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


13 06 2010

The Gulf Coast oil blowout is a tragedy of epic proportions.  Greed, ignorance, and foolish pride all came together, mounted on the backs of BP executives, government officials, and all us just plain folks who are socked in to our various petroleum habits, and now the ugly reality of our oil addiction is smeared across the clean white beaches,fertile green marshes, and shining blue sea of our country’s southern coast, like AIDS-related boils on the face of a once-attractive junkie.  It’s sad.  It’s sickening.  It is a horribly cruel fate for billions of innocent birds, fish, mammals and plants.  “Tarred and feathered” has a whole new, even uglier, meaning.  It is a wretched legacy for future generations, trampling on the rights of the unborn of all species.

But it is also only fair, and about time we Americans had our noses rubbed in the kind of devastation we have long been willing to visit on other, mostly dark-skinned people so that we can keep mainlining our petroleum fix.  The chickens have come home to roost.

The native people of northern Canada, the Amazon, and Nigeria know exactly what I am talking about.  In all of these areas, the multinational oil companies have squatted on pristine land and taken a massive, oil-soaked dump, fouling ecosystems integral to the way of life of tribes who have been living in harmony with nature far longer than the brief trajectory of our petroleum-fired, so-called “civilization.”

In northern Canada, BP and many other oil companies are busily strip mining 54,000 square miles of “tar sand,” permanently polluting three or four gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced.  It will take decades or possibly centuries for the slow-growing sub-Arctic forest to re-establish itself on the old strip mine sites (if it does so at all), leaving gaping holes in one of the planet’s major carbon sinks at a time when we need to sequester all the carbon we can stash.  And speaking of carbon,  the process of destroying the forest,  then heating the oil sands to separate out the oil,  releases  massive amounts of carbon dioxide….well, gosh, if there’s global warming, those boreal forests will grow back faster, won’t they?

Yes, the future is a very serious concern for tar sand oil extraction.  The water that is used in the process, polluted with solvent  chemicals and heavy metals, becomes toxic waste and is then “stored” in “settling ponds“–where it takes centuries to settle.  Even now, with all our technical capabilities, seepage from these ponds is fouling the Athabaska River, the region’s main source of water.   So far, the area directly polluted by this oil extraction effort is somewhat smaller than the Gulf blowout, which has closed 64,000 square miles of the Gulf to fishing due to likely contamination.    But we have no assurance that our technical civilization will maintain itself long enough to guard these poisonous ponds, which are highly attractive to migrating birds,  until they are thoroughly neutralized. Toxins like mercury and benzene are already seeping into the water table and spreading down the Athabaska and will in the long run poison vast tracts of the Canadian Arctic as they work their way into the MacKenzie River and, ultimately, the Arctic Ocean.  Since the ponds are not actually in the ground but above ground, surrounded by man-made dikes, a breach is almost inevitable.  That’s one hundred and eighty-seven billion gallons of toxic sludge hanging over our heads, four thousand seven hundred times more poisonous goo than has vomited out of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico so far.

Sure, polluted water is not as horrific a problem as raw crude oil or nuclear waste, but we are still placing a poisonous burden on generations yet unborn so we can live in comfort and have amenities that will be unavailable to them, because we snorted up all the resources and left them a mess that they will likely lack the technology to clean up.

OK, let’s leave the deadly ponds of northern Alberta and travel to a warmer clime–the western Amazon basin, “the lungs of the planet,” one of the last places on earth where the ecosystem has not been completely perverted by our extractive civilization.

Hey, we’re working on it.  Everybody knows about the speed with which Brazilians are raping the eastern, northern, and central Amazon, but less attention has been paid to the far western end, which was long protected by the steep slopes and inhospitable climate of the Andes Mountains.  But there’s oil there, so the junkies are after it.

Peru’s government initially offered 70% of its Amazon territory to oil and gas companies, without consulting the people who live there.  This provoked a massive protest, and Peru’s Congress repealed many of President Alan Garcia’s expropriations, which included areas already promised as wildlife and tribal reserves, but the pressure continues.  Like junkies, like zombies intent on eating the living, oil addicts are nothing but an appetite on legs, with a brain dedicated to finding ways to satisfy that appetite–which, in a cruel but righteous cosmic joke, can never be satisfied.

Something similar happened in Ecuador, where Chevron struck a deal with the country’s neo-liberal government back in the 90’s and then took advantage of lax regulation and oversight to make a total mess.  Many rivers, water tables, and vast tracts of land were polluted by oil spills, drilling pollution, and a demand for “civilized amenities” such as alcohol, cocaine, prostitutes, and consumer goods.  This and other transgressions sparked enough outrage that the Ecuadorians voted out the plutocrats  who had been running the country for their personal benefit and installed Rafael Correa, a small-s socialist in the Hugo Chavez mode, who has thrown out Chevron, nationalized the oil infrastructure they left behind, and is working to guard the environment and make sure that whatever wealth the country has is much more equitably distributed than it traditionally has been.  Unfortunately, this does nothing to pull the fangs of the oil demon out of the Amazon, and the pollution continues.  Like, eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste loose in “the lungs of the planet,” compared to a mere thirty-eight million gallons of oil (so far) leaked into the gulf of Mexico.  Hey, some junkies sell their blood for a fix.  We’re selling our lungs.

These struggles barely penetrate America’s consciousness.  We hear of actress Q’orianka Kilcher’s arrest at the White House, protesting while Barak Obama hails Alan Garcia’s program of exploitation, red-baiting, and racism in Peru  as “an extraordinary economic success story.”  (That says more about Obama than most people want to hear.)  When activists who own stock in Chevron (so they can have access to stockholders’ meetings to protest Chevron’s policies) are denied access to the stockholders’ meeting and arrested, it briefly makes the news. Mostly, though, we Americans keep nodding on, zoned out on our petroleum buzz.  Out of sight, out of mind, y’know?

This brings us to Nigeria, which provides the US with 40% of our crude oil.  A study group that included a number of fairly conservative members–from the World Wildlife Federation to the Nigerian government–concluded that at least forty-six million gallons of oil, far more than what the Gulf blowout has leaked so far, have been spilled in the Niger delta in the last fifty years, not out at sea, but in and around villages and landscape where people are trying to live by fishing, farming, and hunting.  Imagine our deep water blowout occurring onshore.  Wouldn’t that raise an even worse fuss than what we’ve seen already?

But Nigerians are poor, dark-skinned people far away.  It is easy to ignore their complaints about Chevron’s lax environmental standards; anyway,  Chevron for its part claims that much of the leakage in Nigeria comes from sabotage and people tapping into the oil pipelines to steal oil.  I have two thoughts about that.  The first is that if the wealth generated from Nigeria’s oil were being shared more equitably, there would be a lot less robbery and resentment.  The other thought is that, just as nobody cared what the Palestinians thought about pushing them aside and relocating many of the world’s Jews to Palestine, nobody asked the Niger delta natives if they wanted to have their way of life totally disrupted by big oil, and that, in both cases, resentment is a completely understandable reaction to our high-handed treatment of indigenous people–in Palestine, Nigeria, or, gosh, the good ol’ USA.  We have oppressed and impoverished all of these people in pretty much the same way, but who cares if they live in misery, as long as we get our fix?

These examples are just the “big three” of oil-related nastiness.  I haven’t mentioned how Chevron props up the autocratic regime in Burma and looks the other way while native people are not only dispossessed to make room for oil and other infrastructure projects but enslaved to build those projects.  Chevron piously claims it “….continues to support the calls for a peaceful resolution to the issues facing Myanmar in a manner that respects human rights,” but reports from inside the country tell a different story.

Closer to home, but still far away and affecting mostly dark-skinned people and dumb animals, we have oil exploitation in Alaska, where broken pipelines have contaminated the tundra, while plans to begin deep water drilling in the Arctic Ocean are still  proceeding.  Wouldn’t an Arctic Ocean oil blowout in midwinter be fun to contain?

Meth labs are notorious for producing toxic waste, but all the meth labs in the world put together would not pollute the area we have fouled in the course of cooking up our oil fix.  It’s not a mess somewhere else any more, it’s a mess on our south coast, polluting American waters and shores and destroying American livelihoods.  Our oil-soaked chickens have come home to roost.

The meaning of this would be obvious if we were not so oil-addled.  This does not mean that we need to make sure we are using clean needles–excuse me, that we need better safety standards and more reliable technology to get the oil we think we need.  This means that we need to kick our habit before it kills us, and admit that it was never OK for those dark-skinned people over the horizon to die for our sins.  Now the Gulf of Mexico is dying for our sins, and we had better wake up from our nod and repent–not before it’s too late, because it is already too late. The age of oil is over.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over

Meltdowns, Droughts, and Floods

9 08 2006

They’re having a tourist problem at Igazu Falls, down on the border between Brazil and Parguay. The falls is usually bigger than Niagra, but this summer it is flowing at about a fifth of its usual rate. Can you imagine the Cumberland River flowing at a fifth its usual rate? It’s not just bad news for the tourists—it means the whole southern part of Amazonian Brazil is drying out, along with much of the Amazon basin proper. Equatorial South America is in its second year of drought; biologists have discovered that two dry years is about all the shallow-rooted rain forest can take before it dies, leaving savannah in its place. If the Autumn rains don’t come, that’s what’s likely to happen.

Apparently, two factors are combining to dry the climate. One is the global warming trend, which is diminishing snowpack in the Andes, a major source of the Amazon’s year-round water supply. With less snow and more rain falling on the Andes, the seasonal highs and lows of the rivers are getting both higher and lower. The other factor is rain forest removal, which the Brazilian government, even with the best of declared intentions, does not have the political will or military strength to stop. Apparently, enough of the rainforest has been removed to cut into the forest’s self-generated rain cycle. When there were enough trees, the moisture they gave off in the course of a day would coalesce into rainclouds and fall back down on the forest; with fewer trees, the moisture just evaporates and blows away.

The Amazon rain cycle has strong, complex effects on the whole hemisphere’s weather. A dry Amazon will change our climate in ways that are hard to predict, except to say that we probably won’t like them. No wonder the Venezuelans are planning to plant millions of trees with some of their oil money. They’re going to need all the buffering they can get.

Now—from the equator to the poles—in Greenland, the pace of meltdown is picking up, as is the pace of earthquakes. With less ice weighing on it, the ground is rebounding, pushing the ice into the sea even faster. Last year, 2005, Greenland lost about 50 cubic miles of ice—this year, it looks like it’s losing about a hundred cubic miles of ice. In Antarctica, there are 5200 square miles less sea ice than there were just ten years ago, and the volume of icebergs that break off the West Antarctic shelf has doubled in the last ten years. It is expected to double again in the next ten years.

The sea ice once served to dam up subglacial rivers in Antarctica; now that it is diminished, many of these subglacial rivers are flowing into the sea, eroding the Antarctic’s mainland ice and raising sea level further.


Ice melts in a mathematical, rather than an arithmetical progression. That is, the melt rate is not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—it’s 1-2-4-8-16-32-64. It snowballs, you could say. With both Greenland and the West Antarctic getting fragile, we have set ourselves up for a 40-foot sea level rise, with most of it potentially happening in just a year or two; and in a world that much warmer and more water-covered, the East Antarctic ice shelf is likely to start deteriorating, and that will raise sea level about another hundred and sixty feet. The good news is, there’ll be plenty of water in the Amazon basin again; the bad news is, it’ll be sea water.

A forty-to two-hundred foot rise in sea level is a real threat to our national security. Mr. Cheney has declared that “the American way of life is not negotiable”; we can see clearly now that his greed will result in the deaths of millions, possibly billions of people, and an end to “the American way of life” that the Bush junta is allegedly so intent on defending. America’s greed steals not just food but freedom from billions of people. Terrorists are just a symptom of this global disorder. As long as Mr. Cheney’s insatiable greed stalks the world, there will be terrorists, and there will be no intelligence agency in the world invasive enough to prevent desperate, angry people from expressing their frustration any way they can.

music:  Jackson Browne, “Before the Deluge”


i’d like to find a map of what a 200-foot sealevel rise would look like, but
a couple of places to find maps of what a 40-foot sealevel rise would do can be found at

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