A very brief history

I suppose that since agricultures began, people have pillaged their soils and stripped landscapes for fuel and building material. Of course, others have warned us to think of tomorrow – the terrain that feeds us, must be fed in return. Everywhere, laws of commons evolved for fair (or at least, agreed) distribution and rationing of water, arable land, grazing, timber and other foraged and mined resources.
It seems that round 1500BC, warrior culture emerged from friction between neighbouring communities. It is probable that tree-cover then, in what is now the UK, was pretty much what it is today. Land competition began. Since then, forests have grown and shrunk by human activity – or occasionally, the lack of it. By the Seventeenth Century the land reached “peak bleakness” – stripped of trees for fuel, house and ship-building. Economic collapse was inevitable, but then – a miracle – coal reprieved both the economy and to an extent, the forest.
Now, we struggle to unwind that industrial revolution. We find ourselves pretty much back in the Seventeenth Century, with a larger (but still very small) forest, but also with a population about fourteen times larger. Do we have greater knowledge? I don’t think so – or not much – most of our new tools, methods and thoughts have been tied to coal, oil and gas. We do have some new electrical tools. The internet? – I doubt we’ve electrical capacity to power it. We’ve more urgent new electrical demands – domestic heat and cookery and then, ceramics, smelting… I doubt there’ll be any to spare for transport – and if there is, it must be severely rationed in some way.
We’ve gained new insights into biological systems, but there again, we’ve also lost many. How do we treat the land? I cannot think we know much more than Galen in the first century AD and Virgil in the first century BC – and they were both very far from “expert”. Still, we must farm by rule of thumb, returning a biomass equivalent to the mass we extract. Thinking of biomass – plainly, we cannot burn it, but it can be fermented, and so return digestate to the soil. Domestic gas for cookery is a simple and elegant technology and “farm-yard” gas may be sufficient to power some small machinery.
That burnt fermentation gas would rise anyway – all biomass must ferment, producing humus, minerals for plant growth, heat and gas to the atmosphere… If we gather “waste” biomass, we can substitute gas from aerobic fermentation with gas from our anaerobic fermentation. Then digestate can return to the aerobic cycle again having lost what we have gained – a little gas and energy. In the scheme of things, that is probably a small disruption.
Meanwhile, greenhouse gases from human cultures are rising so fast that we have very little time. We must stop burning both biomass and fossil mass – on an instant (15 years). Zero emissions by 2035, mean just that – not the net zero of IPCC. On reaching optimum balance, an ecosystem will also be just that – balanced. It will “draw down” no further “carbon”. Neither a perfectly imagined agricultural system, nor a vibrant rain forest will help us by sequestering our bad behaviour. They will be saturated with life – at the limits of soil volume, canopy area and so on. They can sequester no more.
Of course, we can heal our broken cultural cycles – returning life to degraded soils – and that, it is true, will “draw down carbon” up until its balance, when it will draw down no more than its cycling requires. But there again, the harm is something we have done, and which we must now undo. It will be hard work. There will be no lazy negative emissions from “Nature’s ecosystem services” to save us – though IPCC and acolytes tell us so. This is cultural – or mis-cultural – we can retrace our steps to where and when we misbehaved a lot less and resume from there. On arrival, we’ll have still more to change. For instance, if we alight in the Seventeenth Century (UK), we must quench those domestic fires – fourteen times as many domestic fires… However, we’ll have a culture which can thrive without the family car, aviation, massive shipping, the internet… Suburbia will not exist. We’ll have sail-trade, mostly manual farming systems, manufactories directly powered by wind and water, local self-reliance, anciently-evolved trades… To which we can add solar power, wind turbines, heat exchangers (electrical) and so on, to replace those logs and coals in the grate.
The advantage of imaginatively returning to the past, is that we remain in a deeply-understood cultural tradition. So, you say, we’ll also be stuck with inefficient and destructive hierarchies, enclosure and social injustice! But then, we’ll have the same old commons of good behaviour and a yearning for the common good. We’ll have hope for change within a durable economic foundation. Today, there is only shame and despair. Today cannot be improved. We must – all of us – evacuate.

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