Sunday, July 16, 2017

Snowflake Summer

"Why has academia descended into neo-fascist regimentation?"

We didn’t give serious thought to snowflakes until a friend, James Howard Kunstler, got crossways with them at a university speaking gig. Kunstler has written a lot about it since then. He says we’re now living under a condition of “intellectual martial law.” 

Snowflakes are the pampered generation of millennials who cannot tolerate ideas that challenge their perceptions of appropriate speech. Howard Schwartz, professor emeritus of Oakland University, has written a new book, Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self. Schwartz offers some clarity on why the term “snowflakes” is now synonymous with college students. Schwartz writes that:
[T]his is a self that is touched by nothing but love. The problem is that nobody is touched by nothing but love, and so if a person has this as an expectation, if they have built their sense of themselves around this premise, the inevitable appearance of the something other than love blows this structure apart.
Interviewed by Kate Hardiman for The College Fix, he added:
[T]he oversensitivity of individuals today, including political correctness and microaggressions, all stem from this idea that people operating under the notion of the pristine self view you as evil because you are showing them something other than love.
People now experience the entire world as a form of bullying. The helicopter parent protects the children from real dangers but also fantasy dangers. These precious snowflakes are the children of political correctness, their parents and schools lead them to believe that the world is perfectly moralistic — they don’t live in the real world, it is a fantasy.
On the July 6 Keiser Report, Stacey Herbert pointed to a study in The American Conservative, Will American Childhood Create An Authoritarian Society?
Overprotective parenting is a threat to democracy. American childhood has taken an authoritarian turn. An array of trends in American society are conspiring to produce unprecedented levels of supervision and control over children’s lives. Tracing the effects of childrearing on broad social outcomes is an exercise in speculation. But if social scientists are correct to posit a connection between childrearing and long-term political outcomes, today’s restrictive childhood norms may portend a broader regression in our country’s democratic consensus.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering that few institutions in American society have embraced authoritarianism as decisively in recent years as academia — the arena where helicoptered millennials increasingly get their first taste of independence. Since 2000, at least 240 campaigns have been launched at universities to prevent appearances by public figures, most of which have occurred since 2009. Behind these authoritarian efforts are an army of “chief diversity officers” — 75 of whom have been hired between 2015 and 2016 at colleges and universities. Their mandate: train students against “subtle insults,” “environmental microaggressions,” and “microinvalidations.” In this resurgence of political correctness, New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait sees not simply a “rigorous commitment to social equality” but rather an “undemocratic creed” and a “system of left-wing ideological repression.”
Herbert and her partner Max Keiser were in Mexico City and couldn’t help but notice all the children playing outdoors. She recalled how much of her childhood had been spent that way. “Bored?” her mother would ask, “Go out and play.” Like every other child, she had to use her imagination.

Keiser says Charles Shultz captured the snowflake in the character of Lucy, who would march in and take the rubber band away from Linus or the football from Charlie Brown. “Lucy was the Pol Pot of children’s cartoons.”

Today most USAnian parents are afraid to let children outdoors alone. One of the staple products of the overdeveloped world is fear. We noticed this last week when we got a haptic from our Apple Watch about an Amber alert 300 miles away in another state.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

We endure shoe and belt removal, pat down, sniffing dogs and obnoxious questioning because we need to travel. We are not frightened — although being that close to loaded guns warrants caution — but we are also not amused. We know that it chills speech, chills expression and chills freedom. It chills the society — cold enough to make snowflakes. The American Conservative writes:
[S]trong social pressures have so hardened against parents who believe in the value of a free, unsupervised childhood that psychologist Peter Gray likens them to past Chinese norms on foot binding.
Hard numbers illustrate these trends:
· The amount of free time school-aged children enjoyed plummeted from 40 percent in the early 1980s to 25 percent by the mid 1990s.
· The time young children spend in school jumped from 5–6 hours in the early 1980s to almost 7 hours beginning in the early 2000s.
· By 2006, some 40 percent of schools had either eliminated recess or were considering doing so.

Snowflakes, the study offers, crave authoritarian restrictions. They grew up on video games that had hard and fast rules. They were conducted within the confines of a screen, and perhaps, in their virtual realities, within the confines of a pre-scripted maze.

When American students are moving for only 18 minutes per day at school, it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve seen since the 1970s a more than threefold increase in the number of overweight 6 to 11 year olds.

Experts meanwhile are linking increasing rates of anger, aggression, and severe behavior problems to a lack of free play. These outcomes are consistent with evolutionary psychology theories that consider play to be a critical part of child development, teaching children to cope with, and ultimately master, fears and phobias.

Kunstler writes:
Why does the thinking class in America embrace ideas that are not necessarily, and surely not self-evidently, truthful, and even self-destructive? Because this class is dangerously insecure and perversely needs to insist on being right about its guiding dogmas and shibboleths at all costs. That is why so much of the behavior emanating from the thinking class amounts to virtue signaling — we are the good people on the side of what’s right, really we are! Of course, virtue signaling is just the new term for self-righteousness.
Snowflakes do not like the unknown. If someone breaks the rules by espousing a contrary belief to theirs, they want the state to come down hard on them. Invited speakers on campus offend these sensibilities at their peril. Even professors who dare to float an alternative narrative can be fired.

Recent studies supported by the Alliance for Childhood found that kindergartens have “changed radically in the last two decades.” Exploration, exercise, and imagination are being deemphasized and play has “dwindled to the vanishing point.” Instead, kindergartens are introducing “lengthy lessons” and “highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests” — curricula often taught by teachers who “must follow scripts from which they may not deviate.”

Translate that beyond the ivy walls and you get neo-fascist political regimentation, in businesses and the public sphere. Target stores have a “Director of Empathy.”

Following the 2016 election pollsters learned that those who believe that is more important for children to be respectful rather than independent; obedient over self-reliant; well-behaved more than considerate; and well-mannered versus curious, were more than two and a half times as likely to support Trump than those with the opposite preferences.
Indeed, social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.
Among the most far-reaching adherents of this view was the late psychologist Alice Miller, a student of authoritarian regimes. Through her study of Nazism and Soviet communism, Miller concluded that dictatorships emerge when an entire generation of children is raised under authoritarian conditions replete with excessive forms of control and discipline. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity. The millions of Germans who ultimately supported Nazism, in Miller’s views, were coping with the legacy of a “hidden concentration camp of childhood” — one enforced by the “clean, orderly citizens, God-fearing, respectable churchgoers” who comprised the ranks of Germany’s authority figures.
So what happens to the Snowflake when the world melts? Sheltered and protected since birth they have little capacity to improvise, sacrifice, and make strategic decisions upon which may hang their own survival. Sure, they may have the experience of outrunning a virtual zombie hoard, but if they stumbled it was never really game over, just time for a re-set. In life there are no re-sets.

As an added bonus for our faithful followers we have extracted a short snippet from the late Bill Mollison (1928–2016) during one of his last permaculture lectures. Bill was in rare form, and we offer this as an example of outlandishly outside-the-bounds-speech that enriches and enlivens learning.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Maya Theater States

"What generally occurs when a civilization over-extends is not a complete disappearance but a rapid decline in complexity."
Detroit: Theater Ruins
 The collapse of the Classic Maya period, around 900 CE, is an active academic field, with many conflicting theories and a mountain of literature. While traveling in the Yucatán we are reading Arthur Demarest’s Ancient Maya: the Rise and Fall of the Rainforest Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

One of the terms Demarest uses to describe the period is a “theater-state.” The ruling elite, known as the K’uhul Ajaw, or Holy Lords, were relatively hands-off with respect to economics, social welfare and trade but devoted lots of resources to legitimizing their political and religious authority through monumental architecture, art, pageant, sports spectacles and warfare.

This resource misallocation — taking away from the real needs of the populace, especially in times of stress — led to swelling the elite class, enormous diversions to unproductive types of labor, depredations from unnecessary wars, resentment from disenfranchised youth who were relegated to javelin–fodder, and, of course, ecological decay — as previously elegant eco-agriculture microsystems (using 400–500 species of plants) were consolidated into monocultures and overproduced.

A question Demarest probes is why, in so many areas, did not Mayan leaders respond with effective corrective measures for the stresses generated by internal and external pressures they could not have failed to notice. We generally think of complex societies as problem-solving machines, in which elaborate chains of central command and control “wire” a nation to meet its goals. Yet beginning around the Eighth Century, the Holy Lords were apparently away from the control room.

Demarest thinks the problem was structural. Since the elites of the most classic Maya kingdoms did not farm or manage production of goods, the “real” economy was decentralized to community or family. The role of the Holy Lords was to manage a “false” economy that was derivative, its only marginal utility being that it gave their Kingdoms some sort of patriotic zeal or sense of exceptionalism.

When these derivatives eventually began to unravel, the Holy Lords, like mechanics with a limited set of wrenches, did what they knew best — they intensified ritual activities, built taller and more ornate temples and expensive stages, props, and costumes, and scheduled more performance rituals, wars, and feasting. Contrary to earlier results, however, these measures only prolonged or intensified the problems, led to further disenchantment, which eventually brought about whatever cataclysm dethroned them.

Successive rounds of quantitative easing had diminishing returns. The “real” economy suffered a century-long drought punctuated by severe droughts in CE 810, 860 and 910. Even the “false” economy could not help but feel reality intrude.

Today the theater state is shown in high definition and 3-D, and it resembles in its own way the grand Berlin pageants of Albert Speer as much as the scenes from Apocalypto. Mad-Men have refined the manufacture of consent, to use Chomsky’s phrase, to a fine science, and as in Classic Maya times, military recruitment is viewed as a fortunate outlet for the unemployed.
However, a “classic” period, signifying the peak of empire and also a peak in energy, productivity, and population in most cases, is never sustainable, because it is inherently unbalanced.

Demarest’s insight here is that we tend to characterize every civilization in terms of “preclassic, classic, and postclassic,” but we might do better to think of it as “stable and expanding,” “unstable,” and “shrinking and reconsolidating.” Preclassic Maya agriculture was exceedingly diverse, with agroforestry, household garden plots, rotational field crops, chinampas and aquaponic systems, and perhaps also novel farming techniques we have yet to learn about. So was the postclassic. We have only just recently begun to appreciate that the “slash and burn” found in many parts of the tropics was once a highly productive and ecologically sustainable biochar amendment system when practiced in the ancient ways.

The Mayan preclassic food system was only marginally regional. While trade and tribute brought in salt, chocolate, hardwoods, hard stone, luxuries, textiles, and non-perishable goods, transportation of corn or other staples was largely prohibitive from an energy efficiency standpoint. Moving corn on the back of a man 25 km requires the consumption of 16% of the caloric value of the load. Transport from 100 km would have cost a third of the load in expended caloric energy. Demarest wrote, “Such high transport costs might have been maintained by a few Mayan cities at their peak, but more generally Mayan subsistence economies and markets were probably based on an area of about 20 to 30 km — a day of travel from the major center and its periodic markets.”

Joseph Tainter’s famous 1988 analysis of civilizational collapses argues that what generally occurs when a civilization over-extends is not a complete disappearance but a rapid decline in complexity. Axiomatically, it can be said that the instability experienced at the peak of a culture is a function of over-complexity.

Pablo Lopez Luz, Mexico City 2017

While this might be true of the Maya in some ways, in other respects that analysis fails to satisfy. While the theater state of the Holy Lords reached a peak complexity and then declined, a different type of state followed that increased in complexity over what had existed in the classic period. The end of the theater state led to the cessation of monumental architecture and the disappearance of high status exotic goods and ornaments, but good riddance.

At the same time, although at different times and speeds in different regions, there was a flowering and transformation to the new order. Extensive ecological, archaeological, and settlement pattern studies have found a resurgence of complex agricultural regimes that were well adapted to population levels with no indications of nutritional stress. When the curtains were drawn on the theater state, the health and welfare of the people improved. With the loss of simple monoculture and central authority and the diffusion of complex microfarming diversity and decentralized councils, the new order recaptured stability.

What followed in the postclassic period were a diffusion of distinctive new variants of the classic culture, with strange costumes, long hairstyles, experimentation with new legitimating ideologies, and unusual features in buildings, sculpture and ceramics (e.g.: ubiquitous serpents, brightly colored murals, and the psychedelic temple complex of Tulum).

The Maya that flourish in the Guatemalan highlands and Yucatán today are as populous and even more vigorous economically than during the classic theater state, but they do not generate anything like the art and architecture of their predecessors from 1000 years ago. They don’t need to.
Demarest observed,
For at least 6000 years, the hallmarks of the Western tradition have been linear concepts of time, monocultural agricultural systems, overproduction and exchange of surplus in full-market economies, technology-driven development, a long history of attempts to separate religious and political authority, and judgmental Gods concerned with individual, personal moral conduct. As we learn from the Maya, none of these traits is universal, none of them was characteristic of classic Maya civilization, and none of them is critical to the fluorescence of high civilization.
Too often scholars and the public viewed non-Western societies with an implicit, unconscious condescension. We tend to regard their political and economic systems as incomplete (“less evolved”) versions of our own. Ideology and cosmetology are viewed as detailed esoteric collections of ideas fascinating for scholarly study and public imagination. We also tend to emphasize aspects of ancient religion that attempted control of nature as “primitive science.” In so doing, we ignore the personal and philosophical challenges of experiencing another worldview — an alternative perspective on existence and death.
From an openly philosophical, subjective, and postmodern perspective of our society and its science, we are no wiser than the Maya priests and shamans in the face of these mysteries. For that reason we can study the ancient Maya, and other non-Western cultures, as sources of alternative views of reality and of contemplation of our own culturally ingrained worldviews. You can view the classic Maya as a less developed society trying to control the forces of nature and to survive economically. Or instead, they can be regarded as fellow travelers who simply chose a different path through the darkness.
The pre- and postclassic system of mimicking the diversity and dispersion of the forest allowed the Maya to maintain populations in the millions in the Yucatán for over 1500 years without destroying a rich but fragile tropical environment and biodiversity. They are still here — still engaged in that work. That offers hope for us all.

This is an update of an essay we wrote six years ago from the Fourth World Congress on Ecological Restoration in Mérida, México. It was published as part of the collection Pour Evian on Your Radishes in 2014.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Ragweed Tribe

We are at the gatehouse to The Farm, the Welcome Center we set up for greeting guests as they arrive. This day they are coming for the annual homecoming celebration we call Ragweed Days. Our job is not unlike the door greeters’ at WalMart, without the blue vests. We have a tie-dye pouch to hold pencils and loose change in case we sell some books or t-shirts, and a stack of hold-harmless forms to give non-residents to sign.

It is a bit incongruent, because in the early days of the community money was never exchanged between hippies. It wasn’t that we were socialist or communist. We were intentionally moneyless
By some reckonings, more than 4000 people lived at The Farm at some point in time during the past half-century. In the 1970s there were more than 500 youths under the age of 18 living here.

The community is now in its fourth generation since the original bus caravan left Haight Ashbury in October 1970. The most permanent residents lie out at the end of Cemetery Lane under six feet of hardscrabble dirt. The newest are still being born, or have shown up and managed to get themselves voted into residency after a short period of getting to know us.

This two-story building arrived on truck carriage wheels and was lowered onto these foundations. It was purchased at condemnation auction, a clapboard and tarpaper relic of the greater throwaway society. As a 20-something-year-old Farm mason, we faced this gatehouse with red brick salvaged from the Singer Pants factory in Pulaski, chipping off the old mortar with a rock hammer.
We recall a band of young Akwesasne Mohawks showing up one day while we were about 10 feet off the ground laying bricks to string. They took up trowels and showed us a far finer level of craft than our self-taught kind. If you look closely, you can still see that edge here on the side of the building — the border where it crosses from amateur to professional.

We are reading to great enjoyment, Tribe: Our Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, who writes:
There is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide among tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe; in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse; in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy; and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture.
In many of the better-studied North American tribes, Junger writes, the suicide rate was zero. This stands in stark contrast to any modern societies where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.
People in wealthy countries suffer depression at eight times the rate of poor countries. Urban USAnian women, the most affluent demographic, are the most likely to experience depression.
A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthy society, but a trade it is.
We are particularly struck by what Junger, who as a war correspondent experienced what it is like to hang one’s life by a thread, says about male herd behavior. We have written here in the past about herd behavior in the context of climate change solutions, because as we often say, it is not science or technology that confounds us from mending Earth’s ecology, it is human social behavior.

As can be seen in zebras or wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles, herding is a rational defense strategy. Bunching herds protect their majority from predators, although a few will be lost to the needs of the river dwellers.

Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors adopted herd strategy over lone individualism and it has served us well. Our fads and fashions are not really optional — they are hard wired to our genetic code. When we choose to wear a necktie and blazer, or a pants suit with jewelry and heels, we are signaling membership in a particular band. The cars we drive, the places we live, the foods we eat — all signals of belonging to a particular tribe.

Adversity being a teacher of the true way is not necessarily to be avoided. 
— W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines: Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path, According to the Late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering 3rd Edition

Our trope of allegiance is hard-wired, although the particulars of to whom we swear are not fixed. In the 1930s, suffering from the hardships and sanctions imposed after the First World War (shared hardships being a bonding energy) many Germans of average civic pride swooned for the Aryan race rhetoric and grand public pageants of the National Socialists. In the ’40s, reeling under the horrors of the Wehrmacht’s Eastern assault, millions of Russians took up crude weapons or bare fists and many died to save motherland and freedom. Junger says the same happened during the London Blitz, when Britons of all classes and positions were prepared to go to the beaches with broken bottles if necessary.

Image courtesy Farm Family Archives
In the ’50s, anticommunist hysteria swept the West. In the ’60s, the Baby Boom’s bohemianism marked the coming of the Age of Aquarius — harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation, and the mind’s true liberation.

Tribal instincts towards personal sacrifice are ennobling, unifying, heroic — even without the broadway back beat. Junger goes on:
Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past. One of the most common traits was the absence of wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority.
“Social life is always egalitarian, in that there is always a low tolerance among a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed.
The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as the result of the hunting of large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat. Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group or of the food supply are often countered by coalitions of other males.
This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.
In his survey of ancestral type societies, Boehm found that, in addition to murder and theft, one of the most commonly punished infractions was failure to share. Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning and, finally, assassination of the culprit by the entire group.
This fabric is now frayed. Tribe shows it clearly:
All told, combined public and private fraud costs every household in the United States around $5000 per year, or roughly the equivalent of working four months at a minimum wage job. A hunter-gatherer community that lost four months worth of food would face a serious threat to its survival, and its retribution against the people who caused that hardship would be immediate and probably very violent.
Westerners live in a complex society and opportunities for scamming small amounts of money off the bottom are almost endless and very hard to catch. (see Shameless). But scamming large amounts of money off the top seems even harder to catch. Fraud by American Defense contractors is estimated at around 100 billion dollars per year and they are relatively well-behaved compared to the financial industry.
Junger goes on to describe how, following the 2008 bubble-burst, the adult males of the tribe not only did not punish the crooked banksters for costing trillions to the US economy, but rewarded them with million dollar bonuses and billion dollar bailouts. They were not just too big to jail. They were heroes.

Lesser citizens were outraged. A wild silverback buffoon lumbered forward, beat his chest and promised to “drain the swamp.” This alpha male behaved like he was a good ol’ boy calling the tribe to a backyard barbecue, where they were going to roast them some Goldman Sachs. Wiser adults in the tribe should have ridiculed him as a lunatic. Instead, he became supreme commander and the tribe descended into idiocracy.

How does a tribe become that dysfunctional? Partly, Junger opines, it’s the isolation of contemporary living, where we cocoon in private spaces at night and work at faceless terminals by day. Maybe we have a few friends at church, the gym, or a neighbor we know, but more than 90 percent of our human contacts in an average day are with complete strangers. Most we will never see again.

Some of the fallout of our separation from our genes has been the exit from the Paris Agreement and the UN process generally (association with national tribe rather than global community), BREXIT (association with national tribe rather than continent), the Scottish, Crimean and Spanish referenda (association with region, or former nation, rather than nation), the street attacks in London and Paris (association with ethnic tribe rather than civil society), and the Muslim Ban (association with religious groupings and denigrating all others).

Consider the history of US government shutdowns. The 1990 shutdown occurred when then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich torpedoed an appropriations package put forward by George “Read-my-lips-no-new-taxes” Bush. Because the shutdown occurred over a weekend, only around 2,800 workers were furloughed and it cost the government a mere $2.57 million. That was pocket change to Gingrich. He could pull in more than that in a single power lunch with corporate backers.

During the Clinton administration, there were two full government shutdowns (1995 and 1996) lasting 5 and 21 days respectively. These shutdowns caused massive furloughs and significant disruption. The ostensible issue was deficit funding for Medicare, education, the environment, and public health, which is to say, the willingness of the Federal Reserve to manufacture debt out of thin air, with nothing backing it, and to lend that to the government, banks or anyone else, at private — not public — profit, to meet Congressionally mandated or otherwise legal obligations. Expanding debt, or “liquidity,” expands the national economy and grows jobs and wages. That is how it works.

Gingrich’s GOP, which had legally ordered the unpaid mandates, now wanted to reduce debt, essentially throwing millions of people out of work or freezing their wages. Clinton rightfully refused to do this. Gingrich won. His 1995 shutdown threw 800,000 people out of work and led to the impeachment of the President.

Having been war-painted in the blood of Democrats, the right’s 2013 government shutdown was ostensibly for the purpose of delaying or defunding Obamacare. It ultimately cost the economy some 217 billion dollars and reduced quarterly GDP (previously growing at around 2%) by 0.9 percent. This is more than even a Gingrich power lunch. Approximately 800,000 employees were indefinitely furloughed, and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without pay.

Eighty-one percent of USAnians disapproved the shutdown and 86% felt it had tarnished the United States’ image in the world. In the local DC area, the cost to the economy was $200 million per day. Nationally, the shutdown of the National Park Service alone cost $76 million per day. How many months of food was that for the tribe? For park concessionaires, it was a year’s.

In an October 7, 2013 interview with MSNBC, Senator Bernie Sanders stated:
The real issue here, if you look at the Koch Brothers’ agenda, is: look at what many of the extreme right-wing people believe. Obamacare is just the tip of the iceberg. These people want to abolish the concept of the minimum wage, they want to privatize the Veteran’s Administration, they want to privatize Social Security, end Medicare as we know it, massive cuts in Medicaid, wipe out the EPA; you don’t have an Environmental Protection Agency anymore, Department of Energy gone, Department of Education gone. That is the agenda.
In a rational tribal society mature adults would have publicly ridiculed, tortured and killed Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander. An overwhelming majority of the tribe would have cheered the executioners. But Junger adds a note of caution.
The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the mouths of liberals and conservatives and it is a dangerous waste of time because they’re both right. The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a non-working underclass has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Early hominids lived a precarious existence where freeloaders were a direct threat to survival and so they developed an exceedingly acute sense of whether they were being taken advantage of by members of their own group. But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion. They cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky. In today’s terms, that is a common liberal concern that also has to be taken into account.
Those two driving forces have co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years in human society and have been duly codified in this country as a two party system. The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs, and more broadly over liberal and conservative thought, will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.
What do you say about a Health Care bill that would throw millions off Medicare and could kill 29,000 people per year? It is not Big Tribe (the nation) but it is small tribe (the wealthy) working shoulder to shoulder to achieve a shared task and egging each other on — honking like geese. In the example of health care, though, Junger’s warning is misplaced. Republicans and Democrats are members of the same tribe. They worship together on the same golf courses and cocktail parties.

Much like Obamacare, Trumpcare is a tax cut for the rich and a payback to the insurance PACs. It kicks seniors out of nursing homes but does not harm elderly wealthy, such as Senators and Congressmen, who can pay for extended care no matter the cost. They get free insurance anyway, and if they didn’t the insurance industry lobbyists would comp them that much out of tribal loyalty.
Ask someone why she stays in a job she hates, and as often as not the answer is, “For the health insurance.” In other words, we stay in jobs that leave us feeling dead in order to gain the assurance of staying alive. When we choose health insurance over passion, we are choosing survival over life. — Charles Eisenstein
Lately the GOP has taken to claiming that Trumpcare will reap 4 billion in savings. Boring into that number, we find it based on the sinister calculation that cutting Medicare to seniors will cause 200,000 deaths among elderly who will then not have to be paid their Social Security entitlements.
Junger scribes a limit to social tolerance:
Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredible stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost, are deluding themselves.

The hippies who left California for Tennessee got themselves a decrepit ridgetop farm for $70 dollars an acre and nearly starved the first winter. Reduced to eating boiled wheat with sorghum molasses, they persevered in thin-walled army tents in subzero temperatures, and worked from sunrise to sunset building roads, laying pipe and erecting public buildings — the dairy, the machine shop, the potato barn, the free store, the tractor barn, the flour mill, this gatehouse. We bonded much more deeply than crash-pad stoners or cubicle rats. More like soldiers in a combat outpost.

For that first dozen years the per capita income from all sources seldom exceeded one dollar per day. Gangs of us got up before dawn to bus 75 miles to Nashville to work hard labor at $1.25 per hour. We got bombed by the Klan, had horses shot, were harassed by the District Attorney. It only made us stronger.

We tribed.

We should thank the buffoon and his chorus. While they may not grow GDP, they are doing what they can to boost the misery index. The storm that is coming is going to push a great many more people back to their genetic roots. We’ll need that unity if we are going to seriously tackle the greatest enemy we have — ourselves.

Ragweed 2017

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Concrete Solutions

"We want to take the atmosphere back to its pre-industrial chemistry as quickly as possible. For that, we have biocomposites."

We screen grabbed these images off when we were looking at Tropical Storm Cindy on June 19. The top image shows Earth’s oceans. Red is hotter than normal. Blue is colder than normal. The Polar seas are colder than usual because of all the fresh ice water from melting glaciers and ice shelves.

The lower image is the same moment, looking at the land masses too. There are simultaneous heat waves in North America, S. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and parts of China, setting temperature records for the date, all the way around

Kathleen Draper is US Director at Ithaka Institute for Carbon Intelligence. In addition to editing The Biochar Journal, the leading on-line biochar magazine, Draper researches carbon intelligent cities; climate farming: nutrient recycling and GHG reduction in livestock farming; biochar characterization and optimal usage recommendations; closed loop biochar production and use modeling; ecosystem remediation; land management and landscape design. She has worked with Cornell University to model the Triple Bottom Line impact of Combined Heat & Biochar unit at the urban aquaponics greenhouse in Central New York.

Working with the Rochester Institute of Technology, she developed the Filtration to Fertilizer strategy using biochar first to harvest nutrients in effluents from food and beverage industries — including rentals to tofu shops — and then sales of nutrient-saturated char as a soil amendment/fertilizer for greenhouse crops. She is also working with RIT on the use of biochar in sustainable building materials, packaging materials, filtration media for the food industry and heat recovery options for the Kon-Tiki kiln technology.

A few days ago Kathleen Draper penned to her blog:
Last week I visited a small slice of heaven; The Farm in Summertown, TN. The Farm is [one of] the oldest intentional communit[ies] in the country and has been home to Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution amongst other books, for decades.
Biochar experimentation at The Farm spans the gamut from soil amendment to building material to humanure additive which then moves over to worm bins for some final processing. Just walking around the various natural buildings and permaculture filled ambiance was enough to inspire, but actually getting my hands dirty making biochar plasters, cement mixes, bricks, filtration devices with other like-minded folks was soul boosting.
We visited a nearby farmer that feeds his livestock (pigs, goats, poultry) an earthy blend of biochar mixed with lightly fermented whey and grains which they gobbled up greedily. We used rather grand outhouses that mitigated odors and reduced nutrient leaching with a blend of biochar and sawdust. And we shared stories of our mutual journeys, lessons learned and best practices along the biochar continuum.
What I really enjoyed about this experience, especially compared to attending biochar and other related conferences which tend to pack an enormous amount of information into back-to-back 15–20 minute sessions all day long for 3 days, was the more relaxed pace, the ability to get to know everyone there and hear about their own particular biochar experiences. The other fun part was leveraging everyone’s tools and backgrounds to take certain ideas further — such as the chardboard paper which I wrote about nearly 3 years ago. Albert had a contraption that was able to measure the electromagnetic shielding of the chardboard which was pretty substantial, roughly 90% reduction!
For those of you that have the time and desire to experience truly sustainable living, I highly recommend a visit to The Farm. Staying in the Fairy House, a cozy earthbag building with a living roof provides the quietest sleep you could ever dream of….
We liked having Draper here for the workshop but can’t let her escape with just this short report to the public domain. She and Dr. Hans-Peter Schmidt at the Ithaka Institute in Switzerland brought to our course a wealth of information on the practical applications for biochar when removed from the agricultural sphere. They are co-authors, with Ute Scheub and Hailko Pieplow, of Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger. 
Hans-Peter beamed into the workshop via Skype and together with Kathleen provided a picture of a new realm of biochar that we had been nearly unaware of — as biochar concrete, or “char-crete”

Cementing History

Pantheon Oculus, Rome (126 CE)
Firstly, there is a global problem with concrete and it is getting bigger. The most important part of concrete is Portland cement, the binding agent made from pulverized limestone (calcium oxide) and clay (silicon oxide), heated together at high temperature (2700F).

The discovery and refinement of Portland is a cautionary modern tale of the intersection of materials and manufacturing at the dawn of the fossil fuel era. The Romans and Chinese had millennia ago discovered that gypsum and lime could be mixed with pieces of rock, sand, ceramics or rubble to form a hard material that would hold up to weather, or even set up underwater for dams and bridgework. Roman concrete, developed from 150 BCE, is durable due to its incorporation of volcanic ash and cinders (pozzolana), which prevents cracks from spreading. After the famous fire of 64AD, Nero rebuilt much of Rome with brick-faced concrete. The Pantheon in Rome, with its 142-foot coffered dome and oculus, is an example of Roman concrete construction still standing after 2000 years.

Lime is a powder that wants to be a rock. It has a million-year memory. Formed as the aggregated dust of seashells on an ancient sea-bed, limestone (CaCO3) gets unpacked from its bed in some quarry, hauled by truck to a kiln, and baked at >1500°F. The burn drives off CO2 and leaves behind a powder (CaO), called burnt lime or quicklime.

Quicklime (calcium oxide) is a white, caustic, alkaline, crystalline solid at room temperature, but feeling an urge to go back to rock, it will draw CO2 from the air unless slaked with water. Slaked lime is what the Romans and Chinese used for mortars and plasters. It is what Michelangelo in 1511 spread across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and painted the image of God into. In the 1820s scientists learned that when heated to >4,000°F (2,200°C) it emits an intense glow. That feature was used broadly in theater productions before electric lighting — limelight.

As it slakes, quicklime releases heat by the following equation:

CaO (s) + H2O (l) ⇌ Ca(OH)2 (aq) (ΔHr = −63.7 kJ/mol of CaO)

When limestone is kilned to make lime for mortar or cement 1.8 tons produces 1 ton of CaO. The missing 0.8 goes to the atmosphere as CO2 and a few trace impurities. China is by far the world’s largest producer, burning enough rock to produce around 170 million tons per year. The United States is the next largest, with around 20 million. Worldwide, lime kilns send about 225 million ton of CO2 to the atmosphere. File that number a way for a moment.

If you add an atom of carbon to quicklime in the presence of oxygen, you get limestone and water.

Ca(OH)2 + C + O2 = CaCO3 + H2O

That limestone molecule can take a much-deserved rest. It has now completed a full revolution on the wheel of life and rebirth.

Suppose that, instead of leaving it to chance, we supply lime with carbon? One easy way to do that would be to mix biochar with cement and let it harden in the open air. You could replace sand in concrete or mortar. This is convenient because construction-grade sand is getting harder to come by and is experiencing rising demand (and price).

But here is the kicker. The resulting concretes or mortars have improved:

• Weight (biochar is significantly lighter than sand)
• Compression strength
• Flexural strength (MOR)
• Curing (soaking the carbon into the lime)
• Capacity to absorb CO2/NOX
• Electromagnetic shielding
• Fire resistance
• Insulation
• Humidity control
• Indoor pollutant control (dust, pollen, chemicals).

Run the Research

What does the research say? Choi et al (Mechanical Properties of Mortar Containing Bio-Char From Pyrolysis, 2012) tested char-cretes at 5%, 10%, 15%, 20% biochar and found:
• All biochar admixtures had less weight loss due to moisture evaporation. Mortar mixes with char have better water retention. This may lead to improved strength. “In this way, biochar seems to play a role as a self-curing agent.”
• The workability of mortar decreases as the percentage of biochar increases.
• 5–10% biochar replacement is similar to 20% replacement with fly ash (the toxic residue of cement making and other industries).
• Up to 5% biochar shows an increase in compression strength.
A study by Restuccia et al, Promising low cost carbon based materials to improve strength & toughness in cement composites (2016) tested the mechanical properties of cement using biochar made from coffee powder (unroasted discards) and hazelnut shells.
• All char additives outperformed control bending strength, compression & fracture energy.
• Coffee powder did better on compression tests.
• Hazelnut shells did better on flexural (MOR) and fracture energy tests.
• Hazelnut shells’ irregular morphology creates “perfect bond with surrounding matrix.”
• Coffee powder has higher silicates which could work as an accelerator helping to speed up the hydration process. It stabilized at 7 days.

A study by Khushnood et al, Carbonized nano/microparticles for enhanced mechanical properties & electromagnetic interference shielding of cementitious materials (2016) tested mechanical & shielding properties of cement using peanut shells and hazelnut shells at 6 different concentrations.
• All char additives outperformed flexural strength of control (2.96 MOR).
• Hazelnut shells optimized at .25% (5.44 MOR).
• Peanut shells optimized at .25% (5.43 MOR).
• Fine aggregates increased fracture toughness.

Does char-crete remove CO2 from the atmosphere? Not directly, although using sources like peanut shells and coffeebean discards that would otherwise go back to the atmosphere as CO2 or CH4 interrupts these (natural) emissions and entombs them for a very long time. However, char-crete does remove other greenhouse gases directly.

A study by Tommaso et al, NOx Adsorption, Fire Resistance and CO2Sequestration of High Performance, High Durability Concrete Containing Activated Carbon (2016) found dramatically decreased levels of NOx (-66%) in addition to fire resistance.

Hans-Peter Schmidt points to concrete fire resistance as more important than most people realize. In the 1999 tragedy on the autobahn through Mont Blanc, 39 people died when a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire in the tunnel. The fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), mainly because of the margarine. While it is unlikely biochar in tunnel cements or plasters could have filtered air quickly enough to save the lives of those who suffocated from the toxic smoke, we can at least say that the repairs to the tunnel afterwards would have been easier had fire not damaged the concrete of the tunnel.

If just one percent of the sand going into the 25 billion tons of new concrete each year were replaced with biochar, 250 million tons of biochar would be sequestered. With a carbon content of 82–98 percent, that biochar is the CO2 equivalent of 738- 882 million tons per year (205–245 MtC). At present rates of emissions, we’d need to sequester 5.6 billion tons of carbon (GtC) per year just to get to carbon neutrality, 25 times more than this example. Alternatively, the biochar industry could raise its ambition and replace 25 percent of construction sand worldwide with char-crete.

Sources of unregulated waste biomass now in the process of becoming greenhouse gases on their own are literally as vast as the sands of the Ganges. In many places, they will pay you to take them.
Of course, our goal with biochar is not neutrality but drawdown. We want to take the atmosphere back to its pre-industrial state as quickly as possible. For that, we have biocomposites.


A “composite” is when two or more different materials are combined together to create a superior and unique material. The prefix, “bio,” means that the composite takes natural fibers including wood or non-wood (e.g. leaves and grasses) and blends them with a matrix (binder) made from either renewable or non-renewable sources (lime, clay, plastics, old tires).

Zhao et al evaluated biochar’s impact on hot-mix asphalt when compared to carbon black and carbon fiber (Lab Investigation of Biochar-modified Asphalt Mixture, 2014). Switchgrass biochar was blended at 10% by weight of the asphalt. The study found that bending strength in asphalt normally decreases in temps ranging from 300C — 500C, then increases above 500C, but biochar reduces that temperature susceptibility in asphalt binders. Biochar also showed the highest rutting resistance, meaning it was less often to need replacement because of damage.

1.6 billion tons of asphalt is poured every year. At 10 percent biochar, that industry would use 160 million tons, or 89 MtC. It is still a long way from the 5.6 GtC we need for net neutrality, never mind legacy greenhouse gas drawdown.

But wait, there’s more.

In 2016 DeVallance et al investigated hardwood biochar as a replacement for wood flour in wood-polypropylene composites. Wood-polypropylene composites are used in building construction, automotive and consumer products. The study combined biochar at rates of 5%, 15%, 25%, and 40% by weight with wood and plastic to make alternative composites to traditional wood-plastic composites. The findings:
• All biochar rates increased flexural strength by 20% or more
• Tensile strength was highest with 5% biochar
• Tensile elasticity was highest with 25% and 40% biochar
• Water absorption and swell decreased
• Biochar additions showed improved thermal properties.
All this academic research is good, but it hardly matters until it gets out of the classroom and laboratory. This is why Schmidt was in Nepal making kilns and showing biochars properties to the homeless after the earthquake in April, 2015, and why Draper is working with engineering students from RIT to design biochar concrete roof tiles in Nicaragua

Their goal in Nicaragua: replace the current metal roofing with something that could be manufactured locally, at low cost, hold up in heavy sunlight, keep out the torrential rains and deter animal intruders. The group made a lightweight aggregate of biochar.

Their method: mix all dry ingredients, add water, blend thoroughly, pour into flat tile mold, vibrate to remove air bubbles (an electric sander works well), transfer flat tile to curved tile mold (using a plastic sheet), allow 2 weeks to cure.

• Each tile weighs around 14 to 16 lbs
• The tiles withheld a 210 lb person standing on them
• With two workers, it will take 5 days to make the 224 tiles for one home
• Estimated CO2 saved per roof is ~400 lbs

During our workshop here at The Farm last week we made char-crete with various biochar concentrations. We made composites by melting styrofoam and soy-foam packing peanuts and the kinds of clamshell containers they use for take-out in restaurants (and typically wind up in rivers or the ocean). We made chardobe brick and compressed CINVA ram brick. We made grout for a tile bench. These exercises were a tiny drop in the ocean of what is required to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but they showed the potential.

By melting extruded polystyrene foam packing peanuts and clamshell containers — (C8H8)n — in an acetone bath — (CH3)2CO — and adding biochar until it stiffened, we made a char-tile that is light, structural, fracture-resistant, and can be molded to any shape. It could be kitchen tiles, surfboards, iphones, boats or biodomes.

Biocomposite “ore” from recycled polystyrene
Reversing climate change may not be as difficult or dangerous as many imagine. The only hitch in this scenario is that paved roads and monumental (concrete and steel) architecture are manifestations of peaking civilizations — arriving with times of high Energy Return on Investment (EROI), typically in double digits for firewood, slaves or whales, and triple in the case of light sweet crude. Pyramids and paved roads do not get built in the trough that follows civilizational overshoot and collapse (forest destruction, slave revolt, whale extinction and fracking).

As we return to the circular economy that pre-existed the Ponzi, we may discover in wastes — think of the oceans of discarded plastics — a new source of wealth, and building materials, we can barely imagine.

Polystyrene waste at a Japanese fish market, by beth

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ground Up

" This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any. "

Ever since William Woods, Wim Soembroek, Bruno Glazer and other dirt dorks started revealing the miraculous capacities of terra preta do indios, the dark earths of the Amazon, the story of climate change and our species impending extinction became all about agriculture. By the time Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph published Biochar for Environmental Management, it was clear (and validated by excellent science) that reinvigorating agriculture with ancient practices involving biochar, taken to scale, could restore Earth’s atmosphere to pre-industrial health.

Native stewardship of the Americas was all but invisible to the sensibilities of European conquerors. Worse, 500 years of unremitting ethnic cleansing destroyed unknowable riches of ecological knowledge, along with much of the rich, deep philosophy of how humans can inhabit Earth as citizens, not pirating rapists.

We confess we were among those who took the pilgrimage to Brazil, returned baptized in the soil, and predicted that billions of hectares would soon be biochared, drawing gigatons of carbon into eternal sequestration.

So what happened?

Decades on, you still can’t buy biochar fertilizers in most garden stores. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with the corpses of companies that ramped up biochar production, or packaged microbial mixes, and then couldn’t find enough buyers to pay the office rent, never mind their payroll.

In the animal probiotic supplement area, federal laws were passed banning biochar.

A few gardeners and farmers made their own, tried it out and were sold. They evangelized their neighbors. But the vast majority were skeptics or took clueless Master Gardener courses and took no notice. While those with relatively good soils, typical of the temperate zones, saw 40 percent productivity gains, those in the tropics and other areas of poor soils, saw gains of 400 percent and more. And yet, the nascent industry continued to tank.

This past week we have been hosting a workshop at The Farm Ecovillage Training Center called Biochar from the Ground Up. We are taking biochar up from the ground and putting it to other uses that might have better business potential.

Over and over again during the workshop we heard that “farmers are conservative,” “nobody is going to pay for something that takes years to show its worth,” and “unless you spend the time to make it, you won’t even be able to get any.” This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any.   

Because we are busy with the workshop we can’t easy cut out the time to pen a blog, so we taped (feebly, using a collection of devices such as phones and voice recorders) a segment of one talk we gave during the week.  Enjoy.   




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