Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: The Biochar Debate by James Bruges

Book Review:

The Biochar Debate: Charcoal’s Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility

By James Bruges

Review by Lloyd Helferty, Engineering Technologist
Steering Committee member, Canadian Biochar Initiative
President, Co-founder & CBI Liaison, Biochar-Ontario
Advisory Committee Member, IBI

James Bruges book, The Biochar Debate, is an excellent review of the technology and potential of Biochar that has been written for the layman. It outlines many of the most important global phenomenon, to the uninitiated, in an easily understandable way. Major issues like Global warming, Peak oil, the limits of chemical and mineral fertilizers and the rapid erosion and loss of global soil fertility as a result of industrial agriculture, which is leading to impending worldwide food shortages, are all outlined in a way that makes it very clear that we are very close to nearing some of the physical and ecological limits of our Earth. He makes clear that the challenge before us is daunting, yet he does hold hope for one new and potentially very powerful technology: Biochar.

Bruges is able to weave the story of how Biochar could help to tackle all of these issues at their core and sounds a note of caution that we must use this technology for the betterment of the world and not just as another tool to enrich the few while continuing to marginalize the many. And although he does have a good grasp of the “big picture” social policy issues, he is also able to accurately convey complex scientific details in the context of what these would mean for us in a practical way.

His cautions about applying carbon credits to Biochar seem a little farfetched however. His expectation that “carbon markets” would be “flooded with credits and their price would tumble” if “global carbon markets were introduced for burying Biochar” is unlikely, since he himself also acknowledges that it would be “unlikely” that the practice would spread “in a reasonable timescale” (even with carbon credits for Biochar).

This latter conclusion is probably right because the current (and even future) price of carbon credits is not expected to fully offset the costs of producing and applying Biochar in many cases, particularly in places where the soil fertility is already quite reasonable or good. Biochar will likely only become “economically viable” when all of the other lifecycle cost savings and attributes are taken into account, with or without carbon credits. However, carbon credits can ‘help the economic case’ for the *earlier* adoption of Biochar in the most marginal and degraded soils and can also help to make biochar much more commonly understood around the world because recognizing ‘Biochar offsets’ would suddenly elevate its status within the international business and financial world – and beyond. It is likely that it would very quickly become a “household term”.

Also, Bruges discounts the important role of regulation and enforcement when he states that “credits would lead to monoculture land management and the destruction of existing woodlands”… leading to negative carbon sequestration and reduced biodiversity. While there is a need for “sustainability protocols” to be in place for Biochar, it is much more likely that the value of Biochar will only be realized when all of the other “environmental attributes” associated with the appropriate use of Biochar for soil and land management and improvement are monetized. Again, carbon credits alone are unlikely to lead to any of the aforementioned negative and destructive practices / outcomes because, as indicated, the value of carbon credits alone is unlikely to fully compensate for the cost of producing and applying Biochar on a wide scale basis.

While it is true that there are uncertainties, it may be premature to discount the future recognition of Biochar in carbon markets, such as within local cap-and-trade schemes.

However, his idea of utilizing the “twin solutions” of “upstream regulation on mining of fossil carbon” and a “Carbon Maintenance Fee” merits serious consideration, and if Carbon Markets cannot be made to work, this should be our preferred system of carbon accounting, monetization and reward for those who wish to utilize Biochar appropriately.

But utilizing a “Carbon Maintenance Fee” does not entirely negate the need for sound management and “sustainability protocols” for Biochar nor does it negate the need for strong and sustained regulation and enforcement. We will need every tool at our disposal to make Biochar work for us and we must be diligent in ensuring it is applied using the best management practices and highest standards possible in order to ensure we are not inadvertently causing harm or degradation to biodiversity or landscapes (since it is very unlikely that "remote sensing satellites" will ever be able to determine with any level of accuracy the value or level of biodiversity or "ecosystem services" within a specific landscape).

Our tools may seem powerful and the policies may seem simple and benign, however we must be diligent and ever wary of distortion, misinterpretations and outright abuse within any system we might design that is meant to assist us in the transition away from fossil fuels, the reduction of (CO2) emissions and the restoration of a climate that is more amenable to the long-term maintenance of a sustainable human civilization.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Invitation to The Huntsville Project

TODAY, Earth Day 2010 -- the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we are launching a campaign called The Huntsville Project to inform the global public about Biochar, one of the most promising developments in our fight against climate change.

This Earth Day we can look back on a year in which James Cameron’s Avatar, a film about environmental crisis and restoration, swept box offices around the globe.

What if there were a real-life answer to help solve the real world problems of climate change, peak oil, and global food security?

Would you want the leaders of the G8 and the G20 to know about it and endorse it?

At our new website,, you can find out about biochar and sign our petition:

We are asking global leaders to support this important new clean technology.

On June 25, 2010 the G8 will meet in Huntsville Ontario. On June 26 and 27 the G20 will then meet in Toronto.

Our goal is to publicize and gain support for Biochar and Biochar offsets. We want to help implement and scale up the global Biochar industry by creating public awareness and new markets for Biochar.

We are asking G8 and G20 delegations to make a commitment to recognizing Biochar carbon sequestration and offsetting with Biochar.

Our website features a public petition that we hope you will sign.

I would like to encourage you to sign our "Huntsville Petition":

... and help put Biochar on the global agenda.

The following description of Biochar from the newcarboneconomy website is a good place to start.

It is being cited around the web as an authoritative non-technical definition of Biochar:

If you have skills or content to contribute, we would love to hear from you!

If have contacts and ideas for the Huntsville Project, and want to help with the effort for Huntsville, you are most welcome to contact me.

Please check out our website, sign the Huntsville Petition, and circulate this link to your friends and members of your social networks:

Help us out, let people know about our website, and have a beautiful 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day!


To join our Huntsville Project team, go to:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cap and Share & Carbon Markets

Recently I have been in some discussions about the best way to create a Carbon Trading system for Biochar. There has been a heated debate about "Cap and Trade" and other mechanisms to ratchet down CO2 emissions -- and to try and decide what would be the best method of doing this.
Someone had noted that some people who propose for a carbon tax (*like Jim Hansen) had "probably the best arguments" because a tax would be "refunded equally to all citizens" and would be transparent. The argument was that the "transparency arises because it is simple to understand and simple to implement. This is a significant advantage, especially in that we need to act rapidly".
It was also argued that a tax is "cost effective". Cap and trade, where units of carbon reduction need to be "certified" for trust to be established in the market, "leaks a substantial amount of money to those involved in certifying the reductions and those involved in trading the certificates".
Because "Certifying GHG emission reductions in thousands of scenarios involving multiple greenhouse gases is a highly complex undertaking." While the people who do it are intelligent, skilled with complex detail, and deserve to be paid well, in the end, it becomes (essentially) "a tax on emissions" anyway ... but it "becomes less effective because a substantial portion of the leverage available is diverted" (to the task of certifying the emissions reductions).

For anyone who has taken the time to review “Cap and Share” – which is not at all the same as “Cap and Trade” – they should understand that the way Cap and Share is configured is much more closely aligned to the pure "Carbon Tax" scenario that is being advocated.
One should notice that the word “trade” is not used in the "Cap and Share" system.
This is deliberate. With “Cap and Share” there is no emission reduction “certification” required (and hence no money “leaks” to the emission traders), just like with a tax; and it is transparent, and it is very simple to implement and it means that the market can free up those “smart people” to “work on developing renewable energy systems”**, and it is Shared “equally to all citizens” (hence the name) – and finally, it is very likely to be far more “politically palatable” because it now opens up “free-market” mechanisms that allow for trading.

But the “trading” is not for carbon emissions reductions (i.e. “counting an absence”), nor does anyone need to keep track of a single molecule of carbon or CO2 -- because the trading that does occur is a trading of the “emission certificates” that the fossil fuel point-source carbon extractors must buy in order to mine the fossil fuels in the first place (there are only a few hundred of those types of companies around the world).

This now becomes much, much, much easier to regulate if and when it is necessary to do so.
Please review “Cap and Share” if you have not already done so.

** Now, if we come back to the issue of freeing up resources, a "Cap and Share" system should also be able to free up huge amounts of money. Money that could be used by those “smart people” to “work on developing renewable energy systems”.
I know that I (personally) would much rather be designing and testing renewable energy systems than spend my precious time getting myself involved in the highly politically charged “carbon trading“ game.

And it is a "game".
More and more these days I am starting to believe that we are simply playing "mind games" with each other ~ with money [and hence resources] as the “tool” by which to do it.
We are pretending that we can count an absence of CO2 molecules is part of that money game.
This type of game is played very well by the big trading houses like Morgan Stanley – but it is just a game of shuffling around money in a false “economy” and allowing certain people (those who control the playing field -- who control the "market") to skim money off the top.

But we are just “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” as the oft-quoted phrase goes…
To make real reductions we must employ a system that is simple – and one that gets the money into the right hands; i.e. those who are actually implementing the change. Otherwise, we are just “playing on the margins”. And the big energy giants know it.***

*** And this is why they forcefully endorse “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS).
The energy companies who effectively control the resources know that schemes like CCS will never be implemented. It’s not practical and it’s much too expensive and energy intensive.
So they play games with the public and with governments and the “moneyed class” to try and convince them that they have the technologies that can “reduce emissions” – yet they themselves are the source of the emissions in the first place!

They are playing a game because everyone is focused on the Carbon and CO2 problem; so their strategy is to focus on a “Carbon and CO2” solution.
But this is false [not only a false solution but the focus of our attention is false!].
We should not be looking for solutions to our problems by looking only at the effects of our actions (rising atmospheric CO2), but rather, we need to look at the real causes of the problem, which is rooted in the money system that controls the resources (and hence controls how much time and effort is spent within the “economy”; i.e. how much human activity is devoted to certain tasks).

“Carbon Markets” (as they have been implemented – i.e. attempting to track every molecule of carbon in the biosphere) is just a shell game. Especially since we are attempting to “Track an Absence” (of emissions).
While it does create huge amounts of “economic activity” ~ this activity is not actually “economical”!
It’s actually a waste of our time and efforts; which are both precious right now.
And by diverting our attention away from the real issues of energy and resources (and their inherent physical limits on a finite planet), we allow those who already control them to continue doing so (and make ever greater profits doing so).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen has failed

Today, December 19, 2009, an Anonymous Blogger Reported from Copenhagen that the UN had failed to address the most important crisis in human history.

This is what he wrote:

The UN has failed to address the most pressing human rights issue of our time, and perhaps the most important crisis in human history.

The Copenhagen conference, and the entire process that has been unfolding for the past two years, has utterly and completely failed. None of the work has resulted in an agreement of any kind, let alone a strong and fair one.

18 years of effort in international negotiations have amounted to virtually nothing. These processes have failed, and we have lost time we could not afford to lose.

Many have devoted their blood, sweat and tears for over a year trying to raise awareness and put pressure on leaders to reach a strong and fair deal. It hasn't worked, and we see a lot of anger and bitterness being expressed today.

At the last minute, a proposal put together by the US and a few other countries behind closed doors was submitted, with no emissions targets.

The UN delegates have now left and the conference has broken up without approval of this "deal".

The US and some of the other countries that produced this two page declaration did so outside of UN processes.

The document mentions only a "goal" of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. There were no emissions targets listed at all, no method for monitoring or enforcement, and no obligations, legal or otherwise, for participating countries. The US itself has made no new commitments to emissions targets beyond its prior inadequate proposal of reducing by 4 percent.

This document was then submitted to UN delegates and they were given just an hour to decide whether or not to approve. After much protest, delegates were allowed to speak, and a string of countries began to denounce and reject the document. After much deliberation, the conference broke up without any approval of this last minute proposal. They agreed only to "take note" of it

Perhaps this is better than the worst case outcome, however. It is probably better to have no deal, than an obviously weak and impotent one.

But is was not just what he wrote about Copenhagen that is startling, it is what he wrote afterward that was most enduring to me.

He said, "We are now at a crossroads."

He noted that the third world is likely going to experience the worst effects of climate changes, and indeed, many countries are already suffering.

He indicated that if the developing countries can remain united, they do have some power. They would be capable of forcing the issue.

This could even come in the form of various types of sanctions, boycotts and embargoes against us.

If Western countries refuse to reduce emissions, these developing nations can simply deny us the ability to “grow emissions” by denying us the resources that generate those emissions in the first place.

We already acknowledge that a substantial amount of oil and other important natural resources are located in the third world. A substantial amount of the oil in the world is not under our own soil. Beyond oil, there is coal, natural gas, uranium, and various rare metals sitting under the soils of much of the developing world.

Third world nations could decide to leave them in the ground, limit supplies, or sell them only to certain countries.

This would then force us to conserve. We would need to get by with only the fossil fuels we are producing ourselves, which would certainly force us to scale back and take a more serious interest in “alternative” energies.

It would compel us to change, although we might be dragged kicking and screaming into a sustainable way of life.

In the end, though, this would probabyly help the whole world, including those living in the West.

But it would be tough times for us.

Right now Canada may be producing more oil than we need, and without any global climate agreement we will probably be tempted to expand our exploitation of the tar sands. Could sanctions or boycotts be brought against us to discourage us from such action?

Will there be demands from the international community – and from within Canada as well -- that we abandon the tar sands completely? We certainly seem to have enough oil for ourselves without using the tar sands.

But we also have to remember that the oil in Canada it is unevenly distributed. In the East half of Canada we get our oil by buying it from elsewhere.

Also, many activists in the Western world will probably do everything that they can do to support the developing world. They will also agitate against any possible retaliation, especially if military invasion were being tabled as a possibility. After all, these are not our resources -- and it was the Government of Canada who behaved so badly at Copenhagen and we were the ones would would not compromise at Copenhagen.

An agreement at Copenhagen could have provided a pathway for developing nations to not use their own resources.

But now they must.

Can we continue to reply on these resources coming into Canada at reasonable prices now that Canada is seen as the villain? Will countries even want to continue selling us their inheritance and birthrights for mere pennies?

Are we prepared to fight them for these resources if we had to? Certainly the US military is already stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US certainly cannot dominate the world if the world stands against them. Indeed, with limited supplies of resources, the US may even be forced to withdraw from the countries they are already in and start focusing their limited resources and funds on change at home.

Or will be simply have to make even deeper concessions later?

The issues are definitely challenging -- and divisive.

We certainly live in "interesting times".

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Biochar PAH issue

The issue of PAH was the very first topic that arose during the inaugural meeting of the CBI in December 2008. We have talked a lot about PAH.

Of the resolutions of our meeting in December, we were to:

§ Facilitate links between industrial and research community.
"Research must be pushed towards demonstration with a focus on PAH’s, toxicity and decomposition by-products and any other unintended chemical or physical interactions."

§ Undertake technical specific work on developing biochar standards that address toxicity ie LDL 50 and PAH levels

A biomass stove expert from the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL) in Colorado has undertaken quite an extensive review of the PAH issue and has spoken to several other NREL (and former NREL) personnel on this topic and has found “none with a major PAH concern related to biochar”, but he has suggested a need for more work.

He had indicated that he does not believe “this need be a very complicated study”. He added later that “it is important how the char and gases are separated” because it has been shown definitively that there is a hazard with the gasses (Diebold studies). He also said that many residual compounds are water soluble.

He did say that it might be a good idea to contact “experts studying char from the fire impact standpoint”. It has been suggested that “sediment researchers” be engaged to look at this.

Back in April this is what he had to say:
"I have looked at this issue every way I knew how and have found nothing definitive -- especially that char is definitively safe.”
“PAHs and dioxins certainly exist and are carcinogenic - but the only literature I have found says the PAH compounds are dangerous because they can be airborne (breathable - part of the gas output in the char production) and produced at much higher temperatures than the roughly 500C value (or less) that we hear proposed for biochar. I know of no literature showing a PAH hazard associated with char in the ground. In fact char seems more likely to be used to clean up PAH compounds from soil. We need someone to study this in more detail."

This is confirmed by the fact that Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are US federally regulated “hazardous air pollutant” -- not a soil or water pollutant.

Marquita K. Hill, Second Edition, CambridgeU Press, 2004 stated:
i. “They bind to soils so tightly that even if ingested absorption is limited.”
ii. “Sunlight and warmth will degrade them.”
iii. “90% of human exposure is from food, especially leafy veggies and whole grains”
– most of this comes from airborne PAHs that have “settled onto food crops”
iv. “Even baked goods and toast typically contain them, created during the browning process.”
v. “Common in carpets, some babies have been found to be exposed to an equivalent of three cigarettes a day from their daily urban exposures.”

Here is one other study:

But I still think that Paul Stamets presentation on Bioremediation has incredible value:

If biochar stimulates AM Fungi, as has been indicated in many studies, then the “PAH issue” may not be as much of an issue as we believe it might be (even if the simple laboratory leachate tests indicate the PAHs are mobile and will leach out of the chars).

One likely cannot infer conclusions based on separating out a single test of a single parameter anymore. Hopefully science is evolving past this simplistic view and we are now capable of studying dynamic systems where a host of variables interact and create an outcome that cannot be predicted based on simplistic binary models.

Humans and all other organisms have evolved with PAHs in their environment, just like most other natural compounds that we might consider toxic.

I am FAR more worried about the “new” compounds that humans are formulating in laboratories and dumping into the natural environment in vast quantities. Compounds that nature has never been exposed to in its several billion years of evolution on this planet like organochlorine compounds, PFCs, PBDE (brominated) flame-retardants, chlorinated benzenes, chloroform, cyclohexane, octane, tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, toluenes, phthalates, phenols, xylenes, surfactants and a vast array of unreported compounds of industrial origin -- and nuclear wastes, which can produce materials that have never before existed on earth and will likely never be assimilated into the tissues of living creatures.

Thousands of common synthetic (organic and inorganic) chemicals have been introduced into the environment over the past half-century that can mimic natural hormones, alter sexual and neurological development and impair reproduction. Dozens of studies have documented the impact of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on animals, frogs, fish and birds with deformed genitals, brain damage, cancers and damaged reproductive systems.

Millions of tons of reproductive toxins are spewed out by facilities in the Sarnia area of Ontario year in, year out with barely a whisper. (In 2005, according to a study by the environmental NGO Ecojustice, factories in Sarnia released more than 131,000 tonnes of pollutants into the air.)

There are more than 80,000 chemicals in industrial production today with hundreds added each year. Few have been tested for their effect on human health or the environment. And, critically, there is almost no knowledge of how chemicals interact with each other to affect our health or the wider environment. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in the US in 1976, more than 62,000 chemicals were ‘grandfathered’ into the market – i.e. no testing, no questions asked.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that 95 per cent of all chemicals in the US have not undergone even minimal testing for toxicity. In the European Union (EU) it’s estimated that two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals have not been vetted. The EPA has banned just five chemicals in the past quarter-century.

The air emissions from a properly designed Pyrolysis plant are far more likely to be clean.
Even a properly designed small stove that produces biochar (like the TLUD) is probably far, far cleaner than an open campfire. The air emissions from an industrial system were tested and it was found that “the total volatile emissions measured were only 8 ppm in their stack tests”. PAH levels were not measured, but were expected to be “non-existent”.

Fast pyrolysis char yields are rather small and the oxygen content is high, but the PAH and aromaticity was measured as being “low” (and it was shown to be “a good absorbent”).

Here is how summarized it:

"The formation of PAH during pyrolysis has been well documented (Painter, 2001; Ledesma et al, 2002) although the concentration and availability of PAH with respect to biochars is still uncertain. Garcia and Perez (2008) reported lower presence in bio-oils derived under fast pyrolysis conditions (<10>100 ppm). While PAH may be harmful to most plant and microbial communities, relatively rapid decomposition of these compounds by certain microbial populations has been observed (Ogawa, 1994; Zackrisson et al, 1996) and PAH compounds may be fully consumed within one to two growing seasons under many conditions (Thies and Rillig, 2009)."

I believe that many have come to these conclusions:

- There is no way you can expect simple answers about PAHs.
- Smoke contains PAHs. So all of the smoked Foods that you eat (from sausage to salmon) have PAHs in them. (Smoking food has been used for centuries to kill off the life forms that cause food spoilage.)
- People get routinely exposed to PAHs through regular daily exposure to things like BBQ dinners and coffee … and campfires, cigarettes, wood fireplaces, asphalt fumes, chocolate ( and fertilizers (

Consider this: What happens to the residual PAHs that are left on the floor of a forest after a forest fire?
Are these considered a health hazard?

Unpublished analyses of several biochar samples had found PAH content no greater than that of bulk soil (Manning, pers. comm.).
A single published study examined the full PAH profile (40 individual PAH compounds) in a number of synthetic char samples manufactured at relatively high heating rate concentrations (Brown, 2006). The total PAH concentration was 3–16 µg g-1, depending on peak temperature, compared to 28 µg g-1 in the char from a prescribed burn in pine forest.

It has been stated by Ahmed (1989) that "whilst biochar should contain systems of PAH, existing evidence indicates that no leachable PAH is present."
Source: Ahmed, A., Pakdel, H., Roy, C., Kaliaguine, S., 1989. Characterization of the solid residues of vacuum pyrolysis of Papulus Tremuloides. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis 14, 281-294

One noted researcher has noted that “thermophilic bacteria” (such as in manure composts) "seems to be best at assimilating these compounds”.

Of course we would never advocate breathing the uncombusted fumes from pyrolysis – there are plenty of known carcinogens in the exhaust. We would never advocate dumping the pyrolysis oil into the environment either. There are dangers, yes, but I would be much more concerned about breathing in black carbon particulates from candles burned indoors -- or incense sticks lit deliberately to make the air smell of scented smoke. (I use them all the time!)

Yet candles are producing “Fine particulates" like PM 2.5's (being 2.5 microns across or smaller). Unlike PAH's, PM 2.5's are considered a "Criteria Pollutant".
"Fossil fuel combustion sources dominate PM2.5 emissions" (so) “controlling PM2.5 means reducing our dependence on fossil fuels”.

Someone recently noted that “the reality observed in the field is that microbes scour fresh biochar and eat up the tars & resins. They get energy from those polycyclic rings (of PAH and VOM); eat it like candy, I hear…”.

In another anecdotal story it was said that, “Recently a group in MA got permission to truck charcoal from an old CT industrial site to spread on farmland. The state agency required tests of this industrial brownfield residue, certain it would contain all sorts of toxic chemicals. The results came back unspectular and near-zero. Whatever residues of pyrolysis the charcoal once contained, after a couple of decades, the PAHs etc. were gone -- presumably from biologial breakdown, not weathering and leaching.”

In summary:

-Incomplete combustion produces the highest levels of the most dangerous PAH.
-Pyrolysis is not combustion.
-The amount of PAH depends both on pyrolysis conditions (e.g. Temp) and feedstock composition (e.g. presence of Chlorine can create dioxins)
-Dangerous Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are listed in EU Regulation 850/2004
-There is No evidence of dioxins and furans in biochar
-There is Evidence of PAHs formed at temperatures between 350-600°C but it is certainly less than burning pine. [PAH] (3-16 vs 28 µg g-1)
-PAHs are very strongly adsorbed to biochar (due to planar C=C bonds)

M. Jones, E. Lopez Capel, D. A. C. Manning: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in biochars and related materials.

Yes, we must use "the precautionary principle" when it comes to biochar in soils -- but we must also move quickly, for (according to many climate scientists) we may not have very much time to waste.

The conclusion:
"A careful, unbiased, and critical examination of the issue of PAHs is necessary."

This absolutely must be part and parcel of a comprehensive research project.

But, meanwhile, I'm going to consider stopping my use of candles and incense -- and go ahead and use biochar again in the soil of my balcony garden next spring.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Engine of Capitalism

Capitalism is driven by greed. This is acknowledged.

Thus, greed is the “engine” behind how capitalism works. It is the motivation.
However, if we take the analogy of an automobile further, we realize that it is only the engine. It is not the steering wheel and the brakes.

These parts of Capitalism – embodied in Government and Non-governmental organizations – and in the limits imposed upon us by the finite resources of our planet – must be used and considered an integral part of a capitalistic society, or else the entire society will simply accelerate without any control – and will eventually crash.

In fact we are seeing it all around us already. The economic “automobile” that we have been driving and continually accelerating has gone out of control and crashed -- and continues to skid out of control.
The wreckage that results from this high speed reckless “driving” (that results from an almost total lack of control – lack of regulation) is having enormous consequences for almost everybody – including the people in the car (the richest countries) as well as the pedestrians on the street (developing countries).

It also has dire consequences for our infrastructure, which we most certainly need to rebuild. We also need to rebuild the “economic automobile”… and this time we have to build in some speed limiters and traction control systems.

This means that we need a tight regulatory framework that acknowledges that civil society, as reflected through representative elected governments, should be at the wheel and in control of the direction and speed with which we move forward ~ and can even decide whether we need to stop and turn around at some point and head in a different direction, as circumstances change.

We also need to incorporate an acknowledgement of the finitude of earthly resources and build into economic systems a way of acknowledging this in order to assist in their fair distribution.

It is essentially an acknowledgement that sharing is a virtue. Something that is completely lacking in the current “greed trumps all else” model.

It is this virtue that is commonly acknowledged among all religions and faiths – and what ties us all together, no matter what your belief system is (whether you are Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Baha'I or a Zoroastrian).

The biggest problems with the current system have come mostly because money == power.
And because power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely – it becomes very easy for capitalism to go astray.

But, then again, have we yet found any economic system that is not corruptible?
Certainly Communism was very corruptible. Certainly Fascism is and was extremely corruptible. Any system that concentrates power in the hands of the few can ultimately lead to corruption with potentially dire results.

Yet, in order to undertake large “communal works” – like building windfarms and railways – we need to somehow find a way of concentrating the capital. Individual people can’t build railways on their own – it’s impossible. Thus we need some sort of “collectivism” – some means of coordinating societal efforts toward a common goal.

Governments have not been good at it by themselves (too much politics). Businesses have not been good at it by themselves (if allowed to continue amassing capital unhindered they can end up raping the Earth of all its resources and causing enormous wealth discrepancies).

So what is a good model? Probably one that acknowledges both the need for large, strong and wealthy private capital while also acknowledging that we need large, strong and democratically controlled governments that work for ALL people – not for corporations or unions or any other kind of special interest, but for everyone.

This is why I joined the Green Party many years ago. It was the closest Political Party I could find that strove for this ideal.
And it is the only Global Political Party.

It is tied together by a set of universal values as described in the Charter of the Global Greens. (
Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Participatory Democracy, Nonviolence, Sustainability and Respect for Diversity.

The more I think about this the clearer it becomes for me. It just seems to make sense.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Biochar for Energy, Environment and the Soul

Many researchers are focused on Energy (production) as their primary focus and concern and are looking at Pyrolysis technologies and Biochar primarily from an energy perspective. This is probably because energy is a more attractive “topic” than “soils”, likely because everyone uses energy directly. Not many people seem to care much about soil.

There is also a genuine concern that our “way of life” might be jeopardized by an imminent (possibly severe) constraint on energy availability (“peak oil”) and the ensuing price increases. There is a strong motivation among many who understand that rising fossil fuel costs will also have a positive effect on alternative fuel (energy) prices, which would mean that getting into the bio-energy field now could reap substantial economic rewards in the (possibly quite near) future. Businesses are usually motivated to make money as their primary purpose, so this is not surprising.

This is part of the reason I try to bring the topic of “food” into the equation when I bring up the topic of Biochar – because everyone is intimately familiar with this topic of food. After all, everyone eats everyday, so couching biochar in terms of “Food security” will often result in Biochar getting far more attention than would be the case if I were to talk about Biochar in terms of soil alone. But the argument is essentially a progression from soil health / drought protection to crop improvement / increased stress tolerance / robustness to food security.

In this vein you could even continue the argument and say that lower food price / less reliance on food imports / food grown closer to the market results in less energy used overall and therefore increased energy security, so it's not too much of a stretch to say that Biochar for soils can indirectly improve energy security.

There are essentially two ways to try to adapt to the new and emerging realities of energy decline (increasing costs) and environmental degradation / stress and improve our energy security:

1. Try to “fight” or overcome the problem through increasing our (attempts at) control over the problem – i.e. increase our energy security via increases in total energy throughputs by whatever means we can find. While this often does result in diversification, this method of solving the problem attempts to force nature to conform to the way we would like it to behave. This is the ‘geo-engineering’, ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘chemical fertilizer / pesticide’ approach to managing nature.

2. Adapt to the new realities by working with the environment (nature) to let it (nature) do as much of the work for us as possible. This method of solving the problem emphasizes a diversified, small-scale ("powerdown", as Richard Heinberg puts it), ‘organic’ way of solving the problem. This method could allow us to prosper (if not grow) by working with and adapting to nature and conforming as much as possible to her realities in order to reach some sort of effective harmony or balance.

Although it may seem that Biochar falls into the first adaptation strategy when looked at purely from an energy security perspective, if looked at from a soils perspective, it is certainly the case that Biochar can be looked at as a means of achieving the second adaptation strategy.

Unfortunately the modern human mind seems to be acclimatized to option 1 rather than option 2. “Grow, grow, grow” (is the matra)… growth for its own sake.

But we must understand that “Progress” can be achieved in many ways. “Progress” in the economy does not have to only mean “Economic growth”. The literal term "Economic Growth", if we adjust for inflation, is really about counting the absolute number of economic transactions (trades) per unit time.
Although this can be one of the measures of prosperity, a saturation point will always be reached per “unit”, where the unit is an individual human being. In other words, the economic growth stops when the number of humans on earth stops to grow and the number of economic transactions per waking day (there will always only be 24 hours in a day) reaches a point where the individual is satisfied or satiated and/or is overwhelmed.

I think many people (in the modern world at least) are quickly reaching the point of being overwhelmed. ((For instance, just trying to read all of the messages on all of the four [biochar] Yahoo group lists every single day in addition to keeping track of the normal international, national, regional and local news and running a business and taking care of a family all at the same time means that I very quickly run out of time)).

I think it’s time we start to step back from this “race”. In the western world there is an insidious and almost ever-present notion that “competition” is the only and best way to achieve “progress” – although not necessarily progressive results. Instead we need to ask ourselves (as a species) what we are here on Earth to do.

Humanity and the Earth are not separate. Both are sacred. We are very often alienated from it through our belief that humanity is innately superior over nature and can exploit nature limitlessly for human ends – which seems to result in an expectation that the Earth must be treated harshly to gain the yield of human survival.

Instead, all work upon the Earth should be informed by a clear understanding of and respect for the Earth as an autonomous and valuable entity, the laws of nature on which the bounty of the Earth depends. Earth and its resources are for any generation a restricted gift held in trust for future generations.

In order for humanity to survive the multiple crises that seem to be bearing upon us (in the form of ecological collapse, energy depletion and climate change, for instance), we need to build for ourselves an ethic of stewardship – for we have an obligation to refrain from excessive consumption and waste and either to not exhaust nonrenewable resources or to provide accessible replacements, the necessity to improve our heritage (both cultural and natural) both modestly and carefully, and the greater responsibility of the advantaged to improve that which exists and to share.

If Biochar can do anything to further these goals I will wholeheartedly support its application and use. If it instead erodes these values, my support for it will quickly fade.