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The Real El Dorado

Resiliency demands something quite different than specialization and diligent professionalism. Resiliency calls for an equally amazing and profound rise in competence on the part of citizens, consumers, eccentrics, dissenters, minorities... in other words, the generalist talents of amateurs." David Brin, (2007)

We occasionally write for Terra Nuova, the Italian environmental/alternative living magazine, and we were recently interviewed by one of their writers who lives in Spain. Here is the original interview, conducted February 24, 2011, in English.

AB: Saludos, Simon, and if you have any contact with Spanish publishers I would love to find one to translate and publish The Biochar Solution. Here in México there is great demand for a Spanish edition. Same goes for the Post-Petroleum Cookbook. Terra Nuova arranged a contact for us with EcoHabitar in 2007 but then came the crash of Madrid banks and the publishing loans stopped and the book project aborted. I need a Spanish publisher!

At least Terra Nuova is bringing out The Biochar Solution in Italian, the way they did for the Post-Petroleum Cookbook.

TN: How do you see biochar integrating into small, sustainable farms in countries with heavily industrialized agricultural systems like Italy?

AB: Biochar has application to both small scale and large commercial operations, but I see the future as one of the smallholder coming to predominate. There are many reasons for the shift but the two largest drivers will be Peak Oil and Climate Change. Industrial agriculture will attempt to fight against the onslaught of astronomically high fuel prices and unpredictable and catastrophic weather, using GMO seeds, government subsidies, and hi-tech machines, but Big Agriculture will be at a gradually increasing competitive disadvantage to small farmsteads and backyard growers who can substitute labor in the form of tender loving care and watering. Big Ag is stuck with highly-capitalized, hydrocarbon-intensive and wasteful mechanization and a chemical dependency that would make William S. Burroughs blush. With steadily declining returns eating up their profit margins, I don’t know where they will find bankers willing to finance them.

Biochar, as one part of the natural, organic style of farming, is symbolic of the advantage that small growers will have, because it can be produced at any scale, works best if used in combination with compost and compost teas, and produces dramatic results almost immediately. Another competitive advantage is the "Facebook Revolution" that is now toppling dictators in the Middle East. Small growers can take away the large market advantage held by Big Agriculture by using local food cyber-cooperatives and groceries-by-subscription. Biochar production will probably follow that same path, being small and local in production (on-farm is best) rather than bagged and sold in WalMart or Tesco.

TN: Do we have time, climate-wise, to do in-depth field research and testing on biochar before applying it on a large scale?

AB: Fortunately, plenty of the in-depth field research and testing has already been done — at least all the most critical parts. We know enough to say with confidence that, provided it can go through some kind of quality control, biochar is (a) safe and (b) effective. Remaining research primarily is about optimization, and that will evolve with time. Biochar can be used safely and profitably now, at any scale we can imagine.

The standards being developed by the International Biochar Initiative, in a global, transparent, scientifically-based process, will help bridge the remaining gap to assure commercial product quality, define acceptable feedstocks, and provide uniform chemical and physical properties tests to be applied by governmental and third-party certification agencies. Disclaimer: I am on the board of the US Biochar Initiative so my views of the importance of this work may be somewhat prejudiced.

TN: How does biochar fit into food sovereignty of developing nations? Will its uptake tend to encourage small, diversified farms or large, monocultures in these countries, and why?

AB: One of the great pieces of scientific research undertaken in recent years was the economic analysis of big and global versus small and local in the production and use of biochar. The results were surprising to many, not the least the university researchers who are mainly funded by Big Ag. What they found by doing sensitivity analysis of the bottom line is something permaculturists have known for a long time. We call it "stacked function." If a large central facility hauls biomass in from a great distance, using big trucks, big grinders, a drying and curing stage, and then a multi-story pyrolysis kiln, it can produce massive amounts of biochar, which then has to be packaged and transported to distant farms and gardens. All of that is extraordinarily capital, energy and fuels intensive, and the process heat is usually just wasted in the manufacturing, adding to global warming.

Alternatively, a small- to medium-sized farmer (a good example is Thomas Harttung in Denmark) might produce biochar from farm wastes like chicken manure, straw, corn stover, etc. in a kiln inside a greenhouse. None of the heat is wasted. It warms the areas being used to produce vegetables in winter, or to heat the animal barns. In summer it might run a Stirling engine and make electricity, or a heat engine to pump water. All of these energy services represent profits to the farmer that are in addition to the production of biochar. Because it is produced on site, the distances traveled to bring feedstocks and send soil amendments is very short and can even be done with human and animal labor.

The government of Senegal now has an interior Ministry of Ecovillages, with a goal of converting 10,000 traditional rural villages to model African ecovillages within the next decade or so. Two aspects of this work will be energy and soil fertility, the two sides of the biochar coin. One can easily imagine a village that harvests vetiver grass or moringa branches to pelletize into fuel for smokeless stoves of the type being built in village-scale kit micro-factories like WorldStove’s. The villagers cook their food efficiently, make biochar instead of smoke and ashes, and then put the biochar into their composting toilets. The carbon-rich humanure goes to tree-planters or to areas where more vetiver is being sown. This is a model that exemplifies both full-cycle carbon-negative living and sustainable village development in the best sense intended by the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism.

TN: Taking local and regional ‘resilience’ (in the Transition movements sense of the word) as paramount, where does biochar fit into resilient food and energy systems?

AB: One of the characteristics of the terminal phase of the Anthropocene, which we are now entering, is volatility. Certainly we see that in climate, as we leave the extraordinarily tranquil Holocene, with 10000 years of amazing weather stability (caused at least in part, I would argue, by the ethical land care practices of indigenous peoples) and enter a period of wayward monsoons, super-hurricanes, historic droughts and other calamities. We see it also in the end of the fossil fuel era, beginning with petroleum but quickly following with depletion of natural gas and coal. That expanding collapse has been responsible for both the reversals in our financial markets and the civil turmoil we are seeing around the world, from Tunisia to Wisconsin, although it is masked by the long-simmering inequalities and repression that set the conditions for the crisis to boil over.

Well, what does 'resilient' mean? It means the ability to buffer the storm; the capacity to take a hit and then stand back up. I am famous for saying that the time to mend sail is not in the heart of the gale. Now, while times are still relatively calm, is the time to be building stores in preparation for what is coming. In the case of biochar, we are building the health and fertility of our soils, which is better than any money in the bank. It will continue to give us food when all around us plants are shrivelling in the heat or waterlogged by flood. It will supply us carbon-negative heat and energy (soothing Gaia's fever to restore her tranquil nature) and keep our houses moderated and well lit when air conditioning and fuel oil become nearly unaffordable. Carbon farming in the broader sense (including not just biochar but no-till organic, keyline management, holistic grazing, compost teas and agroforestry) will provide us something that no amount of military expenditures can: security.

TN: What can people do to help spread the production and use of biochar?

AB: The best way to begin is by having some char on hand somewhere between your kitchen and your compost pile. In Tennessee I make most of my biochar in the winter, when I am running a woodstove. I have a small metal insert that I fill with wood scraps or bamboo (I grow a lot of bamboo) and I save a pile of that that I can use every time I take out my compostable kitchen scraps. In México I get my “carbon” from the local Mayan tradespeople who make it the traditional way that I describe in my book.

I open a hole in my compost pile, put in the char (if it is already pulverized, otherwise I bag it and pound it with a mallet first), and then put in the fresh kitchen scraps. Then I turn it all into the pile, mixing it well in the process. With a little luck, earthworms will digest both the biochar powder and the compost together, making a wonderful worm-casting that is ideal for the garden.

The next best way is to buy a case of my book, The Biochar Solution, and give one to each of your friends.

TN: How important is biochar to tackling climate change in any significant way?

AB: I am fond of reminding people that carbon is stored in only 4 possible places: Earth -- both the topsoil and the deeper parts, including oil fields and coal mines; Air -- the atmosphere; Water -- oceans, lakes, rivers and ice; and Fire -- us! the living, moving, breathing parts, including all the plants, trees, algae, fish, birds, animals, bacteria and people. The problem of climate change is that Gaia has become unbalanced by human activity, and so too much carbon (and other elements) have been taken out of the Earth and put into the Air. Air said, "Whoa. I can't handle that" and passed it to Water. Water now has so much it has become poisoned with carbolic acid and the corals are bleaching and the shellfish are dissolving, so it is trying to send it back to Air. Where it belongs is back in Earth.

The way to get it back into Earth is through Fire, much the same way it came out. We, the fire people, have to make coal and bury it, reversing the past 500 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The good news is, once we start doing this we discover we actually can make more and better food that way. Our soils grow deeper and darker with each passing year. This was no secret to the makers of terra preta in the Amazon, who grew their food this way for 8000 years, but we are only just rediscovering this ancient wisdom.

The amount of excess carbon being held by the atmosphere each year is 3.2 gigatonnes. This raises the concentration somewhere between one and two parts per million each year. Bill McKibben has said, "Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin won't exist, at least not for long, as long as we remain on the wrong side of 350." By that he means we need to get back to 350 parts per million. This year we will cross over 390 parts per million, about the same time we cross over into 7 billion humans, this season’s people. So the problem is certainly to reduce the number of humans, hopefully gracefully, but then to bring down that excess carbon below 3.2 GtC net.

Advocates of carbon farming, such as the switch to organic farming advocated by Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan and others, put the potential at around 1 GtC/yr. IBI scientists say biochar’s potential is 4-10 GtC/yr, because you can incentivize the use beyond the immediate food payback, such as through clean stove programs. However, the really big gorilla, in terms of fast sequestration, is tree planting, which I have estimated to have an 80 GtC/yr potential, once you start re-greening some of the major deserts of the world. All three of these strategies, working in conjunction, provide a path to restore the carbon balance in both the atmosphere and the ocean, on decadal timeframes, before the worst tipping points can kick in and send us screaming towards the climate of Venus, something none of us wants.

There are those who will naturally oppose this sort of large-scale tampering, calling it "geo-engineering," "the next market bubble," or other epithets. My feeling is that the ship has already sailed; farmers already know about the benefits and will begin using biochar anyway, and whether there is a market bubble or dangerous climate interference it will not be much different, although probably better, than what is happening right now. What we are doing, after all, is re-creating conditions that existed in the New World before the encounters by Zheng He, Columbus and Pizarro. In the case of Europe, we are bringing home, finally, the real gold of El Dorado.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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