Sunday, January 18, 2015

One Nuke, One Nation

People will realize nuclear power stations take up to ten years to build…. The poor will not be able to afford the investment or the fuel. Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas will become completely frenzied.

- Petroleum geologist Dr. Colin Campbell, March 2002.
Bill McKibben offers a bit of a mea culpa without specifics when he says, in Eaarth (2010), that he winces a bit when he reads what he wrote as a much younger man in The End of Nature (1989). Perhaps he is referring to his writing style, but that has changed very little. More likely he refers to his praise in End of Nature for nuclear energy and genetic engineering, which he said would be okay if we can just allow ourselves to tolerate the risks.

At the same time The End of Nature was published, our own less noticed Climate in Crisis pulled no punches where nukes or gene splicing were concerned. Of genetic engineering we wrote:

"Circumventing this ancient breeding barrier in the laboratory opens a door into a realm we have never previously entered. It is almost as foreign as if the laws of gravity and magnetism were suddenly suspended. For a brief moment in time we inhabit a different world. But we should ask: Is it a better world? Is it sustainable?"

Of nuclear power, we wrote:

 "One Chernobyl-scale accident every ten years is an inevitable consequence of light-water reactors in the hands of light-headed men. Inevitable. Even without accidents, some 250 radioactive isotopes are released into the environment by the fissioning of uranium fuels. These invisible radionuclides are inhaled, ingested, swallowed, absorbed, and passed around the biological domain we inhabit. Cancers and birth defects, diseases of the immune system, and general increases in the ill health of populations living near nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps are steadily increasing as the pollution from commercial fission spreads."

Every now and then it is useful to look at what these so-called advances of science have wrought. We can pass over genetic modification for the moment because it has really done little more than boost the bottom line for herbicide manufacturers and Big Pharma laboratories without providing any of the revolutionary products Bill McKibben promised it would, and nuclear power is random, compulsory, non-consensual genetic engineering in any event.

Take, for instance, this report just in from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) January 12, 2015 (Google Translation):

For pumping water groundwater observation hole No.1-12 taken on January 12, cesium 134, cesium 137, cobalt 60 and total beta value is higher as compared with the previous value, the maximum value previously is detected.

Cesium-134: 140 Bq/L [~7,500% above Jan. 5 level; new record high]
Cesium-137: 470 Bq/L [~7,500% above Jan. 5 level; new record high]
Cobalt-60: 1.9 Bq/L [Quadruple previous record high set in 2013]
β (all beta): 15,000 Bq/L [~6,000% above Jan. 8 level; ~1,300% above previous record high]

Tepco's observation hole number 1-12 is near the Fukushima Unit 2 trench that channels the thousands of tons of highly radioactive water that keep gushing out of the melted core as rains push groundwater through and rising seas lap at the crumbling seawall.  Tepco is attempting to seal the trench, but has failed repeatedly.

After touring the facility, on December 14th, Dr. Steve Elwart, an engineer and expert for US Dept. of Homeland Security, reported:

With most of the media silent about the cleanup, the public may think the worst is over. Nothing could be further from the truth… [Radioactive water is] leaking out into the ocean, allowing it to spread… around the world through ocean currents [and this has] prompted grave concerns over the impact on sea life in the area and around the world. [Officials] decided to build an “ice wall” around the reactor site… TEPCO conceded defeat and announced the efforts to construct the plug failed… As if things couldn’t get worse, less than two months ago, TEPCO once again came out with an announcement that it was having problems with the ice wall [and] was going to cease operations on the ice wall and pour cement… TEPCO President Naomi Hirose stated officials “will never give up” on the wall… debate continues over how to stop water from leaking into the ocean… outright failures continue to plague the Fukushima cleanup efforts.

After spending much of December pouring cement into underground tunnels to stop the water inflow, officials reported to Japan's Nuclear Authority that when they pumped water up from one of the pits, the water level at another pit changed. That suggests that gaps exist in the concrete-filled tunnels. The water is believed to be leaking in from the ground and out to the sea. Worse, now that the tunnels have been filled with concrete, they cannot be excavated to staunch the flow.

Tepco has been employing impoverished farmers and shopkeepers in the region as "jumpers," administering the maximum allowable dose among ever expanding numbers of Japanese men and women of childbearing age before discharging and replacing them with fresh atomfodder. While it could be conceivable that some method could be employed to jackhammer the December concrete pour for a do-over, Tepco is not going there, yet.

February 9, 2014:  TV: Fukushima underground dam not working, radiation levels now exceeding gov’t limit near shore — Tepco Official: “The flow of contaminated water into ocean is causing problems… It’s quite difficult to stop” (VIDEO)

November 14, 2014:  TV: Attempt to stop flow of highly radioactive liquid at Fukushima “in doubt” — AP: Much of it is pouring in trenches going out into Pacific — Experts: Amount entering ocean “increasing by 400 tons daily” — Problem “so severe” it’s consuming nearly all workers at site — Top Plant Official: “Little cause for optimism” (VIDEO)

November 23, 2014: Officials have “admitted failure” at Fukushima plant — Giving up on attempts “to prevent highly contaminated water from pouring into ocean” — Regulator asks “What was all the trouble over the past months for?” — Gov’t experts worried cement barrier is going to crack (VIDEO)

December 3, 2013: TV: All-time high radiation level in well at Fukushima plant 40 meters from Pacific — 1.1 billion Bq/m³ of strontium-90, other beta emitters — “Feared highly contaminated water leaking into ground” and being allowed to flow into sea (VIDEO)

May 21, 2014:  Risk of “disturbing crust” around Fukushima reactors from plan to reduce amount of groundwater — Nuclear Officials: Land could start ‘sinking’ — WSJ: Changing water flow may cause highly contaminated leak.

From an older documentary featuring radiation experts (at 6:30 in):

Dr. Alice Stewart, physician and epidemiologist: All recommendations say one big hit is more dangerous than just a little one… It’s the basis of the control of nuclear waste — if you dilute it enough, it will be safe. Well, we say dilute it and it will add to the dangers.

Jan van de Putte, radiation safety specialist: There’s a philosophy called the dilution philosophy, which means if you dilute something, then it doesn’t give any harm. But with all the knowledge we have today, we must say radiation is inducing health damage regardless of how little the doses of are. If you dilute radiation… all the health effects will only be more widely distributed. This is the only effect of this dilution philosophy.

Dr. Richard Piccioni, biophysicist: Whether you have put it all in one place or have spread it out, the total irradiation of human beings… is the same. In fact if what some researchers like Dr. Stewart are saying is true, it will be even worse.

As these reports stream into our laptop, a sidebar advertisement reads: Thorium Replaces Uranium: Nuclear Meltdowns Will Be History Smart Investors Will Get In Now

Imagine a world in which we can produce clean nuclear energy without the fear of a nuclear disaster.
Thorium offers that future.
But the element still isn't in widespread use. Only a limited range of reactors can handle thorium reactions, and research is still being conducted to maximize the potential of these reactors.
That's why, once these reactors reach their full potential, the few companies involved in thorium exploration will come out on top.
A new report from Energy and Capital explains this in detail, including why thorium will become more important to the nuclear sector, who is involved in the research, and how you can begin to add thorium to your portfolio.

The Japanese government, demonstrating spectacular ignorance for a nation that was atomic power's first guinea pig, at first insisted that TEPCO "clean up" the water flowing from emergency pumps into newly constructed tank farms. You know, use some floral pink detergent or something. Scrub, rinse, repeat.

In November 2013, a meeting was held of a “task force for a high performance multi-nuclide removal system” (aka ALPS). But apparently the site tests for TEPCO's ALPS system didn’t go as expected. The "ionizing" radioactive material in the water was thought to exist as individual molecules having a static charge. It seems that the radioactive ions in the water actually exist as “colloids” or clumps of material. Colloidal material is much bigger than ions and quickly plug filters designed to attract charged particles. The meeting concluded the system generates too much waste material, or “slurry,” that is still dangerously radioactive. ALPS only made the problem larger.

March 17, 2014: Record cesium levels at Pacific Ocean sampling location north of Fukushima plant — Spikes to 6,900 Bq/m³ from ‘not detected’ in one day

May 18, 2014: Record-high radiation levels have been observed” Tepco says — Officials: “Cause of seawater spike is unknown”

September 15, 2014: Ocean hits record high for radioactive Strontium at all 6 locations near Fukushima reactors — Levels up to 20 times higher than reported last week — Officials: Contamination from highly radioactive ‘debris’ is seeping into ground and flowing out to sea

October 16, 2014: Record Radiation at Fukushima after Vongfong: First tests since Tuesday’s typhoon show radioactive material continues rising near ocean — Officials: We can’t do anything more to stop this, ‘depth and scope’ of contamination flowing out are unknown
Meanwhile The New York Times reported on January 16 that the oceans were already dying, even before the billions of gallons of radioactive water started spewing from Fukushima into the Pacific current.

Coral reefs have declined by 40 percent worldwide, partly as a result of climate-change-driven warming. The paper reported separately the same day that 2014 is now officially the warmest year on record.

Some fish are migrating to cooler waters already. Black sea bass, once most common off the coast of Virginia, have moved up to New Jersey. Less fortunate species may not be able to find new ranges. At the same time, carbon emissions are altering the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic.

“If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy,” Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, said. “In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans.”

Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, which are projected to provide most of the fish we consume within 20 years. Bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble.

 “We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Comparing patterns of terrestrial and marine defaunation helps to place human impacts on marine fauna in context …. [It] began in earnest tens of thousands of years later in the oceans than it did on land…. Despite our late start, humans have already powerfully changed virtually all major marine ecosystems.

While we cannot yet epidemiologically connect the dots, on Jan 10th the Orange County Register tweeted:

8 sea lions rescued in OC in just over a week; number mystifies officials.

It’s not normal for eight sea lions to need rescuing in just over a week — especially at this time of year. But that’s exactly what has happened… six were pups and yearlings… [one] only 21 pounds, and [another] 23 pounds… [Experts don't] know why it’s happening.

Related tweets:

ABC 7′s Greg Lee, Jan 12, 2015: Sad, sad photo: Huge increase in rescued #sealions across CA.

ABC Los Angeles, Jan 12, 2015: News at 5: a big increase in the number of stranded sea lions being rescued… Some of them very seriously ill… nearly a dozen sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Baby sea lions in very bad shape.

Kirsten Sedlick, PMMC supervisor: Since January 1st, we’ve had 11 stranded California sea lions; last January we had 4 total [On pace for 30 in January, over 7 times last year's total]… They are extremely emaciated; we’ve noticed there’s been a high parasite infestation in them as well and some upper respiratory infections.

NBC Los Angeles: Jan 12, 2015: What’s making these sea lions so sick?… Experts say this is a year they are concerned about a UME… an unusual mortality event. … If this rate of 2.22/day continues, January’s total will be ~70 — over 5 times Jan 2014. At the Marine Mammal Center in the Bay Area, 15 patients died in just over a month at the end of 2014. The previous year saw one death in the same period.


UC Berkeley Nuclear Professor: California seeing Fukushima fallout won’t be a surprise — ‘Especially concerned’ after radioactive leaks at plant were admitted — “I’m not terribly confident in information Japan is sharing”. January 19, 2014

UC Berkeley Nuclear Prof.: My wife’s “very concerned” about Fukushima impact in U.S., my children are also concerned, as is public… I am too — His ‘Kelp Watch’ Co-founder: “We’d all be better off if this material didn’t exist and wasn’t coming over, but… nothing we can do about it” (AUDIO) February 6, 2014

NBC: Record level of sick or injured California seals and sea lions turning up — “The numbers are extraordinary” — “Scientists worried… The worst kind of perfect storm” — Pups should be weighing 2 or 3 times as much, “severely malnourished” (VIDEO) April 18, 2014

CBS San Francisco: Record number of sick seals & sea lions — Doctor: A lot with “large pockets of green and yellow puss all over their body.” April 20, 2014

TV: Over 50 dead seals, sea lions, whales, walrus recently stranded in Alaska — Dozens of seals suffering from baldness, skin sores — Experts: “Marine transported Fukushima radionuclides… may represent a new stressor to ecosystem” May 6, 2014

TV: Huge increase in dead and sick sea mammals on California coast — Unprecedented numbers, annual record broken in 7 months — Starving, drooling, brain damaged, suffering seizures — Sea lions ‘mysteriously’ vanishing on other side of Pacific — Experts: We don’t know what’s happening (VIDEO). August 3, 2014

TV: “Surge in marine mammal strandings” on US West Coast — Scientists: “This is very weird”; “My biggest fear is if this… is everywhere” along coast — Whales, dolphins, sea lions, birds recently washing up in large numbers — Many thousands likely dead — Violent seizures shown on news (VIDEO) August 30, 2014

Does anyone still think any nation should be lurching headlong to a nuclear powered future?

And yet, China plans to expand atomic capacity threefold by 2020 with more than 5 gigawatts of added capacity, Shen Lixin, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Nuclear Society,  said in Beijing January 15. China has 22 reactors in operation and another 26 under construction. Atomic energy now accounts for just 2 percent of the country’s total power generation, according to IEA estimates.

Asia has 47 reactors under construction and a further 142 forecast by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association. Asian investment in nuclear projects could reach $781 billion even before cost overruns.

All this, while nearby, lonely little Japan has yet to grasp what few outside will say, that Fukushima was a bullet to its abdomen, and while the process of death is slow, it is certain.

The first symptoms came in the Tokyo markets that sold products from Fukushima – sake, rice and fish, for instance. Those accustomed to seeing products from that region noted their disappearance, and for many it was just as well, because they had already stopped buying them.

Then China, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand started to test food imported from Japan for radiation, and the European Union recommended that its member countries do the same. Manufacturers began sweeping cars waiting for oversea shipment, knowing they would be tested on arrival at their destinations.

In the US, EPA and FDA were forced to cut radiation checks at the insistence of Hillary Clinton's State Department, which stepped into to protect Japanese exports. Responding to critics, FDA said, “based on current information, there is no risk to the U.S. food supply.” Japan accounts for 4 percent of American food imports.

Pre-Fuke, Japan had the world's third largest economy. Today Japan is synonymous with stagflation, used as a cautionary tale to other economies — warning where they might be headed unless they act with either Keynesian stimulus packages or extreme austerity, or perhaps, like Switzerland, keep one foot mashing the accelerator and the other desperately pounding the brake.

The government's response to Fukushima has been to throw money at Tepco. Japanese people hold about 90 percent of the government's debt, yet the yield on the 10-year bond is less than 1 percent. Bondholders' faith in this government non-strategy is Japan's only finger in the dam. Pensioners are making no money but are willing to hold on out of patriotism.

"We find that the amount of government debt will exceed the private sector financial assets available for the government debt purchase in the next 10 years or so," wrote economist Takeo Hoshi in the journal Economic Policy.

Japan is an aging society, and its household savings rate will inevitably decline, placing pressure on government bond issues. As the crisis wears on, the post-war baby-boomers are using more savings to live on, and the working-age population is in decline by 8 percent, halving every 9 years.

Of course, this says nothing about the health care impact when the radiation-induced cancers and genetic effects come home to roost after latent periods of 15, 20 and 30 years. The Japanese have seen this pattern before, but are slow to recognize they have just had it done to them again, only five to five-hundred times worse.

Figures for 2012 put Japan's net debt-to-GDP ratio at about 134 percent. By comparison, the United States is at 87 percent and the United Kingdom is at 82 percent. Japan's debt ratio is higher than southern European countries. Greece eventually defaulted on its debts when the net debt-to-GDP ratio reached 150 percent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that without a substantial adjustment, Japan's net debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 200 percent by 2023. "Japan's fiscal situation is not sustainable," Hoshi says.

One need only look back to the nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. During the accident 31 heroic but foolhardy Ukrainian jumpers perished and long-term effects such as cancers are estimated to run to the tens of millions, with 985,000 already reported prior to 2004 by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.  The Chernobyl accident was relatively quickly followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no coincidence in our opinion.

A similar result could come from meltdown of the reactors upwind of New York City, Washington DC, Paris, London, Delhi, Madrid, Capetown or any number of other locations.

One bomb, one city, was what Pentagon brass said jubilantly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now the slogan could be one nuke, one nation.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

We love Eleanor Roosevelt. And Eleanor Roosevelt loved the United Nations. While it does not necessarily follow that we too love the United Nations, we have always felt that the central idea of a United Nations was a good one, in fact it is really the only one that has any chance at all of ending war, colonialism, slave trade, arms trade, nuclear power and weapons, and destruction of the Earth's natural patrimony, be it oceans, atmosphere, biodiversity, sacred sites or indigenous wisdom.

Like it or don't, these days if you want to resolve conflict, either between groups humans or with the natural world, at the global scale, it is the only game in town.

"OK, everybody was aware of the horrors that nationalism had wrought in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, instead of—one impulse was to create something called the United Nations. And then, the unfortunate side impulse was: Let’s not give it any power; that’s too dangerous."
— Art Spiegelman, Democracy Now, January 8, 2014

In his 2015 Forecast for the USA,  James Howard Kunstler emotes an R.Crumb-style, dystopian vision of modernity:

The pervasive racketeering that poisons American life from the money-in-politics farce, to the shameless, chiseling medical-pharma cabal, to the SNAP-card and disability rights empire of grift, to the college loan swindle, to the disgusting security state apparatus, to the corporate tyranny of local life and economies, to the delusional techno-narcissism of the media, to the despotic and puerile gender preoccupations of academia — all of it adds up to a society that cares as little for the present as it does for the future. And that’s aside from the pathetic digital device addiction of the generation coming up, and the sheer sordid behavior of the tattooed, drug-saturated, pornified masses of adults now forever foreclosed from a purposeful existence or a decent standard of living.

Even physically America is a sorry-ass spectacle: between our decrepitating cities, abandoned Main Streets, gruesome strip-mall highways, repellent and monotonous suburbs, dreary industrial ruins, profaned countryside, and desecrated coastline, there is little left to actually love about This land is Your Land. We’ve made so many collective bad choices about how we live that one can’t help feeling we are simply a wicked people who deserve to be punished.


Obama and his party can be faulted for fostering the myth that every young person needs a college degree — leading a whole generation into debt penury for no good purpose, while depriving society of a long list of vocational roles and livelihoods based on providing genuine service or value. We will be a nation of unemployed gender studies graduates instead of plumbers, electricians, organic farmers, arborists, carpenters, machinists, nurses and paramedics, small business owners, et cetera.

This enormous bundle of myths and misplaced expectations for yesterday’s tomorrow prevents the collective national imagination from summoning a revised American Dream based on repairing the massive destruction of recent decades.
Kunstler's phrase, "yesterday's tomorrow," aptly sums up much of what one feels at UN events. The themes Eleanor Roosevelt set in motion with her famous speeches on the future of the United Nations are still alive, but bear about as much resemblance to the state of the world in 2015 as rocket shoes, robo-maids or Disney Mars.

In ginning up support for nations to join the UN, Roosevelt said in Paris in 1948

Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. The United Nations has made it clear that it intends to uphold human rights and to protect the dignity of the human personality. In the preamble to the Charter the keynote is set when it declares: "We the people of the United Nations determined...   to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and... to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." This reflects the basic premise of the Charter that the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all.

One of the purposes of the United Nations is declared in article 1 to be: "to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

This thought is repeated at several points and notably in articles 55 and 56 the Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for the promotion of "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

We will leave aside the obvious disparity today between Obaman diplomatic positions and that of the UN charter, as evidenced by the recent Senate findings on torture, the on-going rendition and drone assassination program being run from some deep bunker in the White House, the banal daily torture programs at Gitmo, Bagram and other black sites, the malign neglect — by unilateral Security Council veto — for the human rights of Palestinians, the creation of a security state in the home city of the UN that resembles Germany c. 1933-1945, tracing its Machtergreifung (seizure of power) to the Diebold/Scalia fiasco of 2000.

Our focus instead is on the UN's increasingly out-of-touch agenda for "sustainable development" by mid-century. Because of the glacial pace of finding consensus among 180+ nations, very little gets done, and then only very slowly. Most nations change UN delegates every year or two and send newbies who are completely unacquainted with the names of the janitors, and sometimes outright opposed to the UN as an entity (UN Ambassador John Bolton in 2005, one of the authors of Cheney's Niger-Uranium-Italian-Memo). 
Sometimes they are there for the travel junkets and baby blue paraphernalia. Parking tickets owed New York City by Egypt: $1.9 million. More often, they are there as a return for some kind of political favor. Henry Kissinger was impressed with Shirley Temple Black at a cocktail party in 1967.

And yet, the UN gets handed every thankless task on the planet, man-made and otherwise. It sets up temporary refugee camps that end up growing like cancers for half a century, as in the case of the Palestinian diaspora camps. It loses hundreds of skilled paramedics to Ebola. It watches real peacemaking heroes like Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the third High Commissioner for Human Rights, get blown to bits. But it keeps slogging on, underfunded, unappreciated, and often reviled.

The Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, set a mandate to establish an Open Working Group (OWG) to incorporate the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) into a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) for action by the General Assembly at its 68th session (UNGA68, Sep-Oct 2013). UNGA68 commanded that the SDGs should be the roadmap for the world's development agenda beyond 2015.

In its simplest form, the SDGs are reduced to 17 agenda items:

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts *
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
Each of these goals is dissected by committees, further articulated by civil partners, subjected to annual conferences and negotiations, and assigned a timetable. There are SDG policies on finance, technology, trade, capacity building and systemic issues. There are multistakeholder partnerships, data collection, monitoring and forums on accountability.

So, for instance, it is a target under Goal 16 that by 2030 there shall be legal identity for all, which means everyone should have a right to birth registration, whether they are born in a welfare hospital on Roosevelt Island, the Lindo Wing of the Imperial College, or under an acacia bush in the Subsahel.

Or, under Goal 14, by 2020, all international law shall prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to fleet overcapacity, seine netting and overfishing the oceans. Or, under Goal 1, by 2030 no-one on the planet has to live on less than $1.25 per day and by then we shall have reduced at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty. Poverty still has to be defined, and there are committees working on that, but $1.25 per day is a good start.

These are worthy goals. While no one imagines that ending poverty in all its forms everywhere is even remotely possible (What about poverty of culture? Poverty of imagination? Poverty of spirit?), it seems entirely feasible that wealth could be distributed enough to assure none has to live below a standard of $1.25 per day, right?

Well, there are a few hitches in the UN process.

As discussed often on this site, the world's economic Ponzi hoax based on fractional reserve everything teters, as we read this, on the brink of collapse. Historically, whenever private debt (households plus businesses, not sovereigns) to GDP ratios run 1.5:1 or higher, and are enlarging debt annually at greater than 20% (doubling it every 3 to 4 years), according to macroeconomist Steve Keen, a crash quickly ensues. Today, nearly every country exceeds the first of those two conditions and all the major economies exceed the second. Per incuriam, financial collapse will arrive shortly. Wall Street prophets predict we'll see some real fireworks by the third or fourth quarter of 2015.
How do crashing economies respond to poverty? They make it worse. Same for the other 16 goals.

Classical economics conveniently overlooks the net energy equation, also known as EROIE, or energy return on invested energy. Economists like Paul Krugman or the Chicago school assume that energy goes on the supply side of the supply/demand balance. Any time there is a shortage of supply, demand will rise, drive up price, and more supplies will follow. One might only look at the current oil glut and the fracking boom and say "case in point." One would be sadly deluded.

As Lisa Zyga writes:

In neoclassical growth models, there are two main contributing factors to economic growth: labor and capital. However, these models are far from perfect, accounting for less than half of actual economic growth. The rest of the growth is accounted for by the Solow residual, which is thought to be attributed to the difficult-to-quantify factor of "technological progress."...

In a new study published in the New Journal of Physics, Professor Reiner Kümmel at the University of Würzburg and Dr. Dietmar Lindenberger at the University of Cologne argue that the missing ingredient represented by the Solow residual consists primarily of energy. They show that, for thermodynamic reasons, energy should be taken into account as a third production factor, on an equal footing with the traditional factors capital and labor....
Right now we are surfing a frothing energy wave. U.S. crude oil production over the last three years rose roughly 1 million b/d each year.  Analyst Tom Whipple says "That is by far the fastest rate of increase, as well as the largest absolute increase, in US crude oil production history. It might also be the largest three-year oil production increase in world oil production history." Shale oil was the reason — highest from the Eagle Ford in Texas, North Dakota’s Bakken, and five big formations in the Permian basin. But was it new gushers or cheap credit driving the boom?

Oil patch expert Arthur Berman said recently:

Continental Resources is the biggest player in the Bakken. Their free cash flow—cash from operating activities minus capital expenditures—was -$1.1 billion in the third- quarter of 2014. That means that they spent more than $1 billion more than they made. Their debt was 120% of equity. That means that if they sold everything they own, they couldn’t pay off all their debt. That was at $93 oil prices.

Despite amazing technological breakthroughs, or perhaps because of them, the cost of drilling and completing fracked wells is very high. That drives up oil company debt. Shale debt doubled over the last four years. Shell and other majors pulled out, citing vastly smaller returns than estimated.

NASA: fugitive methane emissions from wells and pipelines
Just imagine how low those returns could go if frackers were required to arrest fugitive methane emissions that give gas drilling a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. The invisible, odorless plume from just the New Mexico play has now grown to the size of Delaware and is monitored by NASA satellites. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, 9 percent of US emissions, enough to provide power to every household in Delaware — and Maryland and Virginia too.

The shale oil boom may plateau in the 2016-2017 time frame, then decline rapidly. The bust could even come in 2015 if a black swan event like dropping the Iranian nuclear sanctions plummets the Brent crude fix to $20/b.

Berman reminds us that Saudi Arabia met with Russia before the November OPEC meeting and proposed that if Russia — now swimming in new proven reserves — cut production, Saudi Arabia would also cut and get Kuwait and the Emirates to cut with it. According to Berman, "Russia said, 'No,' so Saudi Arabia said, 'Fine, maybe you will change your mind in six months.'"

Then a funny thing happened. Russia was slammed with a bunch of EU sanctions over its so-called "invasion" of Crimea (that was actually a naked grab by NATO for Ukraine and a popular vote by Crimeans to get the heck out of the way of whatever might be coming). Eastern Ukraine was pounded into rubble, a Dutch airliner shot down, a lot of bad stuff happened. Refugees fled into Russia. The ruble crashed. Now suddenly Russian LNG is selling for a fraction of its worth, at least the part that is not siphoned off by NATO/Ukraine on its way to Europe. Lo and behold, Russia now has a strong incentive to cut production. Who would have thought?

The fracking boom has never amounted to much more than smoke and mirrors, or as Kunstler said,

Despite the triumphal agitprop of the past few years, peak oil is for real. It just manifests more strangely than most people thought, namely, the simpleminded idea that it would only show up as ever-rising prices. No, I made point in The Long Emergency (2005) — and other commentators did too [Greer in The Long Descent, ourselves in the Post-Petroleum Guide – ed.] — that peak oil would manifest as volatility. And so since the actual moment of peak conventional crude around 2005, we’ve seen pretty wild oscillations in the price of oil. This is due to the harsh reality that the price people and enterprises can afford to pay for increasingly harder-to-get oil is less than the price that makes it possible to get it. This sets up a yo-yo-ing instability in economic performance that exacerbates even normal wave patterns in the business cycle (which are, in turn, aggravated by banks and governments’ interventions such as ZIRP to suppress those cycles). Below $70-a-barrel the producers go broke; above $70-a-barrel the customers go broke. So the price wobbles up and down as financial Ponzis like shale oil are introduced onto the scene in the hope that debt finagling and mineral rights leasing scams can substitute for physics and geological reality. One trouble with this is that each violent oscillation generates more economic and financial destruction. Activities like motoring, aviation, manufacturing, and retail are badly affected and the entire financial system is made more fragile by worsening increments. Most importantly, the cost structure of the oil industry itself gets battered to a degree that fewer companies can survive to produce the remaining oil.
Without economic propulsion from that magic elixir, the planet's 500-million-year savings account of fossil energy, how do we suppose any of those 17 SDG targets are going to be met? And if we are on the backside of the curve now, since 2005, that means we are also descending Maslow's pyramid of needs and wants. Our aspirations move from higher goals, such as reducing inequality within and among countries or promoting life-long learning opportunities, to goals like finding food, water and shelter for the three or more billion people fleeing rising coastlines and other climate chaos by mid-century.

Of course, there is also the issue of human population. The UN has recognized the importance of this, establishing the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. That conference received considerable media attention due to disputes regarding the assertion of reproductive rights. The Holy See and the Islamic bloc were staunch critics. Bill Clinton was chastised by evangelical conservatives for sending Al Gore, an evangelical, to represent the US.

Twenty years later, the population issue remains deadlocked at the UN, much like the climate issue. It is understandable. In the case of climate, to disengage from soiling our nest would mean having to abandon capitalism and that whole profit thing. That will always be a non-starter, despite all the evidence it is driving us towards near-term human extinction.

For us to reduce population would mean bucking the fecundity strategy that our species evolved even before it had a frontal cortex. Sex just feels good. It's in our lizard brain. You gonna stop that? Maybe with the Koran or the Bible? Seriously? How is that working out with drugs and alcohol? Sugar craving? Homosexuality? Pork?

The UN says:

Sustainable Development Goals are accompanied by targets and will be further elaborated through indicators focused on measurable outcomes. They are action oriented, global in nature and universally applicable. They take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respect national policies and priorities. They build on the foundation laid by the MDGs [Millennial Development Goals], seek to complete the unfinished business of the MDGs, and respond to new challenges. These goals constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development. Targets are defined as aspirational global targets, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. The goals and targets integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages in achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions.
Sustainable development is unsustainable, if it means sustaining a system of piling up material wealth, ruthless exploitation of finite resources, extracted at great social and environmental cost, not recycling or distributing back but instead rewarding the acquisitive, and building high-embodied-energy monuments called cities, which reduce people to living on paychecks, drawing dwindling resources from the distant periphery towards the empirical center, and then multiplying that whole enterprise by some doubling function based upon the survival rate of sperm in the ampulla.

As Manab Chakraborty said, "Development is expanding to satisfy unlimited wants. Sustainability is happiness within limited means." Infinite material development is incompatible with sustainability.

Sustainable development is sustainable if what is developed is not more, but better: better quality of life, better food from better soils, better climate, better and abundant water, better diversity of fellow lifeforms, and so forth. This better is the enemy of more. The way to sustainability, which is illusory at best, as a species, is through systemic degrowth, not reflexive growth.

In 2006, when we proposed "the Great Change," as the best way to describe the next few decades, as opposed to "the Great Turning," "the Long Descent," or "the Long Emergency," we were trying to be optimistic. It may be foolish, but that is our bent. The Great Change is about a slow-building but then sudden shift, less having to do with physical constraints and ways of coping, as about changing our minds after grasping something we had long overlooked.

Our global outlook will change, suddenly and collectively. We will all, suddenly, understand the story differently than our parents and grandparents did. Many of us may not live to see that happen, but we might. What that moment implies is not some supernatural singularity issuing in an Age of Aquarius (can I hear a Hosanna?), but a serious reckoning of what we still have within our power. Hopefully it will be accompanied with the knowledge of what must be done to heal a broken ecological balance and save ourselves. Dispensing that information is the function of this website. This is the hope that drives it.

What we can work towards is, as Kunstler said, "the collective national imagination … summoning a revised American Dream [and its global counterpart] based on repairing the massive destruction." That is what we call The Great Change.

When the UN was resurrected from the rubble of total, genocidal war punctuated by a small foretaste of nuclear holocaust, the idea was that men should live by rules. Rules should be serious, reality based, and legally enforced.

When the moment of recognition comes that many old, fossilized rules from the Age of Empires serve us poorly and much of what the UN has been grinding through for 68 years is the only serious game in town, we can take those 17 goals and turn them into rules. Break the rules, pay the consequences. Abide within the rules, and life can be very, very good.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Climate Mash

"Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear."

  Our favorite subjects for this blog are climate change, energy and civilization collapse. We spend equal amounts of time describing the remedies for these evils — permaculture, ecovillage, biochar, and carbon farming, for instance, because we hold out a sliver of hope humanity still might be able to redirect our otherwise dismal prospects.

Malcolm X said "tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear. We feel insecure about the future. We sense a chill wind blowing, a storm approaching. It is visceral. It is in the zeitgeist. No one has to speak of it, we all … just … know. Can we find a safe place? Can we lay in some supplies? What about our loved ones? What about our previous life, possessions, skills, interests?

But to prepare we first need to know. What are we talking about? Can we know, even in rough outlines? And if we get that right, can we do anything now that would change the outcome to something more to our liking?

That is why we study climate, and write about it, and try to understand. It is a really angry beast at the gates. A hundred thousand years ago it gave us an extraordinary gift, and by delicately, respectfully, reverently abiding within a dance of life and death with that gift, we won an extraordinary, unprecedented run of the perfect global climate for mammalian life, capped by 12000 years of exceptionally good days. And what did we do? We blew it off for an infatuation with muscle cars and motorcycles.

Here then is what we learned about the future in 2014.

Our special thanks for the many who contributed to this report:

BBC News
Bill McKibben
Biochar Bob Cirino
Biochar Solutions
Biodiversity for a Livable Climate   
Blue Sky Biochar
Carbon Roots International
Eoin Campbell / GoPro Camera
Fox News
General Anthony Zinni
General Chuck Wald
General Gordon Sullivan
General Ron Keyes
General Wesley Clark
Global National
Global Observatory
Guy McPherson
Hugh McLaughlin
Jason A YouTube Channel
Jeffrey Wallin
Johannes Lehmann
Josiah Hunt
Kelpie Wilson
Michael Wittman
Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc.
Natalia Shakova
Paul Beckwith
Peter Sinclair
Peter Wadhaus
Rear Admiral David Titley
Right Livelihood Foundation
Rosie Boycott
Stuart Scott, UPFSI
The Biochar Company
Tom Goreau, Global Coral Reef Alliance
Tom Newmark, The Carbon Underground
Tufts University
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
US Biochar Initiative
Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Farewell 2014

There is this funny little Facebook app that summarizes one's year in a handful of selected photos. At first we ignored it, but then we liked some of the albums we were sent by friends, so we made one ourselves. The limitations of the medium quickly became apparent.

How can we summarize the past 12 months of one human life in 12-16 photos? And what about the two new books we published, the dozens of essays, the seeming quixotic but intensely rewarding research, the mentoring of bright new talents, or the lovely blossoming of friendships, new and old?

James Gleick said, “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought." If that is true, our evolution is now being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter, a form of cultural lobotomy — the truncation of elegant, poetic, ineffable life passages into 140 characters.

We thought it might be nice to close the year with an album of a different kind. Instead of measuring our outputs, we decided to have a look at the new inputs we tapped. We began a review of some of our favorite books, films and performances of 2014. Then, as we started to list them, it quickly became unmanageable. For instance, there were at least 85 books that we can remember getting through at least in part during this past year. The number of films and TV series has to be at least that long. We can recall binge watching entire seasons of some clever series in a couple days, downloading them from the web. At least we didn't go to many conferences, but the total number of inspired speakers we heard, or later watched via web links, is larger than both of the other categories.

To keep this to a manageable length – precisely the kind of truncation we just complained of - what we have assembled is just our tops in class for each of those three categories. We live in a rural ecovillage and do not have ready access to the art theatres, galleries, dance studios, off-broadway, or many other cultural crosscurrents enjoyed by our city cousins, or these lists might have been much better. We like to think our enjoyment of the daily display put on by the natural world more than makes up for any cultural privations.

Best Book: 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

While we have seen some of this before in the pages of The New Yorker and love her previous Field Notes from a Catastrophe, the 336-page Sixth Extinction was hard to set down. Kolbert is one of the best science writers alive today, and her final insights were disturbing even for confirmed doomers such as ourselves.

Also ran:

Just Kids
by Patti Smith.

A touching memoir we read on our annual dugout canoe journey upriver in Belize. Still amazed at the depth of detail, and in awe of Patti Smith's journaling skills in her raw youth.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
This book came out in 2010 and it has generated a lot of controversy. Everyone should read it to better understand how cultural biases have been perverting our better natures.

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis
This is not memorable wordsmithing and it is even more controversial than Sex at Dawn, but it changed our life by changing what we eat. See too: David Perlmutter, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar--Your Brain's Silent Killers

The Man Who Quit Money by William Sundeen
The central character is not as admirable as the title might suggest, but this non-fiction chronicle is top notch. Some day we may all find ourselves in similar situations, sans volition.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. "In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” “We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.” “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”

Books best avoided:

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

Top Conference Presentation:

Global Oil Market Forecasting: Main Approaches & Key Drivers by Steven Kopits, Managing Director, Douglas-Westwood at Columbia SIPA: CGEP, Center on Global Energy Policy, February 2014. In the showdown between earth and economy, Mother Nature bats last.

Also rans:

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate in Massachusetts. Watch the whole thing. If we have to pick one standout, it would be Larry Kopald, Co-Founder and President of The Carbon Underground, speaking on the tipping points of viral memes (embed below).

Savory Institute's Annual International Conference in London. Watch the available videos while they are still outside the Savory paywall. Best of breed: Elaine Ingham, Darren Doherty.

Age of Limits Dennis Meadows doesn't accept many invitations to speak these days, but he came out for the Age of Limits conference in Pennsylvania and, as usual, he dazzled. Earlier video link here:

Best avoided: COP-20 Lima, and anything with the word "Sustainable" in the title.

Films and TV:

Our favorite: Shameless on Showtime
This is cinema verité at its pinnacle: dirty, dark, contemporary, biting. Collapse has already arrived. Most USAnians don't get to see it unless they look under the rug. This series gets it, with delicious humor.

Also rans:

America's Darling (PBS)
Boom Bust (RT)
Boss (Starz)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Keiser Report (RT)
Lilyhammer (Netflix)
Lucy (EuropaCorp)
Mad Men (AMC)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Nixon's The One (YouTube)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
The Geoff Lawton Permaculture Design Course series (Vimeo)
The Good Wife (CBS)
The Honourable Woman (Sundance)
The Newsroom (HBO)
The Trews (YouTube)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)
Transcendence (Warner Brothers)   
True Detective (HBO)


Madam Secretary  - A drama about the personal and professional life of a Hillary Clinton character as she tries to balance her work and family life. Flogging for Drone Wars, the CIA and Gitmo. Téa Leoni, have you no shame? (CBS)

True Blood – The bayou vampire classic, now too formulaic in its old age, would have been merciful to end a couple seasons earlier. (Showtime)

Walking Dead (AMC, same problem).

24 (Fox) "Every week, Jack Bauer saves civilization by torturing someone, and it works." - Senator Angus King, of Maine.

Finally, as we are often called upon to write cover blurbs, here is the best of that lot from 2014, actually a book review, penned by Sam Anderson, critic at large for The New York Times Magazine:
Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)”  

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! 




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.