All life is busy – energetic – converting mass to energy and energy to mass. We note energy in the causes and effects of motion and in the growth of individual organisms. A continuous fermentation both within organisms and in soil and sea through which all terrestrial cycles must pass, breaks biomass into simple, original minerals (biomass nutrients) and gases. To a farmer, as fermentation accelerates, so does the growth of her crops. Receding, or increasing fermentation is plainly visible, week by week in the paling, or deepening green of foliage. The energy is plain. The mass is plain. The increasing mass of her animals, or indeed, her children, is a consequence of the increasing mass and energy of her plants, which in turn, are a consequence of the power (acceleration) of soil fermentation and photosynthesis. That deepening green of cereal blades indicates increasing speed and increasing energy. Yes. Time and velocity are also plain – we say slow-growing; fast-growing and we have impatient appetites, dependant on Winter stores.
Temperature is critical to energy/mass exchanges and to rules of good husbandry. Fermentation happens anyway if temperatures and moisture are right. If plants are not available to take up those minerals (as in a bare fallow, or planting delayed by bad weather), then they will escape to water courses. The gas that escapes to the air, will not be returned by photosynthetic re-balancing, but will accumulate in the atmosphere, to the degree and duration of the ferment of that one fallow field. Subsequent crop yield from that field will be smaller, because soil biomass will be smaller. Lifeless minerals and gases will have increased, while biomass and bio-energy will have diminished. We could look at it in these terms – a tendency for lifelessness will have become larger than a tendency for life. Optimum husbandry success is for dying and living to remain in balance. Dying and living are both dynamic. Lifelessness and dying are not at all the same things. Minerals and gases are either a part of a tendency for life, or of a tendency for lifelessness. My husbandry can swing the balance one way or the other. Humanity as a whole is choosing to swing the balance towards a lifeless planet.
Those who’d burn energetic biomass for mere energy, gas and ashes are approved by the IPCC and most government departments as achieving “carbon neutrality” – that is, to say that future photosynthetic energy will repair that loss. How such a ridiculous hypothesis gained consensus is a mystery – even though it is universally accepted, it has not been proved by any research that I can find – and no-one, who supports it, has been able to find me any. IPCC say that biomass burning can achieve so called negative emissions if the gases are captured and stored in some way in a “carbon sump”. Farmers and growers can refute the hypothesis, season by season. If we grow a crop, remove it from the farm and make no biomass return to the soil, then soil biomass and energy will shrink, subsequent re-growth will shrink and leaf area presented for photosynthesis will similarly shrink. Year, by year, a tendency to lifelessness will increase and a tendency to life will diminish. The only way we can replace the loss of fertility is by importing it from elsewhere, so that the “elsewhere” is similarly diminished – a hole in the ground with nothing in it. It follows that burning coal with CCS is a far, far better thing than burning biomass with CCS. I do not advocate burning coal.
The obsession with carbon as mass in the air, or mass in/on the soil and for a direct cycle between the two, without exchanges of energy, has led to another error. Embedded structures, such as timber buildings are accounted as “carbon sumps” – denying that carbon to the atmosphere! The opposite is true. If we remove life (the tree) from a life-cycle, we shrink both the energy and mass of that cycle. Biomass will be denied to the soil to feed subsequent regrowth and photosynthetic energy of one tree will be removed. The energy of the forest’s life-cycle will diminish by the power of that tree and atmospheric CO.2 will increase accordingly. Embedded structures are not a large part of carbon auditing, but future audits may include James Lovelock’s carbon sumps, in which large tonnages of biomass are buried – sequestered like coal, oil and gas. It is proposed by many that those sumps will deny carbon to the atmosphere – but they will achieve the opposite – a life-cycle will shrink in mass; in speed of its cycle; in its photosynthetic and regenerative power, and lifelessness will increase.
So, here’s a thought for economists – that balance of death and life is the measure of a stable economy: one in which economy and ecology become one. Food and soil become one and so human energy (life) and soil become one – also cultural sense of place and soil become one. As lifelessness increases, so the primary economic asset (food-supply) diminishes. It’s well to pause here to reflect on our ignorance. A trawling of scientific literature won’t help. With regards to biological complexity, we are lost in intellectual chaos. It’s plain that the interweaving of an only partly-understood biodiversity is essential for an optimum (that is a durable maximum) bio-energy and mass. Part-understanding is a very dangerous thing. So, in this regard, science is a pleasure, and I’d say, an essential pleasure, but is of little practical use. Application of such ignorance is a definition of stupidity. However, there are other ways towards other kinds of truth – trials and errors of farming and growing bring us close as we can to the truths of dynamic reactions – as I say in the first paragraph – in the deepening, or paling green of foliage – in sustained crop yields. As with much in life, humility and innocence receive the greatest revelations. Of course, the studied scepticism of true science is an attempt at a similar innocence and it can uncover delightful pictures of complexity. But the grower does not need to unravel complexity – structural anthropologists and linguistic philosophers have long-ago failed at that – the grower must only answer the question, what should I do? She can marvel at complexity and enjoy the scientific literature – both of which may increase the diffidence of her footsteps, but her task is to grow the primary economic asset (food) in a way that future growers can attempt the same. All of the above is moral philosophy, it unravels for me, what I should do. Every day, I must do something, by my judgement and cannot wait for scientific corroboration. That, (if you believe in progress) may be centuries away. For myself, I think, we will wait forever, because the answer we seek is the always-illusive complexity – not the addition of its broken-down elements. The broken-down elements are interesting, but of no practical use.
Here’s another thought – as Richard Douthwaite has taught us, money-flow must shadow energy-flow, so that within the realm of money-exchange it must shadow acceleration due to people. Of course, acceleration due to people also extends beyond the realm of money. We’d regard a lot of what we do to be tainted by money – we would not accept it. So, for many exchanges, money is taboo. In consequence GDP (spending) should be far less than energy due to people. This makes for a more flexible and safe money system, since where money fails, people can step in.
I think, many tragedies that are currently unfolding can be attributed to the enclosure of money as property. As Adam Smith warned, money as property would bring capitalism tumbling around our unprotected ears. I’d go further – all enclosure does the same. Rent for money, status, land, ideas – all idly extract money from the true exchanges of what people do. Rent even extracts money from activities which would otherwise be moneyless. It creates a class system of rent-lords on the one hand and of rent-payers on the other. Rent-lords are plainly what we think of as the middle class, while the rent-payers are in a turmoil of bewilderment, loss of identity, increasing poverty… so that they cannot identify with any class. No wonder we have the dark side of Brexit and of Trump’s America – people seeking recognition, belonging and class. Anyway, rent money (debt) has sent money-flow on a trajectory, far beyond acceleration due to people. Not only that, acceleration due to people is sickening in consequence – intelligence of a changing world, ingenuity, dexterity, hope, enthusiasm – all are bled by enclosure – all slowly die, while a tendency for lifelessness accelerates by acceleration due to rent; acceleration due to fossil fuels…
If we suddenly inject an energy far greater than acceleration due to people and a further acceleration of money-flow as a consequence, we can not only have a world where death overwhelms life, but in which lifelessness overwhelms death. Once-quietly-sequestered and fossilised life, laid down over many millions of years, has been released by fire to create a plague of human-power. We have wild dis-cultural money and a blanket of atmospheric gases beyond the capacity of merely contemporary life to draw back into her cycles. We can plainly see by the growth of GDPs and GWP that all life will very soon be spent.
Our current GDPs, or GWP are measuring the end, if not of life on Earth, at least of all human cultures and most of the holocenic species of plants, fungi, invertebrates, insects and animals, with which we are familiar.
The largest part of current money-flow, measured by GDP is enabled by the carbon (here I can use the word) once safely-sequestered in the quiet strata of fossilised years. We can also use the rather beautiful word, sequestered for the idle fossils once peacefully reclining in those strata. However, the use of the words, sequestration and carbon, when describing the essentially energetic cycles of life, has led to disturbing errors in climatic models. Perhaps it would always have taken an innocent grower, or a child, to point out those errors. Sadly, and for reasons outlined above with regards to enclosure and here particularly, status enclosure, farmers and growers have been tongue-tied – deferring, quite wrongly to the dignified ignorance of enclosed soil and atmospheric science. The same can be said for the supressed intelligence, which would otherwise be noted by all the trades. Where a tool touches its materials is the closest, in both time and space, that we come to the reactions of those materials. Of course, there are many exceptions to that “dignified ignorance”, but on the whole it remains true – certainly in the realms of IPCC, many universities and all government departments. Lazily accepted hypotheses (career-enhancing doctrine) have steered the consensus away from the truth. They’ve steered cultures away from the soils on which they depend. An easy metaphor – the idle fancies of rent-collecting architects have replaced the functional and elegant buildings which could have risen from the pleasurable and intelligent senses of builders.
Science cannot tell us what to do. Beautiful and detached science has alerted us to a climatic disbalancing, which has been selected by human behaviour. I accept, admire and humbly wonder at the hours of true dedication – the data gathering, the studied patterns emerging… But what we do with new information, brings us to the realms of the effects of causes. It brings us to the trial and error of tools, to ways of life and so to the judgements of moral philosophy – that is, of right and wrong behaviour. One branch of moral philosophy is economics.
Many dedicated scientists have understood this – wearing a sceptical coat for the science, then exchanging it at the end of the day, to wear the moral, pragmatic coat of a whole person. Kevin Anderson and James Hansen are famous examples, but there must be many others. Anyway, I can only admire the science – I sit at her feet – but in the world of economics (of what we do) I can speak on an equal footing with anyone – all trades contribute their insights. Science, being essentially amoral, cannot tell us what to do. Don’t forget, although we haven’t spent earnest years in gathering and seeking patterns in the data, yet we can all understand the conclusions. We can all delight in the research.
In farming, I defer only to my farm, as she repels, or accepts my behaviour. That is my duty as a commoner. Otherwise, I must defer to others – medical practitioner, plant-breeder, stone-mason, boat-builder, house-builder, forester, turbine maker… There is the trust that should bind a modern society. It is the world of moral commons – of a common history and future. One of the dangers of our current way of life is the legitimisation of “technologists” hiding behind the amoral cloak of science, so that ethics can become detached from actions. Status enclosure consolidates that position, as does career-connected peer-review. Examples include pharmaceuticals, gene technologies, medical practice, pesticides manufacture, “applied climate science”, architecture… All these are crafts; arts; tools; technologies… All that we do has an effect and so also a moral. The beauty of science is that she sees from the cultivated position of amorality, which allows for the unexpected to make sense. A “scientist” who leaves that ivory tower, while forgetting to put on her everyday coat of social loves and responsibilities, becomes a dangerous creature, unhampered, libertarian… It is fortunate that true science has an essential humility – a quieted self – so that as she shuts the door of the ivory tower, she immediately puts on the moral coat of an ordinary citizen, , reclaims her-self and mixes with family and friends.
To function properly, the tool of money cannot be bought and sold. It is a useful tool for more complex energy exchanges – in which unseen actors can contribute. Enclosed money – money as property is irresponsible money. It can create acceleration due to money; to personal power. It can be bought and sold and it can be rented – all without commons of restraint and good behaviour.
Enclosed status (medical practitioner, plant-breeder, solicitor and so on) is irresponsible status. It can charge a rent for that status, which is far beyond a wage for work done. It accumulates money as property and so also achieves acceleration due to money.
Enclosed land is… Well, the ill-effects are so well documented that I’ll point
you to Tom Paine, J S Mill, Henry George… to Oliver Goldsmith – Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey – where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
This is an article about acceleration. We can have acceleration due to people, the effects of skill, ingenuity, dexterity, muscle – people can then rely on acceleration due to gravity – hydro-turbines, pumps, mills and factories, acceleration due to the moon – tidal shipping currents and tidal turbines, acceleration due to biomass – food and building materials, acceleration due to temperature differences – sailing boats, wind turbines pumps and mills, or acceleration due to oxen and horses (I’d hope, within kindly limits).
We can no longer have acceleration due to burning things – either fossil biomass, or living biomass. Perhaps as a first step, we should ask ourselves, how can I live without explosion and fire?
However, we can have acceleration due to fermentation. Since those gases will rise anyway, we can gather them to burn safely, changing one gas for another, plus useful energy.
We can no longer have acceleration due to money; to inequality; to enclosure; to anything, which acts outside the cycles of life, or which breaks our connection to both the time and space of soil, such as fossilised produce of ancient soils. Of course, our cultural history is stuffed full of inequalities, empires, enclosures, deforestation and destructive farming, but now that we have risen so far above the true physics of the world, we must scramble back down by every means we can – or like the baseless fabric of this vision, we’ll leave not a wrack behind… Already – we are such stuff as dreams are made on and those in positions of authority almost universally consider that we can make stuff from dreams. The idea of progress is that we make stuff from dreams. Acceleration due to dreams creates just a longer dream.
If we can’t have acceleration due to money, then using money – carbon taxes, carbon trading, true-cost accounting, ecosystem services will only endorse what we should rectify. A better way is agreed rationing, re-distribution, and an enthusiastic story-telling of the moral commons of proper behaviour. We don’t stop air-travelling, because a tax has made it too expensive, but because it is the wrong thing to do. Once it has been accepted as the wrong thing to do, it can be made illegal. Use of other resources can be similarly rationed, because unfair distribution is plainly wrong – or so the new stories say.
Once upon a time, we could live happily ever after. We can aim for such a time, but first, the plot must pass through a variety of tragedies to get there. In a previous chapter, we chose (from a passing mountebank) future tragedy for a moment of exquisite pleasure. Ain’t that a proper tale to tell? It was a dark and stormy night. We said to the tale-teller, tell us a tale. He stepped into the light and began, “It was a dark and stormy night. We said to the tale teller…” You see, we already know what we need to know. We must live through the tragedies we have created. We cannot ask, how can we avoid tragedy? We have already chosen tragedy. Now we must choose the best tragedy and we must live by acceleration due to people; gravity; moon; sun; temperature. But acceleration due to people is primarily dependent on acceleration due to biomass. Our arts, cultural commons and taboos should all (as probably once they were) be focussed on optimum maintenance of that biomass. All the rest are tools to help, or hinder the journey. After all, to become a part of the cycles of life, ours has to be an agriculture, a hunter-gatherer culture, or a mixture of both. At the moment, cultural consensus is choosing minerals, gases, chemical reaction, fire, gravity, the moon, temperature and the linear energy of a lifeless sun.
My long-time correspondent, Joshua Msika has added the following very productive and persuasive thoughts about the “woody matter”, which is not part of the energetic cycles of biomass. I have long been suspicious of the claims of charcoal and bio-char enthusiasts, because they are aside from the intelligence, which I can pragmatically gain through the act of growing. I have considered heartwood to be laid down, rather like the sequestered strata of coal, oil and gas – sequestered beyond the cycles of life by the linear contribution of sunlight. If we re-introduce heart-wood to living cycles as gas, ashes and energy, then we create the same dis-balancing as fossil fuels. Likewise, with biochar, I have considered it to be less substantial in composition than its original energetic biomass – much having been lost as heat/energy. Perhaps, I have also been suspicious of the many evangelical promoters of biochar, who have no experience at all of growing things – the miracle technology seekers; the architects, rather than the builders. Have I been merely reactionary?
But anaerobic digestion is fine for grasses, manures and other easily putrescible organic matter. What about ligneous litter? Woody matter will not anaerobically decompose – witness the thousand year-old trees in the peat bogs – and will yield no gases. Left on the forest floor, it is degraded by fungi, or builds up to such an extent that it burns in a large wildfire. Indeed, the grow-burn cycle is arguably a “natural” state of affairs for some ecosystems. So the question for me is: can we integrate ourselves productively into the decomposition cycle of woody matter? If we can’t harness that cycle, then we admit a fundamental pre-disposition towards grasslands over forests.
There are two promising decomposition pathways for woody matter, that I think respect the premises of your writings:
– Compost heat
– Pyrolysis and biochar
Compost heat was pioneered by the Frenchman Jean Pain, and his successors in the United States and across Europe, who seek to capture the heat of a decomposing mound of woodchips. Some of these mounds have been able to provide domestic hot water for an 18-month period. 3-6 months at 60 degrees seems to be achievable relatively simply. People are still learning how best to build these mounds, and how we can best use the heat that they provide. There are still questions about efficiency, and how you grind the wood into chips in the first place (in the absence of mastodons who would quite happily have done so for free and deposited it in a bacteria- and moisture-infused mound). These questions notwithstanding, I think this is a key area of cultural development in our shared future, especially in climates where winter heat is necessary.
Pyrolysis and biochar constitute a second direction. A carefully constructed stove (the designs of which are still being tested and developed) can create a self-sustaining reaction in which the heat of the fire can, in the absence of oxygen, pyrolise wood. This is the process by which charcoal has been created for thousands of years. The innovation is to burn the flammable gases that escape from this reaction. The result is a clean, hot flame and a fire which, if quenched in time, will yield not ashes but charcoal. This charcoal can then be returned to the soil – not as a provider of nutrients, but as a home for the soil organisms on which we all depend. It makes the soil more hospitable and thus more productive. These are the “Black Earths” of Amazonia. Lack of time makes me brief and skim over the details, but I posit that this is a “better way to burn”. Less “pure” perhaps than anaerobic digestion or compost heat, but providing the high heat that is useful for so many aspects of our culture and doing so from woody matter rather than grass. Again, this is an area of ongoing cultural ferment and development.
Featured image: miso soup. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/miso-soup-1633750
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