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


28 01 2009

We heard a lot about  “clean coal” during the recent campaign.  Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary, tells us  “coal and nuclear power are going to be part of this country’s “energy mix” for the foreseeable future, in spite of a massive chorus of voices from the scientific community warning that coal will kill us and we need to quit using it now–or last year, if we could only do that.  Some of these folks, such as James Hanson and James Lovelock, are of the opinion that nuclear power is, in fact, part of the proper response to climate change and petroleum depletion,  but I think they are wrong and will tell you why in a moment or two.  For now, let’s consider the oxymoron of “clean coal.”

Whoa, this just in:  Lovelock now admits that “nuclear power is not a cure for climate change.”

The shibboleth of “clean coal” should have been washed away with the wave of coal ash slurry that flooded a rural Kingston, Tennessee  neighborhood before finding its way into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.  This river system, in the heart of America, is now poisoned with–tada!:  arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium.  Ironically, one reason this sludge is so toxic is because of environmental regulations and new technologies that keep TVA from blowing the stuff out their smokestacks and polluting the air with it…so, instead, it gets concentrated and pollutes the ground.  Not exactly what was intended, eh?

Dr. Carol Babyak, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Appalachian State University, who helped analyze  samples of the polluted area, said “I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters.”    Dr. Shea Tuberty, who worked with her on the project, estimated that  it would take “generations” for the water to return to nontoxic levels.

Hey,  all the local residents have to do is avoid local spring  and well water (since the spilled effluent has also soaked into the water table), not eat any fish that survive the poisoning of their environment, wash well after swimming in the river, and not breathe in any dust that gets blown up when the sludge dries out…for generations.  Simple, huh?

And, let’s not forget, this sludge spill is not staying put.  It’s working its way down the Tennessee River, and will eventually affect the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.  But hey, the area where the Mississippi enters the Gulf is already a “dead zone” anyway, so some actual poison mixed into the oxygen-deprived water won’t hurt anything, will it?

This spill happened because a spell of heavy rain soaked an earthen dam and made it unstable.  Who could imagine such a thing happening in Tennessee?  Who could imagine that a bunch of “terrorists” (or whoever they were) would fly an airplane into a building?  Who could imagine that there would be no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq?  Who could imagine that a major hurricane would slam into New Orleans and breach the levees?   Who could imagine that the Ponzi scheme of financing the U.S. economy on credit would ever have a rough encounter with reality and pop like a balloon hitting a hot stove?

The same crew of folks who couldn’t imagine this string of disasters and falsehoods do believe that, some day soon, “carbon capture” technology will be perfected that will enable us to suck up all the CO2 that is currently coming out of industrial smokestacks and “sequester” it it, like a Guantanamo prisoner, someplace where it will never be free again.  Let’s look at what that would really take.

Here’s a visual aid:  if you filled a balloon with one ton of carbon dioxide, the balloon would take up an area about ten yards wide, twenty-five yards long, and six feet high.  That’s about one-tenth of a football field.  Twenty tons of CO2 would cover a football field twelve feet deep.   A football field (without the end zones) has an area of about nine-tenths of an acre.  Now, picture five hundred million football fields.  That’s four hundred and fifty million acres, or abut seven hundred thousand square miles. That’s about the area between Chicago, New Orleans, and the east coast of the US, covered twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons..  That’s how much carbon we’d need to capture every year to keep any more CO2 from getting into the atmosphere and warming the planet into the danger zone, at our current worldwide level of carbon emissions.  Do I have to say that there isn’t that much room underground?  It’s a small planet, and the caves all leak!

In case you’re wondering, about a fifth of the CO2 comes from the US, and another fifth from China.  That means around forty percent of global carbon emission happens to supply the US market.  Not bad for being such a small percentage of the world’s population, folks!

Another way to look at this is that the average CO2 emission per household in the US is sixty-one tons, enough to cover three football fields twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons.  Who would have ever thought that we would need to capture that much CO2 to keep from roasting the planet?

I haven’t even touched on mining issues here.  “Mountaintop removal” is a whole other story–but I will mention that the well-heeled and well-connected environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council took a group of executives from the Bank of America on a tour of Appalachian strip mines, and what the execs saw shook them up so badly that they decided not to loan any more money for such projects.  Even an old cynic like me finds that encouraging.  I just wish it had happened a few decades ago.

As for nuclear power–first of all, the people who can’t even keep an ash pond from leaking are asking us to trust them with something far more toxic than coal ash.  It may be possible to make the actual production of nuclear power safe–after all, it’s been twenty years since Chernobyl–but there are other technical, financial, and social reasons to just walk away from nuclear power.

Technically, the continued extraction of uranium is a health risk wherever it happens, which is, all too frequently, on the land of native people whose bodies and homeland are poisoned in the course of the extraction. Furthermore, we will likely be facing “peak uranium” in the next few decades.  The price of uranium has increased by a factor of five in the last decade.

Financially, nuclear power is a very slow and expensive way to produce electricity.  Even with a so-called “streamlined” approval process, which allows developers to use a bulldozer to overcome any objections to their plans, it takes a decade and fourteen billion dollars to build a new nuclear plant. TVA wants to do just that in Bellefonte,  Alabama.  Fourteen billion…hey, that’s chump change compared to what Congress is throwing at the banks…what’s the problem?

That’s fourteen billion dollars that won’t go into conservation, demand reduction, and decentralized power production, just like all those trillions the big banks are swallowing up is trillions that won’t be available to recreate a saner America.  It’s too late to stop the bank giveaway, but The Solar Valley Coalition is running a contest called “How Would You Spend Fourteen Billion Dollars?” and I bet they’ll get some very good answers. It’s not too late to enter, if you’re interested in making a contribution.  And hey, you might help talk TVA out of building a new nuke plant.  If Bank of America can get talked out of funding strip mining, anything is possible, huh?

The last objection I have to nuclear power is what I would call “the sociology” of nuclear energy as a power source.  It is a highly centralized system.  The center, the power company, is of necessity a huge entity, supplying electricity to individuals, businesses, and industries, who all depend on it and are helpless without it.  This is the model that has gotten us into the mess we are in, and it is the model that must be abandoned if we are to get out of that mess and into a saner future. I believe we need to become a society of interdependent equals if we are going to evolve as a species.  This may sound mystical, but it boils down to the fact that we are not going to make it as a species unless each of us is smart enough to take responsibility for him or herself.

And speaking of taking responsibility for ourselves…it’s easy to sit here and wax indignant about all the messes TVA has made and wants to continue making, but we have to remember that, by using their services, we are all complicit in the pollution and destruction that pangs our consciences so deeply.  We need to take what steps we can to unplug from this system–some of us can put up solar panels and pull out of the grid or sell energy back to it, but all of us can find ways to use less electricity.  The Solar Valley Coalition’s contest will undoubtedly show that it would not be difficult to save more energy than the proposed new reactor would generate.  Saving that electricity will take–not a one decision by the directors of TVA, but thousands of decisions all over Tennessee.  Each of us is small, but when we move together, the earth shifts–and it’s shifting time, people.  Let’s roll….

music:  Brother Martin and the Intangibles, “Terrorists in the Heartland”


10 04 2008

A worker at a steel mill in India.India’s electricity appetite is exploding. A worker at a steel mill in India. (Credit: Scott Eells for The New York Times)

The troubling tension between propelling prosperity and limiting climate risks in a world still wedded to fossil fuels is on full display this week. India’s Tata Power group just gained important financial backing from the International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank, for its planned $4 billion, 4-billion watt “Ultra Mega” coal-burning power plant complex in Gujarat state.


silk purses from sows’ ears?

New plastics dervied from CO2 emissions could fight global warming
April 10, 2008

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Efforts to slow global warming by “scrubbing” carbon dioxide smokestack emissions could generate a material for the production of DVDs, beverage bottles and other products made from polycarbonate plastics, say chemists speaking at the 235th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Dr. Thomas E. Müller and Dr. Toshiyasu Sakakura said that polycarbonate plastics made from CO2 could be cheaper, greener, and safer that conventional plastics.

“Carbon dioxide is so readily available, especially from the smokestack of industries that burn coal and other fossil fuels,” said Müller. “And it’s a very cheap starting material. If we can replace more expensive starting materials with CO2, then you’ll have an economic driving force.”

Sakakura, of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Japan, said that CO2 could be used as a feedstock to change carbonates and urethanes into plastics and battery components.

Müller said that polycarbonate products — which could include eyeglass lenses, DVDs and CDs, and beverage bottles, among others — have great potential for removing million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Using CO2 to create polycarbonates might not solve the total carbon dioxide problem, but it could be a significant contribution,” he said, adding that polycarbonates derived from CO2 emissions could reach the market within a “few years.”


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