Of all the books I have read about climate change, this is the best. It made me realise how shameful we are behaving as a civilisation. Not sure if we even deserve the word “civilisation”. The definition is “the stage of human social development and organisation which is considered most advanced”.
We are going backwards
We are definitely not most advanced. Our wasteful attitude to our planet is staggering. That is not even the worse bit. We know it. We are willfully destroying the planet. Leaving our children with the mess we made. My mum always taught me to clean up after myself. Collectively we are doing the opposite.
The “world is flat” thinking
Combine that with our industrial age thinking about agriculture, ecosystems, accounting, economy, which is at “the world is flat” level. Stupid and wasteful. With no sense of joint up thinking.
Wir haben es nicht gewusst
Read “The end of civilisation”. There is no “wir haben es nicht gewusst” excuse. We know what to do. When future generations look back (if there is a future generation), they will wonder.
- Why the fossil fuel industry received more than $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies in 2015
- That coal, gas, and nuclear power require massive amounts of water for cooling, withdrawing more water than agriculture—22 trillion to 62 trillion gallons per year. They don’t pay for that water (most other industries do)
- That the United States alone creates 242 million tons of garbage annually
- That livestock emissions, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, are responsible for an estimated 18 to 20 per cent of greenhouse gases annually, a source second only to fossil fuels. That emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 per cent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 per cent for a vegetarian diet
- That there are 950 million to 1.1 billion acres of deserted farmland around the world. That bringing lands back into productive use can also turn them into carbon sinks.
- That the production of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides contributes more than 1 trillion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere each year
- That most nitrogen fertilisers are “hot,” chemically destroying organic matter in the soil. Nitrogen seeps into groundwater or travels through surface runoff and eventually emerges in streams and rivers, creating algal blooms and oxygen-depleted oceanic dead zones, of which there are five hundred in the world. Read again; “dead zones”.
- Converting nitrogen to ammonia for fertiliser requires 1.2 per cent of the world’s energy use. The process creates emissions from fossil fuel energy generation, and much of that nitrogen ends up in the sky as nitrous oxides—a greenhouse gas 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. Or it leaches into groundwater and waterways, causing the overgrowth of algae and dead zones where marine life suffocates from a lack of oxygen. Read again; “dead zones.”
- That agriculture and irrigation consume 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, and irrigation is essential for 40 per cent of the world’s food production
- That 75 to 80 per cent of the energy generated by an internal combustion engine is wasted heat. Think about it. Imagine throwing away 80% of all the food you buy.
- You will be happy to know that the food waste is not 80% but over 30%. A third of the food raised or prepared does not make it from farm or factory to fork. That waste contributes 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emission equivalent
- Worldwide, buildings account for 32 per cent of energy use and 19 per cent of energy-related greenhouse emissions. More than one-third of that is for heating and cooling. While we have the technology to create net zero buildings. The payback on retrofits, depending on the building, is five to seven years on average.
- That infiltration accounts for 25 to 60 per cent of the energy used to heat and cool a home—energy that is simply wasted.
- That as much as 80 per cent of the energy consumed in buildings wasted—lights and electronics are left on unnecessarily, and gaps in the building’s envelope allow air to seep in and out, for example.
- That the World Bank calculates that 8.6 trillion gallons of water are lost each year through leaks. Also at stake are emissions from needlessly producing billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity to pump that water.
- That since humans began farming, the number of trees on earth has fallen by 46 per cent. (Carbon emissions from deforestation and associated land use change are estimated to be 10–15 per cent of the world’s total. Stopping all deforestation and restoring forest resources could offset up to one-third of all carbon emissions worldwide. It is difficult to estimate what it would “cost” to save it all, but estimates place it at about 4 per cent of the $1.2 trillion the world spends on weapons every year.
- That over the past few decades, more than one-third of the world’s mangroves have been lost.
- That the transport sector is responsible for 23 per cent of global emissions.
- That two-thirds of the world’s oil consumption is used to fuel cars and trucks.
- That manufacturing a single ton of cement requires the equivalent energy of burning four hundred pounds of coal. Add those emissions up, and for every ton of cement produced, nearly one ton of carbon dioxide puffs skyward.
- That if the Pantheon had been built with today’s concrete, the Pantheon would have crumbled before the fall of Rome, three hundred years after its dedication. It is still standing 2000 years later. We no longer build to last.
- That roughly half of paper is used once and then sent to the proverbial scrap heap.
- That a third of all plastics end up in ecosystems, while just 5 per cent are successfully recycled.
- That bioplastic cannot be composted unless separated from other plastics. In fact, it only degrades at high temperatures, not in the ocean or home compost bins
- That the average gallon of gasoline requires over 90 tons of prehistoric biomass as raw material.
- That the total emissions for a white cotton shirt from field to customer are 80 pounds of carbon dioxide
Where “Drawdown” really shines, apart from highlighting the waste, are the 90 solutions they list. Solar, wind, geothermal (100 billion times more than current world energy consumption, 24/7/365), wave, biomass, cooking technology, LED, city planning transport, materials and land use.
What struck me most was our outdated thinking about agriculture. Industrial farming makes no sense. There are lots of alternatives, holistic approaches with much higher yield. That is before you would put a price on soil degradation, use of water and the pollution effects of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
For example (and this random):
- Multistrada coffee plants live two to three times longer than sun grown, and shade farms can sustain for hundreds of years. They have better natural pest control, fertilisation, and water absorption, all of which saves farmers money.
- One study suggests every acre of agroforestry can prevent deforestation of five to twenty forest acres.
- Silvopasture created a world-record yield of 24.7 tons of rice on 2.5-acre (1-hectare) plot in 2012—eclipsing the 4.5 or 5.5 tons that are typical for a piece of land that size. Livestock, trees, and any additional forestry products, such as nuts, fruit, mushrooms, and maple syrup, all come of age and generate income on different time horizons.
- Regenerative farms are seeing organic matter levels rise from a baseline of 1 to 2 per cent up to 5 to 8 per cent over ten or more years. Every per cent of carbon in the soil represents 8.5 tons per acre. That growth adds up to 25 to 60 tons of carbon per acre.
- Evidence points to a new wisdom: The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Feeding the soil reduces carbon in the atmosphere.
- Intercropping provides windbreaks that reduce erosion and creates habitat for birds and beneficial insects. Fast-growing annuals, susceptible to being flattened by wind and rain, can be protected. Deep-rooted plants can draw up subsoil minerals and nutrients for shallow-rooted ones. Vines or creepers have a ready trellis. Light-sensitive crops can be protected from excess sunlight.
- The disposal method of choice for kitchen crumbs, fish bones, livestock manure, broken pottery, and the like was to bury and burn. Wastes were baked without exposure to air beneath a layer of soil. This process, known as pyrolysis, produced a charcoal soil amendment rich in carbon. The result was terra preta, literally “black earth” in Portuguese. Terra preta agriculture maintained soil fertility for many decades—more than five hundred years in some studies.
- Biochar possesses a porous structure, which provides extensive surface area packed into a small space. Think of biochar as a habitat—much like a coral reef; it is riddled with nooks and crannies that catch nutrients, hold on to water, and help vital microorganisms to set up shop. Experts report that just one gram of biochar can have a surface area of twelve hundred to three thousand square yards, thanks to the abundance of tiny pores. It functions as a nutrient magnet. Theoretically, experts argue, biochar could sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, in addition to averting emissions from organic waste.
- Farmers who use managed grazing report that perennial streams that once went dry have returned. Their capacity to stock cattle on the land increased by 200 to 300 per cent. Native grasses re-established themselves, crowding out weeds. Not having to sow pastures saved time and diesel fuel. Tillage of pastureland stopped as well, conserving fuel and equipment expenses. The behaviour of cattle changed. Rather than lallygagging around a stubbly, overgrazed pasture, they moved quickly and in the process ate weeds (which farmers are discovering are protein-rich), thus reducing or eliminating the need for weed control.
The kicker: most farmers who employ conservation farming see costs go down, yields go up, and income rise. Practitioners describe significant increases in income due to higher productivity and reduction in expenditures for herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers, diesel fuel, and veterinary costs.
Wood wide web
We only recently discovered that forests are superorganisms. In one gram of soil, there can be up to 10 billion denizens, and between 50,000 and 83,000 different species of bacteria and fungi. A gram is 0.036 ounce, and in that thimble of soil is among the most diverse living systems in the world.
Those forests are interconnected, where fungi (hyphae) operate like fibre-optic Internet cables. One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of these “hyphae.” We are talking “wood wide web”. Now there is an opportunity for biomimicry. Expect an organic internet soon.
Almost 20 of the solutions are future-oriented, and if you are a fan of innovation, that alone makes the book worthwhile. A shining example of regenerative, holistic, circular, join up thinking. It makes your heart sing. If you are an optimist and believe in exponential, you will leave the book optimistic about the future.
Reknit web of life
Image the return of the mammoth steppes with cattle grazing. Pasture cropping, where a complex relationship between the forbs, fungi, grasses, herbs, and bacteria reknit the web of life, increasing the health, resilience, and vitality of the soil, crops, grasses, and animals.
Where in the oceans we have created kelp forests, hundreds of thousands of acres of underwater plantations situated offshore, floating forests in the middle of the ocean. Those kelp forests could provide food, feed, fertiliser, fibre, and biofuels to most of the world.
Where we are starting to combine trees or woody shrubs with pasture grasses to foster greater yields. Where meat production in pounds per acre per year is four to ten times higher than in conventional systems.
Where artificial leaves that successfully create energy-dense fuels by combining solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide. Employing two catalysts, they produced free hydrogen from water, which is fed to bacteria, which synthesise liquid fuels. When the bacteria are fed pure carbon dioxide, the process is ten times more efficient than photosynthesis. If carbon dioxide is taken from the air, it is three to four times more efficient.
With self-driving vehicles on smart highways, with photovoltaic pavement, reducing the global transport fleet by 50 to 60 per cent and generate energy.
Where we created effective smart grids, solid-state wave energy, living buildings, built with wood, have hydrogen fusion, use industrial hemp, feed cows seaweed, grow sea vegetables from sea farms (a global network of sea-vegetable farms totalling seventy thousand square miles—roughly the size of Washington state—could provide enough protein for the entire world population).
Where the world’s energy needs are met by setting aside 3 per cent of the world’s oceans for seaweed farming, using the oil from the seaweed (seaweeds are 50% oil). Seaweed biofuel can yield up to thirty times more energy per acre than land crops such as soybeans.
We need to go circular or interconnected
There you have. We know how much we are wasting. We know how to solve it. Moving from linear to circular. Or as the Pope puts it “interconnected.”
Time and space are not independent of one another. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. The question we need to answer is what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?