Our story really begins with the 8th International Permaculture Conference, in São Paulo, Brazil in May 2007, followed by the Permaculture Convergence at EcoCentro and the Amazon tours. This was my first exposure to the dark earths of the Amazon and it began for me an inquiry that continues to the present.
Within those dark earths is a mystery, one that puzzled scientists for 400 years. How could it be that there are large pockets of deep, rich humus all over the Amazon watershed, when just adjacent to these deposits are the more typical, nutrient-poor, tropical clay soils? Those latitudes closest to the Equator have not been periodically remineralized by glaciers, and many are in non-volcanic zones. Monsoon cycles, the parching sun, and erosion from wind and rain long ago washed most of the nutrients out of these soils and left what remains stored in living plants and animals, and when those die, the nutrients quickly transfer to the next generation of plants and animals.
The mystery was eventually cracked by soil scientists — Charles Hart, first Dean of Geology at Cornell University; Friedrich Katzer, whose early 20th century samples were destroyed during the shelling of Sarajevo; Wim Sombroek; Bruno Glazer, and several others — who proved beyond any doubt that these soils were man-made. The secret ingredient was recalcitrant carbon, formed by pyrolysis of woody biomass, or what we call today “biochar.” Some of the Amazonian deposits are more than 8000 years old, and the carbon that turns the earth dark has been remarkably stable over that time. The reason the soils are so fertile has to do with the porous quality of biochar and its high cation exchange capacity, which make it ideal habitat for beneficial soil microbes and a storage media for calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and other minerals that plants need.
We have known that putting charcoal in your garden is good for your plants for a long time, since at least the Nogyo Zensho, an agricultural encyclopedia written in 1697 during Japan’s Edo period by the wandering samurai-turned-Zen monk, Yasusada Miyazaki. What we have not known until more recently was how that works. Interestingly, it was the subject of a debate between Louis Pasteur and Baron Justus von Leibig. At the turn of the 20th Century, believers in vitalism thought soil contained an organic life force. Leibig contended it was all just chemistry and physics. Pasteur said, in not so many words, its the biology, stupid. In the end, Leibig conceded Pasteur was right. He became a biochar fan and had himself buried in a coffin filled with biochar.
Of carbon on land, 75% is Soil Organic Carbon, which cycles through living things. Very little was in Earth’s atmosphere—until recently. Carbon’s capacity to absorb energy causes air to heat up and in the upper atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, it also allows short-wave solar energy to pass to earth but traps the longer-wave reflected heat, warming the lower atmosphere and passing some of that warmth to ocean and land. The era of fossil fuels, beginning with coal mining and continuing today with fracked gas, has added gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, which has destabilized the heat cycle of the planet.
One way of thinking about it is to imagine you are about to cross a busy highway but three times out of ten, you must cross with your eyes closed. One of those three times, on average, an oncoming car will not be able to avoid hitting you. Those are approximately the odds that mammals, such as ourselves, have of surviving in a 3-degree warmer world. At Copenhagen the world agrees to not exceed 2 degrees of warming, which means 1 additional chance in 10 (we already were committed to 1 degree at that conference in 2009), of human extinction due to climate change. We will exceed the 2 degree limit by 2040, 4 degrees by perhaps 2080. By the end of this century, 6 to 7 degrees is the most likely scenario, even factoring in Peak Oil and financial collapse. That fate is already in the pipeline, as they say. To survive to the end of the century we will have to cross the highway 8 times in 10 with our eyes closed, and hope we get lucky. Human extinction is not a fait d’accompli, just becoming more likely by the year.
Imagine for a moment you are the non-linear, quantum entangled brain of Gaia. You have four organs that you are balancing for carbon (and nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other elements too — you have to keep them all in balance, but lets start with carbon). At present, there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, and reducing its concentration from 390 ppm to 350 means we’ve got to take 300 billion tons out. We can’t put that into the oceans and in fact 350 is probably too much so we really need to remove between 900 and 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it safely away. Land plants hold 600 billion tons of carbon at present but Earth’s soil holds about three times that amount. That is the storage medium we need.
While we need to rebalance the sources humans contribute (cement, coal, fertilizer, population), we will also need to go to Net Minus for a while to dial the pressure down. To do that we need to find around 8 to 10 Gt of carbon we can lock up annually. After a century, that would bring us back to 350 atmospheric parts per million, or lower, and also repair ocean acidity. If by then we have managed to cross the road with our eyes closed, repeatedly, and survived, we might even be able to restart civilization.
So what are the wedges that find us 8-10 GtC to remove from the atmosphere annually? We have four main ones: steep reduction of our emissions (we currently emit 5.6 GtC/yr from fossil fuels); “carbon farming” (the suite of permaculture tools advocated by Yeomans, Savory, Salatin and others — about 1-2 GtC/yr); biochar (recreating the dark earths — 4-10 GtC/yr); and tree-planting (afforestation and reforestation, about 80 GtC/yr by UN estimates). These are our best options, and lo! we find we can get our 8-10 GtC from these wedges, working together in coordinated ways.
Clean Stove Initiatives
What are the paths to adoption? Every year in the two-thirds world, eight million children die of inhaled black soot from three stone cooking fires on dirt floored kitchens. Making smokeless stoves that make biochar and use 30% less fuel is a solution to that. Following the earthquake in Haiti, WorldStove went to the assistance of refugee camps, first setting up community kitchens that cooked 300 meals per day per stove, making biochar and then making microenterprise hubs to get people out of the camps and earning a living. They made stoves from earthquake rubble. The kitchens were all carbon-minus. Then they pelletized fuel from the same source, and later from grasses. They set up hubs for both fuel-making and stove-making.
In Haiti giving the biochar to people risked having it burned, because in Haiti everyone cooks with charcoal, so instead WorldStove gave it to aid groups making compost toilets. They used it to reduce the smell of the toilets and that effectively prevented the char from being diverted into the fuel market. Instead, it became fertilizer, which was then distributed to other NGOs planting trees to reforest Haiti.
Not everyone can access the materials to make a metal stove, so in Kenya, Dorisel Torres, a graduate student working on biochar as a soil amendment at Cornell University, developed a simple clay gasifying stove that is one-third more efficient than rocket stoves, is smokeless, and leaves no ash, only biochar. Anyone can make one, and no money is required. The results in the poor African soils were dramatic — double the yields for beans and maize in the first season.
In prepping biochar for the garden, David Yarrow has given us the rule of the 4 ‘M’s: Moisture, Minerals, Microbes and Microns. Straight out of the kiln biochar is bone dry. The product needs to be washed to cleanse it of tar and resin residues that make it hydrophobic and provide a little starter moisture for the microbial community. It has huge adsorption capacity and this is optimized for gardens by adding sea minerals and the major cations – Ca, Mg, K — and anions — N, P, S. Encouraging colonization by aerobic bacteria and fungi can be sped up by injecting existing communities of beneficials, or simply by blending the biochar with compost. The optimal particle size is rice grain size, down to dust — the size an earthworm could digest.
The biggest wedge we have is reforestation and agroforestry is one way to do that without diminishing food supply, but Carbon sequestration begins to diminish annually as a forest matures. The juvenile trees simply sequester more C as they grow, annually, than the older ones. We can optimize the sequestration capacity of forests by selective halving of the population -- tree culling -- at intervals of 6, 9, 12, 16 and 24 years. Nursery trees can be used for various things before being made into biochar. We can than either return the forest to clear (milpa) or slow-age the top grade timber (but that does not maximize C sequestration).
It is necessary for such management to be cautious and proceed with the same holistic management practices that you would apply to drylands pasture recovery. We are managing for ecological service capacity improvement, so we would want to look at the stocking of all parts of the system and try to redress any imbalances. Still, we have shown through projects like the Alford Forest and the Pioneer Forest that management for these goals actually produces more financial yield than the alternative, less sustainable, current industrial pulp, paper and timber harvesting models, even before you factor in the fossil fuel. We need to manage for mixed age, mixed species, maximum biodiversity and the full gamut of ecological services.
So, now I have given you a scientific foundation for talking about effectively reversing climate change. It is time to move to the process by which we can bring that reversal into being. We can begin by getting rid of the politics of combat negotiations, where you have two opposing viewpoints and each tries to gain an advantage over the other. Instead, let us proceed from those things on which we can agree. All people, in all cultures have essentially the same set of wants. All communities want:
To reduce environmental pollution
To have a better quality of life
To strengthen their economy
To insure health and security, and
To have a nice place to live
Robert and Diane Gilman defined an ecovillage as “a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.” It is not particularly new idea, if you go back to Thomas Alquinus, Edward Bellamy, or the Victorian Era Garden City notion, the desire for utopia is a constant. In the Sixties we saw the emergence of separate alternative movements for sustainable building, energy, health, transportation, agriculture, and many other things. Ecovillages merely assemble all these alternatives into a holistic matrix and take them to village scale.
The oldest continuously functioning ecovillage in the world -- now 83 years old, is Solheimer in Iceland. It was begun by Sesselu Sigmondsdottir in 1930 as a home and school for developmentally challenged children. It had the benefit of a hot spring on the farm property that produced 30 liters per minute at 95°C. Today Solheimer is working to reforest Iceland, planting millions of seedlings from their geothermal nursery.
Torri Superiori is a European example of reinhabitation of an 8th Century village that was a ruin on the mountainous border between France and Italy, not far from Ventimiglia. A design best practice should be to not take away from farmland or wild land, but instead to green up brown fields, and reinhabit suburbia. At Torri there is another best practice, which is designing for enchantment, and that is how we win hearts and minds.
Findhorn has been planting trees to reforest the Scottish Highlands that were deforested after the clearances. They enlist volunteers each Spring and Fall to trek the wildest parts of Caledonia and reinstate the missing bits of that uplands ecology.
A first Ecovillage Design Education Training Program was held in Guizhou Province in August and Sept 2010 with 29 participants. Later programs followed up, and now Tengtuo is China’s model ecovillage. It has the potential to become the first carbon-negative farming region in Asia, by using their coconut husk wastes to make biochar.
Ecovillages are engaged in the transformation of values in four ways that may make the transition to sustainability easier and more graceful:
- delinking growth from well-being
- reconnecting people with the places where they live
- affirming indigenous patterns and practices, and
- offering a holistic and experiential vessel for social experiments, educational methodologies, and transition paths.
One of the best examples is the Sarvodaya network of some 18000 ecovillages in Sri Lanka that now has more than 1 million people living in ecovillages. It is a “pay-it-forward” system of self-help, where each ecovillage adopts a sister village that is less fortunate than itself.
What we are attempting, with permaculture, carbon farming and ecovillages, is to reverse the degradation of the quality of life that is the inevitable consequence of population expansion hitting the limits to growth. We are trying to claw our way back up Maslow’s heirarchy of needs; to push to the summit and hold that high ground.
The Farm in Tennessee, where I live, inhabits a remnant mixed mesophtic boreal forest. The fabric of the Southeastern forest is wearing thin as population continues to cut into and haul away the forests to make suburbs and strip malls. Because of its forests, The Farm net sequesters 5 times its human carbon footprint.
We’ve found keyline management the fastest way to restore degraded soils. It does not release carbon to the atmosphere like normal plowing does. We have been augmenting the technique with the advice of Darren Doherty, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others, using compost tea, biochar in slurry, and remineralization. Using these methods you can add a meter of topsoil in 3-10 years. That is not just drought and flood-proofing, but also rebuilding the soil carbon reservoir.
We offer opportunities for people to come and learn these things at The Farm, we invite other teachers to use our venue for teaching, and we send our teachers and graduates out around the world.
The next agriculture will not be about chemistry. It will be about biology. We are just beginning to learn about the quantum entanglement of all life forms into a non-linear web of mutual support. Every time someone uses antibacterial soap or discards something made of plastic they are cutting strands of that web.
Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (approximately 1014 versus 1013). 205 identified genera exist in our body. The mass of microorganisms are estimated to account for 1-3% total body mass. Bacteria create the next generation by epigenetics - drawing upon a smorgasbord of available genes. Bacteria choose what to become. This is how Gaia heals.
The genius of biochar is that it provides habitat and sanctuary for microbial life. It is more than just a sponge, it is a soil coral reef. You can see how quickly diversity of soil microbes goes up if you add biochar.
Biochar serves as a helpful media in establishing living roofs, as well as gardens and orchards. Winter heating and cooking can supply enough biochar to provide for the gardens, and natural plasters, and food supplements. This is how we may come to inhabit the earth in the Anthropocene -- sheltered for coolth.
Earthaven, in North Carolina, is another example of an ecovillage that net sequesters a third more than than its carbon footprint from all activities, including businesses and visitors’ travel.
So how can we speed up the process of adoption? What can make the meme viral?
You would be amazed at all bamboo-biochar products that you can order on the web from China. Wearables become soil amendments when they are worn out and composted. Even sniper gulley suits and kevlar body armor are being lined with biochar woven material because biochar absorbs the heat-signature of the wearer.
At the recent North American Biochar Syposium they passed out biochar-coated peanuts that are recommended for improving your digestion. The peanut crust is five-year-old bamboo, burnt at around 800°C.
The anime show Yakitate!! Japan, is about a kid's quest to create a national bread for Japan. The 29th episode is about bamboo biochar bread. An evil bakery rips off the diet bread recipe of the good guys, who then counter with a bamboo charcoal bread. [spoiler alert] The bad guys are left in tears at its flavorful beauty. Somewhere in there they also manage a giant robot battle. You can also find charcoal in Japanese desserts, real-life charcoal bread, and a restaurant in Vancouver that sells bamboo charcoal ramen.
Hozu Farming Coop started in 2005. 338 of 352 households in region belong. Total acreage is 150 ha. (370 acres) and that is 97% of the farmland in the region so you can see that most Japanese farms are under 1 acre, on average. Their Cool Food project was started in 2009 as a partnership between the Hozu Coop, the local university, and Kameoka City government. They called the partnership Carbon Minus. The idea was to harvest bamboo and dead wood from Satoyama (common) lands, make biochar, use biochar to grow vegetables, and brand the produce “cool foods” in stores. It succeeded dramatically. Hozu Coop calculates that if biochar were applied to all 2100 ha on Kameoka regions farms it would sequester 154000 tons of CO2 annually, a third of Kameoka’s CO2 footprint. At $40/ton the Coop could earn $6.2 million/yr from carbon credits.
A similar potential exists wherever cacao is grown. Craig Sams, who founded Green and Black’s Chocolate, and now Carbon Gold, is trying to do it on a large scale. Chris and Celini Nesbitt are making biochar while they cook breadfruit for their hogs at Maya Mountain Research Farm and then after composting with the hog manure putting it into their gardens and cacao orchards.
I can imagine a charcolate bar being made now, not just merely with cacao from biochar-enhanced soils, but also with the crunch of charred bamboo and peanuts.
At the Hawaiian Mahogany Farm on Kauai, nurse trees are thinned to release mahogany and other overstory trees, then chipped or sawed into lumber. The chips make biochar and electricity and the heat is used to cure the lumber and also run an ice plant that supplies the local fishing fleet. The fertilizer and mulch are used to improve community gardens and forage pastures.
The Warsaw UNFCCC Conference — COP 19 — ended in grief and tears, but it is possible to proceed without UN support or carbon taxes or incentive programs. We can find the benefits without that, although having that could speed the conversion of modern agriculture and habitat design enormously.
The Baltic Sea Region Ecovillage project is a 6-year, 1.5 million Euro program by the EU augmented with contributions raised by the 9 partners. It is creating guidelines for regional development, new village-based technologies and recommendations to governments for speeding the process and ensuring success of new ecovillages. This could go entirely carbon minus, or “cool,” in a later stage.
Education, particularly of youth, is an important part of our Global Ecovillage Network strategy for accelerating change. Since 2006 Gaia Education and Gaia University have delivered more than 200 programs in 33 countries over 6 continents, graduating more than 4000 students. You can download our Ecovillage Design Curricula and our books, the Four Keys to Sustainability set, for free (gaiaeducation.net) in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
We need to reach back from these secure places and pull up our brothers and sisters in Haiti, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Timor. That is the only real security that is possible – not whack-a-mole with drones and hellfire missiles to maintain failing Empire. Ecovillages are a one-world psychographic: the transitional vessel for the consciousness shift from me to we. There is no away, that is just basic ecology. It is one planet, a blue island in space. There are no lifeboats. It can no longer be Me first. We first.