Burning Down the House

October 21, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
"To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to … sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas. "

Image Removed It is no secret we live in a house on fire.

This December in Paris world leaders will meet for the 21st time in 22 years in an ongoing attempt to form a bucket brigade and put out the fire. Each time the fire is larger and less easy to control, and each time they end up going home without throwing a single drop of water. Among the issues are where the buckets are, who will be at the front of the line and who at the back, whether those less responsible for starting the fire can opt out of the work, or even rekindle the fire if it starts to lag, and whether, on a cost-risk-benefit analysis, it might be better to let it burn for a few more years before taking time away from profitable economic activities.

Image RemovedAt the outskirts of this debate will be those of us in the UN Observer community who are  yelling at the muddled delegates standing around watching the fire to please, will you, just do something! Of course, among the screaming rabble will be those who are quite certain there is no problem and doing nothing is the right course, and those who have placed their fate and the world’s in the hands of an all-knowing bearded Superman who can be relied on to save His chosen, even if everything else goes up in smoke. Their voices will blend with ours to make the cacophony even harder to parse.

We go to these crazy confabs because we have a simple solution to offer, a suite of tools that will counter the carbon menace and send it to ground, buying the human race time to deal with other game-enders — like the overfecundity of our species, Atoms for Peace, and Peak Everything, for instance.

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Starhawk addresses the IPCUK Plenary

As the International Permaculture Convergence in England was drawing to a close last month we were in the big tent listening to Starhawk read from the climate change working group’s statement, a document intended to be taken to Paris to give voice to permaculture designers. There came an objection from a gentleman who clearly had not taken the time to educate himself on the subject of biochar and thus was of the opinion it was a Ponzi scheme or Snake Oil and wanted mention of it deleted. We held our tongue.

Well you need not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
— Dylan, Rainy Day Woman

Having given extensive biochar talks at Permaculture Convergences in Jordan and Cuba, and more in England, including a controlled burn facilitated by Dale Hendricks two days earlier, we thought we had already answered our skeptics in the permie crowd and won them over. This fellow was apparently a late arrival.

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Dale Hendricks explains the cone kiln method at IPCUK

Starhawk had made biochar with us in Belize the previous February, and we had gone over the ethical principles with her in Cuba and Jordan, so we knew she was no stranger to the questions. She deftly handled the heckler by making a small adjustment to the text, placing the words "sustainably produced" in front of the word "biochar" to acknowledge his point about the potential for misuse.

Having had a hand in the drafting of the document, we let it pass that this was the only use of the word "sustainable," a word we abhor, that crept in.

Still, the document is a good one, and we reproduce it in its entirety below.

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Can an all-knowing bearded Superman save us from Fire Earth?

We encountered critics of biochar even before we penned The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelswatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious science. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational arguments against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be completely without merit, and ridiculous. In our book we discussed the critics’ few arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don’t follow the rules for that technique.

Nonetheless, it is hard to get very excited by toothless critics when there are so many positive developments. Faced by wildfire and severe drought as the Sonoran desert migrates north to claim California, local government entities in the Golden State are responding with a strategy long overdue but never too late: ecological restoration.

We quote at length from the Placer County Biomass Energy Initiatives, just released.

Placer County includes over 550,000 acres of heavily forested landscapes in the central Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains. This area stretches from Auburn to Lake Tahoe, and includes portions of three national forests, numerous state parks, and 60% of Lake Tahoe’s west shore. The forested land is at significant risk for catastrophic wildfire due to the buildup of unnaturally dense vegetation following decades of successful fire suppression and exclusion. The County has experienced six major wildfires since 2001 burning more than 100,000 acres, including critically important upland watersheds and wildlife habitat.


To address the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve air quality, the District has teamed with other public and private stakeholders to implement environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable forest management activities to restore these forested landscapes to a fire-resilient condition. The District’s program activities, which you can learn more about in a presentation, brochure, and video  (you may need to install an application called "Mediasite" to view this video).



The District has sponsored the development of a biochar GHG offset accounting protocol with the support of Prasino Group, International Biochar Initiative, and The Climate Trust.  The protocol was formally adopted into the CAPCOA GHG Rx on September 28, 2015.  The final protocol here   provides a detailed accounting procedure for quantifying the GHG benefits of biochar.  Biochar projects sequester carbon from biomass waste in a highly stable biochar, and produce renewable energy from the energy-rich byproduct syngas.  The protocol uses the biochar’s hydrogen to organic carbon content ratio as an indicator of its long term stability, in conjunction with its applied use as a legitimate soil amendment to agricultural field or road crop operations.

The protocol development process involved a webinar presentation conducted on September 9, 2014, which can be viewed  here (Youtube).  A copy of the presentation is here (.pdf).  The draft protocol is here.  The CAPCOA Protocol Primer on the protocol requirements and review process is available here.

We hope to quantify in the future additional GHG benefits that are associated with biochar including fossil fuel based fertilizer displacement, water production and transport, and enhanced plant growth.


Forest Hazardous Fuels Reduction Treatments

Fuels treatments involve the selective thinning and removal of trees and brush to return forest ecosystems to more natural fuel stocking levels resulting in more fire-resilient and healthy forests. Fuels treatments reduce air pollution by mitigating wildfire behavior, size and intensity, stimulating forest growth and vigor, and reducing tree mortality. Forest thinning also produces wood products that continue the sequestration of carbon. When fuels treatment projects include removal of excess biomass in the forms of limbs, tops, smaller trees and brush, the resulting biomass can be utilized for energy production and thus reduce the need for fossil fuels.

Distributed Biomass Energy Production

The District is supporting the assessment of the air pollutant emissions benefits and economics of energy conversion technology suitable for small-scale distributed systems in Placer County, utilizing woody biomass wastes from forest fuel thinning treatments, timber harvest residues, and defensible space clearings. 

We are also an advocate for a regulatory structure that recognizes the full environmental benefits of the use of forest biomass wastes for energy:

  • Participated in the creation of the new Feed in Tariff program at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
  • Assisted with the development of California Senate Bill 1122 which requires the CPUC to direct the three large Investor Owned Utilities in California to purchase a total of 50 MW of distributed forest biomass generation from facilities that produce less than 3 MW at strategic locations near forested areas at risk for catastrophic wildfire. We are assisting the CPUC by participating in the SB 1122 process:
  1. Developing a fair power purchase agreement template
  2. Making sure that the Investor Owned Utilities implement fair and equitable interconnection requirements.
  3. Defining the term “strategic location” in content of communities at risk to catastrophic wildfire.

Permaculture Climate Change Statement

International Permaculture Convergence, Gilwell Park, England, September 2015

Permaculture is a system of ecological design as well as a global movement of practitioners, educators, researchers and organizers, bound by three core ethics: care for the earth, care for the people and care for the future.  Permaculture integrates knowledge and practices that draw from many disciplines and links them into solutions to meet human needs while ensuring a resilient future.  With little funding or institutional support, this movement has spread over the past forty years and now represents projects on every inhabited continent.

The permaculture movement offers vital perspectives and tools to address catastrophic climate change.

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International Permaculture Climate Change Committee

Human-caused climate change is a crisis of systems—ecosystems and social system–and must be addressed systemically. No single new technology or blanket solution will solve the problem.  Permaculture employs systems thinking, looking at patterns, relationships and flows, linking solutions together into synergistic strategies that work with nature and fit local conditions, terrain, and cultures.

Efforts to address the climate crisis must be rooted in social, economic, and ecological justice. The barriers to solutions are political and social, not technical, and the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on frontline communities, who have done the least to cause it. Indigenous communities hold worldviews and perspectives that are vitally needed to help us come back into balance with the natural world.  We must build and repair relationships across cultures and communities on a basis of respect, and the voices, leadership and needs of frontline and indigenous communities must be given prominence in all efforts to address the problem.

Permaculture ethics direct us to create abundance, share it fairly, and limit overconsumption in order to benefit the whole. Healthy, just, truly democratic communities are a potent antidote to climate change.

Both the use of fossil fuels and the mismanagement of land and resources are driving the climate crisis.  We must shift from fire to flow: from burning oil, gas, coal and uranium to capturing flows of energy from sun, wind, and water in safe and renewable ways.

Soil is the key to sequestering excess carbon.  By restoring the world’s degraded soils, we can store carbon as soil fertility, heal degraded land, improve water cycles and quality, and produce healthy food and true abundance. Protection, restoration and regeneration of ecosystems and communities are the keys to both mitigation and adaptation.

Permaculture integrates knowledge, experience, research and practices from many disciplines to restore landscapes and communities on a large scale.  These strategies include:

  • A spectrum of safe, renewable energy technologies.
  • Scientific research and exchange of knowledge, information and innovations.
  • Water harvesting, retention and restoration of functional water systems.
  • Forest conservation, reforestation and sustainable forestry.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices—organic, no-till and low-till, polycultures, small-scale intensive systems and agroecology.
  • Planned rotational grazing, grasslands restoration, and silvopasture systems.
  • Agroforestry, food forests and perennial systems.
  • Bioremediation and mycoremediation.
  • Increasing soil organic carbon using biological methods:  compost, compost teas, mulch, fungi, worms and beneficial micro-organisms.
  • Sustainably produced biochar for carbon capture and soil-building.
  • Protection and restoration of oceanic ecosystems.
  • Community-based economic models, incorporating strategies such as co-operatives, local currencies, gift economies, and horizontal economic networks.
  • Relocalization of food systems and economic enterprises to serve communities.
  • Conservation, energy efficiency, re-use, recycling and full cost accounting.
  • A shift to healthier, climate-friendly diets.
  • Demonstration sites, model systems, ecovillages and intentional communities.
  • Conflict transformation, trauma counseling and personal and spiritual healing.
  • Transition Towns and other local movements to create community resilience.
  • And many more!

None of these tools function alone.  Each unique place on earth will require its own mosaic of techniques and practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

To deepen our knowledge of these approaches and refine our ability to apply and combine them, we need to fund and support unbiased, independent scientific research.

Each one of us has a unique and vital role to play in meeting this greatest of global challenges.  The crisis is grave, but if together we meet it with hope and action, we have the tools we need to create a world that is healthy, balanced, vibrant, just, abundant and beautiful. 

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not tinkering with fuel wringers for algae, hemp cheeses, or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, ecovillage design and natural building and is a frequent guest on the ETC Podcast.

Tags: climate change, permaculture