Showing posts with label Forests. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Forests. Show all posts

Friday, February 22, 2013

Returning to the Deep

"Like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis."

Claudia Gonzales takes the Bicimachina for a spin
We originally posted a version of this piece to The Great Change in March, 2009, as a two part essay we called “Going Deep.” We find ourselves now, in 2013, back in Belize for our annual permaculture design course and, rather than reinvent, we are revising and republishing that earlier post, now even more relevant to these times.

These days we speak in many venues of food forests, or edible forest design, and our audiences may look back at us very skeptically. Western Civilization was founded on savannah grasses, irrigation and the plow, and, like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses of grains, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis.

No green chlorophyllic cells can photosynthesize 100% of the sunlight that falls on an unfiltered square inch of ground in a day, so most of that solar energy is bounced back to space or lost to heat. Multistoried polyculture forests with climbing vines and groundcovers, on the other hand, share dappled rations of light as a community and have far greater absorption, production of oxygen, retention of nutrients, and a greater potential to provide food, should they be so directed.

So it is, that when we learn that in the collapse now underway resides the seeds of a different style of agriculture that does not carry all the historic baggage that burdens us, we may, with good justification, rejoice. Our space here in this corner of the cyberverse has become a string of such celebrations.

We have an elderly friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, we asked him what they had to say.

“They are sad,” he said. “Nostalgic for what was, but is gone. Each year there are fewer of them, and they want the world put back the way it had been. They are a bit frightened at the unfamiliarity of everything now. The seasons have changed. Everything has changed. They are sad.”

It was very strange that we were having this conversation while standing in one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, a broadnecked peninsula at midpoint on the migratory flyway between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. It rang true for us, though. We also miss the familiar, and are worried for the planet, if not for our own family, our remaining years here, and what will unfold in this decade to come. That is why we welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each year at this time.
Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Because of its British heritage and Commonwealth status, English is the official language, although only about half the people of Belize speak it and for more than half of those it is a second language. Kriol, Spanish, and at least three Mayan languages are more common to most children. With only 320,000 people, Belize’s population density is the lowest in Central America — comparable to Iceland. Less people live here today than during the classic Maya period. Unfortunately, as a Catholic country with easy immigration, the population growth rate is 2.21 percent, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. Given its natural wealth, that is small wonder.

When Christopher Nesbitt invited us to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, we immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway —  and our previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center in 1991, told us that this was a very special location. The students we have attracted are even more impressive than our teaching cadre and include Culture Change’s Jan Lundberg (2011), Local Future’s Aaron Wissner (2012) and now, The Automatic Earth’s Nicole “Stoneleigh” Foss (2013).

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – we recommend the 8-seat air shuttle from Belize City that takes about 45 minutes with 3 stops along the way – and then by bus (daily at noon) or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, the little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is the jumping off point for the river travel up to MMRF.

Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least globalized and most rustic district in Belize. The pyramid city of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia, is a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926. Chris quips that on the Research Farm you can’t throw a Frisbee without hitting a Maya ruin. In the Classic Era this was the settlement of Uxbantun, a suburb of Lubaantun.

The journey in travels up river past Lubaantun by the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande. A boy with a dugout “dory” canoe takes you up river for $24 Belize dollars — US $12 — per person. All of the dory men know the location, 2 miles (1 hour) up river at the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore. Alternatively, with the help of a hired guide, you can take the rugged mountain trail there.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up river from that bamboo bend. It emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, replete with howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt had come to Belize at age 19 and decided to emigrate and buy a piece of land on the river two years later in 1988. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today. Chris is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor.

Christopher worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association from 1997 to 2004. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

In 2004, Christopher and a board of directors comprised of Belizeans working in agriculture formed a non-profit organization and made the Research Farm its principal asset. After years of gathering specimens of vanilla, the farm established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. In 2007, they formed the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA).

Vanilla — the kind we find in little brown bottles or in ice cream — is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rare endemic found in the under-story of lowland forests of Central America. Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, rather than on a plantation. For this reason, most of the world’s commercial vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 5 acres.

Christopher is demonstrating how vanilla can be grown most profitably in the way that the ancient Maya did it, as part of an agroforestry polyculture. His hillside landscape is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the native ecosystem, providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention and wildlife habitat.

In Belize, as in other parts of the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated, and untold genotypes lost. With its low population density, Toledo District still has many wild remnant stands. This research has identified 27 distinct species so far, including a self-pollinating variety.
As Christopher takes our small class on a walk around the hillside above the river, we are shown the products of two decades of careful plantings. Christopher divides his new seedlings into three categories, depending on when they can be harvested. Vanilla vines climb cacao and peach palm trees. The near-term pioneer crops are the annuals like corn and beans, or the pineapple, pigeon pea, squash and melons planted between the corn contours, along with perennials like nopale cactus, yam, purslane, basil, amaranth and gourds. The intermediate crops are perennials like avocado, golden plum, zapote, sea almond, allspice, bamboo, palms, breadfruit, coconut, coffee, coco-yam, banana, citrus, mango, cacao, papaya, tea tree, euphorbia, noni, blackberries, gooseberry, chaya, ginger and pineapple. They will yield sweet fruits, jams, wines, basket-fiber, soaps, beverages and medicines after a few years of fast growth. The long term crops are samwood, mahogany, cedar, teak, Malabar chestnut, sea chestnut and other slow-growing trees that will close the over-story. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the government agronomist’s bottom line.

An important feature to the tropical landscape design is the creation of soil. Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast. Loss of soil by over-exposure, short swidden cycles (15 years was traditional but population pressure has been collapsing rest periods to 3 to 5 years), and erosion during the intense rainy season, is the normal pattern on most farms, and many farmers struggle to supplant those losses by increasing fertilizer applications, at unreckoned cost, both to farm profits and the soil.

We have a number of local agronomists in our class and last night Nicole Foss took the opportunity to give a short slide show on farming in the context of peak oil. While Belize doesn’t have a lot of oil, it does export some when the prices are high enough to justify extraction, but it has no refineries. Nicole explained why farming with fertilizers, GM seeds and all the usual petrochemical inputs of modern agriculture was such a bad idea, pointing to the example of what has happened to rural India, where agrochemical dependency has led to one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

At MMRF, pioneer species like banana, vetiver grass, pigeon pea, corn and a mixture of timber trees have been seeded out into the areas adjacent to the buildings. Swales and terracing have stopped hillside erosion during the rainy period and Chris continuously seeds out fresh milpas, so there is always plenty of food to be harvested. There is no shortage of fresh food in every season, and today we will be eating a half dozen varieties of fruit, and equally diverse carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Many of the Research Farm’s neighbors in the Toledo District have been mis-educated in government-run ag schools subsidized by seed and chemical companies. They see trees and farm crops as in opposition — one or the other, but not both. Through the work with the cacao cooperative, and now in creating the vanilla co-op, MMRF is spreading an old meme — resiliency and profit from polyculture agroforestry. Students of ours from prior years’ courses are models of self-sufficency and innovation that are spreading a viral meme in a dozen local villages.

Christopher pauses in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he says, pointing upwards.  He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus avocados. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He also plans a tank and pond aquaculture system.

Shelling fermented cacao beans
After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Christopher put swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods".

Raw cacao beans contain magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, anandamide, phenylethylamine, arginine, polyphenols, epicatechins, potassium, procyanidins, flavanols, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Long before Belgium chocolate, the ancients mixed it with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey to make beverages and confections. The Aztec and Maya cultures used the beans as currency, a practice that persisted out in the Yucatan until the 1840s. Given world prices in the US $1200 (industrial grade) to $5000 (fair trade organic) per metric ton range, the beans are a form of currency still.

When Mayan women go into labor they are given a big thick mug of toasted cacao, cane sugar and hot water. Because it is rich in calories and healthful, that big mug can see them through days of labor and the recovery afterwards.

While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. This makes cacao less vulnerable to some of the problems associated with other pollinators. Cacao trees do not require fertilizer or other agro-chemical inputs, and are only rarely attacked by blights, fungi and viruses in small holdings. Moreover, every time an old cacao tree falls over, it throws out a new main stem, so many trees in Belize that are now in production are original stock — centuries old.

On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Christopher has a bowl of cacao beans fermenting. They are left there for a week and grow a fine white spiderweb of hyphae as they incubate.  He didn’t need any starter, the airborne yeasts did the job. After 7 days, it is rinsed, ground, and toasted. This year we brought with us a new cacao grinder for the farm, donated by a new branch of Bicimachina in Mexico. It is a modified recumbent bicycle that lets you grind many kilos of cacao in a short amount of time. Chris is salivating at the wow factor this will have when his neighbors see it.
Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so normally we hold the permaculture design course well into March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for taxi traffic, and the trails to Lubaantun are more easily negotiated. This year we are catching a bit more rain because we are personally overscheduled, leaving here March 2 to teach an Ecovillage Design Course in Colombia.
Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varies through the course of a day, but it never ends from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher puts the chickens and ducks into the coop and latches the door. They do well feeding on the leaf cutter ants during the day, but they are domestic creatures, and this is still a jungle.

Coming back to this place has become an annual migration for us, to get back in touch with the inner heart of nature. Back to the source. It may be that in the coming years, trips of this distance will become less simple than hitching rides on great steel birds via Travelocity and might instead involve booking sail passage from Key West or traversing Mexico by donkey cart, but for now, we are using whatever tools we still have to learn as much as we can about how to grow food this way while also restoring the planet to the garden it is trying to be. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Personal Forest, Part 2

"If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals."

In 1979, with the birth of my second child, my mother followed me to Tennessee and bought 88 acres near our budding ecovillage. Since our intentional community used to sharecrop that land, the fields had been contour terraced and swaled in the late 1970s with The Farm’s bulldozer and road grader, using guidance from the local soil conservation service (another Roosevelt relic), so it was already in pretty good condition from a keyline management point of view. I took the local USDA extension agent’s suggestion and planted loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which, it turns out, was good advice. The loblolly is hardy, fast growing, drought-tolerant, and its range is expanding as the Southeast warms. I also planted hybrid American chestnut, mulberry, hardy citrus and bamboo.
The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. NOAA/NCDC, National Climate Assessment 2013 (advance draft).

In 1977-78, even before my mother purchased her farm, I began experimenting at my home with fast-growing hybrids of poplar, developed in Pennsylvania, comparing their growth characteristics with native tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I was looking for a sustainable winter heating supply and a substrate for mushroom production that could be harvested by coppice and pollard. In 1985 I applied that knowledge to plant a shelterbreak of hybrid poplar along one border of my mother’s property.

Walnut Hill Farm 

Interior of the Prancing Poet, under construction in 2012
In 1998, I planted out 3000 hybrid walnuts, comparing grafted rootstock developed by Purdue University for veneer with native black walnut used primarily for furniture and hardwood flooring and secondarily for a prodigious, oily nut crop. Nearly all of the expensive hybrid plantings were lost within 5 years to rabbits, insects, drought, and ice-storms. The native walnuts succeeded, and so have become a lasting part of my forest design at what our family now calls Walnut Hill Farm. We are using the oily husks this winter to stain the interior trim in a new addition to The Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center.

The late 1990s also saw the introduction of many bamboo stands, along the swales and in “canebreaks” where creeks would overflow in high water. I put in a half-dozen varieties in discrete patches, spread over about 20 acres. These have multiplied so quickly that they alone more than offset all the annual carbon consumption at Global Village Institute, including the Ecovillage Training Center and all its employees, visitors and volunteers, and all my annual travel around the world giving courses and workshops. Counting sequestration both above and below ground, 10 acres of bamboo locks up 63.5 tC/yr (metric tons carbon per year).

I am told by Peter Bane, author of The Permaculture Handbook, that six tC/yr is consistent with back-of-the envelope figures for maize, another C-4 photosynthesizer. The difference with bamboo is that being an annual, edible corn is harvested and consumed each year and the stover decomposes rather quickly, releasing briefly stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Maize is therefore actually a greenhouse pump, because it draws soil carbon into the thick-rooted plant and makes it more readily available to the atmosphere. Bamboo, if it is landscaped into groves or incorporated into furniture, buildings or biochar, lingers much longer in the terrestrial environment.
The Albert Bates Forest (we do not call it that; I am being facetious) now occupies some 30 acres. After my mother died, the Institute leased 44 acres from Walnut Hill for the project and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, bamboos and cactus, as well as the tried-and-true local trees. We know that climate change will cause many of our most familiar tree species to out-migrate, and we are working to fill the void by planting species more likely to survive in semi-tropical conditions, albeit punctuated by winter blizzards.

Planting trees is not as easy as it seems when your experience is mainly hardy transplants of Loblolly pine provided by the Forest Service in tight little bundles. Most trees resist being transplanted and have to be encouraged and pampered. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape  (2001) says “planting a tree is akin to shooting a man in the stomach.” His point is that trees are uniquely adapted to the angle of the sun, the flow of subsurface water and nutrients, the community of the forest and other factors we seldom consider. Starting trees in situ from seed or small seedling is often more likely to succeed than transplanting them as grafted rootstock or even semi-mature trees.

My planting method relies heavily on natural regeneration, followed by selection for desirable traits. Because of the poor highland soil in our region, cedars are a common pioneer species. Tulip poplar and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are also common. Most disturbed ecosystems will revert to woodland through natural succession if left un-grazed and un-mowed. We have mowed those areas we wanted to reserve for planting stands of higher value. Self-sown trees are generally stronger and grow faster than planted trees, so by allowing space between patches, we left plenty of room for natural succession through self-seeding.

Most tree work is done in our dormant season, roughly from mid-November to the end of April. My son now has a nursery established at Walnut Hill where he starts seeds in containers in polytunnels in the summer months, transplanting seedlings out in winter. He is good at scavenging plant leftovers from nursery sales and farmers markets, and although those trees have diminished survival rates from excessive handling and neglect, some always manage to survive and mature. From these, new generations are cultivated and encouraged.

I have been planting at densities of about 100 trees per acre, but those densities will increase substantially as the forest fills itself in. I imagine 400-1000 trees per acre to be more typical at climax, plus a wide range of understory plants. I asked Frank Michael, Global Village Institute’s engineer, to run these numbers for me. He used several approaches to cancel out the various unknowables. This is part of a work in progress that he plans to publish as a book in the near future.

Calculating Carbon Sequestration

For a mature mixed-oak-hickory mesophytic forest of the type we are planting in the Highland Rim region of south central Tennessee, hard data is not readily available, but the appendices to the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report of the US Climate Change Science Program (2007) are very helpful. Studies aggregated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 400 trees (one acre at maturity) would structurally absorb 2.6 tons of carbon per year (2.6 tC/ac-y or 5.84 tC/ha-yr,), based on studies at 6 sites over 34 years. Our 30 acres are now at about 5% of the eventual biomass density, so they are sequestering 3.9 tC/yr. At maturity they would sequester 78 tC/yr. Foresting the full 44 acres would sequester 114.4 tC/y.

Another approach is to use a coefficient for average forest sequestration. A standard reference for this work is Akihiko Ito and Takehisa Oikawa’s “Global Mapping of Terrestrial Primary Productivity and Light-Use Efficiency with a Process-Based Model,” in Global Environmental Change in the Ocean and on Land, M. Shiyomi et al., Terrapub, Eds. (2004), pp. 343–358. If we apply the number Ito and Oikawa cite — 0.5-0.6 kgC/m2-yr for second growth Northern woodland — to our 44 acres (178,000 m2), we arrive at 89-107 tC/yr at maturity, which is in the same ballpark as estimating structural mass using NOAA’s figures. Since we are only at 5% maturity on 30 acres, the forest is presently saving about 3 tC/yr. 

Using the carbon calculator on the Dopplr web site, and tracking my average annual travel for the past five years, I produce about 10 metric tons/yr of CO2, or 2.72 tC, from my jet-setting lifestyle. In order to also include all the embodied energy amortized into my food, clothing, gadgets, workplace and home, let’s call it 5 tC/yr, although that is likely an over-estimate. So, at this point in time my tree plantings are not covering my footprints, although my bamboo plantings are, and I am also neglecting to mention my experiments with algae in constructed wetlands. Algae and bamboo are the number one and number two fastest photosynthesizing plants we know of.
The estimate of potential average annual sequestration by my forest at maturity, even without bamboo or algae, is 89-114 tC/yr at a stocking density of 400 trees/acre, in perpetuity. That will erase my footprints with the soils of time.

By 2050 this forest should be relatively mature, and so would only continue to stock carbon at the same rapid rates it did as a juvenile forest if it were to be selectively harvested. In The Biochar Solution I described the method proposed by Frank Michael for step-harvest. I presume that most of the wood harvested at that point would be used in buildings or for biochar, further sequestering its carbon rather than oxidizing it back to the atmosphere through decomposition or burning.

In the step-harvest method, mixed locally-native species are planted in a tight grid spaced to reach closed canopy in 4-6 years, at which point half the young trees are harvested and used for biochar manufacture (and accompany heat capture); the biochar is returned to the patch. In nine years, the remaining trees again close canopy, and half are harvested for biochar and lumber. This cycle is repeated at 12, 16.5, and 24 years, etc. At each point, there are several options:
    1. Harvest all the trees and start a whole new planting cycle;
    2. Insert a farming/gardening rotation in the open areas, adding mulch, compost teas, biochar and compost as soil amendments; or
    3. Allow remaining trees to mature and re-enclose the canopy, while allowing or adding useful understory plants.
    The first option yields greater than 6.2 times the biomass per unit of time and area than a conventional commercial forestry plantation.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.” 
      — Gustave Flaubert, November

My hope is that long after I am gone, my life’s forest will continue to provide valuable ecological services of all types to those who inhabit it after me, whether that is for climate mitigation or for the sense of wonder that growing up among tall trees can give to a child. 

I recognize that it is an extraordinary luxury for one human to have access to 40 acres of land and be able to devote the resources required to establish a lasting, productive and climate-resilient forest. I don’t wish to suggest that everyone could or should do this — just multiply 40 acres by 7.2 billion people and you see how impossible that would be.  
What I am saying is that the carbon footprint of millions of people who live at the standard of living I do, racking up air-, sea- and ground-miles and using server farms powered by fossil energy slaves to book our next business trip, will not just go away by itself. Earth’s carbon cycle is profoundly out of balance (as are the nitrogen, potassium and other cycles) — so much so that those conditions now threaten our extinction.

If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus.

So what is the prescription? While not everyone can plant a personal forest, everyone can estimate their own greenhouse footprint and begin reducing it. I have been giving seminars in how to heat your home with stoves that make biochar, and how to use biochar in your garden to grow more biomass, including winter fuel. I am also active in the ecovillage and transition towns movements, which are pioneering a brighter, happier, cooler future. Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough. 

This is the second of a two-part piece. The first part was published to The Great Change on January 22, 2013. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Personal Forest

"Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle."

When I was a young boy my parents moved from the Chicago suburbs to a hardwood forested area of Connecticut, which is where I grew up. My back yard was those woods, and I used to have play forts, many different camping or hiding areas, and a succession of tree houses. I liked to overnight on a mattress of pine needles in a small grove of pines, and sometimes even did that in a foot of fresh, powdered snow. My parents also let me climb trees and play on an old rug covering scrap timber I had placed across the lower boughs of a large post oak. Later I built a round pole tipi in that tree and spent many summer nights living there, learning to climb up and down with ropes.

I guess you could say trees are as family to me. They remain a part of my life wherever I go. When I was 17 I learned to work horses on the long line, and later, when I arrived at the Farm in Tennessee, fresh out of grad school, I put those skills to use snaking logs from the forest with a team of Belgian mares. I built a tent home for my bride on a platform of hand hewn oak logs acquired that way. People would sometimes come to the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm and marvel at the small-diameter round poles used for rafters on the very large living roof spanning our Green Dragon tavern, but I knew when I built that roof that round poles were much stronger than milled lumber. They were like the tree limbs that had supported my tree houses.

Deep Well Injection

In my thirties I was a pubic interest attorney fighting against a chemical company in a town 15 miles from The Farm. The company was manufacturing organophosphate pesticides and herbicides and injecting its waste products, including its bad batches, into a deep well. The State Water Quality labs had tested the green luminescent effluent and said it was the most toxic they’d ever encountered. A single drop dripped into their fish tank killed all the fish within 24 hours.

That deep well went nearly a mile down and pressure fractured bedded limestone — it “fracked” it — to make the rock more receptive to millions of gallons of this witches’ brew. The fracturing also opened pathways into the Knox Aquifer, one of the largest underground rivers in North America, and presumedly went on to contaminate other large, potentially important, fresh water reserves for the Southeastern United States over a very large area. Each test well the company drilled showed that the contamination had already travelled farther away from the site than the company was willing to track. The State did not have the resources to drill million-dollar test wells, so the full extent of the damage may never be known. As well water in the area gradually turned fluorescent green, the company bought out the landowners and sealed their wells.

When our local environmental group sued the company, the company told the judge that there was no reason to protect the aquifer because the Southeast region had plenty of fresh water on or close to the surface. In written briefs, I made two arguments against that: population and climate change. Freshwater resources were valuable, and would only become more so.

This was the early 1980s, and there I was, going into a Tennessee court and trying to make a case for global warming. It forced me to read nearly every study I could get my hands on and to contact experts and beg them to come and testify. I tried to simplify an extremely complex subject so that the average judge or juror could understand it, despite confusing and confounding webs of arcane psuedoscience spun by company lawyers, and exceptions in the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that you could pump a lake through.

As it turned out, the case never went to trial. The Tennessee Department of Health and Environment contacted me and persuaded me I should help them draft regulations banning deepwell injection and hydro-fracking, which I agreed to do. That was a much less costly route for the local environmental group, letting the State bear the expense of experts to fight off the well-funded and unscrupulous industrial lobby. We had won, although it took a few years before the victory was sealed and the chemical companies packed up and left town. Their toxic waste is still down there, for now.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. — M.L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).

In that time I had spent reading and speaking with experts I had scared myself. Global warming was a much bigger deal than I originally thought. We were up only a half-degree over the prior century at that point, but already there were signs the poles were melting, sea levels were rising, and more frequent droughts were coming to mid-continents. In 1988, the Mississippi River had gotten so low that barge traffic had to be suspended. My young congressman, Al Gore Jr., opened hearings on Capitol Hill. Scientists began going public to sound the alarm. Big Oil and Coal began funding campaigns to undermine the smear those scientists and to poison the public debate with bogus studies and conspiracy theories. The Bush Administration’s official policy was climate science censorship. All these signs were ominous.

Carbon Sinks

Fossil fuels have had such a profound change on civilization that it is difficult to imagine giving them up voluntarily. They issued in the industrial revolution and globalized the world with railroads and steamships. They ended a particularly odious practice that had been the traditional method of Empire-building for the previous 5000 years, supplanting the long tradition of human slaves with “energy slaves” and “energy-saving” home appliances. The American Civil War was a last gasp of plantation economics, and it ended with a crushing victory for steely industrialists and their fossil energy, who went on to extend their new empire with the Spanish American War and all the resource wars thereafter. Does the end of coal and oil mean a return to human slavery or can we learn to craft an egalitarian society within a solar budget? Time will tell.

On the other side of the ledger, there are a few promising signs that something can be done to reverse the effects of three centuries of oil and coal addiction. The forests of North America remain a net carbon sink, but when land goes from forest to farm, it generates a huge spike in atmospheric carbon. In Mexico, which is losing more than 5000 km2 of forest every year, logging, fires and soil degradation account for 42% of the country’s estimated annual emissions of carbon. In addition to the carbon lost from trees, soils lose 25-31% of their initial carbon (to a depth of 1 m) when plowed, irrigated and cultivated.

In the US, croplands increased from about 2500 km2 in 1700 to 2,360,000 km2 in 1990 (although nearly all of that occurred before 1920). Pastures expanded from 1000 km2 to 2,300,000 km2 over the same period. The fabled era of the cowboy was between 1850 and 1950, and the pattern was repeated in Canada and Mexico. But then something different happened.

Partly because of the Dust Bowl and the organized responses of the Roosevelt Administration, partly because of the Great Depression, and partly because of an emerging conservation ethic, after 1920 many farmlands were abandoned in the northeast, southeast and north central regions and 100,000 km2 were reforested by nature. Between 1938 and 2002 the US gained 123 million acres of forest from farm abandonment while losing 150 million acres to logging, primarily in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. This trend, net marginal loss, continues today in the US and Canada, in contrast to Mexico which is rapidly destroying its forests, and not re-growing them anywhere.

TABLE: Carbon budget for Harvard Forest from forest inventory and eddy-covariance flux measurements, 1993-2001. Positive values are sink, negative values are source. From Barford, C.C., et al., Factors controlling long- and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science, 294:5547;1688-1691 (2001).

TABLE: Comparison of net ecosystem exchange (NEE) for different types and ages of temperate forests. Negative NEE means the forest is a sink for atmospheric CO2. Eighty-one site years of data are from multiple published papers from each of the AmeriFlux network sites, and a network synthesis paper (Law et al., 2002). NEE was averaged by site, then the mean was determined by forest type and age class. SD is standard deviation among sites in the forest type and age class. From The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. A. W. King, L. Dilling, et al, eds. (2007), Appendix D, p 174.

The net sink effect of a recovering forest is variable but the average for Eastern deciduous successional forest is 200 grams C per m2 per year, or two metric tons per hectare. This is calculated by considering annual growth and mortality above and below ground, the chemical changes in dead wood, and net changes in soil carbon. (Pacla S., et al., Eddy-covariance measurements now confirm estimates of carbon sinks from forest inventories, in King & Dilling, ibid, 2007).

Sometime around 1985 I began planting trees to offset my personal carbon footprint. Today that forest is about 30 acres (12 ha) and annually plants itself. I wrote a book, Climate in Crisis, pulling together my legal research and laying the climate science out in lay terms that non-scientists, such as myself, could grasp. In 1995, I retired from law to become a permaculture teacher and ecovillage designer. I continued to attend scientific meetings and international negotiations on climate, and I contributed a blog, many magazine articles and books to the discussion. I kept myself current with the latest findings, always exploring pathways that might provide solutions, not just for my personal footprint, but also to the coming climate catastrophe for us all.

Atmospheric Scrub Brushes

We could spend print here discussing geoengineering, replacements for fossil energy, biochar, and shifting to some form of ecological agriculture, but the truth of the matter is, nothing can heal our global chemical imbalance faster than trees.

As I wrote in Climate in Crisis, and later in other books, forests are scrub brushes. They absorb CO2 from the air, transform it to O2 with the magic of photosynthesis, and sequester the C in lignin and cellulose. They also transfer it deep into the ground through their roots and the soil food web.

We, the humans, might be able, under optimal conditions, to get up to sequestering as much as 1 gigaton of carbon (petagram C or PgC) annually by switching to “carbon farming:” holistic management; compost teas; keyline; and organic no-till. Biochar’s full potential is estimated at 4 to 10 PgC per year, if the world were to widely employ biomass-to-energy pyrolysis reactors.
Forests, with all-out reforestation and afforestation, have a potential yield of 80 PgC/yr.

The climate cycle, with 393 ppm C in the air, is currently adding 2 parts per million to the atmosphere annually. That represents an additional retention of 3.2 PgC over what Earth is able to flush back to the land or the oceans. The oceans are acidifying — at a disastrous pace — because of the excess C being flushed, so what needs to happen is that more C needs to be taken from both the oceans and the atmosphere and entombed in the land, which is, in point of fact, where the excess came from in the first place.

Going Beyond Zero

To get back to 350 ppm — Bill McKibben’s goal — we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 42 ppm, or 67.4 PgC. If we wanted to accomplish that goal as quickly as say, 2050 (37 years from now), we would need to average a net C removal rate of 1.82 PgC/yr. So we need to go from plus 3.2 to minus 1.8, on average, over about 40 years. Of course, many, myself included, don’t believe 350 is good enough to pull our fat from the fire. I would prefer we aim for 320 ppm by 2050 if we want to escape the worst Mother Nature is now preparing to dish up.
A 320 goal in 37 years means we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 72 ppm, or 115 PgC; an average a net C removal rate of 3.1 PgC/yr. In other words, we need to flip from adding 3.2 PgC greenhouse gas pollution every year to removing about that amount. We have to go net negative, for at least the next 40 years.

Organic gardening and soil remineralization, as Vandana Shiva, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others are so enthusiastic for, will not get us there, although it is a good start and an important wedge, with many other benefits. Biochar could get us there, but the industry is immature, poorly understood by environmentalists, and dependent on financing that may or may not be available in an era of de-growth and economic collapse. To scale up to 3 or 4 PgC/yr is likely to take longer than 40 years.

Tree planting is our best bet. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps planted massive shelterbelts to end the Dust Bowl, and the jobs provided helped lift the USA out of the Great Depression. The same could be done in Spain and Greece, not to mention Africa. And, lest we forget, two of the world’s greatest reforestitians, Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan, demonstrated our species’ ability to rapidly change climate. They showed that we could even jump start a minor Ice Age if we wanted. Talk about air conditioning! Fageddaboutit.

Right now, the planet is still rapidly losing forest. I drew this illustration for my newletter, Natural Rights, in the mid-1980s:

In 1988, borrowing from federal agency reports being suppressed from publication by the first Bush administration, I drew graphics to show what would happen to the Eastern forest in a 5 degree warmer world, and the kind of species migrations that might be expected: 

A more important point, which I raised in Climate in Crisis, was that individual forest patch compositions are less important than the synergies that are lost when those compositions are broken up. It matters what happens between patches, and it is not just about plants, either. We need to consider the pollinators and seed storing animals. They can’t just have food in one season, they need it in all seasons, or they will leave. Some plants and animals are fast migrators (armadillos and spruce) and some are much slower (leafcutter ants and ginkgo). When you force a rapid system change, the network of connections is broken, and it may take some time to find new equilibrium. In the meantime, biodiversity crashes and ecological services are impaired. The web unravels.

GHG Footprints

In the early Nineties I used to quip that before I wrote my book on climate my greenhouse pollution footprint had been in steady decline for 10 years. After I wrote my book it went through the roof. Invitations to speak continue to increase, even now, 23 years later.

Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. Using a conversion formula from the book, I convert my personal energy slaves into tree-years. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle.

Planting trees as a personal offset requires a bit of advance planning, because the calculation depends on how long a tree will grow, how big it will become, and what it will likely give back to the atmosphere at the end of its life. Also, one has to anticipate the changing dynamics ushered in by rapid climate change. This led me to arrange for a long-term contract of some land and to acquire new knowledge on how best to plant and manage a climate-resilient forest.

I now have the benefit of visits to the Pioneer and Alford forests in the Ozarks, which I describe in The Biochar Solution (2010), as well as to wilderness old growth in Scotland, British Columbia, Northern Queensland in Australia, Muir Wood in California, the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, the Mesoamerican highlands and the Amazonian Basin, to name a few. I have studied permaculture, with special reference to the work of Christopher Nesbitt, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in designing a methodology for building food-resource forests. But, back in 1985, I had none of that, and so I began on a part of my parents’ farm that was in the process of transitioning from vegetable field production to low brush.

In the second installment of this series, I will describe the planting of my personal forest and how I calculate its carbon sequestration impact.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Goodbye Columbus

" We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try."

Forest gardening is about as close as any strategy comes to addressing all of the most pressing needs of humans in one great sweep. Climate change, peak oil, poverty, extinction, and civil strife — all are rooted in the ground, and in most cases, those roots belong to trees.

Our nine-day EdibleForest Garden Design Intensive with David Jacke started last Friday with 23 participants from Canada, Honduras, Haiti/Albania, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, and Florida. 

In our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society Publishers), we described the relationship between the two main styles of agriculture that existed at the start of the Columbian Encounter (1492) and the two distinct types of civilization each tended to produce.

A.Eisenstaedt, Oklahoma Farmer 1942, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In the Eastern Hemisphere humans marked the dawn of agriculture by their discovery of two great inventions: irrigation and the plow. Those began, we think, in the richest lowland river valleys — the Tigris and Euphrates; Nile delta; and Yellow River and radiated outwards. Because annual flooding erases boundaries, the ancients invented surveying instruments and sophisticated ownership systems for property.

Too much of any good thing is bad, we know. In this case fertile points of origin were plowed and irrigated until they salted into deserts. Capitalism, socialism, militarism and theocracy were attempts to adapt to the boom and bust cycles of that kind of agriculture, and to predations that pair with property, food stores, and aggregations of artificial markers for wealth. Abundance and scarcity; scarcity and abundance — these beget hoarding; snatch-and-run; entrenchment and defense.

In the Western Hemisphere (although we admit to speaking in broad generalizations and quickly acknowledge that examples of opposites appear on both sides of the oceans) a second strategy dominated. Daniel Quinn (author Ishmael and its sequels) has termed this the “Leaver” culture. It is characterized by discovery of cooperative strategies that compliment, rather than compete, with nature and the directions she appears to be following. Natives of the Americas developed highly complex cultivated ecologies. Prairies were managed by fire for buffalo and elk. Forests were managed for deer, beaver and large fowl. While some food preservation was practiced, and many domesticated cultivars were grown (notably maize, potatoes, beans, and squash), much of the Western diet came from seasonal forage, even in city-state cultures like Incan Peru and Mayan Mesoamerica.

In the Americas, field and forest management strategies were typically soil building, game conserving and water protecting. To the East, urban commerce and military conquest tended towards exploitation, mining, and resource extinction.

In the Americas, soil nutrients were consumed at or close to their places of origin and the residues returned back to resume the cycle again. In the East, an “export economy” arose almost immediately, with Sumer, Ur, Babylon, Egypt, Macedonia, Greece and Rome, and trade routes carried vital soil nutrients to great distances where they filled sewers to be carried off into oceans. While both cultures recognized at a deep level that maintaining a positive balance with nature was absolutely essential to survival, one of them failed to recognize that many seemingly wonderful social inventions were antithetical to that goal.

When the two styles finally met, it was catastrophic almost beyond reckoning. The Europeans, armed with gunpowder brought West by trade with China on the Silk Road, and with Andalusian war horses bred by the Moors to escape Medieval Maximum warming in the Middle East, having been starved out of Europe, now flooded into North and South America with the intent to subdue and conquer all in their path. Estimates of the genocide of Native Americans range from 30 to 99.9 percent, far greater than the Black Plague or any other historic scourge. As we wrote in The Biochar Solution:
After the passing of the plagues, and the brutal conquest that ensued, those Native Americans who remained were reduced to a state of extreme poverty. Before European contact, the people of Amazonia cultivated or managed at least 138 of the 257 plant species cultivated in the Western Hemisphere. Two centuries later, they were reduced to farming only a handful.
Anthropologist Charles C. Mann says, “The pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams — entire ways of life — hissed away like steam.”
When the civilizations of the Americas perished, with them perished the agricultural sciences gained from millennia of field trials. Countless valuable domestic cultivars, unable to self-propagate, went extinct. Where great shining cities had stood, vines and moss covered the façades; trees broke through the paving stones and engulfed buildings. Rain rotted away the roof timbers, and insects ate the parchment of scientific and literary manuscripts, leaving but a few to the bonfires of the conquerors.
So great was the burst of vegetation over open fields and mounded cities in the Western Hemisphere that the carbon drawn from the air to feed this greening upset atmospheric chemistry. Analysis of the soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-contact population centers and sparsely populated surrounding regions reveals that the reforestation of land following the collapse drew so much carbon out of the atmosphere so rapidly that Europe literally froze.
That period of global cooling, which was most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, is known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age ended the Medieval Warming Period that corresponded to the time when the Amazon was not jungle, but tall white cities with many miles of wharf-front, wide causeways extending inland, and highly cultivated societies.

What we hope to do with these Edible Forest Design workshops, beyond improving the resiliency of our tiny rural community amidst a perfect storm of energetic decline, climate change, and ecological collapse, is to propagate a new meme. It really isn’t all that new, actually. It’s mostly just forgotten. We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try.

When we tried the one based on irrigation and the plow, we turned the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl. Franklin Roosevelt, may his name be praised, reversed that by sending the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant hundreds of miles of “tree alleys” North-South across the plains. His jobs program was long on ecological restoration, and lest we forget, it worked. Spectacularly.

Now we need to do that again, only on a grander scale. We need to use it to grow a food supply by agroforestry, and to sequester gigatons of carbon in the bargain. Who’s up for it? Will you join us?


Friday, July 27, 2012

Vacuuming the Atmosphere

My beef with the whole “solutions” thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for “solutions.”  The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up.  But there are subtexts to all these things.  And the subtext to that particular meme is, “Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means.”  They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements.  They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently.  You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions.  But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life.  The mandates of reality are telling us something very different.  They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future.
— James Howard Kunstler, in Rolling Stone, July 12, 2012

Scientists grasping at geoengineering straws to maintain a quasihuman technotopia into the post-Anthropocene have proposed a lot of bad ideas but occasionally something pops up that could conceivably work. Those in the latter category need to be put to the proof. We will have a closer look at one of those, but first a quick bit of background.

In 1989, when we were proofreading publishers’ galleys and drawing illustrations to go with our planned January 1990 release of Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do, two new books came across our desk that seemed to confirm the importance of what we were writing. The two were Bill McKibben’s End of Nature and Steven Schneider’s Global Warming. The first we dismissed out of hand because it seemed overly prosaic and we did not agree with the premise — nature was not going away, although we humans well might.

The second gave us greater concern because, like Climate in Crisis, it put the science out there for the average person to read in terms that were easy to comprehend, and it told a story by scientific discoveries, in a sequence not unlike our own, from ice cores to better light bulbs.

With the hindsight of 31 years, we’d have to say we owe Mr. McKibben an apology — he was right and nature really is dying. Much of it is already dead. Our approach, like Schneider’s, was too cautious, too conservative, and too timid. We proposed that the “Peace Dividend” from the end of the Cold War be used to remake a clean, green, economic engine of sustainable development — a solar-powered future. Looking at that now it seems laughable: a technofetishist utopia. Back in 1989 we couldn’t really face the worst —the Venus scenario — it was too horrible. We described it, but then we went right back to light bulbs and Energy Star appliances.

In his recent Rolling Stone piece,  McKibben shredded many environmental groups’ strategic choices of the late 20th century, albeit acknowledging that the efforts had to be made if only to show them wrong:
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

By now, we are in complete agreement with him on this point. Technofixes have to be seen for what they are — nostalgic longing for an extinct, Disneyesque futurism. Torus energy, biofueled airliners, Virgin Galaxy trips to the moon and desert cities encased in air-conditioned biodomes are all forlorn grasps at a tiny twig of what-might-have-been, as we plummet off the cliff face into a hellish post-Anthropocene.

Our most recent book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, proposed a realistic and still feasible end run around the politicians and bankers by going straight for the farmers and homesteaders working to hold back the deserts. The Biochar Solution is geoengineering disguised as organic gardening.  It takes two fundamental human needs — food and energy — and provides the former much more reliably in the changing landscape of the 21st century by extracting the latter in an ancient, alchemical way. Nothing is needed by way of exotic metals, crystals or fractional reserve banking, and we know it works because Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan both used it to reshape our atmosphere and climate once before. By reforesting entire continents (albeit unintentionally, as a side-product of genocide and mass-enslavement) they each interrupted “natural” warming cycles and brought about major cooling cycles — even minor ice ages — virtually overnight.

Less proven and more in the realm of exotic metals, crystals and fractional reserve banking is a strategy being proposed by a team of academics turned entrepreneurs led by Columbia University’s (no relation to the Italian navigator) Peter Eisenberger and Graciela Chicilnisky. They propose low-cost, high efficiency, air extraction (carbon scrubbers). They want to use artificial trees to vacuum the atmosphere, take out the CO2, and stick it somewhere useful, such as in lagoons, where it can grow algae for $0.40/gallon biodiesel, or in hothouses, where it can boost hydroponic pot yields.

If you remember Apollo 13 (The Movie), you might recall that the crisis Tom Hanks character faced was less the loss of oxygen than the oversaturation of CO2, which presented a life-threatening problem. Engineers on the ground improvised a way to join the cube-shaped Command Module canisters to the Landing Module's cylindrical canister-sockets by cannibalizing a space suit.

Later space shuttles had a carbon dioxide removal system that regenerated its sorbent, leaving no wastes. The metal-oxide sorbent was cleansed by pumping air heated to around 200°C (400°F) at 7.5 scfm through its canister for 10 hours.

Activated carbon, made from pyrolyzed biomass, can also be used as a low-cost carbon dioxide sorbant. Once the activated carbon is saturated the CO2 can be removed by blowing air through the bed, but that would create dirty exhaust, so a better method is to immerse the activated charcoal in a reactant like soda lime, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or lithium hydroxide that are able to chemically react and entrain the CO2. This is similar to the process we use when mixing sawdust or chopped straw fiber with lime putty in making lime renders and plasters for natural buildings. Over time, the carbon is incorporated into the hydrated lime, leaving a hard surface, just like limestone.

The scrubbers Eisenberger and Chicilnisky propose are ceramic honeycomb filters coated with immobilized amine sorbants (aminopropyl or aziridine-based sprays). Air is forced through the filters and the amines adsorb appreciable amounts of CO2 at ambient temperatures, and subsequently desorb the CO2 when temperatures are raised to 75-120°C (170-250°F). The energy to power the fans and heat the desorption process can be fossil-fueled, solar thermal, geothermal, or biomass (including Combined Heat and Biochar —CHAB— units). Using fossil fuels seems to defeat the purpose, but filters can even be installed on a coal or diesel power station and used to render the air from the smokestack cleaner than the air coming into the furnace from the sky.

The specific reactant agents are a trade secret, and the group has been ramping up its business under the name “Global Thermostat LLC” of New York. At the UN event in Rio, Eisenberger and Chicilnisky disclosed that their process would extract CO2 at the rate of 2 kg/kWh-e consumed. “Aggressive operational deployment is assumed to begin in 2015, a date believed achievable given the state of the technology,” they said. They projected that by 2040, with half of all new power plants in the world adopting the technology, they could be extracting 34 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year (GtCO2/y) for the remainder of the century. Worldwide land requirement at that extraction level is put at <300 km2, about the size of Malta. Their spitball estimate of net sequestration by 2100, if all goes according to plan, is 2400 GtCO2.

The “Terrifying New Math” as Bill McKibben titled his Rolling Stone piece, now takes on relevance to this discussion. McKibben says, “Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)” He then points out that proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies, is a much larger number — 2795 Gt.

If all of the proven reserves of coal, oil and gas were to be burned by 2100 (2795 Gt), and at the same time the air extraction experiment of Global Thermostat were to be scaled up as Eisenberger and Chicilnisky project (withdrawing 2400 Gt), then Earth’s atmospheric parking lot would still have space for 170 more Gt before it hits the Kyoto limit of 2 degrees of warming (2795-2400 = 395; 565-395 = 170).

But, there are several reasons why this math is still fuzzy. First, there is no right answer, yet. The normal interglacial CO2 concentration is 280 ppmv, not 350 — McKibben’s target — or 390 and rising, which we have now. Methane should be at 650 ppb but instead is at 1765 ppb, 2.5 times higher than it has been for millions of years. Aiming for 350, or even just staying where we are, is probably not good enough.

No one has actually seen Global Thermostat’s scrubbers in action, and likely won’t, until there is some kind of emissions cap or price attached to carbon that forces coal plants to install them. Obama’s torpedoing of the Kyoto treaty at Copenhagen and again in Cancun and Durban assures that no such cap is waiting in the wings. Neither Mitt Romney nor Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, seem likely to go down that road as long as their financial backers remain climate deniers. Without financial incentives, neither the buyers nor the sellers have a market for carbon scrubbers. Indeed, this was the central thrust of Chicilnisky’s presentation in Rio. She wanted Hillary’s “Green Climate Fund” (more recently called the “Green Energy Fund”) to be tasked almost exclusively to air extraction technology (aka “clean coal”). $300 billion is a suitably large stimulus with which to launch her small New York LLC.
We don’t really know what the Global Thermostat ceramic tree technology would cost, because we don’t know what is required to make Dr. Magic’s Patented Immobilized Amine Elixir, or how much Dr. Magic wants as a royalty for use of his patent.

However, Dr. Magic’s snake oil dispensary carriage is being overtaken by the central villain in McKibben’s piece, Father Time. McKibben concluded his essay with these words:

This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.

The problem with trying to stop large scale climate change is that it may no longer be possible. We missed 150 years of warnings by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Keeling, Broecker, Gore, the IPCC and many others. The warnings whizzed past like orange traffic cones, telling us the bridge was out, just ahead. Now we are sailing through space. We don’t know at what point we may have already triggered the shift to a new stable state, or what scientists call an attractor, that may be 5 degrees warmer than the Holocene.

If we are lucky, we can land at something resembling the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum which our (reptilian) ancestors experienced 55 million years ago, lasting 200,000 years, but for that to happen, the curve of acceleration for climate forcing positive feedbacks will have to reverse, and fairly soon, and given the current state of methane clathrate bubblings, off-gassing permafrost, summer ice loss, Atlantic Conveyor retardation, and more, even that discomforting Eocene 5-degree scenario seems implausibly Pollyannaish. 

As we told our readers 32 years ago, there is a 25- to 50-year lag time between when we reach zero emissions and the planet stops getting warmer. Put another way, the droughts, wildfires, extreme storms, and all the other manifestations of climate change we are experiencing now, in 2012, are the direct result of the muscle car and hot rod culture of 1962. In 1962 there were 50 million automobiles and commercial air travel was in its infancy. Putting a man on the moon was a Kennedy campaign slogan. In contrast, what kind of footprint do we have today, and what kind of mark is that making on the world of our grandchildren?

Rather than either embrace or reject the Global Thermostat process, we cautiously welcome air extraction as one more possibly helpful, hopefully harmless technology that could shave a few degrees off our sentence.

Air extraction by no means provides a license to keep the party going, as some at the UN event may have hoped, or to burn all those proven reserves. McKibben is dead right about this — those carbon reservoirs must remain in the ground if we are to stand any chance.

Air extraction, if and as it ramps up to Malta-size filtration farms by 2040, could also start pulling off radionuclides, which would be a good thing, taking us back pre-Fukushima, even to the pre-Trinity era c. 1943, when fallout referred to hair-loss. But, since no legislator has ever found a way to appropriate enough money to take nuclear waste from leaking tanks in repositories, overfilled swimming pools at reactors built on coastlines or earthquake faults, or any number of other death traps set to ensnare future generations, it is difficult to imagine spending taxpayer money on extractive radionuclide removal (never mind carbon dioxide). Will private business shoulder that burden? Show us the money.

We should remember that biochar and other carbon farming techniques don’t need CO2 emissions markets or a Green Climate Fund. They improve farm yields and drought resistance independent of the speculative price of carbon. They can be entirely market driven without stimulus, right now.

Our more practical strategy, as we outlined in 2006 in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, remains to increase climate and economic adaptability and resilience — personal, neighborhood, community and regional — while working to facilitate a transition to a saner social arrangement that promotes planetary healing. That could and should involve air extraction, and not just for carbon. We just use trees. Real ones.

We need to let Gaia do what she does best. If we can just stop wounding her further, she might yet recover. She has the will to do it, although, at the moment, that happens to involve a serious and most unpleasant fever. It took us, the two-leggeds, hundreds of thousands of years of compassionate living, in the aggregate, for a stable Holocene period to emerge from the chaotic climate regimes of all preceding times. We pushed the edges of that stability with our cities, redirected rivers, man-made deserts and agriculture, but we also helped her recover, bypassing and even protecting huge expanses of rainforest and sacred, untouched mountains.

The balance our predecessors struck with our mother was a delicate one, and in a mere 150 years we destroyed it, but that equipoise may not be yet beyond redemption. We just have to put the forests back and stop soiling our nest.




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