19 06 2011

I recently finished reading Albert Bates’ latest book, “The Biochar Solution,” and found it a tremendously informative, inspiring, entertaining tour de force.  Albert has the polymath’s gift for taking a complex technical subject and expounding it from a broad enough perspective to make the technical parts easily digestible, even for someone like me, whose eyes start to glaze over when I get hit with too much pure science at once.

The book’s wide-ranging narrative takes us from the reductionist dreams of Rene Descartes to the seaside camp of Terra Amata in southern France, 400,000 years old, where we find  the earliest known “domestication” of fire for human use.  We float down the Amazon with the first Spanish explorers, looking for El Dorado, unwittingly spreading epidemics of European diseases in their wake.  These first Spanish witnesses reported that the Amazon basin was open, cultivated, and full of cities and villages–a claim that was treated as pure fancy by historians for centuries, until soil scientists and archaeologists only recently proved that the famed “terra preta” of the Amazon basin is a man-made artifact, one of the few remaining relics of a millenniums-old, pre-contact Amazonian culture whose people succumbed to European diseases that spread like wildfire from the first points of European contact with the New World, and whose villages and fields then succumbed to the hungry jungle, which fed voraciously on the augmented soil fertility that had enabled  these people to thrive.

At this point, Bates introduces the greater carbon cycle, asserting that “The Little Ice Age” was largely caused by decreased atmospheric carbon dioxide, as the gas was sucked into trees that grew on what had once been the cleared farmlands of the peoples of North and South America. after upwards of 90% of the population of the two continents were killed by European-introduced plagues.   At first glance, this claim is somewhat controversial , since some meteorologists date the beginning of  the Little Ice Age to the 14th century, which precedes European contact with America, but (and Bates does not mention this) European and Asian reforestation after the depopulation caused by Bubonic plague could have also played a role.  In any case, the combination of renewed deforestation and the beginning of our exploitation of fossil fuels brought “The Little Ice Age” to an end by the mid-nineteenth century.

And it was at the end of the nineteenth century that Svente Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in 1903, predicted that doubling the amount of carbon in the planet’s atmosphere could raise the Earth’s temperature by five degrees Centigrade, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit.   It’s simple science, folks–you increase the amount of CO2 in a closed container, like a beaker or a planet, and it will hold more heat.   This is not a socialist conspiracy to make us all drive electric cars, OK?

As he delves more deeply into the history of human interaction with the biosphere, Bates’ tone grows more somber.  He contrasts Old World agriculture, which has created deserts in its wake, with the terra preta and other practices of Native American peoples, and laments the triumph of reductionist, mechanistic agriculture and science, which, time and again, has squeezed  the natural world  to death in a vise made from the moldboard plow and irrigation. From the once-“Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, to North China, to the Sahel, to the Dust Bowl, the story is the same, over and over again.  Albert is charitable enough not to mention the old saw that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.  Homo sapiens or Homo dementis?   It’s going to be a close call.

On page 70, Albert reads humanity the riot act:

On May 19, 2009, Woods Hole Research Laboratory and M.I.T. released a study involving more than 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate data currently available.  Conclusion:  The effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago, and the probable median of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2C (9.4F), compared to a finding of 2.4C as recently as 2003.  Moreover, the study rated the possibility of warming to 7.4C  (13.3F) by the year 2100 (and still accelerating thereafter) at 90 percent–in spite of our feeble efforts at “cap-and-trade,” “contraction and convergence,” or ” a clean development mechanism.”

What that means for us here in Tennessee, folks, is summer temperatures in the low hundred-and-teens.  Can you say, “fry an egg on the sidewalk,” boys and girls?  Oh….good luck raising chickens in that kind of heat!

After listing the dire consequences of runaway warming, Albert continues,

Finding ourselves trapped in a burning building, we have to search out and consider any potential escape routes, and quickly…..  Our survival, and that of the experiment of life on a blue water world, depends on our ability to keep clarity and resolve as all around us the flames, smoke, and panic are rising….  We should not forget that what we need to do in order to extricate ourselves–garden Earth–is also going to make our lives vastly better than they otherwise would have become, and our children’s lives will be still better, although quite a bit warmer for a while.

And this is where “The Biochar Solution” turns the corner–makes the all-important transition from being just another piece of doomer porn into a possible solution, as promised–a solution that can be initiated, if not completed, without recourse to our politically/corporately gridlocked governments.  The third section of the book is called, “Capturing Carbon,” and it delineates activities that you and I and third world villagers can all take, right where we are living now, whether the politicians like it or not.

Bates first explains carbon-capture farming–organic no-till techniques that have proved their ability to take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, renewing fertility, tilth, and both drainage and water-holding capacity.  Big thick books (that make my head spin) have been written about soil chemistry, but Bates  gives us a good basic grasp of what’s going on in the dirt around us in just a few dozen pages, walking us through soil microflora and fauna, nutrient availability, and compost, explaining the chemistry of why those weird biodynamic preps work along the way, and finally digs into biochar, so to speak, explaining what it is, how to make it on both a household and industrial scale, giving references for those who want to go deeper into any of the many facets of this salvational subject.  There are those who consider biochar a menace, not a solution; he answers their objections carefully and fully.

But biochar, he points out, is no panacea.  The world’s current population is, he admits, “unsustainable,” and needs to somehow be reduced–fast.  While he accepts grazing animals as an important part of the nutrient cycle, he also observes that our current level of meat consumption is just as unsustainable as our current population.   And, while those of us with access to land can plant all the trees and bury all the biochar we can squeeze in, at some point we will have to bring our governments and their partners in global business to heel if we are going to either engage in the level of reforestation that will be necessary or quit burning the coal, oil, and natural gas that have given us so much short-term gain but are beginning to cause us a great deal of long-term pain.

Towards the end of the book, we find this passage:

Assume that,all of a sudden, we were to awaken to the threat posed by conventional agriculture to our survival.  What changes in our arrangements might, even at this late hour, offer some hope?

It would likely involve some combination of biochar, carbon farming, tree planting, and redesign of the built environment and energy systems to be carbon-negative.  I cannot imagine any alternative that excludes those strategies would remain viable for very long.

Transition is its own challenge.  Existential threats are not unprecedented in the history of our genome, and that provides some comfort.  We made it through all the evolutionary bottlenecks we know of, or we wouldn’t be here now.  Over the course of our evolution we have benefited from stable climate and dense biodiversity.  That biodiversity has given us, with our linear thought limitations, a safe refuge within the nonlinear web of life that indefatigably minds the store when we are out to lunch.

This stability is something we will soon have a lot less of, and adjusting to the suddenness of changed circumstances will likely become our greatest challenge.

In my humble, unscientific opinion, Albert’s just a little bit off here. “Adjusting to the suddenness of changed circumstances” is not “likely to become our greatest challenge.”  It is already our greatest challenge as a species.  I’m just one of too many billion grains of human sand on this planet, but I am pledging to do all I can to meet that challenge.  If enough of us make that commitment, some day there will likely be humans who look back on this point in history and say, “That is when the human race grew up.”

If the deniers have their way, then we will likely pass the torch of evolution over to the rats and cockroaches, or possibly to the bacteria that we have only recently discovered living miles under the surface of the planet.  It’s that time, people.  As Bucky Fuller prophesied in 1969, it’s “Utopia or Oblivion.”

music:  Jane Siberry, Narrow Bridge to the Millenium”


this is the narrow bridge
and you will stand there peering at the unraveling of the the dark line across the chasm. and you will not philosophize, decide, weigh– you will simply put your head down and start moving, feeling your way inch by inch, unguided by voices using only the sound of your own sound reflected. feeling the rope of the narrow bridge. this is your protection, as you move toward the end of the millennium. every moment spent bent over work, not cutting corners, doing things with care is protection, is the bridge to carry you through the darkness, for to do something with care is the closest thing to the feeling of love that can be found.  This is all i know. this is protection. This is the narrow bridge. And the hand reaches out for the drink the drug and it grabs a cloth instead, and you protest, and you start to clean and you clean the corners like they have never been cleaned before and you weep as you clean but you keep on going, and in this tiny gesture of respect the protection is found and the kingdom of grace moves softly down above the shoulders throwing a safety line out to




2 responses

25 06 2011
j sandino hepler

Martin, lovely work thanks
Shows a real concern, not just for the planet but for your own self-appointed ministry, and quality communication…..

25 06 2011

Thank you, Sandy! Just doin’ what I can.

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