The roof is made of iron sheets and is also filled with charcoal. It has a network of perforated water pipes going round the top of the charcoal walls. The pipes are gravity fed water from an overhead tank. The water continuously drips — like a drip irrigation system — all the way to the bottom of the charcoal wall where it can be collected again.

Temperatures in the walk-in fridge drop as low as 8°C (46°F). Wanja says the fridge has a capacity of 20 crates of produce. “Today if the canter that collects the French beans does not come, we are confident that we will not make losses,” she says.

“It is a simple technology that is working for us because we do not have electricity here and we cannot buy a conventional fridge.”

With an increasing number of heat waves, would not having a ‘char-conditioned’ house fifteen degrees cooler provide a bit of relief? Evaporative cooling walls are not a new but generally made from materials with a much higher embodied energy and more limited lifespan than homemade biochar. Carbon can also filter runoff while boosting the resilience of living roofs, not just on homes, but on barns, animal sheds, grain silos, and aquaponic shelters.

Once a cooler, or a building, is chilled by the heat of the sun, there’s the challenge of retaining that coolth through the 24-hour cycle — and longer if the sun doesn’t shine every day where you are. Carbon is coming to the rescue.

Aerogels have recently become hot science. A “multiwalled carbon nanotube aerogel” dubbed “frozen smoke” with a density of 4 mg/cm3 lost its world’s lightest material title in 2011 to a micro-lattice material with a density of 0.9 mg/cm3. Less than a year later, aerographite claimed the crown with its density of 0.18 mg/cm3 and less than a year after that, a new aerogel made from graphene was created by Gao Chao’s team at China’s Zhejiang University. This ultra-light aerogel has a density lower than that of helium and just twice that of hydrogen — just 0.16 mg/cm3.

“With no need for templates, its size only depends on that of the container,” said Prof. Gao. “Bigger container can help produce the aerogel in bigger size, even to thousands of cubic centimeters or larger.”

The result is a material the team claims is very strong and extremely elastic, bouncing back after being compressed. It can also absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil and do so quickly, with one gram of aerogel able to absorb up to 68.8 grams of organics per second — making it attractive for mopping up oil spills at sea.

Aerogels infused with a plastic material are flexible, like a spring that can be stretched thousands of times, and if the nanotubes in a one-ounce cube were unraveled and placed side-to-side and end-to-end, they would carpet three football fields. Carbon aerogels are also excellent conductors of electricity, ideal for sensing applications and will be finding their way into many electronic devices, like smartphones that bounce harmlessly if dropped. This new form of carbon — diverted from landfills and incinerators — will soon be revolutionizing diapers, sanitary napkins, protective packaging and building insulation.

For inexpensive thermal insulation aerogel, scientists at the National University of Singapore have found a new source — old clothing. Recycled cotton and similar natural fibers can make an ultralight material to keep vaccine refrigerators, beverages, and high rises cold, and also, just by the way, to control bleeding from deep wounds.

Professors Hai Minh Duong and Nhan Phan-Thien say their process is “fast, cheap and green” (about 20 times faster than it takes to fabricate conventional aerogels) — similar to the process by which they previously produced an aerogel from paper waste.

To stop battlefield wounds from bleeding, medics inject mini cellulose-based sponges with a large syringe. Once in the body, they absorb blood and expand, applying pressure to the wound from the inside and stopping blood flow within about 20 seconds.

“Each cotton aerogel pellet can expand to 16 times its size in 4.5 seconds — larger and more than three times faster than existing cellulose-based sponges — while retaining their structural integrity,” says Duong. “The unique morphology of the cotton aerogels allows for a larger absorption capacity, while the compressible nature enables the material to expand faster to exert pressure on the wound.”

The production process is simple — mixing water with carbon fibers from cotton, paper, or whatever, then adding a polymer resin and applying sound energy to agitate the solution. Next, the mixture is poured into molds and frozen at -18ºC (0ºF) for 24 hours, after which it’s freeze-dried at -98ºC (-144ºF) for two days. Finally, it’s cured in an oven at 120ºC (248ºF) for three hours. The final result is an opaque biodegradable, recycled material that is non-toxic, flexible, mechanically strong and oil- or blood-absorbent. As a thermal insulating jacket for canteens, it can maintain its contents without freezing even after when stuck in ice. Its the perfect media to store vaccines in a solar refrigerator.

How do aerogels meet our third common thread — driven and emboldened by youth? They were invented by two students, Sam Kistler and Charles Learned, in a college lab using borrowed equipment.

The manufactured goods these discoveries can replace are fossils that pollute and could operate without guilt or compunction only in that careless heyday before the Dawn of the Anthropocene. We have come now to the Age of Consequences when such foolishness must be put behind us.

Inexpensive carbon aerogels made from recycled paper, cloth, and virtually any other carbon source, storing medicines in carbon-cooled passive refrigerators, beckon cascades of opportunity to the circular carbon economy that is coming like a entrepreneurial tsunami. This is how it will end — not with desperate migrations of small bands of hominid survivors poleward to seek final solace, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster on a melting ice floe, but with a banquet of wonders served by brilliant young minds driven by single-mindedness of purpose.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post was a collaborative effort between Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper and is likely to be included in Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).




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