Sunday, June 25, 2017

Concrete Solutions

"We want to take the atmosphere back to its pre-industrial chemistry as quickly as possible. For that, we have biocomposites."

We screen grabbed these images off when we were looking at Tropical Storm Cindy on June 19. The top image shows Earth’s oceans. Red is hotter than normal. Blue is colder than normal. The Polar seas are colder than usual because of all the fresh ice water from melting glaciers and ice shelves.

The lower image is the same moment, looking at the land masses too. There are simultaneous heat waves in North America, S. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and parts of China, setting temperature records for the date, all the way around

Kathleen Draper is US Director at Ithaka Institute for Carbon Intelligence. In addition to editing The Biochar Journal, the leading on-line biochar magazine, Draper researches carbon intelligent cities; climate farming: nutrient recycling and GHG reduction in livestock farming; biochar characterization and optimal usage recommendations; closed loop biochar production and use modeling; ecosystem remediation; land management and landscape design. She has worked with Cornell University to model the Triple Bottom Line impact of Combined Heat & Biochar unit at the urban aquaponics greenhouse in Central New York.

Working with the Rochester Institute of Technology, she developed the Filtration to Fertilizer strategy using biochar first to harvest nutrients in effluents from food and beverage industries — including rentals to tofu shops — and then sales of nutrient-saturated char as a soil amendment/fertilizer for greenhouse crops. She is also working with RIT on the use of biochar in sustainable building materials, packaging materials, filtration media for the food industry and heat recovery options for the Kon-Tiki kiln technology.

A few days ago Kathleen Draper penned to her blog:
Last week I visited a small slice of heaven; The Farm in Summertown, TN. The Farm is [one of] the oldest intentional communit[ies] in the country and has been home to Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution amongst other books, for decades.
Biochar experimentation at The Farm spans the gamut from soil amendment to building material to humanure additive which then moves over to worm bins for some final processing. Just walking around the various natural buildings and permaculture filled ambiance was enough to inspire, but actually getting my hands dirty making biochar plasters, cement mixes, bricks, filtration devices with other like-minded folks was soul boosting.
We visited a nearby farmer that feeds his livestock (pigs, goats, poultry) an earthy blend of biochar mixed with lightly fermented whey and grains which they gobbled up greedily. We used rather grand outhouses that mitigated odors and reduced nutrient leaching with a blend of biochar and sawdust. And we shared stories of our mutual journeys, lessons learned and best practices along the biochar continuum.
What I really enjoyed about this experience, especially compared to attending biochar and other related conferences which tend to pack an enormous amount of information into back-to-back 15–20 minute sessions all day long for 3 days, was the more relaxed pace, the ability to get to know everyone there and hear about their own particular biochar experiences. The other fun part was leveraging everyone’s tools and backgrounds to take certain ideas further — such as the chardboard paper which I wrote about nearly 3 years ago. Albert had a contraption that was able to measure the electromagnetic shielding of the chardboard which was pretty substantial, roughly 90% reduction!
For those of you that have the time and desire to experience truly sustainable living, I highly recommend a visit to The Farm. Staying in the Fairy House, a cozy earthbag building with a living roof provides the quietest sleep you could ever dream of….
We liked having Draper here for the workshop but can’t let her escape with just this short report to the public domain. She and Dr. Hans-Peter Schmidt at the Ithaka Institute in Switzerland brought to our course a wealth of information on the practical applications for biochar when removed from the agricultural sphere. They are co-authors, with Ute Scheub and Hailko Pieplow, of Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger. 
Hans-Peter beamed into the workshop via Skype and together with Kathleen provided a picture of a new realm of biochar that we had been nearly unaware of — as biochar concrete, or “char-crete”

Cementing History

Pantheon Oculus, Rome (126 CE)
Firstly, there is a global problem with concrete and it is getting bigger. The most important part of concrete is Portland cement, the binding agent made from pulverized limestone (calcium oxide) and clay (silicon oxide), heated together at high temperature (2700F).

The discovery and refinement of Portland is a cautionary modern tale of the intersection of materials and manufacturing at the dawn of the fossil fuel era. The Romans and Chinese had millennia ago discovered that gypsum and lime could be mixed with pieces of rock, sand, ceramics or rubble to form a hard material that would hold up to weather, or even set up underwater for dams and bridgework. Roman concrete, developed from 150 BCE, is durable due to its incorporation of volcanic ash and cinders (pozzolana), which prevents cracks from spreading. After the famous fire of 64AD, Nero rebuilt much of Rome with brick-faced concrete. The Pantheon in Rome, with its 142-foot coffered dome and oculus, is an example of Roman concrete construction still standing after 2000 years.

Lime is a powder that wants to be a rock. It has a million-year memory. Formed as the aggregated dust of seashells on an ancient sea-bed, limestone (CaCO3) gets unpacked from its bed in some quarry, hauled by truck to a kiln, and baked at >1500°F. The burn drives off CO2 and leaves behind a powder (CaO), called burnt lime or quicklime.

Quicklime (calcium oxide) is a white, caustic, alkaline, crystalline solid at room temperature, but feeling an urge to go back to rock, it will draw CO2 from the air unless slaked with water. Slaked lime is what the Romans and Chinese used for mortars and plasters. It is what Michelangelo in 1511 spread across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and painted the image of God into. In the 1820s scientists learned that when heated to >4,000°F (2,200°C) it emits an intense glow. That feature was used broadly in theater productions before electric lighting — limelight.

As it slakes, quicklime releases heat by the following equation:

CaO (s) + H2O (l) ⇌ Ca(OH)2 (aq) (ΔHr = −63.7 kJ/mol of CaO)

When limestone is kilned to make lime for mortar or cement 1.8 tons produces 1 ton of CaO. The missing 0.8 goes to the atmosphere as CO2 and a few trace impurities. China is by far the world’s largest producer, burning enough rock to produce around 170 million tons per year. The United States is the next largest, with around 20 million. Worldwide, lime kilns send about 225 million ton of CO2 to the atmosphere. File that number a way for a moment.

If you add an atom of carbon to quicklime in the presence of oxygen, you get limestone and water.

Ca(OH)2 + C + O2 = CaCO3 + H2O

That limestone molecule can take a much-deserved rest. It has now completed a full revolution on the wheel of life and rebirth.

Suppose that, instead of leaving it to chance, we supply lime with carbon? One easy way to do that would be to mix biochar with cement and let it harden in the open air. You could replace sand in concrete or mortar. This is convenient because construction-grade sand is getting harder to come by and is experiencing rising demand (and price).

But here is the kicker. The resulting concretes or mortars have improved:

• Weight (biochar is significantly lighter than sand)
• Compression strength
• Flexural strength (MOR)
• Curing (soaking the carbon into the lime)
• Capacity to absorb CO2/NOX
• Electromagnetic shielding
• Fire resistance
• Insulation
• Humidity control
• Indoor pollutant control (dust, pollen, chemicals).

Run the Research

What does the research say? Choi et al (Mechanical Properties of Mortar Containing Bio-Char From Pyrolysis, 2012) tested char-cretes at 5%, 10%, 15%, 20% biochar and found:
• All biochar admixtures had less weight loss due to moisture evaporation. Mortar mixes with char have better water retention. This may lead to improved strength. “In this way, biochar seems to play a role as a self-curing agent.”
• The workability of mortar decreases as the percentage of biochar increases.
• 5–10% biochar replacement is similar to 20% replacement with fly ash (the toxic residue of cement making and other industries).
• Up to 5% biochar shows an increase in compression strength.
A study by Restuccia et al, Promising low cost carbon based materials to improve strength & toughness in cement composites (2016) tested the mechanical properties of cement using biochar made from coffee powder (unroasted discards) and hazelnut shells.
• All char additives outperformed control bending strength, compression & fracture energy.
• Coffee powder did better on compression tests.
• Hazelnut shells did better on flexural (MOR) and fracture energy tests.
• Hazelnut shells’ irregular morphology creates “perfect bond with surrounding matrix.”
• Coffee powder has higher silicates which could work as an accelerator helping to speed up the hydration process. It stabilized at 7 days.

A study by Khushnood et al, Carbonized nano/microparticles for enhanced mechanical properties & electromagnetic interference shielding of cementitious materials (2016) tested mechanical & shielding properties of cement using peanut shells and hazelnut shells at 6 different concentrations.
• All char additives outperformed flexural strength of control (2.96 MOR).
• Hazelnut shells optimized at .25% (5.44 MOR).
• Peanut shells optimized at .25% (5.43 MOR).
• Fine aggregates increased fracture toughness.

Does char-crete remove CO2 from the atmosphere? Not directly, although using sources like peanut shells and coffeebean discards that would otherwise go back to the atmosphere as CO2 or CH4 interrupts these (natural) emissions and entombs them for a very long time. However, char-crete does remove other greenhouse gases directly.

A study by Tommaso et al, NOx Adsorption, Fire Resistance and CO2Sequestration of High Performance, High Durability Concrete Containing Activated Carbon (2016) found dramatically decreased levels of NOx (-66%) in addition to fire resistance.

Hans-Peter Schmidt points to concrete fire resistance as more important than most people realize. In the 1999 tragedy on the autobahn through Mont Blanc, 39 people died when a Belgian transport truck carrying flour and margarine caught fire in the tunnel. The fire burned for 53 hours and reached temperatures of 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), mainly because of the margarine. While it is unlikely biochar in tunnel cements or plasters could have filtered air quickly enough to save the lives of those who suffocated from the toxic smoke, we can at least say that the repairs to the tunnel afterwards would have been easier had fire not damaged the concrete of the tunnel.

If just one percent of the sand going into the 25 billion tons of new concrete each year were replaced with biochar, 250 million tons of biochar would be sequestered. With a carbon content of 82–98 percent, that biochar is the CO2 equivalent of 738- 882 million tons per year (205–245 MtC). At present rates of emissions, we’d need to sequester 5.6 billion tons of carbon (GtC) per year just to get to carbon neutrality, 25 times more than this example. Alternatively, the biochar industry could raise its ambition and replace 25 percent of construction sand worldwide with char-crete.

Sources of unregulated waste biomass now in the process of becoming greenhouse gases on their own are literally as vast as the sands of the Ganges. In many places, they will pay you to take them.
Of course, our goal with biochar is not neutrality but drawdown. We want to take the atmosphere back to its pre-industrial state as quickly as possible. For that, we have biocomposites.


A “composite” is when two or more different materials are combined together to create a superior and unique material. The prefix, “bio,” means that the composite takes natural fibers including wood or non-wood (e.g. leaves and grasses) and blends them with a matrix (binder) made from either renewable or non-renewable sources (lime, clay, plastics, old tires).

Zhao et al evaluated biochar’s impact on hot-mix asphalt when compared to carbon black and carbon fiber (Lab Investigation of Biochar-modified Asphalt Mixture, 2014). Switchgrass biochar was blended at 10% by weight of the asphalt. The study found that bending strength in asphalt normally decreases in temps ranging from 300C — 500C, then increases above 500C, but biochar reduces that temperature susceptibility in asphalt binders. Biochar also showed the highest rutting resistance, meaning it was less often to need replacement because of damage.

1.6 billion tons of asphalt is poured every year. At 10 percent biochar, that industry would use 160 million tons, or 89 MtC. It is still a long way from the 5.6 GtC we need for net neutrality, never mind legacy greenhouse gas drawdown.

But wait, there’s more.

In 2016 DeVallance et al investigated hardwood biochar as a replacement for wood flour in wood-polypropylene composites. Wood-polypropylene composites are used in building construction, automotive and consumer products. The study combined biochar at rates of 5%, 15%, 25%, and 40% by weight with wood and plastic to make alternative composites to traditional wood-plastic composites. The findings:
• All biochar rates increased flexural strength by 20% or more
• Tensile strength was highest with 5% biochar
• Tensile elasticity was highest with 25% and 40% biochar
• Water absorption and swell decreased
• Biochar additions showed improved thermal properties.
All this academic research is good, but it hardly matters until it gets out of the classroom and laboratory. This is why Schmidt was in Nepal making kilns and showing biochars properties to the homeless after the earthquake in April, 2015, and why Draper is working with engineering students from RIT to design biochar concrete roof tiles in Nicaragua

Their goal in Nicaragua: replace the current metal roofing with something that could be manufactured locally, at low cost, hold up in heavy sunlight, keep out the torrential rains and deter animal intruders. The group made a lightweight aggregate of biochar.

Their method: mix all dry ingredients, add water, blend thoroughly, pour into flat tile mold, vibrate to remove air bubbles (an electric sander works well), transfer flat tile to curved tile mold (using a plastic sheet), allow 2 weeks to cure.

• Each tile weighs around 14 to 16 lbs
• The tiles withheld a 210 lb person standing on them
• With two workers, it will take 5 days to make the 224 tiles for one home
• Estimated CO2 saved per roof is ~400 lbs

During our workshop here at The Farm last week we made char-crete with various biochar concentrations. We made composites by melting styrofoam and soy-foam packing peanuts and the kinds of clamshell containers they use for take-out in restaurants (and typically wind up in rivers or the ocean). We made chardobe brick and compressed CINVA ram brick. We made grout for a tile bench. These exercises were a tiny drop in the ocean of what is required to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but they showed the potential.

By melting extruded polystyrene foam packing peanuts and clamshell containers — (C8H8)n — in an acetone bath — (CH3)2CO — and adding biochar until it stiffened, we made a char-tile that is light, structural, fracture-resistant, and can be molded to any shape. It could be kitchen tiles, surfboards, iphones, boats or biodomes.

Biocomposite “ore” from recycled polystyrene
Reversing climate change may not be as difficult or dangerous as many imagine. The only hitch in this scenario is that paved roads and monumental (concrete and steel) architecture are manifestations of peaking civilizations — arriving with times of high Energy Return on Investment (EROI), typically in double digits for firewood, slaves or whales, and triple in the case of light sweet crude. Pyramids and paved roads do not get built in the trough that follows civilizational overshoot and collapse (forest destruction, slave revolt, whale extinction and fracking).

As we return to the circular economy that pre-existed the Ponzi, we may discover in wastes — think of the oceans of discarded plastics — a new source of wealth, and building materials, we can barely imagine.

Polystyrene waste at a Japanese fish market, by beth

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ground Up

" This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any. "

Ever since William Woods, Wim Soembroek, Bruno Glazer and other dirt dorks started revealing the miraculous capacities of terra preta do indios, the dark earths of the Amazon, the story of climate change and our species impending extinction became all about agriculture. By the time Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph published Biochar for Environmental Management, it was clear (and validated by excellent science) that reinvigorating agriculture with ancient practices involving biochar, taken to scale, could restore Earth’s atmosphere to pre-industrial health.

Native stewardship of the Americas was all but invisible to the sensibilities of European conquerors. Worse, 500 years of unremitting ethnic cleansing destroyed unknowable riches of ecological knowledge, along with much of the rich, deep philosophy of how humans can inhabit Earth as citizens, not pirating rapists.

We confess we were among those who took the pilgrimage to Brazil, returned baptized in the soil, and predicted that billions of hectares would soon be biochared, drawing gigatons of carbon into eternal sequestration.

So what happened?

Decades on, you still can’t buy biochar fertilizers in most garden stores. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with the corpses of companies that ramped up biochar production, or packaged microbial mixes, and then couldn’t find enough buyers to pay the office rent, never mind their payroll.

In the animal probiotic supplement area, federal laws were passed banning biochar.

A few gardeners and farmers made their own, tried it out and were sold. They evangelized their neighbors. But the vast majority were skeptics or took clueless Master Gardener courses and took no notice. While those with relatively good soils, typical of the temperate zones, saw 40 percent productivity gains, those in the tropics and other areas of poor soils, saw gains of 400 percent and more. And yet, the nascent industry continued to tank.

This past week we have been hosting a workshop at The Farm Ecovillage Training Center called Biochar from the Ground Up. We are taking biochar up from the ground and putting it to other uses that might have better business potential.

Over and over again during the workshop we heard that “farmers are conservative,” “nobody is going to pay for something that takes years to show its worth,” and “unless you spend the time to make it, you won’t even be able to get any.” This is where biochar is today in agriculture. Its a better mousetrap in the midst of a huge rodent epidemic and still, most people can’t even buy any.   

Because we are busy with the workshop we can’t easy cut out the time to pen a blog, so we taped (feebly, using a collection of devices such as phones and voice recorders) a segment of one talk we gave during the week.  Enjoy.   

Sunday, June 11, 2017


"We haven’t hit the temperature levels we can expect from current CO2 levels, and by the time we do, CO2 levels will be even higher."

According to Danish politician Karl Kristian Steincke, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Steincke was cataloging a comment made in the 1937–38 session of the Danish Parliament (without translation: “Det er vanskeligt at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden”), which if you consider what befell Denmark shortly thereafter, was prescient.

It was too good a line to attribute to Danish politicians, so it fell to less rigorous quotists to ascribe it to Yogi Berra, Mark Twain or Sam Goldwin.

It seems especially apt when we read predictions of what the world will be like at mid-century or later. Truth is, nobody can know — and less now than before. This is not your parents’ future any more.
At the risk of serving our readers more dollups of doomer porn — after only just telling ourselves to stop doing that because it frightens people — we have been reminded of the Michael Mann hockey stick chart published more than a quarter century ago, recently updated and retweeted by climate scientist Joe Romm

Romm says that historically,
[R]ecord CO2 levels are accompanied by record temperatures and record sea level rise. We haven’t hit the temperature levels we can expect from current CO2 levels, and by the time we do, CO2 levels will be even higher. Sea level rise can take even longer to catch up but the latest science says we are headed towards worst-case scenario levels, 3 to 6 feet (or more), by century’s end.But now CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.

While man-made emissions may have peaked in 2014 and, following the wave of national pledges of the Paris Agreement (and a deepening global recession), are starting to slightly decline now, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.

Monthly levels of heat-trapping CO2 hit nearly 410 parts per million (ppm) in May. How do we explain that? Only one way. What were once natural sinks have become sources, as CO2 reservoirs trapped in permafrost, ocean clathrates, forests and soils heat up and start to release their stores.

While man-made carbon additions actually declined slightly in 2015–2016 according to official data (admittedly an inexact accounting because fracking sources are still undertabulated and military departments keep theirs secret), Keeling’s Mauna Loa data for
2015 and 2016 showed the two biggest annual jumps in actual atmospheric CO2 levels.

Has the clathrate gun fired? Its too soon to say. 

Weeds alert! We are about to follow a rabbit trail into the briar patch of recent reports.
Methane hydrate is likely undergoing dissociation now on global upper continental slopes and on continental shelves that ring the Arctic Ocean.

Rachael James and 12 co-authors, writing for the J. of Limnology and Oceanography in Nov 2016, Effects of climate change on methane emissions from seafloor sediments in the Arctic Ocean: A review (Volume 61, Issue S1, Pages S283–S299), concluded that the present scientific consensus converges on pegging methane stored in gas hydrates at a few hundred gigatons. This is high by US Geological Survey standards, but an order of magnitude below pegs by Arctic Methane Emergency Group and Professor Guy McPherson.

If the consensus view of total reserve is a few hundred Gt spread over billions of hectares of cold regions and yet Near-Term-Human-Extinction proponents keep repeating the possibility for a 50 Gt burp, bringing death to our species within this decade, they are really stretching the truth. Its a vivid yarn not backed by evidence. 

From May 3 to May 11, 2017, the R/V Hugh R. Sharp manned by British Geological Survey with support from the USGS and NOAA went on expedition to explore seafloor methane seeps on the northern U.S. Atlantic margin. Their data is not in yet, but very soon we shall get to hear what they say.

Ruppel and Kessler, writing for Reviews of Geophysics, Volume 55, Issue 1 Pages 126–168, March 2017 write:
Many factors — the depth of the gas hydrates in sediments, strong sediment and water column sinks, and the inability of bubbles emitted at the seafloor to deliver methane to the sea-air interface in most cases — mitigate the impact of gas hydrate dissociation on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations though. There is no conclusive proof that hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now….
We are less sanguine about that statement also. Hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now. There are YouTube videos of it being ignited out of holes in frozen lakes. In some places are brewing morning coffee that way. It is a question of volume, and whether there is enough to explain the gap between our current emissions slowdown and the Scripps readings of 410 ppm.

The most revealing of Romm’s charts was, for us, this one from Yale360, to which we have added a few labels for clarity:

This chart dovetails very neatly with news accounts of a discovery of fossil skulls in Morocco, pushing back the date of homo sapiens’ appearance in Africa to 300,000 years B.P.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelle and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
Newsweek reported: 
“We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in East Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa,” study author Jean-Jacques Hublin said in a statement.

“CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.”
By adding more labels to the Yale360 chart, we can date the appearance of our bipedal, hominid-like ancestors to a recent point along the timeline when climate — and particularly the weather in Northern African savannahs — went from considerably warmer and wetter to highly variable but within a hospitable range (180–280 ppm CO2 and plus or minus 2 degrees C). That describes the period 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. Then, suddenly in geological terms, 11,700 years ago the last glacial maximum passed and in rushed the extremely comfortable and stable Holocene, that flat blue line across the chart. For as long as we have had stomachs and skeletons, we have never existed outside a 180-280 ppm world.

Humans looking much the same as today’s took up residence in every corner of the world. In what is to biological evolution the blink of an eye, they built great cities, sailed across vast oceans, forged steel, split the atom, sequenced their own genome, and landed travelers on the Moon and returned them safely back to Earth. It took some two billion years to create thousands of minerals during the Great Oxidation Event, but we humans added hundreds of thousands in just the short time since the industrial revolution.
Even if sea levels rise 300 feet and cover coastal cities, those minerals will still be visible in the sedimentary record. That’s because landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian will collapse into piles of rubble — signatures that are later preserved as highly unusual lens-shaped pockets underground, distinct from their surroundings in both shape and minerals. The Washington Monument, for example, will eventually be a lens-shaped pocket composed of limestone where no other limestone is found. And the pocket that was once the Smithsonian will contain so many rare minerals that they could not possibly have formed so close together in nature. To boot, they will be surrounded by the vast array of the man-made minerals we use every day.

And there, at a glance, is the problem confronting futurists. Most assume that even if the worst happens and seas rise 300 feet or nuclear bombs descend from the heavens, humans will persist as they always have and civilization will recover, in the fullness of time. We wonder.

In that same article from Scientific American, Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, says of the mineral divergence, “One of the most distinctive vertical lines on the graph is the growth of mineral species… It’s one of the most striking changes.”

His choice of words is insightful:
There is nothing at all like this in the geology of the past 4.5 billion years on Earth,” Zalasiewicz says. “It is tragically different.”
There is a change unfolding, and the way it is headed now is profoundly tragic. While it is not too late to reverse climate change, the momentum already gathered suggests that recovery will be a slow process even if we could apply the full potential for human social organization to the task — and we are, by no means, doing that now.

We enjoy romps through science fiction, even fantastical retrofutures like John Michael Greer’s steampunk Retrotopia or James Howard Kunstler’s nostalgic World Made By Hand series, but realistically, when we step out to inhale the brilliant clean air on a beautiful new day, we do so with a sense of foreboding that will not be shaken off so easily.

There is a ray of hope coming from another chart. This one is a chart of opinion in the United States about who thinks imposing more regulation on coal burning would be a good idea. The darker counties are for more regulation, the lighter counties for less. As expected, many of the old coal towns are centers of light. The surprise is where dark pockets are found in new and unexpected corners of the map.

We expect to find intelligent responses to climate change in the over-educated northeast, or liberal pockets around Austin, Albuquerque, Boulder or the Left Coast. We don’t usually expect it in South Wisconsin, West Central Mississippi, Alabama and Southeast South Carolina, the border towns of the Southwest, Las Vegas and Miami-Dade. So what is that about?

We would guess it might have to do with the weather. If that is so, there is plenty more weather just ahead.

 Come gather ‘round people
 Wherever you roam
 And admit that the waters
 Around you have grown
 And accept it that soon
 You’ll be drenched to the bone
 If your time to you
 Is worth savin’
 Then you better start swimmin’
 Or you’ll sink like a stone
 For the times they are a-changin’.

— Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Way

"Patterns of regenerative thinking augur regenerative patterns of living and the reverse is also true."

  Ten years ago, Brian Eno suggested a word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. The word he came up with is “scenius.” Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes.

In a Wired interview  in 2011, Kevin Kelly described the idea this way:
Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Historical examples are the Yosemite rock climbers Camp 4 in the 1930s, Building 20 at MIT, the Algonquin Round Table, Silicon Valley, Soho, Burning Man, the North Beach of the Big Island in the 1950s, Greenwich Village, the Panhandle flats in the Haight in the 1960s, Glastonbury, Akwesasne, the affinity groups at Seabrook, the bioregional congresses, the World Social Fora, the UN climate summits, and the Amazonian Shamanism conferences.

We have been lucky to stumble into a number of those scenes; so many we sometimes wonder if we are Forrest Gump.

Lucky stars have led us to be present at the birth of the Noho loft art and music scene, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Winter Soldier hearings, a blithering Nixon at sunrise on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the first Earth Day in Central Park, the Longest Walk, the conspiratorial Leningrad public baths on Saturday nights, the bioregional Consejos de Visiones at Meztitla and Condor, sundry Earth Summits, the ecovillager gatherings at Findhorn in 1995 and Istanbul in 1996, Viridian design, the post-millennium peak oil conferences, and the Kinsale College birthing of Transition.

The scenius we are most familiar with, although it encompasses and interpenetrates many of these others, is of course The Farm. As one of the longest floating crap games of the past century, it remains a dynamically evolving scene: a creative hub for the world midwives’ conspiracy, the cabal of alternative education advocacy, an incubator for progenitors of cool tech, and lately, a climate-reversal counterdevelopment seeding group, including, but not limited to, we ecovillage, regrarian, permaculture and alt.fuels evangelists.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors that Kelly described:

  • Mutual appreciation — risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — as soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
  • Network effects of success — when a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
  • Local tolerance for the novelties — the local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

What Brian Eno called scenius, Stephen Gaskin used to call “the juice.” In a paper we delivered to a history conference in Illinois in 1987, we attempted to describe a series of intellectual and technological steps that guided the first 16 years of The Farm, but cautioned that we could not try to fathom how it came into being. “How juice moves from place to place and time to time would be an interesting exploration,” we said.

Lao Tsu (literally the “Old Boy” because he was born with a small white beard), put these ideas into poetry. We think it silly when we have to take off shoes and give up our toothpaste at the airport, but when Lao Tsu tried to leave China they told him he couldn’t leave until he had written down all he knew. In the Tao Te Ching, the 72 gems of wisdom left with a border guard, Lao Tsu summarized his findings in order that he be allowed to leave.

The first verse is the Old Boy’s disclaimer: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Alan Watts observed that this famous opening line also showed Lao Tsu to be a punster, but you have to understand a bit of Chinese to get it.

“Tao” means the way, or course, of nature, but it also means to speak. So in Chinese, the first character is this:

The first character is “the way.” The next is “can” or “can be.”

The third is again “the way,” but it could also be “spoken”

What Lao Tsu says in one entendre is that he can’t really describe the way, because it is ineffable; if he could describe it then it would not be true. The way that can be spoken is not the way.
In the other entendre Lao Tsu says it cannot be taken as a way. The way that can be “way-ed,” or traveled, is not the way.
Do you think you can make the world a better place? I do not think you can. It is already perfect.
— Lao Tsu

This is also the point Kelly labored to underscore, which is that scenes, and hence scenius, cannot be created. The best we can hope for is to recognize them when, for whatever extraordinary confluence of good fortune, they seem to arise. And when that happens, the best we can do is to not step on them.

That may be so, but maybe not. Scenius with the grand historicity of a Yosemite Camp 4 cannot be stamped into existence. But the conditions to potentialize scenius can be laid by design. Daniel Wahl, in Designing Regenerative Cultures, provides these basic ingredients:
  • Transformative Innovation
  • Biologically Inspired
  • Living Systems Thinking
  • Health and Resilience
In his forward to Wahl’s book, David Orr offers a nuanced challenge. It is Patricia Scotland’s “And, so?” question.  We have developed an ecosystem of solutions. How do you get this to scale? Holistic design is akin to the core nature of religion, Orr says, “a discipline binding us all together in our stewardship of the Earth as a shared habitat and the underlying assumption to be shared is that we are more worthy together than apart.”

Orr then takes it a step farther. He says the five billion poor, soon to be 7 or 9 billion, must be empowered with free energy, free clean water, free pressed-brick shelters, and free Internet access. In return they will innovate and create infinite wealth with a regenerative aspect. We hear this, and we shudder a bit.

This is also what Buck Fuller used to say, and many others before and after him. It’s become kind of holy grail   in Silicon Valley or at Burning Man — liberating ideas will liberate masses. It philosophically underpins the UN Sustainable Development Goals — the essence of neoliberalism. But….
If I am worthy then show me the way.

First, the whole modern amusement park ride is scaffolded on cheap, available, abundant energy, soon to be a bygone. Sooner than you imagine, those Microsoft server farms that are allowing you to read this will brown out, flicker, and die. Kevin Kelly again:
A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
Second, imagining 7 billion hominids empowered with free everything opens the gates of Hell unless they are restrained from reliving the patterns of their collective past, only worse. Historically, when provided abundant food and energy the hairless two-leggeds have been as locusts. Without some countervailing ethic of restraint, should Orr’s wish comes true, this fragile blue orb becomes Easter Island.

Wahl says that which must change is more mental than physical, and in this we are agreed. Lately with the climate march for science, Paul Hawken’s Drawdown tour, and the debate over fake news and science suppression we have been hearing, over and over, people we respect make pledges of allegiance to the gods of science as if they were saying a rosary. But we know that scientists — and even more-so academics —  are inherently conservative defenders of the rote and two or more steps behind the vanguard. Who are the vanguard? Artists like Brian Eno, or the cabal that gathers in a scenius to thrash out the hard truth. Moreover, they then endeavor to actually make the change they've lived go viral.

Patterns of regenerative thinking augur regenerative patterns of living and the reverse is also true: living together or coming together can change your mind or open new frontiers. We have witnessed this phenomenon in ecovillage communities all over the world. Designing the future — any future beyond mid-century  — requires redesigning a collective consciousness, our psychodemographic. We are already doing this with the hardware gateways to cyberamphibian transits, and with permaculture, ecosystem restoration camps and ecovillages in the non-virtual world.

Ecovillages do it with eco-covenants; social contracts that build all eight forms of capital,  externalizing nothing.

Our travels to Marrakech and Zhejiang last year made clear to us that the role of ecovillages is key. They are a viral carrier — patient zero. Don’t be put off by the hippy or elitist veneers of many of the prototypes; those were leading edge experiments by the fringe-dwelling creatives.  Any change for humanity arrives only after extreme vetting. At that point they become nearly inevitable.

To quote Wahl,
“Sustainability is not a fixed state to reach and then maintain, it is a community-based learning process aimed at increasing the health and resilience of our communities, our bioregional economies, ecosystems, and of the planetary life-support system as a whole.”
We say “nearly inevitable” because there are still countercurrents and eddies that can drown us. There are no guarantees. The odds against success are high.

Feeling the wind at our back, we edge the kite closer to the power zone.
If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
— Lao Tsu

This post is the last of a series we dubbed The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We’ll continue to 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. If Power Zone makes it to print, our Power-Up Patreon donors will receive an autographed copy.




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