Our Wounded Earth. Who holds the Knife?

Climate is disbalancing faster than all predictions. Tipping points come and nudge still others – accelerating. Plainly, no one has a clue, but this – it is our doing and we must undo it. And we don’t need to understand that vast complexity. We never have and never will. But we do understand what we’ve done to cause it. It is our way of life and the number of people living it.
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Let’s also get this straight, most people in the world are not guilty. They have no car, they’ve never flown, they do not ask for much. They survive on the smallest patches of soil. Those people should be our model. Professor Kevin Anderson has been an incorruptible rock in all the excuses and dispensations. Consult him for an excellent collection of statistics. Why receive them second hand?
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However, as a farmer, along with most practical people, I (and millions of others) know many things that the institutions do not. I know why the predictions of IPCC and so on, have been wildly and dangerously optimistic. For four thousand years, fields have provided all the data needed to understand the impact of human cultures – on soil life, plant life and animal life. The sum of the biomass of soil, plant and animal in year two, subtracted by the same sum in year one, provides a good-enough estimate for an annual measure of “carbon” “sequestered” by one’s particular husbandry methods. I don’t like the use of carbon as a synonym for life and I don’t like the use of sequestration (a still and quiet mass) as a synonym for soil life, which has mass, acceleration (vitality/energy) and velocity (slow growing/fast growing). Anyway, all growers also know (or should know) that that soil life, plant life and animal life are not only interconnected – they are one organic whole. If the shade of green in my crops, pales, or deepens I can tell that life has slowed or speeded-up. I will also know that soil-life has also diminished, or swollen in acceleration, velocity and mass.
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There is much else that a farmer knows, which our climate physicist does not. To complicate the last paragraph, if I pass a hoe between my crop-rows, the colour of that crop will deepen. That is a trade-off. My cultivation will have disturbed – will have killed a layer of fungal life. That death means mineralisation, which means plant food, which in turn means temporal acceleration of plant growth, in exchange for deceleration of soil growth. Overall, the energy, mass and velocity of the whole system will have shrunk – even though my crop will be boosted. However hard I try to do otherwise, soil life at the end of a cropping season will always be weaker. The following season’s crop, will also, in consequence be smaller, paler and weaker. Year after year of cropping eventually produces Oklahoma, or the pillaged soils of Rome.
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IPCC says that arable fields in continued arable use (none land-use change) are “carbon negative”, while burning crops from those fields is “carbon neutral”. How can anyone not think that is utterly, utterly bonkers? IPCC say that achieving Oklahoma is carbon negative.
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1 – Sequestration figures, which are entered into the modelling are grossly overstated – to my eyes they are outright fiction. Farmers can measure sequestration rates, season by season, by the very simple measure of crop yields. They can correlate those figures with what they have done to achieve them – the husbandry failures, or successes, adverse weathers and so on. Bear in mind that biomass yield also indicates photosynthetic potential and that yield also indicates soil fertility, which along with plant biomass, climate physicists call sequestration. Up until the 1970s, and the world over, such data was copiously collated and analysed by countless “agricultural colleges” and government ag department – and without commercial manipulation. It remains archived, but unread.
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From over fourty-years’ experience, I can say that the utmost an agricultural system can achieve is balance and that that balance is rare. Close enough is a good aspiration. We cannot “draw down” further carbon. Regeneration stops when balance is reached. IPCC says (it really does) that regeneration goes on forever.
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Agricultures always disrupt the natural systems they replace.
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Moreover, I place this pigeon among the cats, to say that natural systems too can only achieve balance, though that balance will have a greater biomass than a well-managed field, or garden. Total biomass will fluctuate by a complexity of injury (such as fire) and repair, but it can never sequester more biomass and energy than the limiting finity of soil volume, rainfall and so on.
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So, natural systems replenish after injury (as in regenerative agricultural rotation), but will always end in balance – limited by the physical boundaries of soil and ultimately of Earth herself. We cannot say that sufficient acreage of ancient woodland will “draw down” a proportion of the “carbon” emitted from an adjoining human economy. That economy must deal with its own ill-effects.
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An ancient rainforest can provide nothing as dispensation for indulgence-seeking human cultures.
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IPCC and most other projections only work (along with the futurism of point 2), because they add the dispensation of “good” natural systems to compensate for the ill-behaviour of humans. In other words, sequestration modelling is fiction. It is a vast and deadly fiction. It is tragic that most of the green movement has embraced it as dispensation for its unchanged behaviour. Einstein would be horrified, but something else is missing from our climate physicist’s calculations – She otherwise thinks of energy, but in natural systems she measures only mass – matter. Where are energy (vitality) and time (velocity) in her calculations? She accepts that matter and energy always remain in some form or other, yet in sequestration figures, she conveniently forgets it. In short, to a farmer, she is plain bonkers. Our climate physicist measures the nouns and forgets the verbs.
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What humans have done to cause climate-heating they must now undo. We can save ourselves, by changing ourselves, but nothing else can. Time is very, very short. Net emissions are a fantasy.
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2 – This has a series of points, which are really one and the same.
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a – We cannot change a political system by argument within the accepted boundaries of its beliefs. In consequence we give credence to the beliefs. Jeremy Corbyn has been the only politician of recent times, who has challenged the UK political system. He was swiftly “dealt with”. However, he remains a much-admired figure. Therein is a clue.
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b – We cannot change what we’ve come to call industrialisation, using the tools of that culture. Tools are the culture. It is futile to change “industrial” tools for the better. We must find new (or old) tools to create a new culture.
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c – Giant corporations exist by our purchases – of oil, airline tickets, cars, food commodities, from grain to bananas. If we think giant corporations are a problem, we don’t remove the problem by lobbying corporations to behave better. Instead, we withdraw consent. We remove our spending and re-spend it elsewhere. By improving the tools of corporate supply, we continue our dependence on corporate supply – and give it credence. The answer is to remove the corporation from our culture. This could be very easily done if people could find a common ethic to withdraw their money and replace it as they choose. The corporation thinks the consumer is king by both following and creating consumer “trends”. The corporation will more than happily “green” its tools. Trends are where the money lies. What we ask, they will do. But the corporate tool is the problem. We, the grower, baker, miller, weaver, sailor… must take back the tools.
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d – Michael Moore’s film, The Planet of the Human, paints the picture very well. That it hits the problem with a sledge hammer is probably also appropriate. But the film needed a postscript, or perhaps a part two. What do we do when the sledge hammer has crumbled the whole “thing” into its original aggregate? Who first used the term “the thing” – I think it may have been William Cobbet? Anyway, I’ve encountered the phrase several times in books I’ve enjoyed, from the Nineteenth Century and perhaps earlier. We all know what it means and the thing’s original aggregate will need some re-purposing.
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The film’s target was industrialised green energy. I support the sledge hammer. But, in doing so it attacked all green energy. That is either an oversight, or a mistake.
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For very many centuries local engineers and blacksmiths have made ingenious wind pumps and mills. There is good reason to think that such pumps and mills could be adapted to power turbines for electricity. Hydro power is still more ancient and farm-scale, village scale – even perhaps, town-scale hydro turbines could easily be constructed by such village-scale labour and ingenuity.
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What the film calls the elephant in the room – intermittency – could (and should), like seasons, day and night, be embodied in the culture as a simple law of nature. Something we doubly value, when we’ve got it, and accept when we haven’t. We store food through Winter. Currently no one has a genuine solution to storing wind electrical energy for windless days, or hydro energy in drought. Like everything in life, we can have a ration. Our new culture can manage that ration fairly, like irrigation in the Mediterranean, or medieval strip-fields, by laws of the commons. A re-entry of time, seasons and rationing into a common vision of how things are, would prove both a beautiful and useful addition to our economic behaviours.
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Our own farm exports a little more electricity than it imports by a small wind turbine (rated 6kw) and solar panels (rated 4kw). I can see no reason why my son, who is a good welder, could not build the structure of such a turbine (blades, tower, bearings), entirely from scrap materials (the aggregate). He’d have to study a bit more to make the turbine, but certainly someone in our village community could – and entirely from the “aggregate” of lost industrialisation. The farm’s electricity demand includes the welder, fridges and freezers for our butchery and a high demand at apple-pressing time (September to January) for apple mill, hydraulic press and pasteurisers. We have an electric grain mill and of course an ordinary domestic demand (from an old, cold, stone farmhouse). We burn wood for heat. Something we must somehow stop.
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Perhaps solar voltaic is doomed. I haven’t the knowledge to know. Currently, I, or my sons cannot make a solar panel. We could however, easily make a solar thermal system and we could also make a biodigester for farm “wastes” – returning the “digestate” to the soil. Our aerobic composting system is less efficient, releasing an equal amount of uncaptured gas to the air and of uncaptured heat to the surrounding environment. In a better future we could certainly capture that heat – bearing in mind that most of the heat will be produced in Winter, when heat is needed.
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Heat pumps – particularly ground-source heat pumps could similarly be constructed by local ingenuity, from Local “aggregate”, and as a good way to use what electricity we have, bearing in mind the limits of wind and rain.
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We need to live in much smaller, cheaper houses, built for “solar gain”. At the moment, few of us do. Changing housing is a mountain to climb, but must be an essential part of the utopian vision, which is the only vision to draw us back from the environmental and climatic cliff edge we now peer over. The vertigo is freezing our actions – as is dependency. Utopia can be a common goal. Few will dispute its truth – but most shrug it off as impracticable. I say utopia is essential – we must always compromise utopia – not our previously failed utopian compromise. Instead, having failed, we re-focus again on that perfected vision and then discover a new compromise. The least-worst option is the best option.
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Direct traction from tide, gravity (hydro) and wind has been anciently tried and tested. It may still be the best option for mills and manufactories. Again, it is easily devised by local ingenuity and labour.
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The direct traction of sail power is almost universally ridiculed. I’ve no idea why. We’ll still need to trade scarcity and surplus and I think, happiness – that is beautiful things and experiences, unique to their terrains. Without sail power we descend into the brutalist side of localism. Why be brutal? (apologies to beautiful brutes). That’s another thing – wonder at the beauties of nature and despair at our clumsy footsteps, is another essential catalyst (or rather, enzyme) for the good.
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Utopia is certainly possible, but we know it is unlikely. The whole – every species in nature – is the same – healing wounds – finding a balance and then, repairing new wounds. Homo sapiens is (should be) just the same. Earth as a whole, is the same. We can liberate both personal and community sensuality – and the intelligence of those senses. We can cast off the fictions of the powers. Even if we fail, because that cliff edge is just too close for the time that remains, we can know that our road was the road to happiness. We must pass through economic tragedy. Collapse is inevitable. We cannot tell if we will emerge the other side, but we can hope so.
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