Sunday, November 4, 2018

Hope from Havana

"We need to ditch consumer culture in favor of conserver culture. Cuba knows how to do this."

Where I am staying in Havana there is no internet. There is an international hotel within walking distance where you can buy minutes for a few CUCs. Internet access, like travel for USAnians, was looking promising not too long ago as Cuba and the US embarked upon a slow reconciliation process. Hotel and restaurant developers and tour operators rushed in ahead of the crowds. For a brief moment everyone was making money. Then US policies reversed and the boom went bust. When 3G will get to Cuba now is anyone’s guess.
On the way here, I watched two videos that gave me a new perspective. I would link them to the article but can’t at the moment. The first was a fresh interview with former professor Guy McPherson that provided new insight into the course of his turn away from the “life of leisure” — university tenure — to live in a mud hut in the desert (and attract others to do likewise), there to await the end of civilization, if not actively assist in its demise.
At the time, he believed from the writings of Utah professor Tim Garrett that civilization is a heat engine and that unless arrested, global warming will kill us all. His prescription was to turn the key and shut that deadly engine down as quickly as possible.
Of course no one did, so he and his partner left the mud hut and moved to a farm in Belize to wait out the end.
Now he admits he was wrong about at least a part of that. Because the aerosols industrial civilization sends skyward each day bounce light back to space, the planet is a degree or two cooler than it would be if industrial civilization suddenly ended. Global dimming has been buying time to mend our ways. But, if everyone up and moved to mud huts, or a farm in Belize, the end of the human story would ensue rapidly and it would not be pretty.
He and his partner have now returned to live in upstate New York and do their part to keep civilization intact a little longer. It seemed the more ethical course.
The second video I watched was Stuart Scott’s latest taping with climate scientist Peter Wadhams lamenting that our system of economics incentivizes carbon dioxide emissions and dis-incentivizes removal. Until that changes, there is little hope for a reversal of the pre-ordained fate McPherson describes.
However, you need to remember that the Chinese are now able to produce a bag of biochar fertilizer that costs $1 less than a comparable bag of chemical fertilizer and produces 15% better results, on average. Because a Beijing Sanju biofertilizer factory uses crop residues previously burned as feedstock, in the process converting labile photosynthetic carbon — temporary soil carbon — into mineralized carbon — permanent soil carbon — each factory effectively removes 66 kilotons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. The price-to-yield factor disposes of Wadhams’ complaint. Just ask any farmer if he would like to get something much better for less than what he is paying now.
China had constructed 5 of these factories when I toured one in September. Another 20 were under construction, with 200 more planned. By 2020 they will likely be exporting the technology all along the New Silk Road, to Indochina, India, Africa and Latin America. It is simple, scalable and shovel ready. It does not need to change any economic paradigms to get going. It does not require approval by the White House or Senate. It does not require either the Aquarian Age or the collapse of industrial civilization. It is a strategy that can re-green the desert and turn the tide.
Which brings me to why I am in Cuba with Hans Peter Schmidt from the Ithaka Institut in Switzerland. The Swiss government, through its development agency, has decided to back pilot projects across the country, training farmers how to make and use biochar to regenerate the soils of this much abused island.
Cuba supplies the other half of the necessary solution. The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. We need to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere. To do that, we are going to have to tamp down our carbonized ways, gradually, even as we draw the legacy carbon out of the air. This will require societal behavioral change. We need to ditch consumer culture in favor of conserver culture. Cuba knows how to do this. It was forced to when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, a time known to every Cuban as the “Special Period.”
During the Special Period tractors ran out of diesel and were replaced by oxen. Private cars were abandoned in favor of Chinese-made bicycles and “camels” — massive articulated buses. Water was hauled to upper floors of apartment houses by bucket. Caloric intake of the population declined by a third.
 Foreground — modern Cuban prosperity, Midground —1980s Russian-made Lada, Background — pulley hoist on roof for water bucket
Cuba survived that period and learned to thrive, just as it has survived every insult hurled at it since its student revolt and popular revolution in the 1950s. Today it risks back-sliding into affluence from its burgeoning tourist trade, but at least there are not all those annoying advertisements on state-run television.
To keep going despite 50 years of blockade and economic sanctions, being cut off from most modern technologies, in the center of the Atlantic hurricane alley, and still struggling with the cultural residues of slavery, colonialism and wars of liberation, Cuba developed an inner strength and self-pride that made it nearly immune to the bullying machinations of its neighbor to the north.
Cubans follow the daily Trump soaps on CNN same as everyone else
Cubans don’t relish sacrifice and struggle, but they don’t shy away from it either. They are working on the two most important pieces of the climate puzzle — one technological, the other behavioral — and are going to become something the rest of the world will emulate in coming years.
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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Why Permaculture Puts Food First

"Had we heeded Malthus’s warning and kept the human population to less than one billion, we would not now be facing a torrid future."

There are seven popular food crops in this picture
 When I teach permaculture, and now having done more than 50 full design courses, I try to de-emphasize gardening. I do that because I know that most other Permaculture teachers do precisely the opposite; they begin with drawing a chicken and then make mandala gardens and herb spirals.

I don’t usually do that because to me Permaculture is much more. It is a regenerative design science. It teaches you to think ecosystemically: no waste; cyclical; nourishing body and soul; steady state. It applies to every aspect of your life, and of civilization; from how we brush our teeth to how we build our cities and exchange value for value. 

But Permaculture is also about looking ahead, over the fence, up to the sky, into the forest, and observing the grander patterns. Anyone who takes that kind of moment these days will be bound to notice phenological signs and portents, the uptick in unusual weather events, a spreading refugee crisis, and some really nasty resource wars appealing to our ethnic tribalism. 
“The switch from growth to decline in oil production will thus almost certainly create economic and political tension.”
 — Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrére, Scientific American (1998)

These times have been long predicted, from Malthus’ and Arhennius’ calculations of population and carbon dioxide, to Limits to Growth, The Population Bomb, and now decades of reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All of those, and more, are known knowns.

Kerry Emanuel told us about the hurricanes and superstorms in 1987. I predicted the spread of mosquitoes, ticks, and viruses in 1989. In that same decade James Lovelock, Tim Lenton, Johan Shellnhuber and others were warning that after diverging 2 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial maxima the carrying capacity of global agriculture would no longer support more than 2 billion people, and possibly fewer than 1 billion.

Healthy humans cannot be decoupled from net photosynthetic productivity and that cannot be decoupled from favorable growing conditions; ie: the Holocene epoch of mild and predictable sunlight and rainfall over vast areas of favorable soil.

Last year, a distinguished group of scientists issued this warning:
…[B]iomass plantations with subsequent carbon immobilization are likely unable to “repair” insufficient emission reduction policies without compromising food production and biosphere functioning due to its space‐consuming properties. Second, the requirements for a strong mitigation scenario staying below the 2°C target would require a combination of high irrigation water input and development of highly effective carbon process chains. Although we find that this strategy of sequestering carbon is not a viable alternative to aggressive emission reductions, it could still support mitigation efforts if sustainably managed.
This leaves us with a rather clear, but hardly comforting overall conclusion: Holding the 2°C line seems only feasible if two sets of climate action work hand in hand. On the one hand, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced as early and as effectively as possible. In fact, an even more aggressive strategy than reflected by the [IPCC] RCP2.6 scenario should be pursued, aiming at the “induced implosion” of most fossil fuel‐driven business cases in the next couple of decades. On the other hand, tCDR [carbon dioxide removal] can significantly contribute as a “supporting actor” of the mitigation protagonist, if it gets started and deployed immediately. This means that the biological extraction of atmospheric CO2 as well as the suppression of CO2 release from biological systems must draw upon all possible measures — whether they are optimal or not, whether they are high‐ or low‐tech. We therefore suggest fully exploring the pertinent options available now, which include reforestation of degraded land and the protection of degraded forests to allow them to recover naturally and increase their carbon storage, e.g., within the Bonn Challenge initiative or the New York Declaration on Forests. Further options range from up‐scaled agroforestry approaches to the application of biochar and various no‐tillage practices for food production on appropriate soils. Also, it becomes overwhelmingly evident that humanity cannot anymore afford to waste up to 50% of its agricultural harvest along various consumption chains or to go on operating ineffective irrigation systems.
All of those techniques —reforestation of degraded land, up‐scaled agroforestry, biochar, organic no-till, eliminating waste, and low-tech, broad dissemination — are the meat and potatoes of Permaculture.

Whatever we do is likely to lead to death on a scale that makes all previous wars, famines and disasters small. To continue business as usual will probably kill most of us during the century. Is there any reason to believe that fully implementing Bali, with sustainable development and the full use of renewable energy, would kill less? We have to consider seriously that, as with nineteenth century medicine, the best option is often kind words and pain killers but otherwise do nothing and let Nature take its course.
Had we heeded Malthus’s warning and kept the human population to less than one billion, we would not now be facing a torrid future. Whether or not we go for Bali or use geoengineering, the planet is likely, massively and cruelly, to cull us, in the same merciless way that we have eliminated so many species by changing their environment into one where survival is difficult.
Permaculture is not willing to go gentle into that good night. And this is why food is so core to its pedagogy. As a movement it is training as many people as possible, from white-gloved suburbanites to war-ravaged refugees, how to garden. It is showing, through gardening, not-merely self-sufficiency and survival in daunting times, but regeneration of soils, recapture of carbon, and ingenious means for restoring the natural balance that ultimately will be the way we end the crises we are now committed to experiencing.

And with any luck, we’ll also get to eat.

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

How Donald Trump saved Civilization (and lost the planet)

"Call it the Third Middle East Oil Shock."

The controversy swirling around murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been moving Congress towards sending to the White House an Act* imposing broad sanctions on Saudi Arabia, effectively scrapping billions in pending arms sales.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.” 
In internal discussions, Mr. Kushner has urged the president and his aides not to abandon Prince Mohammed. But as Turkish officials leaked details of the grisly killing of Mr. Khashoggi and of the dismemberment of his body, the White House has become increasingly isolated in its defense of Saudi Arabia.

Take a moment and picture this scenario.

Caving to his image-advisors and pollsters who fret about a Blue Tide surging into key states, POTUS inks the sanctions.

As its mercantile supply line begins to dry up, Saudi Arabia does not blink. It does precisely what it said it would do. It retaliates by hitting the world where it hurts most: the oil supply.

For decades Saudi Arabia has been OPEC’s swing vote, able to turn up or down the light sweet crude flowing to international markets. No other producers have either the reserves or production to control the volume and thereby the price of petroleum.

Suppose they tightened the spigot. It would not be enough to merely reduce the flow. If they have learned anything in their years of military alliance with the Great Satan, it is the tactic of Shock and Awe. They close the valves. All of them. Call it the Third Middle East Oil Shock.

In spite of a record production year for the cartel of 32.78 million b/d, US sanctions on Iranian oil and deteriorating output from Venezuela have already begun pushing prices towards $100/barrel. Demand might be marginally slowing in climate-minded Europe or in economically stressed Turkey, Brazil, and Argentina, but in North America and Asia, oil consumption is still on an exponential trajectory. Despite the US’s shale oil production having increased at a spectacular annualized rate of over 5 million b/d (estimated), the hole created by Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal, accompanied by withdrawal of like supplies from its Middle Eastern OPEC neighbors out of enforced loyalty, would dwarf anything POTUS might have thought he held as a hole card.

Economic ripples became waves. Waves became a tsunami. The price of oil shoots to $400/b virtually overnight. It would take some weeks for that price to pass through refineries and reach retailers but already gas stations around the US jack up the price at the pump. 

Then the Seventh Fleet sails into the Straits of Hormuz, but it is too little too late. The supertankers are empty. Short of landing the Marines to take the giant oil fields and recruiting an army of production engineers to run them, military options are few, and costly. Saudi Arabia, after all, is armed with state-of-the-art US weaponry, and with its honor at stake, is entirely capable of self-inflicting scorched earth if push comes to shove.

Meanwhile, back at home, everything descends to chaos. Markets crash. The most-energy-dependent sectors scramble to come up with downscaling plans that could keep the doors open, but within weeks — a month at the most — giants like WalMart and Amazon are shuttering million-square-foot warehouses. Freighters turn back to Shenzhen with full cargoes. Bankers are unwilling to extend lines of credit. 

Economic contraction would spread like a pandemic across the face of Europe. It would reach into Russia and China, who had imagined themselves immune, but were already weakened by US economic sanctions. China’s giant economy demands 9 million barrels of refined oil each and every day.

Russia, now importing only 30,000 b/d, is likely to be the least harmed by a global energy supply drop, but is helpless to fend off the knock-on effects of global economic downturn, especially when its Chinese trading partner goes belly up. It could extend credit for gas purchases both Eastward and Westward but any expectation that it would be repaid would eventually be dashed. The world economy would be as a boxer who has been struck a knockout blow, still standing, but bound for the canvas.

In Scandinavia and Germany, breadlines form. In Spain and Italy, fascist movements take to the streets and find broad support. We’ve seen all this before, but this is a different beast. The event will be enormous, and it will be fast.

Central Banks and the Fed can meet in emergency sessions but the tools they used in earlier crises are gone, spent in 2008 and the lingering QE programs. In any case, this situation is not something that can be remedied by rejiggering debt. Energy is not money. 

The televised bobbleheads we see wringing their hands over the Khashoggi affair, urging POTUS to stick up for “American values” would be mute. Their communications channels would be shutting down in any event. They might busy themselves thinking how they can feed their families as grocery store shelves go empty.

Of course, the other possibility would be that Donald Trump simply refuses to sign the sanctions bill and thereby saves Civilization. That is, until rising temperatures and rising seas erase it from memory.

Donald Trump has a chance here to do the right thing. He can kill Civilization and save the Earth. He just has to stick it to Saudi Arabia.

* Before Congress can take action of this kind, it is required to first invoke the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and give the President 120 days to investigate and recommend sanctions. Lawmakers did that on October 18.

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Measure of a Man in 120 Breaths

"“It has been a disappointment to me that so many people, including all too many environmentalists, thought the spirit of liberation of the 1960s was and is dispensable.” — Jan Lundberg"


One mark of a life well spent might be whether anyone takes a moment to write or say something publicly to note your passing. You could easily estimate the number of breaths that effort takes, in this case about 120. One hundred twenty breaths to sum up a person’s life.

On this autumn week of 2018 Jan Lundberg shed his painful, cancer-riddled mortal coil. He had been non-violently resisting his killer for several years using diet, exercise and fasting. His mind had overcome his pain but the disease had claimed his speech and strength and in the end he fell after he chose to rise one last time, perhaps to go to the window and look out towards the calm, blue ocean waters he knew so well.

He was born to an ocean view in Baja California in 1952. His father had driven his mother down from their 3-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley into México for the birth.
My parents had three reasons: medical freedom surrounding birth, Mexican nationality for owning land on the coast, and being able to stay out of the U.S. military should I need to do so, through Mexican citizenship.
Despite often being badly treated when his father would fly into a drunken rage, Jan admired his parents. He wrote of his father:
Dan Lundberg and I have in common these penchants: being the muckraking journalist, fasting for health, growing organic food, disdaining institutions, enjoying movies and plays, and setting out our individual future according to scripts we write for ourselves and loved ones along with anyone who might get close…. I owe to him my zeal, self-confidence and skills.
If you have watched the Amazon Prime series, The Romanoffs, you may appreciate that Jan could have been in that as a character in one of his father’s screenplays. Dan Lundburg’s Swedish mother could have been a Romanoff heiress, were she not illegitimate. Dan’s first love was writing movie scripts and stories. His autobiographical novel, River Rat, published in 1942, was described by Jan as a cross between The Catcher in the Rye and Gidget. It would fit right into that Romanoff story line.

Jan’s father moved to México City in 1938 out of sympathy for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and divided his work between the US State Department there and as a foreign correspondent for CBS. In 1945, the 32-year-old Dan Lundberg asked the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs what a good career move for him would be. “Go into the stupidest industry in the world,” said Standard Oil heir Nelson Rockefeller. “What’s that?” asked Dan. “Why, the oil industry!”
Moving the family to Los Angeles, Dan got heavily into screenwriting (Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, World of Giants, and other productions), radio journalism, and promoting “Health Jubilees” about fasting and related modalities.
In the early 1950s Dan Lundberg created The Dan Lundberg Show, on KCOP’s (Copley Newspapers) Channel 13. Every Sunday evening for seven years, this “first talk show on television” competed in southern California with the national Ed Sullivan Show.
Dan’s radio guests included Linus Pauling and Ray Bradbury, who in later years told the father and son that despite living in L.A., he never drove a car.

That shocked the father but impressed the son.

Making his radio profile pay in more ways than one, the senior Lundberg became a public relations consultant for gasoline marketers on the side. He introduced self-service gasoline marketing to the Los Angeles area as a way for independents to compete with the majors. That led to the Lundberg Survey as a retail price reporting service for gasoline marketers.

By the 1960s, the Survey had become an industry standard and made the family wealthy. They bought a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and a 39-ton yacht. Jan’s father was able to put the newsletter on autopilot, so when Jan was a pre-teen, the family set sail for 5 years, down the coast of México, through the Panama Canal, and along the coasts of Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, eventually through the Caribbean and up to the Bahamas. They weathered Hurricane Dorothy on an 18-day Atlantic crossing until Jan spied the volcanic peaks of the Azores on his 14th birthday. In Gibraltar, Jan entered British Grammar School, affected a “to-ally Bri-ish” accent and took up guitar, teaching himself “Yellow Submarine.” From there his parents sent him to L’Ecole des Roches in Normandy.
It was here that I was awakened politically. I was asked by my dormitory leader Michel Blanc, “Que pense-tu de la guerre au Vietnam?” (What do you think of the war in Vietnam?) I replied, “Je n’aime pas la guerre.” He retorted, kindly enough, “Il n’y a personne qui aime la guerre.” In other words, English words, I was not being let off by saying I didn’t like war, because Michel was pointing out, “Nobody likes war.” I realized that I had to be against what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam, but I knew almost nothing about it.
By the summer of ’68, Jan was quickly shedding American parochialism and becoming a world citizen. After a trip to Istanbul and later Palestine, he mused, like Keats, that he had leapt headlong into poetry, and thereby become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if he “had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice.”
I didn’t want to return to the States, having already reached that liberating decision. The English-speaking high school I attended and the jet-setting social circle I enjoyed were exhilarating, while I learned languages and believed I would always taste the delicacies of life.
I met Xenia Anagnostopoulou, whom I was to marry, in Overseas School of Rome. I can still remember sitting next to her by chance, during our 10th grade first-day orientation when we were 15 years old, and asking her name… Our high school romance began a year later when we coincidentally ended up in the same high school in Greece.
Jan and I passed close to each other that summer, as I hitchhiked from Luxembourg through Yugoslavia down to Mykonos and he and his family sailed from Rome along the Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik, through the Gulf of Corinth and into Patras.

In the autumn of 1969, shortly before returning to the US to attend college at UC-Riverside and later UCLA, Jan attended a talk by world-renowned architect and town planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis in a downtown Athens hotel ballroom.
But my father stood up at the end, causing me to go pale in embarrassment, and asked a question of Doxiadis. It was something like, “Aren’t you condoning or contributing to the industrial destruction of the planet by paving over nature? Don’t we need a little nature?”

Jan’s college career lasted just 2 years. At 19 he was drawn into his father’s business. By 1978 he was running it. A newly sprouted mustache helped him look older. In 1980, he and Xenia had a child, Vernell “Zoé” Zephyr Lundberg, and Jan’s guitar work progressed from Bach to Pink Floyd. He was a workaholic, though, and when he could not spend the time to take the family for long stays in Greece, they divorced. He carried that sadness with him the rest of his life, writing that, “Despite the increasingly interesting work, the truly meaningful thing in my life was being a father.”
My first job at the firm was actually during college, part time, 1970–1971, on every Friday night. Our team had to take down over the telephone the gasoline station survey-data from around the country, mostly just price changes for the grades of gas. It was an easy job and was suffused with camaraderie and free food.
In those days they surveyed over 10,000 stations per month. With the Iranian Revolution and the Second Oil Shock, Jan’s weekly Lundberg Letter with alternative fuels surveys that set natural gas prices in the US and abroad became much sought after, and made him real money. “I hated the effects of my work but I loved my job and our prestige. Crazy, huh?” he wrote.

In 1986 Jan celebrated the birth of his second child, Bronwyn, with his new wife Heidi, and suffered through the death of his father. Although given control of Lundberg Survey by his father’s will, by September he was out of the Survey, and soon would be out of the oil business forever.
When I found out about the present danger of global warming it was on a sweltering evening over dinner in the summer of 1988 in Washington with the chief economist of the Environmental Defense Fund, Dan Dudek. His bad news made me feel as if I lost some innocence as a child of the Earth. Yet this spurred me on to jump into the movement with all I had.

In August 1988, USA Today ran his photo over a “Lundberg Lines Up With Nature” headline and the story of a new global warming think-tank, Fossil Fuels Policy Action Institute. Jan then launched the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium and published the Auto-Free Times, later called Culture Change. He lost Bronwyn to Heidi’s acrimonious departure, but he got to have Zoé. He wrote:
My new life in 1989 saw me happily caring for my older daughter full time, I had my stimulating work, and I picked up the guitar again — and have not put it down since.
I realized I had made a mistake: I could have and should have used the settlement from Lundberg Survey to exit the business/nonprofit culture entirely. I could have bought a farm and got close to the land.
But there were more pressing matters. In 1992, an historic warning by 1,670 eminent and honored scientists, including 110 of the 138 living winners of Nobel prizes for science, was issued:
“We are fast approaching many of the Earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment cannot continue. Our massive tampering could trigger unpredictable collapse of critical biological systems, which are only partly understood. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided, and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
Jan later wrote of this:
Because this warning was not heeded, major tipping points have been crossed. I see humanity and our fellow species on an alarming slide down to an unknown and terrible chasm. Few people seem to realize or admit it.
Jan moved with Zoé from Virginia to Humboldt County, California and when not writing for Auto-Free Times and Culture Change launched new projects. Zoe later recalled, “People could stay for free as long as they bicycled in the produce to the Farmer’s Market every week. He called it “Pedal Power Produce” and I remember painting the A-frame sign for the booth. He taught me about organic food long before it was trendy.”

From 1993 to 2001 he wrote about 350 stand-alone essays and reports and published 20 magazine issues. From 2008 to 2011 he labored at his self-published autobiography, Songs of Petroleum.
My findings and interests in both lifestyle and cultural change came through years of promoting transport reform and land-use changes so as to end urban sprawl, which I still push as secondary priorities.
Getting the word out, even when fraught with negativity, seemed to be what I had been preparing for since a very young age. I was influenced greatly by my father’s example as a reporter, author and talk-show host. After ending my oil analysis career in 1988, I was soon to find that I had something positive and exciting to share.
[S]ongs and the usual activism aren’t getting us very far — or so it only may seem, as countless seeds planted may still germinate and grow into a sustainable, just society. But perhaps we need a new idea, a new approach.
There are days when I believe it could it be right under our noses. Can lifestyle and culture change be presented as an appealing solution, or do we have to see collapse before people go into action and cope with even worse chaos?
When Zoé was about to turn 16, the two traveled to Kerala, India, and then out beyond the paved precincts into the upland tribal areas in the Wyanad region. He wrote: “Vernell and I were in India only 3 1/2 weeks, but it felt like much longer, and we wanted to stay.”

I was with Jan at the Petrocollapse Conference he hosted in Washington DC in 2005, at any number of Association for the Study of Peak Oil conferences over the years, including one at Cooper Union where we first met Dmitry Orlov and Jim Kunstler. Jan and I were at the march against the Dakota pipeline, in Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, and in San Francisco to celebrate the Anniversary of the Summer of Love. He and I boated across the Bay and hitchhiked up the coast to the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas. In 2010 he trekked down to Belize to attend the 2-week permaculture course Maria Ros and I gave at the Maya Mountain Research Farm.

Like few others, Jan understood that there are no technological or resource impediments to solving the climate crisis. The only impediment is people. The tools and methods we will use to surmount that obstacle are the those he spent his life imagining, creating, and honing. He spent most of his life trying to infect the human population with the virus of simple living. Perhaps we could call it the antidote to consumer culture. “Collapse now and avoid the rush,” he joked. In the introduction to Songs of Petroleum, he wrote:
Demanding social justice is righteous, but our course must be well thought out; there are no second chances with a totally trashed ecosystem and climate. I have come to my assessment not just in my mind, based on research from various disciplines, but in my heart….
In my quest and environmental career I have adopted “simple living” and even veered toward what one might consider to be primitivism — how “green” can we be to match the ecosystem’s and our species’ real needs?
This was a man who put his body where his words were. He invested everything he had or would ever come by. In the end, when cancer crept up on him, he abandoned the hospital course and fasted, choosing to return, at last, to his beloved Greece, where his Sail Transport family took him in and cared for him as he gradually lost his power to speak, and to walk, and to write. His daughters came to visit with him and that gave him his greatest joy.

But no one was with him at that final moment, when, in desperate, exquisite lucidity, he knew the end of this Greek drama was finally upon him, and he raised himself up and stood one last time to stare into the heart of this world he had known and loved.
Goodbye my friend.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twelve More Years To Do Nothing

"The future is changing, with or without us."

When the latest IPCC report landed with a thud on government desks around the world, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists opined: 
“There have been many climate warnings issued in the past few decades, but the latest one is more like an air-raid siren than an alarm clock with an overworked snooze button.”
Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (high confidence). — IPCC
To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, the report says that human emissions of carbon dioxide must fall dramatically: by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to “net zero” around 2050. The real situation is worse than that.

Depending on where you start, we are already close enough to 1.5 that we can feel its hot breath on our collar. The IPCC did a nifty trick of shifting the starting point nearly a century forward from its earliest reports, the ones the set the temperature goal. They literally moved the goal posts. If they can keep doing that, we will never warm 1.5 degrees. Pretty cool, huh? The report’s authors say that 1.5 degrees is still financially and technologically feasible, and maybe this is why. We can always just manipulate the numbers.

Most of the media, from Democracy Now! to the Wall Street Journal, reported the news as a chance to procrastinate for another decade more. 

For its part, deep in a 500-page Transportation Department environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling admission: On its current course, the planet will warm 4°C by end of century. Placed against that background, it is foolish to tweak minor things like automobile fuel standards because they would have almost zero impact in comparison.
The magnitude of the changes in climate effects that would be produced by the least stringent action alternative (Alternative 1) by the year 2100 is roughly a 0.6 ppm higher concentration of CO2, three thousandths of a degree increase in temperature rise, a small percentage change in the rate of precipitation increase, about 0.06 centimeter (0.02 inch) of sea-level rise, and an increase of 0.0004 in ocean pH.— NHTSA
“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.
Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence) — IPCC
Alternative 7, the lowest CO2 emissions alternative, would result in CO2 concentrations of 687.4 ppm, an increase of 0.15 ppm compared with the No Action Alternative. — NHTSA
You have to wonder why the administration made such a stark admission. MIT Sloan School of Management professor John Sterman explained it this way:
“First, the administration proposes vehicle efficiency policies that would do almost nothing [to fight climate change]. Then [the administration] makes their impact seem even smaller by comparing their proposals to what would happen if the entire world does nothing.”
NHTSA’s 4°C rise revises IPCC’s chart to look like this:

As we have observed in this space before, to have a realistic chance of averting disaster, the global economy would need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).
An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.
Bates and Draper, Annual Meeting of International Society for Biophysical Economics (2018)

Human economics, like modern humans themselves, evolved in an era of favorable climate and nearly unfathomable natural abundance. To classical economists, nature’s abundance was never really in the equation. Merely an endowed capital resource. A given. A neglected externality. It is just always there. Sure, you can run it down, deplete it, use it up. The cost is still just the extractive cost — paying for miners or lumberjacks. The penalty is having to meet the higher replacement costs. Whether there even is a replacement is seldom considered. As long as the money is there it is assumed there will always be replacements, and probably better ones. And you can always just print more money.

Some peak oil theorists, eschewing classical economics, imagined twenty years ago that climate change, like many other types of pollution, would suddenly abate when we ran out of economically extractable fossil reserves. That assumption failed to account for atmospheric residence times, lag and feedback effects and thermodynamic inertia.
The warming from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea-level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence). 
We passed that peak point for conventional fossil sources around 2005, but kept going, moving into the domain of more expensive, still marginally affordable, unconventional sources (oil shale, tar sands, fracked gas). Now unconventional sources, along with what remains of coal and sweet crude, are being exhausted more quickly than ever before, their discovery, extraction and refining costs ratcheting up but subsidized to the tune of $5.6 trillion per year, not counting military adventures and foreign intrigues (add another trillion for just the US military). At some point the unconventionals, like the conventionals, will move over into the “unaffordable” column because the Paris Agreement, like the new IPCC report, puts subsidies on death watch, and without those they are, each and every one eventually, money losers for those who mine and drill. When that process will start is anyone’s guess. For now, buying politicians is a better business model for oil companies than exploring biofuels.

We use dinosaur carbon in many ways. Look around you. Almost everything you touch owes its existence to an invisible army of fossil energy slaves. From your computer, to the truck that transported it, to the road the truck drove down, to the chair, bed or floor you are sitting on. Fossil slaves cater your most basic needs. They provide food from farm to factory to store. They shear the sheep and weave your sweaters.

Energy is their heartbeat. If the energy flow slows, the blood flow weakens, slave labor grinds to a halt, and the invisible army falls dead in its tracks. Unless we can summon new reserves of energy, or learn to do with far less, a withering away of the industrial economy is inevitable.

We should free our fossil energy slaves as quickly as possible and recruit solar replacements. Down that road lies clean, renewable energy — carbon neutrality — and farther along, the cleansing transformations of agricultural and consumer wastes into continuous soil amendments and enduring passive sequestration — carbon drawdown. But make no mistake, after the revolution, it will not look like your daddy’s industrial world any more.

If only by virtue of the fact that we are going to be running on a budget of sunlight and not a million-year savings account of hi-octane fossil energy our future will be much more sedate. As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling says,
“Switchgrass is also aptly known as “Panic Grass,” a pretty good coinage for an attempt to run a superpower on hay.”
Until now, biomass energy crops like corn or cane have pushed their negative impacts onto ecosystems — deforestation, land and sea degradation, loss of biodiversity, erosion, water pollution, coral destruction and scarcity. With the newest IPCC report urgently telling us we need Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) for carbon dioxide removal, governmental and non-governmental institutions, academy, and society in general have raised concerns about the whole Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) scheme. What is the sustainability of using land to grow crops for energy? What is the longevity and safety of geological storage of CO2? What will this mean for forest and farm communities? What will all this cost?
Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence).— IPCC
Despite what modern herdsmen might tell you about the power of managed grazing to store carbon in grassland soils, nothing matches trees when it comes to socking away greenhouse gases. Even when the leaves have dropped for the winter, leaving only bare bristles raking the sky, they are still atmospheric scrub brushes. At their roots mycelia never sleep, transporting carbon exudates below erodible soil crusts, snow and respiring humates.

A plantation is not a forest any more than a CAFO is a farm. We need more forests, all over the planet, to remove more carbon and return it where it belongs. Old growth should be protected. Newer forests should be managed, at least in the near term, to optimize growth and carbon drawdown, and that will involve the gainful employment of hundreds of millions of us. China had the right idea when it deployed 60,000 soldiers to plant trees over an area the size of Ireland.

Broadscale reforestry must also consider the social, economic and environmental dimensions of that social restructuring — including: food competition, basic services, family involvement, equal opportunities, land tenure rights, access to land tenure, retirement benefits, regulatory regimes, scientific and technological innovation, self-financing, income diversification, soil health, chemical safety, net land use degradation, biodiversity, waste management, availability and reuse of water, training, family health care, childrens’ education, child labor, lateral organization, and open, transparent participation.

From the standpoint of ecosystem services and biodiversity both above and below ground — not to mention the human social impacts — the industrial bioenergy model imagined by climate capitalists would be a disaster. Bioenergy as a side-product of forest harvesting, food and wood processing, can be inherently a local enterprise — optimally a family enterprise. We should plant healthy forests everywhere, not ship forest products halfway around the world.

Planting and then keeping healthy forests is going to be very challenging in a rapidly warming world. One thing we know will help is biochar, confering upon every seedling the blessings of favorable soil biology, fungal mass, drought and flood resilience, and pest resistance required to reach maturity.

Air Burner turning forestry slash to biochar—courtesy Kelpie Wilson
Fortunately there is no shortage of waste biomass to be carbonized. That orphaned resource represents energy, which means economy, which can mean happiness. Look around! We are positively drowning in wasted organics; sewage sludge, livestock manure, invasive species of plants attacking mono-crops, green waste, food waste, and woody biomass scraps from various industries from papermaking to home furnishings, pallets to packaging, and the list goes on.

Apart from bacteria, the total live biomass on Earth is about 560 billion tons C. The total annual primary production of biomass, wild and domesticated, is just over 100 billion tons C/yr. Of that, farmed annual cereal crops are about 2.3 billion tons. And more than half the cereal biomass by weight is considered “waste.”

When we consider available “food-grade” wastes that could be turned into biomass energy, bio-fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and other uses, there is ample supply waiting to be tapped to turn the carbon cycle around and begin drawing down legacy emissions. Are those sources enough to accomplish the task of avoiding “dangerous” or “catastrophic” climate change? Probably not, so we can go beyond “food-grade” wastes to employ municipal solid wastes or hog manure to blend into carbon polymers, cement buildings and asphalt highways. There are untapped gigatons of unconventional feedstocks, and many more potential products and services that can cascade into fun and profit.

Cereal and agroforestry crop waste can go through several transformations — mashed for leaf protein extraction, fed to cattle or fish, fermented and distilled, dried for barn fodder, placed into rainwater filters, and carbonized for energy — before returning to the soil to support new crop growth as compost and biochar. Ultimately rewarded in this way, soils are rejuvenated, robust, resilient and ready to provide again for future generations.

If we begin to look at paper mill waste, poultry litter, waste treatment plant slurries, mountains of old tires, red tides of seaweed and algae or any of scores of present-day pollution nightmares, we quickly discover how easy it is to pyrolyze those feedstocks at local scale and at negative cost, with negative emissions and positive energy yielding a future we can all live with. It just needs a more honest form of economics to support it, or at least stop knocking it down.




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