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The Bioneers motto is "Revolution from the Heart of Nature," and for the past 21 years, many of the plenary speakers at the annual Bioneers conference have presented projects they're working on that are truly revolutionary--big and successful enough to actually change the world for the better. This year, you don't have to take my word for it, because those presentations are available for free online! Here's a rundown of my favorites (click the names to play the videos):

  • Amory Lovins, famed coauthor of Natural Capitalism and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented not so much a project as a prophecy, backed up by reams of data, saying that we can and probably will leave oil and coal behind within the next 40 years, in a process "led by business for profit" without any positive intervention from the U.S. Congress. (Ironically, if he's right, the Reinventing Fire study could probably be used to cut through the ideology of the numerous Congressional climate deniers, whose principal objection is that if the climate crisis were real, it would require massive new government programs to solve. In fact, we should do this just for the sake of avoiding negative intervention aimed at disproving the "myth of green jobs.") It would be easy to dismiss Lovins as a dreamer lost in a world of abstract math and physics, but Lester Brown recently pointed out that we're already on our way toward meeting Lovins's goal. That's right: after centuries of increase, we've been establishing a new downward trend in greenhouse emissions for the past four years.
  • The high-tech approach behind Reinventing Fire seems to contrast sharply with Bioneers's focus on preserving the "Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)" of the world's indigenous peoples, but second-time plenary speaker Rebecca Moore of Google Earth Outreach explains that it need not be so. In fact, smartphones and 3D mapping can actually help Amazonian tribes to preserve and defend their ancient ways of life, as well as their rainforest homes, by sharing them with the world. (See also Melissa Nelson's talk for some sweeping generalities about TEK.)
  • If you're not a fan of overly business-focused solutions, Bioneers has you covered. Roxanne Brown of the United Steelworkers was on hand to describe how the union movement, which used to revile Bioneers's core demographic as "un-American" for protesting the Vietnam War, has found some common ground with modern-day hippies--hence the BlueGreen Alliance, which encompasses eleven unions (including the massive SEIU) and four environmental groups. The intro to this talk features one of several brief discussions of the Occupy movement, another group that is trying to forge an understanding between its middle-class and working-class elements.

  • It's not just about halting our assault on the natural world; Bioneers is also about repairing the damage and helping life thrive again. Rather than recommending John Liu's actual Bioneers presentation on the topic, I'll direct you to his Earth Report episode, "Hope in a Changing Climate," which dramatically illustrates the amazing large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts underway in China, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. (For more on this concept and the theory behind it, see this blog entry and this SolSeed page.)

  • And finally we come to my favorite presentation, in which biomimicry expert Dayna Baumeister shows us what "Revolution from the Heart of Nature" really means, by retelling the story of the environmental crisis using the typical plot of a children's fantasy novel. Our "young" species plays the child protagonist (and also the bad guys), and the more well-established species are the "wise elders" who help us on our way. Stories like this are what give us the inspiration to change the world.

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Or at least that's my impression based on this article about a new company looking to turn a profit by turning CO2 pollution into calcium carbonate, "an extremely useful compound used, among other things, in antacids, baby diapers, iron purification, as plastic filler, in concrete, and in makeup." This is actually even cooler than the plan to use algae to make biofuels out of smokestack emissions, which only reuses the carbon once before releasing it anyway; as far as I can tell, most of the above applications wouldn't result in much re-released CO2.
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These days a lot of people are receiving a rude reminder that agriculture is the foundation of civilization--if it fails, we all fail. But if you feel like a heapin' helping of hope for the future, check out Natural Capitalism from your local library and read Chapter 10, "Food for Life" (or download it from the Natural Capitalism website). There's too much good stuff here to summarize in paragraph form, so I'll try an outline-type format instead:
  • Solar-drying fruits and grains:
    • Requires no electricity.
    • In a silo, evaporatively cools food "making any insects infesting it too sluggish to move and eat," eliminating the need for pesticides.
    • Solar-air-dried food needs no preservatives.
  • Greenhouses with superwindows:
    • Trap heat "so efficient[ly] that they burn no gas for heating," even in cold and cloudy climates.
    • Improve prospects for urban farming ("Some 15 percent of global food is already grown in cities.")
  • Reusing farm waste:
    • If cars could make 90 MPG (which doesn't require plug-in hybrids--see Chapter 2), "the straw burned in the fields of France or Denmark would run those countries' entire car fleets year-round."
    • Even back in the early 1980s, "cotton-gin trash in Texas" would have been enough "to fuel with alcohol every vehicle in Texas."
    • "Altogether, the diverse streams of farm and forestry wastes can probably provide enough sustainably grown liquid fuels to run an efficient U.S. transportation sector, without any further reliance on special fuel crops or fossil fuels."
    • These inputs could also include "manure-to-biogas conversion" to reduce methane emissions from livestock.
  • Maintaining naturally rich soil instead of using fertilizer:
    • Avoids industrial farming's tendency to destroy the "20 to 30 times as much biomass below the surface as [exists] above-ground" (because fertilizer puts "soil bacteria, fungi, and other biota out of work"), thus keeping the carbon locked up in these organisms instead of letting it escape during decomposition.
    • If fully converted to these "organic or low-input practices, . . . U.S. cropland alone . . . could thereby offset about 8-17 percent of U.S. carbon emissions" rather than contributing to those emissions.
    • Farmers could then make money selling carbon credits in countries with cap-and-trade policies.
    • There are "5 billion acres of degraded soil" which, if restored using low-input practices, "could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality, agricultural productivity, and human prosperity."
  • Imitating natural "rotational" grazing patterns:
    • Frees up crops for human consumption that would otherwise be fed to livestock, all but eliminating the "carnivore's dilemma."
    • Allows a farmer to use "more cattle, more intensely resident for shorter and less frequent periods" on any given patch of grass.
    • "The grazing cows yeild slightly less milk than confined animals but at far lower capital and operating cost, hence higher income per cow."
    • Allows "manure to return to the soil, closing the nutrient loop" and eliminating the current "gigantic [manure] disposal headache" as well as making the soil more erosion-resistant.
  • "Biointensive" crop farming "modeled on complex ecosystems":
    • "[I]nterplanting of mixed species [tends] to foil pests."
    • A healthy quasi-ecosystem "can provide for a vegetarian's entire diet, plus the compost crops needed to sustain the system indefinitely, on only 2,000 to 4,000 square feet," compared with 10,000 for "[s]tandard U.S. agricultural practice today."
    • Very non-labor-intensive, because "nature does most of the work," such that "an elegantly conceived sequence of plantings provides the weed control, composting, and other services automatically."
    • Can eventually be applied to large-scale farming, basically turning the American midwest back into a sort of quasi-prairie, friendly to grazing animals, "occasionally harvested by combines" but requiring "no chemicals, no cultivation, no irrigation" (particularly impressive given that "[a]griculture is [currently] responsible for about twice as much of total U.S. water withdrawals as all buildings, industry, and mining combined").
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"The man explained to Max that . . . both he and the man who had saved Max from the kidnappers belonged to an ancient and secret society of men known as the League of the Golden Key. Such men roamed the world acting, always anonymously, to procure the freedom of others, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional or economic. In this work they were tirelessly checked by the agents of the Iron Chain, whose goals were opposite and sinister. It was operatives of the Iron Chain who had kidnapped Max years before.

- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, p. 133
I would like to suggest that the operative word in this fanciful quote, from the backstory of an imaginary comic book series called "The Escapist," is "from." If your opponent wishes to keep people in chains, whether literal or metaphorical, then your goal is to free people from those chains, i.e. from negative impositions by other people or society more generally--anything from debt slavery to overly high taxes on investment income. The corresonding freedom to is much more ill-defined, but clearly centered on the affected individual's abilities, with little direct reference to any positive interaction with society at large.

About four and a half years ago, I posted this screed about the limitations of an ideology whose only tenet is that "freedom is good." I didn't offer much of an alternative, other than an inchoate plea for people to make choices with greater consideration for the survival-of-the-species problem. Here's a better idea, which has a nice yin-yang symmetry to it: rather than viewing society as necessarily opposed to individual freedom, why not accept that humans are social creatures who gain from the formation of friendships, teams, and communities? The best single word I could think of to express this concept is "mutualism," a term from ecology that simply means an arrangement where both or all parties benefit. If you prefer, "mutuality" could also work to describe the general principle. Rather than working against each other, freedom and mutualism can reinforce one another, as each member of a group contributes most when he/she is free to choose how to contribute.

Of course this is all very well for small groups, perhaps up to a few hundred. Large-group mutualism is a basically unsolved problem, as I discussed in my previous entry as well as this post from last year.

My current best stab at a solution in the realm of politics would be something along the general outlines of a soviet democracy, that is, a hierarchical series of councils with each level's representatives chosen from the ones below it. Obviously, I would put in extensive checks to ensure that the power of the highest councils remains limited. I also think it might be better to choose representatives to the next higher council by simply rotating through the lower council's members--send a different pair every few years, not going back to the first pair until everyone else has served (two is better than one because one can serve as a check on the other). That way the council doesn't just select whoever is best at persuading them that he/she will do a good job when given broader authority, since as Douglas Adams observed, "those who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it." This probably holds even if you replace the word "rule" with "govern" or even "coordinate."

In fact, if there are councils down to neighborhood level, the whole idea of voting could be removed altogether in favor of a simple aptitude test on the basic workings of government--if you pass, you get to be on the council. Would this still count as democracy? Certainly, in the sense of "a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes" (from the first entry on Except in my system, we would be working together in the open to achieve this, rather than casting anonymous ballots in a basically statistical exercise that we hope will manage to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
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Two weeks ago, for the first time in something like two years, I actually got out into the wilderness and did some hiking. And as far as I can remember, this is the first time I've ever planted a tree. I know, I'm a terrible excuse for an environmentalist.

Specifically, I spent a morning in the San Bernardino Mountains near Lake Arrowhead, under the auspices of the Mountain Communities Releaf project, which is trying to accelerate the recovery of the forest after last October's devastating fires by having volunteers plant seedlings in the burned areas -- our group of around 40 planted hundreds in the course of less than four hours.

Pictures! )

I may be doing this again next weekend (with actual boots this time!), and they're also planning trips to water the trees in the summer.
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There's an idea floating around that planting a bunch of trees will do nothing to solve the climate crisis, because any carbon sequestered by the trees gets released again when they die. This is silly for two reasons, the more obvious and minor of which is that trees live a long time, so at least that's some carbon we don't have to worry about until much later.

But of course I like to think long-term, so what about that later? The answer is simple if you pull back from those individual trees to look at the big picture. Think of the world in terms of big carbon reservoirs: the atmosphere, all the forests, all the crop fields, the oceans, and so on. Then planting a bunch of trees increases the size of one carbon reservoir (forests or tree farms) at the expense of another (the atmosphere). Those trees require area to grow on, which means the more trees you plant, the more area you're giving over to trees in general. And (here's the key point) once that area is being used for trees, more trees will be planted (or grow on their own) as older ones die. The carbon reservoir's size will be "permanently" larger.

Of course, the quote marks are there because someone might later knock down the forest or tree farm to build a housing development or freeway bypass. But think of it this way: there's a battle going on between those who want to increase and decrease the size of the carbon reservoirs represented by land plants, and planting some trees in an area that previously had none is a victory for our side.

For those who prefer compromise, there are "urban forests" of roadside trees, or more progressively, rooftop gardens (which can include small trees). Imagine a city with one on every roof: something like 90% of the original surface area of whatever ecosystem the city replaced is now green again -- the area just got lifted to sit on top of buildings and help keep them cool.

P.S. Check out Strong Bad's take on the environment, featuring the GreenCheat laptop charging system -- then take a look at the real-life $100 XO laptop which can actually be recharged using muscle power! (I chose that site for the hand-crank picture; here's the One Laptop Per Child homepage.)
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What environmentalists are asking our species to do, in terms of halting the rapid growth in the scale of the human presence on Earth, is quite literally unprecedented. In the whole history of this planet, it is virtually certain that no other species that found itself suddenly capable of hacking out an entirely new niche for itself in an unsuspecting ecology showed the slightest bit of self-restraint in exploiting that niche. Such a species always overshoots the carrying capacity of the new niche and continues to expand until limited resources bite back.

Ecologists call this a "hard landing" scenario, perhaps in acknowledgement of the simple truth that life is hard, a corollary of the fact that evolution is blind. Non-intelligent species do not actively strive toward the goal of coexistence with their ecosystems; instead, this ideal is forced upon them over many diminshing cycles of overshoot and dieoff. Only after this hard beginning can cooperative systems of symbiosis begin to form. A right-wing Iraq hawk once vandalized an antiwar poster in a Pomona College dining hall with the words, "Peace is not free--it is something created by war." In ecology, this is almost the literal truth.

But humans don't have to go that way. The notion of a "soft landing" is not just a pleasant dream, but something we can actually turn into action if we choose. The ideology of unlimited growth, in its most basic form, is telling us to go with the flow and accept the terrible price if it turns out that we can't continue finding new niches to hack out of our limited planet (and eventually, perhaps, our solar system and galaxy). But there is every reason to decide that we don't want to take that chance. Even if history provides no guidance about how else we can live, I think we're smart enough to figure it out for ourselves.
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"Among the major players [in a healthy ecosystem] are the ecosystems engineers, which add new parts to the habitat and open the door to guilds of organisms specialized to use them. . . .

"By constructing dams, beavers create ponds, bogs, and flooded meadows. These environments shelter species of plants and animals that are rare or absent in free-running streams. The submerged masses of decaying wood forming the dams add still more species that occupy and feed on them.

"Elephants trample and tear up shrubs and small trees, opening glades within forests. The result is a mosaic of habitats containing overall larger numbers of resident species. . . .

"Over millions of years, nature's ecosystems engineers have . . . coevolved with other species that exploit the niches they build. The result is a harmony within ecosystems. The constituent species, by spreading out into multiple niches, seize and cycle more materials and energy. . . . Homo sapiens is an ecosystems engineer too, but a bad one. Not having coevolved with the majority of life forms we now encounter around the world, we eliminate far more niches than we create. We drive species and ecosystems into extinction at a far higher rate than existed before and everywhere diminish productivity and stability."

-E. O. Wilson, The Future of Life, Chapter 5

My question is, in the absence of coevolution, can humans learn to be good ecosystems engineers? Can we build cities that furnish many more niches for creatures other than ourselves (without causing us too much inconvenience), while failing to stomp on ecosystems elsewhere with massive ecological footprints? (Although perhaps stomping on things wouldn't be so bad, if we could follow the elephants' example . . .)

What might such a city look like? Would it be some form of arcology, a single nearly-self-sufficient structure? Would it be like a strange forest in which the buildings look and act like trees? Or would it be stranger still?
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"The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars," says religious leader Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler's novel, Parable of the Sower. It's an old idea in science fiction: by carrying life to other worlds, humans can serve as the seeds, the reproductive mechanism, of Earth's biosphere. Some take this literally, referring to the hypothetical planetary superorganism called Gaia; for others it's merely a useful analogy.

But there is another important reason to establish space colonies, also alluded to in Parable of the Sower: "It's a destiny we'd better pursue if we hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs." To be a bit poetic about the analogy, we need to evolve into what a Star Trek fan might call "the Great Bird of the Galaxy" (which was actually a nickname for Gene Roddenberry).

More prosaically: at this point, we have to acknowledge that terrible things may happen to Mother Earth no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and while a catastrophe that kills off the whole human species is unlikely, it's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. As SF authors also like to say, "humanity has all its eggs in one basket," but we can change that if we choose. Ecologists may see this as a misguided attempt to escape the natural cycle of species birth and death, even though humans will probably continue to evolve wherever we may be. But coupled with the first rationale, I think there is a very compelling ecological argument for human expansion into space.
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There's a difference between rationality and reason, and I believe the Age of Rationality may be coming to an end. Hopefully, what replaces it will be a new chapter in the larger Age of Reason, what I like to call the Age of Sense, in which people will be sensible enough to act with the long-term consequences of their actions in mind. This may go against our immediate rational interests, but is certainly not essentially unreasonable, even when some of the consequences will only occur after the "sensible actor" is dead.

This is all very difficult, of course, but not impossible. After all, humans are mammals, and mammals care for their offspring. This is one of several important factors that the abstract "rational actor" model of self-interested behavior favored by most economists leaves out. In fact, if economists were willing to look at people as living things rather than economic automatons, they might see the implications of the drive to reproduce for any organism: the organism doesn't just want what's best for itself, but what's best for its descendents and, to some extent, for its entire species as well.
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A Basic Trend

1. According to modern “scale” economics, producing more and selling more results in more profits. As a result, corporations tend to produce as much as they can, as fast as they can.

2. Continuing technological development ensures that the maximum production rate keeps going up.

3. The living natural resources used by corporations to make products, however, reproduce themselves at relatively steady rates according to the delicate balance of Earth’s biosphere.*

4. Therefore, beyond a certain point, nature can no longer keep up with humanity’s accelerating use of its resources.

5. These resources are then depleted at an accelerating rate, eventually leading to a spectacular and terrible economic and ecological collapse.

Possible Ways to Alter This Trend

1. Alter the basic nature of the economic system: very difficult. Mass production and economies of scale are part of a global system of intertwined economics and politics which is itself enormously resistant to change, despite the massive changes it is making to this planet.

2. Increase the rate of natural resource reproduction: also very difficult. Since life has covered the planet so thoroughly, an increase in the reproduction rate of one species almost always occurs at the expense of another. If we keep expanding production of the species that are useful to us, we run the risk of destroying enough other species to cause the collapse of the entire biosphere, which is one of the few events that could result in the complete extinction of humanity. Giant space colonies may eventually solve this problem by creating new habitat areas, but don’t hold your breath.

3. Start an anti-consumerist movement, to prevent the corporations from continuing to sell more and more products: difficult, but not as difficult as the first two alternatives. A rising standard of living doesn’t necessarily mean consuming more products faster. If people refuse to buy products that are designed to be short-lived or aren’t useful enough to justify the resources put into them, the corporations will eventually be forced to change their strategies. We need to convince them now rather than wait for them to wake up to the consequences of continued resource depletion and find real solutions.

* The dangers of running out of petroleum, metals, and minerals are minor compared with those of damaging or destroying the biosphere on which we are still dependent.

(originally posted August 4, 2003)

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