CHAPTER TEN, STAR GAZER HUBRIS

I suppose that our druidic problems have arisen through a hubristic consideration of the larger solar system.  I mean that the sun keeps giving in a linear manner, just as the force of gravity may also be considered as a linear force – and likewise the tendency of everything towards atrophy!

So – Stick a photosynthetic leaf in the sun and life will multiply, say the druids.  Stick crops in the desert and carbon will be sequestered into those crops.  Well it is true that life did begin sometime, somewhere and somehow and that it expanded, partly by solar-power to cover the Earth and to envelope her in a beautiful, gaseous veil of living breath.  It is also true that the linear contribution of the sun has allowed some life to lie sequestered in permafrost and fossil rocks without contributing to a maintained, (even increasing) cyclic mass of life.  Coal, oil, gas, phosphate, calcium and potash fossil rocks and so on have lain out of reach, while life has continued to expand cyclically in mass and complexity towards an optimum state.

But there is a difference in scale between gentle smoke rising from occasional villages and forest clearings and the vast acreages of woodland and crops which are, even now, fed into internal combustion engines, biomass boilers and power stations.  The linear contribution of the sun is received (for our Carbon consideration) through photosynthesis.  The area of leaf presented to the sun is dependent on more than a simple return of gas and ashes from the furnace.

The druidic calculations are wildly wrong, because (in the druidic ledger) biomass is not multiplied by a coefficient of time.  The Willow coppice slows its growth to nothing as its biomass enters the furnace, becoming not merely dead, but lifeless.  Its mass is correctly given as seen on the scales and multiplied by a coefficient of one.  The river of Willow life in the harvested field will temporarily slow to nothing.  In time, the Willow will re-sprout and accelerate as it increases in mass, in symbiosis with soil fauna and dependent on variable sunlight, temperature and rainfall.  However, without the minerals released by soil fauna it would not grow at all.  Moreover, a diminished return of biomass to soil, much of it reduced to gas & ashes will mean a diminished soil fauna – some species at different rates to others, dependent on diet and symbioses.  It would have been easier (to be polemical) to consider an annual species.  Perennials disrupt soil fauna less than annuals do and feed the soil better (senescence and leaf fall).  Yet if the biomass of several year’s rotation is removed for the furnace, perennials will not re-grow at their previous rate– After all an annual biomass crop has had but one-season’s growth removed.

So, for biomass multiplied by a coefficient of one, our druids propose that the loss of that growth can be similarly multiplied by one.  In truth, the value of a growing mass should be many times more.  I cannot provide a figure, because I have none – nor does anyone else.  Anyway, when the Willow coppice is ready for harvesting again, the yield will be much smaller, because soil biomass will have been smaller.  I don’t like the term sequestration for the flows of soil life, but druids use it.  So in their terms, our burnt Willow coppice will progressively sequester less and less Carbon in soil fauna, stem and leaf, while the linear and unchanged contribution of the sun will have progressively less and less power – because the area of leaf presented for photosynthesis will be smaller.

The value in carbon audits given (by IPCC and others) to living biomass is much too small, whereas value given to fossils, embedded structures, proposed carbon sumps and so on, is much too great in proportion.

Life in soil is not sequestered, but is a variable flowing mass – moving between species at variable speeds and so through variable masses.

My willow coppice can be fed with, let’s say, sewage sludge and to me as the coppice owner, all will seem well – The coppice will grow and photosynthesise effectively.  However, I will have removed that sludge from an agricultural cycle elsewhere and that agricultural cycle will slow as its mass diminishes.  The willow coppice owner may consider that he is returning a waste to usefulness, but there are no wastes.  My willows are richer, because a neglected human food cycle has become poorer.

The willow coppice is fertile because fields growing food crops have become less fertile.

Economies are also life cycles and must work as life works – that is cyclically.  The linear contribution of the sun is a wonderful gift which, as the saying goes, just keeps on giving and as such plays no part in the variability of life; of husbandries, or of economic behaviours.

We change variables, not constants, or otherwise we engage in futility.

How do plants work in reaction to human behaviour? – is the only question to receive any kind of answer in the first place, because the only true answers are hidden in reactions to actions.  The sun does not react at all.

Our Grand Druid’s calculations with regards to the input of solar energy are of the same nature as calculations for the number of angels who may safely dance on the head of a pin.

Three categories: the scepticism of science, the making of hypotheses and the pragmatism of method-making live together in different compartments of the same brain.  Moreover, method-making can continue without either a confirming hypothesis, or a scientific method.

Answers to the times are in what we do – and may be found in what life does in reaction to what we do.

What we are and what life is belong in a world of philosophers, pins and angels.  We must design economies to cycle within their ecologies.  The solar contribution is not a variable in economic terms and so has no part in economic decisions regarding the variables of biological behaviour.

***

Of course, coal, oil and gas must be left to lie sequestered.  But we cannot (in the James Lovelock manner) replicate that sequestration by burying living biomass.  Less available carbon does not mean less consequent C02.  It means less bio mass for photosynthesis and so more consequent CO2.

Nor can we replace coal, oil and gas by burning living biomass in the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 manner.

As I’ve explained, (and as all gardeners know) feeding the soil a diet of gas and ashes is insufficient for replacement growth.  The sophistry of burning “wastes” and unused resources such as Kelp, or Algae, falls at the same hurdle.  Kelp and Algae need food to grow.  Which cycle do we deprive to feed them?  Wastes are essential parts of existing cycles – burn them and we diminish those cycles.  Second generation: so-called good bio fuels usually include perennial species, such as Miscanthus, Rye Grass, or Willow.  It is true that perennials have the agronomic advantages of less soil disruption and so mineralisation & leaching.  Nevertheless, they cannot re-grow at a stable rate without a stable return of plant food.  CO2 will be released in combustion, but photo-synthetic re-growth will be both too slow and too small to re-absorb it.

The rapidity of climate change has surprised many – But they should not be so, because IPCC has entered those vast agricultural acres of Oil-Seeds, Wheat, Sugar Cane, Jatropha, Miscanthus, Willow and so on as Carbon Zero.  Although they have made emissions calculations for Land use change, the majority of those crops are grown on existing, unchanged agricultural land.

Life ferments as it moves between species and as complex biomass breaks down to those simpler elements needed for plant growth.  We cannot escape that ferment – Nitrous Oxide, Methane and C02 escape and are re-balanced by the respirations of plants.  Humanity is also biomass and is a part of those complex exchanges.  Isolating an element is almost certainly the wrong course to take.  Finding ways for economies to enmesh with the whole is the right course – to the optimum point where economy and ecology become the same.  We will never attain that perfect balance, but close enough may be good enough.

With regards to fermentation, the gathering of gases could be a part of that economy and so anaerobic digestion may provide useful energy from natural cycles.  Digestate can be returned to soil while methane is transformed to heat and CO2.  I am presenting a small sophistry of my own here, in that the heat I gain has once been a vital part of plant and animal growth, so that I have diminished a living cycle to that extent.  I enter this in a compartment of dispensation which I call “Leeway.”  We don’t have much leeway, but we do have a little – That leeway also allows me some husbandry mistakes.  Without those mistakes I’d learn nothing.  After all, biomass has slowly increased to what we have from a tiny beginning of single-celled organisms.  Fermentation is essential to bio-cycles as they pass through soil and back again – It is natural.  It happens.  We can gather the gasses.

If we consider speed in practice – of, say a city and its surrounding agricultural land, then we consider the cycles of crop yield and the return of wastes.  Cycle too fast (return too much waste to a field), then crop yield will rise for that field, but nutrients will leach to water courses and gas to the air.  This means that a neighbouring field will be deprived of nutrients so that its yields will fall.  The total yield from all the fields which supply the city will become less than optimum.  So, judicious return of wastes is the whole art not only of husbandry, but also of civic justice.

IPCC, CAT (ZERO Carbon Britain 2030) and many others propose that “the carbon cycle” can be reduced to physics.  Ever-rising CO2 emissions (even in a recession) and an increasingly wild climate should force them to reconsider their loyalty to the Emperor.

Bio fuel combustion releases CO2, while also diminishing the mass of photosynthetic life.  Oil combustion releases CO2, but the mass of life continues to live and breathe.

We must leave oil where it lies – harmlessly sequestered, but I propose that given their rapidly-increasing acreage, bio fuels have had a dramatic effect on atmospheric CO2 and are the cause of the unexpected rapidity of climate change.

***

It is liberating to understand that there are no “authorities” who have any more insight into the goings on of life than I as a practicing farmer have – or another as an allotment-holder, or again as a nature rambler.  Peer-reviewed documents are neither here nor there, since no peer knows how life began – nor how it continues.  The wonderful new theatre of genetics adds to the fascinating complexity of the mystery, but brings us no nearer to the truth.  We travel curiously through landscapes in search of a physical truth.  That truth escapes us, but we find instead, a moral truth in physical reactions to our actions.  So from physics we build less of a truthful encyclopaedia and more of a cultural iconography.  Similarly, we are guided less by physical surety, and more by a mythology adjusted to reconcile newly-emerging physical insurities!  Mythologies are moral, which is why contrary myths are argued with such a passion.  The apparently scientific hypotheses we hold to with a passion have shed the scepticism necessary for scientific inquiry and have put on how and why of the story-teller.  The story cannot escape its moral.

Learning from mistakes – from the effects of our causes is another and a pragmatic matter.  Those effects are as likely and perhaps more likely to be observed by the causation of farmer, fisherman or nature rambler, as they are by a PhD student.

Anyway, I say phoey to the myth of scientific progress towards an economically-growing finite world!  And the same to the myth that ideas can replace resources!  And the same again to the myth that the energy extracted from a biomass can have no effect on that mass!

That’s the advantage of having a trade rather than a comfortable druidic profession – I’m surrounded by the sometimes unfortunate effects of my causes.  My own myths (and hypotheses) are woven into those causes and effects.

Replacing the massive powers of fossil fuels is utterly impossible, & so it follows that continuing something similar to an oil-powered way of life is similarly impossible.  However every northern government, every commercial corporation and high proportion of Earth’s human citizens pursue that impossible end.  Ancestral achievement is embodied in magnificent icons – gifts not to be denied of mass transport in the sky and retail parks flowing with milk and honey.  Such progress!  And we must carry the torch.  Progress will wash whatever is needed on a beneficent tide.

It’s time to bale out.  Such a cargo cult has forgotten the nature of the shore – It is of a particular length and we find it in variable seasons, weathers and tides.  Progress has created nothing.  Present actions create the future – just as an oil and coal-powered ancestry provided their finite supply.

Here is Wendell Berry – from Faustian Economics a chapter in the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Reader

A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory.  And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet.  Within these limits artists

achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.  We know by now that a natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of formal intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible, and no doubt finally unknowable. We know further that if we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we

must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity something like that of natural ecosystems.  We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and, ultimately, the art of living.

***

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