13 05 2020

Depending on who you’re reading and your own viewpoint, “Planet of the Humans,” the new movie from Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, is either a bomb or a bombshell.  Numerous prominent, well-respected climate activists have characterized the film as “BS” and called for it to be removed from circulation, saying  the film contains

“various distortions, half-truths and lies” and that the filmmakers “have done a grave disservice to us and the planet by promoting climate change inactivist tropes and talking points.”

Others, such as Richard Heinberg, offer a more nuanced view of the film, writing that it doesn’t always do justice to its subject, a critique of our response to the climate change we have provoked, but that, while

Planet of the Humans is not the last word on our human predicament. Still, it starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

So far, over seven and a half million people have seen it since it debuted on YouTube on the day before Earth Day, and it is, indeed, starting some conversations. I had an overall positive response to it, and have been surprised at how many, and who, among my friends have not shared my appreciation. This post/broadcast will be devoted to why I think it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about how, or perhaps whether, we are going to keep the planet’s climate within bounds that will allow human beings to be part of its ecosystem, along with my criticisms of it, and my response to others’ criticisms of it. Read the rest of this entry »


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


12 03 2010

It’s been a rough winter for public perception of climate change, with record snowfalls slamming the mid-Atlantic U.S., Europe, and central Asia.  On the political front, there has been a vast hullabaloo over “Climategate,” our dear President did everything he could to sink the Copenhagen negotiations but spin it like he saved them, Congress is trying to keep the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide, and even some radicals, watching the corporate sector do what comes (un)naturally and attempt to position themselves to take advantage of climate change, have joined with the right in dismissing the whole thing as a neoliberal plot.

But nature doesn’t care what we deny, spin, or, for the most part, legislate.  Nature just does what she does, influenced by our actions, but not by our words or thoughts.  One of pur actions has been to dig and suck billions of tons of buried carbon out of the coal and oil deposits where it was sequestered, and burn it, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it is changing the rates at which our planet reflects or absorbs solar radiation, aka, heat.  Another of our actions has been to strip the trees from vast portions of the planet’s land masses, lessening the planet’s ability to reabsorb the carbon dioxide we have turned loose.   The oceans, on the other hand, have kept on absorbing carbon dioxide, which has had the effect of making them more acidic and less oxygenated, threatening to obliterate the oceanic web of life which produces most of the oxygen that makes lifeforms like us possible on this planet.

Another thing the oceans are absorbing is heat.  We see this most dramatically in the Arctic, where the likely date of an ice-free summer keeps getting advanced, and in the Antarctic, where vast ice shelves that have been in place for thousands of years are breaking loose, but the ocean is also warming up around the equator of the planet, and that’s where we get back to the link between global warming and the long, cold, winter from which we are finally emerging.

The planet is in the grip of an “El Nino event.”  This means that the Equatorial Pacific Ocean is much warmer than normal–in fact, its temperature is now at a near-record high level.  A warmer ocean evaporates more water than a cooler one, and this increase in atmospheric moisture results in…more precipitation when the moisture, or “clouds,” as we call it, makes landfall and starts to cool.  If the landmass underneath it is cool enough, the precipitation of this evaporated moisture descends in solid form and we call it “snow” or “ice.” If the landmass is warmer, then, of course, we call it “rain.”

I hope I’m not being too…umm… “elementary” for you!

And it doesn’t have to be super cold to result in snow.  Here in Nashville, although the winter was cold and snowy, temperatures barely dipped into single digits Farenheit, a point conveniently ignored by global warming deniers, most of whom are old enough to remember when temperatures here in middle Tennessee routinely went below zero during the winter, sometimes for extended periods.  And the Vancouver Winter Olympics were plagued by warmer than normal weather, the warmest winter in at least a hundred years, they said, but you won’t hear the deniers talking about that, either.

The essence here is that what we are in for is not some simple, linear warming trend, but rather a complex period of instability and unpredictability.  Many Americans, it seems, have a low tolerance for unpredictability and complexity, coupled with a strong tendency to believe they are entitled to a high comfort level, regardless of its effect on the environment.  The shortest relatively polite description of that attitude is stupid, greedy, and complacent.”  Living on this planet as it changes is going to call for increased resiliency, flexibility, and intelligence.  Stupidity, greed and complacency are a “three strikes, you’re out” combination….and I believe it’s Nature’s turn to bat…..

music:  Jennifer Berezan–land of the hungry ghost

Buffy St. Marie —America


28 01 2008

The good grey Times tells us that we can do more to reduce global warming by becoming vegetarian (or at least cutting down on meat) than we can by buying a hybrid automobile.  Aw shucks, most people would rather have the Prius than give up the steaks….

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

They also point out that the meat industry contributes more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the transportation sector.  Would you like fries with that?


26 01 2008

from the Christian Science Monitor:

Can Europe cut carbon without cutting growth?

Radical goals for 2020 boost renewable energy and cut emissions sharply.

Europe unveiled a “road map” to a low-carbon future Wednesday – one of the most radical packages the European Union has ever produced – in an effort to position the bloc at the vanguard of global efforts on climate change.

A clump of legislative proposals and directives provided for steep increases in wind and solar power, improved energy efficiency, and higher costs for polluters to meet a challenge outlined last year and dubbed “triple 20.”

The aim is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent, boost renewable energy to 20 percent of supply, and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent – all by 2020.

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