Biomass is a Common

Jul 03, 2017 No Comments by

by Patrick Noble

The mass of life is composed of countless interconnections. It flows between species and between generations of each species. Nevertheless, all those flows are tributaries to a final optimum Major Sea of Earth’s biomass.

Let’s consider a human community (house- hold/parish/village/town/city/nation state/world) as a communal biomass flowing between generations. Let’s also consider that communal biomass flowing through its living terrain – from species to species – increasing in speed, or diminishing in speed – sometimes sequestered in a dry plain of motionless, lifeless physics – but for our purpose, always ending, in a final, optimum mass – the Minor Sea of those particular community inter-connections.

Here’s a thing, which it may be wise to keep in mind – no one knows what life is.

Here’s another – Once upon a time, there was no life on Earth and it shall be so again.

Here’s yet another for those who falsely equate carbon cycles with life cycles – After all life has gone, carbon, or the energy derived from it, will always remain.

Carbon and life cannot be inter-changed for the purpose of climate (atmospheric carbon dioxide) calculations.

The central consideration for atmospheric carbon dioxide projections is not the mass of carbon. It is the mass of life.

This leads me to some other very simple propositions.

1 – If we bury life in a “carbon sump” or in an “embedded carbon structure” then we have diminished a life cycle. We have not taken carbon from the atmosphere and sequestered it in terrestrial mass. Rather, we have diminished the power of life to regenerate. We have weakened photosynthetic carbon capture and some linear solar energy. In the process, we have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and diminished the mass of life.

It is plain that if we bury all life, we end all photosynthesis. A carbon sump is one stepping stone (metaphor well chosen) towards the same.

2 – If we burn life, we diminish life (as in a carbon sump) and we also release combustion gas, to the same degree as fossil fuel. It follows that burning biomass has a greater carbon dioxide effect than burning fossil fuels.

3 – Life has expanded to an optimum mass, despite its gradual (occasionally sudden) sequestration in peat bogs, coal gas and oil reserves and other fossil rocks (calcium & so on). Atmospheric carbon dioxide has been more or less Gaia regulated, despite those sequestrations, and despite volcano and forest fire. Nevertheless, points 1 and 2 remain true. It follows that the linear solar contribution gives leeway for both some “embedded structure” and for some biomass burning.

Of course, we need timber for building houses. Sunlight provides leeway for growing timber trees. It also provides a little leeway for some domestic heating.

Only within that leeway can we call properly-managed forestry, “renewable forestry”.
Bear in mind that even within that leeway, our wood chip boilers and woodstoves have slightly greater carbon dioxide effect than fossil fuels. It follows that within that leeway, we’d do better to burn coal, gas and oil, while managing agriculture and forestry for maximum, optimum, photosynthetic biomass.

This writer thinks that the unexpected rapidity of climate change has been caused by the academic consensus that non-land-use-change biomass burning can be entered in carbon budgets as carbon neutral. Had the consensus given the burning of timber and arable crops the same carbon dioxide effect as fossil fuels, then I propose that climate predictions would be far less optimistic than at present.


Burning either biomass, or fossil mass within that more or less safe counter-balancing solar leeway presents a social problem. That burning must be at “pre-industrial” levels and I suspect at less than that. UN figures put world population for years 2015 at 7.349 billion, for 1800 at 1 billion and for 1600 at 580 million.

By 1600 in the UK, forest cover had been stripped to far less than today because of a rapacious demand for house and ship timbers and for domestic fuel. By 1680 coal had prevented economic collapse.

Today, we can hope that electricity will arrive to prevent current economic collapse. Most accept the folly of burning fossil fuels to produce that electricity. Plainly, burning biomass to that end, must be the pinnacle of folly.

But also, consider this – my benign Ash-scented woodstove – with timber from “sustainable” local woods, or hedge-rows, makes my house-hold one of privilege. If I claim the privilege, then I remove that privilege from others. If I claim to live within the solar leeway, then I have enclosed a common by my right to deny that solar leeway to others. Imagining that the world population in 1600 was largely “pre-industrial”, I tentatively project that only 1 in 3 house-holds in the world can be permitted a domestic coal, or wood stove today. (imagining a house-hold of 4)

That figure of 1 in 3 families holds only if we burn nothing at all for both transport and electricity generation. In any case, there is wildly insufficient acreage in the UK to grow biomass for the current population’s domestic heating. 1 in 3 for the world, may prove closer to 1 in 30 households for the population density of the UK. Our problem is not burning fossil fuels, but burning any kind of fuel. Our problem is burning.

We have wind, water, solar and (if we think we can trust an amoral monopoly supply) nuclear sources for electricity generation. Then, as we’ve explored in previous articles, direct traction from wind and water for factories and work-shops. We can remove energy demands of transport by removing the need for transport – that is by living as we’ve always lived until very recent history – with both work and pleasure but a step, or cycle ride from our doors – and then we can have a vibrant international and far more egalitarian trade by sail power.

There is hope. Living within our ecological means returns economic choices to the ingenuity and dexterity of citizenship – technologies and tools may be devised less behind intellectual property walls and more in quiet garden sheds, fields and work-shops. Attempts to green current ways of life (supplied by irresponsive, irresponsible monopolies) are roads to climate chaos and despair.


Plainly, biomass is a common. It is the primary common. Moreover, the greatest mass of bio lies in that thin layer of top soil on which all economies depend and which some, including this writer, have enclosed as their own and called fenced property.

Plainly, since the greatest city is only ever an emergent property of the efficiencies of fields, if we can grow enough food, then all the rest can follow. Economic biomass, including mass of humanity, food, and materials (timber, paper, fabrics and so on) flows back and forth, between species and between the generations of species we call an ecology.
Let’s consider some fields.

Regulating the speed of life is the whole art of husbandry. It is also the whole art of durable settlements. Crops flow into a biomass of people and must flow out again to the fields which produced those crops. Shorter & smaller cycles flow through gardens and allotments.

The whole agricultural metabolism of towns, fields, gardens and the cultural techniques to connect them is complex, evolved and evolving. The trial and error of husbandry, cuisine, transport and emerging trades are what we call an agriculture.

Gazing across a patchwork of fields, I can see that speed presented in the deepening or paling green of rotations. The colours reveal the velocity of life as it travels between species – the deeper the green, the faster the flow and so the increase of biomass.

Lazily copied from A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2014.

Consider two fields which have been provided with an optimum allotment of wastes to maintain their fertility. If I return a larger share to field one, I’ll receive a high crop yield, but some of that waste will be mineralised by soil fauna and not taken up by the crop. Nutrients will be lost as gas to the air and as minerals to water courses.

Field two will receive a less than optimum biomass and the crop yield will fall
Optimum crop yield for both fields – field one, plus field two will be lower than the total yield had wastes been divided equally.

We can see that story of two fields replicated across farms, parishes, regions and nation states. Human nature being what it is, some will appropriate more wastes than others – increasing their farm yield (& bank balance) but reducing the optimum yield (& bank balance) of the community as a whole.

That is a classic tale of the tragedy of the enclosures.

As uncertain weather patterns likely with climate change increase, so communities will become more anxious to achieve maximum, optimum food supply. To achieve that, wastes (sewage, green waste, food waste, processing bi-products and so on) must be divided strategically. They could be administered rather like water rights in Mediterranean communities, or the rotation of medieval strip fields.

The following is also copied from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Some commons to be restored into the fabric of my midsummer night’s dream– roads, market squares, harbours, soils, water, biomass….

But all other commons are as nothing compared to commons of biomass. Just as towns, roads and trades are emergent properties of agriculture, so agriculture emerges from the flows of biomass between species to and from human cultures.

Biomass cycles from field to city and back again. That flow is obviously a common and a common good if managed by good common law.

The cabbage I sell in the market place has common biomass, but also the value of being a cabbage.

So, I ask for a cabbage price to pay for the labour of producing it. To value a common is to enclose it. My valued cabbage is an enclosure valued at my labour value.

But the sewage and waste leaf produced from the cabbage must return to the common flow of biomass. Unless a biomass equivalent is returned to my field, I cannot grow as many cabbages in the future, because the fertility of my soil has been diminished by one cabbage.

So, the common produces value (enclosed common), but common law asks for that value to be returned, so that the common can keep producing value and so that succeeding generations can continue to provide themselves with cabbages.

In effect, I can as good as “own” a field without owning its soil, biomass, or water. These are commons to be protected.

It is accepted that commoners own the means to the responsibilities of the common.

This brings me to a current and highly unpleasant (dis- convivial) fashion amongst those who happen to have land property. It is the claim of carbon sequestration as virtue. Those who don’t own land property can claim no such virtue. This fashion is taken to extremes by those who are fortunate to control a grass paddock or two. They need do nothing in particular – just walk the boundaries and claim carbon dispensation – perhaps to set against, let’s say a holiday flight… Meanwhile, much of UK’s large grass acreage would provide better economic, ecologic and photosynthetic contributions in its natural state – that is as woodland.

Carbon property is as destructive as land enclosure – both command rent (or dispensation) without social return.

(I don’t like the term sequestration for soil fauna, whose biomass flows variably between plants and animals and back. It is appropriate for the stillness of fossil strata, peat bogs and embedded structures)

A few years ago, a grower claimed that his large inputs of compost removed enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to justify bi-annual holiday flights. He based a lecture tour on this assertion. He provided a composting site for local green waste and I’m sure, made very good compost and distributed much of it not for himself, but others. Nevertheless, in any enduring culture, that green waste should have been returned to a great many more fields and farms. The sequestration/holiday flight balance is nonsense.

I mention the above, because those sequestration claims have not been challenged. The suicidal claim by IPCC and the Paris Accord that burning arable and forest biomass can be accounted carbon neutral, remains similarly unchallenged.

These are no small errors. The correction is central to the maintenance of human cultures.

(September 2016)

Featured image: wood fire. Author: Iuriatan Felipe Muniz. Source:

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