Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cicero and the Summer of 45

"Happiness, Cicero said, is not dependent on things that pleasure the body, but on pleasures of the mind."

The philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and was likely the most influential philosopher in ancient times but met his demise by getting too intimate with the politics of the period. He lived during the last days of the Roman Republic, in the latter half of the century before Christ. It was a time of power struggles, civil wars and the ascent and fall of Julius Caesar. 

Following Caesar’s death, Cicero became an enemy of Mark Antony and made the mistake of attacking the new Emperor in a series of speeches. His 54-year-old severed head was hung in the Roman Forum. 

Of Cicero’s books, six on rhetoric have survived, as well as parts of eight on philosophy. Of his speeches, 88 were recorded and 58 survive.

Among the surviving is Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (“On the ends of good and evil”).
That was really a quintology — 5 books — written over the course of about 6 weeks in the Summer of 45 (BC). Published 7 months before the assassination of Caesar, Cicero dedicated it to Brutus.
Cicero wanted to know, what is pleasure, what is good — what motivates us? Why are we here? What constitutes a good life? Using Socratic dialog, he attacked the hedonistic definition of pleasure and moved on to Stoicism and the proposition that by moral conduct humans can choose to live good lives. Cicero doubts the notion of moral human as the natural state, and rejects Stoical exclusion of other creature pleasures. In this Cicero prefigures what we are only now being told by neurobiologists about our meta-programmed predilections.

In the last book, Cicero describes what for him would seem a perfectly happy life, which includes both pursuit of virtue and external goods. At the end of the book, Cicero critiques the logical inconsistencies of his own conclusions, but not the broader principles, and says that while he has reservations, he designs his own life around these prescriptions.

Coming from challenging times filled with political intrigues, outright civil wars, assassinations, coups d’état and the cruelest of military empires, Cicero knew that humans are nasty pieces of work and that social order always hangs by a tenuous thread. What creates happiness is neither “busy pleasures which dally with our senses” nor “the fulsome satisfactions of eating, drinking and venery,” “like baboons and swines.” Even the absence of pain is not enough to create happiness, although it helps. Happiness, he said, is not dependent on things that pleasure the body, but on pleasures of the mind.

Among the aphorisms found in De finibus are:
  • All things start from small beginnings.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum.
  • No one wishes pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure some greater good.
  • ’Tis an excess of pleasure not to feel a trifle uneasy.
If increasing average national happiness is the goal of advanced capitalist societies and economies, then something seems to have gone awry. Whilst high income economies may have largely failed to date to decouple their economic growth from the most important measures of ecological footprint and impact, they have had more unwitting success in decoupling it from increasing the happiness of their populations. Various studies using both cross-national and within-country longitudinal data indicate that the correlation between happiness and per capita income or GDP seems to become weak or even disappear, at a level past about US $10,000 per year.
For the past two centuries as a fossil-fueled technological revolution rocketed industrial productivity, neither leisure time nor security of food, health and shelter increased for the broad masses of humanity. Instead of translating productivity gains into affluence for the many, including ecological health, growing and globalized population kept downward pressure on wages and job availability —bringing about the socially accepted meme of casino economies and affluence for the few. For the few, this created previously unimagined wealth. For the many, it augured diminished expectations for succeeding generations.
We are in a bind that can no longer be moderated by changing to or from a gold standard, or cryptocurrency, or using complicated debt stimulus. Production and consumption are equal evils. As we peer over the edge of the cliff we are about to dive from, we keep hearing ideas about steady state economies, circular economies, gift economies and the like. Some of these pay more attention to biophysical constraints than previous economic models did. But do they pencil out in the social sphere? Can they stick as memes? Is there enough time left to matter?

Cicero agreed with Aristotle that humans are a kind of moral diety, and fulfillment in life comes from meeting the ends “whereunto he is born, (through) observation and action, as a horse to racing, or an ox to ploughing….” (translation by Jeremy Collier)

Eleven years ago, in The Post-Petroleum Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, we began our now-seemingly relentless theme:

The principal challenge of the Great Change is not physical but mental (as it is in any survival situation). Collectively, societies that are heavily addicted to consumer goods and the pattern of waste that a consumer culture creates will have to struggle to adjust to a new normal. It will not be optional and neither money nor social position will allow you to escape.

The easy path is to downsize expectations and simplify your lifestyle. This path requires giving up certain ways of looking at the world in order to embrace other, more survival-oriented ways. The hard path is to try not to make this change, to somehow cling to the old ways as long as possible, which will entail huge — I would say cruel — efforts for diminishing yields.

The prosperous way down, to borrow Howard and Elisabeth Odum’s term, is not necessarily about working shorter hours and earning less, although that may become part of it. It is about making your daily activities something you control, rather than something that controls you. 

Carl Honoré, a spokesperson for the Slow movement, suggested some painless ways to slow down that will fit any budget:
  • Walking instead of driving
  • Giving children more free time
  • Reading instead of watching television
  • Eating home-cooked meals with family and friends
  • Taking up relaxing hobbies such as painting, gardening, or knitting
  • Practicing yoga, tai chi, or meditation
  • Unplugging from technology
  • Indulging in leisurely love-making
  • Simply resisting the urge to hurry unnecessarily
The presence of the clock gave birth to the notion that time lies outside our bodies — that it can be tracked by a machine, and that we can sit and watch it “fly” by, tick-tock, as though it is something linear, containable, and separate from the organic, flowing process of life.
— Jose Arguelles, 2005

You can go rent a good surfer movie like Waveriders, Blue Crush or Step into Liquid and it lays out a sensibility of timelessness. When the waves aren’t running high enough, hard core surfers work, building boards or flipping burritos. Otherwise, “productivity” is measured by how close one can come to a perfect ride.

The opposite of growth is not contraction (except for population and resource extractions, which have to fall back to within natural limits). The opposite is a more graceful steady-state. That requires a shift from the material world to the real sources of happiness and fulfillment as humans. These are things surfers have already discovered.

Could it really be as simple as this? That to escape the bust that follows the boom, we only have to stop fighting it and enjoy living with less? Many who have gone that route say they would not go back. Substantial working time reduction in a way that successfully reconciles environmental and well-being goals — already brought about by simple policy changes in Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium — can and does work.

We know from observations over millennia that population expansions are paused but not arrested by the four horsemen. The only proven way to change fertility rates and have that stick is by improving the quality of life for women, small children, and the elderly, through social mores, and not by any other means. Running in a squirrel’s cage after infinite growth is folly.

In Metamorphosis, the Roman poet Ovid, born nine months before Cicero’s murder, retold the Greek’s story of Icarus who took flight on wax wings made by his father, Daedalus. When Icarus ignores his father’s warning not to fly too high, the sun melts the wax, and Icarus falls into the water and drowns. Like Icarus, our parents fashioned wings from fossil fuels and a few among them even warned us not to fly too high, lest we upset the thin atmosphere that shields us from the sun.

We don’t like limits. Ice Age after ice age, hominid populations have risen and fallen. Our cycles of expansion and contraction always wound up advancing civilization in the end. The latest expansion, propelled to untenable excess by draining deep reservoirs of soil carbon and deeper hydrocarbons, came with an expiration date. And yet we pile clever debt instruments upon even more clever debt instruments and build our globalized economy in the same way one builds a snowman — by rolling around balls of wet snow.

What happened to Icarus is the same as is happening to us, or to the snowman: the sun. It doesn’t need to be this way. We simply have to learn to relax.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mount Pleasant

"The problem is not our understanding of the science or the efficacy of our potential solutions. The problem is human willingness to do the right thing before its too late."

  We first latched onto the notion of catastrophic climate change back around 1980 when we were a young attorney taking quixotic cases involving impossible-to-rectify injustices like cancers among atomic veterans, trespass of sacred sites or nuclear waste disposal, and shoving those insults under the noses of attorneys-general, judges and justices to try to get a reaction.

Occasionally we would finesse a surprising win and that helped attract donations to keep the enterprise running and the entertainment value high, attracting more donors, and so it went.

One such case was against the deepwell injection of toxic effluent from the manufacture of pesticides and herbicides by agrochemical companies in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. The effluent in question had been extracted from an aquifer and tested by State laboratories where was quickly ranked as the most concentrated poison they had ever pulled from the wild. A single green fluorescent drop killed all the fish in the tank. There were 6 billion gallons injected under Middle Tennessee from 1967 to 1980. It made Love Canal look like the kiddie pool.

As we mustered our arguments to go before state regulators and appellate judges, we were compelled to counter some rather absurd arguments being advanced by the mop-up squads of high-priced attorneys for the companies. They said, “Heckfire, Tennessee has plenty of water,” meaning there was no good reason to protect the nonpotable (mineral-rich) waters of the Knox Aquifer a mile down.

Apart from the fact that the Knox is an artesian source of water for area industries and thereby already protected from “contaminants” whether toxic or not by the federal Safe Drinking Water act, we advanced two principal lines of argument, bringing in expert witnesses and entering scientific studies into the record.

Our first line was population growth. Tennessee was growing and what may seem like a lot of water in 1980 may not be nearly enough in 2080. The second line was climate change.

We argued that global warming was advancing, just as scientists had been consistently predicting for the past hundred or more years, and that it would put pressure on water supplies not just in Tennessee, but across the continent.

At that time science suggested warming in the 20th century of about half a degree Celsius. Those were the good old days. Nonetheless, persuading a country judge that global warming was real and something to be concerned about was no mean feat.

We had to pull out the big guns. We went to our local congressman and got his assistance to troll the federal agencies for useful studies. We holed up in Vanderbilt science library poring over journals and books on climatology. We spoke to some key figures in the field at that time — Stephen Schneider, Susan Solomon, Kerry Emanuel, Edward A. Martell, Mario Molina — and we assembled that advice into legal briefs and memoranda.

All in all, we scared the bejesus out of ourselves.

The case lingered on for a number of years but by 1985 had been largely resolved by gutsy State regulators, who wrote new rules that essentially prohibited hydrofracking. The companies shut down the injection wells, closed their factories soon after (the phosphate ores that had attracted them in the first place having long since played out and the costs of hauling in by train making the location uneconomical) and moved on. The litigation cost meter ceased running and the death threats stopped. But we were still beset by unshakable malaise.

We had seen the future, and it was different than we had previously imagined. It was not our father’s future.

The materials gathered over the course of ten years were published in our book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do. The book came out on the heels of two other fine 1989 books that said essentially the same thing: Stephen Schneider’s Global Warming and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, all to resounding popular disinterest.

Fast forward a quarter century and we were still very much in a funk about what the future holds. When our granddaughter was born in 2005 we felt very sad for her.

We were still tracking the literature, still going to conferences, still speaking with experts, but until the International Permaculture Conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil in June, 2007 we had not found much to call hope.


It was at the Ecocentro do Cerrado that year that we caught a first fleeting glimpse. Andre Soares and his partners were conducting experiments in recreating terra preta do indio – the Amazonian Dark Earths. They were, not coincidentally, massively sequestering carbon while growing wholesome food.

Just over a year later, in September 2008, the Permaculture International Journal sent us to Newcastle, England to report on "Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate,” the 2d International Conference of the International Biochar Initiative, with over 225 attendees from 31 different countries and over 70 presentations. That, and some intervening trips back to Brazil to visit the archaeological sites near Manaus, provided the source material for our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change.

For those readers who might be new to biochar, the Virgin Energy Challenge offers this quick synopsis:

Biochar is a relatively low-tech approach inspired by the terra preta soils found in the Amazon basin. These black, fertile soils were created in pre-Columbian times by indigenous farming cultures. They mixed wood char, crushed bone, and manure into the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil to build crop beds. The wood char, though not a fertilizer per se, served to buffer nutrients from the bone meal and manure. It apparently served as a soil analog of a coral reef. Its porous structure and nutrient buffering surface area created a favorable microenvironment for communities of soil fungi and other organisms that aided soil fertility.

Terra preta soils, once well established, appear to be self-sustaining. So long as crop cover protects them from wind and water erosion, they maintain their high level of soil carbon and productivity long after additions of the materials that built them have stopped. In fact they gradually increase in depth as new material composts. In the Amazon basin, thick terra preta soil beds built as far back as 450 BCE remain productive and highly valued by local farmers to this day.

Terra preta soils were initially thought to be peculiar to the warm, wet environment of the Amazon basin. Research has shown, however, that similar results can be obtained in temperate regions by amending soils with formulations of biochar and other ingredients tailored to local soil and crop conditions. The amount of carbon that can potentially be stored in this manner is huge; the amount currently stored as soil carbon has been estimated as 2,300 GT, nearly three times the 800 GT of carbon now present in the atmosphere. If soil carbon could be increased globally by an average of just 10%, it would sequester enough carbon to return atmospheric CO₂ to pre-industrial levels.

The issue with biochar then is not the amount of carbon it could ultimately sequester in the soil; it’s (surprise!) economics. There’s little doubt that a well designed program of soil building, incorporating use of biochar as an element, would be an effective way to sequester carbon while providing long term economic value to farmers. It would boost crop yields while reducing the amount of fertilizer needed. It would also reduce water runoff and nutrient leaching while improving drought resistance. On the other hand, biochar is costly to produce and distribute in the amounts needed, and it may take decades for the considerable investment in soil quality to pay off financially.

The key to success for biochar will come down to technology for producing it from local resources, and dissemination of knowledge for how to employ in in a broader program of soil building. A sense of the complexities can be found in a document from the International Biochar Initiative: Guidelines on Practical Aspects of Biochar Application to Field Soil in Various Soil Management Systems. The three VEC finalists developing biochar display the diversity of product and business strategies possible for addressing these complexities.

There are a few errors in that account, but they are trifling. Biochar is not a “relatively low-tech” approach, it is about as low-tech as you can get. Some Amazonian deposits, similar to those “as far back as 450 BCE,” are ten times older than that. Most estimates put soil carbon at 2500-2700 PgC, not 2300 PgC. You don’t need to increase carbon content to 10 percent globally, 5 percent would probably do it, but remember: we were at 20-plus % soil carbon before the age of agriculture and most soils are hungry to get that back. Building it back with biochar makes a more permanent repair, not just moving the furniture around, as other Virgin Challenge competitors — BECCS (Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage), direct air capture and holistic grazing — do.

Biochar gave us hope, but it did not, in and of itself, solve the climate crisis.  We asked that question at the close of our book — “Can it scale quickly enough?” The answer, from what we have seen at the recent UN climate conferences and the lack of early adoption as the dominant farming paradigm, is — “Probably not.”

The rapid rise of global temperature that began about 1975 continues at a mean rate of about 0.18°C/decade, with the current annual temperature exceeding +1.25°C relative to 1880-1920 and +1.9°C relative to 1780-1880. Dampening effects by the deep oceans and polar ice slow the effects of this change but global temperature has now crossed the mean range of the prior interglacial (Eemian) period, when sea level was several meters above present. The longer temperature remains elevated the more amplifying feedbacks will lead to significantly greater consequences.

While global anthropogenic emissions actually declined in the past decade, there is a lag time for consequences. The rate of climate forcing due to previous human-caused greenhouse gases increased over 20% in the past decade, mainly due to a surge in methane, making it increasingly difficult to achieve targets such as limiting global warming to 1.5°C or reducing atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. While a rapid phasedown of fossil fuel emissions must still be accomplished, the Paris Agreement targets now require “negative emissions”, i.e.: extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. We, the two legged hairless apes, are still digging.

In a recent Soil Day paper presented to the American Geophysical Society and the Society for Ecological Restoration, Harvard professor Thomas Goreau wrote:

“Already we have overshot the safe level of CO2 for current temperature and sea level by about 40%, and CO2 needs to be reduced rapidly from today’s dangerous levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) to pre-industrial levels of around 260 ppm.”

Goreau, citing the work of John D. Liu and ourselves, provided his prescriptions:

"Current rates of carbon farming at typical current levels would take thousands of years to draw down the dangerous excess CO2, but state of the art methods of soil carbon sequestration could draw it down in as little as decades if the percentage of long lived carbon is raised to as little as about 10%."

Here we note that Dr. Goreau’s arithmetic is much better than the 4 pour 1000 or Holistic Management calculations we criticized last week. Goreau has distinguished labile carbon from “long lived carbon” and not limited land area just to existing farms. He advocates 10 percent rather than 4 tenths of a percent. He continues:

While all soils can, and must, be managed to greatly increase soil carbon there are two critical soil leverage points that will be the most effective to reverse global climate change, namely increasing the two most carbon-rich soils of all, Terra Preta, and wetlands. These are the most effective carbon sinks for very different reasons, Terra Preta because it is 10-50% carbon by weight, composed of biochar, which can last millions of years in the soil. Wetland soils can be up to pure organic matter, because lack of oxygen prevents organic matter decomposition. Wetlands contain half of all soil carbon, and half of that is in marine wetlands, which occupy only about 1% of the Earth’s surface but deposit about half of all the organic matter in the entire ocean. Yet they are often ignored in both terrestrial and marine carbon accounting. Marine wetland soils have more carbon than the atmosphere, but are being rapidly destroyed in the misguided name of “economic development.”

Biochar is what soil scientists call “recalcitrant carbon,” meaning that it does not readily combine with other elements unless high temperature heat or some other catalyst is present. Consequently, as much carbon as can be gleaned from the normal “labile” carbon cycle and turned into recalcitrant carbon can be kept from the atmosphere. We know from the experience of the terra preta soils that it doesn’t just stay out of the atmosphere for a few seasons, it traps carbon in the soils for thousands of years.

Switching to renewable energy will not arrest climate change. None of the schemes that involve planting trees can succeed unless they also include biochar. None of the claims of Allan Savory, Joel Salatin or the Holistic Management movement for mob grazing, or any of the claims related to organic, no-till, animal-drawn carbon farming by Eric Toensmeier, Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva and others pencil out to reverse climate change unless you include biochar. Even then, the area required for biochar-augmented conversion of land-use, farming and forestry is massive — something like 7-10 Spains per year, and maybe more. Anything less than that and the ship goes down.

When we first grasped this in Brazil in August 2006, it provided our first “ah ha!” moment. But then we concluded it likely can’t scale fast enough, by gradual adoption through word of mouth or a few good books, to prevent Near Term Human Extinction. In October 2007 we called that our "Houston Moment," not in the sense that "Houston we have a problem" but because we were in Houston at an ASPO meeting when it dawned on us — it may already be blown. The death sentence for our species — in the next century if not this one — could have been handed down even before we were born.

The problem is not the science or the efficacy of the solution. The problem is human willingness to change. There also seems to be something called profit that always complicates matters. We will tackle that, and offer some possible ways forward, in our coming posts.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Orphaned Solution

"By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. "

   Let's summarize: so here we stand. The ocean is going out, the fish are flopping in the sand. Do we stay and scoop them up or do we run for the hills?

If the problem we have is too much carbon in the sky (and conversely too little in the ground), then the solution is to deprive the sky while feeding the ground.

And yet, for much of the climate change policy community, biochar is still not on their radar. It’s too new. 

In 2011 a Duke University study by the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases reviewed the research literature to assess the state of knowledge on the mitigation potential of a wide range of agricultural land management activities. They reported:

Out of 42 practices reviewed, 26 seem to have positive mitigation potential. Eleven of those were supported by significant research (more than 20 field or lab comparisons), 13 by a moderate level of research, and two, while promising, have little research.

Despite an 8000-year track record of adding and holding carbon in soils, biochar was among those last two. The other was mob grazing through Holistic Management.

Eric Toensmeier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution, which is otherwise excellent, falls into this trap, falsely labeling biochar untested and potentially dangerous.

He may draw this conclusion from two seriously flawed (not to say insidiously undermined) studies by the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. Both of those studies lumped biochar under the heading of geoengineering and then assigned it to the same dumpster as all the other already debunked carbon capture schemes without bothering to speak with any actual biochar scholars.

For the geoengineering techno-utopians, methods of atmospheric carbon extraction such as BECCS, air capture of CO2 or limestone salting imply estimated costs of 100 to >570 trillion dollars to deploy, and entail large risks with uncertain feasibility and duration. Among the uncertainties is our ability to muster sufficient political consent to impose expensive taxes and tariffs on carbon emissions in order to justify the economic burden of these efforts. When faced with dire economic environments, the public may simply choose to disregard moral duties towards future generations.

Biochar, in contrast, requires no tax subsidies (although that would accelerate the needed conversion) because it provides enough financial rewards as a renewable energy source and biofertilizer to justify the cost of making it from various woody wastes, most of which are burned away. It is easy to verify — just do annual or decadal soil tests — and easy to perform life-cycle costing because it has been commercially available for many years.

Reframing Biochar

When we use terms like “carbon-minus” or “carbon-negative” we set off associations that immediately cause the majority of us to back away, or to regard the information as detrimental to us in some way. Last week we spoke of the important work on cognition provided by Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics.

Just as an aside, one of Korzybski workshops, in the Autumn of 1939, was attended by a 25-year-old William S. Burroughs and the 36-year-old Samuel I. Hayakawa.  Hayakawa, the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, went on to become president of San Francisco State College (where, among the students he trained, was Stephen Gaskin) and a US Senator for California (1977-83) where he had untold influence on the seductive rhetorical practices of silver-screen-idol-turned politician Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party he led, later catalogued by George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

We know that words that seem threatening, such as those that imply, hard conditions, forced austerity, higher taxes and so on, trigger a denial reflex in the human brain, one which was not possessed by our mammalian ancestors but which is important to our genetic survival. Once we realized that not only is it our karma to kill to live (right down to the billion of helpless microbes in every teaspoon of tofu), but each of our fates to suffer and die, we would go raving nuts were it not for the saving grace of the denial reflex.

So what should we use instead of carbon-minus? We like “cool.”

Cool soothes the brain and chills the endorphins that might cause denial impulses to form. Cool is chill. We are more relaxed, more receptive.

An example of "cool" branding was provided by the pilot Carbon Minus Project in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The Hozu rural farmers' cooperative, concerned about the overgrowth of bamboo that was destroying satoyama (managed forest commons) began producing bamboo biochar to amend their soils. Using a "Cool Vege" brand to denote the benefit of carbon sequestration, the university assisted cooperative demonstrated impressive success in marketing their produce to climate-conscious consumers.

Nothing stands in the way of the "cool" brand being extended to any product or service that reverses climate change. It is a sticky meme.

4 pour 1000

There are other reasons that good solutions may not get traction that have less to do with our fight or flight reflex. At COP-21 in Paris in 2015 the French government backed an initiative called 4 pour 1000. France had obtained pledges from over 25 countries – and would bring that number to 50 during COP-21 – as well as hundreds of food, agriculture and research organizations.

The "4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate" was a voluntary effort launched through the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.

"The conclusion is simple," said French Foreign Minister Le Foll. "If we can store the equivalent of 4 per 1000 (tons of carbon) in farmland soils, we are capable of storing all man-made emissions on the planet today."

"This is the most exciting news to come out of COP-21," said Andre Leu, president of IFOAM - Organics International. "By launching this initiative, the French government has validated the work of scientists, farmers and ranchers who have demonstrated the power of organic regenerative agriculture to restore the soil's natural ability to draw down and sequester carbon." It positions farmers as the pioneering climate heroes of the next generation.

But then what happened? At COP-22, France still featured 4 pour 1000 in its literature and displays, but it had attracted few new adherents or pledges in the year since Paris. There were no real success stories to point to, no carbon fields waving in the sunlight. Just hot air.

Food writer Michael Pollan, in a Washington Post Op-Ed during the Paris summit, wrote:

Marin County ranchers have found that applying a single layer of compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in the soil - more than 1.5 tons per acre. And research has shown that this happens not just once, but year after year.

If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, roughly equal to all the CO2 emitted by the State's electric utilities each year. Adding an inch of compost to all the rangelands each year would sequester as much as electric utilities, residential and commercial emissions combined.

What is left out of that calculation are the big gorillas in California's emissions picture: the industrial sector (77 million metric tons) and transportation, most notably the freeway system (200 million metric tons). California would need to convert its deserts to rangelands to get that much carbon locked away every year.

That is really the problem with 4 pour 1000: the math doesn’t pencil out. Le Foll’s goal of adding 0.4 percent carbon to just existing farmlands will not revert the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial harmony. Spreading an inch of compost, as Michael Pollan suggests, won’t do it either.

While compost stimulates soil organisms and that moves carbon down from the surface into the root zone for longer sequestrations, most compost decomposes closer to the surface and emits greenhouse gases in the process. That is just the labile carbon cycle, get used to it.

Holistic Management

There is also this problem in Allan Savory’s chemistry. When those advocating Holistic Management, after the fashion of the Savory Institute and others, claim that they can build deep carbon in soils by mob grazing on rotational pastureland, they are speaking of labile carbon. Labile carbon never stops going around. More ominously, climate warming accelerates soil outgassing. One of the standard nightmare scenarios that could even be playing out as we write this involves long-stored labile carbon in swamps, peat bogs, grassy plains and permafrost that may be liberated in one enormous carbon pulse that sends Earth's atmosphere to something akin to that of Venus in a very short time.

Personally we love compost, dung beetles and mob grazing. Compost is the nearest farming gets to a cure-all: it holds the key to recovering dead and damaged soils. It’s cheap and easy, works anywhere, and once it has time to do its magic, any of the common problems of farming and gardening go away. Plants get healthier, animals get stronger, and societies become more secure. Our foods become more abundant, disease-resistant and nutritionally dense.

Compost can be seen as the basic food supply of any garden. It provides a circular economy. It closes the loop between human uses and what gets left afterwards. It supplies the microbial decomposers, re-arrangers and transporters who turn wastes back into resources and deliver them in forms and on schedules that plants need.

But if you are a microbe or a dung beetle, you need more than food. You also need shelter. You need a habitat that helps you survive and encourages you to thrive. And if you are a climate scientist, or just someone concerned with rapid warming of the planet, you are looking for a real solution — something capable of rebalancing the various carbon stores between land, ocean and atmosphere.

And that’s where biochar comes in.

The Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (C-AGG) is a multi-stakeholder coalition whose participants include 150 organizations including agricultural producers and producer groups, scientists, environmental NGO’s, carbon market developers, methodology experts, and investors, and other proponents of voluntary agricultural GHG mitigation opportunities and benefits. According to their website:
Despite the critical and pivotal role the agricultural sector can play in climate change mitigation and adaptation, climate change policies and programs are largely directed at point-source emissions reductions activities and approaches. Agricultural and land use GHG mitigation opportunities pose a different set of challenges that require different approaches more appropriate to the sector. Diversity and change are inherent characteristics of agricultural systems.
C-AGG attempts to tap the enormous potential for carbon sequestration in soils by
  • Developing appropriate incentives, tools, and decision support systems to scale sustainable agriculture and climate change solutions
  • Achieving agreement on monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) frameworks and metrics to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services
  • Supporting asset value generation for sustainably managed landscapes and development of thriving carbon and ecosystem service markets and results-based payments

Once you begin to measure whether and when what happens in the soil stays in the soil, some conclusions become unavoidable.

The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon up for thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water, which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the nitrogen cycle, another thing that is seriously out of balance but seldom mentioned.

By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely.

And that’s where fake news comes in.

We encountered critics of biochar even before we wrote The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelwatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious and friendly correctives. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational proclamations against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be not merely without merit, but ridiculous.

In our book we discussed the critics' arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits — and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't follow the rules.

But the outlandish claims by Biofuelwatch, repeated loudly and frequently — statements like “No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution,” “soil carbon is not so much determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather by surrounding soil ecosystem properties,” or “pyrolysis is difficult to control and remains largely unproven for commercial application” continue to find traction both in the alternative media and in policy reviews.

These spurious arguments continue to engage a series of very public but false debates. They happen at high profile events and in respected journals but they are false in the sense that those arguing for biochar are using science — laboratory testing, review and re-testing in the real world — while those arguing against are using only polemic, and will not waiver from patently absurd, well-disproven claims even when backed into a corner.

Biofuelwatch’s Rachel Smolker occasionally gets it right, as when she argued:
Forests, soils, ecosystems all are far more than agglomerations of carbon. They are intricate, multidimensional, interconnected, and complex beyond our imaginings and hence beyond our ability to measure, manipulate, and control.

But she is arguing as much against science as against biochar. She is arguing against extending the human ability to measure, manipulate, and control.

In that, she may not be far wrong.

These previous essays have laid out the different dimensions of our problem: a runaway climate threatening near term human extinction; a mode of social organization in conflict with fixed biophysical limits; trusted authorities failing to get it right; confirmation and normalcy bias obscuring our vision; and orphaned solutions sitting it out while the clock ticks. In our next post we will begin to explore a way out of this swamp.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. The next installment, the introduction to Book Two: The Solution, appears next week. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Viral Conspiracies

"Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story?"

When we watch the near-hysteria going on in the United States as the country tries to come to grips with the consequences of its recent choice of government we notice how completely out of touch the usual pundits in print and broadcast journalism have become. Their world has been turned upside down. The tired nostrums that provided a handsome living for them before no longer apply.

Analysis is cheap and abundant. However, done well it takes time, and those now in charge are using that delay to advantage.

Most who try to make sense of the rapid changes we are witnessing fail to appreciate the important work on cognition provided by Gregory Bateson (ecology of mind), Alfred Korzybski (general semantics) and Noam Chomsky (transformational grammar), among others.

The polish-born Korzybski (1879-1950) was a Russian intelligence officer in the First World War. His first book, Manhood of Humanity (1921) set out a new theory of humankind as a "time-binding" class of life (humans perform time binding by the transmission of knowledge and abstractions through time, which are accreted not in pack knowledge, but in cultures). Korzybski suggested that humans are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems and (2) the structure of their languages. Humans cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language). This provided the foundation of general semantics. His best known dictum is "the map is not the territory," meaning that no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain's responses to reality.

In November, 2011, we posted here:
So why don’t more people seek shelter from the coming storm? Why don’t election year debates get real? Two reasons: confirmation bias and normalcy or optimism bias. In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities.
Our fondness towards normalcy and predilection for optimism, both acquired through Darwinian selection, let us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allow us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination, or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software, even if it means, in the case of 9/11, that we must repeal the laws of physics.
You will have noticed a fairly common response when the 9/11 massacre enters a discussion. Smart people will say that they “will not go there”, which brings to mind the “here be dragons” warning on uncharted bits of medieval maps. That response is not stupid. It hints at an understanding that there is no way back once you enter that realm. There is simply no denying that if you accept the essential conclusions of the official 9/11 report you must also concede that laws of nature stopped working on that particular day. And, true enough, if you do go there and bear witness publicly to what you see, you may well be devoured; your career in many government positions, the media and even academia is likely to come to an end.
— Karel van Wolferen, The Unz Review

A recent book on human evolution, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, makes clear our metaprogramed biases are what allow us to carry the knowledge of our own mortality and still take risks like flying in an airplane or crossing the street. We are hard wired to ignore danger if it stands between us and a more immediate goal. As Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, points out, we are likely to think everything will work out with big challenges like a right wing coup d'état, nuclear deterrence or climate change because we are genetically predisposed to assume it will.

Varki and Brower explain that the mechanism within the brain that denies reality works in much the same way the fear suppression module does. When mammals need to fight, they not only deny their own mortality, but also tend to deny anything they find unpleasant and often deny rational logic that conflicts with what their limbic (primitive) brain wants to do. And thus, while we can perform impressive intellectual feats such as visiting the moon, we do so by rapidly depleting non-renewable resources and destroying the habitat we need for survival on Earth.

Every religion has some form of life after death story. Religions can and do tell every conceivable oddity of story but religions do not need a life after death story to unite a group. It might be reasonable for a few random religions to include life after death in their stories, but it is not reasonable that every religion has a life after death story.

— Rob Mielcarski, On Religion and Denial

The genetic justification for religion is that having a false story about life everlasting allowed intelligence to evolve to permit self-awareness, including awareness of one’s own mortality. Our ability to delude ourselves — something we tend to ritually practice on a regular schedule — kept us from going crazy from the kinds of knowledge that our rapidly expanding neocortex opened up to us.

Groups frequently devote all of their surplus wealth to constructing structures to please and communicate with gods in the after life. Pyramids and cathedrals being two of many examples. The … behavior remains strong in modern times because new religions, like Scientology, continue to have life after death stories.
— Mielcarski

This is our truncated version of Rob Mielcarski's outline for our predicament:
  • The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth;
  • The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption;
  • All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity;
  • The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline;
  • The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction;
  • Citizens have wildly different beliefs about our predicament: there is no problem; there is a problem but it’s not caused by humans; I don’t want to think about it; technology will save us; it’s in the hands of God; I’ve already done enough; someone else needs to do something first; my actions won’t make a difference; someone else will consume whatever I give up; it’s too late to do anything;
  • The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump
  • The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter
  • We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil
  • Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: energy extraction cost + debt
  • The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists
  • The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett
  • The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists
  • The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities
  • All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines; natural gas for fertilizer
  • All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)
  • Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars
  • The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet
  • The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news
Recently the activist collective,, used data analysis visualization to look more closely at “Fake News.” The team included data scientist Federico Cruz, complexity researcher Mehul Sangham, visual artist Lucila Sandoval, and cognitive linguistic Joe Brewer.

Two conversations about the same topic — 
yet they are largely disconnected from each other.
Our team took a unique dataset of 60 million tweets referencing the US election on Twitter during the week following its completion (November 8th to the 13th). This was a global media conversation that spanned at least 74 countries. We used visualization software to create images of the relationships throughout this massive web of information. The graphic above was generated from this dataset. The colors represent webs-within-webs for each meshwork of tweets that connect with each other in some way.


When we drilled into the data, we saw that many conversations are disjointed and don’t overlap with each other. Individual people can have as much influence on the information that spreads as the “official” media outlets. One lesson we can learn from this is that stories can come from anywhere that resonate with the feelings people have in the moment.

Another lesson is that the facts-on-the-ground don’t really matter. People share what feels true to them and now they have communication tools to organize around. Those of us working to tackle the global threats to humanity must cut through the many layers of meaning to make sense of things ourselves. Then we’ll have even more challenges to communicate what we discern about reality once we’ve done this.


What we all need to do now — collectively as a species — is build the institutional capacities to make sense of big data on a regular basis. Having a biased meshwork of corporate media outlets won’t be sufficient. Neither will the “democratized” independent people in the grassroots who have shown us how biased they can be in their own worldviews as they interpret the world to serve themselves.

In 2004, David Suskind interviewed White House spokesman Karl Rove about the layers of unreality in the Bush-Cheney policies, foreign and domestic. Rove's reply was prophetic. First, he took the journalist to task for working in “the reality-based community.” Then he said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” 

Of course he was absolutely right. As Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen wrote last week for the Unz Review,

With President Obama as a mere spectator, the neocon/liberals could – without being ridiculed – pass off as a popular revolution the coup d’état they fomented in the Ukraine.
Putin was held personally responsible in much of the media for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner flying over the Ukraine, which killed 298 people. No serious investigation was undertaken.
As the fighting in Syria reached a phase when contradictions in the official Washington/NATO story demanded a stepping back for a fresh look, editors were forced into contortions to make sure that the baddies stayed bad, and that no matter how cruel and murderously they went about their occupation in Aleppo and elsewhere, the jihadi groups fighting to overthrow the secular Assad government in Damascus remained strictly labeled as moderate dissidents worthy of Western support, and the Russians as violators of Western values.
How could Rove’s predictions so totally materialize? There’s a simple answer: ‘they’ got away with momentous lies at an early stage. The more authorities lie successfully the more they are likely to lie again in a big way to serve the purposes of earlier lies.   VanWolferen continues:

We have experienced massive systemic intimidation since 9/11. For the wider public we have the absurdities of airport security – initially evidenced by mountains of nail-clippers – reminding everyone of the arbitrary coercive potential that rests with the authorities. Every time people are made to take off their belts and shoes – to stick only to the least inane instances – they are reminded: yes, we can do this to you! Half of Boston or all of France can be placed under undeclared martial law to tell people: yes, we have you under full control!

How can anyone quarrel with Rove’s prophecy? Mainstream media and social media are in a tizzy to try to keep up with newly created realities. Rove's words made it very clear: you have no choice! This is what the White House strategy is all about. Shock and awe, nonstop. You go ahead and study the last move we made while we are busy making our next.

Now that President Trump has brought fake news out into the open, is it safe to call bullshit on the 9/11 story?

The science of climate change, as we have been showing in this series of essays, is not seriously in doubt, at least not when rationally scrutinized by any objective standard. What is in serious doubt is the ability of superstitious, authoritarian-cleaving, greedy, fecund and destructive humans to muster the social cohesion to follow the science and do the right thing, and soon.

Joe Brewer says,
The deep truth about fake news is that a great deal of moral integrity and analytic skill is needed to make sense of the world in our complex media environments today. These cultural capacities are desperately lacking today. This is about connecting the dots, revealing system-level patterns, and searching for root causes.
It is also about having the luxury of enough time to do that.

We cannot be sure we will get to where we need to be before it is too late for our species. Maybe the next round of evolutionary biology will get some form of life there — perhaps Earth will be re-seeded from the microbes we left on Mars. It may take a few hundred million years to find that out, and by then Earth would be perilously close to drifting out of its orbit of habitability as the Sun radiance gradually enlarges. Any recapitulation of life as we know it would be relatively short-lived compared to the potential we have if we act to save the current enterprise.

Next week, in the meantime, we will examine some corollaries that proceed from this analysis.





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