PLANET EARTH SALON:
RAISING AWARENESS OF THE PERILS FACING MOTHER EARTH
An Update on the Marin Carbon Project
Excerpts from an interview with John Wick, Nicasio rancher and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, conducted by Bing Gong, co-host of KWMR Post Carbon Radio. The audio of the full hour interview is archived at: wmpostcarbon.com
Bing Gong: John, can you tell us about the Marin Carbon Project and how it got started?
John Wick: When my wife Peggy and I bought our land in 1998, we were environmentalists and “leave-it-alone-wilderness enthusiasts.” We were very confident that if we got rid of cattle and stopped the grazing, we could create a beautiful piece of wilderness. Then, over the next three years, we watched chaos on our landscape. We lost the ability to walk across our grass fields because of the weeds that came in. We started to recognize we had produced something different than what our vision was.
We were fortunate to meet Dr. Jeff Creque, who is a rangeland ecologist. He advised us to introduce grazing as a strategic event for the benefit of the ecosystem, and therefore to promote our native grasses and ground-nesting bird habitat. We did a lot of reading at his suggestion, including the book Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin. We also studied Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and followed the Savory method very carefully, going through every patch of grass on the ranch and designing a beneficial grazing event for each one. Then, we found a herd of cattle that did not have de-wormers in them, because the last thing we wanted to do was to dump toxic piles of cow poop on our soil system. Working with the Lunny familys herd starting in 2005, we reintroduced grazing into our system, and over the next couple of years we noticed an amazing change with the landscape. We started seeing whole fields of native perennial grasses without planting a seed. Grasses need to be grazed, and we had demonstrated that by not grazing them, the grass plants grew tall, then died and dried, smothering future grass growth and causing our whole system to start collapsing.
BG: Is this similar to the Midwest where the buffalo grazed the prairies?
JW: Yes, historically, these massive herds moving through the landscape had a significant impact. Our living systems co-evolved with that massive disturbance and learned how to thrive under it. Having watched our landscape transform into a healthy native perennial grassland system full of wildlife, we actually created the wilderness we were looking for. We did it by introducing grazing as a strategic management event in the system. Based on that success we were able to entertain bigger thoughts. Dr. Creque, with his concern about the climate, kept referring to grass plants as “little straws” that suck CO2 from the atmosphere.
BG: That’s photosynthesis, right? The plant takes in carbon dioxide from the air, and turns it into sugars and carbohydrates, and gives off oxygen, which we all need to breathe.
JW: Yes, it’s the carbon cycle. There is a finite amount of carbon on earth, and it’s in one of five carbon pools at any one time. In the atmosphere, it’s in the form of CO2. When atmospheric carbon enters the biosphere through photosynthesis, it’s transformed into carbohydrates, and in the form of roots it enters the pedosphere, the soil system. As the result of natural processes, it then becomes soil carbon in one of three states in that system. The first state is still in the roots and bodies of soil microorganisms—that’s the labile pool, which we expect to respire back to the atmosphere. As a result of processes in the soil, however, some of that carbon becomes “the occluded light fraction” because it is physically trapped inside the “crumbs” in good soil structure. This is carbon that will stay around for 100 years or more, unless plowed. Below that, or mixed in with it, is a more permanent form of soil carbon called “the heavy fraction.” This is carbon that is now chemically bonded to soil structure, and it’s not available to microorganisms to eat or burn up. This carbon will be there for millennia, unless plowed. Carbon in the heavy fraction and in the occluded light fraction holds more water. Therefore, soil that is carbon-rich holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, which pulls more carbon into the soil, which holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, and it goes on and on.
Below the Pedosphere is the lithosphere. Here carbon is found in the form of diamonds, coal, natural gas, and crude oil. The fifth carbon pool is the hydrosphere, or oceans. Carbon found here is in the form of carbonic acid.
In 2007, Peggy and I went to Darren Doherty’s rainwater harvesting seminar in Two Rock. Darren stated that increasing soil organic matter just 1.5 % in all the cropland on earth could stop global warming within 10 years. Dr. Creque, who has been the manager at the McEvoy Ranch for a decade, has increased soil organic matter at the McEvoy olive plantation from 2 to 4% through grazing management and compost application. If that happened on crop lands, what about rangelands? It turns out rangeland systems are the largest single cover type on earth, and they account for over half of human occupation. So if rangeland is the largest system on earth that is currently under management, perhaps a change in management could enhance carbon flow into the soil system. On such a vast area, a very small change would have a big effect. And that was the beginning of the Marin Carbon Project.
Dr. Jeff Creque and I went over to UC Berkeley and met with Dr. Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist. She is one of the world’s foremost soil carbon sequestration experts. We asked her whether management could add carbon in rangeland systems. She replied that there was not a lot of peer-reviewed research, and that she doubted it. The Marin Carbon Project was willing to organize an effort to fund her to find out. Dr. Silver warned, “You may not like what I find.” We responded, “This is important and we need to know.” Based on that, she was willing to spend her time doing the rigorous controlled experiments required to answer the question, Can management enhance soil carbon?
BG: So what you did was start with your land as a baseline, to see the results of that particular type of strategic grazing?
JW: Baselines are very important, as are controls. You always need a treatment plot next to something that you didn’t treat so you can see the difference. Without a control you can’t confidently say that your treatment made a difference, because you don’t know what would have happened otherwise. What’s really neat about Marin County is that we have this great history of cooperation between the Resource Conservation District (RCD), MALT, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and land managers. We tapped into this and identified 35 baseline sites in Marin and Sonoma that were typical of land under management. These were dairy pastures and beef pastures, and this group of agencies facilitated access for Dr. Silver and her lab to go onto the land and take soil samples.
We found a range of carbon in existing lands in Marin and Sonoma from 30 to 150 tons of carbon per hectare (2.47 acres). When Dr. Silver saw the results, she asked, “What is the history of the high carbon sites?” As it turned out, all of the high carbon sites had a history of dairy manure application. Further analysis showed that the carbon in the occluded light fraction and in the heavy fraction was just a few decades old. This was big news to everyone. Previously, researchers assumed that it took thousands of years for carbon from the atmosphere to enter the heavy fraction.
That was exciting to us. We had found a pathway: the topical application of an organic amendment on soil had ended up enhancing soil carbon at depth. Based on that, we designed a controlled experiment on my ranch and in the Sierra Foothills Research Extension Center, which is a UC-owned 5,000 acre research ranch. We went from a coastal prairie system, which is my ranch, all the way to the Sierra foothills. And we duplicated the experiment on both sites. In December, 2008, we dusted the test plots with a half inch of compost. Unlike manure, compost is a biologically stable carbon-nitrogen complex. Adding a carbon source like straw to manure, and getting it up to temperature with thermophilic bacteria by providing air and moisture, produces a wonderful soil amendment. That’s what we put on our research plots. We then introduced grazing the following May because we wanted to see the effect of organic amendments on grazed rangelands, since they are the largest cover type on earth. At the end of that first water year, we ended up with a ton more carbon per hectare (not including the carbon added as compost). That additional ton of carbon came from the air through the plants and ended up in the soil in the occluded fraction. This was very exciting news. We are now on our fifth year of the experiment, and have measured an additional ton of carbon per hectare per year without adding any more compost. It works!
BG: Tell me a little bit more about the grazing. I know the land is intensively grazed but they don’t chew it down to the nub, and how that affected the growth of the biomass.
JW: There is a continuum of grazing. At one end, there’s no grazing, which is under-grazing. At the other end there is over-grazing. Somewhere in the middle is optimal grazing that is good for the health of the animal, good for the health of the soil, and good for the health of the vegetation. That’s what we try to target. In this experiment, we grazed all the plots to the recommended 750 pounds per acre residual vegetation and the composted plots gained carbon. But what was surprising was that the control plots (with no compost) lost carbon. So grazing alone did not sequester carbon during the first four years of measurements.
But grazing on composted plots did sequester carbon, and the only explanation I can offer is that the earth is in a degraded state and business as usual doesn’t work anymore. The analogy would be if you have a broken machine and you keep using it, it actually makes it worst until you reach a point of catastrophic failure. Our systems are currently broken. We’ve lost enough carbon from them now that they don’t rebound on their own. By simply adding a little bit of carbon back into it, it’s like oiling dry machine parts. It will start moving again, and that’s what we saw, and this was the most exciting thing: we’ve ignited a state change. The whole system is responding from that one-time event. And now, it’s producing 50% more forage, and holds 26,000 more liters of water per hectare per year. This is significant! We’ve ignited a state change in the opposite direction of the usual curve.
BG: So you just composted that first year, and not subsequent years?
JW: Yes. A single application of ½ inch of compost was all it took to ignite a state change on grazed rangeland. Our research has identified a mechanism. We have a treatment, which is putting on compost, and we have a soil system, which is grazed rangeland. And now the question is – what will happen if we compost cropland, or if we compost your lawn? There are more lawns in America than cornfields. What’s exciting is that we’ve established one complete chain of carbon cycle management that’s big enough at scale to reverse global warming. Now how do we get to scale? Is there enough compost? All these questions are exciting and great opportunities, and we’re working hard to address them.
BG: Amazing! What are your plans now that you know the results of being able to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground? How are you going to get the word out to other ranchers and farmers?
JW: One of our constraints in terms of these projects was to work with existing infrastructure where appropriate, and everything we do has to be replicable, scaleable, and broadly applicable. The RCD has a national distribution system in place, so as we perfect programs here in Marin County, we’re doing it in a way that’s replicable in terms of developing procedures and protocols that anyone else can use in their system.
BG: Has Dr. Whendee Silver published reports on your research findings?
JW: A peer-reviewed paper about this research was published in Ecological Applications, a journal published by the Ecological Society of America. The full Life-Cycle Assessment of the carbon accounting has been peer-reviewed and it’s just been accepted for publication in Ecosystems Magazine. We’ve had a full financial viability study done, and it was favorable. And we’ve actually completed the protocol for this particular practice soon to be submitted to the National Carbon Registry as a methodology approved by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, which would feed into AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, or local air district CEQA programs.
The Marin Planning Department understands the significance of the research, and the Board of Supervisors has granted us the money to bring the protocol to Marin’s planning process. Once we complete our work here, anybody who is doing a project who needs to mitigate emissions, and anyone who just wants to do the right thing, can look at managing their own soil to sequester carbon. This is the best possible outcome.
BG: The other added benefit is that the ranchers will have more forage.
JW: Absolutely. Also, by doing this kind of carbon management in your system, say for a lawn in a residential area, you could stop using fertilizers and reduce your water use. In gardens, it’s the same thing. Its just a good mechanism that we should start promoting and everyone should start using.
In addition to the protocol, we needed to see what these practices look like on actual working landscapes. Two years ago, we had the very good fortune of the Giacomini Dairy, the Taylor Dairy, and the Lafranchi Dairy allowing us to place research plots in the middle of their systems. Based on those results, we are now going to scale. We are organizing three 100-acre demo projects on ranches in Marin. And we were given a $100,000 grant from the founder of Twitter and his foundation, for the planning of this expanded research and demonstration.
BG: Who should be interested in the Marin Carbon Project, and what is the message?
JW: The message is, there is every reason to be confident that we can stop and reverse global warming. That’s a great message.
BG: And we’re hitting those dangerous tipping points of runaway climate change.
JW: But the good news is our research shows the opposite possibility, where the system is exciting itself and moving in the other direction.
BG: Now we have to worry about an Ice Age.
JW: I hope so.
Healthy Soils Mean Healthy People
By Arron Wilder,
Farms are very important assets to a community. Aside from the obvious health benefits to eating and growing fresh foods that come from local farms, there is something else going on.
In the last year and a half of working as a soil scientist while starting a small farm, I’ve felt my own sense of excitement and enthusiasm grow along with the vegetables that I’ve helped tend. It is hard to deny that when people stay in one place for a long time, even generations, while tending the land and putting energy into a place, relationships are developed and become enriched. For one thing, people connect to each other. This alone is amazing.
There are some places where neighbors don’t even talk to each other for years and years. Decades can go by and there is no connection made – with the land or with the neighbors. But for some reason, when people are out doing something to make their land more vibrant, people talk to each other more.
Not only that, people also seem to connect to the animals, plants, weather, the natural cycles and even the subtle mysterious, unknowable stuff a little more often - often enough to make an observable difference. I’ve felt completely mystified by the observations I’ve made in this regard. I see hawks help me hunt the gophers. Because of farming and the healthy food that comes from it, I’ve become friends with people with opposing politics and worldview, who I never would’ve met or had much in common with otherwise. Whatever is going on with this connection between the soil, people, and communities, almost borders upon the esoteric.
Maybe I should say what I mean by “healthy soil”…or by the term “farm”, for that matter. Without really nailing down a definition, I mean that soil is healthy when plants and animals are vigorously growing and living and when the interactions of the other natural elements connected to the soil are complex and vibrant. Some of these natural elements are biological: insects and small mammals, birds, amphibians. Others are non-biological: water, air flow, colors, rocks. There are many more.
When it gets down to it, just about everything has some connection to the soil. When the complex systems of natural interactions are allowed to take place in and on top of the soil, when there is a web of diversity, and when there is beauty that can sometimes catch the first time passerby off-guard with such an uncommon sight of vibrance, there is something that feels and looks like health going on there, deep down in the darkness of the soil. People stop by and say hi more often. This spring, as we’ve tilled the soil, I’ve noticed many people stop and take note. Maybe there are some feelings enchantment being experienced? I know that’s how I feel after a long day’s work and can look at the day’s achievements. I’ve caught many people, myself included, staring at the sight of this season’s possibilities when with the beautiful, new view of the bare earth.
As with healthy soil, a healthy farm must also have a web of diverse interactions. It should be obvious that healthy food comes from healthy soil, which is sustained by a healthy community. In contrast, those land-based food factories that can be seen when driving up or down Interstate 5 through the Central Valley of California, where thousands of acres of almost-sterile, plowed-up, manicured dirt, ready to grow one type of plant, can be seen way off to the horizon…well…those are not even farms! Those are corporate mass production land blocks. Just looking at them gives the passerby overwhelming feelings of apathy and disengagement. A “farm,” as it should be known, is somewhat of a rarity in our time, seeming to take on a life of its own, independent from those who tend it, where myriad diverse life forms flourish within interdependent biological, geological, climatological, and other logical (and illogical) relationships. Without these many, diverse, mysterious, complex interactions, there can be no farm. Farms and health go together.
Farms fit into community. And I’d go even farther by saying that without farms or intentional food raising and gathering of some sort, healthy human communities may have a hard time flourishing. At least as far as land goes, behind the farms and behind our foods are vibrant soils. When people come by the Table Top Farm roadside stand on Cypress Road, almost everyone seems excited to know exactly where their food comes from. People are transformed by the near-spiritual relationship to eating and being nourished by food that they’ve actually walked by and watched grow on a daily basis - or better yet, even helped out in some way in the making of the farm.
Eating is powerful stuff. Eating is one of the most intimate ways we can nourish our bodies and souls while nourishing our connections to those relationships that sustain us – both human and non-human. Since I became involved with soils, food, and farming, I’ve seen a transformation in myself and the world around me. In healthy soils, there is renewed hope and excitement for the future. Healthy soils help create healthy communities.
Arron Wilder is the organic farmer of Table Top Neighborhood Farm, Point Reyes Station, www.tabletopfarm.net/
PHOTO by Mark Boyer
Bernie Stephan, Inverness
The United Nations COP-18 climate change conference in Doha, Qatar, ended in colossal failure, producing no meaningful commitments for emission cuts. The most implacable bully at the talks, the U.S., was widely criticized. Inundated by rising seas and worsening disasters, many developing nations expressed increasing frustration with the lack of ambition by rich countries like ours. We clearly have been unable to find the political will to address the most critical crisis of our time.
“The U.S. has done quite significant things in the president’s first four years” said Todd Stern, our negotiator at the conference. “I saw … a report by Resources for the Future … that projects us to be on track for about a 16.5% reduction based on the policies that we have in place now.” The problem, however, is that Stern ignored official US government reports showing that we will be nowhere near that by 2020. The 2013 outlook, by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, projects only a 9% reduction in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, and our emissions would then creep back up again by 2040.
Climate scientist Bill Hare, an author of a new World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4ºC Warmer World Must Be Avoided said “we have a climate cliff … we’re facing a carbon tsunami, actually, where huge amounts of carbon are now being emitted at a faster rate than ever. And it’s that carbon tsunami that’s likely to overwhelm the planet with warming, sea-level rise and acidifying the oceans.”
That report paints a picture of a world convulsed by rising temperatures with mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the Black Plague, which in the 14th century killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. The projected planet-wide temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) will cause a precipitous drop in crop yields and the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the rising seas.
There will be an explosion in diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct. Monstrous storms will eradicate biodiversity, along with whole cities and communities. And as these extreme events begin to occur simultaneously in different regions of the world, the World Bank’s report finds, there will be “unprecedented stresses on human systems.” Health and emergency systems, as well as institutions designed to maintain social cohesion and law and order, will crumble. The world’s poor, at first, will suffer the most. But we all will succumb in the end to the folly and hubris of the Industrial Age.
The political and corporate elites in the industrialized world continue, in spite of overwhelming scientific data, to place short-term corporate profit and expediency before the protection of human life and the ecosystem. The fossil fuel industry is permitted to determine our relationship to the natural world, dooming future generations. The report warns, that as warming accelerates toward 4 degrees Celsius, sea levels will rise 0.5 to 1 meter, possibly more, by 2100. Sea levels will increase several meters more in the coming centuries. It also projects that the rates of change in ocean acidity over the next century will be “unparalleled in Earth’s history.”
The global production of maize and wheat has already been in steady decline since the 1980s and will vastly accelerated in the coming years, resulting in widespread malnutrition and starvation. It will mean that the poor, and especially children, will endure chronic hunger and malnutrition. There will be an increase in a variety of deadly epidemic diseases. Persistent flooding will contaminate drinking water, spreading diarrheal and respiratory illnesses. The 2012 drought, which affected 80 percent of the agricultural land in the United States, is becoming the norm.
The stress and insecurity caused by the breakdown in the climate will, the report says, “have negative effects on psychological and mental health.” It will lead to an increase in “levels of conflict and violence.” The report calls on the leaders of the industrial world to immediately institute radical steps, including a halt to the dependence on fossil fuels. Without revolutionary change in our thinking, I believe we will succumb to our own super-cleverness and related stupidity.
What makes this challenge so immense is our collective addiction to oil and cheap energy. We really only have one option and that is to “power down” and we switch to local, renewable, sources for all the energy and nature’s “resources” that we routinely exploit. We must stop believing that we can continue to have it all. I see the climate crisis as another symptom of a bigger problem. It’s Mother Nature’s latest attempt to warn us about the consequences of continuing our civilization’s ever-increasing complexities and that which we call “progress.” In West Marin, let’s go beyond our own cognitive dissonance and end denial, not only that of the human causes of climate chaos, but that of our collective subconscious complicity in the ongoing destruction of our ecosphere.
Building Resilience Locally Through Localized Micro-Technologies
By Peter Asmus
West Marin is a hotbed for great ideas on how to solve global problems – such as the looming climate change catastrophe – locally. The recent storms that hit the East Coast should send a warning to the local citizenry, however, about the need to educate ourselves about how best to build resilience into our local infrastructure. We are much better at saying “no” than saying “yes.”
Given recent opposition to smart meters, wind power and large solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays throughout West Marin, one might ask what are the alternatives to greening our local energy portfolios while also guarding against the types of massive power outages that left more than 8 million people stranded without essential services like medicine, lights and heat on the East Coast?
Recent evidence corroborates more severe weather is now business-as-usual. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 100 million to 200 million people were affected by weather-related disasters between 1980 and 2009, with economic losses ranging from $50 billion to $100 billion annually. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan (and corresponding tsunami) was just one obvious example during 2011. Such natural disasters underscore the need for resilient infrastructure for vital electricity services.
Microgrids – small islands of power that can disconnect from the larger grid during times of emergencies – proved themselves in Japan. For example, the Sendai microgrid, a system that provides enough electricity for about 1,000 California homes, at Tohoku Fukushi University operated continually for 2 days while the surrounding region was without power. Likewise, a number of colleges, including Princeton and New York Universities, also relied upon their microgrids to keep power flowing to vital services during the more recent Sandy storm.
The U.S. utility grid was graded a lowly D+ by the American Council of Civil Engineers in 2009. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) statistics show that 80% to 90% of all grid failures begin at the distribution level of electricity service, which are the poles and wires that connect our homes into a network. The U.S. average outage duration is 120 minutes annually and that number is getting worsewhile the rest of the industrialized world is less than 10 minutes and getting better. These statistics underscore why North America is the world’s leading adopter of microgrids, which can enable a variety of energy sources – such as solar and wind — to work together as an intelligent system, growing larger over time as circumstances change. In other words, these are highly adaptive systems, a bottoms-up approach.
Connecticut is the first state in the United States to move forward with a policy program to promote microgrids. The state’s push for microgrids is in response to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and a rare blizzard in October 2011, both of which led to massive power outages. While the focus of this effort is to identify 150 viable microgrid sites, it is currently limited to a one-time $15 million grant and loan program covering the interconnection costs of microgrids for police and hospital facilities.
The fundamental architecture of today’s electricity grid, which is based on the idea of a top-down radial transmission system predicated on unidirectional energy flows from large centralized power plants, is clearly obsolete. We rely upon twice as many power plants as we actually need due to the massive inefficiency built into this system. If the electricity grid begins to resemble the Internet due to the proliferation of rooftop solar PV, then advanced aggregation systems such as the microgrid that will enable the sharing of resources will become vital.
And yet, the current “dumb” infrastructure will not do. Producing power locally is great, but what then remains is the daunting task of orchestrating such a diversity of resources residing within the power grid into systems that deliver necessary services through sophisticated data sharing upgrades, rather than creating voltage, frequency, or power quality issues, the stuff of physics that keep engineers awake at night.
If we in West Marin want to design and build a model society, these microgrids would be developed in each of our villages and would not only provide electricity, but thermal energy (both heating and cooling), water and perhaps even telecommunication services. And while this would be great for all of us, the real work that needs to be done is in the developing world, the people that will determine the fate of our planet. If countries in Africa and Asia follow in our past footsteps, we are doomed. Clearly, instead of dumping our rejected products and technologies in emerging economies, ideas such as the microgrid would instead place these regions of the world at the forefront of appropriate scale technologies that solve, rather than create, problems.
Consider the world’s most massive power outage in history, which also occurred in 2012 in India and left over 370 million people in the dark this past July. Remote microgrids, which are islands of power built where there is no reliable utility power grid, can serve as the anchors of new, appropriate scale infrastructure, a shift to smarter ways to deliver humanitarian services to the poor. It is this fact that lies behind financial support rendered for remote microgrids by the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and entities such as the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Bill Gates Foundation. Even Greenpeace has entered the fray, with a report extolling a bottoms-up distributed renewables strategy to export surplus solar power out of the Indian state of Bihar via microgrid networks.
Geographically, North America leads this microgrid market segment, largely due to the relatively poor reliability of the incumbent utility power grid. As utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) continue to resist changing long-standing rules and regulations on sharing power with more than two customer meters or sending electricity across a public right-of-way, communities must continue to push for changes in laws to enable new solutions such as microgrids.
Some utilities – such as San Diego Gas & Electric and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District – see the light – and are actually constructing microgrids to try and figure out if they can become part of the solution, rather than roadblocks to reform. Yet the main push for microgrids is coming from grassroots activists, from the military, and from businesses looking to protect operations from the decreasing reliability of the existing infrastructure. Can this odd coalition push microgrids into the mainstream? I believe the answer is “yes,” but it may take decades, unless climate change accelerates action in places such as our own backyard.
Peter Asmus has been writing about energy matters for over 25 years. Author of four books, and now an industry consultant, he is currently working on developing a movie highlighting localized energy solutions: www.peterasmus.com.
Transitioning in Awareness
A new regular column dedicated to issues around the subject of climate change.
By Bernie Stephan
When it comes to our understanding of the planetary crises that confront us, each of us sees different aspects of the problem and is drawn to different possible solutions. Some suggest that there’s a continuum of awareness, or an expansion of consciousness, that can be roughly divided into five stages. It may be helpful to view the greatest challenges of our civilization from such a model.
Stage one is being unaware and unconcerned about planetary issues. You’re functioning quite well within current systems and deny the vast devastation being inflicted on our planet. You may believe that technology and human ingenuity will fix those problems. You may see some shortcomings in our cultural organization, behavior and morality, but believe that these can be fixed with the proper attention to rule making. Vote, and surely we can improve things; let’s put better people in charge of our governance and institutions.
Stage two is being deeply aware of one big, fundamental problem. For many this is Climate Change. Or it may be resource depletion, overpopulation, peak oil, chemical and plastics pollution, species extinction, oceanic over-fishing or acidification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, excessive corporate power, food-insecurity, economic instability or social and legal injustices that draw your attention. One problem usually takes prominence. Many people at this stage become ardent activists for their chosen cause.
In stage three, we open ourselves to a broader and deeper awareness of the problems facing our culture. As more evidence reaches our consciousness, our awareness of the complexities expands. We concern ourselves with the prioritization of problems, in terms of their immediacy, urgency or impact. Some are reluctant to acknowledge new problems as the problem space is already too complex, and additional concerns only dilute the efforts needed.
Stage four involves a growing awareness of the interconnections between the dysfunctional aspects of modern life. Thinking at a system level, looking for root causes, we move from thinking of “problems to be solved” to thinking about “our human predicament.” Here we entertain the possibility that there may not be a solution. We may experience withdrawal or seek new circles of like-minded individuals to trade insights and deepen our understanding of what’s really going on.
The fifth stage invokes a wide-open awareness that we face an unprecedented predicament, encompassing all aspects of life. Included is everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. Floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept that there are “solutions” is cast aside, as a waste of effort. How we “respond” to this knowledge, becomes the issue. As we come to believe this, we see it everywhere – how unsustainably our industrial, capitalist society has organized itself and how we try to manage nature herself.
Depression can easily set in; after all, we’ve learned throughout our entire lives that our hopes and dreams for tomorrow lie within our ability to solve problems. Problem solving seems to define our very western civilization and our cultural conditioning naturally draws us in that direction. When we begin to recognize that no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament, hope can easily vanish into a suffocating darkness. Within the Transition Movement, a Heart and Soul group is recommended, to give people an opportunity to safely vent and console one another in their expanding consciousness and deepening awareness.
Transition also holds the concept that both outer transition and inner transition are appropriate. Focused on the outer, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground. Learning about permaculture, community resilience and local sustainability becomes the quest. Organized party politics seems less attractive to people at later stages, probably because electoral politics is seen as part of the problem. Or it’s just a waste of time, when the real actions needs to take place at the local level.
Working on inner transition involves re-framing our thinking and culturally conditioned responses that we instinctively bring to just about everything. For some, the challenge becomes an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, “become the change you wish to see in the world.” Or, in order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself. Others see such simpler living, by personal example, as totally ineffective for bringing about needed societal transformation now. Many have little interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth; rather, they attempt to create a new, coherent, personal context for it. Personal spirituality often helps; organized religion may not.
I’m envisioning a re-emergence of Transition West Marin, dedicated to growing community awareness. Certainly we can help one another transition both internally and externally in supportive ways. Do you agree? What stage of awareness do you consider yourself in? I am hopeful that this new column, with corresponding posts to the West Marin Soapbox, will renew interest in discussing our shared predicament. Hurricane Sandy has reminded us what will happen if we ignore the damage being done.
First and foremost, I believe, we must examine our existing mind-sets, moving away from conditioned, cultural responses that keep us stuck within our current paradigm. By first identifying where we are individually and collectively with regard to these stages of awareness, we might come to better understand each other and reorient ourselves to preparing for a viable future.
If you are interested in contributing to this column, please contact Bing Gong at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415 663-1