Climate forum draws hundreds

Could the average American household cut its energy use in half? This reduction might seem drastic, but it would put us on a par with Europe and Japan, and still leave us way above the world’s average.

climate-change-in-time-of-crisis-posterThis message was delivered to hundreds of people at a forum called “Climate Action in a Time of Crisis” Saturday in Northampton. Anxiety over the new President may have contributed to the overflow crowd at the massive First Churches sanctuary.

solomon-goldstein-roseSolomon Goldstein-Rose, Amherst’s new 23-year-old state representative, was one of the speakers. With the federal government going backwards on climate change, “Massachusetts has to solve the problem on our own,” he said.

The only solution is to develop clean energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels, he said. That means the development of better storage capacity and batteries. Clean energy can be “safer, cheaper, cleaner and healthier,” he said.

nathanael__fortune_cropNat Fortune, a professor at Smith College, said, “Our children’s children’s survival is not assured.” A physicist, Fortune explained that even if we stop burning carbon now, the planet will continue warming for at least 100 years — and possibly 1,000 years.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has jumped to 400 parts per million. If it continues to 500, “Beacon Hill could become an island,” Fortune said. At 550, Arctic ice sheets would melt, creating an irreversible feedback loop that could endanger all human life.

marty-nathanMarty Nathan, a physician and activist, compared the threat to nuclear weapons. Lifestyle changes alone won’t address the problem, and she urged everyone to take to the streets to “break the stranglehold the fossil-fuel industry has on Congress” and start organizing for the elections of 2018.

“This is the fight of our lives, folks,” she said. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ development of clean energy could become a model for the country and the world, she said.

stan-rosenberg-photoState Sen. Stan Rosenberg of Amherst said the state is already first in the nation in solar energy. He predicted that the largest offshore wind farm could be in operation off the state’s coast in three to five years.

Rosenberg, who filed the first bills on the “greenhouse effect” 30 years ago, said that “everything else is moot unless we tame the carbon beast.” The status quo is a “path to failure,” and if we continue on the same path for the next 10 years, the warming will be irreversible, he said.

The forum got me thinking about what else we can do to cut our energy consumption. We own one car, a Prius that we drive only 8,000 miles a year, and I use a bicycle to get around town. We don’t use airplanes and get heat from a wood stove and passive solar. We buy local food, grow vegetables, and use LED lighting. Betsy’s been making  and installing “winserts” to insulate our windows. Still, our carbon footprint is way above the world average.

Maybe the next thing to do is to lobby for a statewide carbon tax. I believe that it must not increase the total tax burden if it’s going to be acceptable to most voters. Despite all the warnings about our children’s children’s lives, maybe the only way to influence most people’s behaviors is through their pocketbooks.

New readers of this blog can click here for a quick summary of over 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, simple living, gardening and living without. To read all the past posts on climate change, hover on “Index” above and click on “climate change.”


Signs of Spring

At last, Spring is here. Every day brings some new indicator of the turning of the seasons.


The spring bulbs have been eagerly pushing up through the leafy mulch. Snowdrops are past their prime now, as are the early crocuses.  The tiny blue scilla and the late crocuses are emerging and the first daffodil is beginning to unfold.



Our low-lying yard has its seasonal “water feature” after the heavy rains last week.  It is always interesting to note how much longer “Lake Eames” sticks around in the early spring than in the summer, when the trees and green plants suck up moisture and transpire  water vapor through their leaves.  Plus, warm weather speeds up evaporation.  But in the spring, these reflecting pools linger for weeks.  This week I saw a robin splashing  in the water’s shallow edge.

March has been so warm that we have often been able to leave the window open a little at night. I love waking up to the familiar bird songs.  I don’t know who is making all the different chirps, flutes, warbles and trills, but I know they are old friends. As are the amphibians who have been peeping and quacking their way through the warmer days and nights.  This spring is far from silent, and I am filled with gratitude toward Rachel Carson and other defenders of this intricate and cacophonous web of life.

The furry wildlife are newly active;  neighbors have seen a fox and a woodchuck. Friday morning, when I went out to empty the compost bucket, I saw another sign of spring.IMG_20160318_120903740

The black bears have emerged from hibernation, it appears, and for the first time, paid a visit to our bird feeder (as well as those of three neighbors up the hill).  Sorry birds, you’ll have to fend for yourselves until next December.

IMG_20160318_122603654More indicators of spring’s imminent arrival are the emerging buds and blossoms on our shrubs, such as the witch hazel,  which has been showing its fragrant yellow threads for weeks. The blossom tips of serviceberry and flowering quince are poking out, and today I saw red maple trees in bloom.


This week I discovered the first leaves of many perennial plants unfolding from the dark earth. Near the pools at the north end of the yard were numerous clumps of marsh marigolds, all descended from one ancestor I purchased at the Amherst Garden Club sale many years ago.

IMG_20160318_121026469The  stinging nettles are up, but in a new spot.  I may have to transplant those before they get tall this summer, and,  leaning toward the light, extend over the path and sting our bare legs.The first sweet cicely plant is unfurling and the red clover and chives are emerging in the fenced vegetable garden.IMG_20160318_121111755

This week I participated in another rite of spring, and another sign of new life and hope. It was a protest march through several Franklin County towns called Taking Steps to a Renewable Future.  Our church’s Earth Ministry Team co-sponsored this event and six adult members and two of our children have shown up. We don’t want any new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines like the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline, which appears to be intended to bring fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to the coast for export. And we certainly don’t want to pay for it. Instead, we want to phase out fossil fuel use and to invest in a rapid deployment of renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency. The climate clock is ticking, and so the turnout of at least 200 people, young and old, was heartening.IMG_20160319_104030824_HDR





Carbon farming for a better future

Eric Toensmeier“Climate change gives us the opportunity to right all these wrongs that need to be dealt with anyway,” says Eric Toensmeier of Holyoke, Mass. “Carbon farming is a key part of that, and can make big contributions to climate justice.”

He hopes the people of the world will insist that the use of fossil fuels be phased out by reductions of 10 to  15 percent per year, no matter what governments and corporations say.

Having studied perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over 20 years, Toensmeier foresees a day when we have transformed our agriculture from an industrial to an ecological model, with an emphasis on perennials. He envisions a world where wealthy countries reduce their excessive  consumption and the global south has a higher standard of living. He hopes his descendants will see a stable and livable, if slightly warmer, climate.

Toensmeier, who has many previous publications to his credit, has authored a new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, in service of his big vision. He sees this comprehensive work as a toolkit that can be used by farmers, communities and policy makers around the world to transform agriculture, by choosing the right strategies for their particular situations.

He shows how these practices, applied worldwide, can mitigate climate change by building living, carbon-rich soils. In fact, Toensmeier cites a prominent soil carbon scientist who says that, if widely implemented, carbon farming could bring CO2 levels back down to a livable 350 ppm in 30 to 50 years.  At the same time, carbon farming can restore healthy ecosystems and provide meaningful work and abundant, locally controlled food for human populations around the earth. (Here’s more information on how healthy soils sequester carbon.)

Carbon farming practices can also help us adapt to the effects of climate change. Increasing  organic matter in the soil means that it can hold water longer in dry conditions. And when there is too much rain, carbon-rich soil holds water like a sponge and slowly releases it, reducing the risk of flooding. Other aspects of carbon farming, such as an emphasis on trees and perennial crops, and the use of erosion control strategies, also play a role in conserving soil and farm yields under new climatic conditions.

What are some of the practices that can perform this feat? Toensmeier presents a number of categories of carbon farming practices:

  1. Better ways to grow annual crops alone: using familiar methods like mulching, cover crops, crop rotation, organic practices, and reducing tillage. These practices build carbon in soil in low amounts, but if widely employed over time, these low amounts could add up.
  2. Annual crops with perennials: Integrating perennial plants, like trees,  with familiar annual crops –  for example, in windbreaks or hedgerows.  Agroforestry practices in which nitrogen-fixing, timber, or food-yielding perennial plants are inter-cropped with annuals.  These systems must be properly designed so perennials don’t compete with annual crops, but Toensmeier showcases examples from around the world where this is being done successfully on a big scale. Practices like this can sequester one to two tons of carbon per hectare per year.
  3. Better ways of grazing and pasture: Even though ruminant livestock emit methane as part of their digestive process, it is possible to sequester enough carbon by adding trees to perennial pasture (silvopasture), and by practices such as managed grazing, that the net result is the sequestration of 1 to 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year.
  4. Perennial crops: including practices like coppicing and biomass systems, tree crops, bamboo, multi-level agroforestry systems, orchards, plantations and perennial staple crops.
  5. Perennial polycultures: Systems where multiple species of plants and trees grow densely together can sequester carbon at the highest level, 4 to 40 tons per hectare per year, often more than nearby natural forests.

In his book, Toensmeier lists 700 species useful for carbon farming, and devotes many chapters to perennial staple crops, perennial industrial crops and agroforestry. He is making some of this information available for free on the The Carbon Farming Solution website, including resource lists and links to videos.

If we are paying attention, we know that our world is facing challenging problems, many of them exacerbated by climate change.  It is encouraging to realize that there are safe,  elegant and affordable solutions that will make the possibility of good lives attainable for future generations around the globe.

Add carbon farming to the human toolkit as we embark on what could be one of humankind’s greatest adventures: building a better future for our descendants.

New readers of this blog can click here for a quick overview of 150 past posts on simple living, frugality, climate change, cooking, gardening and living without. Or hover on “Index” above to read many of the posts in a particular category.






The soil-climate connection

“Climate change can be overwhelming.  Yet there is real hope,” says Michael Pollan, a journalist and food advocate in a video on soil and climate, shown at the recent UN Paris climate conference.

And on Dec. 1, the  French government’s agriculture ministry launched  its 4 per 1000 initiative, which calls for an annual increase of carbon content in soils of .4 percent every year for 25 years.4 per 1000 big

In this agreement, part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, France is joined by 24+ governments, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, Germany and Mexico.  Other organizations such as the UN, and over 50 activist groups like the Organic Consumers Association, its Mexico affiliate Via Organica, and Regeneration International have also signed on.

Participants will implement practical programs of carbon sequestration in soil, including conservation land-use practices and farming methods that increase stable carbon in soils (such as agroforestry and regenerative agriculture).  The goal of the initiative is to foster “a transition toward a productive, resilient agriculture, based on a sustainable soil management and generating jobs and incomes, hence ensuring sustainable development.”

The plan intends to show that even a small increase in the soil carbon will improve soil fertility, maximize agricultural production and contribute to the objective of limiting global average temperature increase below the dangerous level of 1.5 degrees centigrade. For more information about how carbon sequestration in the soil works, check out this column that appeared in the Gazette, and two of my earlier blog posts.

Locally, Jonathan Bates and Megan Barber of Food Forest Farm wrote about how they increased soil carbon in their backyard in Holyoke, Mass. over 10 years at an annual rate that exceeds the 4 per 1000  goal.

The United States is not among the signatories of the 4 per 1000 initiative. And yet the US industrialized agriculture and food system are widely seen as climate bad guys.  They are implicated in the reduction of carbon sequestration in our soil (through tilling, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and in the emissions of methane, a potent global warming gas, from our concentrated animal feeding operations, among other climate crimes.

The concentration, scale and mechanization of our big corporate agriculture system threatens rural communities,  eliminates good jobs, and allows our giant agriculture and food corporations to use their wealth to press for policies that protect their profits and the status quo. (Same story as in so many other sectors of our nation’s economic system.)

There are initiatives afoot, like this petition, to press for the US to get on board with the carbon soil sequestration aspect of climate mitigation.

Reducing the threat of climate change includes changing our system of agriculture.  We know how to do this. So let’s add soil carbon sequestration to our array of goals for climate action going forward.








Science and miracles

hand soilWe thought we were smarter than nature, but we’re not.  We forgot that life itself is a miracle. We forgot that we are dependent on complex systems that we don’t control and can only partly understand.

Now, the crisis of climate change gives us an opportunity to reconsider our assumptions and change our ways.   As we look beyond reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to drawing down the excess carbon in the atmosphere, the question is: How might we safely do this and not end up with unintended consequences from some high-tech solution like pumping sulfur particles into the stratosphere?

rattan lalSoil scientists, permaculturists and carbon farmers are suggesting that we learn from and imitate nature. In the first post in this series, I suggested that regenerative agriculture and carbon-conscious land-use policies can reverse carbon buildup by putting the carbon  back where it belongs, in the soil.

To do this, farmers, gardeners, consumers and policy makers need to understand a little about plant and soil biology. The bodies of all living beings, animals and plants alike, are made up of carbon molecules. Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air, and through photosynthesis, separate the carbon and oxygen atoms and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere.

But plants can’t live by CO2 alone. They need lots of other nutrients, most present in rocks, stones, sand and clay, the base materials in soil around the world. But in nature’s plan, plants can’t access these mineral nutrients without the help of the microbial populations that make up healthy soil. There are more individual organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth, according to the Department of Agriculture.

soil food webPlants and soil microbes have co-evolved an amazing system. Plants exude sweet carbon juice from their roots, which soil scientist Elaine Ingham calls “cake and cookies,” attracting and feeding microbes like soil bacteria and fungi. Meanwhile, other microbes have been dissolving the basic materials of the earth (rocks, sand and clay) with acid enzymes and have all these minerals incorporated into their bodies. The abundance of bacteria and fungi in the soil around plant roots attracts predators like nematodes and protozoa, who eat and then excrete these nutrients in a form accessible to plants.

This mutually beneficial relationship between plants and soil life results in the thriving and abundant earth community that is the context in which we humans evolved.

But how can healthy soils and plants capture and then sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere? How can carbon be fixed in the soil in a form that won’t just be consumed, excreted and exhaled by soil microorganisms? The Soil Story gives a quick look at this and shows why storing carbon in the soil is so promising.

Healthy soils are made up of soil aggregates, little protected areas in the soil around plant roots where bacteria and fungi and other microorganisms hang out, do their biochemical thing and trade nutrients with plants. Under the conditions that nature developed, soil microorganisms in aggregates transform liquid carbon exuded from plant roots into humus, an organo-mineral complex composed of about 60 percent carbon, and not easily broken down by microbes.

Scientists are still trying to understand the exact way that stable soil carbon or humus is formed, but they do know that soils can hold up to 6 to 20 percent organic matter that is not consumed and emitted, but just serves as a reservoir of carbon. What is known is how to build deep and healthy soil and how to fix more carbon in the soil and plants than is released by the biological processes of life.

Amazing!  Could it be that the soil will save us? When I think about the intricate dance of all the members of the soil food web, a non-scientific word comes to mind: miracle.  Nick can tell you that I’ve been walking around the house singing the chorus of Amherst songwriter Helen Fortier’s “Sweetest Song” which conveys this sense of wonder:

I’m grateful for the life in everything I see,

Seems just like a miracle when you look beneath,

See all the tiny pieces that make this harmony,

Spirit sings the sweetest song through every living thing.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 140 past posts in 13 categories, including frugality, simple living, cooking, gardening and climate change.