Biochar pellets

Biochar pellets

Fleeing Vesuvius, New Zealand Edition

(2011, Feasta and Living Economies)

Parts 3 and 4 of Fleeing Vesuvius, “New Ways of Using the Land” and “Dealing with Climate Change,” focus mainly on  local and national strategies for reducing fossil fuel use (both to conserve fossil energy and reduce carbon emissions).

Industrial Symbiosis

The first essay in Part 3, “Cutting transport costs and emissions through local integration,” talks about bringing similar and related industries into close proximity with one another. The term for this is “industrial symbiosis.” Emer O’Siochru gives the example of Kalundburg Denmark, where all waste products are someone else’s raw material. Siochru describes how surplus heat from the coal fired power plant is used to heat 3,500 local homes and a fish farm, whose waste sludge is sold as fertilizer. Meanwhile steam from the power plant is sold to a pharmaceutical company, and gypsum collected from the the sulfur dioxide chimney scrubbers is sold to a wall board manufacturer.

Food Security and Localized Food Production

The other essays in Part 3 deal with food production, in an era where energy, water and resource scarcity make food security increasingly precarious. It may be difficult for urban dwellers who are isolated from food production to comprehend the urgent need to transition from centralized industrialized agriculture to small scale local and regional farms. Factory farming is extremely energy intensive. The synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used are manufactured from natural gas, while most pesticides are petroleum-based hydrocarbons. This is in addition to the substantial energy cost of running farm machinery and food processing and packaging, to say nothing of transportation costs (especially in the case of imported foods). In New Zealand, as in many parts of the US and Europe, the cost of meat, dairy products, eggs and fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 20% since 2008, along with the cost of energy.

In addition to skyrocketing costs, there is also the growing risk that extreme weather events – floods, hurricanes, tornadoes – will shut down vital sections of the food supply network. Owing to major cutbacks in federal, state and local emergency response programs, communities may be left to fend for themselves, as New Orleans was after Katrina.

It will take several years for local communities to become the major source of food for their residents. The global sustainability movement has launched a number of initiatives, such as the 100 mile diet, to facilitate this process. Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver describes this quite eloquently in her 2007 book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Nutritional Resilience

The food security essays in Part 3 are quite technical and geared towards communities that have already taken the first steps to increase local food production. “The nutritional resilience approach to food security” addresses the problem of mineral deficient soils, which could cause major nutritional problems in communities that source all their fruits and vegetables from a single region. Healthy soil should contain a range of trace minerals (e.g. calcium, zinc, selenium and boron), which are easily lost through erosion and water run-off. Because industrially produced crops are often deficient in these minerals, they are more susceptible to pests, which results in massive overuse of toxic pesticides.

Bruce Darrell talks about the importance of addressing the mineral composition of soils, even in organic farming. He gives the example of the high prevalence of thyroid goiter in iodine deficient regions of England.

Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Biochar

The final essay in Part 3 discusses a variety of strategies for creating “carbon sinks,” which trap carbon in the soil to prevent its release to the atmosphere. “Refocusing the purpose of the land” also discusses methane and nitrous oxide emissions. These are far more damaging greenhouse gasses than carbon dioxide, especially in countries like Ireland (and New Zealand) with agriculturally based economies. Nitrous oxide comes from livestock urine and the overuse of urea as a fertilizer. Methane is a by-product produced (as a belch) when ruminants (cows, sheep, horses, etc) degrade grass and other high cellulose plants by means of special bacteria in their rumins.

The author, Corinna Birne, focuses heavily on the use of biochar (buried charcoal) to create carbon sinks. In addition to trapping carbon dioxide, it also locks up methane and nitrous oxide and important nutrients. Thus soil treated with biochar requires less fertilizer.

Cap and Share

The essays in Part 4 look at national and international strategies for reducing carbon emissions. Cap and Share is a simple method devised by Feasta in 2008 that is much fairer than either a carbon tax or emissions trading. With this approach, countries agree to a fixed cap on carbon emissions. They also require primary fossil-fuel suppliers (e.g. oil companies) to buy permits to introduce fossil fuels into the economy. Although fossil fuel suppliers pass these costs onto the consumer, revenue from the permits is used to help low income customers pay their energy bills. Over time this causes carbon-intensive goods and services to cost more, encouraging consumers to seek out renewable energy alternatives.


To be continued.