Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rescuing Los Angeles

"How can we use our hard wiring to communicate to the herd that it is time to veer off from a race towards the cliff’s edge which most don’t yet see?"

  In the concrete desert that is downtown Los Angeles we were blessed to find a green oasis at the corner of Vermont and 1st Avenues known as Los Angeles Eco-Village.

LAEV has taken a two-block area of random residents and small storefront businesses, alleys and churches and transformed it into a traffic-calmed and car-restricted promenade with fruit trees, mosaic tables and cob benches built around larger canopy trees, verge gardens, interior courtyards and attractive outdoor classrooms. It has created attractive residences affordable to lower income people, stores and kiosks selling products and services made or provided by neighbors. It has converted large apartment complexes to low income, ethnically diverse cooperative housing, and is transforming four-plex garages to 3 or 4 story mixed use development with retail, offices, and super affordable “tiny” housing, with small ecological footprint and no parking. It created California's first bicycle kitchen (starting literally from the kitchen in an apartment house) — a way of cooperatively building, sharing and maintaining bicycles and the skill-set that goes with that.

A recent purchase of an abandoned building and vacant lot on the corner of Vermont Avenue will allow them to create People Street Plaza with two parklets and an enclosed bike corral, a solar arbor for small electric neighborhood plug-in vehicles and pedal hybrids, plus metered parking and expanded city repair functions at two intersections.

Next year the ecovillage plans to eliminate sidewalks and parking lanes on north side of White House Place and install an urban organic working farm/food forest.  In the future they would like to acquire 5 four-plexed apartment houses on White House Place to ensure permanent affordability for 80 to 120% of poverty-level income if existing/future qualifying residents will commit to going car-free within a specified time, and providing convenient car share options.  They would power these new homes by installing neighborhood solar PV over the school parking lot. Beyond 2030, when the parking lot is no longer needed, they would create an urban farm.

More ambitious, and requiring more city approvals, are plans to acquire and retire the auto repair shops, raze them and reopen the concreted-over hot springs, Bimini Baths, that were overtaken by sprawl and pavement almost a century earlier. They'd like to open a center for therapeutic and recreation and to offer affordable housing for healers (so they can charge lower rates for lower income residents). They'd like to bring back the trolley service to the tracks that used to carry bath patrons to and from other parts of the city. For the immediate future, a vegan café and outdoor garden is planned to replace the auto repair shops. 

Much of this will be accomplished by local residents, using a Cooperative Resources & Services Project (CRSP) Ecological Revolving Loan Fund (ELF) which has the potential to generate about $2.5 million every three to six month period.

Imagine, for a moment, all cities transformed from the bottom up in this fashion. LAEV does not plan to produce all its own food, water, power and other needs from within its two-block area, but it could. Instead, it encourages doing some of that while also participating in cooperatives that join together the products and services of other parts of the city. Once upon a time the founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, was asked how cities could become sustainable. He responded that it was only by providing for all their needs within their boundaries. Los Angeles, even now, at 5000 persons per square mile, could do this. But then, like LAEV, it would need to take another step and begin the process of producing food, fiber and energy while progressively withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere.

Ecovillages similar to LAEV — The Farm, Earthaven, Findhorn, ZEGG and Seiben Linden — have already demonstrated their ability to net sequester more than their own carbon in order to reverse climate change, even while implementing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, using a combination of for-profit and non-profit social enterprises and a holistic, deliberative approach. Over the past few years they have risen still another step and are embarked, with Global Ecovillage Network, Gaia University and Gaia Education, upon a process of building curricula and the cadre of trained instructors that will carry the work to a global scale. This core idea, brought by ecovillages at the cutting edge of an historic shift, is part of the British Commonwealth's new Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change strategy announced at COP-22. It is also allied with the Chinese Two Mountain policy we described here in December.

Ecovillages are like a shadow world government. They are not top-down electoral, C3I or Deep State puppeteers; they are grass roots, spontaneous, semi-autonomous networked infiltrators. Their weapons are not Death Stars or enslaving financial schemes but viral memes spread by new media, art and gardening. They run on the energy and creativity of youth. They are a bullet train on a return track back out of the Anthropocene.

What is needed now, today, is exactly that sort of low cost, rapidly deployed, hugely scalable approach to reversing human misery, ecological destruction and climate change that will find apolitical social acceptance, quickly, without the requirement of carbon taxes or offset markets that only serve to line the pockets of the obscenely obtuse. Indeed, to scale quickly, it should use tested, off-the-shelf technology, be antifragile, employ lots of young entrepreneurs, and provide a sensible return benefit for those in the older generations who hazard their limited time and resources to assist.

The adoption process for carbon-sequestering economies could benefit from the ideas Malcolm Gladwell expressed in The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference (2000). Gladwell argued that the ability of viruses (whether diseases or ideas) to spread quickly, and universally, depends on their ability to be attractive and sympathetic. They need to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races.

Gladwell pointed to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and said these same elements are fundamental to any large-scale social change. They are:
  1. The Law of the Few — some people spread disease (and ideas) better than others.
  2. The Stickiness Factor — the potency of viruses (or ideas and actions) to become universal. Ideas and actions to reverse climate change need to continue evolving and draw in people from around the world. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it needs to be able to cross cultures and to be sticky across all those differences.
  3. The Power of Context — the conditions under which the change is considered tend to either reinforce the change or thwart its spread. Commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and share their commitment with others.
If a cultural tipping point is required, the tools most associated with cultural evolution should be employed. These include artistic movements (visual arts, performance, music, etc.), fashion (attraction to styles), and celebrity endorsements, among others. Humans evolved as herd animals and we constantly signal to each other our affiliations, tastes and choices. Tapping into this natural process allows memes to propagate when stickiness and context cohere.

This leads us to an examination of the concept of style. What is it in the human genome that makes us such dedicated followers of fashion? Likely it is hard wired by an evolutionary choice our species made several million years back. We hairless apes are more like army ants, gray wolves, dolphins, lions, mongooses and spotted hyenas than jaguars, frogs and horse flies. We are pack hunters.

Herd behavior has a defensive purpose, too. Witness zebras crossing a river full of crocodiles or a young buffalo calf being stalked by wolves. Some will be picked off, but most will survive.

We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.

How can we use our hard wiring to communicate to the herd that it is time to veer off from a race towards the cliff’s edge that most of our group most don’t yet see?

We need to make the change in direction fashionable.

For many if not most, the need to survive is ever present. To Westerners captured by the meme of money, their fragility can be measured by the number of digits left of the decimal point in their bank accounts, real estate valuations or securities portfolios, or by the (thin) thread of an enduring job with health benefits. Standing at the edge of the Seneca Cliff, all of those indica are profoundly perilous routes forward.

Is it possible to break the fantasy of citizens of industrialized countries — that our jobs can continue to provide a magic elixir to meet our needs and debts? Difficult. Not impossible, just difficult.

Greed and familiarity cushion against sensibility. In other cultures, survival is bound by the timing and amount of rains needed for good crops, or the attractiveness of a female to acquire a supportive mate, or the fighting skills and tools for a warrior to dominate. But these also have a dark side.

Given how essential to survival rain, a mate, or fighting skills may be, they are also powerful drivers of aberrant behavior, like the magical belief that if we dance and pray that rain will come, or that anyone who can act the part of ruthless, selfish seducer can attract wealth, power or handsome mates.

That is all going to change, and quickly. Either that or we will all be extinct, and soon. If you want to get in on the change sooner, and avoid the hardship of late adoption, look into joining an ecovillage.

There is one trend afoot that few have seemed to notice. In the two-thirds world trade and commerce have always been dominated by nimble opportunists who see niches, swoop in and exploit them, and move on when the niche is no longer productive. This independent spirit runs against the grain of wage slavery and so harsh sanctions like the withholding of health care and the destruction of public education have been used like cudgels to beat “employees” back into their roles as cogs in the machine. So it was that Columbus destroyed the unsuited-as-slaves Taino and Arawak, or Francisco de Toledo instituted the mita system to compel Quechua and Yanacona encomienda to work the silver mines of Potosí.

Today, the tuned-in, spirited youth force of the world has undergone an evolutionary shift from encomiendista to free-agent. They want to be social impact entrepreneurs, not cubicle rats — blackmail-style benefits be damned. That instinctual shift provides the fuel to ignite the ecovillage revolution.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


  Coming to Los Angeles we had the sensation of slipping into a cultural fogbank. We could not say whether we were actually being bombarded by messages from microwave ovens or watched by cameras concealed in television screens, but the sense was that we had departed from reality.

Frankly we consider ourselves a citizen of the world and find it discomforting to experience provincialism whether upon re-entry to the United States or having conversations in some distant back country hostel. We are not speaking of localization or bioregionalism — all well and good. Rather, what we encountered in Los Angeles was the absence of a fact-grounded worldview across a broad spectrum of the population. Had we been gone that long?

The media has cannibalized the minds of millions — drawing their mental attention toward the issues that are bounced around in these information echo chambers and syphoning it away from the deep, systemic threats humanity is now confronted with. The Algonquin Tribe of North America has a name for this phenomenon; they call it Wetiko. It is a mind virus that endlessly consumes the life energies of people (in this case, the emotional energy given to feed this media monster) while neglecting the life-supports that would heal and protect the living things of this world.

We are blessed to be able to be with a diverse cross-section of people who truly get the big picture, to and to have exchanges and strategy sessions in beautiful centers like London, Paris, Marrakech and Tulum. We offset that travel and our other activity with our personal forest, bamboo groves, and keylined biochar tea applications.  We recognize not everyone can have that luxury so we enter into these conversations with humility, gratitude and purpose. Whatever we take away we apply immediately, directly and with good effect.

Fog moves in over the Pacific, Malibu, March 2017
In Los Angeles we experienced that many people are uninformed about climate change, the Deep State, or even elemental biophysical economics. Moreover, most people we encountered did not want to know. This is not something that more education, a trending app or a blockbuster film will fix. Even if they were engaged in admirable pursuits like provisioning food kitchens in the massive and growing tent cities of the homeless, or seeding green rooftops, verges and balconies that might contribute some of that much-needed food, they were, in other profound ways, making the more overarching problems far worse in ways they were blissfully ignorant of. Here we use ignorant at its root — willfully ignoring. The wetiko mind virus had infected them.

And for us, this perception cut to the quick of who we are and what we do. Do we really want to spend our life saving places like Los Angeles? It isn’t merely that they may be undeserving of salvation, although they may. It is that most of their inhabitants, even the well-intentioned, are actively pursuing an agenda that is antithetical to survival. They are the drowning swimmer who tries to drown the rescuing lifeguard.

The severance of a society from reality, as ours has been severed from collective recognition of the severity of climate change and the fatal consequences of empire and deindustrialization, leaves it without the intellectual and institutional mechanisms to confront its impending mortality. It exists in a state of self-induced hypnosis and self-delusion. It seeks momentary euphoria and meaning in tawdry entertainment and acts of violence and destruction, including against people who are demonized and blamed for society’s demise. It hastens its self-immolation while holding up the supposed inevitability of a glorious national resurgence. Idiots and charlatans, the handmaidens of death, lure us into the abyss.
— Chris Hedges, The Dance of Death

Low Income Housing, Los Angeles
When we began this series we posted a chapter called “Three Pillars” that used some new terms coined by Naffiz Ahmed to describe civilization’s plight. In his lecture at the Global Sustainability Institute of Anglia Ruskin University that subsequently became a full throated exposé of the Deep State, published on February 10, 2017, Ahmed made the salient point that what is playing out in the Trump presidency is a battle of world views, with no possible winner.
Neither side truly understands that they both remain locked into the old, dying industrial neoliberal paradigm. That both the conventional Republican and Democrat strategies have failed. And that if they continue to ignore and overlook the reality of the global systemic crisis and its escalating symptoms, they will both become increasingly disrupted and irrelevant to large sectors of the American population.

In that scenario, politics will become increasingly polarized, not less so. Republicans will seek to shore up their white nationalist support base while Democrats will continue to lose credibility as a genuine critical voice due to their establishment myopia.

Ahmed says that ultimately this will lead to even more violence:

Both pro- and anti-Trump factions of the Deep State are in denial of the fact that this escalating crisis is due, fundamentally, to the global net energy decline of the world’s fossil fuel resource base.
In a time of fundamental systemic crisis, the existing bedrock of norms and values a group normally holds onto maybe shaken to the core. This can lead a group to attempt to reconstruct a new set of norms and values — but if the group doesn’t understand the systemic crisis, the new construct, if it diagnoses the crisis incorrectly, can end up blaming the wrong issues, leading to Otherization.

For every degree to which Trump upscales aggression, America’s real national security will be downgraded. And like any good despot, Trump’s failures will become food for his own propaganda, to be conveniently blamed on the myriad of Others who, in the small minds of the Trump faction, are preventing America from becoming ‘great again.’
Erebus Wong, Lau Kin Chi, Sit Tsui and Wen Tiejun, writing for the independent socialist Monthly Review,  observe that China’s industrial strength comes not from the sprinkling of some magic fairy dust or the discovery of oil superfields but from the inherent power of rural farmers grounded in nature. The Chinese countryside, they note, “has become the source of a vast ‘labor reserve,’ allowing the state to rely on sannong—the so-called ‘three rurals’ of peasants, villages, and agriculture — as the foundation of China’s turbulent but continuous modernization over the last sixty years.”

Brickwork on million-dollar Malibu home
Chinese rural society has been able to absorb the risks of this modernization because of the strength of its relation to nature, an advantage that has never been adequately acknowledged. Chinese agricultural society has been formed on the basis of common needs, such as irrigation and disaster prevention. This interdependence creates a collective rationality, with community, rather than the individual peasant or family, as the basic unit in the distribution and sharing of social resources. This focus on collective needs runs directly counter to the Western emphasis on individual interests. Over thousands of years, Chinese agricultural society has become organically integrated with the diversity of nature, giving rise to an endogenous religion of polytheism. As it plans and promotes its vision of sustainable development and peaceful trade, China should look inward, to these age-old social structures, as a guide to the future.

What the authors describe as “collective rationality” is actually a description of the rationality of natural systems. Rural peoples live within, and allied with, those rational patterns. When we visited Los Angeles, what we were seeing was not so much a collective neurosis as a collective separation from underlying rationality.

Sure, there are elements of earth-restoration, ecocity design and city repair within Los Angeles, but even those seemed to us largely divorced from the realization that the city’s food comes from fossil energy, not deepening soil, the city’s water comes from disappearing aquifers and vanishing snow melt, and that the fracked gas that heats their buildings and lights their streets is upsetting the balance of nature upon which those other things depend.

Rescuing Angelinos, or any megalopolis inhabitants (the Chinese included) from their almost certain fate will be a serious challenge, and one we will explore in our continuing installments in this series.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Sheer Wall

"A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable."
  Although the practical tools to reverse climate change are already available, to date the scale to which they have been implemented is not even remotely close to what needs to be accomplished within a very short time. Two vital elements are still missing: shared vision and concerted collaborative action.

How do we get areas the size of India planted in mixed-aged, mixed-species, soil-regenerative, storm- and drought resilient agroforest, grassland and wetland with well-trained and motivated, self-financed productive cooperative management? And do it all again next year? And the year after, and the year after that for the next half century?

The Secretary General of the British Commonwealth looked at this question and, with the help of a few of her friends, proposed a portfolio of answers.

In October, 2016, Patricia Scotland convened the Commonwealth’s Workshop on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change. Over the course of the workshop, particular emphasis was placed on the issue 
of language and terminology.

To date, the discourse surrounding responses to climate change has been largely negative. Focusing primarily on the scale of the problem and the severity of its consequences, the language employed in the debate has often been alienating, effectively producing a general sense of apathy and disempowerment. In a reversal of this trend, the workshop emphasized a reframing of the debate from problems to potential, and the solutions that flow from potential. In doing so, the aim was to inspire a real call to action.

Of course, changing outlook from pessimistic to optimistic does not make it so. As we have said here before, we humans are nasty pieces of work. Why are there no more mastodons, Atlantic gray whales or Great Auks? How is it that although there were many hominid species roving Earth at one time, ours became the only one, and by what means? What are we doing to the whole of our co-evolved biodiversity as you read these words? What part of that sorry picture is genetically hard-wired, and what part is merely cultural?

The Commonwealth’s report observes:

The primary result of the workshop was the consensus that there are proven techniques readily available to effectively address climate change and regenerate the capacity and capabilities of communities and ecosystems. Drawing on substantial bodies of evidence, recalling numerous success stories and outlining countless potential interventions, the participants agreed that the means to effect real change through regenerative development already exist. The real challenge of the workshop, therefore, was to identify ways to put these means into practice and mobilize action.

The meeting recognized that a statement of the problem and a list of potential solutions is not enough. There has to be the means and the desire to get solutions underway.

The group decided that from a social perspective, it is necessary to develop capabilities to use effective frameworks and processes to align desire 
and action. As practical matter that meant that the world economic paradigm has to shift from resource extraction and exploitation to exhaustion (both material and human) to increasing biological capacity as the driver for economic and social satisfaction of needs.

Only increased photosynthesis is going to rebalance the carbon cycle at this point. But it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach. As the report put it, “Techniques that work well in one context may not be immediately transferable to another; Island nations, for example, have different regenerative needs and potential to landlocked nations.”

Commonwealth Workshop, London, Oct 29-30, 2016
A key finding from the workshop was that a shift in the definitions of wealth and capital is necessary to reverse climate change. That is quite a pill to swallow. But the truth is inescapable:

As things stand, behaviors that increase energy consumption, extraction, production, consumption, pollution, and degradation are generally rewarded. Such activities are promoted as the basis of wealth creation, yet this is demonstrably false. Earth’s natural resources and processes are the source from which all financial capital is derived. It’s impossible for derivatives to be more valuable than their source. A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable, and it is necessary for humanity to redefine its relationship with the natural world accordingly. Education, information dissemination, and appropriate policy and economic incentive structures are critical in shifting individual behaviors and social ideals, to properly value natural wealth. 

The workshop caught on to a key principle that we have been hammering away at here: this does not have to be financially painful. It can even be reasonably profitable.

Attracting finance means developing approaches that are not only effective at reducing atmospheric carbon, but also generate a realistic return on investment measured by the full range of current Capitals (natural, human, manufactured, social, and/or financial.)


The Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 has been described as an historic turning point. Now that we have agreed to turn, however, we must start going in a new direction. Regenerative development is this new direction. This involves not only limiting carbon emissions at their source but also sequestering them into standing forests, regenerated grasslands, improved soil and innovative production processes that lock carbon into materials. Through the adoption of regenerative approaches, climate change can be reversed through the recovery and regeneration of the biosphere. Redesigning humanity’s presence on Earth to shift from extractive to regenerative is essential for realizing our species’ potential for shared health and prosperity.

What the workshop participants recommended were some very concrete, easy-to-implement approaches that are unlikely to draw fire from entrenched positions. Community-led initiatives — ecovillages, transition towns, civic drives — are key. They will build local capacity 
for people to work together to help themselves and to realize the unseen regenerative potential within the unique conditions of their local cultures and ecosystems.

But communities do not exist outside of their national context. In this the Secretariat was very helpful. Overseeing 52 countries of common language and culture and almost a third of the world’s population (over 60% of which are under 30 years old), the Commonwealth is ready and willing to lead the way by offering to assist the transitional policies of member governments. 
The way forward that it envisions is by exponentially growing a network of trainers, or “knowledge multipliers,” that can train other trainers around the world but more importantly, inspire.

Finally, the realpolitik of Brexit, Trump and the crash of Ponzinomic petrodollars means that financing has to be more creative than merely looking to government grants, which ultimately rely on tax revenues. Again echoing what we have said here, the workshop concluded:

From the project side, all initiatives must be designed to attract investment and achieve productive returns. At the same time, funding mechanisms and a clear case for investment need to be developed to enable investors to direct their funds to this necessary work.

Singer cartoon in Beijing magazine
By analyzing the role of the different forms of capital (material, human, social, manufactured and financial), it is easy see how a capitalist system would develop an unsustainable bias towards placing manufactured capital on a pedestal. By conceptualizing manufactured goods as an endpoint, solely from a consumerist perspective, the creation of “wealth” can be simplistically reduced to profit from efficient exploitation without regard to externalities, such as planetary or social health. This has the undesirable effect of limiting the regenerative potential of human activity. By reconceptualizing to circular economics and biomimetic thinking, manufactured capital comes to depend on regenerative practices.

Social and ecological capital are captured by linking financial gain to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Only by striving to meet the 17 development goals can a regional development agenda, or a national economy, be considered to be balanced in all forms of capital appreciation.

At the close of the workshop plans were sketched for the establishment of a “Commonwealth Online Incubator for Regeneration & Restoration.”

This online platform would focus on the practical and immediate implementation of regenerative projects, while simultaneously acting as an awareness-raising medium and repository of information. The incubator will invite applications for projects, selecting and supporting the most promising on a yearly basis. Each year, new projects will be brought to fruition while the previous are monitored and evaluated, creating a continuous cycle of action and learning. Furnished with relevant information, the platform will map and detail the results of incubated projects, disseminating demonstrably effective approaches among communities and decision-makers.

In January, 2017, the Commonwealth drafted a Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change Collaborative Manifesto. Among the things it called for were
 “ecosystems of solutions:”

Our people-centred approach aims to help local communities across the Commonwealth to help themselves, enabling them to create elegant ecosystems of solutions carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. In doing so, we will:

  • reverse climate change 

  • increase biomass and bio-productivity 

  • increase and protect bio-cultural diversity 

  • accumulate organic matter as a real store of wealth and health 

  • increase community resilience 

  • build food, energy, and water sovereignty at the community level 

  • leverage the power of collaborative abundance 

  • and address environmental degradation and the causes for hunger, 
poverty, ill health, migration, and war. 

Our hope is to become a welcome species, functionally indistinguishable from the organisms and ecosystems we admire. We look forward to fitting in, at last and for good, on this home that is ours, but not ours alone. 

How do we ecoforest areas the size of India or Australia, year in - year out?

The Commonwealth’s 52 nations include ecosystems that speak for the diversity of all the planet’s climates, covering 40 percent of the world’s land mass, over 20 percent of her forests, and the largest area of coastlines, fronting all the world’s oceans. It also includes 31 of the 39 most vulnerable nations to climate change. Is that big enough?

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Climate Ecoforestry

"Want to leap the social barrier to cool living? Behold: a stargate."

  In 2008 we asked Frank Michael a tough question. Frank is a physicist, formerly with the Ames Research Center group that created the first Flying Solar Laboratory to study the sun and its “weather” and prevent astronauts from being fried by solar storms. We asked him what would happen to atmospheric carbon if everyone on earth planted a tree each day.

It was an interesting question, and one that was not easy to answer. Frank explained some of the variables to us. You would want to know what kind of trees are planted; what their lifespan will be; what happens to their carbon store when they die; the net photosynthetic productivity of the forest, by hectare, based on soils, rainfall, latitude and expected climate change; the effect of all the stored carbon in the ocean that would “leak back” into the atmosphere in response — trying to re-balance the distribution of carbon dioxide — and much more.

Nonetheless, he agreed to give it a go. Thus began a system model that Frank Michael will be presenting at the 7th World Congress on Ecological Restoration later this year in Foz do Iguassu, Brazil.

The question changed to “what amount of trees, land and biochar would be needed to return the atmosphere to ‘normal’ and how long would it take?” We know much less about paleoclimate drawdowns and feedbacks than we know about epochs of carbonization. As his calculations and his global model became more elaborate, he began to be drawn to the complexity of the social dimension. What are the potentials for unplanned reversals like deforestation, population pressure, energy demand and urban sprawl? How many of those trees would survive one year? 5 years? 100 years? Who would care for them and how would those people be compensated? How would you pay for the biochar conversion?

Frank Michael and LuLu Stove
Frank asked, instead of every man, woman and child planting a tree a day, would it not make more sense for teams of tree planters to be gainfully employed, with nursery managers, advance planners, follow-on caregivers and the rest? How could those perennial reforesting economies be created?

Wangari Maathai, as inspiring as she was, would not have been able to create the Green Belt movement in Kenya had she not been supplied continuous international grants with which to pay her forestry teams.

Frank also looked at the ecological dimension. Shouldn’t the forests be optimized for ecosystem functionality, with virtuous cycle gains in biodiversity, soil fertility, complexity and regenerative resilience? Therefore, should we not avoid monoculture plantation plantings and instead favor mixed-aged, mixed-species polycultures of root crops, ground cover, intermediate canopies, standing deadwood, climbing vines and forest giants?

Frank came up with a model that we can only describe as pure genius, worthy some day of a Nobel Prize should he ever be recognized. His “step harvest” system, which we first described in The Biochar Solution, sets out a practical methodology for employing hundreds of millions of forest stewards to regenerate and revitalize neglected and abandoned “wastelands,” working with principles of ecological regeneration and patch management to stack yields while optimizing ecological functions. Rather than rely on charity, it relies on capitalism – a healthy return of investment in semi-autonomous but coordinated microenterprises.

Today we call this system “Climate Ecoforestry.”

During interglacial periods, the Earth normally enjoys relatively stable weather patterns and large increases in the biodiversity and expansion of vegetated ecosystems. That is changing.  Extreme weather swings, melting of glaciers and polar ice, large plumes of methane rising from ocean clathrate sediments, and the massive decomposition and outgassing of CO2 and CH4 from the world's tundras are signs of great difficulties for humanity just ahead. We can expect increasingly severe and frequent heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, rising seas, flooded cities, Arctic vortices, forest fires, and crop failures.

If the burning of all fossil fuels were stopped today, the effect on global climate would be minimal. This is the result of the relative chemical inertness of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), and the thermal and chemical inertia of the world's massive mineral, oceanic and forest carbon sinks. While switching from fossil to renewable energy sources is necessary and desirable for ecological, economic, and health reasons, it is no longer sufficient to stabilize the climate. What is required is a direct, rapid, massive, and sustained removal of petagrams of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using effective, timely, verifiable and economically sustainable methods.

There are compelling reasons for the extremely rapid implementation of such an undertaking. Within a few decades of business-as-usual, extreme climate volatility will make forestry and agriculture difficult and no longer cost-effective over large regions of the world. Furthermore, at the current atmospheric CO2 concentration of  >400 ppm, the planet has passed the threshold into a region in which a methane-emissions-driven runaway climate is more likely, and where even more severe amplifying climate feedbacks are likely. Each year it becomes more urgent to 1) sequester all the past, current and future global fossil fuel CO2 net emissions and 2) rapidly bring atmospheric CO2 to well below 350 ppm, preferably to preindustrial levels of 240-260 ppm.

Climate Ecoforestry is a viable methodology for retracing our way back to the Holocene relatively quickly. Permaculture and ecovillage design provide the means to implement and to take that to scale rapidly enough to matter. What is often called “social permaculture” is a key element, because it is not enough to temporarily halt emissions or start using techniques of agroforestry and carbon farming (or BECCS, which we'll describe separately). Those efforts have to be sustained for several human generations. The trees and perennial crops that are planted now have to stay there, and if storms, droughts or fires remove them, they need to be replanted. There needs to begin a transgenerational culture of stewardship.

The social glue is cognitive semantics training, and the economic engine will be, in most cases, small (village) scale microenterprise hubs that we are calling the Cool Lab. Key to that is capital redirection and training of trainers.

Climate Ecoforestry at its most basic is a process of optimizing land use for its photosynthentic capacity. In plants, algae and cyanobacteria, solar energy capture in the form of sugars is produced by light-independent reactions called the Calvin cycle. Some bacteria use different mechanisms, such as the reverse Krebs cycle, to achieve the same end. In the Calvin cycle, atmospheric carbon dioxide is incorporated into already existing organic carbon compounds, such as ribulose bisphosphate (RuBP). Using the ATP and NADPH produced by the light-dependent reactions, the resulting compounds are then reduced and removed to form further carbohydrates, including long carbon chains like fructose and glucose. Carbon is taken from the atmosphere and stored in the cells of a growing plant.

This process is the foundation of life on Earth. The energy of the sun is captured, first in light-gathering proteins of bacteria, then chloroplasts of plants, then in the cell membranes of plants and animals, and finally as labile carbon to feed the needs of living organisms and provide ecosystem services. As a biproduct we get oxygen and the biological types of life we've come to know and love.

Carbon is very special. To say it is the building block of life is almost an understatement. It is difficult to conceive of how life could exist without its unique abilities.

Carbon’s compact atom can form more different compounds than any other element. It can even form covalent (shared-electron) bonds with other carbon atoms, which in turn can share electrons with others and so on, forming long strings, complex branchings and "head-to-tail" rings of carbon atoms. There is practically no limit to the complexity of carbon branches or rings. Allotropes include diamond, graphite, graphene, buckyballs and carbon nanotubes.

Eight allotropes of carbon: a) Diamond, b) Graphite, c) Lonsdaleite, d) C60 (Buckminsterfullerene or buckyball), e) C540, f) C70, g) Amorphous carbon, and h) single-walled carbon nanotube or buckytube. Design created by Michael Ströck 

Biochar is made by heating carbonaceous biomass while excluding oxygen. Molecular carbon transformation creates a skeletal, sponge-like structure. In soil, biochar:

1. holds moisture, air and nutrients, promoting biological activity.
2. moderates nitrogen distribution
3. improves compost maturity and humic content
4. accelerates plant growth

This is the foundation of Frank’s climate ecoforestry model. A mixed-age, mixed-species, ecosystemically-oriented, climate-resilient forest, perennial grassland and wetland, plant and animal system is gradually established, augmented, with biochar at its root zone. While not reducing its productivity as a whole system, vegetation is pruned, coppiced and selectively harvested and both soils and vegetation renewed at intervals determined by energy and nutrient flows, rainfall, growth cycles and planting capacities. The daily harvest is taken to the Cool Lab for processing.

With human ingenuity, biochar becomes a microenterprise incubation engine, using the unique structural qualities of carbon to fashion products and services as varied as the creative instincts of those making and using them. It closes the pass-through resource-to-waste chain and builds circular economies.

There establishes a gradient of inwardly directed intensity. The outer spiral edge is agroforestry; serving as green buffer, photosynthesis depository and biodiversity accumulator. Inwardly concentrating are semi-autonomous self-organizing microenterprises: polycultures of aquatics, perennial grasses and animals in pasture, legumes, and coppice crops. At center the Cool Lab produces bioenergy, leaf nutrient concentrates, biochemicals and biomaterials. Many products and services are sequentially cascaded outward to periphery from the same labor and energy input.

The flexible lab design allows highly variable production of different streams, maximizing value creation by real time adjustment to local and global demands and available enterprise talent. Typical biomass energy systems have net energy returns of 2 to 4 percent rendering them unlikely replacements for fossil energy with a much higher EROI (energy return on investment). The Cool Lab produces and consumes its own energy by biomass conversion. By cascading value (products and services) from the same source, it can raise EROI to triple digits. Potential yield is limited only by human imagination. "Waste" is a stranded verb.

The model creates long-term jobs and educational opportunities and allows self-financing of a viral economic model.

The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon away for thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water, which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the nitrogen cycle, something seriously out of balance but seldom mentioned.

By growing perennial supergrass pastures and feedstocks, combining compost and manures with biochar, and feeding biochar as a nutriceutical to herds of migrating herbivores, the story becomes one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. And the best part: it produces profits from the start, no carbon markets, taxes or subsidies required (although those could serve as accelerants if used with care).

Now comes the arithmetic. Frank’s model predicts that if ramped up to a planting rate of 200 million hectares per year (Mha/yr), equivalent to four Spains, in 24 years it would cover 4.8 Gha and be sequestering 14.6 gigatons of carbon per year (GtC/yr) or 2.7 times the current net global emissions.  Can we find 4.8 Gha to plant? Yes, and without disturbing existing farms, cities, or having to green the deserts (although that may also be desirable as we restore larger hydrological cycles). The land is there at the margins, and it has been inventoried and cataloged. Climate change is actually expanding the no-longer-commercially-viable land available for these uses.

Because Earth’s oceans balance carbon concentrations with the atmosphere, as carbon is withdrawn from one, the other responds by refilling it. To remove six gigatonnes from the atmosphere and have it stay that way, we have to actually remove twelve.

The model shows that continuing rotational cycles at 200 Mha/yr on the same land would sequester a cumulative 667 GtC, the amount of carbon required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to 300 ppm by year 56. With reductions in fossil fuel emissions, 300 ppm could be achieved on years 45 to 48, depending on the scale of reductions. If the rate of implementation were raised to 300 Mha/yr, the goal of 300 ppm would be reached in years 35 to 37 from startup.

These numbers may change. While many less ambitious studies exist, as far as we know Frank Michael is the first to integrate so many variables into a single model, and to attempt to incorporate the labile and recalcitrant carbon cycles (biochar), the known unknowns of reverse forcings, and human labor. As more researchers work over these models, improve upon them, and test them against real world results, there can be little doubt that these early beginnings will seem primitive and be superceded by much more elaborate calculations.

What the model says answers the question of whether we can reverse climate change in a time frame short enough to matter. The answer is yes, we can. What it cannot answer is whether we will.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and a day earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.




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