Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Grans and Gramps against Greenhouse Gases

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Dear Family and Friends,
Warmest greetings to all.
If the image placed here gets through to you, it's of our new group - Grans and Gramps against Greenhouse Gases. We were singing in Nelson on a Climate Action Day early December. The Climate Change Minister invited us to sing to a gathering he held the night before he left for Copenhagen next day. So we made it pretty pointed.

News of us.
We've continued to spend rather more time than we wish on designing this new house. Our plans have been sent to the Council for approval. Meanwhile, large machines reshape the land at the housesite. A few days ago our much-appreciated engineer, Gil, rescued ten tree-ferns from being crushed and replanted them near the house-to-be - our first garden plantings. We must now organise the brickmaking.
Jack continues to complete the huge hillside mulching project on the windbreak; he was shovelling bark today.
Jack also continues to spend a lot of time on the management of the project.
We've enjoyed guests in the last few weeks, including Jeff and his partner, Katy. Jeff made a film of the Grans group. You can see it on Youtube on
Jeff is now in Brisbane, Australia, and then will fly to Canada to make a film with his buddies.
Jack and I continue to find things we want to write about. Jack just had an article published in the new US journal, 'Solutions', edited by Bob Costanza. I worked with Peace through Health colleagues in Denmark, Norway and Canada on a paper on the role of health workers in relation to violent conflict. I've contributed in a minor way to articles written by a new group of physicians, Ora Taiao or Climate and Health. This is a tremendously dedicated and active group, working over e-mail on climate change issues.
I've learned new things in this period. I attended a workshop on scything, bought a scythe and its appurtenances and now use it. One friend who took the workshop with me says it's as fast as a weed-eater doing the same job. It's an aerobic workout, and very pleasant exercise. It's best done in the early morning when you can hear the birds singing along with the swish-swish of the scythe.
The fragrance of the air at this time of year is wonderful. This morning's meditation was scented by clover, lavender and mint.
Recently I attended part of a workshop on the 'invisible structures' in communities - the people side. We discussed types of communities on a spectrum of communal to individualised, legal aspects, consensus decision-making and conflict management. I need to go much further in this area of knowledge.

Village issues Jack and I have done some work on the covenants of Atamai Village - those provisions that will be mandatory on residents.
The village is slowly growing. Jurgen and his wife and toddler have moved on to the land in two little buildings as a temporary home. One of them was previously Jeff's little home when he was with us. The earthworks for the home of Tracey and Craig Ambrose and their baby has now been completed, and we held a potluck there to celebrate.
We have potlucks about every two weeks. Everyone seems to enjoy them a lot.
One of the very big houses on the top of the ridge changed hands recently. The new folk want to be part of the village. I understand they can buy into the Commons. They have five kids and are expecting the 6th. All home-schooled.

Here is Jurgen Heissner's New Year summary of Atamai progress:
Here is a little stock taking from the Atamai project:

The land

The last months have seen tremendous progress on the land. Kerry started working for us two months ago with a focus on the Atamai landscaping and maintenance and Adrienne has been busy with huge compost piles for the community garden. The orchard is looking very tidy now and the trees are thriving.

The goat herd has settled in nicely at TeMara and Cheryl is producing some great cheese from the milk. Growing has indeed been a challenge this year with the weather but production is picking up now. The irrigation system in the Mediterranean garden is now nearly complete which will help a lot with the watering later on in the year.

Food security is very high on our list of priorities and is receiving the bulk of current investment in terms of commons and effort on the land. Not that it will impact New Zealand a lot but the world-wide food supply situation is deteriorating rapidly and we are very conscious of our responsibilities there for the village and beyond. An excellent summary of the situation can be found here but be warned, it’s not a pretty picture nor a good outlook.

Building projects & Sections

The first temporary accommodation is now on the land and the areas around them are being enthusiastically landscaped. One of the cottages is themed along a ‘French Country Style’ and the proud owners of the 10 square meter abode are tossing about the names ‘Versailles Cottage’ or ‘Dragonfly Cottage’ (lot’s of ponds nearby). No votes are taken J, humour or romance will decide.

Village community

Seven of the twelve sections available at this stage have now sold and two more sales are likely to close within the next few weeks from the pool of four parties keenly interested. We are now looking at mid 2010 or spring for the next batch of 12 to 18 to become available. We welcome Graeme and Kath from Auckland to the village!

Business Opportunities

The brick making operation will be set up next. Initially the bricks required for Jack & Joanna’s and Kyoko and Jurgen’s house and subsequent projects and then as an independent business. Our next priority is to the get a more commercial setup for the nursery operation going. We are already purchasing a lot of plants now and this will steadily increase as sections will get landscaped and gardening ramped up.

Shifting and Contacting us

Our offices are now housed in the engineering workshop at TeMara. To contact us there use the usual email address or the temporary phone number 03 526 7002.

Atamai has now got an official RD address and mailbox:

Atamai Village Council
Mytton Heights
RD 1 Motuka 7196

Those of you how are looking at shifting onto the site soon and haven’t had their property numbers issued by council you can use this address as a c/o address in the meantime.


The earthworks for the first section (Lot 4) have now been completed and title issue is in the final stages. Our engineer is very proud to have received a ‘no issues whatsoever’ verdict from the Tasman District Council engineer. High quality indeed. Earthworks on Jack’s section are in progress and should be complete by mid January by which time the next six lots will be started.

Transition Town Motueka. Momentum has slowed a bit. Partly this is because I'm devoting a lot of time to Climate Change issues, and no one else does the coordinating role. I continue with the radio show, and have recently interviewed people about Ora Taiao, eco-architecture, and new developments in the Transition Town idea. The Scything workshop was a considerable success. Three sessions were filled. We used the meadows at Te Mara, our food-producing property, for this. The teacher was Austrian, a former airline pilot, who greatly prefers to farm and teach scything.

Global work. Copenhagen has come and gone, leaving a trail of disappontment in its wake. Now we must consider what to do.
I would like to put time into shaping ideas about organic farming as a significant nay of reducing emissions and sequestering carbon. I understand that, at a certain scale, this could make a large difference. Switzerland's government subsidises organic conversion and they now have a considerable proportion of organic farms. There needs to be a research side of this too.
Even further, the ideas being put forward by WEs Jackson of the Land Institute and Wendell Berry (one of my lifetime favourite writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry) on perennial polyculture, closely related to Permaculture ideas, seem very important. The focus is soil preservation for long-term sustainability of agriculture, as well as carbon sequestration.
Next weekend we hope to get some of the most energetic of the local activists together for a strategy meeting. Some of the options to be reviewed are:
* calling the politicians to account
* public education linking climate change, economic growth, the money system, modes of agriculture
* focus on creating low-carbon alternative living, as in our sustainable village and Transition Towns
* focus on the money system and steady state economy
* focus on organic conversion plus no-till plus perennial crops in Permaculture design plus (perhaps) biochar use as carbon sequestration and soil (and civilisation) preserving strategies.
*focus on making personal carbon quotas workable and widespread

Warmest wishes to all the widespread readers of this blog.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Images to go with next post

Grandchildren, Jackson and Charlotte with Jack.

Grand-daughter Bianca.

Tom, the turkey, displaying to the goats and anyone else around.

Some of the dear little kids.

Text will follow in next post.
Warm wishes,

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dear Friends, First, the images.
At the top is the reason we went to Canada in August - to see our three grandchildren, and frolic with them on the grass. Jack is with Jackson and Charlotte, Josh and Tracey's kids, 7 and 4. The other is sweeet Bianca, 18 months, Penny and Jonah's daughter.

Next is Tom Turkey, a new arrival on our farm, Te Mara (the garden). He displays incessantly and gobbles continually. I don't know where he gets the energy.

He and his partner live with the goats, who have been busy giving birth to lots of kids. There are 15, and perhaps two to come. They are pretty, gentle, sweet little animals.

The last image, at the bottom of the page, is from a piece of street theatre several of us generated for the Global Day of Climate Action last weekend.
( I think these images have not succeeded, so I've sent them separately in another post. The image of the street theatre may have failed again - sorry.)

Now, let me organise myself a bit better.
A word or two about us.
We remain healthy and 'toughening up' a bit to farm labour. The huge job we undertook this week was to mulch the 'Hillside of 1000 Trees' we planted as a windbreak to the house we'll build. We're getting there, but there are a few creaks and groans in the evenings.

I reckon I'm moving toward qualifying as a New Zealander. Two iconic aspects of the national image are wearing gumboots, and being able to fix anything with number 8 wire. Tick both of those boxes. Add in this. For the street theatre piece, I was asked to play the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark. Of course, she has a pronounced NZ accent, and also a very deep voice. Thanks to Youtube for the coaching! I got a clap every time!

We've almost finished the design of our house. The architect is working on the drawings. Earthworks will begin in a few weeks. It will be built of pressed brick. The inside brick layer will be made of the earth here, if all goes well. The outside includes earth plus sawdust, and currently is only made on the north island, so we'll get it from there. The insulation will be wool, I think. It's passive solar oriented. We've designed the roof to acommodate the the solar hot water device, but the photovoltaic panels will be a separate installation. Attention has been paid to the thermal mass that will retain absorbed heat. There will be underfloor pipes, heated with water from the wood stove. This serves to cook, bake, provide hot water and central heating. The solar heated hot water will have supplementary heating if needed from an 'on-demand' gas heater. Water will be supplied by roof colection. There will be two large tanks downhill from the house. Grey water will drain to the orchard area. The gardens will have a Permaculture design, with perhaps more flowers than usual.

In thinking of the design of this house, we have considered it should last several centuries and accommodate many different families.

We have half resented needing to spend so much time on this. But I found I became deeply absorbed in the design process when I sat down to focus on it, and enjoyed it. Visually, the house is nothing special, quite plain. I hope it will be welcoming and comfortable for all who shelter in it over a long duration.
Global issues. Jack helped to edit Richard Heinberg's latest work, 'Waiting for a Miracle', just out. It's about the quantitative mismatch between demand for energy, and what will be available from renewable sources. It makes the point that conservation, learning to use less energy, is our best strategy.

Climate change has been my preoccupation over recent months. A friend, Katerina Seligman and I decided to give public seminars on the subject, so we had to learn a great deal fast. We also generated the street theatre piece illustrated below. In the photo we are performing it at a lovely country fair in the neaby village of Ngatimoti. The drama centres on the Kotuku, or White Heron, gardian spirit of Motueka. It weaves together Maori themes with a serious message, humour and the beauty of the great bird's slowly flapping its wings. We worked with a wonderful Maori playwright.

Katerina and I also plan to pull together a group of singing Grannies, modelled on Canada's Raging Grannies. We'll call ourselves Gutsy Grannies or Gumboot Grannies or something like that. We'll perform at Climate Change events,

I'm very pleased that a group of health workers, mainly public health doctors, have come together to form OraTaiao, or Climate and Health. They've already published a couple of articles in NZ's medical journal.

Transition Town Motueka Lots of gardening workshops going on. Rudolf Steiner's Biodynamic methods have a huge following in this part of the world. There is a workshop this weekend on that. I'm helping to organise a workshop on scything in a few weeks' time. It seems like a period of skill building.

Finally, Atamai Village At last, there is a real sense of forward movement. More than half the lots have been sold now - for the first phase of building. The earthworks on the first dwelling are to begin tomorrow. People are beginning to come together identifying with the village. Now we share a meal together every one or two weeks. These occasions are very pleasant, with kids running in and out of the adults. Craig and Tracey Ambrose host a pizza potluck
where they provide the pizza dough and the oven. Jurgen and Kyoko do a sushi potluck, where everyone brings a designated sushi ingredient, and Kyoko provides the nori. This was excellent.
Several couples are creating temporary dwellings on their piece of land while they build their houses. Some of the young couples are intent on doing a fair bit of the work themselves.
The cute little sleepout Jeff lived in while he was here will move across to the other side of the hill tomorrow, where it will become part of a cluster for Jurgen, Kyoko and 2 year-old Yuuki to live in while their house takes shape. They will build a Japanese-type house.

The Te Mara gardens are being readied for another season of planting.

So, that's life in Motueka this Spring. May the Kotuku keep us safe, and may we keep her safe.

Warmest wishes to all,

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Climate grief, family joy

Dear Family and Friends,

The images here are of our prospective house site, in which you can see some of the recent tree planting (small pale green plastic rectangles on left), a recent chainsaw safety seminar involving all who are using these devices on the properties; and of sunrise from our house. On the plain you can see the lights of the town, Motueka.

I write to you from Auckland Airport, en route to see family and friends in Canada. Such mixed feelings accompany this voyage. Uppermost is longing to see loved ones, especially the little ones. Beneath that is awareness of the ethical conflict of flying in a time of dangerous climate change. I can tell myself that the thousand plus trees we’ve planted recently offset many such flights by usual calculations, but I know this is insufficient moral balance. Underneath this is fear that at some point, who knows how soon, it may become impossible to fly across the planet, or unaffordable. Perhaps it will still be possible to do it by boat, but when I priced the cost of this in 2007, it was unaffordable. So deep down is the awful thought, is this the last time?
News of the village
We are near to having titles available for sale. All that remains to be done is to do the earthworks to prepare the sites for building, and to put roads to them. Finances have recently become available to move ahead on this. A young couple, Tracey and Craig Ambrose, have moved to Motueka with their very new baby, ready to buy a site and begin their home. They bring lots of ideas, youthful energy, many skills, and experience living in an urban ecovillage – Earthsong in Auckland. They liked Earthsong, but realised they wanted land to grow food, so have come to Atamai. They will also value the balance of privacy and community that seems to be what Atamai will offer.
A significant amount of our time is used hosting people interested in Atamai. Many of them are couples with young children, which is very encouraging. All of them have impressive knowledge and skills to bring to an ecovillage, although the manual and practical skills they bring tend to be amateur rather than professional eg woodworking, gardening. A surprising number are involved in IT, probably because it’s a job that can be done from any site.
Jacques will begin Spring planting before long. We are trying to work out whether to plant for a food-box scheme or not. Jack and Jeff have been talking to a number of people with organic gardens to examine possibilities. We are still living to a fair extent on last season’s vegetables – potatoes and pumpkins of many varieties as the staples, with kale, broccoli and a little lettuce.
News of us.
We’ve got serious about building a house. The site is a few hundred metres from our present house, and with mainly mountain and river valley views, with a little segment of ocean. A corner of the pine forest must be cut down to enable clear sun on the solar panels to be erected. Unlike Canada, here this is regarded as a good thing. Pines are not indigenous, and are regarded by ecologists as a pest species. Of course they are regarded by plantation owners as a cash crop. These will be replaced by indigenous species of less height.
Jack and Jeff often work together felling, hauling and processing trees. Jeff also spends time helping the work at Te Mara, most recently tree-planting.
Jeff will remain at home while we travel, and will be joined by his friend, Katy from Brisbane soon. I have a feeling that he’ll receive many dinner invitations while we are away.
This is the rainy season in NZ, so we have done no tramping lately. It’s surprisingly cold in the early morning, often frosty fields are visible as I look down on the coastal plain at dawn. I light the fire and toast my toes as I drink my morning latte. By noon, however, I’ll be stripped to a T-shirt.
I continue to enjoy the Riverside choir. Recently we contributed to a sort of local opera to celebrate the Maori New Year, marked by the rising of the star formation, Pleiades over the horizon. It’s called Matariki, and is a time of reflection on the past year, looking ahead, and awareness of our oneness with Nature. Jeff and I celebrated it on the marae – the local Maori settlement. There was a formal welcome, or powhiri where our credentials of good faith were established and we were accepted on to the marae with speeches and song. It’s customary to respond with speech and song from the visitors too. This is an admirable aspect of Maori formalities – each speech is followed by a song. (Imagine if parliament ran this way – so much more pleasant than the present mixture of speeches, insults and taunts.) Then a wise young man talked to us about the meaning of Matariki (using powerpoint). A bell from the wharekai (foodhall) called us to the meal of traditional food, mussels, cockles, seaweed sauce, fried bread. It was quite a moving occasion.
In the evening, at Riverside, was the local version of an opera. A Maori dramatist had written a script based on the stories of the Waitaha – a pre-Maori people who practised radical non-violence and were massacred by the invading Maori. Local musicians, Maori and pakeha (non-Maori), sang and played, including our choir, which sang in Maori. Local choreographers led the dance. Jeff did the lights. I loved it.
Otherwise, my life has been partially taken over by Climate Change. This is partly because NZ was very late in setting its carbon emissions targets, in fact, still hasn’t announced them. So many of us have been engaged in intense advocacy through July. My friend, Katerina, and I have given talks wherever we can, and dialogued with councillors on the topic. This, of course, has intensified our reading, with the result that she and I became sadder and sadder as the month progressed, realising how terrible the situation is, and how low our chances are of averting dangerous runaway climate change. Grief was what we were feeling, for the passing of the world as we know it, and as we look at the damage and depletion our children and grandchildren will have to cope with.
We know that the targets, which will be announced soon, will be far too low to have a reasonable probability of doing the job. Seems to me this work will be with me for the rest of my life.
Of course, establishing the village is a version of this, with the intention of showing that life at a lower carbon and energy footprint, and less resource use in general, is quite attractive. But this must be combined with action at the political level to attempt the large-scale change necessary to make enough of a difference.
I send my love to the large network of friends and family reading this.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Consent to proceed; a new house

2009 June 6
Dear Blog Friends,
Sorry for a too-long silence. There is much news to report.
Progress of village development: We had a moment of jubilation and relief last month when we finally heard that we had clear District Council consent to go ahead with the first stage of the village project – 11 houses. It has been a long and costly process. Now we need to find ways to help the neighbours who objected understand that they will live with more beauty around them, not less. Under difficult conditions they might benefit greatly from the basic food production that is part of the village, but I suspect that understanding will not be meaningful at present. There are a number of young families near to making a decision to join the village at this time. It’s especially good that these are energetic and enterprising young people with kids. One couple in Auckland had their first baby two weeks ago. They’ll be here in 6 weeks.
There are still difficult steps ahead, the next being to put in roading access to some of the lots, but I feel hopeful about the prospects for this community.
Our house. We had been reluctant to plan a house for ourselves, feeling that it would absorb a great deal of time. But there are reasons it would be good for the development of the village, so we are moving in this direction. We were right about the time it consumes. There are fairly detailed specifications for houses in this project – on-site materials where possible, relatively small houses (~150 square metres), solar aspect, concrete slab for thermal mass, composting toilets, solar hot water, wood stove with water heating to flow into pipes in the concrete floor, gas rings for quick cooking.
We have chosen a site, on a ridge with very beautiful views of mountains to the west, now snow-capped, Motueka River Valley to the north, and, once some of the plantation pines are cut, the sea to the east. Winds blow from the south-west (where the snow lies on the mountains in the winter), so the first thing to be done is to plant a wind-break. This was done a few weeks ago, with the help of many friends and WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). One thousand trees and grasses, mainly native species whose names I don’t recognise, planted for graded heights so the wind will sweep over them. Gil, the engineer working with us, has been using the digger to construct a path above the wind-break. One day I took thermoses of tea and peanut butter cookies in baskets over to the site mid-afternoon. We sat on the ridge top with the team then working on the wind-break, sipping tea and discussing the merits of a steady state economy. Some of the WOOFers are very well-read young people.
Our Learning: I’ve done workshops in recent months on solar ovens and dehydrators, methods of natural building and on composting. The latter two were particularly fun. Natural building involved dancing in a heap of mud to mix the building material. Composting involved leaping around on a metre high pile to tramp down the straw layer. (See photos) In April I went to the North Island to attend a conference on Community Currencies. Four of us went in a friend’s car. She got free passage on the Cook Strait Ferry as she did a singing gig in the ferry bar on the trip. I read a fair bit on the structure and reform of money before going to this. I’ve also read a fine book on organic gardening by our friend Adrian Myers – ‘Organic Futures’. I’ve just reviewed this book, as I liked it very much. Jack and I both read ‘Right Relationships: Building a Whole Earth Economy ‘ by Canadian economists Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver. Jack reviewed this one. We both think highly of its framing economic activity in terms of our fundamental relationship with the Earth. (If you’d like either of these reviews, we’ll send them to you.)
I recently spent five days in Wellington staying with dear friends, Archie and Lynsie Kerr – retired physicians with a long history in IPPNW and much else. I had a teaching gig at the medical school. This coincided with back-to-back conferences on Pacific ways of reconciliation, and another on the nuclear weapons issue. Malcolm Fraser, a former Prime Minister of Australia was a keynote speaker at the latter conference. At 79, he’s one of the growing number of very senior statesmen who are deeply concerned about the unfinished messy business of the 20th century – getting rid of the abomination of nuclear weapons. He feels it’s very urgent. He pointed out that with the current financial crisis, any sitting government is unlikely to be granted a second term. This means that we may have just 3½ years to take advantage of the much more favourable climate created by Obama to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Radio show I’ve continued my Transition Town Show every fortnight. Recent topics have been organic gardening, composting, intergenerational debt.
Village livelihoods We’ve been actively discussing how to create livelihoods from the productiveness of the Te Mara gardens (See photo). Jams, soups, juices, dried fruit and veges have all been suggested. Of course we produced pesto which won considerable approval in the summer. This morning, Jack, Jeff and I went to the Nelson Market to see how people organised their offerings and if there were any unfilled niches. It’s a delightful market, colourful and fun. We met two different friends at the coffee shop.
Jack and Jeff are well. Jack is far too busy with a myriad aspects of the project and has very little time for leisure. He does enjoy it if he can combine the very demanding intellectual work involved with physical work like tree-planting or tree-cutting. Jeff tried out the new road up the ridge cut by Gil, our engineer, on the bike this evening, carrying a box of beer. Unhappily the battery assist didn’t work and Jeff had to push the bike up the ridge – heavy work. This morning my two guys did their lumberjack thing again.
Music. The marimba group returned to its full complement of players and no longer needed a trainee, so my marimba career has been cut short. My friend, the wonderful elder jazz pianist, Emery, continues to try to teach me jazz. I’m a bad pupil. Next week I plan to begin with the Riverside (neighbouring community) choir. I love the music they select – world music with a bias to Maori.
We’ll visit Canada in August, staying with Jonah and Penny in our old home. We hope to see some of you then.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

First, the images: a picnic of Friends of Atamai, by the pond. One day we hope that the community centre will be near this pond. Two of the kids, lu and Rimu, exploring the pond. Lu has decided to dress as a girl for the day. Me doing an interview for The Transition Town Show in the studio of the community radio station in Motueka.

A few months ago, Jack did an interview for Worldchanging Canada, with Hassan Masum. I've edited it a little and copied it here, as it gives a very full picture of the aspirations of the village.

Before you get started, I'll just let you know that we are well and hppy, very much enjoying having Jeff here. To celebrate the visit of our friend Doug REberg, adn Jeff's arrival, we did a four day trip to the west coast of the South Island - dramatic rocky coast, gorgeous rainforest, cut by many rivers and waterfalls, limestone caves. We're constantly challenged by needing to learn more about a myriad things - at the level of gardening and managing the land, in the Transition Town work, and, as always, at national and international levels in issues that matter to us. For me, Afghanistan and Gaza are painful concerns, and for Jack, his work with the International Forum on Globalization continues.

Worldchanging Interview with Hassan Masum.
Hassan Masum: Jack, Atamai Village sounds like an interesting concept. What's your 60-second pitch for it?Jack Santa-Barbara: Thanks, Hassan. Well, Atamai Village is a project for anyone seriously committed to contributing to a sustainable way of living as we face the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and a host of other ecological challenges. Our notion of sustainability is based on ecological principles of living within the limits of the planet, and as much as possible, within the limits of the village site itself.

Using a permaculture design we are looking at capturing the existing energy flows on the site (solar, wind, rain and soil), and rather than wasting them as now happens, putting them to good use in meeting the critical needs of village residents. The project is about creating ways of living that are satisfying and enjoyable, while respecting the limits of what the local and surrounding ecosystems can provide.

Considerable research and thought has been put into the design phase of the project. We anticipated the current economic meltdown, we expect it to continue rather than rebound, and we feel that settlements like Atamai will be absolutely essential to living well on a planet that has been pushed to its ecological limits.

HM: Let's see how that would work in practice. Suppose I were to apply and be accepted to move into the village: what are the top few advantages I would experience in my daily life?
JSB: First of all, let me clarify that it is not a matter of applying and having to meet some specific set of criteria to become part of the village. It is an open village concept - anyone who shares the vision and is willing to abide by the covenants is welcomed. We are hoping that people will largely self select.

It is also important to clarify that the village is in the very formative stages - the land has been purchased, considerable research has been done to inform the design process, and a formal application has been made to local council for the first phase of 11 dwellings - later planned to grow to about 40. So there is still lots of opportunity to participate in the design and development process if someone is interested.

The area is physically very attractive - a bike ride to the coast (and neighbouring town of Motueka), surrounded by snow-capped mountains in winter. This is the sunniest part of New Zealand - summers are in the low 20's (Celsius) during the day, and low teens at night. Winters are the wetter season (about 1000mm of rain a year), with very few frost days and the temperature getting into double digits most days - all in all, pretty pleasant.

As for advantages of living in the village - let me list a few:

You will enjoy food security - the permaculture design of the village area itself, and the adjoining garden areas and orchards will mean healthy, local organic food is available year round.

You will enjoy energy security - firstly because your home and the other infrastructure of the village will be frugal by design, requiring minimal energy inputs; also by design, the energy inputs required will be provided by renewable sources - the sun, the rain and the soil.

You will enjoy water security, as the rainfall captured on roof tops and in ponds and dams will provide for domestic and garden use; the dwelling grey water systems will ensure good use is made of all water resources; adequate water storage for fire safety will also be included in the design.

I emphasize these advantages, although many people might take them for granted - in a future challenged by climate change and energy descent, these basic necessities will become increasingly difficult to secure.

HM: Aside from the security aspect, can you be more specific about any positive points I would experience if I moved there?JSB: Yes, there will be many other advantages of the village as well:

You wouldn't have to commute to work because you would likely work in the village.

Your home will be low maintenance and heated with a passive solar design - so very efficient to keep comfortable.

You would stay healthy by walking or cycling around the village sites.

You would have use of village equipment to transport goods - eg a small electric vehicle for hauling goods or people if necessary.

If you need to travel outside the village, you could make use of the village car sharing program - greatly reducing your transportation costs.

As a villager, you are automatically a member of the village trust and participate in decisions about how the village commons are developed and managed.

You will be living in a community where people share some common values about sustainability, but where diversity is embraced and where individual initiative and perspectives are appreciated.

You will be able to enjoy the many amenities the village provides - hiking trails, shared equipment for work and play, recreational ponds and fields, a community centre with sophisticated communications equipment.

You will have a direct say in decisions about where you live, play, and likely work.

HM: It certainly sounds attractive. A number of potential disadvantages come to mind, though, such as cost, remote location, extra responsibilities vs a traditional dwelling, and risk of an untried model. How would you address these? JSB: You've got lots of questions there - and good ones. Let me take them one by one.

Costs are always an issue, but what we are striving for is diversity, as there would be in any traditional village - only we hope this one will be more egalitarian and without a hierarchical structure. So while the costs of the individual land titles will vary and be comparable to similar titles elsewhere, we are also looking for ways that can involve people with limited financial resources.

Rental accommodation will be one option, or a lease to rent approach. We are also looking at co-housing, as well as a sweat-equity option. We are very aware that a genuine village will not work if only people with financial resources live here, but who do not have any real skills that will be essential to sustain a functional village economy. While a final decision has not yet been made, we are looking at reserving a certain number of titles for key trades people - carpenters, electricians, plumbers, permaculturists, etc - to ensure the village has room for these folks. We recognize the need to be creative with attracting people with the necessary skills, and given the current economic downturn, the village actually presents an attractive option for people with these skills, as the village becomes a base for them to both live and work.

The site is less than a half hour bike ride from the neighboring town of Motueka - it's small, but we have been really surprised at the variety of activities and events here. Not only do we have terrific Indian and Thai restaurants, two movie theatres (one offering alternative movies), and two bookstores, but there have also been string quartets, a guitar-violin duo, wonderful marimba performances, gospel choirs, Tibetan flutist, etc. And this is just Motueka - in the neighboring town of Nelson (just under an hour by car) there are regular arts and film festivals, and any products and services you would expect in a town of 50,000.

If you need a Toronto or Vancouver to be happy, this is probably not the place for you. But we are not feeling deprived in any way by the rural character of the area. This area has been a draw for alternative lifestyle people for decades, so there are a lot of interesting folks around. And because the population is relatively small, we have access to politicians at all levels.

You also ask about the extra responsibilities associated with being part of the trust. If someone sees this as a disadvantage, then the village is not for them. If someone sees this as an opportunity to be part of their community, contribute to its well-being, and actually enjoy the working through of issues with like-minded people, then involvement in the trust is an advantage. In the village, people will take responsibility for local decisions and their family's well-being.

Your question about an untried model is also an interesting one. If the climate, energy and economic changes we anticipate come to pass, much of our civilization will be going through considerable upheaval - many people will be in untried waters. The size and structure of the village trust makes the adaptations needed more manageable - local people making local decisions about local issues. We think that this will eventually evolve as the most sensible response to changes that will be difficult to anticipate. The village model provides an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and begin practicing, before driven to it by dire necessity - village life is how most people lived sustainably for most of human history.

Let me also come back to the question about isolation, in terms of New Zealand rather than just the rural setting. Again, this is not for everyone, but the geographic isolation of New Zealand has some distinct advantages, along with the features of a relatively small population (4+ million) and the capacity to produce food and fibre. The country is capable of being self sufficient in essentials - a good thing in a uncertain world. Because it is physically difficult to reach, we will likely not see large numbers of environmental or economic refugees (although New Zealand has taken in many people from the south Pacific whose islands seem to be disappearing). And with a maritime climate, many of the direct impacts of climate change will be reduced. The relative isolation will also push for greater self sufficiency - before economic globalization took off a few decades ago, New Zealand did most of its own manufacturing, and that is possible again.

Whether the "potential disadvantages" you suggest are in fact disadvantages depends on many things - personal tastes, to some extent. But we see some big changes coming for industrialized societies as we know them - changes triggered by more severe climate patterns and the consequences of climate change, energy descent, and the economic turmoil that is likely to ensue from these two major developments. We also think that the current pattern of industrialized societies are unsustainable - even the so called "green economy" initiatives now being promoted. We take ecological limits seriously, and are looking for ways to respect them while living comfortably. We think we will all be forced to face these challenges sooner rather than later, and feel that the sooner we struggle with these challenges, the better off we will all be - this is really the key vision of the village.

HM: Quite a diverse range of factors at different scales, from personal tastes to global trends.

What have you learned from previous intentional communities, regarding what works and what doesn't?

JSB: I should first say that Atamai is not an intentional community in the traditional sense, and we generally don't describe it that way. It is only an intentional community in the sense that there will be covenants to support the ecological design of the village infrastructure and the dwellings.

Most intentional communities are organized around shared social issues - religious beliefs or philosophies. Atamai is organized around diverse ways of living sustainably. A central issue will be creating businesses in the village that fulfil this goal - whether it is organic food production, sustainable forestry, or even an engineering operation geared toward appropriate technologies. We would like to support and encourage these types of sustainable businesses that focus on providing essential services.

Over a year ago, we had a facilitated visioning exercise. It was initially designed for interested parties to articulate their ideal village. In the process it became evident that, while there were many common elements, individuals' ideal villages were very idiosyncratic. It is unrealistic to meet individual ideals. So we stepped back from the question of what is the ideal village from individual perspectives, and refocused on what the common elements were.

What we came up with was the focus on the broad issues of sustainability, social justice and aesthetics - and a healthy respect for individual differences, and acceptance of those differences. In fact, we see the diversity of interests and orientations as strengthening the community, as long as the basics are respected - and we hope to accomplish that with the basic design features, and the formal covenants.

HM: Let's focus in on your own personal story. How did the idea for this village come about, and what motivated you to get involved?JSB: After a friend gave me a copy of Herman Daly's "For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future" back in the mid 80's, I became very interested in [ecological economics], and came to see it as a very important approach to many of the major challenges humanity is facing. So at the end of 1999 I sold the company I had founded some 20 years earlier, and immersed myself in ecological economics. It led me to view climate change and peak oil (along with a number of other major challenges - see my website Sustainable Scale) as critically important issues that we were not dealing with in any reasonable way.

The role of relocalizing the global economy became a unifying theme for moving toward a solution. If part of the problem was ecological overshoot driven by a focus on profits through economic globalization that only exacerbates inequity, then part of the solution had to be integrating the economy and the environment at the local level. My understanding of the implications of peak oil (and other fossil fuels sooner rather than later) made it clear that we were going to be forced to relocalize - whether we want to or not. Our entire industrialized civilization is based on cheap oil. And that is coming to an end, despite the current slump in oil prices.

When you understand peak oil, and the issue of net energy, and the time and effort it will take to reorient our complex societies to these new realities (along with the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss), you realize we are already behind schedule by a significant margin.

The relocalization movement was sticking its head up in a variety of ways - The Natural Step for Communities movement is perhaps one of the older versions of it. More recently, Michael Shuman's work on the benefits of relocalizing the economy, and the relocalization work of the Post Carbon Institute, have all brought relocalization more to the foreground. And the Transition Towns initiatives inspired by Rob Hopkins has a lot of vigour right now.

All of these more recent versions are in addition to what has been happening with the intentional communities and ecovillage and co-housing movements that have been going on for some time. I see all of these as different expressions of the need to reconnect with each other and with the natural world on which we depend - each with its own emphasis and perspective.

While I had been working at the national and international NGO level on these global issues, progress was slow and frustrating. So I decided to rebalance my activism portfolio if you will and put more energies and thought into relocalization. I looked around for a project to get involved with and came across the Atamai project that had already begun in New Zealand. I visited the project and worked with the group for a month, then went back to Canada to discuss the issue with family and friends.

After a lot of discussion we decided to give it a go and make the move to New Zealand and contribute to Atamai. Aside from the benefits of New Zealand, the Atamai project had a unique feature that added to the attraction - the idea of creating a traditional village settlement. Humanity has endured in these traditional village structures for millennia and across continents, so there must be something useful about village life that we need to learn more about.

A lot of thought and research had already gone into the design for Atamai when I arrived, so my involvement has been more with the implementation - working with the local council, beginning to market the project, etc. There is still quite a bit to do so if there are people interested in what we are doing, there is still considerable scope to contribute to many aspects of making the village a success.

HM: It sounds like you decided you could do more good through building an actual community than through advocacy, and perhaps get more fulfilment at a personal level as well.

Could you say more about your personal decision to "give it a go"? How specifically did you move from thinking about the idea to taking the leap from Canada to New Zealand? What factors went into your decision?
JSB: Well we don't see it as an "either or" situation. We are still involved with advocacy at national and international levels, but whereas those areas were where we spent most of our time before, now they are clearly secondary to our main focus of the village. There is no doubt in our minds that advocacy at the larger levels is essential -but we also believe a lot of the solutions are local and providing a local working model is a way of connecting the two. It is not a matter of fulfillment as much as where the need is greatest and we feel we can have the most impact.

At a very personal level there is another element at work - our family - grown children and our grandkids. We think there is a more than even chance that industrialized societies are unravelling and that there will be considerable chaos - economic and social. So having a sustainable community - frugal by design I like to say - plus a supportive community, is one way of providing security in an uncertain future. So aside from seeing the issues from a broad societal perspective, there are very personal concerns for the safety and well-being of our extended family. One son will be joining us early in the new year, and we remain hopeful that the other two will in the future.

The area where the village is being planned is a Transition Town, and there are three Transition Towns nearby, so we feel it is an encouraging sign that communities around us are concerned with the same issues and looking at relocalizing existing communities. Although our experiment is starting de novo, I suspect we will learn a lot from each other.

We don't pretend to know what the future will hold - except that there is likely to be much more uncertainty just about anywhere you look. And given the range of uncertainty - from just requiring minor adaptations to a general breakdown of modern civilization - we thought a risk management approach made the most sense. If we believe the future will have some dramatic changes but we cannot predict with any certainty when they will occur and just how dramatic they might be, then the best approach is one where we do things that will leave us better off regardless of what happens.

We think we are doing that. The sustainable village as planned will provide considerable resilience against the vagaries of climate change and energy descent. So if it happens we will be well placed. If the changes take a long time to develop and lots of adaptations occur in the broader society, then we will still have provided a demonstration of how to live comfortably and well with a much reduced footprint - and live in a beautiful place to boot. At the same time, we continue to be involved at the national and international levels on these issues, so there is nothing escapist or isolationist about what we are doing.

HM: That seems like a carefully considered approach. It's interesting, though, that you had to move halfway around the world to find the right community. Shouldn't it be relatively easy to set up a similar community in Canada?JSB: There is an ecovillage movement in Canada, but it is relatively young and there are not a large number of examples. Some are quite small groups - a dozen or so families - and many are clearly counterculture in orientation. All of these initiatives are important experiments and should be nurtured and supported. Due to municipal regulations, it is not always easy to up the structure for an ecovillage. There is a group in Caledon, Ontario that took 10 years to get local council approval for the dwelling design they wanted.

But the local authorities are only one of the challenges to establishing a new type of human settlement - and these challenges exist in New Zealand as well as in Canada. I think it could be done in Canada, and I would encourage more people to get involved.

Our reasons for choosing New Zealand had less to do with the ecovillage movement in Canada than with the idea of what North America would be like if there was a major economic and social unravelling. As the epicenter of the high consumption lifestyle, the shocks of climate change and energy descent are likely to be resisted in North America more forcefully than in other parts of the world. My intuition is that North America may be one of the last places to voluntarily make the adaptations to a sustainable lifestyle. I suspect the notion of entitlement to the "good life" is too ingrained to be relinquished in favor of a comfortable and sustainable frugality.

I don't know what will happen in the future, but it is easy enough to envision a very shaken North America - with significant unemployment, economic depression, social unrest, and increased violence. Concentrations of people in too many large cities could make it difficult to adapt with the changes that are needed - more local food production, focus on the real economy of essential goods and services (now less than 10 % of the overall economy), supportive communities working together to solve problems, and so on. It is not at all clear to me that the number of people now living in North America is sustainable, even with a localized economy - one not dependent on large imports from other countries.

Again, I am not trying to make a prediction about North America, but merely identifying what I think could happen there. If there is any reasonable chance that such a scenario could play out, I would rather be working elsewhere to develop a sustainable form of human settlement that might have some chance of succeeding. Not that New Zealand is a utopia by any means - there are environmental as well as economic and political difficulties here too. But the scale is so different that it makes a difference in terms of the impact you can have, and in some ways it is a simpler society to deal with. Also, the fact that it is an island nation means that it is not far from most people's consciousness that they have to be relatively self-sufficient.

The reasons we ended up in New Zealand are because we first spelled out the criteria for where it might be feasible to successfully establish a sustainable settlement of some sort. We wanted a place where a lot of energy did not have to go into keeping warm. We wanted a place that had a biocapacity surplus - that is, where the lifestyle consumption is less than what the land can provide. While the New Zealand ecological footprint is high by world standards, New Zealand does have a surplus.

We also wanted a place with a small population - just in case there are large migrations of people searching for food and jobs, as in the Great Depression. We wanted a place with a tradition of a parliamentary democracy. Ideally, we also wanted a place that had a tradition of exploring alternative lifestyles - so there would be lots of local examples to learn from, as well as to provide mutual support. If you search the planet for those particular criteria (which others may or may not share), then there are not a lot of places to consider.

These are clearly very personal decisions and I am not suggesting everyone should move to New Zealand. But I do hope knowing about what we are doing and why will encourage others to take these issues seriously and work out what they think is best for their families. Everyone's risk assessments and risk management approaches will be different - and this is as it should be.

HM: Could you expand more on how you engage globally while acting very locally in this way?What strategies and tools do you suggest to others in a similar position? And what role, if any, do you see for the internet and video-conferencing?

JSB: Both Joanna and I remain active with organizations we have been involved with in the past. Jo is a long time member of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Canadian chapter of that organization, Physicians for Global Survival. We are both involved with the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University (a peace through health project in Afghanistan), as well as Transcend: A Peace and Development Organization; each of us is engaged in writing books with the founder of Transcend, Jo on reconciliation, and me on peace business. I am also on the board of a couple of environmental NGOs, and last year wrote a monograph on biofuels for one of them, the International Forum on Globalization. Both of us also continue supervision of students from various universities, and Jo has been invited to do some guest lectures in Wellington later in the year.

I guess one of the lessons here is that you don't have to disengage from many of the activities you are already engaged in- many of these are not location dependent. And if the organizations you are involved with are truly international, then you have a readymade network wherever you go. While we may not have the same face to face contact with former colleagues, the histories we have with them remain meaningful. And internet with video calls and conferencing can go a long way to staying involved.

Another activity that is planned is that the village will engage in educational work. This will be both onsite, as well as via the internet. This educational work is part of the mission of the trust that is developing the village. That is one of several reasons for planning a major communications facility within the village. In our wilder moments, we envision consulting on developing sustainable villages in other locations.

Another aspect of the larger-picture connectivity is that international experts actually come to our area. Last night, we had our second dinner in as many weeks with two Transition Town trainers from the UK who are on a world tour of existing and potential transition towns. Today. we had lunch with a local colleague who spent several weeks at Schumacher College last year and is planning to return there for more workshops later this year. We discussed his giving a public lecture when he returns. A few weeks ago, a local colleague who is involved with the World Health Organization and looking at the relation between climate change and human health on a global level led a discussion over dinner, along with a visiting Australian member of the IPCC on the climate - health connection.

The internet also plays a continuing role in our connecting with colleagues over proposals to the new US administration, as well as formulating and endorsing petitions on a variety of issues.

So you can see we have no sense of being isolated or removed from the "broader society." I think it is a bit of an illusion that one has to be in any particular place to remain active globally - indeed, it is an illusion to assume we can act "globally." We can only engage with specific issues - some of which are local and some of which are elsewhere. But, other than for strictly local issues, engagement can be done from anywhere, even the sun-drenched hills of Motueka.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Recipes for pesto and terra preta

Dear Friends and Family,
There is lots happening in our proto-village. The photo shows what our house looked like one day last week. On the left, Gil (project engineer) and Jack are conferring about something. On the right, Cheryl and Jacques (land manager) and Amala (resident part-time worker) are stripping leaves off basil. This was a trial run. We worked out our recipe - basil, garlic, walnuts, Parmesan cheese,lemon juice, olive oil, salt. On Friday we're going to make a LOT of pesto. We'll use Riverside's big kitchen to do it. On Sunday we'll sell it at the local market (I hope) and also perhaps, other outlets.

Another enterprise began today. A huge amount of intellectual work went into devising a recipe for soil amendment, based partly on ancient terra preta of the Amazon. This involved biochar, compost and soil.. Our recipe includes biochar, rock-dust, composted bark, seaweed, blood and bone and Effective Microorganisms. Jeff will pick this up as a business. Two new professorships have been funded at one of NZ's universities (Massey) to study the properties and manufacture of biochar. I've begun a dialogue with one of the engaged academics around questions I have about the large-scale production of biochar. This is being promoted as climate change mitigation. It's a controversial issue.

Our son Jeff arrived a few days ago and is rapidly orienting himself to what is in many ways a new world. He, like us, is mourning the loss of friends and family, and is also excited and happy to forge a pathway for himself in this new world.

For the rest of this blog, let me introduce you to aspects of this biochar controversy. It's very interesting indeed. My friend, Metta Spencer, editor of 'Peace Magazine', asked me if I'd write on this topic. She kindly agreed to my using the essay in this blog.

I'll sign off here, and hope you enjoy exploring this fascinating issue.

Warmest wishes to all,

Gardening to mitigate climate change
Can biochar save the world?

James Lovelock, remarkable for his just-in-time discovery of the ozone hole, and then for his fruitful Gaia hypothesis (that the Earth is a complex interacting system which self-regulates to preserve life), was recently interviewed on mitigation of climate change . At nearly 90, he pulls no punches. It is too late to contain carbon emissions, he says. Trying to sequester carbon dioxide in underground caverns is a waste of time, and there is little to be hoped for from alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their
agricultural waste -- which contains carbon that the plants have spent
the summer sequestering -- into non-biodegradable charcoal, and
burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty
quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite

What? And we’ve been agonizing over fossil fuel emissions, carbon tax, alternative energy and so on? We just have to bury charcoal? Let’s examine this proposal, beginning with the carbon cycle.

Carbon cycle
Two of the greenhouses gases threatening the health of the biosphere as they accumulate in the atmosphere are carbon molecules – carbon dioxide and methane . Methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in its global warming action. The third main component of greenhouse gases is nitrous oxide (8% and 298 times as potent), which we will discuss later. Carbon in various forms resides in the deep layers of the earth; in the surface, biologically active soil; in the ocean, both deep and shallow levels; in the layer of plant and animal material on the surface of the earth; and in the atmosphere.

In the deep layers of the earth and of the ocean, there is little movement of carbon, except when humans unearth it as fossil fuels and send it into the atmosphere. Between the atmosphere and the shallow ocean, the soil and the living beings of the biosphere, there is continual exchange of carbon. This is the carbon cycle. Our problem is that human activity has altered the carbon cycle in ways that have increased atmospheric carbon. Carbon dioxide and methane, together with water vapour and nitrous oxide, act to trap radiant sun energy near the Earth’s surface. This is causing climate change.

Human impact on carbon cycle
The human activity contributing to this change is:

• Burning fossil fuels, sending carbon into the atmosphere
• Deforestation (reduction of volume of trees whose living matter holds a large amount of carbon stable for tens or hundreds of years)
• Exposure of bare soil, leading to soil carbon returning to the atmosphere faster. Tilling the soil speeds up this process.
• Grazing of millions of domestic animals, most of whom produce large quantities of methane due to their mode of digestion. Soil degradation with loss of carbon also occurs.

It looks as if our modes of growing food, feed for animals, fuel and fibre are part of the problem. It’s not only burning fossil fuels. Our forestry and agricultural methods need to be part of the solution. Stopping deforestation, returning land to ecosystem restoration, ‘no till’ agriculture, new methods of grazing and animal management that mitigate the worst greenhouse gas effects, and especially organic methods of food production are important parts of problem-solving. These will all keep more carbon in the soil and in living organisms and less in the atmosphere.

But Lovelock and others suggest we can go much further in restoring carbon cycle proportions (between soil, living organisms and atmosphere) that support life as we know it. The idea is to turn agricultural waste, which otherwise would decay and release carbon to the atmosphere, into charcoal, which is highly concentrated carbon, and bury it. Carbon in this form is relatively non-biodegradable, and remains stable for thousands of years. It would be the equivalent of returning to the earth some of the carbon we’ve mined and put in the atmosphere.

This form of carbon is called ‘biochar’. It is made by burning organic (mainly plant) material at a low temperature with little oxygen. Pre-Columbian Amazonians made biochar by burning plant material in pits covered with earth. They then mixed it with compost and soil to create what European colonists called ‘terra preta’, or dark earth. They were not attempting to reduce greenhouse gases, so why did they do this?

Biochar has numerous benign properties the Amazonians made use of: it increases availability of soil nutrients, thus reducing the need for fertilizer and increasing productivity; it helps retain water; it reduces deforestation, because by converting from ‘slash and burn’ to ‘slash and char’, soil fertility remains satisfactory in a given site for much longer. And, it turns out, it decreases emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, the other greenhouse gases. In modern kilns, the manufacture of biochar can produce both oil and gas used for energy purposes. Several different technologies are under trial in low income countries to power cooking stoves and ovens, as well as to enrich soil. One type uses gas from the making of biochar to power cooking stoves. Another type uses small household stoves to both make biochar and cook food . These endeavours may increase human health by reducing indoor smoke from inefficient open wood fires.

Beyond soil enrichment needs, can carbon be buried in the earth at a scale that would make a difference to atmospheric carbon? According to Sara Scherr and Sajal Sthapit in the 2009 State of the World Report ,

There is a global production potential of 594 million
tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in biochar
per year, simply by using waste materials such
as forest and milling residues, rice husks,
groundnut shells, and urban waste. Far more
could be generated by planting and converting

Advocates calculate that if biochar additions were applied
at this rate on just 10 percent of the world’s
cropland (about 150 million hectares), this
method could store 29 billion tons of CO2-
equivalent, offsetting nearly all the emissions from fossil fuel burning.

Metta Spencer, editor of this magazine, has pointed out the huge amount of wood biomass (living and recently living material) in trees destroyed by the pine beetle in western Canada and the US. Conversion to biochar and use as soil amendment would be a large-scale process which could be a very significant contribution to mitigation of climate change and to impending unemployment expected from the global economic depression.

Four cautions must be borne in mind: firstly that making biochar on this scale by modern methods would require enormous investment in kilns in all agricultural areas of the globe. Considering the many co-benefits, including poverty alleviation, this could be considered an excellent investment. There are many current projects running on exactly these assumptions. (See sidebox) If biochar were made by the ancient methods, some of its benefits would be retained, but the potential for energy generation would be lost.

In Egypt, over 20 million tonnes of rice straw are burned annually after the harvest, contributing to air pollution. The ash residue increases soil salinity, decreasing fertility. Researchers from the University of Mansura in Egypt and the University of Copenhagen are working on a rice straw gasifier which will produce fuel gas (syngas) and biochar. The gas will power flatbread baking ovens, and the biochar will be returned to the fields to increase soil fertility and water retention. This project will involve five villages.
The Mongolian Biochar Initiative is working with small-scale herders, vegetable growers, women farmers and forestry workers at an individual and community level. The aim is to produce biochar to increase income, improve soil fertility and combat global warming. They are using family level low technology biochar production units based on feedstock common to rural Mongolia. The hope is to reduce desertification currently affecting the land. There is also the intention to make the stoves suitable for cooking and to replace current methods of using wood and dung for cooking and heating. The cleaner burning stoves will also be introduced into urban areas where currently wood burning causes serious smog in the winter months. {end of sidebox}

The second caution is that continued soil fertility depends on nutrients being returned to the soil that would be burned in biochar production. There is current research aiming to understand what proportions of plant material can be turned to biochar without incurring deficiencies. The New Zealand government has funded two professorships in biochar, one to pursue its behaviour in soil, and one to advance knowledge of the process of turning plant material to biochar. The long-term soil fertility effects of modern biochar are not yet known.

Thirdly, the dynamics of charcoal-humus mix are not well understood. A ten year experiment with buried carbon in boreal forests showed more rapid decomposition of humus and release of below-ground carbon in carbon dioxide, thus partially offsetting the benefits of biochar as a long-term carbon sink. In addition, it is not yet clear that modern biochar remains as stable as Amazonian biochar.

Fourthly, to produce enough biomass to make a difference to atmospheric carbon may mean land use conversion, for example forest clearing in order to plant ‘energy crops’.

Clearing of forests or grasslands to make way for
energy crop monoculture results in large quantities of emissions, reduces future sink
capacity and causes further collapse of ecosystems and the biodiversity on which we
depend for climate regulation. As widespread freshwater shortages are predicted, the
regulation of rainfall by healthy forests and soils becomes increasingly critical, and the
allotment of water for irrigation of energy crops increasingly unsustainable.

In addition, such land conversion may displace indigenous people from so-called ‘marginal lands.

We must note that there are large corporate interest involved in the promotion of biochar; they are doing so before all the data are in. Approaches to the issue from these directions are likely to lack a broad ecological perspective, and risk being a replay of the biofuel mistakes in adverse ecological and human impacts.

Biochar has some prestigious supporters. Besides Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Professor of Earth Sciences at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia and author of The Weathermakers said recently,

Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future.

Nitrogen cycle
Now we must return to the third greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
It is nearly 300 times as potent in climate change effects as carbon dioxide but is present in smaller quantities. Fossil fuel burning has resulted in a 6 or 7-fold increase in oxides of nitrogen (including nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere. Other increases have been caused by manufactured agricultural fertilization (a major effect), burning plant material, cattle management methods. Nitrous oxide not only acts as a greenhouse gas, but affects human health in two other ways. It depletes the ozone layer (thus causing skin cancer) in the upper atmosphere, and in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, it increases ozone concentrations (thus contributing to respiratory illness.) This is a pretty bad actor. How do we respond?

Getting nitrous oxide out of the atmosphere
We need to stop burning fossil fuels and stop making artificial nitrogen fertilizers. Once again, organic horticulture practices come to the rescue. They greatly cut fossil fuel use in growing food, and entirely eliminate artificial fertilizer use. Biochar production would replace the high oxygen burning of plant material which sends nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

Implications for the ordinary worried citizen:
• Stop using fossil fuels and keep on with political advocacy in this area.
• Buy organic food. It could be proposed that the health of the planet is a much more important reason to do this than individual health benefits. Better still, grow your own and add biochar to your soil.
• Stop eating meat, or choose meat, such as chicken, whose production causes less greenhouse gas emissions.
• Cut back on dairy products.
• Support forest protection and restoration, locally and in other countries.
• Support small-scale biochar projects where you can find them .
• Although burying biochar as a climate change mitigation project seems both closer to natural processes than other ‘geo-engineering’ proposals, and has more long-term evidence behind it, there are still many unanswered questions about its sustainability. We need to watch closely as this knowledge emerges and to apply what is useful as soon as possible. The time is short. Let’s hope the knowledge emerges soon.

Joanna Santa Barbara is a peace and ecological activist, now contributing to the development of Atamai, a sustainable village in New Zealand which incorporates many of the recommended practices, including biochar and organic gardening.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Going Solar

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Dear Friends and Relatives,
This is a notable day for us - we have just gone solar for our electricity needs. We have been preparing for this over the last year by cutting our electricity consumption. In the photos you can see Jack and Gil preparing the site, and then the solar array in the sunshine.
I think we'll have plenty of energy!
I need to experiment with timing of electricity use. Early morning use of the washing machine was OK today, but after the wash (avoiding simultaneous use), turning on the electric oven triggered the back-up diesel generator. I'll wait until full sunlight to do my baking.

After a little investigation, I am impressed with the potential of solar dryers to preserve tomatoes, fruit and herbs, but not impressed with solar cookers or ovens at this latitude. The one I saw in action at a friend's house required constant adjustment of the reflectors, and although I burned my fingers when I touched it, took ages to boil water.

The other new thing is the incorporation of WWOOFers in our lives. The acronym stands for Worldwide (or Willing) Workers on Organic Farms. People, usually young people, travel around offering four hours work a day, for which they receive accommodation and food. It is very commonly done in NZ. Our beginning has been very pleasing. A delightful woman, Helen, came from Dunedin with her equally delightful young sons to see if she'd like to join the village. And a US student stayed for a few days. We are expecting two other groups now. It's a big help for Jacques in watering, mulching, transplanting, etc.. When there are no WWOOFers, Jack and I join Jacques and Cheryl to water for 1-2 hours each evening.

Warmest wishes to all,