The blue whale is the
largest animal to ever live on earth. As an endangered species, she
serves to highlight the crisis of the world's oceans. Last week, my
recently acquired used pick-up served to ferry the world's only
full-scale replica from the NC mountains to the Sea Party Coalition's rally in DC
last week their kick-off for making ocean health a
campaign issue in the upcoming 2016 election. The key focus is
stopping oil drilling and sonar exploration off the Atlantic seaboard
(President Obama's recent directive through the EPA to halt Arctic
drilling, which was a twin goal, narrowed the focus. Thank you, Mr.
President.) The press conference was on the Mall in front of the
reflecting pool, with the 85-foot whale as backdrop, joined by sundry
sea brethren in costume. While only about 60 people attended, the
quality of both the speakers and audience was high.
It was a practically
windless day, which was really important, since the inflated whale is
like a huge balloon, primed for airborne. It was very warm, in the
mid to upper seventies, a record for DC on November 4. My friend
Michael Fishbach, director of the Great Whale Conservancy
oversaw the protracted set-up process, which was made much easier by
the Capitol Police allowing me to drive the truck on footpaths around
the reflecting pool to the precise spot we wanted the whale. It
weights well over 300 pounds, and we were shorthanded at the
beginning of the morning. After offloading the whale and the ballast
tubes that support it, the generator for inflating it, and the
sandbags for holding it down should a sudden breeze descend, the
inflation process went smoothly, since the balance of our crew
arrived shortly afterwards, joined by interested bystanders and
guests for the event. It was a stunningly
spoke, two Republican and one Democrat. Sam Farr (D) of Monterey, CA
is a longtime oceans champ, and pointed to the success of turning the
situation off Monterey around after the collapse of their fisheries
due to overuse. His theme of the greater value of ocean tourism to
collapsed fisheries and degraded oceans and beaches was echoed
throughout the morning. In Monterey's case, the fisheries, carefully
controlled, are finally coming back, along with the continuing boom
in ocean-related tourism.
The other two
congressmen (R), Curt Clawson from Florida's 19th
district, and the rehabilitated playboy Mark Sanford of SC, stressed
the economics as well. They reminded the audience that there were
more jobs and money in ocean tourism than in oil exploration and
development, no matter what the strikes. But they have their work
cut out for them in persuading their colleagues on the red side of
the aisle to join them in saying NO to offshore oil exploration. We
in NC know the slippery slope that opens precariously when one tries
to be “fair” and let industry “at least do the preliminary
studies.” This has put us in a dangerous situation in terms of
explorations for fracking natural gas deposits of dubious merit in
south-central NC. But it is certainly encouraging that two
congressmen from the mostly-pristine beaches along the southern
Atlantic Coast have come out early for a five year ban on any
NC Senator Burr
attended coastal community hearings about proposed drilling shortly
before the Sea Party press conference. Neither he nor the five NC
congressional reps I invited came last Wednesday. One staffer, for
Mark Meadows in my home 11th district, did meet with me,
but said the congressman was non-commital on the issue. Burr has
yet to take a stand, which may be a significant one for him, since he
is up for re-election in 2016. The NC coastal plain is strongly
Republican, and many of the frontline coastal communities are
opposed to any drilling.
congressmen were followed by an impressive crew of scientists,
activists, and journalists. The South Atlantic was represented a by
a spirited crew of women from South Carolina low country who
, Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They
were spearheaded by a very forceful woman, Peg Howell, aka “Company
Man,” from the time that she was the head of a Chevron rig in the
Gulf. As a geologist and experienced “oilman,” she was able to
refute all the industry claims for the benefits of offshore drilling.
Wilmington's Bonnie Monteleone, aka “plastic woman,” spoke of how
ubiquitous plastic was in the ocean, at every level and of all sizes.
Fittingly, she called it the “first oil spill.” She will soon
accompany the first woman (or person) to attempt to swim the Atlantic
(!), taking samples all the way, in a 76' boat. She was a ball of
fire, really exciting the audience in a rousing speech.
Michael Stocker from
the Ocean Conservancy is an expert on sonar and its effects on marine
populations. His account of the overwhelming damage that sonic guns
have on aquatic animals, especially cetaceans, was very difficult to
take in. I knew it was bad, but blasts every three minutes, 24 hours
a day, makes it clear that we are looking at ecocide. Some of the
Sea Party's sponsor organizations are in talks with the Navy about
their use of this technology. To have the oil industry pile on even
more of this maniacal activity is unthinkable. Stocker had the sound
man play a background tape of cetacean communications, eerily
beautiful music, overtaken towards the end by sonic booms. The
message got through, as the crowd hushed a long moment before
applauding him. But we are the choir. It was good to have the
minority staffer of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee
present to guide us in how an NGO could communicate more successfully
with the Navy and its hierarchical structure. This is what I mean
by audience quality.
testified, including stalwart Greenpeace and the American Surfing
Society, who have sponsored a surfboard bearing thousands of
signatures against Atlantic drilling, now making its was to the
Capitol. Michael Fishbach spoke of the challenges faced by the
remnant 10,000 blue whales, who are barely holding their own after a
drastic decrease in their once-abundant numbers. He also spoke of
the importance of these magnificent creatures to ocean ecology, based
upon their ability to “bioengineer” their food source, krill,
through whale feces, which work as a “whale pump” to bring
nutrients needed by the krill from lower depths to the surface.
Richard Cizik, a
deeply spiritual, scientifically grounded and intelligent political
observer, spoke of his personal epiphany many years go which led him
to earthcare. I first learned of Richard when his interview with
Terry Gross on NPR caused him to be fired as the VP for political
communications of the Evangelical Alliance, and have heard him speak
at events sponsored by the Interfaith Moral Action Committee, IMAC.
He felt like an old friend, and we had a good talk. He spoke
eloquently of the imperative to earth stewardship in a time when we
are overwhelming the remnant of God's Garden.
And Bill McKibben
was there. He arrived early and stayed late, leaving to help boost
his friend Bernie Sanders' event taking place on the other side of
the Capitol. He spoke only briefly, but made the key point that it's
not just for the sea critters and the tourists that we shouldn't
drill off the Atlantic Coast. The truth is that we need to leave
fossil fuel “where the good Lord put it and intended it to stay”
because we can't resist burning it when extracted, adding to the
intolerable CO2 burden of the planet.
remarks, David Helvarg, director of Bluefront, the Sea Party sponsor,
joined other speakers in reckoning this battle winnable. I think he
is right, because it already has bipartisan support, and the target
area is the South Atlantic, which is largely Republican. This may be
one of the few issues on which partisans can agree. But action will
probably wait for the new government that will be seated in January
2017. The folks I met November 4 will not rest until we win this one.
My last post
acknowledged the dramatic shift in Gaia's order caused by the advent
of the Anthropocene, the newly-named geological period in which Homo
sapiens has become what Brian Swimme calls a “planetary power.” I
began this series of posts by examining some of the proposals for
geo-engineering in the face of momentous climate change, particularly
emphasizing the advantages of limiting incoming solar radiation,
versus the much costlier methods of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
I received responses
from two people I highly respect, each of them questioning my
analysis. The first pointed out that I had overlooked the potential
of carbon sequestration in soils, something I was aware of, but
indeed overlooked in my emphasis on the high-tech quality of
anthropocentric mediation of a typically anthropocene problem. The
gentleman linked me with the Rodale Institute's study, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change”
, which I had seen but
I will return to
that study, but lay out the topic with the aid of a
characteristically comprehensive review of the subject by Judith
Schwartz, “Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?”, in Yale's Environment 360
. Schwartz summarizes many
key studies, stating at the outset that 50-70% of the world's
original soil carbon stock has been lost, almost all oxidized as CO2.
The essential job is to restore this carbon by recovering degraded
lands, primarily long-grass prairies, but also wetlands and of course
forests. The most promising sites for restoration include the former
NA prairie, the North China Plain, and the parched interior of
Australia. This would be a triple-win, sequestering CO2, boosting
soil productivity (restoring dirt to actual soil), and increasing
resilience to floods and drought.
The methods by which
this could be achieved include cover cropping, no-till or minimal
till (strip-till) agriculture, and agro-forestry, where croplands,
trees, and ruminant animals would be integrated into one interrelated
system. Some of the key principles wold be mulching rather than
burning, largescale use of biochar, and restoration of mangroves,
salt marshes, and sea grasses.
liberally from an interview with biogeochemist Thomas Goreau, who
makes the key point that current efforts to slow the climate change
train are focused on CO2 sources, whereas
we need to look equally at its destination
– where CO2 can and should go. Goreau says that degraded,
deforested land could create biochar for housing soil carbon by using
the on-site weeds for pyrolysis.
important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root
- mycorrhizal – fungi.
Discovered only in 1996,
recent research shows that
these fruiting, mushroom-like bodies can enable soils they inhabit to
absorb 70% more carbon per unit of nitrogen. This confirms the theory
of Rudolf Steiner, father of biodynamic gardening, a century ago.
Now what seemed quasi-mystical has a firm “scientific” basis.
That is, Goethean/Anthroposophic science now has confirmation from
the more reductive type.
has recently published a book, Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth,
in which she argues for Holistic
Planned Grazing, pioneered in Argentina and Zimbabwe, where livestock
grazing is patterned after wild ruminants' co-evolved grazing pattern
with traditional grasslands. Animals are moved to prevent
overgrazing, and in the process not only is their manure evenly
spread, but their trampling aerates the soil, pushing seeds in as
well as dead plant matter, so that soil micro-organisms can get to
work. Add this method to restoring grasslands by replanting
long-rooted indigenous varieties, and you have a recipe for vigorous
carbon sequestration in the 20% of the land that is grassland.
how much excess carbon can the soils store? The Rodale study
extrapolates from plots in
four parts of the world to claim from 50% to over 100% of current
emissions. Rattan Lal at Ohio State puts the figure at 10-33%.
However, researchers in prairie grasses say that this could be
increased if one were to extensively replant perennial grasses with
root systems from 1 to 5 meters, rather than conventional carbon
measurements that go only 15-30 cmm. At the conservative end of the
scale, senior scientists Rolf
and Deborah Bossio
at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture conclude
that soil carbon
sequestration has a limited potential when one takes into account the
variety of possible sites. At best, they say, we can expect 9% of
current emissions the first few decades, with less ability to absorb
CO2 over time. But as Bossio says, “Every bit helps.”
research needs to be done – the field is still new – but clearly
the Rodale Institute study is hyped. One of their test plots, in
Thailand, is done on an “unreported crop” - hardly a
scientifically specified finding. Extrapolating data from this plot,
they get 32 gigatons of of CO2/year of sequestered carbon, precisely
the amount currently emitted. How convenient.
a planetary scale, the ocean stores by far the most CO2, and it has
absorbed about as much as it can, resulting in ocean acidification
that threatens many lime-based species, and the marine foodchain
itself. This happens without our engineering anything. With a
return to more traditional organic farming, including a hugely
increased role for biochar, extensive use of HPG grazing techniques,
and an all-out effort to restore perennial prairie grasses, a
significant portion of current CO2 emissions could be stored in
soils, relieving the
beleaguered ocean. And all of this would help feed our growing
population in a way that works to regenerate degraded soils.
these lines, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas has patiently led a team of researchers who are back-crossing
perennial prairie grasses to produce seed
kernels big enough to harvest.
I heard him in conversation
with Wendell Berry at a food and spirituality conference at Duke a
few years back, and he was an inspiration.
advance agenda for the COP 21 gathering in Paris does not indicate
that soil carbon storage is being highlighted as a significant
strategy to sequester CO2. The focus is on reducing emissions
(mitigation) and paying the costs of adaptation for the poor
countries already hit by climate change. Hopefully it will emerge
from the dark ecological underground as a robust competitor to the
technocratic agenda, amplifying the highly compromised REDD forest carbon market mechanism. We all await - with a mixture of eagerness and
dread - the results of this key moment in planetary history.
whatever happens in Paris to move the “demand side” onto the
table (i.e CO2's destination, rather than its sources, or
“supply”),with agroforestry and silviculture taking the place of
unaffordable CCS, world powers will not sit idly by if sequestration
lags behind the worrisome rise in levels of emissions. Current
national plans to limit emissions put the world on a trajectory to 3
degrees C of warming, which is double the maximum safe level, and
would assure a runaway climate system, unless we can find a sink
beyond the maxed-out oceans for the relentless stream of CO2. Soil
carbon sinks can be optimized, but the research does not make me
confident that this will be sufficient to the task.
I submit that methods to reduce incoming solar radiation are going to
remain on the table, hopefully with increasing levels of public
discussion, so that all parties are clearly represented, and sober
decisions made. At least nobody is still seriously interested (i.e.
with their checkbooks ready) in the pipedream of CCS that was long
encouraged by fossil fuel companies, so we wouldn't be so concerned
about current emissions. You know, just pump it under the ground, or
to the bottom of the oceans, and we can forget about it.