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.