Friday 27 March 2009

The World Without Us

For a country with such a famous literary tradition, Ireland has a paucity of libraries and bookstores, with little of the specialty material we are stocking, so we have taken to ordering books online. We received a new shipment – Earth Plastering, When There is No Doctor, and several others, and as usual we fell upon them like locusts.

I have been meaning to mention, though, a book that I received and read some time ago – The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. I usually take weeks to go through a book I enjoy, but this was so absorbing, so lightly written, that I read it in 24 hours, and then read it again.

It begins with a single high-concept premise: What happens when humans disappear? What would collapse immediately, and what of us – monuments, art, environmental contamination – would last?

This may sound like a depressing read, but it is beautifully written, and deals not with unpleasant details of our demise or milky abstractions like "the environment," but with vivid scenes of places where nature has retained or resumed control. In an obscure Polish preserve, for example, the author sees Europe's one remaining old-growth forest -- the lone jigsaw piece of the world that stretched from Ireland to New Guinea. There he finds a world out of Lord of the Rings -- oak trunks meters across, draped in moss centuries thick, whose wrinkles hide animals and which shade mushrooms the size of ottomans.

Diving by a lonely atoll he sees miles of ocean black with sharks. In a Cyprus neutral zone he visits the shell of a resort, the menu still set to the evacuation date 35 years ago, with trees splitting through the pavement. Between the Koreas he finds a 50-year-old fastness sheltering colonies of rare birds, extinct everywhere except where human war lets them live.

I considered why I enjoyed the book so much, beyond its crystalline prose, and realized that it fills an important gap. The End has become popular: panicking economists, grim scientists, movies and television programmes about a mass die-off. We grow numb to the daily science reports of the latest damage we have done, and we begin to lose hope that we can ever return to the richness the world once had.

Wiesman does not gloss over the changes our society has made, but he reminds us that Nature has been through worse than us, and always returns to a new normal. More importantly, his vivid descriptions of the world’s unriven places help us picture a truly wild land, something few of us have ever seen, and helps us assess what we can and cannot restore in human time. We already know we are far from home, but this book replaces our panic at being lost with a map that says, "You are here."

The next step, as Alex Steffen of put it in his criticism of the book, is to imagine a world with us.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Signing Dinosaur

When The Girl was a baby, we taught her a bit of sign language, to tell us what she needed before she could speak. We wondered if we could keep learning and teaching her when we moved to Ireland -- and then discovered that, while children's programmes here do teach sign, British Sign Language is entirely different. There is also an Irish sign language that has nothing to do with either. And an unrelated Northern Irish Sign Language.

Contrary to popular belief, I learned, sign language was not developed by educators, nor is it simply gestures. It is a global panoply of languages, each a hybrid that linguists call a creole. Every one, linguists believe, is the result of deaf children in an area -- each of whom had invented their own crude gestures in isolation -- meeting and gradually blending their signs into a patois. As the signs spread to other deaf children, they fleshed out the signs into a fully-formed language, capable of communicating everything that a tongue can.

This is just what happens in spoken language, when different groups meet and have to work together. The initial result is a stripped-down version of language -- small nouns and verbs made into simple sentences, sounding like Tonto or Tarzan -- but the younger generation expands on these fragments and reassembles them into a new form. You could argue that English itself is a creole, a still-awkward synthesis of Scandanavian-sounding Old English with Latin-derived Norman French.

In the case of sign languages, every language is a creole, for almost every new deaf school or network of schools resulted in a new language, not necessarily with the same boundaries as spoken languages or nations, and as unrelated as English is from Chinese. I am even told that, if a Chinese Sign Language speaker learns British Sign in adulthood, he will forever sign with a Chinese accent.

So -- back to the point -- The Girl had to learn everything over again. She does know a little sign, though, and they show up in play.

Tonight before bed she wanted to pretend to be a Compsognathus – what she calls a “chicken dinosaur,” because they were the size of chickens – and I would pretend to be a giant Brachiosaurus stomping about. I obliged.

She explained that she was trying to talk to some children who were coming out of “the fairy house,” but the children screamed and ran back inside, because they thought she, the Chicken Dinosaur, would eat them.

“Did you tell them you were a friend?” I said. “Speaking Child and not Dinosaur?”

“Well, they were deaf,” The Girl said. “And I can’t sign very well, because instead of hands I have these claws with pointy bits at the end, so when I raise them to speak sign language the children think I am going to claw at them.”

From my Brachiosaurus vantage, I offered to speak into the fairy-house chimney at the Hedgehog Who Could Translate Things Into Sign Language, and that made everything better.

Saturday 21 March 2009

The top seven reasons to create a community garden in your neighbourhood

1 – It gives us healthy food.

Food should be a delight to make, cook and eat, but for many of us food has become a source of fear and guilt. Listen to the news and you start to wonder if everything is not toxic, diseased, fattening or has some other problem. The food we eat is often bred and treated for length of storage, not nutrition or taste, and much of that is processed into forms – breakfast cereal instead of wheat, vegetable soup mix instead of vegetables – that are less efficient and healthy.

So, as the good people we are, we create campaigns for healthy diets, fair trade products, local food, organic produce. All these are valuable movements, but then we must navigate all manner of product claims, and feel like we have to choose between the fair trade, organic dish or the locally-grown, low-carbon one.

There is one way, though, to make our food fair trade, locally-grown, organic and zero-carbon all at the same time: grow it ourselves.

2 – It is enjoyable.

Gardening is the number-one hobby in the Western world, and can be done by small children and the elderly alike. It is amazing how many people think of making their own food as a chore or a sign of poverty, instead of liberating outdoor fun. There is something gratifying about working, rather than working out -- in measuring a afternoon’s labour in bushels and baskets rather than forms filled or data entered.

3 – It saves fossil fuels.

Most readers of this blog are already aware that crops are sown with oil-powered tractors, fertilized with fossil-fuel chemicals, harvested with oil-powered tractors, and shipped thousands of miles to Ireland. The global economic crash has brought the price of oil down for the moment, but that may not last – oil production is still stalled, as it has been for the last several years.

4 – It doesn't worsen climate change.

Shipping food 10,000 kilometres creates enormous carbon emissions; walking 10,000 centimetres to your plot is as zero-carbon as you can get.

5 – It uses our green space.

Find an aerial view of your area -- look on Google Maps under "sattelite" and find your address -- and see how much is green space. Knowing that an acre of land, in many areas, can feed a family of four for a year, imagine how many of the world's overshoot population could be fed by this green space -- Australian ecologist David Holmgren has calculated that the cities of Australia could feed their own population and become net food exporters to rural areas if necessary.

Right now, all those lawns, greens and parks must be maintained continuously, at the expense of your time or tax dollars, to be trimmed, sprayed and kept as monotonous grass that is used for nothing. What would be cheaper, more productive and more beautiful – a flat green or a beautiful expanse of blossoms and berries?

6 - It builds back the soil.

In many parts of the world, where we have destroyed the original woodlands and maintained the soil with chemicals, the topsoil has become progressively thinner over time. Organic gardening and composting build back topsoil, reversing the process. Imagine all the kitchen waste and humanure created by all the homes in your area combined, and how quickly we could build back the soil if we used these resources.

7 – It brings people together.

How many of your neighbours to you know, and how many of them know each other? The days of poker nights, Knights of Columbus or picnics are dim memories among the elderly -- many people today trade only a few niceties over the fence before resuming their suspcious resentment.

Of course we are all divided by interests, religions, politics and who knows what, but we don't all have to become intimates, we just have to be able to get certain key people in the community involved in common projects. A garden on the vacant lot would be visible to everyone, and yield tangible rewards. Not everyone wants to hear about Ghawar or clathrates -- but we all like eating.

Photo: Pea vines, courtesy of IndyMedia Portland's web site.

Wednesday 18 March 2009


Along the canal a few kilometres from our home.

Tuesday 17 March 2009


I walked my usual route through Dublin to the bus stop today, and the usually sparse streets were thick with tourists, along with merchants hawking green plastic items and a man in a giant leprechaun suit -- something you don't see on Dublin streets except today and tomorrow.

As an Irish-American now living in the old country, I have seen the Irish from both sides now. I fondly remember my family in St. Louis -- I played with and babysat my cousins and second cousins, walked to their houses after school, heard the same stories my grandparents had heard from their own grandparents, and when I became a teenager, dated a girl my second cousin set me up with.

Being Irish (-American) Catholic and feeling a bond with the people left behind in the homeland was woven into this life. We marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade every year, where my family -- as one of the great Irish families of St. Louis -- had their own section. The huddle of friendly people with a common jargon, living in the world but separate from it, was part of the tectonic geography of my world, the architecture of my childhood.

Now, as I sit in my office and tell clients around the world that I'm calling from Dublin, I sometimes hear an audible gasp on the other end of the phone, and businessmen and secretaries alike excitedly tell me where their family came from. The native Irish find this a little embarassing -- me, I know what they mean.

The image of Ireland as a mystical Brigadoon of thatch roofs and village pubs holds a unique grip on the hearts of many Americans, and while there is some fantasy in this, the affection is not necessarily bad. I find this sense of a common heritage has kept many Irish-American families together, gives middle-aged Teamsters a rare outlet to talk about the mystical, and offers a healthy and familiar model of village community that we may need in the years ahead.

Of course, Ireland is also a modern Western nation, a leader in the software industry, with gangs, drug problems, McMansions, traffic jams and wacky morning-zoo DJs, and this sometimes disappoints tourists on pilgrimage. Postcards of a rustic road blocked by sheep, with the caption "An Irish traffic jam," are sold at every corner shop even as a real traffic jam sits outside. The Irish even have a word for this -- "Oirish," which is to Irish as "Americana" is to American. The recent government handling of the bank crisis is Irish. The Quiet Man was Oirish.

St. Patrick’s Day, for example, is not the blow-out extravaganza you might think here – it is a national holiday and my village’s only annual parade, but the Dublin event is largely for tourists. The Irish have mixed feelings about Americans’ annual hodgepodge of leprechaun stereotypes, just as we might feel if Albanians honoured our country with an annual procession of cowboy hats, machine guns and surfboards.

But traditional Ireland is not a complete myth, either – in our area there are thatch cottages, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned pubs, Travellers and local age-old festivals set to Irish folk music. Riverdancing and riding are not most people's daily routine – it is more common to drive your car to the supermarket and listen to Beyonce – but they are familiar, and exist side-by-side with the new.

Our area has a thousand-year-old ruin near the Aldi, nearby Kildare has a Roman-era tower near the Starbucks, and horses clop down the cobblestone streets outside my office where I talk to clients in Japan and Singapore – and as an outsider, I am one of the few who finds this wondrous.

The mistake, I think, is in thinking these things are contradictory. When I talk to audiences about preparing for the Long Emergency – paring down spending, growing food and restoring simpler and more sustainable ways of life – some people take this to mean a complete Amish withdrawal from the world, just as they can think of the future only in terms of Futureworld or of the Zombie Apocalypse. They find it somehow hypocritical or inauthentic when someone both herds and blogs, or strings broadband through cob walls, feeds chickens but gets a CAT scan. Perhaps they can picture traditional life only as tourist displays, or as fragile backwaters that wilt when touched by the world. But an older and simpler life can go hand-in-hand with modern knowledge, and I hope we can embrace the best of both worlds in the years ahead.

Top photo: St. Patrick's Day hats courtesy of Public Domain Clip Art. Bottom photo: The Donadea Woods in County Kildare.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Transcript of Transition Town speech 5 - Local industry

At this point we're moving beyond the household into things that require more infrastructure and division of labour, so let's say we are prepared for a Lifeboat scenario and are now organizing neighbourhood industry – spinning wheels, looms, shoemaking, sailing ships, potter’s wheels and so on. We have the raw materials to make these things again if need be, but the knowledge to make them is rare and fading away.

Once people learned to turn wood into charcoal, they could create the temperatures needed for melting glass or metal. A community that can cast and shape glass could theoretically create eyeglasses, windows, telescopes and microscopes. The ability to cast metal could allow for the creation of clocks, bicycles and basic machinery. Straw balers could also fall into this category, and they are very useful not only for storing cattle feed but for making light and insulating building walls. We need to invest in local industries that could actually create these things if need be, and manufacture replacement parts.

There will be many engines still around several decades from now, but most of us just won’t have our own high-speed personal vehicles, any more than most of us have our own personal planes. We can run a sharply reduced number of engines on bio-fuels, though, and I recommend we save them for fire trucks and ambulances – the things we really need. I recommend every region – say, every county in Ireland – keep a few fields for growing bio-fuels of switch-grass, beets or whatever fits the climate, in order to supply their emergency vehicles and factories.

For thousands of years people got by riding horses and carriages, and I suspect that will make a comeback. In some areas canals exist for transporting freight, and many areas still have useable rail lines.

Unfortunately, most Western countries have torn up much of their rail infrastructure – here is Ireland, and the damage done in my own United States is of course much more extensive. I would like to see people restore the old rail networks, but we might not have the energy to do so. Electric or bio-fuel buses would seem more widely applicable, and would have more flexible routes.

One possible intermediate step toward rail would be to make buses into trams or streetcars, running on electricity from overhead lines, as is still done in some British cities today. Dublin used to be covered with tramway lines, even having double-decker cars like you sometimes do buses, and American cities used to be covered with similar (we called them) trolleys or streetcars.

When people talk about expanding rail lines, it is too often diesel trains expanding along existing lines so as to be fast and not interfere with traffic – but remember, if cars become rare, traffic will not be an issue and almost any speed will become fast. I could see trolley lines run along every major road, so that every major town is connected – and that things like crops, manufactured goods can be distributed widely.

Photos: Ireland's rail network around 1950 and 1983; a Dublin streetcar around 1950; and Dublin's streetcar system circa 1923.

To be continued ...

Transcript of Transition Town speech 4 - Lifeboat preparation

Of course, there are many things governments and corporations can do to help create a Green Tech future, and we can start lobbying them now, but I recommend our top priority be to cover our most basic needs first – to have gardens and skills and know that, in a Lifeboat situation, we could live and help our neighbours. When a critical mass of such people are so prepared, they can organize more ambitious neighbourhood and county-level projects, and work our way up to a Green Tech future. That is how good changes tend to happen – they start in living rooms and library cellars and percolate into the halls of power under sustained pressure.

For example, if the power went out, how could be store food? Well, the same way people did for thousands of years before refrigerators – they ate seasonally, they staggered their planting and harvesting, they left food in the ground for longer, they stored potatoes under earth and straw, they pickled, salted, dried, fermented, kept in oil or liquor, and made jams for vitamins in winter.

Many medieval people had skills few people remember. Eastern Europeans kept warm with masonry stoves, which used a giant thermal mass of cob or brick to absorb a fast-burning fire of straw or sticks and then radiate the heat through the house. The English built homes out of cob that still stand; the home of Walter Raleigh, made this way, is standing today. Arabs used systems of pools and ventilation for keeping cool in a desert. People made beeswax or tallow candles for light. It would be worthwhile for you and your friends to each cultivate skills that survive today mainly in last names – thatcher, smith, cob, tailor, mason, miller and wright. Even if you never need to use them, your children might, and the few people left who have these skills are often very old.

But no matter what happens, we won’t be simply turning back the clock to any era – we have many innovations and discoveries that don’t require fossil fuels and electricity, that no one had simply thought of until recently. For example, people suffered terrible plagues because they didn’t know about germs, and that simply keeping clean and boiling drinking water goes a long way towards wiping out illness.

Knitting is a recent innovation -- Neanderthals could conceivably have knitted clothing for themselves, but no one winkled out the technique until around the Renaissance. Author John Michael Greer, uses the example of slide rules, which can be made easily out of wood and allow you to make the complex calculations that put men on the moon. Tools like sextants and calculus; techniques like semaphore, four-crop rotation, the scientific method; discoveries like evolution, Gaia Theory or perma-culture -- all these are recent inventions that require little technology but can be very useful.

One thing to keep in mind about the future is that this world we live in, with its roads, bridges, homes and suburban infrastructure, is not going away. This was always a problem I had with science fiction set 30 years in the future – everything in it looked futuristic, there were no working-class families driving only slightly futuristic cars. The plastic littering the streets might still be around thousands of years from now, as will galvanized rubber tyres.

Salvage will become a major opportunity, as we will still have many of the items we have now, but they will not be as useable in their original forms. Some of them can be used for new forms – Greer, again, uses the example of turning car alternators, which transform motion into electricity, into wind turbines. Plastics, for example, are lightweight and waterproof, and could have many uses even beyond what we use them for now – say, for roofing -- if we can smelt enough milk bottles. Tyres could be used to make walls, as in the Earthship method of building, or can be cut for shoe soles, as Vietnamese used to do.

Saturday 14 March 2009

Transcript of Transition Town speech 3 - Four Futures

Barring any miraculous inventions, we know that the amount of energy we currently use to make products and wrap them in plastic, and to grow food and ship it around the world, will decline. More food will have to be grown nearby, using traditional methods and without our modern petrochemical turbochargers. We also know that we will see freakish weather ahead, that the Arctic may disappear, and that deserts will spread – but we don’t know how much or how fast.

I’m going to use a model proposed by Australian ecologist David Holmgren, one of the inventors of permaculture, that divides our future into four outcomes.

The best future would emerge from a slow climate change and a late oil crunch, giving people time for a comparatively smooth transition. We could help this along by turning to simpler living, clean energy and mass transit, and not only prepare for the Crisis, but reduce its impact. That’s an advantage we have that no one has pointed out – evacuating New Orleans might have saved some lives, but it would not have reduced the power of the hurricane at the same time.

The resulting “Green Tech” could retain business, courts, trains, buses, libraries, factories, the Internet. Economies would be city-states supported by surrounding farms, small enough to use only local resources but large enough to have electrical grids and public transport.

Holmgren’s second future would see fossil fuels continue to power us for a while but climate chaos hitting us hard. Corporations, governments and armies would remain armed and mobile, but the people would suffer from crop failures and a flood of Third-World refugees. There might be a danger of a revival of police states.

Anyone who dislikes this idea would do well to look for early signs of such a future. For example, a small article in “Market Watch” last January noted that the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security was planning massive detention facilities in the event of “an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S.” I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think people should keep an eye on little news items like that and try to find out more.

Just as with Green Tech, small steps toward a Brown Tech future would build on themselves. The real danger might be a turn to coal, oil shale or tar sands, which can be made into liquid fuel at a high cost – stretching our driving a little longer at the cost of catastrophic climate change.

A slower change in world climate coupled with an imminent oil peak would allow local ecologies to continue with limited damage, but would pull the rug out from the Wal-Mart economy that so many Westerners have come to rely on, forcing a return to small farms and small towns.

This “Earth Steward” future could signal a return to the kind of community and village life most humans knew until a century or two ago. I have spent some time with the Amish in my native Missouri, and they live generally long and happy lives with almost no fossil fuels or electricity.

Of course, there is a fourth future, in which the oil peak comes quickly, the climate changes swiftly and severely, and we get smacked down hard. This world Holmgren calls “Lifeboats.”

Holmgren cautions, however, against thinking of these as simply four futures; the Crunch will affect Sweden differently than Sudan, and the coming decades will see all of these scenarios happen somewhere, at different places and on different timetables.

In fact, Holmgren said, all four outcomes could exist in a single nation, since their differences are mainly of scale. National governments, with military bases and pipelines, would lean towards a Brown Tech state, but could also contain Green Tech city-states, Earth Steward villages and Lifeboat refugees.

Even a Green Tech future would require us to use much less energy than we do now, but that doesn’t have to be a hardship. I personally like to use the metaphor of America in the 1950s – if my countrymen’s income and ability to drive dropped by two-thirds and their flying by 98 percent, people would see that as the Apocalypse. But that is how people lived in the 1950s, and that was not a horrifying wasteland –happiness, family togetherness, neighborhood community – as defined by survey responses – peaked then and have declined even as wealth increased. The Fifties parallel is not perfect, of course – nor were the Fifties -- but I use it because it is instantly recognizable by most people, widely desirable, and rather easily attainable.

To be continued ....

Friday 13 March 2009

Transcript of Transition Town speech 2 - The Darker Vision

As awareness of these issues has spread in the last few decades, I don't think it's a coincidence that our visions of the future have become almost exclusively horrifying. Most video stores have a single section for science fiction-and-horror – if it shows the future, it will be obscene. Except for Star Trek, a holdover from an earlier era, I can't think of a single book, television programme or film in my lifetime that depicts a positive future. Think about what that does to a generation.

Part of that, I suspect, was that starting in the 60s and 70s, some people began to sense what was happening. Remember, much of what we know today about climate change and peak oil was available then, just not widely publicized. The greenhouse effect was discovered by Irish scientist John Tyndall in the 19th century, and others have predicted for more than 100 years that human emissions would cause global temperatures to rise.

I have on my shelf a popular science book from 1955, “The World We Live In,” which states quite casually that carbon dioxide from our cars and factories were radically changing the Earth’s climate. The first presidential address to Congress that mentioned the dangers of human-caused climate change was from Lyndon Johnson on February 8, 1965.

The same is true of peak oil -- M. King Hubbert first proposed his peak oil theory in 1932 and in 1956 publicly predicted the U.S.’s eventual peak. Even after he was proven right, and went on to predict that the world would peak around 2000, he was ignored by all but a few people – one of the only thoughtful articles on the issue, in 1976, came from a Wisconsin angler’s magazine called Fishing Facts. It was not until the 1990s, shortly after Hubbert’s death, that a few retiring petroleum geologists took up his cause and publicized peak oil across the young Internet.

This Green movement – which has really been going on for several decades, but received a boost in the last few years as knowledge of peak oil spread -- is the largest movement in history, a global network of people who are abandoning the fashions of their peers, re-adopting the frugal lives of their grandparents’ generation, thinking soberly about where their water, food and power come from.

The most widely-publicized voices in peak oil, though, are also the most dire, and as awareness of these issues hits a tipping point, people like Michael Ruppert, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg and others are often the first points of entry. These people are heroes, they are probably largely right, and their doomsday warnings are something everyone needs to hear. They are not the only things people need to hear.

At a conference in Cork last year, I met a man from Australia who was attending for his teenaged son. His son, Tasman McKee, had learned about peak oil in 2005, read Michael Ruppert’s works, and became more and more convinced that everything that lay ahead of him would be a desperate and despairing future in which most people would die. After he had studied peak oil obsessively for a year, he vanished, two years ago today. Only when his parents went through his computer files did they discover his interest in peak oil. His body was found two months later. He was 19.

Tasman McKee learned about peak oil in 2005, when relatively few people had heard of the issue. Now hundreds of times more people have learned about such issues, and predictions like volatile oil prices and economic disruptions are coming true, and my fear is that many more people will see a future as bleak as the one Tasman saw.

This is not what we need. Just as a Depression-era panic could crash a bank that would not otherwise have failed, so a widespread belief in a violent and hopeless end could actually make people less likely to work together during the next outage or shortage.

There are a lot of other futures besides Star Trek and the Zombie Apocalypse, outcomes that are not as interesting to Hollywood but might be much more realistic, and we might have some power to choose between some of them. That’s what I hope to get people thinking about tonight.

Photo: Tasman McKee looking over the sea.

Friday 6 March 2009

Talking to teens again

Last Monday I and two other members of FADA spoke to two auditoriums of teenagers at local schools, and it went very well – the faculty were great, the kids asked serious questions, and we didn’t get any heckling this time around.

I gave a brief rundown of peak oil, climate change and the economy, focusing on what possible futures they might see and how they might prepare. As tempting as it is to scare the sullen out of them, these are also kids, so I tried to avoid getting too dire, and instead focused on how good the future could be and how easily we could make simple preparations.

Then my colleagues Trionna Ryan and Liam Heavey came to their part – enlisting the kids to help with an Energy Survey of the town. Each teen received a flier describing the different ways energy is used inside a home, with survey questions about each house; for example, are the windows single- or double-glazed? How thick is the insulation around the water boiler? How many square metres does the house have? Is the heating oil, peat, wood, gas, electricity? What does the meter read?

We hope that, by tallying up a sample of homes in the area, we can get an idea of where many people are wasting energy, who will see difficulty if this or that resource were to fail, and what changes our communities need to make first.

We didn’t film any of the talks, either mine, Trionna’s or Liam’s, but an acquaintance did film a rehearsal of a talk I gave last November to the Kildare Transition Town meeting, and we’ve started putting that on this YouTube and Energy Bulletin. I’ll post them here if I can figure out how. Stay tuned.

Monday 2 March 2009

Terra Preta

As each week brings new revelations about the climate, each more alarming than the one before, world leaders feel increasing pressure to declare the situation handled, and to call for increasingly ambitious reductions – 20 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent. The idea, one presumes, we will reduce our emissions to an ideal near-zero, with everyone driving electric cars and buses, our goods shipped to us in electric lorries, all running on windmills and solar panels.

If we can achieve such a world and make it work, all well and good. But those reductions aren’t of carbon dioxide – they are of new emissions. The weather already seems to be growing more freakish around the world, and as the CO2 levels take 30 years or so to be felt, that is just the effects of the cars we drove then, like the one my family sat in at the drive-in theater where we saw Star Wars.

Entrepreneurs have come up with ambitious projects for extracting the carbon – navies of floating air processors, pumping carbon dioxide into underground caverns, and so on. But any of these projects would require governments and corporations to invest enormous amounts of money, energy and resources. We are feeling a shortage of these things right now, not a shortage of grandiose spending projects.

What we need is a way that many people around the world, using simple methods, could remove carbon from the air naturally, and pack it into something that could use more carbon – like, say, soil.

We have such a method, pioneered by Amazonian tribes hundreds of years ago. Like many Stone Age peoples, they burned the brush to create fertile land – but unlike many tribes, they seem not to have allowed the brush wood to burn completely. Instead they created charcoal, crushed it and added it to the soil.

When Europeans first arrived in the area, all the tribes had died off from Old World diseases and the jungle had largely grown back – but all around they found black earth, or terra preta, that still amazes researchers today. According to a 2006 article in Nature, terra preta is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

Burning plants may seem like a strange way to combat climate change, but merely charring wood locks in much of the carbon and other nutrients, and is great for soil. According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the biochar itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more biochar to be added to the soil.

Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions. Whether or not he is right, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery.

I admit we haven’t done this ourselves, but I’d like to try. Albert Bates told me a while ago that his group, The Farm in Tennessee, was experimenting with this, but I'd like to see how easily it can be done at the household level. I’d especially like to find out if, at a time when too many of the world’s forests have been cut already, if it can be feasibly done with some commoner biomass like hay.

Is anyone doing this at home? Share.