Sunday, February 24, 2019

Seizing Defeat

In our moment of ultimate defeat as a species, a spark has been kindled.

Hans-Peter Schmidt and a Cuban regenerative farmer recovering brownfields with agroforestry, fungi, and biochar, Alamar 2018. Photo by Albert Bates
Earlier this month in Dancing with Ulysses, I looked at the moments of realization being experienced by Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and many people around the world, and how that had progressed, in only a short time, from shocked climate scientists, to weary diplomats in Paris, to the thin leading edge of a mass awakening of a billion minds to a shared apocalyptic vision.

The question I posed was, “So what comes next?”

More than 30 years ago I first confronted that problem while compiling Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do. Chapter 3 of that book, called “Runaway,” begins with the line, “The speed of the changes now underway holds a risk of greater magnitude than most people imagine possible.” It then described the Venus Effect, wherein humans traverse some unseen threshold and suddenly find themselves in Hothouse Earth, beyond the point of course corrections. In my new book, BURN Using Fire to Cool the Earth, I tried to insert this illustration from Will Steffen and co-authors, but the publisher couldn’t find space and it got cut. It shows how we move from the Holocene equilibrium that allowed simple mammals to evolve into us, and dolphins and wolves, out of that zone and into a new, hotter equilibrium in which higher life-forms like dolphins, wolves, and humans are untenable.
Stability landscape showing the pathway of the Earth System out of the  Holocene and thus, out of the glacial–interglacial limit cycle to its  present position in the hotter Anthropocene. The fork in the road is shown here as the two divergent pathways of the Earth System in the  future (broken arrows). Currently, the Earth System is on a Hothouse Earth pathway driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases and  biosphere degradation toward a planetary threshold at ∼2 °C beyond which the system follows an essentially irreversible pathway  driven by intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks. The other pathway leads to  Stabilized Earth, a pathway of Earth System stewardship guided by  human-created feedbacks to a quasistable, human-maintained basin of  attraction. “Stability” (vertical axis) is defined here as the inverse  of the potential energy of the system. Systems in a highly stable state  (deep valley) have low potential energy, and considerable energy is  required to move them out of this stable state. Systems in an unstable  state (top of a hill) have high potential energy, and they require only a  little additional energy to push them off the hill and down toward a  valley of lower potential energy.
Having that awakening sits you upright. The threshold is no longer unseen, it is right in front of you and it seems impossible to arrest the momentum that will carry you across. So you begin to scratch around for some heroic gymnastic move to escape that fate, assuming, as one must, that it is not too late already (or even assuming that and rejoicing in a grand futile gesture). Steffen says:
Most of the feedbacks can show both continuous responses and tipping point behavior in which the feedback process becomes self-perpetuating after a critical threshold is crossed.… A few of the changes associated with the feedbacks are reversible on short timeframes of 50–100 years (e.g., change in Arctic sea ice extent with a warming or cooling of the climate; Antarctic sea ice may be less reversible because of heat accumulation in the Southern Ocean), but most changes are largely irreversible on timeframes that matter to contemporary societies (e.g., loss of permafrost carbon). A few of the feedbacks do not have apparent thresholds (e.g., change in the land and ocean physiological carbon sinks, such as increasing carbon uptake due to the CO2 fertilization effect or decreasing uptake due to a decrease in rainfall). For some of the tipping elements, crossing the tipping point could trigger an abrupt, nonlinear response (e.g., conversion of large areas of the Amazon rainforest to a savanna or seasonally dry forest), while for others, crossing the tipping point would lead to a more gradual but self-perpetuating response (large-scale loss of permafrost). There could also be considerable lags after the crossing of a threshold, particularly for those tipping elements that involve the melting of large masses of ice.
— Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. "Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252-8259.
Between 2006 and 2007, while I was researching The Biochar Solution, I paid a call on Frank Michael and asked if he would mind running some maths for me. Frank was a fellow board member at the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology ( and held a Master’s degree in physics. Before dropping out to join our Tennessee ecovillage, he had worked on NASA’s space shuttle program. I asked Frank how many trees it would take to reverse climate change.

Most people in aerospace tend to think, after the fashion of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, that we can just tech our way out of any problem. The techocornucopian wizard crowd tends to be fans of geoengineering, imagining we will spread a layer of sunlight-reflective particulates in the stratosphere or across Greenland, or fertilize the oceans to grow massive plankton blooms. Serious studies of these schemes generally place them into two categories: impractical and expensive. To me, and also to Frank, they are absurdly reckless and dangerous. Harebrained would be a parsimonious adjective. The potential for unintended consequences is suicidally high.

Knowing at how terra preta in combination with trees had altered the climate once before, following the Columbian Genocide, I knew there was a simpler path. We can rebuild Net Photosynthetic Productivity with trees and grasses. So I asked Frank, how many trees? And also, how much land?

After much study, Frank and I co-authored a 2017 paper, Optimized Potentials for Soil Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon, showing that a reversal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is feasible using a socially responsible, economically productive and ecologically restorative agroforestry system we called "Climate Ecoforestry." This system, if carried to the scale of 300 megahectares (about 1.2 million square miles, or tree-planting an area roughly the size of four Frances or five Spains) every year for the next 25 years, we could achieve the cumulative storage of 667 PgC (gigatons of carbon) required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial 250 ppm (parts per million). Were nations to collectively reduce fossil fuel emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the reduction to 250 ppm could be achieved by year 37. In all cases, carbon would be stored in the world's soils and living biomass and could provide many additional benefits beyond sequestration.

One key point in the calculation was that we had to take into account the oceans' CO2 outgassing feedback because that is where the majority of the industrial legacy has been absorbed and as the air gets cleaner, the oceans are going to give some of that back. In order to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, and keep it out, you need to remove about 3.7 tons of carbon from the ocean at the same time. Photosynthesis can do all that, as long as you continuously harvest and set that carbon aside. Otherwise, it just goes back into the cycle. Frank developed a plan he called step-harvest that works equally well for forests and grasslands. Each year the land under management is low-grade harvested or manured through rotational grazing (using a virtuous cycle for standing timber and pastureland) and after extraction of foods, fuels, fibers, and other useful commodities, carbonaceous wastes are pyrolyzed, rendering them as omni-useful biochar that takes a timeout from the atmospheric/oceanic carbon cycle for anywhere from one thousand to 100 million years.

Is there enough land for all that conversion to field and forest? Frank and I spent a lot of time researching that point. Four Frances or five Spains. Per year? Well, it turns out, we do have that much, sitting at the margins, wrecked by bad land use practices, being slowly desertified by climate change, or otherwise neglected and abandoned. Human agriculture as it was practiced from the time of Sumer was extractive and exploitative, using irrigation and the plow. Cut down the trees and then mine the soils until nothing fertile remains, move on, rinse, repeat. Add in the Haber Bosch process and chemical herbicides and pesticides and you can grow something resembling food in sterile soil for a few extra years the same way you can in a flask in a laboratory, but it will have about the same flavor and nutrient density. I would not feed that to my kid, would you?

H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
Scientists have estimated that the amount of underused land immediately available for ecological restoration is at least 1.5 Gha (1.5 billion hectares or 30 Spains) worldwide [Smith et al. 2012]. That gives a 5-year start on climate ecoforestry at full scale and gets you to the step-harvest stage, although naturally, the ramp-up would proceed gradually. We are hopeful that once the causes and effects of climate change, and the eco-agroforestry benefits and increased soil productivity, become better known, large numbers of people will mobilize and allow parts of their landholdings to convert, and over a few decades that could reach the required 4.8 Gha needed, by our estimate, to restore pre-industrial equilibrium.

But time marches on and this week my Swiss research colleague, Hans-Peter Schmidt, provided a spectacular webinar for the International Biochar Initiative that reviewed a number of his recent publications and some still in progress. He was able to reduce the land required to be used for climate regeneration by a third to a half. The significance was underscored in a meeting I attended a day later by the advisory and supervisory boards of the Ecosystem Restoration Camp movement. ERC envisions 1 million people engaged in ecosystem regeneration camps within a decade. The first is already running in Spain and another 70 around the world are anticipated to launch. The IBI also has a big number goal — one billion tons of biochar produced per year within 50 years. The two numbers go very well together. And yet, they are not nearly enough. We will all need to raise ambition.

Li, Qi, et al. "Toward the Application of High Frequency Electromagnetic Wave Absorption by Carbon Nanostructures." Advanced Science (2019): 1801057.
We should challenge some commonly-held ideas about biofuels, bioenergy and energy cropping, particularly that energy crops pose an inherent threat to ecosystems. Certain energy crops (like oil palm for biodiesel or eucalyptus for fuel pellets) are evil and kill Orangutans. But what about using energy crops to strategically enhance ecosystem functions and build regional bioeconomies? What about cascading functions so that the same energy crop makes leaf protein extracts, animal feed, fish feed, furniture, and musical instruments before it is carbonized for electricity and biochar?

Choosing appropriate practices and policies requires an understanding of how soils, climate, farm types, infrastructure, markets, and social organization can stimulate a regenerative, circular economy. In this moment of crisis, we are blessed with emerging technologies, cognitive sciences and holistic management practices that open previously undisturbed system dynamics to our thoughtful, meticulous, deliberate consideration.

There is a lot of banter about climate finance and most of that is just referring to tax schemes and government pay-outs, which is a questionable and inefficient way to go about it. So is the notion of trying to assign a monetary value to ecosystem services. Sian Sullivan, in The Environmentality of ‘Earth Incorporated, argued that the “intrinsic fallacy at the heart” of ecosystem services market initiatives is that they attempt to incentivize environmentally ethical behavior.  She maintains that the market does not produce “virtuous behavior” and that it is essentially naïve to take the view that if only we design them correctly we can halt or reverse ecosystem degradation. Another danger of these market initiatives is that they promote the “valuing of nature as money,” and do not acknowledge “nature’s immanence or sentience,” or the reality that humans are merely one of many “companions” in nature’s community, which is a key “instruction” known and honored by sustainable human societies for hundreds of millennia before we somehow mislaid that instruction manual.

H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
John Fullerton of the Capital Institute asks, “Is it an either-or proposition? Are there ways that we can design these markets to enable the “virtuous behavior” we seek to encourage in market participants?

Hans-Peter Schmidt, who doesn’t like to use terms like impact investing, has a way that could work. His idea is to repair the carbon trading system’s corruption by leasing the service of carbon removal on an annual basis, subject to strict verification. Under the UNCDD’s No Net Degradation standard, ratified into international law a few years ago, lands that are steadily degrading would need to purchase more of these sorts of carbon service leases while those that are steady being regenerated as carbon stores, such as those under care of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, would earn a steady revenue from the leases, one that presumedly appreciates every year. Investors are happy, purchases are verifiable, and more camps can be built.

When Frank and I stepped back from the Net Photosynthetic Productivity question — those physics are settled — and examined the social side of the equation, we came full circle to bioregionalism and the hyperlocal biomaterials economy, Transition Towns, and the Global Ecovillage Network. They sum the 100 drawdown technologies with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Two plus Two equals Five.

This strategy does not absolve us of the need to reduce the ecological footprint of human civilization, something we will be doing anyway because of Peak Everything. Holding to the 2 degree goal requires us to embark immediately upon the IPCC’s 7-percent glide path, halving emissions from all sources every decade. It will involve a vast, worldwide change to fossil fuel-free production that prizes handcrafted wooden buildings and objects, durable and simple design, ease of repair and material conservation. This is not like upgrading your computer to the next version of your present operating system. It is more like switching to a completely new operating system. It will take some time to learn.

In our moment of ultimate defeat as a species, a spark has been kindled. All we need do now is lean in and fan that flame.

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Non-stick Pans and Sticky Memes

"We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors."

On January 29, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross released the following statement:
“Despite what is being reported, EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature. The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”
David Ross was an industry shill suing EPA and state agencies for 14 years before moving into state government in Wyoming and Wisconsin where his main achievements were to roll back state powers to protect water from fracking wells, claiming federal pre-emption, while at the same time suing EPA to prevent enforcement of clean water laws. So, naturally, he was recruited by President Trump and EPA director Scott Pruitt and put in charge of water protection for the whole country.

Since his arrival, EPA has been dithering on whether to protect drinking water from unregulated industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Meanwhile, government scientists have found that the compounds are more widespread in drinking water than thought.

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. Two of the most common forms — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — are no longer made in the United States, but in some cases have been replaced by related chemicals and there are plenty of the older pots, pans and spatulas still in circulation. Being plastic, once in the environment they don’t go away. While many communities have been pushing officials to test water supplies in order to document the extent of any contamination, EPA now has a fox watching over the henhouse.

In 2018, a study by career scientists at EPA and the United States Geological Survey described surveys of PFAS contamination in source and treated water from 25 drinking water treatment plants across the United States. When the concentrations in the treated drinking water are compared to the existing EPA water health “advisory” threshold of 70 ng/L for each chemical or their sum, only one facility exceeded the threshold, but all 50 drinking water samples tested positive.

The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. thinks that 70 ng/L standard is too loose for health protection and estimates that up to 110 million people are served by PFAS-contaminated water supplies, the effect of which is cumulative. According to a report appearing in Science:
The stakes surrounding studies of PFAS prevalence, concentrations, and human health impacts are immense. Stricter standards could force U.S. drinking water suppliers to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to remove the chemicals. And they could require those who used the chemicals — including industrial facilities, firefighters, and the U.S. military — to pay for cleanups and potentially even damages for people who can show their health was harmed by the substances.
Nonstick pans are a wonderful invention, saving cooking oil, preserving essential flavors in ingredients, and easing the chores of dishwashers. It is small wonder that nonstick pans are now 90 percent of the aluminum pan market. But wait a moment. Think about this. The reason that foods don’t stick to nonstick is fluoropolymers. Sure they are convenient, but at the end of the day there is no free lunch. At 500 degrees F (260 degrees C) fluoropolymers split into smaller plastic fragments. The coating begins to break down, and toxic particles and gases, some of them carcinogenic, are released. It is sometimes possible to see when this has happened because the surface degrades, losing its characteristic smoothness and making it more difficult to clean. But even before that happens, the polymers can break down at the molecular level, and you wouldn’t necessarily see the damage.

At slightly higher temperatures — 660 degrees F and above — coatings give off invisible fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a flu-like condition indicated by chills, headache, and fever. The best known non-stick plastic is Teflon, found in heat-resistant, low-friction coatings, such as nonstick surfaces for frying pans, plumber’s tape, and water slides. It was discovered during World War II as a secret part of the Manhattan Project’s process to refine uranium for the first atomic bomb. At 680 degrees F (360°C), Teflon releases at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens.

The popular magazine Good Housekeeping, after commissioning its own study, made these recommendations:
Any food that cooks quickly on low or medium heat and coats most of the pan’s surface (which brings down the pan’s temperature) is unlikely to cause problems; that includes foods such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, or warmed-up leftovers. And many other kinds of cooking are safe as well: In [our] tests, the only food prep that yielded a nonstick pan temperature exceeding 600 degrees F in less than ten minutes was steak in a lightweight pan. But to be cautious, keep these tips in mind:
Never preheat an empty pan. Each of the three empty nonstick pans we heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees F in less than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in under two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; our cheapest pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees F in two and a half minutes.
Don’t cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now advise consumers not to go above medium. To play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don’t place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range); those burners, seen more often in recent years, are intended for tasks such as boiling a large pot of water quickly.
Ventilate your kitchen. When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to help clear away any fumes.
Don’t broil or sear meats. Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can usually handle.
Choose a heavier nonstick pan. Lightweight pans generally heat up fastest, so invest in heavier-weight cookware — it’s worth the extra money.
Avoid chipping or damaging the pan. To prevent scratching, use wooden spoons to stir food, avoid steel wool, and don’t stack these pans. (If you do, put a paper towel liner between them.) How long can you expect your nonstick cookware to last? DuPont’s estimate, based on moderate usage, is three to five years. Some experts advise replacing your nonstick cookware every couple of years. What should you do if the pan does become damaged? A clear answer: Throw it out.
Another danger of nonstick pans comes from the chemical used to manufacture the fluoropolymers, PFOA, which is associated with tumors and developmental problems. After paying $343 million to settle a lawsuit in 2004, DuPont agreed to phase out PFOA, and did by 2015, but many older pans may still have the coating. PFOA is still on the market, however, in microwave-popcorn bags, fast-food packaging, shampoo, carpeting, and clothing. Studies show that most of us have PFOA in our bloodstreams, and babies show trace amounts at birth. Those yoga pants you love may be killing you.

We would like to think that somewhere in government there is a federal agency watching out for our health and protecting us from products like these, but at the moment, that agency seems to have been acquired by hostile takeover, and is now bent upon protecting industry profits, heedless of the public health costs down the road, or the health of all the many non-human creatures now absorbing PFOA from the environment.

We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors. This game has no good ending, as we have learned by playing it over and over for millennia now. We can, by better design, structure human ecology into a win-win-win game, where not only ourselves and our neighbors benefit with each roll of the dice, but so too does the previously ignored architecture of Earth’s biology. We can redesign our losing economic system to benefit all parts, the way Mother Nature does. After all, we invented this thing we call economics (although Hazel Henderson says it’s really just thinly-guised politics masquerading as an academic discipline). We can reinvent civilization, bringing new and better minds to the task. We can replace Pharaonic memes with a distributed ledgers, assigning value grounded in ecological restoration and sustainable development achievements.

A regenerative culture is wise enough to leave in place to later generations a natural world that is more resilient, more capable of meeting the cascading demands of its uncertain future, and better able to repair damage recklessly done. First, let us get rid ourselves of the idiots who shill for polluters, and their Pharoahs, and then let us set about the real work at hand. We can do without the non-stick cancer-causers. This is a sticky meme.


Portions of this essay were drawn from the forthcoming book, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution. 

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dancing with Ulysses

"While it is yet unknowable if humans have the capacity to actually reverse climate change, a small number of activists have already shifted the conversation."

Last night I was watching a performance by young schoolchildren in the central park of my rural village. They stood in a line and sang as a teacher coached them to remember the words. Most were singing, and some were loud and boisterous while others were muted and shy. One little boy drew my eye because he was just standing still. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look. He was looking out from this stage, arms flat at his sides, staring into a large crowd that included his family and all his neighbors and knowing he was expected to perform but he was just frozen.

Sometimes I feel like that kid. It doesn’t happen to me during public speaking anymore. It comes in quiet times, when I am alone with my thoughts.

I recall one such moment in particular, and the date — October 16, 2007 — because the Eureka revelation came as I was driving to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up a friend who would be attending the ASPO Peak Oil conference with me. In some of my writings I have called it my Houston moment. I was not struck with a light from a flying saucer, although perhaps thousands of others around the world were at that moment undergoing a similar experience, but rather, in the quiet of that drive, it came to me that humans would soon be extinct, possibly as soon as this century. I felt no fright or dread. No personal sense of blame. Yet, I was convinced there was no escaping it. Perhaps it had been determined before I was born. It was now merely something that would happen. It could be delayed for a bit, but not prevented.

In this world of universal information, all of us, at some point in our lives, may get to have our Houston moment. One of my friends, who sat next to me the following day, committed suicide after his. He had not yet had his revelation when we were together that time in Houston, nor did we discuss mine, because he was not attuned to the climate problem then. His mind burned brightly and when he finally had his moment he unwound fast. He never got to the next phase, accepting and choosing to act with full knowledge. Another friend at that conference was Jan Lundberg, whose own moment had come before my own, and who was for me a model of unalterable activism in the face of impossible odds.
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Dear Darkening Ground, Book of Hours, I 61

The deer-in-the-headlights experience is brief and what happens after that can be more meaningful if you are willing to let it play out. I observe that for those prone to depression (get more sunlight, friends!), the post-moment period lends itself to morose introspection that can be disabling, even fatal. But if, like Professor Guy McPherson, you are blessed with a sense of humor, you can compensate by making fun of the predicament, which is not a bad way to go through life. It is more fun, anyway. After the peak moment you should not enjoy life any less than you did before. Life as a planetary process continues. We shouldn’t take ourselves, the two-legged naked apes, too seriously.
Tennyson said, through the voice of his Ulysses:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea
Ulysses is an incurable wanderer and seaman. He will drain his vital essence until he reaches the sediment at the bottom, regardless of whether his friends and family like it, or whether his path has become more difficult and dangerous. Bold adventure is his calling.

For ones to whom a life of political or social activism is their calling, you do not retreat to a cave merely because you have glimpsed some storm clouds. You advance “through scudding drifts;” you plunge ahead and work without the prospect of tangible reward or hope for success. The game is the reward.
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it all
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance
Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.
— Tony Arata, The Dance, performed by Garth Brooks

Those of us who have left behind our frozen moment and chosen the path of Ulysses have, over these last few years, changed the conversation in the corridors of power. Regenerative systems designer Daniel Wahl, in his interview for the ecovillage web summit this week, observed that in UN climate summits in Paris, Marrakech and Bonn prior to 2018, the main words being used to describe the way out were still “adaptation and mitigation.” In Katowice in 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez for the first time adopted the words of Project Drawdown, the International Biochar Initiative, the Commonwealth Secretariat and others, and began speaking of “reversing climate change.” With that shift of language, the studies of negative emissions technologies and natural climate geotherapies (agroforestry, permaculture, biochar, aquaculture, etc.) suddenly moved from offstage to stage center.

While it is yet unknowable if humans have the collective capacity to act quickly enough to actually reverse climate change, what can be said is that a small number of activists in the ecovillage, bioregional, and permaculture worlds have already changed the conversation.

If there will be salvation for our kind, it must pass through that reversing door. We have set a lantern there. Wahl quoted (without attribution to Herman Kahn or Al Gore) the aphorism, “We must do the impossible because the probable is unthinkable.”

This too we know: each and every one of us will have our deer-in-the-headlights moment when we realize we really did blow up the Holocene and it won’t be coming back and that could be all she wrote for homo sapiens. Then arrives, in the echo of that thunderclap, the realization that accumulating property, saving historical mementos, writing books, making films, or building companies or concepts to outlive yourself are all meaningless activities when placed into a context of Near Term Human Extinction. What matters is… What? What matters is what happens next to each and every one of us.

Remembering the sensation that Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity, or that Arnold Mindell describes in Sitting in the Fire, — living fully in the moment, not knowing, but being content with unknowing — is a better skill to develop than trying to know everything or to be constantly battling boredom while surfing channels on your phone. This complex, living, dynamic system of which we are part and which we co-created with our actions or inactions, is too complex to be predicted and controlled anyway. Indeed the very act of attempting control, such as with AI, changes it enough to make it unpredictable again.

By accepting our own mortality, and the termination of our line, rather than becoming catatonic or despairing, we can continue to function in a positive, healing way. We may even change how the story ends. If enough of us abandon aspirations for self-aggrandizement and join with neighbors to plant trees and grow food, we could, dear friends, reverse climate change. My point is that it may take each of us coming to terms with annihilation for that to happen, and the sooner those moments come, the better for us all.

That little boy on the stage with the deer-in-the-highlights look will get over it. The next time he will be singing as full-throated as anyone, and maybe the little girl next to him will be the one who is frozen. It goes around.

The frozen moment has an inevitability for each of us but is a transient phase. In what comes next resides all hope.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children."

  Back in 2250 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scot-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in the 22d Century BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history. The unpaid workers and government contractors shut down the government, demanding to be paid.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historical record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last year, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Burning Down the Wall

"Put a CARBONATOR-500 in a village in Honduras and you reverse the migrant caravans."

Recently Kathleen Draper, my co-author of Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, due out from Chelsea Green February 7, and I calculated how many CARBONATOR-500 biochar kilns we could buy for $5.7 billion. We reckoned it was around 11,400, at retail book.

The CARBONATOR-500 comes on like a Panzer VIII Maus (“Mouse”) super-heavy tank. It replaces the ROI (Ragnar Original Innovation) company’s prior dreadnaught, the ENVIROSAVER-350 (diagrammed below), which weighed in at 34.5 tons. The CARBONATOR-500 is 41.5 tons and driven by a Caterpillar engine roughly the size of the Daimler-Benz DB 603 inverted V12 that Ferdinand Porsche used to power the 207-ton Maus.

Getting under the hood, the more important displacement is how much carbon is coming from the atmosphere every hour, thanks to the contributions of trees. Lumbering up and down stumpy hills and almost effortlessly moving through mudslides and over pick-up-sticks debris fields after wildfires, it forages for deadwood — the kindling of future fires — to stuff its pyrolytic maw. It digests at more than 1000 degrees C and craves more. As its biochar output is continuously quenched with water injection nozzles and sieved, three horizontal augers discharge from its bum into receiving trucks for transport to a microbialization station or merely disperse the rejuvenating elixer to the burnt soils to be invested with the forests’ own indigenous microorganisms. The two rear combustion chamber access doors and quick interchangeable grates permit easy clean out of non-combustibles and oversize char.

Each of these behemoths is a Mobile Cool Lab. If, using daily averages and allowing down time for maintenance, each produced 10 tons of fresh biochar per day — in a year a single CARBONATOR would have sequestered more than 10,000 tons of CO2 (conservatively assuming the biochar is 80% carbon and calculating that CO2 is 3.67 times the weight of C). For the price of Mr. Trump’s wall, 10,000 of these machines could remove 100 megatons of CO2 from the atmosphere each and every year.

Let me be clear. The way this works is that the kind of carbon trees are removing is called labile carbon, the type used by photosynthesis to grow plants and feed or shelter us. Pyrolysis transforms labile carbon to a different molecular form — recalcitrant carbon. Its bonds are too strong to be easily broken by microbes or light, so by being made into biochar it exits the photosynthetic carbon cycle and becomes structure for soils and other useful things. Today we call this biochar, but 1000 years ago it was better known as the active ingredient of dark earth (terra preta). Every ounce of carbon that gets transformed from plant to mineral form gets off the carbon wheel of birth and death for a thousand years or more (much more in the case of 250 million-year-old biochar left by paleolithic wildfires) and becomes needed structure to regulate air, water, and biology in the soil. By making 10 tons of biochar, a pyrolysis kiln is keeping that much from re-entering the atmosphere (and oceans, because the two are in rough equilibrium). We need to restrain some 650 gigatons of carbon to get back to the comfortable Holocene. One hundred megatons per year would start us down that road.
Of course, the C-5 is a big beast, and need not be confined to forests. It is equally comfortable sauntering out to rice and wheat fields (on roads so as not to compact soils with its weight) or standing by large grain processing mills to consume the chaff and crop residues it finds there. It is content to lie in the tall grass next to a sawmill or furniture factory chomping sawdust and mill ends all day. Put it by a papermill or landfill and it is in heaven.

In order to rescue ourselves from climate catastrophe, we need to radically alter how humans live on Earth. We have to go from spending carbon to banking it. We have to put back the trees, wetlands, and corals. We have to regrow the soil and turn back the desert. We have to save whales, wombats, and wolves. We have to reverse the flow of greenhouse gases and send them in exactly the opposite direction: down, not up. We have to flip the carbon cycle and run it backward. For such a revolutionary transformation we’ll need civilization 2.0. BURN releases February 7.
But here is the real magic. It reverses migrant caravans. Put a CARBONATOR-500 in a village in Honduras and now you have a Cool Lab. Let us imagine some of the quickest, cheapest add-ons:
  • Electricity for the village from residual process heat
  • Refrigeration for home and market
  • Central distribution air conditioning
  • Process heat for drying lumber, maize, beans, coffee, cacao, ginger, and turmeric
  • Jobs for tree-planters and nurserymen
  • Jobs in compost, fermentation, micro-organism breeding and biofertilizer production
  • Jobs producing leaf protein in pre-pyrolysis presses for crops like moringa and nopale
  • Jobs in formulating superfoods, feeds and nutriceuticals from biochar and leaf protein
  • Jobs making biochar biopolymers, biocretes and biocomposites
  • Microenterprise hubs for carbon fiber, Binchotan, musical instruments or whatever other innovative imaginings an unlimited supply of clean, safe, carbon-negative bioenergy could support
  • Climate-resilient, pesticide- and fertilizer-free farms
  • Filtered water and clean streams
  • Rejuvenated soils
Here is a mind map for such a biorefinery using only a single crop — bamboo. Then imagine it for 100 other indigenous plants and scores of problematic waste streams.

How many refugees might one Cool Lab employ? 100? 1000? 10000? Now, tell me again, how many refugees were in that Honduras caravan that POTUS is poised to declare a national emergency over?

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

What can you do to prepare when you can’t?

"A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does."

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” —
Revelation 16:10
Suppose for a moment that you lived in, say, Syria in 2001, and through some special gift of clairvoyance, you knew what lay ahead in the coming decades. 

Most of those around you seem utterly clueless. Your country has been ruled by Hafez al-Assad, who declared himself President following a bloodless coup d’etat in 1971. Over most of your life, Assad had led what was called the Corrective Movement. Assad’s program was economic socialism, strengthening the private sector’s role in the economy, drawing a sharp line between church and state, and encouraging multiculturalism. While
 Hafez al-Assad
Assad was minority Alawite, he had reached out to bring ethnic Sunnis into senior positions in his government, the military, and the Ba’ath party. He attended Sunni Mosque to show his ecumenical spirit. By 2000, the gradual progress of Syrian economic and social development was plain to see. And now, after the old man’s death in November, his son Bashar al-Assad is popularly elected President. Bashar’s wife Asma is Sunni Muslim, born and educated in Great Britain. This is a progressive, up-and-coming country. 

You would have to be extraordinarily gifted to see what your world will look like 20 years later. Perhaps you are. You may, for instance, grasp the significance the attack of 911 holds for your nation because within the Sunni branch of Islam, Saudi Arabia is strenuously ultraconservative Wahhabi. They are so fanatical they might even imagine being able to attack the Great Satan and get away with it.
Asma and Bashar
Or you might know that having a foreign policy calling for the dissolution of Israel and the return of Palestine might be bad for your own relations with the Great Satan. It will not escape your notice when the Ba’ath party is banned in neighboring Iraq in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Alawites, such as the Assad family, are a separate ethnoreligious group from Sunni Muslim. In Syria, they are mostly a coastal population, about 11% at the inception of the Corrective Movement and about 17% today. The Qur’an is only one of their holy books and texts, and their interpretation has very little in common with the Sunni interpretation and goes much farther back. Genetic studies trace the Alawites to the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites, and Mardaites. They were massacred by the Crusaders but later became allies when they realized the Crusaders were not a rival Islamic faction and shared many Alawite beliefs and practices. Alawites drink wine in communion (Ali’s transubstantiated essence) and allow alcohol socially, in moderation. They believe in a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. To Alawites, these aspects, or emanations, appear cyclically in human form throughout history. Alawites also believe in reincarnation.

These beliefs and practices, along with separation of church and state, made the Assad regime one of the most Western-oriented in the Middle East but raised animosity among other branches of Islam. Bashar’s succession of power from his father and push towards free market trade brought about more income inequality, high youth unemployment, and also coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in the Middle East, the driest 15-year period of the last 900 years, and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. An influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War and occupied territories in Israel didn’t help, either.

As part of the wider wave of the Arab Spring protests, discontent with Bashar Assad escalated to armed conflict in 2011. Many long-simmering scores vied to get settled. Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) smelled opportunity and perhaps a shot at a Caliphate. A loose alliance among opposition rebel groups, including the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, White Helmets and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, came together ostensibly to root out ISIL and that worried Turkey, who was not all that keen on arming the Kurds. Kurdish separatism extended well across the Turkish border.

Struck on three sides and losing ground, Ba’athist Syria and the Syrian Armed Forces, back peddling, sought help from Iran and Russia. Russia, after initial hesitance, decided Syria would be a good laboratory to try out some of its newest battlefield tech in terrain somewhat less challenging than Afghanistan. In short order, it managed to eradicate most of the opposition forces who did not have US cover and, by staying in contact with forward US command could avoid accidental overkill while surgically removing ISIL, which may or may not have been a US objective. By 2016, Syrian Armed Forces began to retake the country formerly held by jihadists.

But then President Trump made the mistake of sending ground troops and, following the downing of a Russian Su-25 warplane by a US-made SAM, Russia may have rescinded its promise to keep US soldiers and airmen safe. For the US, the war has now reverted to drones and airstrikes, while Russia continues to lend air support and training to the Syrian Armed Forces. According to the Washington Post on January 14, 2019:
Government forces backed by Russia and Iran are pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas. Turkey has reinforced troops on its border to battle both Kurdish fighters and remaining jihadists, who are trying to defend the shrinking territory they hold.
Both Assad and the Syrian Kurds plan to resume negotiations over autonomy arrangements for Kurdish-majority areas, which displeases the US, who wants Assad out and an alliance with the Kurds, and NATO-ally Turkey, who wants the Kurds out and an alliance with Assad. Just to keep it interesting, since the conflict began Israel has frequently attacked targets there — “thousands” of them, according to IDF General Gadi Eisenkot. Were Saudi Arabia not busy in Yemen they would probably be there too. It is everyone’s free fire zone. US airstrikes alone increased 50% in 2018 and civilian casualties by 215%. Over the past 8 years, hundreds of thousands of Syrian noncombatants have been bombed, starved, or assassinated for their beliefs or ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the US elected an insane, kleptocratic gang to the White House and Senate, is exploding its national debt, and for the first time since WWI, has seen its life expectancy decline for the third year in a row. More USAnians will die in 2019 from opioids than died from the entire Vietnam war. This is what the terminal phase of empire looks like, and it would not be untoward for the US to defund its puppets and proxies and start pulling back from the 70 countries its 800 military bases occupy, while it still can. Alternatively, it could stand back and nuke the planet from space.

So you are a young Syrian in 2001. Do you see all this coming? Probably not. But suppose you did. What would you do?

The smart move could be to get out of Dodge. Take your whole family. Quick as you can, like the cleverest Jews and Gypsies in Germany in the 1930s, you should scrape up enough to leave. Don’t wait around longer than you have to.

Now consider what we all can see happening around us in 20 years. We don’t need much imagination, because the best scientists in the world have already told us what will happen with a fine degree of precision.

We are now at 1 degree Celsius above 1900. The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking. Antarctica is calving large sheets of ice into the Southern Ocean. It is not cooling the ocean as much as the ocean is heating from a futile attempt to keep the atmosphere in equilibrium. Sea level rise is accelerating, more from the thermal expansion of water than from added meltwater. On April 17, 2016 residents of Waller County Texas were walloped by 16.8 inches of rain before noon. That is what a warmer ocean does. Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches on the Houston region in 3 days in August 2017.
People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

To see a headline like Polar Vortex Splits In Three (January 16, 2019) might have been shocking once but is now accepted. A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does.

According to the National Research Council, each degree C of global temperature increase can be expected to produce:
  • 5-10% changes in precipitation across many regions
  • 3-10% increases in the amount of rain falling during the heaviest precipitation events
  • 5-10% changes in streamflow across many river basins
  • 15% decreases in the annually averaged extent of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, with 25% decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September
  • 5-15% reductions in the yields of crops as currently grown
  • 200-400% increases in the area burned by wildfire in parts of the western United States
But that is one degree. We are past that now. On current trendline, we will be somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That assumes the trend holds, which is by no means certain because many countries are still building more coal electric plants, and the Saudis have a lot more oil.

At two degrees, the NRC says, millions of more people living on coasts will be flooded out. Corals reefs will be gone and toxic plankton blooms will spread, ending much of the commercial seafood industry. Nine out of 10 summer seasons will be as hot as the hottest summer between 1980 and 2000. Crop production will decline drastically. Water shortages will be endemic as stream flows are reduced by 20 to 30%. Nuclear plants will be unable to cool themselves from rivers or coastal water and will close.

Half a degree over 2? More severe winter freezes. More heat waves, more crop losses, more water shortages, more inundated coastal cities, more disease and conflict, millions more suffering. At 3 to 5 degrees, all else being equal, sea levels will rise about 4 to 7.5 meters (13-24 feet). Deglaciation of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the ocean 5 meters more. These changes will unfold slowly and even halting emissions after 2020 won’t prevent what is already in the pipeline. The climate will continue to warm for several more centuries until it reaches its new equilibrium temperature based upon the changed chemistry. That could be at 7 degrees, 9 degrees, 12 degrees, we really don’t know. We just know it is a lot hotter than mammals like homo can tolerate. Bees gone, butterflies gone, birds gone, whales and dolphins gone, and then we’re gone too.

So here you are now, young Syrian. You can see what lies ahead. Where do you go to hide? What do you do to prepare?

We are all Syrians now.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas, 1947

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