Legalization of cannabis may be, for the global climate, like re-creating the fossil fuel industry from scratch.
With the domestication of wheat, some 10,000 years ago, the plant world split. Some became crops and others became weeds.
— Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky (2021)
Cannabis is now the United States’ highest-value cash crop, even where it is still illegal. Thanks to the genius of ATF top gun Harry Anslinger in the 1930s, marijuana moved to that rank decades before it was legally grown.
It sits in the top export product ranks for Mexico, Colombia, too, and likely some nations in the Middle East and Asia, even while enduring the occasional kabuki eradication effort.
Patchy criminalization at the US federal level (interstate transport, for instance) compels each state to develop local markets, irrespective of the suitability of their seasons or climate. The Central Valley of California holds no special advantage over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or the Green Mountains of Vermont since it’s all indoors now. While the localization of trade is a very healthy development, the indoor grow room is an abomination.
Here in México I have a neighbor who was just given a puppy. I can see by its paws it is going to be quite large when grown. My neighbor works on the ferry and is away at work from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset every day. In summer months that can be 16 hours. Because the dog likes to escape the yard to look for his master or just be a dog, my neighbor locks him inside the house when he leaves. As I write this, the pup’s low moan can be heard through a closed window. That will continue off and on all day. Multiply that times ten million and you have the fate of dogs in much of the world.
Why should a cannabis plant be any different?
A recent paper in Nature Sustainability concluded that legalization of cannabis may be, for the global climate, like re-creating the fossil fuel industry from scratch. Picture a grow room in Humboldt County like Col. Drake’s first rig in Pennsylvania. The grass may look green, but more so for customers and investors than to carbon auditors.
California’s grass already soaks up, or soon will, more power than is produced by all its wind farms. Every kilo of dried flower represents from 2,283 to 5,184 kg of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere.
Look at that again. 2 to 5 thousand times the carbon content of the weed itself is going to atmosphere and ocean from its production. You make the problem even worse when you go for the top-shelf indoor-grown varietals. Believe me or test for yourself — the bottom-shelf outdoor products are just as good.
“Twenty percent of the public uses marijuana … this is not some new scary group of people that’s going to start doing some new scary thing. … In 10 years this is going to be as normal as when you go to the Boston Common and see a movie and you can buy a drink.”
— Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title, October, 2018.
Windowless indoor spaces under full-spectrum mercury lights with hooded CO2-infusion and climate control to the fraction of a degree are transforming warehouse districts and abandoned shopping malls from California to Colorado. So much so that Illinois has made outdoor cultivation illegal. Elsewhere, state utility boards have offered cheap industrial rates and multimillion-dollar rebates to relocate to the largest indoor growers. In more than 40 percent of those indoor farms — each the size of a city block — lonely weed, silently howling for blue sky and a full moon overhead, will never see the light of day while it is alive. In the other 60 percent, the plant may spend more than half its life potted under a plastic hood, hopped up on vitamin brews, before finally getting outside to soak up some tanning rays — a last request before the reaper walks its row, scissors in hand.
State permitting authorities in Palo Verde, California report that one cannabis company has asked to build its own private fossil-fuel power plant to match its 55-acre industrial park. According to Evan Mills writing for Slate, this is larger, at 25 city blocks, than a Hollywood Studio complex — passing enough electricity every day to feed 90,000 homes at So-Cal consumerist lifestyle standards. Indoor cannabis uses more energy than all other pharmaceutical manufacturing, Operation Warp Speed vaccines included.
All of this carbon footprint is disturbing, but it’s hard to argue with the business logic of five or more harvests per year of perfectly uniform and genetically identical hybrids. Few things are more comforting to millionaire venture capital investors or banking institutional lenders with quantitative dollars to ease than predictability. But they need to be discomforted. Due diligence would surely reveal there is no profit when there is no planet. Massive carbon footprints, persistent toxic agro-cides and grow media, bee, butterfly and hummingbird kills, and plastic and mercury proliferation are all in the opposite direction of green.
“No company that ignores either climate change or biodiversity loss should be getting funding.”
— Ibrahim AlHusseini, CEO, FullCycle Funds
In the world of weed, some things may still need to be illegal. Indoor cultivation is one of them. And someone should let the dogs out, too.
“I used to live in a world of objects, and now I live in a world of subjects. And so, I am never alone.”
— Monica Gagliano
Do plants have a secret life, as Cleve Backster tried to tell us half a century ago? Some years ago, while consulting on a permaculture design in Amazonia, I took time out for a 10-night ayahuasca retreat. While there, I met a man who had been part of the US Army’s 20-year project on parapsychology that formed the basis for the 2004 book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson and, loosely, the George Clooney comedy of the same name. This man, a serious psychic, was on a month-long “dieta,” consuming mostly teas, pulps, and porridges made from the bark, roots, and leaves of a single tree, and then using ayahuasca and a shamanic guide to commune with the spirit of that tree. This may sound bizarre, but in 2019, Ellie Shechet profiled researcher Monica Gagliano, Centre for Evolutionary Biology, School of Animal Biology, University of Western Australia, for The New York Times:
As environmental collapse looms, we’ve never known so much about life on earth — how extraordinary and intricate it all is, and how loose the boundary where “it” ends and “we” begin.
Language, for example, doesn’t seem to be limited to humans. Prairie dogs use adjectives (lots of them) and Alston’s singing mice, a species found in Central America, chirp “politely.” Ravens have demonstrated advanced planning, another blow to human exceptionalism, by bartering for food and selecting the best tools for future use.
The list goes on. Leaf-cutter ants not only invented farming a couple million years before we did, but they have their own landfills — and garbagemen. Even slime molds can be said to make “decisions,” and are so good at determining the most efficient route between resources that researchers have suggested we use them to help design highways.
Actually, slime molds have already recapitulated maps of the Tokyo rail system.
In 2014, Gagliano and co-workers published a study, Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters, concluding that like animals, plants acquire a huge amount of information from their environment, memorize it, and organize behavioral responses. That paper referenced findings of transgenerational stress-acquired memory; plant root neurobiology and epigenetic retention; immunological response in wild tobacco; plant touch stimuli; drought ‘trained’ transcriptional responses in Arabidopsis; and an anti-predator, learned, thorn-exposing mechanism.
We have known for some time that plants recognize common threats and will share nutrients and defensive remedies to an entire mixed-species community as they communicate these threats. They can count. They can feel you touching them. Just because they lack nervous systems similar to animals does not mean they do not use external neural networks, such as long webs of fungal mycelia, to pass along encoded messages. It does not mean they do not feel pain, wish you well, or mourn the loss of their friends and family members.
Dr. Gagliano worked with multiple plant shamans, or vegetalistas, in Peru. There she bathed in the foul-smelling pulp of an Ayahuma tree that in the bath instructed her to “train young plants in a maze and give them freedom of choice.” The Ayahuma also helped her diagram a 2017 study investigating pea plants’ use of sound to detect water.
The only time I was ever kicked off an airplane was when I was boarding in Lima for a return flight to the States. Fresh clothing being in somewhat limited supply to me then, I had worn a “relatively clean” shirt I had previously put on after taking an Ayahuma bath some days earlier. To my warped olfactory capacity, I imagined it smelled vaguely floral. The flight attendants made me disembark, rush to the nearest lavatory, and put on a different shirt. Only after I passed their sniff test was I allowed to reboard and take my seat. Shechet continued:
“I’m really interested in the notion of plants as teachers, what we can learn from them as models,” said Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author, botanist and SUNY professor, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “And that comes from my work with indigenous knowledge, because that is a fundamental assumption of indigenous environmental philosophy.”
Dr. Kimmerer doesn’t see Dr. Gagliano’s experiences as mystical processes so much as poorly understood ones.
“Some of the medicines that people have made are sophisticated biochemistry over a fire,” Dr. Kimmerer said. “You think, how in the world did people learn this? And the answer is almost always, ‘The plants told us how to do this.’ This is not a matter necessarily of walking in the woods and being tapped on the shoulder, but indigenous cultures have sophisticated protocols that are research protocols, in a sense, for learning from the plants. They involve fasting, ceremonial practices that bring one to a state of such openness to the conversations of other beings that you can hear them.”
“Have you ever had an experience like that?” I asked.
“I have,” she said, preferring to leave it mostly at that. “Suffice it to say, I have had experiences of intense focus and attention with plants where I came away knowing something that I didn’t know before, and it’s quite incredible. You feel like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’”
The problem with talking about these experiences, Dr. Kimmerer said, is that they “are grounded in a cultural context that is so different from Western science that they are easily dismissed.”
With cannabis responsible for so many of our creative artistic expressions, scientific and literary realizations, and intellectual breakthroughs over so many years (see Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind), doesn’t it seem reasonable now to allow this plant to live outdoors with a measure of the dignity and respect it richly deserves?
And puppies too?
Ellis, J., The Lives They Lived: Cleve Backster, The New York Times, Dec 21, 2013
Gagliano, M., Renton, M., Depczynski, M. et al. Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters. Oecologia 175, 63–72 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-013-2873-7
Shechet, E., Do Plants Have Something To Say, The New York Times, Aug 26, 2019
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.