Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Biochar Moment

photo by Doug Clayton
We are meeting with government officials of X country. X has a serious dilemma, one which is not uncommon in this era, and which will become the norm for most countries very soon. X is throwing vast sums — 60 billion this year — into finding oil.

It does not consider the dilemma of what happens if it finds the oil and then cannot drill and sell it because to do so would be counterproductive to survival of life on the planet. It does not consider what might happen if it were extraordinarily lucky in its exploration and happened upon such great wealth that it attracted the interest of militarily powerful and ambitious neighbors. It does not consider the potential downside of a boom and bust cycle a favorable discovery of any size would augur, or the destruction of indigenous culture, endangered species or fragile habitats. It just wants the oil, for its own sake. It is like the truck driver on a long distance haul across Texas after midnight. It is locked into the white stripe, in the groove, doing whatever comes next, without much thought or planning.

We tell the government officials that we can provide more power than they need, at a tenth of the cost of the oil, and we can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and we can use processes that net sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with a lifecycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water and increases biodiversity.

Naturally, they are incredulous.

Surely we are trying to sell them snake oil, what we propose is illegal, or there is some neglected externality in our calculus that makes our proposal fall apart once exposed to serious scrutiny.

We say, no, actually. We have already vetted all these steps we propose. They follow a simple formula that has no secrets, no privacy, no confidentiality contracts, and anyone could replicate them in whole or part if they so desire. We list our tool kit: biochar, ecovillage design, permaculture, holistic management, keyline water systems, native agroforestry, alley cropping cell divisions, constructed wetlands and chinampas, leaf protein extraction, bioenergy crops that first produce food, and productive, satisfying and fun things for people to be doing together.

We say that if we do this, and others do also, we can stop destructive climate change without worrying about the outcome of the Paris climate talks in December, the obstructionist control of legislators, or the collapse of global Ponzinomic finance. It is justified solely by energy 5 times cheaper than solar cells and better, nutrient dense food, produced without all the costs of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and fertilizers. It solves so many seemingly intractable problems simultaneously that once set in motion it will never be arrested. It will create a garden planet.

The officials are both non-plused and unwaivering. They use all the standard cop-outs: buck-passing to higher authority, decrying the state of the legal system, urging we wait for a more politically attuned administration and perhaps spend that interim working for its election; and suggesting the need for further study.

No matter, whether the Paris outcome is fair or foul; whether the price of oil goes up north of $100 again or south to new lows below $25; whether governments come or governments go. Weather drives this market. The wise will look towards shelter. Once this package is readily available, and the expense is more than justified by immediate returns, the product will sell. Little, short of catastrophic economic collapse, can stop it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


"Virtual solutions can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion."

In our previous post we delved into the Socratic dialog known as The Laches, as told by Plato. The Laches ends in aporia, or an unresolved bit of logic.

While we can give Socrates his point — that to predict the future you need to observe and analyze the patterns of the past — we concluded that courage as a virtue has more to do with choices you make or don't make in the present, since you have no chance of changing the past and have only hope or fear to guide you in changing the future. We concluded that both hope and fear have appropriate roles.

There is a logical fallacy that arises in all of this, one we are heir to simply because of how our brains work. In logic, the fallacy is known as  positive recency, because people tend to predict the same outcome as the last similar event. We know the sun rises every day so we assume it will rise again tomorrow. But there are also Black Swan events. If a large enough asteroid were to strike the Earth today, the sun would not rise tomorrow. It would still be there, but none of us would be able to observe it. Night would continue.

This is what happened when the 6-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago.  The dinosaurs did not see it coming.

It occurs to us that a great many very intelligent people who normally do quite well — one could even say spectacularly well — at predicting trends in culture, business, and science, fail to observe the rare rogue event coming their way that will change everything. Silicon Valley in particular, but equally New York, London, Davos and Dubai are populated with such people. Many are the early adopters — the ones whose Tesla Model S P85D can already drive itself.  Insofar as a few are "trendsetters" or determiners of whom shall occupy high seats in government and commerce, this blind spot augurs ill.

Take, for instance, Peter Diamandis. His book with Steven Kotler, Abundance, rocketed to the top of bestseller lists in 2012 when it drew together many technology trends and predicted we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. The authors picked four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, technophilanthropy and crowdsourcing — as coming together in the next decade to solve our biggest problems of water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom.

Diamandis and Kotler have teamed up again on a new book, Bold, that takes this a step farther, showing how 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, networks and sensors, and synthetic biology will bring into reality the fantastical future dreamed by humans since the dawn of the industrial era.

Starting in the real world with just $15,000, Diamandis leverged new internet power to launch 15 companies, including Singularity University, XPRIZE, Space Adventures Ltd., and Human Longevity, Inc. He has since become known as the prime technophilanthropist. He is worth billions of dollars, much of it thanks to his knack for crowd-sourced audacious enterprises (perk: a Selfie from space with the Earth as backdrop).

According to Diamandis, humans are destined, very shortly, to solve every major challenge that faces us, simply by virtue of Moore's Law and the exponential growth of our capacity to affect the world around us.

Diamandis correctly saw the internet as a Black Swan, and jumped on it. Now he is drunk with its power. So much so, he cannot see the next Swan.

The Black Swan he would have seen coming had he paused to read The Party's Over or Limits to Growth, is peak oil, and with it, peak finance, peak civilization, peak population, and peak technophilanthropy.

Many of the technologies that Diamandis is relying upon to leapfrog over government and business inertia and put billions of people into unprecedented security and prosperity are virtual. That can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion. If we can simply dispense with hardcover magazines, newspapers and books, for instance, we can save forests of paper and acres of ink.

The neglected externalities were internalized in Limits to Growth in 1971, however: energy and pollution. To go all-digital requires electricity. Data centers consume 1 to 2% of the world’s electricity already, most of that powered by coal and fracked gas. Currently, every GB of wireless data passing through a smart phone burns through 19 kWh of electricity. The average iPhone uses 388 kWh per year, slightly more than EPA’s top rated Energy Star refrigerator. There are 6 to 8 billion smart phones, doubling every couple of years. Each desktop console annually uses roughly the energy it takes a 25-mile-per-gallon car to travel more than 4,500 miles. There are 2 billion of those, and they are multiplying a lot faster than automobiles and refrigerators.

The good news is that smart devices are not just becoming smarter; they are becoming more efficient — less wasteful of energy in both manufacture (embodied cost) and use. The bad news is the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate to Jevons' Paradox – the more efficient energy use becomes, the more energy we consume.

Bryan Walsh, writing for Time in 2013 said:
In 1995, you might have had a desktop computer and perhaps a game system. In 2000, maybe you had a laptop and a basic cell phone. By 2009, you had a laptop and a wireless-connected smartphone. Today you may well have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a streaming device for your digital TV. The even more connected might be wearing a Fitbit tracker, writing notes with a wi-fi-enabled Livescribe pen and tracking their runs with a GPS watch.

But users of the wireless cloud are likely to grow from 42.8 million people in 2008 to nearly 1 billion in 2014 — and that’s just the beginning, as smartphones spread from the developed to the developing world. We already have a gigantic digital cloud, and it’s only going to get bigger.

Primavera De Filippi is a technophile of the Diamondis generation. As we all shapeshift, at dazzling speed by evolutionary norms, into cyberverse amphibians, what will become of our orphaned social structures and our cherished notions of laws, national identity and earning an honest living by the sweat of one's brow? At a conference on Internet and Society last April, De Filippi described the architecture of the Ethereum:
What is Ethereum? Can this technology actually support the establishment of a utopian, free, and decentralized society? Or could it instead promote a more dystopian vision of society – or even a Skynet?

Well, if Bitcoin is a decentralized cryptocurrency, Ethereum is the platform upon which a decentralized cryptocurrency can be built. Some have defined it as “cryptocurrency 2.0”, but actually, it is much more than that.

Just like Bitcoin, Ethereum implements a decentralized database, a system of digital tokens, and an encryption scheme. But it also implements a Turing-complete scripting language, which makes it possible for anyone to deploy an application directly on the blockchain. So, instead of adding new features to the Bitcoin protocol, Ethereum took a step back and actually removed all features from the blockchain, in order to make it easier for users to build their own applications by implementing only the features they need as an extra layer on top of the blockchain.

Therefore, just as Bitcoin marked the establishment of a decentralized cryptocurrency that subsists independently of any government or financial institution, Ethereum could potentially lead to the deployment of decentralized applications that operate autonomously on the blockchain.

In fact, Ethereum not only makes it very easy to deploy alternative cryptocurrencies, but also to set up decentralized communications systems (like BitMessage), alternative social media (like Twister), or online storage (like Dropbox) in a completely decentralized way, therefore not controlled by any third party. Given that there is no centralized third party to interact with, the interactions between applications and users are regulated by the code of these applications.


This leads to the most interesting aspect of Ethereum, which is the concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. Basically, these are a more sophisticated kind of smart contract, with a constitution that stipulates the rules of governance for the organization, and with a system of equity allowing users to invest in the organization by purchasing shares.


First of all, they are autonomous in the sense that once they’ve been created on the blockchain, they no longer need their creators, nor are they under any obligation to respond to, or be responsible of any requests made by them.

Secondly, they are self-sufficient in that they charge users for the services they provide in order to pay others for the resources they need (such as bandwidth and processing power).

Finally, they are decentralized, since they do not subsist on a specific server, but instead are encoded into the blockchain (which is distributed to the entire network), and their code is executed in a decentralized manner by every node of the network.

These characteristics make them extremely difficult to regulate because there is no single entity which has control over them. In addition, given the self-enforcing properties of their code, they might actually challenge some of the most basic principles of our legal system.


Perhaps the Distributed Autonomous Organization itself should be held liable for its own actions. But then we encounter an ever bigger problem in terms of law enforcement. It is virtually impossible to recover damages or to obtain an injunction unless these measures have been specifically encoded into the contract/constitution of the organization.

So, we find ourselves in a state of legal limbo, as we cannot rely on traditional legal means to regulate the code of this technology. The question is: do we actually need to?

The supporters of Ethereum would argue that we don’t. In fact, if Bitcoin was designed as a decentralized alternative to counteract the corruption and inefficiency of the financial system, then Ethereum constitutes a decentralized alternative to the legal system as a whole! This refers to the somewhat anarchic idea of decentralized law, where everyone is free to implement their own rules within their own contracts, creating an interconnected system of rules interacting with each other in a reliably predictable way and not dependent on trust between parties.

Of course, the flipside is that Ethereum could potentially be taken over by big corporations, financial institutions, or even by the State, in an attempt to recreate the same economic system and political order that we have today – except that this time, it would be much more difficult to escape from that system.  This could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian society that is (almost exclusively) regulated by self-enforcing contracts, which establish the rules that everyone must abide by, without any constitutional constraints.

Sigh. And yes, this is precisely what we see when the Drone King, liege of Lockheed, gives robots an order to cause harm to nonspecific humans at a wedding party or funeral in Pakistan. It violates Asimov's First Law. It sets a dangerous precedent. As robot AI becomes more powerful, this bit of bad code has been grandfathered in. Do robots have legal rights, the way corporations do? De Filippi says, yes — if not already than soon; and not just human rights, but superhuman rights, such as the code to kill with impunity.

In commercial atomic reactors in the Tennessee Valley, generating electric power to feed our appetite for consumer electronics, robots are today fabricating components of nuclear weapons. They were expressly commanded to do that by the Drone King, in violation of Eisenhower's entire Atoms for Peace program, to say nothing of a half-century's accumulated international accords on nonproliferation. Robots with the knowledge of how to make such weapons are dangerous, are they not? In another software generation, or two, they could become Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. What then?

While the technoutopians do not see the swans of peak energy gliding in from the bulrushes, the people who put trust in and give power to machines of evil design also do not foresee what kind of coded evolutions are being unleashed.

We can only hope that Swan #2 (peak everything) takes out Swan #1 (Moore's Law) — browning out those distributed data centers, before it is too late. Call it retrofuturism, or neoLuddism, we are there. Good advice: don't put all your BitCoins in that basket.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


"Strategically, it comes down to a choice between playing the fear card and playing the hope card, although they are not mutually exclusive."

  Lately we have been pondering the strategies by which aware people have been approaching the existential threat posed by climate change. It makes little sense to squander time on strategies that are doomed to fail, so we periodically have to ask ourselves whether time devoted to our raging, reinventing and reframing is well spent.

For the past many years we have taken an "all of the above" approach to climate change mitigation advice, according equal weight to the exasperating processes of negotiations and to mass arrests.

On the one hand we engage in ritualized complexity at weeks-long United Nations meetings trying to consense on binding codes of conduct. On the other we cheer at street demonstrations and listen to pep talks from celebrities telling us how we need to modify our lifestyles, green up, conserve.

For many years we have held out the enticing prospect of ecovillages, with progressively more satisfying iterations, until by now many of the actual real-world experiments are able to provide decades of valuable data on best practices. Each decade the number of conferences on alternate energy, holistic management and restoration ecology seems jump by an order of magnitude.

At the same time, we are confronted with inexorable progress by the dark side, evidenced by that growing body of science on arctic methane releases and the odds of near term human extinction; macroeconomic assumptions tilting the gameboard towards delay; and neurobiological impediments like confirmation bias, stranded ethics, lost investment psychology, and impaired discount rate.

Rather than exposit on all of these, we oversimplify and say, strategically, it comes down to a choice between playing the fear card and playing the hope card, although they are not mutually exclusive, or even opposites.

We sometimes wonder if, by advocating rapid climate healing using regarianism and permaculture, biochar and agroforestry we are not dispensing hopium. Are we selling indulgences? All you have to do is flip a switch and voila! civilization is transformed to meet our needs for food (including grass-fed beef), clean energy, enchanting shelter and right livelihood while net sequestering gigatons of greenhouse gases and returning Earth to extra innings of the comfortable Holocene.

And yet we know it is not that simple. All the biochar in the world will not save us from the exponential function applied to the pleasure principle and human fecundity. Fukushima and all the stockpiled MIRVed warheads held by Israel and North Korea will not simply go away even if the UNFCCC agrees in Paris to keep the Koch Brothers' coal in the ground on penalty of extradition to The Hague and internment in Spandau.

Humans still have a lot to answer for if we are going to have realistic hope of dodging Mother Nature's swinging bat.

In The Laches, Plato reconstructed a dialog that Socrates had with two well-respected generals. The generals, Laches and Nicias, had been asked by some distinguished citizens of Athens, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether young men should be taught armored combat in school. One said they should, the other said it gave them nothing of value. It was the same kind of argument parents may have today over whether their children should be allowed to play with war toys.

Socrates told these distinguished military men he wanted to first inquire, since they were both expert in the art of fighting with armor, which of them was an expert in the soul of youth since that is the end product they seek. He asks one of them to define a particular virtue of the battlefield, courage. 

The general defines a man of courage as one who does not run away from an enemy. Socrates explains that this definition does not cover all the cases of courage so the general then defines courage as "an endurance of the soul." Socrates continues to press. The general narrows his definition to a "wise endurance of the soul." Socrates mocks his definition by showing to him that courage is actually closer to a foolish endurance of the soul.

At this point, the other general attempts to define courage. He defines courage as a kind of wisdom, or as "knowledge of the grounds for fear and hope."

Socrates: We hold that the dreadful are things that cause fear, and the safely ventured are those that do not; and fear is caused not by past or present, but by expected evils: for fear is expectation of coming evil. You are of the same mind with us in this, are you not, Laches?

Laches: Yes, entirely so, Socrates.

Socrates: So there you have our view, Nicias, —that coming evils are to be dreaded, and things not evil, or good things, that are to come are to be safely dared. Would you describe them in this way, or in some other?

Nicias: I would describe them in this way.

Socrates: And the knowledge of these things is what you term courage?

Nicias: Precisely.

Socrates: There is still a third point on which we must see if you are in agreement with us.

Nicias: What point is that?

Socrates: I will tell you. It seems to your friend and me that, to take the various subjects of knowledge, there is not one knowledge of how a thing has happened in the past, another of how things are happening in the present, and another of how a thing that has not yet happened might or will happen most favorably in the future, but it is the same knowledge throughout. For example, in the case of health, it is medicine always and alone that surveys present, past, and future processes alike; and farming is in the same position as regards the productions of the earth. And in matters of war; I am sure you yourselves will bear me out when I say that here generalship makes the best forecasts on the whole, and particularly of future results, and is the mistress rather than the servant of the seer's art, because it knows better what is happening or about to happen in the operations of war; whence the law ordains that the general shall give orders to the seer, and not the seer to the general. May we say this, Laches?

Laches: We may.

Socrates: Well now, do you agree with us, Nicias, that the same knowledge has comprehension of the same things, whether future, present, or past?

Nicias: I do, for that is my own opinion, Socrates.


Socrates: Then courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, for it comprehends goods and evils not merely in the future, but also in the present and the past and in any stage, like the other kinds of knowledge.

Nicias: Apparently.

Socrates: So the answer that you gave us, Nicias, covers only about a third part of courage; whereas our question was of what courage is as a whole. And now it appears, on your own showing, that courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage; such is your present account of what courage must be. What do you say to this new version, Nicias?

Nicias: I accept it, Socrates.

Socrates: Now do you think, my excellent friend, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, as regards what is to be dreaded and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behavior towards them?

Nicias: I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say.

Socrates: Hence what you now describe, Nicias, will be not a part but the whole of virtue. … Thus we have failed to discover, Nicias, what courage really is.

Nicias: Evidently.

— Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1955).

As we can see from these passages, the question came around to whether courage was something to be cultivated, and assuming it was, whether one could separate fear and hope for the future from fear and hope from the past or present. Socrates said there was no separation. We wonder.

We can do little about our present and nothing about our past, so fear and hope for them is useless. Fear and hope for the future are of a different quality. More than ways of looking, they are ways of motivating to action. Socrates and the generals place them on equal footing.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats, The Second Coming, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

The question Socrates seemed on the verge of asking, but did not, was what to think of a person "who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise" but fails to use his or her gift to take due precaution or procure good things. We can surmise that Socrates and the others would have thought such a person to be without courage, although not necessarily without other virtues, and perhaps that would have resolved the philosophical impasse in the discourse.

Coming back to our question, we might reframe this to ask, are we more likely to bend the arc of civilization towards sustainability by instilling fear of the consequences of remaining on our present trajectory as it proceeds from the known past or by offering a vision of a path forward — a believable story, no matter how long the odds against it becoming reality?

Plato ends his narrative without resolving the philosophical point. In the Greek philosophy, that would have been called aporia, a neutral ending. We come out similarly with our approach, which could best be described as carrot and stick. They both seem equal motivators. It is just a bit sad that collectively we seem to need a good lashing from the stick before we venture to take a nibble at the carrot.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Mayan Stone

"The stone was a building stone from Uxbantun, the Mayan pyramid city complex that sprawled all over these hills 1600 years ago."

  We are in a part of the world where internet is still an exotic intruder. That is both a comfort and a bane, depending on whether you wish to rest or blog.

We noticed, beside a rabbit cage, a squared stone that Chris put there for children and short people to get up to see or feed the rabbits. The stone was a building stone from Uxbantun, the Mayan pyramid city complex that sprawled all over these hills 1600 years ago.

None of the buildings here now are made from these stones, although they are abundant and protrude from the ground here and there, because they are antiquities and protected. A stool borrowed for children and rabbits seems a fair use.

This stone has an indentation on one side, under a layer of moss. The indentation is smooth, so one is inclined to attribute it to one or both of two agencies — people and water. Perhaps in a prior millennium it was a step up the side of a pyramid, or a steep hill, and the trodding of feet over centuries wore down this valley.

Or perhaps, left untended for many more centuries than it was used, it fell into a place where the heavy seasonal rains gathered a waterfall and pounded mercilessly on it until the falling water carved the valley.

This second explanation makes more sense because of two other clues. Just above the depression, leading to the far edge, the valley narrows into a rounded crevice about the breadth of a finger. That is not something feet would make, although rain could, despite the absence of any apparent flaw in the stone.

The other clue is the appearance of a second, lesser valley on the adjacent facet of the stone, as if, by some intervening act of nature, it had been rotated 90 degrees and then subjected to the same erosive force for centuries more.

The stone has memories. It displays to anyone who makes an inquiry such as ours the badges of its service to ancient Maya and timeless rains. It wears its moss like a bandage covering the mysterious wound. And when, 1600 years beyond this gasoline crack of history, there are no more hairless apes, it will still be slowly changing its shape, undoing the aesthetic strikes of its ancient artists.

The notion of collapse was likely unimagined by the stonecutters who carved this rock, whose tools were forged at the epicenter of rising empire. We, having watched this pattern repeat for 6000 years, can imagine it, but we can barely conceive what kind of world will be here 1600 years from now.




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