Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Biochar Christmas

"It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers."

As more and more research is devoted to biochar we confirm again and again that it is both miraculous as a climate-change arresting store of organic carbon and as a nutrient densifier in organic and biodynamic gardening. Climate-wise, it has the potential to take us back to something more hospitable than what is now in store for us. It also has the potential to multiply our stores of nutrient dense foods. And lately we've learned something else — the power of biochar as a nonalcoholic digestif.

The use of charcoal in cooking extends back into prehistory — beyond the horizon of our earliest known civilizations — but paleoclimatology tells us that when organized societies scaled up their charcoal production — making lime for the monumental architecture of the Aztec Triple Alliance, for instance — they all too often wreaked havoc on both forest and sky to such an extent that it led to their own precipitous decline and outmigration.

Frances D. Burton, in Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution, dates hominid use of fire to 1.6 to 2 million years before present, and charcoal cooking to the beginning of that period.

We don't know when the discovery of the gastric benefits of charcoal first arrived, but it may have come from the observation of the habits of animals, such as Red colobus monkeys in Africa, who improve their diet by seeking out char from the forest floor after wildfires, enabling them to relieve the indigestion caused by toxins in some leafy greens.

Other monkeys experience bouts of diarrhea brought on by parasites and viruses. The bonnet macaques of Southern India have taken to eating dirt from termite mounds. Why eat dirt from termite mounds? The dirt contains kaolin minerals, the same ingredient found in over the counter anti-diarrheics such as Kaopectate. Rhesus macaques also partake in geophagy, the eating of dirt, for the same reasons. Clay also contains kaolin, and the rhesus macaques take extra care to only ingest clay-rich soils.
Nature: Clever Monkeys (PBS 2011)

Mother monkeys teach their young to do this, as indeed our own ancestors may have taught their young, even before we had speech and flint tools.

Of course not all charcoal is biochar and not all biochar is the same. Bone black is the carbonaceous residue obtained from the dry distillation of bones. It contains 80 percent calcium and magnesium phosphates and other inorganic material; the slow-pyrolysis resistant minerals originally present in the animal bone tissue. Charred animal manure will be high in nitrogen and potassium. Activated charcoal — created by steam treatment of charcoal to enhance the absorptive capacity of the micropores — is what most ambulances, ERs and rural clinics use to treat poisonings.

It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers. Consider the popularity of the Hawaiian luau, Indian tandoor, Brazilian rodizio, Colombian lomo al trapo, Argentinian parallada, Japanese yakitori, and Indonesian satay. In Thailand and Korea, they use a small tabletop charcoal hibachi for thinly sliced meat and vegetables. While you cook, the meat and juices drip down into the second chamber, making the meat low in fat and giving you a rich broth to use as a soup or a savory sauce. Both meat and broth contain traces of biochar.

Banquet scene: Ur 2600 BCE

We have previously written in this space about the applications of biochar in animal husbandry, from improving the fermentation of silage and sweetening the smell of a barn to reducing the need for antibiotics by naturally aiding the ability of cattle to cleanse their intestinal tracts of pathogens. It should come as no surprise that biochar improves human digestion in exactly the same way, by partnering with our own, unique, beneficial, essential gastrointestinal microbiome to stimulate phage immunogenicity, fight off infection antigens and reverse toxin-loading. Improving the gastrointestinal flora diversity doesn't just help us fight disease; it aids immunomodulatory activity of phages such as phagocytosis and the respiratory burst of phagocytic cells, the production of cytokines, and the generation of antibodies on standby.

This Christmas and Chanukah we would like to offer a few recipes as a gift to those wee beasties in our gut lining that have been silently (and sometimes not so silently) helping us all year long.

Our holiday dinner will not follow any of the traditions we ourselves grew up with on snowy mornings in Wilton, Connecticut. There will be no stuffed turkey, cranberry jelly, buiscuits or mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, although for those who can source free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys from a local farmer and have that desire, please go ahead.

Nor will we follow our usual tradition at The Farm of a hickory smoked seitan roast, recorded in our mother's now-classic Cooking with Gluten and Seitan (1993).

After co-teaching permaculture courses with Nicole Foss and at her recommendation absorbing Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, and then sorting through the scientific controversy those books stirred, still swirling around neurochemistry frontiers in peer-reviewed literature, we are going to take a pass on the seitan roast, thank you very much.

Instead, we shall prepare this year a traditional feast from the Holy Land, augmented with biochar as a flavor enhancer and digestif. Today is 29th of Kislev, 5775 on the Jewish calendar. Perhaps there was a bit of biochar in the candlelit Chanukah supper 5775 years ago.

There are about 200,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza who mark these holy days by the Western Catholic calendar on Dec. 4. In Bethlehem, families often cook more than a kilo of wheat for the occasion, well exceeding what a single household can eat. From the wheat berries they make a burbara porridge to share with both Christian and Muslim neighbors. A family burbara pot may last a full week.

We propose to prepare a wheat-free burbara, using a mix of organic yellow cornmeal, stone-cut oatmeal, hempseed meal and flaxseed meal, and, of course, biochar.

Departing just a little from the Holy Land, we plan our burbara to be accompanied by a Cuban piccadillo, in honor of the Christmas deal struck between Obama and Castro, at the urging of Pope Francis, to normalize relations. We will begin with a small appetizer of soup, then the piccadillo and burbara, with buttered brussel sprouts on the side, as our entrée. That is likely the most filling part of the meal, so what follows will be lighter, in the tradition of a hot, desert climate: side plates of fatayer, celery, carrots, pear tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, broccoli florets, sliced yellow squash, shiitake pickles and baba ghannouj, with scintillating conversation among family, neighbors and friends. Dessert will be stuffed dates — the perfect company for tea or coffee.

And while we sip our demitasse, we might just let it slip that we are doing a wonderful crowdsource funding campaign for our favorite project at The Farm this year, #The Hippies Were Right.

Preparing biochar for food:

When making food-grade biochar, we generally select for our substrate a woody-stemmed plant such as bamboo, vetiver, miscanthus, rice hulls, cacao pods, or coconut shells. We would probably not want to use poultry or other animal manures, soldier fly larvae, offal or bones, less because of any latent toxicity than because of the thought of what you are eating when it arrives at the table.

We fine-grind the char, using a coffee grinder at the last stage, reducing it to a fine, feathery powder. This will form the basis for each use in the recipes that follow.

Last year we took a wonderful fermentation intensive with Sandor Katz and later invited him to co-teach a workshop at The Farm called "Fermaculture" — Fermentation and Permaculture. Sandor introduced us to Michael Pollan's excellent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and that in turn introduced us to the fine art of mirepoix, sofrito, battuto, and other humble beginnings.

Sofrito is a Spanish mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes gently sautéed in a slick of olive oil. It is called soffritto in Italy, where parsley leaves and fennel, or sometimes finely diced cured meats like pancetta or prosciutto scraps can find their way into the mix. The Polish włoszczyzna — translation: "Italian stuff"—  is soffritto.

Mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) in France, suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek) in Germany, and most Cajun bayou cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper), along with almost every cuisine in the world start with a common simple, balanced, vegetable base in a slow simmering stew.

"Homely in the best sense," Pollan writes, "pot dishes are about marrying lots of prosaic little things rather than elevating one big thing. In fact, it is the precise combination of these chopped-up plants that usually gives a pot dish its characteristic flavor and cultural identity." Cuban sofrito tends to taste more like the creole, while Ecuadorians begin a meal with sofritos of freshly toasted cumin, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and sweet cubanelle peppers. In Puerto Rico its known as recaíto, where culantro leaves are minced down to confetti size and joined by ajices dulces.

The secret is the slow breakdown of the long protein chains of the vegies into amino acids that activate your flavonoid sensors and confer umami. These will enliven the taste of almost anything.

Biochar Mushroom Sofrito 

Serves 4 to 6

3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 medium sweet potato, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 leeks, white parts only, split in half lengthwise, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 c cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small bunch kale, thick stems removed, leaves roughly torn
1 tsp soy sauce
pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp biochar
1 to 2 Tbsp fresh juice from 1 lemon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil

Break dried mushrooms into half-inch pieces. Add mushrooms, broth, leeks, carrot, celery, sweet potato, chickpeas, kale, and soy sauce to a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes until vegetables begin to come apart. Stir in nutritional yeast and allow to simmer 2 minutes longer.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in lemon juice, dash of olive oil and parsley, garnish with sprinkle of biochar and serve.

Cuban Piccadillo
Serves 4 to 6

Many people who have yet to visit Cuba assume that the birthplace of the Habanero pepper will be a center of hot cuisine. While Havana sports many trendy restaurants and night clubs, spicy foods are not something most Cubans prefer. Salt, pepper, garlic and onion are about as hot as it usually gets.

1 large waxy potato peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 lb fresh shiitake or local wild mushrooms stemmed and cut into 1-inch sections
(For authentic Cuban substitute 1 lb pulled pork)
1 small red bell pepper, cored and seeded, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 c diced canned tomatoes
4 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 4 teaspoons)
1 medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2 c pimento stuffed olives plus 2 tablespoons brine
1/3 c raisins
1/2 c dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp capers
1 tsp biochar
Pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 c steamed white rice

Grill bell pepper and remove charred skins before chopping. Heat oil in large iron skillet until shimmering. Add onion, mushrooms and bell pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, and bay leaves and cook until fragrant and tomato paste darkens in color, about 2 minutes. Add wine and reduce, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, raisins, olives, capers, brine, and potatoes. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes.

Remove cover and season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with biochar. Remove and discard bay leaves. Serve with half the steamed rice garnished with biochar. Reserve the other half of the rice for the Fatayer.

Wheat Free Burbara 

Serves 20

5 cup cornmeal
3 c. oatmeal
2 c. hempseed meal
2 c. flaxseed meal
10 cinnamon sticks
¼ c. chickpea flour
¼ c. ground coconut
¼ c. candied anise and fennel seeds
1/2 c. cane syrup 
5 tsp pink mineral salt
10 tsp ground nutmeg
1 oz. Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp food-grade biochar


Candied anise and fennel seed:
¼ c. fennel and anise seeds
1/4 c. cane syrup
½ c. water
Toast the anise and fennel seeds in a small skillet over high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. In a small saucepan cook the sugar and water over moderate heat until browned. Remove from the heat and stir in the seeds, then strain, reserving the syrup reduction. Spread seeds to dry with their candy coating.

Fill a 3-quart saucepan with water and salt and bring to a boil, slowly whisking in the four grain meals. Simmer at medium heat, stirring with wood spoon until mixture starts to thicken. Stir in vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and reserved syrup reduction. Lower heat and stir until porridge is thick and creamy. Remove cinnamon sticks and pour into bowls. Garnish with chickpea flour, ground coconut, and candied anise and fennel seeds, and biochar.

Biochar Middle Eastern Plates

Serves 4-6

Despite what your Uncle Harry tells you, Christmas is observed in most Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia currently has a ban on any other religion besides Islam but Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria have lots of Christians. This plate is made of many of the delicacies you will find at Christmas dinner in the Holy Land. Most of the ingredients can be grown in four season greenhouses anywhere.

Biochar Ghannouj

Serves 4-6


1 large eggplant
1 clove garlic
1/4 - 1/2 c lemon juice (depending on taste)
3 Tbsp tahini
1 tsp salt
3 tsp olive oil

2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp biochar


Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake eggplant for 30 minutes, or until outside is crisp and inside is soft. Allow to cool for 20 minutes. Cut open and scoop out the flesh into colander and allow to drain for 10 minutes. Removing the excess liquid helps to eliminate a bitter flavor.

Place eggplant flesh in a medium bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mash together. You can also use a food processor instead of by hand and pulse for about 2 minutes. 

Place in serving bowl and top with biochar, lemon juice and olive oil. Add other garnishes, such as pine nuts and red pepper, according to taste and local availability.


Wheat-free Biochar Spinach Fatayer
Serves 4-6

Wheat-free Dough:
1 c steamed rice (reserved from Piccadillo)
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp vegetable oil

Biochar Spinach Filling:

1/2 lb fresh spinach, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 c walnuts, chopped
1/8 tsp ground sumac berries

¼ c biochar

Preheat over to 425 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine rice and salt. Add oil and mash. Once oil is absorbed, add 1/4 c warm water. Knead into an elastic dough and form into balls.

Wash spinach and soak in salted water while you chop onion and walnuts. Rinse spinach and dry thoroughly with paper towel. Combine and toss filling ingredients.

Place 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each ball of dough. Cover filling with dough and form into triangular shape. Dip dough triangles in biochar. Bake for 10-15 minutes on greased baking sheet, until golden brown. 

Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

Other Offerings:

Steamed Brussels Sprouts

The classic method of steaming uses a steamer basket or insert. Bring about an inch of water to a boil in the bottom of a pot into which your steamer basket or insert fits. Put trimmed and cleaned brussels sprouts in the steamer basket, set over the boiling water, cover, and steam until tender to the bite, about 5 minutes.

Alternatively, bring a scant 1/2 inch salted water to boil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Add brussels sprouts, cover, and cook until sprouts are tender to the bite and water has evaporated, about 5 minutes (depending on how crisp you like your cooked sprouts).

Serve with melted butter for dipping, shaker of salt and grinder for pepper.

Biochar Shiitake Pickles

We started experimenting with this right after we had harvested the last of our summer eggplant and hard rains brought us a bounty of fall shiitake. We finished making the eggplant pickles as planned, following our mother's recipe from The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, and then we made shiitake pickles the same way, but adding a sprinkling of biochar to the ferment.

2 lbs shiitake mushrooms and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage
1 qt cider or white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp pickling salt
1 Tbsp biochar
2 c extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
3 jalapeño peppers
1 fresh chili habañero, deseeded and chopped finely
Sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage

Wash and stem the mushrooms and slice them across the cap in strips. Place in a mixing bowl, layering in 2 Tbsp of pickling salt and 1 Tbsp of biochar and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage as you go. Compress under weight overnight. This will bring a salty brine to the surface that submerges the mushrooms.

The next day, prepare sterilized pickling jars and have them at the ready.

Drain off the brine. If you prefer reduced sodium in your diet, briefly rinse the mushrooms in a colander but try not to rinse away the herbs and biochar. Sauté the mushrooms in a wok of preheated olive oil, adding sliced garlic and chilies, about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms and garlic begin to brown. Remove the mushrooms, peppers and garlic and immerse in a bowl filled with vinegar. Place the hot mushrooms and pickling marinade into the sterilized jars, filling them to the very top. Cover completely with the marinade and put the lids on tightly. Put the jars aside until they're cool. Clean the jars, attach sticky labels and write the date and the contents on them. Store the jars somewhere cool and dark - it's best to leave them for about 2 weeks before opening so the vegetables really get to marinate well, but if you absolutely cannot wait, you can eat them sooner. They'll keep for about 3 months.

Dessert: Stuffed Dates with Biochar 

Serves 4-6

1/2 c butter or margarine such as Earth Balance
2 c powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp rice or almond milk (or more, as needed)
15 pitted dates
15 toasted almonds or pecans
Powdered sugar for dusting
1 tsp biochar


Beat together the butter or margarine, vanilla extract, and 1 cup of the powdered sugar until they are well mixed. Slowly add remaining powdered sugar until all is mixed in. Continue to beat with mixer and add rice milk a little bit at a time until frosting is smooth and fluffy.

Stuff dates with one toasted almond or pecan per date. Roll in powdered sugar. Place on greased wax paper in the refrigerator until ready to serve. 

Serve stuffed dates with dusting of biochar and powdered sugar, and coffee or tea.

Happy Holidays! 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

COP 20: Getting to Sweden

"1.5°C is the new 2°C.  Zero by 2050, valved by scientific instrumentation, is now in the sausage hopper."

It is wholly appropriate that the 20th UN climate change conference (#COP20) met in the Peruvian army headquarters, known as "El Pentagonito," where former Presidente Alberto Fujimori liked to torture and interrogate his political prisoners. Peru is now the world’s fourth most dangerous country for environmental defenders — 57 activists have been assassinated, four in September alone. Assassination is another useful word to describe what is happening to the climate. But the climate conference has its own style of torture, much of it involving sleep deprivation and stress positions.

This COP had just one goal, which was to "finalize" an ambitious international agreement that will be watered down in Paris this time next year. "No Lima, No Paris" was the slogan going in, two weeks ago. Towards the end, after listening to days of hand-wringing speeches recalling the disaster at Copenhagen, the delegates found themselves at impasse.

Going into the final sessions, the draft Decision document tried to express that impasse in positive, if tortured, language.

Draft decision -/CP.20 Further advancing the Durban Platform, Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action
…Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels … [the COP:]

1.    Confirms that the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action shall complete the work … as early as possible in order for the Conference of the Parties at its twenty-first session (November- December 2015) to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties;
2.    Decides that the protocol… shall address, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity-building and transparency of action and support in a balanced manner;
3.    Urges developed country Parties to provide and mobilize support to developing country Parties for ambitious mitigation and adaptation actions, especially to Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change; and invites other Parties willing to do so to complement such support;


12.    Decides that all Parties shall, in the context of their intended nationally determined contributions and in order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding, provide information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;

16.    Encourages all Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to ratify and implement the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol;
17.    Decides to accelerate the implementation of decision 1/CP.19, paragraphs 3 and 4, by convening a forum to be held in conjunction with the forty-fourth sessions (May 2016) and the forty-sixth sessions (May 2017) of the subsidiary bodies and invites all Parties to participate in the forum in order to:
(a)    Be informed by the status of implementation of the institutional arrangements under the Convention;
(b)    Assess the need to mobilize financial resources, technological support and capacity-building support to enable developing country Parties to implement their nationally appropriate mitigation actions;
(c)    Review the progress made in the technical examination of good practice policies, technologies, financial arrangements and options to enhance pre-2020 ambition;
(d)    Facilitate the coherence of the work of the Convention bodies relevant to the implementation of pre-2020 climate action;
18.    Also decides to continue the technical examination of opportunities with high mitigation potential, including those with adaptation, health and sustainable development co-benefits, in the period 2015–2020, by requesting the secretariat to:
(a)    Organize a series of in-session technical expert meetings which:
(i)    Facilitate Parties in the identification of policy options, practices and technologies and in planning for their implementation in accordance with nationally defined development priorities;
(ii) Build on and utilize the related activities of, and further enhance collaboration and synergies among, the Technology Executive Committee, theClimate Technology Centre and Network, the Durban Forum on capacity-building, the Executive Board of the clean development mechanism and the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism;
(iii)    Build on previous technical expert meetings in order to hone and focus on actionable policy options;
(iv)    Provide meaningful and regular opportunities for the effective engagement of experts from Parties, relevant international organizations, civil society, indigenous peoples, women, youth, academic institutions, the private sector, and subnational authorities nominated by their respective countries;
(v)    Support the accelerated implementation of policy options and enhanced mitigation action, including through international cooperation;

Those were some excerpts from the draft presented for comments at the Saturday morning Plenary after a negotiating session the night before that went until 3.30am. At first it looked a lot like the recent debate in the US Congress over the government shutdown bill — it had enough foul play in it to alienate both rabid Teabaggers and spreadsheet Democrats but in the end it squeaked through, averting another billion-dollar-wasting government furlough. Senator Elizabeth Warren, noting that bankster toadies had written the section repealing essential parts of Dodd-Frank banking reform, observed that just that one corporation, Citibank, is now large enough to hold the whole country for ransom.

The debate over the UN draft coalesced around a similar divide in the political philosophies that have bedeviled the world for the past four or more centuries. At issue was whether to consider the world's entire population, and by extension the whole planet, as a single family.

On one pole are Jeffersonians. These are the people who apparently were given an adequate sense of security as children, with loving family environments and kindly potty training. Jeffersonians think it would be a good idea to try to raise everyone to a level of equal opportunity, even if that means small sacrifices by those of noble birth. In the US, these people voted for Obama, want immigration and medical system reform, and detest what is happening in Palestine. At the UN this is the Africa Group, the Island Nations and the G77, who keep pushing for common but differentiated action, technology development and transfer, capacity-building and transparency of actions under a legally-binding regime.

On the other pole are the Hamiltonians. These are the people who keep chanting about "family values" because when growing up they were brutalized and now they do the same for their children to teach them that the world is unfair and everyone has to look out for number one. Their DNA compels them towards herd behavior, but rather than seeing the whole world as their herd, they see only those who wear Harvard ties and clawed their way into the one percent. In their minds, they must vigilantly hold their hard-earned privileges against the tide of mud people that threaten to sully their guest room linens. In the US, these people voted for Romney, want to cut off immigration and cancel Obamacare, and support Israel, right or wrong. At the UN, Hamiltonians include the US, Israel, Australia, Belize, Canada, UK, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands.

China went into the COP intending to join the Hamiltonians but in the end switched sides and joined the Jeffersonians, which created a bit of a stir.

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage is a good example of the snares that pop up whenever Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians try to walk a path together, reaching out and holding hands, all Kumbaya, as it were. "Loss and Damage" is a UN buzzword that symbolizes, for the Jeffersonians, an opportunity to undo the historic climate debt incurred by the rich countries in the process of burning through several hundred million years of fossil sunlight in order to become richer than Croesus.

The Hamiltonians, apart from Scandinavia and Germany, do not even acknowledge climate debt. Such a concept! "Where was the intention?" a US negotiator asked Amy Goodman. It is the US position that dredging up history, harkening back to an era when everyone thought differently about resources and class systems, is futile and that we should just look forward. Given Obama's remarks this past week on the zero possibility of prosecutions for torture, that kind of advice coming from the US has a particularly hollow ring.

Yet, this small philosophical difference has become such a serious stumbling block that it threatens to derail otherwise remarkable progress. As Jamie Henn of told Democracy Now!:

"One of the most interesting things that’s happening in the text right now is discussions about this long-term goal of where this treaty is really headed. In the past, it’s just been put in, in terms of temperature targets or percentage reductions. Now, for the first time, delegates are really talking seriously about phasing out fossil fuels completely by 2050 and going to zero carbon emissions. That’s the type of target that begins to push this process into the realm of reality and begins to get more people potentially engaged to be seeing this process for what it is, which is really a showdown with the fossil fuel industry."

Henn pushed the shift out more through 350's blog:

This new frame of "ending fossil fuels" is important for a number of reasons:
1) It strengthens the carbon bubble argument: The "carbon bubble" refers to the idea that fossil fuel companies are dramatically overvalued because their financial worth is based on their ability to turn their coal, oil and gas reserves into profit, and 80% of those reserves will need to stay underground if the world aims to keep global warming below 2°C. The fossil fuel industry has argued that the carbon bubble isn't real because governments aren't serious about their commitment to 2°C. Seeing goals like "zero emissions" in the Lima text are clearly making the industry — and their investors — nervous. Just today, a well known Australian columnist wrote in the Business Spectator that many fossil fuel assets could end up stranded. As investors turn away from the fossil fuel industry, it not only opens up the space for political leaders to act, but starts to directly move the economy in the direction we need.
2) It builds the case for fossil fuel divestment: As the reality of the carbon bubble becomes more mainstream, it strengthens the financial case for fossil fuel divestment. Big investors like the Bank of England, for example, are suddenly analyzing their investments for their exposure to this carbon risk. By framing the global climate effort as a battle with the fossil fuel industry, the climate talks also help strengthen the political and moral case for divestment. Earlier this week, a group of Catholic bishops from around the world said that the world must get off fossil fuels by 2050 in order to protect the world's poor from climate change. It doesn't get more moral than that.
View from the front of the room
3) It highlights the importance of iconic fossil fuel fights: Fancy words are only as good as the real commitments that back them up, of course. As Bill McKibben wrote in the Guardian this morning, the real test of whether countries like the US and Australia are serious about their commitments is if they're willing to shelve big fossil fuel projects like Keystone XL and the Galilee Basin coal mine. When he visits the climate talks in Lima, Secretary Kerry will be coming under pressure to reject Keystone XL. If the goal is phasing out emissions, it makes no sense to invest in major new fossil projects.
4) It could turn the Paris climate talks into a movement moment: Many people and organizations in the climate movement are skeptical about the importance of the UN climate process. After all, the talks have been going on for decades and have little to show in terms of concrete progress. Lots of groups are still hung over from the blowout in Copenhagen, where much of the movement threw itself into the fight for a "fair, ambitious and binding" treaty only to walk away burned. While the chances of Paris being a transformative policy moment remain low, they could become a transformative political moment if the talks continue be framed as a battle against the fossil fuel industry. If people get the sense that the fate of the fossil fuel industry is being determined in the streets of Paris, they could turn out in force.
That piece, just mentioned, that Bill McKibben wrote for The Guardian said:
Australia’s far right government loves coal — it’s pretty much all they talk about. Its approval of the project can be taken for granted (though polling shows approval of the government itself is another issue, and that Aussies are turning restive at its fanaticism). But building out the ports and railways and giant pits will require huge sums of capital, and so it tests the resolve of the world’s financial system to come to terms with climate.

Any bank that backs this ludicrous plan is announcing, quite plainly, that it cares nothing about climate change. It’s also — probably worse for a bank — announcing that it’s stuck in the 19th century. Serious financial authorities (the governor of the Bank of England most recently) are warning that fossil fuel reserves risk becoming “stranded assets” as the world acts on climate change — investors in the tar sands, for instance, have already taken an enormous hit, and coal stocks have been tumbling for years. A British cabinet minister warned the other day that they were the “subprime assets of the future”, a sobering warning for everyone still recovering from the housing bust of 2008.
Die-in or sheer exhaustion?

The final negotiating session Saturday morning was lively, with Singapore contrasting the draft document to circumcision and warning that vetoing it would amount to amputation. New Zealand said the draft had "dead rats we all will have to swallow." The problem most countries had was not the rats they had to swallow but the ones that got away. Noticeably absent from the document were "differentiation" and "loss and damage."

Differentiation is a basic principle of the UNFCCC process, wherein everyone makes some sacrifice, but those with the most sacrifice more than those with the least. Loss and damage assumes that those who are most able should assist those who will suffer most, less because they bear greatest responsibility for causing the damage than because they are better able by virtue of less vulnerability or greater accumulations of world resources, industry and technology. It is logical but trips over those multicentury-old snares we mentioned.

In its floor intervention, Malaysia linked the legacies of colonialism to the deletion of differentiation and loss and damage from the draft text. "Many of you colonized us so we started at a very different point... This is why we have differentiation."

Brazil said that differentiation was not optional but already in the fabric of UNFCCC treaty law, and because of that whether it was actually mentioned in the document was irrelevant.

After the contentious overtime plenary on Saturday morning, the chair suspended the process to allow for one-on-one meetings with each block of stakeholders. This consumed the rest of the day but produced a "consensus document," that was printed and distributed at 5 minutes to midnight at a reconvened plenary. The plenary was then recessed again, for a little over an hour, to allow time for all delegates to read through the revisions and prepare 3-minute interventions.

In response to the dead rat issue raised earlier in the day, the new version was a bit more responsive to the various calls for further action. So, for instance, the preamble affirmed "its determination to strengthen adaptation action," welcomed "the progress made towards Loss and Damage," and inserted after the 2d paragraph:
3.    Underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances;
 — FCCC/CP/2014/L.14
Add caption
1:20 AM in the COP-20 Plenary

That can be considered a win for the developing world, especially India which has a very ambitious plan to "get to Sweden" with hundreds of additional coal plants, and only thereafter to begin cutting its own emissions. "We got what we wanted," a smiling Prakash Javadekar (India's Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change) gushed to Reuters' Alister Doyle.

At 1:20AM today, the COP President reconvened the plenary and having already sounded out the delegations asked if there were objections, and hearing none, declared the "Lima Call For Climate Action" ("Llamamiento de Lima para la Acción sobre el Clima") adopted, to standing ovation.

Unsaid and unexamined are some key assumptions by both the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians. For instance, both seem to assume that development by economic expansion (debt) and resource consumption is the natural course of human progress, that capitalistic, market-driven stimulus is the best way to accomplish that, and that given enough time and technology even the world's poorest nations will eventually "get to Sweden."

In this sense, the Hamiltonians, with whom we often disagree, seem to have a rare justification for their views, although they would never admit it. They can see as easily as we can that if population growth were extended another century, not only would developing countries like India and China never be able to cope with their ever-rising tide of human demands for more, and unleash unprecedented waves of migrants, but oceans would be drained of all edible fish, forests taken down to make burger meat and its paper wrap, and Mother Nature in her anger would likely extinguish the lot of us long before anyone makes it to Sweden.

Will developed nations have to consume less? Yes. Much less. That may come of its own accord given the Wild West Ponzinomics that rule markets now. All the financial empires that are being made to pay for change are in for a day of reckoning and a severe reversal of fortunes.

Will the developing nations also have to lower aspirations? Yes. How much lower? Well, if they think they are getting to the level of consumerist society they see in Sweden, they had better rethink. Still, with good birth control programs and permaculture design they could get to a steady state balance with the natural world that many in their rural areas are fortunate enough to recall, and that would put them ahead of Sweden in the hard century to come.

Closing takeaways from COP-20: the Chair's final remarks were perilously close to Robert Kennedy's last words, something to the effect of "Now its on to Paris and let's win there." That sent a chill up our spine and we were grateful Mr. Pulgar-Vidal did not exit through the kitchen.

In the Coda — the short comment period after the decision — Mexico made what we thought was one of the better interventions of the two-week ordeal, calling for a re-design of the global economic system, basing it on the reality of climate change and the necessity to disincentivize fossils and incentivize renewables. This was a faint ray of sunlight breaking over the horizon, and we can only hope it leads others to see that systemic change — rearranging economics at its core — is our only real hope.

What was accomplished was much less than a "win" but when you take away the emotional loading from the South and the NGOs, there was progress. 1.5°C is the new 2°C. A mitigation goal of Zero by 2050 (ie: bringing temperature down by ending fossil energy), monitored and adjusted by scientific instrumentation, is now in the sausage hopper with provisions to automatically move the date up if demanded by realities. The full summary and text of Lima is now up on the UN site.

The South's hard-won concessions from the North — adaptation and shared finance (ie.: throwing life preservers to hurricane victims), loss and damage, and development-dependent-delay (differentiation) are all predicated on having booming Western Ponzi economies for the next 30 years. That's like buying beachfront property. It doesn’t matter if it is on the beach in Sweden, it is still on the beach and the beach is vanishing.

When you hit a slots jackpot or have a blackjack run in Vegas they comp you with a room. Then the vultures swoop in, ply you with free drinks, and make sure none of that money leaves the casino. So it was that while innocently standing at the Pentagonito urinals, India was sold 10 nuclear power plants by Russia, just like the ones Russia is building for Bolivia, erstwhile champion of Pachamama and rights of Mother Earth. The cost of a single one of those is likely to be greater than the sum of all the Green Climate Fund pledges to date. India may feel like it will be investing its Green Climate money in carbon-neutral carbon-steel reactors, but it just had its pocket picked and Russia is laughing all the way to the bank.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sausage-making in Lima

"Let one Inhofe represent the amount of warming beyond which near term human extinction can be assured. Two Inhofes would be just bouncing rubble. "

The 20th Conference of Parties (#COP20) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (#UNFCCC) got underway this past week in Lima, Peru with a tough assignment. In a mere two weeks, the several hundred delegates will have to to pull together all the threads of all the conversations of these annual two-week junkets for the past 20 years and produce a consensus document that would become, one year from now, a legally-binding treaty following final negotiations in Paris.

There are a lot of loose ends that have to be tied up for that to happen.

The first loose end is the ever-expanding gap between science and politics. Ten or more years ago consensus coalesced around a number — 450 ppm — that the science of that time (with more than a few dissenters) said would hold the Earth's fever to just 2°C above Holocene average variations. The 2°C goal became part of the sausage, and with it, the 450 assumption. A couple Decembers ago the parking lot analogy surfaced, wherein the Earth's atmosphere is viewed as having a fixed number of parking spaces for our pollution, call that number 450. If we have filled 400 now, there are still 50 vacant (or about space for 565 billion more tonnes of CO2), and emerging nations like India, China and Brazil can tussle over who gets them.

The Asheninka, who have attended every climate
meeting since Copenhagen, came to Lima
to protest the assassinations of their tribespeople
who were defending their forests from illegal loggers.
We now know, thanks to Carbon Tracker and Rolling Stone,  although the COP delegates have yet to admit, that 450 will take us well above 2°C and, as Bill McKibben will quickly tell you, a better guestimate is 350. Not only are there no remaining parking spaces, 50 cars are double parked and 2 more arrive in search of parking each year (bringing billions of excess tonnes of luggage in the boot that will be left up there for decades to centuries).

The Structured Expert Dialogue (#SED)'s 2013-2015 Review was created to address the discrepancy. At the opening of COP20, amid all the hoohah of formal self-congratulatory statements, COP President Vidal stated that the SED is the most important discussion at the conference. If temperature increases are limited to below 1.5°C, there are more chances for adaptation. Even the US, a perennial stick in the mud at these COPs, said on Day 3 that it would be interested in quantifying the differential risk of a world that is 1.5°C warmer versus one that is 2°C warmer.

This is like asking how much worse triple parking would be than double parking, when we are standing in a single lane.

Of course all of that is just chatter, which is quickly apparent if you step outdoors. The Guardian published an interactive chart that allows people to enter their birthdate and see what kinds of changes can be expected in their lifetimes by projecting present trends forward (remembering that these changes are already baked in the cake, even if emissions are drastically cut). Here is their projection for a 35-year-old today:

This chart is quite a nice advance over the usual hockey sticks, because it makes it personal. What it neglects to do is depict the prospect if, say, the upper boundary is an underestimate and multipliers like Arctic methane, polar albedo, fugitive emissions from fracking, deforestation by heat-stress or other latent tipping points are brought in. It also neglects to mention what happens past mid-century. Correcting the chart for just an additional 50 years (never mind the next 400 while past emissions linger) produces this result:

Another way of representing the dilemma is this cartoon, which uses “Ice-Age Units” (IAUs) to measure the change over the next 86 years. Personally, we think IAUs has a kind of cool, calming feel to it and a better measure might be the Inhofe, named for the Republican climate denier who now chairs the Senate Environment Committee. Let one Inhofe represent the amount of warming beyond which near term human extinction can be assured. Two Inhofes would be just bouncing rubble. With a few possible exceptions, the US just elected 246 Inhofes.

According to the latest UNEP Report intended to draw delegates' attention, if we are to stay within the 2°C limit, zero emissions will need to be achieved sometime between 2055 and 2070. For a 1.5°C limit we’d obviously have to bring emissions to zero even faster and also embark on an Apollo-scale program to develop net sequestration.

Next week’s Newsweek cover story says we can
genetically engineer humans to be smaller, with better night
vision to live underground (like, say, hobbits).
The SED Review says that there is a need for carbon removal technologies (CDR) in the second part of the century, unless we make a steep change in emissions reductions by 2050. It is obvious to anyone attending these COPs that the final Paris treaty, after being watered down to political acceptability from the thin quinoa gruel being boiled in Lima, will not make a steep change in emissions reductions by 2050. That means CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), but no-one even knows what CCS is.

There are those who think it means expensive artificial trees that suck Earth's atmosphere through amide filters like a charcoal tip on a cigarette.  There are others, like Dr. Evil, who think it means geoengineering the planet, and we had best get on with that quickly. And then there are the Regrarians  hollering from the back of the room but being drowned out by the clamor for patentable green tech that the solution lies directly below your feet, in the soil, and the atmosphere can be rescued just by a new agricultural revolution, involving nutrient density, holistic management, permaculture, keyline, remineralization, organic no-till, water gardens, compost teas and biochar.

You can't start a fire, worryin' about your little world falling apart

This gun's for hire even if we're just dancing in the dark

— Springsteen

More than a little tension in the COP is being generated by the philosophical irreconcilability of voluntarians and enforcitarians. The US and its fossil allies in Canada, Australia and Saudi Arabia are for the non-binding pledge system. Europe, Africa and the island states are for legally-binding treaty-enforcement mechanisms. Whether the latter is unobtainable has been the province of game theorists with the counterintuitive conclusion that the sharpest cuts will come from soft pledges, not hard laws.  NY Times blogger Andrew Revkin analogizes it to a morphine drip:

The “Will it be enough?” question leads to “What is enough?” I’ve always liked John Holdren’s notion that there’s a sliding mix of “mitigation, adaptation and suffering.” No hard lines going forward. And the learn-and-adjust aspect of humanity’s complex response will keep tweaking the two knobs as necessary.

A high priority for Lima is to put some actual numbers to the finance section in the Paris deal. This will not be easy. So far, pledges to the Green Climate Fund, even after the Xi-Obama deal, are something short of 10 billion, about a third of what developed countries spend exploring for oil and coal each year. UNEP puts the cost of adaptation alone at $150 billion per year during 2025-2030 and $500 billion/year by 2050 (or roughly the pre-delivery price for the Pentagon's latest F35 Lightning-II fighter jets, a.k.a. the Lockheed-Martin Yachtbuyer, with 100 million lines of on-board code and a disconcerting (for NATO combat pilots) inability to “turn, climb or run”).  Presumedly the new jets will be needed to protect all the offshore wind-farms and solar arrays being planned as part of Xi-Obama, because they would not stand a chance against a Crimean pilot flying a Сухой Су-35, which can pivot 180° and glide backwards to fire AAMs at pursuers.

In the opening sessions of the committee that works on climate finance (do our readers really need yet another acronym?) the US asked that all references to the adequacy, predictability and additionality (UNspeak for double counting of earlier pledges) be removed. That was a bad start, and it has only gone downhill since then. Oz Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced in advance of her arrival in Lima that Australia would not be contributing to the Green Climate Fund. Australia has replaced its carbon tax with an $AU 2.55 billion slush fund to pay polluters incentives for “low-emission” fossil fuels.

A bright spot came on Thursday when the Africa Group introduced a well-structured, concise white paper that covered most of the essential content on finance that needs to be in the Paris Agreement. The Climate Action Network reported:
Some of the provisions that could make it a good starting point for negotiations on the content of the agreement include: the call for a collective quantified finance goal for the post-2020 period that includes a specific amount from public sources; consideration of a range of new sources of finance; a link to the amount of financing needed to achieve the agreed temperature goal; the need for continued scaling up beyond 2020; and primary but not exclusive responsibility of Annex I countries for providing support and finance.
This coming week should demonstrate a quickening pace at the sausage works. The Cumbre de los Pueblos (People’s Summit) will convene from the 8th to the 11th as an open space for non-delegates to attend, get informed, make proposals, and call for urgent action by their governments, who will not be listening but will watch it on the news from plasma screens around the UN venue. The Marcha Mundial en Defensa de la Madre Tierra (People’s March) will take place on the 10th of December with around 15,000 people expected. They're putting Naomi Klein's “blockadia” strategy to a test. Which is more effective at thwarting our extinction: marching in the street listening to bullhorn chants or sitting in air-conditioned halls trying to stay awake while delegates debate subordinate clauses with delays for translation?

“Human beings are like cockroaches. It's fairly easy to kill the first ten percent of the population. And if you try really hard, you might even get the next ten percent. But no matter what you do, you'll never get that last ten percent. We will find a way to survive.”
- Lowell (”Dr. Evil”) Wood quoted in Can Geoengineering Save The World? by Jeff Goodell

In his address from New York on December 4th, Ban Ki Moon chided the delegates in Lima to address the need to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and also to change their approach to “prosperity” to recognize that the strength of an economy is not in gross domestic product but in its impact on ecology, happiness and equality of opportunity. “To respect our planetary boundaries we need to equitably address climate change, halt biodiversity loss, and address desertification and unsustainable land use,” he said. “The stars are aligned for the world to take historic action to transform lives and protect the planet.”

The simple fact is, and both those in the halls and those in the streets know this, to stay below 1.5°C, if that were even possible now (and it is technically not), a serious approach might be to phase out all fossil fuels and phase in 100% renewables by 2020 at the latest, and hope that 2°C is still feasible. We'd need to stop all further mining of fossil sunlight, ASAP. That means not only phasing out those absurd subsidies, but marking the assets of the wealthiest and most widely held corporations on the planet to market at considerably lower valuation than current stock price. We'd need to put regrarian mandates into every farm bill in every country. We'd need to close the pre-2020 gap in implementation.

We'd need to do all that in Lima, and then ship this sausage to Paris. And then, keep in mind, all of this may still be so much hopium. We may be cockroaches, but even cockroaches are going to have a hard time surviving what lies farther along our present trajectory.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

— Dylan Thomas
We simply cannot adapt to 6°C, and let's be realistic. We are heading that way now, with no sign of turning, slowing or changing direction. If this is humanity's last century, we should not exit wimpering and prevaricating. Have a little dignity. Stop looking for parking. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Hippies Were Right!

The ritual of giving thanks, whether annual, daily, or just whenever you hear a bird sing is always, at its essence, personal. This essay is a personal thank you from me to all those who helped me out this year.

It has been my custom to compose these posts in the first person plural, the "royal we," but this time I am dismounting the royal carriage and going barefoot in the street.

For forty years now, me and a bunch of my best friends have been tinkering with the design of global civilization from a small village in Tennessee. Called simply, “The Farm,” we pioneers have been looking for a way forward that will not involve fossil fuels or climate change, and where everyone is fed and cared for, people are healthy and happy, and violence, crime and wars are just distant memories.

Our sense of community is a place where any child can reach up for the comforting security of an adult's hand and not care particularly which adult it is.

Our years of experiments at the edge of utopianism have given us tempeh and soy ice cream, solar-powered cars, pocket-sized Geiger counters, Doppler fetoscopes, biochar stoves and ecovillages. This work has been profiled in books and documentary films and each year hundreds of people visit or take workshops at The Farm to learn more.

A few years ago I embarked on a project that was larger than myself, and larger than anything I had tried before (apart from that time back in 1978 when I tried to shut down the entire nuclear fuel cycle with a string of Extraordinary Writs).

Last year about this time we designed a crowdfunding campaign to ask others to help us out, because by then we had realized we were in way deeper than maybe we should be. It worked, amazingly, and the money our Indiegogo Campaign brought in allowed us to haul in loads of sand, clay, straw, and other building materials, enough to keep our natural building apprentices, WWOOFers and volunteers busy these past 8 months.

Now I need to go to the well again, and this time we really have a lot to show off. What we are trying to do is build a better mousetrap. Me and my friends already built the ecovillage. Now we'd like people to experience it. We want to transform the global discourse by exposure to a viral idea.

Here's my pitch.

Whether you are studying the origins of personal computers and the internet, are a long-suffering patient grateful for medical marijuana, or a concerned environmentalist thinking about what needs to happen in the next decades if we humans are to survive on a hot, crowded planet, you’d have to admit the hippies were right.

We were right about peace, love, solar energy, civil rights, free speech, meditation, yoga, unashamed sex, homebrew computers, and backyard organic gardens. The hippies did more than make great music; we invented bioregionalism, permaculture and ecovillages. We think we're onto something.

The Farm is one of the better known icons of the 60s hippie culture. We were country before country was hip.  We are now four decades on the land and four generations. The first generation was not the 320 flowerchildren that arrived from San Francisco in painted schoolbuses and VW vans, but their parents who began trickling in 10 years later, when they saw what a good thing their kids had going.

The second generation, the pioneers, gave birth to a third generation in the back of blocked-up buses, homespun yurts, rough-hewn shacks and tar-papered geodesic domes. Those children then gave birth to a fourth generation, children born to the children born to the land and to that philosophy, often with assistance from the same midwives who coached their grandmothers. I am part of one of those four generation families. I came to the Farm from New York City, fell in love and never left. I guess you could say I had tie dye in my blood. (omygosh, is there a test for that?)

The Farm is a living example of what we can all learn from that experiment, and what parts may still be useful to know when charting our common future. If humans are to survive for many more generations, we must begin to live today as if there will be a tomorrow, and many more tomorrows. We must take a path of peaceful co-existence, not only amongst ourselves and our many different neighbors, but with nature ... with the tides, the seasons, and the wild creatures we share our home with.

The Farm is among the oldest ecovillages in North America, but it lacks a place where visitors can stay and experience what the hippies have learned about practical sustainability. The Farm would like to tell its story but it lacks an auditorium that reflects its natural building skills, a hostel for overnight stays that is within the comfort zone of most visitors, classrooms that could show student groups the practical elements of permaculture, edible landscape and appropriate technology, and the exhibit spaces for soaring artistic expressions that celebrate the best work of a generation.


The Impact

What we are doing here is preserving an important piece of history for future generations to study and learn from, but perhaps more importantly, we are demonstrating a model for what anyone can build, no matter where they are or what they have to begin with.
  • The Farm is a model intentional community set on 4000 acres of rolling Tennessee hills and dales.
  • It has adopted the three legs of sustainability: social, ecological, and economic.
  • It is net carbon minus — annually sequestering 5 times its own carbon footprint.
  • The Farm Midwives are recognized worldwide for their contributions to the safety of home birth.
  • The Farm School (K-12) is a 40-year pioneer in alternative education.
  • Plenty International and Global Village Institute are award-winning relief and development organizations with amazingly effective projects on six continents.
  • Come and visit us, spend a weekend, enjoy some of our music festivals, workshops, and holiday events. Kick back, breathe clean air, enjoy our pure, limestone well water, have a lovely meal with friends and family...
... at the EcoHostel you helped build!

The Farm's Ecovillage Training Center is affiliated with the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia University, and today offers college degree credit for its longer programs. Students from more than 60 countries have come to study subjects such as Mushroom Cultivation with Paul Stamets, Fermentation with Sandor Katz, Carbon Farming with Darren Doherty, Joel Salatin and Elaine Ingham, Natural Building with Ianto Evans, Joe Kennedy and Howard Switzer, Solar Electric Installation with Ed Eaton and Dave DelVeccio, Bamboo Joinery with Matt English and Josh Doolittle, Permaculture with Peter Bane, Rick Valley, Julio Perez and Dave Jacke, Beekeeping with Fedor Lazutin and Leonid Sharashkin, and Ecovillage Design with Max Lindegger, Declan Kennedy, Diana Leafe Christian and Greg Ramsey.

The problem is one of scale. Our building was never big enough or able to provide passable accommodations for most of the people who would have liked to visit. There were too few bathrooms and showers, a weak internet connection, and a core building that dated from the early 1970s and was falling apart. There were many more people who wanted to visit than could be reasonably accommodated.

What is needed is a giant upgrade. We need a visitors’ reception auditorium that can also serve our eco-hostel. We need space to display the artifacts that tell our history. We want to open up The Farm. Last year we called our project Youre Inn at The Farm. This year we are calling it The Hippies Were Right!

Twenty years ago we broke ground on a “living and learning” facility. With a mere shoestring of funding, mostly small donations and volunteer work, we scratched out the core elements for a useful hippie-lifestyle sampling experience: a rustic dormitory; wooded campsites; examples of strawbale, cob, earthships and geodesic domes; solar showers and organic gardens. That served its purpose, and since the mid-1990s hundreds of students have received permaculture design certificates and learned many other skills with which to grow organically, install renewable energy, construct ecovillages of their own, or just improve their own lives and the lives of others.

Tennessee’s most famous contemporary eco-architect, Howard Switzer, has designed a new building with auditorium, classrooms, dormitories, dining area and industrial kitchen. 

The Prancing Poet is the first LEED Platinum building at The Farm. Innovative features include:

  • passive heating and cooling
  • biomass radiant floor heating
  • solar-and-wind augmented free vortex energy with stand-alone storage
  • high-albedo roofing
  • straw & biochar insulation
  • biochar plasters to passively absorb mold-spores, clean interior air, and shield the interior from electronic pollution, infrared and EMP.
  • native black walnut & bamboo biochar stains
  • 100% recycled building wrap heat transfer barrier
  • bamboo lathe and trim
  • lime/clay plasters and geotech finishes to fireproof exteriors
  • soy-based foam ceiling insulation
  • rooftop rainwater collection
  • 11,000-square-foot constructed lagoon and reedbed system that aids in fire suppression, wastewater treatment and biodiversity. 
This year we would like to begin work on the wraparound covered porches and decks where visitors can sit and gaze out upon our gardens and forests, perhaps sharing a pipe of Old Toby Halfling's Leaf. As Gandalf the Grey said to Saruman the White,"You might find that smoke blown out cleared your mind of shadows within. Anyway, it gives patience, to listen to error without anger."

Butterflies and dragonflies waft on gentle warm breezes over our constructed wetlands, while composting systems and cradle-to-cradle recycling naturally reclaim all our solid wastes. Under the bright summer sun on our rooftops, thousands of Watts of energy are captured and converted into music and colored light. Off to the side, a small Resourcer's Laboratory conceals our carbon-negative ecofuel and free energy workbenches.

We hope that by the end of 2015 visitors can arrive at our site and relax in the comfort of our Prancing Poet dining hall, share home brews with friends in the Green Dragon Tavern, or just stroll the grounds and walk the trails of our nature preserve. When the Great Hall is not alive with music and cabaret, it will be the venue for a permanent exhibit on the history of our movement — a Hippie Museum.

What will all this cost, you might ask? To date we have raised and spent approximately $275,000. We anticipate we will spend at least that much again to complete the whole project, including exterior decking, porticos, more bathrooms and an industrial-scale kitchen, but we are taking it one step at a time.

Through the generosity of donors to our 2014 Indiegogo Campaign, our volunteers, WWOOFers and permaculture apprentices were able to infill all the walls in the Great Hall with light clay-straw-slip and cover them with earthen renders they made themselves with bamboo biochar and local red clay. They worked towards completion of the Green Dragon Tavern and began on the bamboo lathe and geotextile renders that will cover the exterior of the EcoHostel.

At each completion of the various stages, the Great Hall of the Prancing Poet hosted cabaret performances by Moonshine Boheme, attended by the whole community. We also hosted our annual Kids to the County summer camp for disadvantaged urban youth, now in its 28th year.

I know from personal experience that a project of this scale can be done. We didn’t have any grants or loans and we could not get any mortgages when we started The Farm, but we are still here, hundreds of us hippies, with our own schools, businesses, roads, water systems, and farmland. We still can’t get mortgages or bank loans because The Farm is a conservation land trust, and none of its land holdings could ever be foreclosed, or pledged as collateral. And yet, we started the Ecovillage Training Center 20 years ago and it has been running programs ever since. We began the Global EcovillageNetwork with just 12 communities and now there are more than 20,000 ecovillages worldwide.

All we need are more like us; people who share a vision of a better world. It is not a world based on avarice and war, but on love and understanding. Please help us share our world.


What You Get

This campaign is just the next small step in our BIG IDEA. We are asking for $10000 this winter, but we could easily use ten times or a hundred times that, and the project would only become even better. So this is an open request, and the beginning of a longer conversation. We want your participation, and we invite you to visit and stay a while, but what we really want is to have a larger effect on the world. Here is what you get:
  • Satisfaction and (if you want) recognition for helping to invent a better future;
  • For $5000, you can stay 2 months in a family suite;
  • For $1000, you'll have unlimited overnights in our dorms or campground, free!
  • For $500, you'll get a 30% discount at the EcoHostel, for life!
  • For $100, you'll get a free 4-day weekend stay, any time in the next 3 years;
  • For $50, 10% off all visits by any member of your family for 3 years PLUS
  • For $50, 10% off all items in our bookstore, including by mail;
  • For $25, you will find 2 tickets on call for the next performance of Moonshine Boheme at the Great Hall of the Prancing Poet
  • For $20, tour the site with Albert Bates for 1 hour, learning about the permacultural and ecological design aspects in detail;
  • With any donation your name goes on our Wall of Honor; and
  • If you cannot donate now, please share the link with your friends!

Other Ways You Can Help

Some people just can’t contribute, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help:
And that’s all there is to it. Over the last 40+ years, The Farm has become well known for many things, from natural childbirth and midwifery to healthy diet and vegetarian cuisine, creative arts, reforestation and alternative technologies to its partnerships and assistance to native cultures. We choose to live in community where we share our lives and fortunes, good times and hard times. We know that we are better people together than we could be separately, but we are not just the young folks who chose to live at this one place anymore. We are a much larger tribe, one that thinks about big issues and constantly strives to make things better, and to provide positive examples from which people learn. From which things change. Will you help?

Direct your friends to this page, Like our Facebook cause page ( and visit our website at We are a registered, tax-deductible charity. We'll be posting more in the near future — a new website, videos, progress reports, so please make a small contribution now to stay updated as we go. Thanks!




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