While reducing emissions should be a priority, it is morally questionable to focus on relatively cheaper emissions reduction without drawdown. This merely shifts the responsibility, and cost, onto the backs of future generations.
Being still somewhat in the Greenwich Meridian, I got up this morning while it was still dark, grabbed some kombucha from the fridge, turned on the laptop (aaghh, light!), opened a Google doc and commenced to write this post. Then the power went off.
My UPS/surge protector (a heavy core of grounded 12-penny nails and a lightweight capacitor circuit) held my consigned thoughts only long enough for an orderly shutdown. Then I was back in the dark. I would have better started my day with quill pen and beeswax candle. As it is, I did the next best thing and went to ballpoint, yellow pad, and solar-charged torch.
I can hear my UPS ping from time to time as the Meriwether Lewis rural electric co-op tries to re-establish connectivity. This could go on for hours. Here in Tennessee brown-outs and blackouts are normal, nearly daily, so we are perhaps better adapted than most. Our ecovillage was here a decade before we even had indoor toilets and running water, never mind electricity and phones. Typically these blackouts last only 30 minutes to three hours. Some Californians may have to go a month. We are prepared, they weren’t. The alternatives, climate Armageddon in places like Paradise California, Abaco Island Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and as I write this parts of Los Angeles, are far more dire.
I am in solidarity with the 800,000 customers across 34 California counties, several million people, who were severed their electrical umbilical by PG&E just after midnight and early Wednesday morning, a cautionary measure when the Santa Ana winds of October turned hot and dry enough to spark utility-bankrupting-scale wildfire. Over the stench of rotting fish and produce, PG&E said it would communicate with affected customers directly via automated calls, texts and emails, telling them how many days or weeks the shutdown would last. Except, that won’t do anything. With no power over that vast area, automated calls, texts and emails are not going to mean anything. Mobile phones won’t work. They might try smoke signals or messenger pigeons. Maybe a Pony Express? Welcome to the new normal in the Anthropocene. We were only part way into becoming cyberamphibians and now we have to retreat to more familiar waters.
I just bounced in from London where the Commonwealth, under the guidance of its sage Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, has placed its 53 member countries on battle footing for the climate crisis. While others may focus on Brexit or Trumpzit or other exotic baits thrown into the bubbling info-swamp, gathered here in Marlborough House were the top tier of Emergency Planetary Technicians. We exchanged stories, strategies, and new tools. We saw examples of cutting edge projects from Belize, Kiribati, the Maori of Aotearoa and the Kalinago of Dominica.
We equipped ourselves with their inspiration and powerpoints and returned to the front lines of our own individual projects. For me, that meant getting up early the next several mornings, grabbing a kombucha and driving to Nashville to attend the Living Product Expo. I confess, I did not know a lot about the Living Product Institution other than some association with green building and sustainability design, but I soon found myself in the company of another group of Emergency Planetary Technicians, with an almost completely different approach to carbon reversal than the group in London.
This photo of Carib Cultural Village by the Sea (Kalinago Barana Aute) is courtesy of TripAdvisor. The buttresses are distinctive vernacular to the region. Some very large buildings withstood the recent Category 5 hurricanes because they were anchored in this way.
In London we were talking about hurricane-resistant structures built to ancient design with materials that pull down CO2; Cool Lab microenterprise hubs that combine drawdown with the 17 sustainable development goals; recovering lost wisdom for harmonious occupation of our space island whose atmosphere above us is, for most, less than the distance to the nearest shopping mall. In Nashville we were talking about getting the largest construction companies and product manufacturers in the world to sign on to the 2050 roadmap — half emissions by 2030; half again by 2040; zero by 2050. One, Skanska AB, a multinational construction and development company based in Sweden, with $145 billion in annual revenues, has pledged to hit its zero goal for all construction by 2045. As author and natural builder Bruce King (The New Carbon Architecture) reminded us, the world builds the equivalent of another New York City every 35 days, and greenhouse gas emissions come with every shovel of sand and every inch of rebar.
We saw glue-lam structural beams from crop waste, highrises built of LEGO blocks of bamboo and rice paste, and tables and desk chairs made of mycelium. Most in these conferences have little awareness of charcrete and charpolymers (Burn: Using FIre to Cool the Earth is still too new and they tend to think of biochar as mere fertilizer) but I did my best to inoculate the architects, engineers, and manufacturers with Cool Lab concepts and the suite of tools discussed in London. For their part, they inspired me with the Living Product Challenge’s proposed improvements to the Declare label and expansions of Life Cycle Assessment into the Handprint system.
Meetings like these are cascading. The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival (Sept. 27–29) “Carbon, Culture, and Change: From the Ground Up”; Al Gore’s “Climate Underground” event (Oct 14–15) at his Caney Fork Farm in Carthage with catering by Alice Waters; the VERGE-19 gathering in Oakland (Oct 22–24) with its conferences-within-a-conference: Verge Carbon with separate tracks for Biological: Farms & Forests; Carbontech: Fuels & Materials Innovation; and Sequestration: Industry & Utilities and then Verge Circular, Verge Energy, and Verge Transport.
Through research and support for pilot- and demonstration-scale projects, Secretary-General Scotland has fashioned her mandate for the Commonwealth: learn more about CO2 removal and deploy natural climate solutions that are rapid, lasting and cost-effective. As you go, cull the wasteful and ineffective. Investing in these early-stage technologies today will lead to parallel advances as previously seen with computers, phones, solar cells, spacecraft, and cars. Some climate solutions could have trans-boundary environmental, social, and economic impacts, which can be benign or adverse. There may be thresholds of scale where positive benefits turn negative. But, as Paul Hawken said in his recent Bioneers talk,
“Even if we turned off every fossil fuel combustion source today, we will still move to climate chaos. We need to stop putting our greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to be sure. We also need to bring CO2 back home where it came from. That can’t be done with a Tesla.”
Bruce King recalled FDR’s deadline of 2 years for the Manhattan Project, JFK’s deadline of 10 years for the Apollo moon landing, and reminded us that Greta Thunberg has set another deadline for us all now. The Carbon Clock produced by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin predicts that we have 9 years before the CO2 levels in the atmosphere will warm the planet by 1.5°C. That’s Greta’s deadline: her 25th birthday.
“While reducing emissions should be a priority, it is morally questionable to focus on relatively cheaper emissions reduction without drawdown. This merely shifts the responsibility, and cost, onto the backs of future generations.”
— Renforth and Wilcox, Specialty Grand Challenge: Negative Emission Technologies (2019)
Of course, we need to acknowledge the fine print. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts the likelihood of a given outcome in terms of a lower (33 percent), medium (50 percent) or high (66 percent) probability. It gives the odds we will blow through 1.5°C in the high range. Many of us would argue we have already passed that mark. We are already likely committed to crossing 2 degrees as well.
You can hit people over the head with top-down regulation but then you get resistance. Or you can lead people to their higher callings and the rewards to be found in frugal husbandry, ethical manufacturing and construction, and product revolutions. This is not to say there will be no resistance. The 21st century automobile revolution will throw thousands of outmoded GM assembly line workers out of their jobs, as it has already done with coal miners. Truthfully, those disgruntled GM workers now need to get more into to reversing climate change like the rest of us.
Either way, sacrifice will be required. If you are reading this by candlelight in rural Tennessee or the PG&E non-service area, you already know. And you have likely already considered, you’d rather this than your whole town burned down.
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