Monday, September 14, 2009

Time's Up!

Time's Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis
by Keith Farnish
Green Books, September 2009

Keith's book is a reader challenge: the reader is tasked with developing a survivable future for her progeny. Very carefully and delicately, with many references to academic research and a rich bibliography, Keith lays out the case that extinction is the default choice – unless you, dear reader of such books, along with a few other people, people like Keith, who would like to help you, come up with a better plan.

Keith points to two of the narratives that are becoming prevalent in thinking about our lack of future. The first of these is the vision of technological apocalypse: the complex, highly interconnected technology-based life support system crashes, stranding us in a dead landscape that is not survivable. The second is the vision of environmental catastrophe: methane bubbles out of the tundra, the ice caps melt, the oceans rise, the forests burn up, fields turn to desert, harvests fail, and, along with most other species, humans go extinct. Keith asks us to create a third narrative – one in which our children stand a chance, as members of an uncivilized, and perhaps an endangered species, but not an extinct one. Keith asks us to start taking steps toward making this vision a reality.

A worthy goal, although one rife with difficulties and internal contradictions. The first of these is that such a consummately civilized book is an odd vehicle for promoting the destruction of the civilization that is leading us all to perdition. Another is that his presentation, true to fact though it is, due to its dark subject matter, is enough to drive most people to melancholy. Questions of survival and extinction are hard for us, for we civilized humans are a sentimental lot: we bake cupcakes and play with kittens and babies, and prefer to think that the big world out there is just an extension of our little safe haven with its security and its comforts, where we can go and play if we want to. We worry about all the little baby animals out there, the cute, sad-eyed, furry ones especially, but we leave the dirty, planet-destroying work of providing our security and our comforts to specialists – soldiers, the police, politicians, businessmen, engineers and industrial workers. These, being professionals, generally feel that they need not concern themselves with matters outside their purview, such as their forthcoming extinction.

As for those whose purview does include the minor matter of our continued viability as a species, the list now includes anyone who seriously studies ecology, climatology, natural resource physics, crisis economics, or any of the other disciplines that tell us of crisis, danger, or catastrophe. For them, deep and abiding melancholy has become something of an occupational hazard. Scientists are professional problem-solvers, and tend to choke on the idea that their problem-solving happens to be responsible for having caused much of the problem. If all you can do is study something to death, then die, then why on earth bother? But Keith does come up with a very simple, powerful idea that cuts through all of this sentimental fog like a laser beam.

This is perhaps the most powerful idea of his entire book. We – all of us – should just follow our genetic programming a little better. As bits of biological hardware executing a genetic program, it is our primary function to pass our genes on to the next generation. This part is not controversial, and there are several billion of us on hand to attest to the program's success. But unlike, say, yeast, some of us are also capable of understanding an important principle: that just blindly creating progeny doomed to extinction is not as clever as we like to imagine ourselves to be. If we leave no viable habitat for our children, then we could give birth to countless numbers of them and still fail to reproduce successfully. (Yeast are actually somewhat clever, and when their environment becomes too polluted with their main waste product, alcohol, for them to function, they fall dormant and wait for an improvement, whereas we just kick the bucket.) The key question is not whether to breed, it is where to breed, and just as many animals range far and wide to find a place to breed and rear their young, we need to look beyond the cupcake-and-kitten universe with its plastic baby car seats and baby formula, and reconcile our effort with the big picture, or we are only doing half the job of parenting.

As always and with everything, there is a problem with this approach as well. It is quite possible to take the position that while the cupcake-and-kitten universe is undeniably real, first-hand experience, and is all that makes your life interesting and fun, the big scary world of ecological and economic catastrophe is an ever-changing carnival show of horrific visions that our apocalypse-addled culture serves up as popular entertainment. It seems that there is always something out there to moan about in public. It used to be nuclear winter, but now it's global warming summer, with some killer asteroids lurking about to spice things up. Sure, lots of children might go extinct, but who's to say they will be my children? Mine might turn out to be particularly clever – much more clever than you or me – so why not let them sort this out for themselves? Indeed, when it comes to planning our own birth, what advice would any of us want to have given to our own parents, beyond "Oh, please, don't think about it, just get on with it!" And while, simultaneously, some of us may wrinkle our noses at all the stupid people who pop out babies with no means or plans to bring them up properly, that, you see, is part of their genetic programming as well: in a heterozygotic species such as ours, breeding is a matter of chance, nobody knows which two crabapples might produce a Golden Delicious, and if none of the numerous idiots among us were allowed to breed, there would be even fewer geniuses among us.

While "Please, just get on with it!" sums it up nicely, some sort of plan might still be called for. We want our children to be grateful, not just weak with relief for being born at all. And while the introduction declares bombastically that "Part Four contains the keys to human survival" [p. 8] by the time Part Four rolls around, Keith is quick to offer a disclaimer: "These are just thoughts, ideas, imperfect sketches for something that could work if it's done properly. I can't predict how things are going to turn out, even if what I am going to propose does succeed; nobody can predict something that hasn't started yet." [p. 182-3] Keith's practical thoughts and considerations are not unhelpful, including all the usual steps toward self-sufficiency, such as constructing your own shelter and growing and gathering your own food, but they really are (as perhaps they should be) just baby steps.

Keith also talks about the task of destroying industrial civilization in order to allow life on earth to return to equilibrium. A worthy goal, perhaps, although none of what Keith proposes is particularly radical or effective, or it would be illegal and his book would be banned. Is it a goal worth pursuing? If we try and succeed, would we feel proud of ourselves, and wear "I collapsed industrial civilization" T-shirts? (Unlikely, since by then we would be clad in skins, furs or homespun cloth, or, if global warming comes through in time, perhaps a simple loincloth would suffice.) Won't industrial civilization collapse in any case, and so shouldn't we devote our scarce energies and short lives to more constructive pursuits? The forces that maintain industrial civilization do so at the cost of ever-increasing complexity, an approach that, once it reaches the point of diminishing returns, only hastens its own destruction. A more worthy goal might be to insulate yourself and your children from this wave of destruction that is about to befall industrial society, by freeing yourself from its enslavements. Indeed, I believe that inside Keith's somewhat ambiguous and tentative message of conscious destruction lurks a far more potent and coherent message of emancipation from mental slavery.

The chapter on "connecting" elaborates one part of this message. "Connecting" is a process of liberation that allows a person to pierce the veil of objectivity, to cease being a part of objective reality, subject to objective judgment and evaluation, and to enter a realm of direct, subjective meaning and experience. It can start with something as superficial as a trip to the seashore and exposure to the timelessness of surf and wind and sand. It can be as significant as dissolving in the life of a forest, drawing all inspiration and sustenance from it, to the point of being ready to defend it with your own life, which no longer has a significance that is separate from the forest itself.

The next chapter contains a fairly complete description of the elements that prevent connection. Keith calls these mind control methods of modern society the "tools of disconnection." The machinery is subtle and advanced, and the work of emancipation difficult. We are all brainwashed: the rhetoric of freedom is so ingrained in us that breaking through it requires a great deal of effort. Serfdom is obsolete, and old-fashioned slavery is a crime against humanity. To become modern, the slave must be upgraded to new and improved wage-slavery, complete with consumer rights. Freedom requires slavery for it to have meaning. Those who are truly free have no use for the word, and do not know its meaning. Keith's clear exposition of the mind control techniques involved in making this neat little hat trick work helps to break the spell.

But my favorite part of the book is Part One: The Scale of The Problem, in which Keith gives a meticulously researched exposition of life at all scales at which life on Earth has been observed and studied, from the microscopic to the gigantic. In each case, he shows how human industrial activity has impacted and destabilized the web of life, usually with inevitable and dire consequences for our own chances of survival. Each one of us is tied up in this unfolding drama of wrenching change, as both the perpetrator and the victim, in a web of such stunning complexity that such simplistic labels become meaningless, including many others, such as "environmentalist" or "industrialist".

To rediscover meaning in this context, what is needed is direct contact, outside of the limits set by society and officially sanctioned roles. Keith's book is a progress report from one man's search for this meaning. I encourage you to join efforts with him, and to work on discovering a future in which you and your children might find a place.


Sticomythia said...

Brilliant ! To be ordered immediately. Wish I didn't have to sleep, so much to do.

Lister generator arrived today, smuggled in from Canada in pieces. Now I have to learn to build it, and analyse what spare bits I'll also have to smuggle for the next few overhauls.

The new administration in Washington is truly anti-survival, actively legislating against locally produced fuels using the long arm of the EPA. There should be no competition for subsidised corn ethanol and Monsanto !!!

6damon9 said...

Have you seen Idiocracy? Watch the first ~5 minutes...
I'm one of those problem-solver types. Though I agree that modern science+technology are culpable to some degree, it would not have been possible without the monster meta-organizational spawn of government & industry on a psycho-capitalism rush, facilitated by a monomaniacal & creative finance "industry" (all drunk on cheap oil).

OK. So I've been considering said questions, with much melancholy. There's one scenario, maybe subsumed in your techno apocalypse, that's quite likely: good old-fashioned thermonuclear war. If you start exploring the various permutations to reach the trigger event, it will probably trigger melancholy in you, too. This threat lingers well beyond initial collapse...

Basically, we don't have much chance of a long & fecund future. Then you have the aggressive-myopic-bigot type, agitating for genocide, without running the simulation to completion even once, let alone a valid monte carlo. I've observed that most seem to be responding via conditioned reflex (aka Pavlov dog). If enough of the masses awake & begin thinking critically, maybe we could (narrowly) escape extinction? If not, do we really have a chance?

Pangolin said...

Easy peasy. Simply get one of these charcoal making pots. Generate about six tons of biochar for each person in your extended family yearly (US residents. 19.78 tons CO2 times 12/44 plus a fudge factor) and bury it in a nearby field or lawn.

Taadaa, global warming solved.

Or we could quit burning so many fossil fuels and re-organize every single facet of our economy. (last bit not optional in case of abrupt climate change)

Thank god I live in California where strong herbal medicines are legal.

Matthew said...

Excellent post. I really liked the way your review was clear and objective. A lot of people would probably take a much more biased approach given how controversial the subject matter is. It's refreshing to read something as fair-minded as it was comprehensive.

Anonymous said...

Dmitry, you don't see then, that in protecting oneself and one's children from the crash it might be a good idea to cut some feelers of industrial civilization that are especially threatening to you, or that you can easily reach without getting caught (plenty of those around)?

Derek said...

Very nice review,ill have to add this one to the list. I too am very concerned with the "scale of the problem" and whats more think that really there must be a scale-to-the-solution as well; that is what i spend my time blogging about.

Chris R. said...

Sounds like a tremendous effort. The chapter entitled Connecting sound sort of Habermasian.

Great review...

Chris R.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I have a hard time accepting the thought that I need to completely dismiss the majority of the species as irrelevant. Well, not really. I have a hard time accepting that I need to dismiss the majority of people where I live, to be more accurate. I feel like I've received a lot of benefits from them, often unknowingly (i.e., I am way over-educated), and feel a responsibility to give back. At present, I am tangentially involved in the Transition movement, and am working with friends on ways to run a "disaster planning" program in parallel with Transition work.

I want to thank the person that posted the link for terra preta pots! I've wanted to know how to make biochar for a while now. Unfortunately, that site has not been fleshed out, yet, and has no instructions for constructing one's own pot, and no way of buying one produced by another. Soon, hopefully.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to Keith's book, Mr Orlov. I'm going to get a copy, it sounds excellent and also sounds like a good companion to the new movie The Age of Stupid.

on a different note, relevant to Pangolin's comment --

I'm afraid I don't see the legitimacy of the claims that bio-char slows or reverses global warming. Whether the carbon is burned in terra cotta or buried in a landfill, it's still carbon and it's still here. It seems the pots are a ruse based on the "carbon-trading" nonsense being tossed about, as if the pots are a diversion along the "green economy" lines of thought.

I'd like more proof before I completely dismiss the linked pots as a marketing scam. Pangolin, can you provide that proof, with some biochemical analyses?

Sticomythia said...

G'Day Anonymous,

That's exactly what we're doing in Vermont, as secessionists:

Take away the collapse of empire, and secession is; perhaps, little more than an intellectual exercise and blowing off steam about the US Empire.


> protecting oneself and one's
> children from the crash it might
> be a good idea to cut some
> feelers of industrial civilization
> that are especially threatening...?

Bob Wise said...

Interesting theme!
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery-
Only we ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy;
None of them can stop the times"
- Bob Marley

Tony said...

I'd like to respond to Charles F. Oxtrot, regarding "biochar as a marketing scheme." I'll refer you to the scholarly article published by Dr. James Hansen, titled "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?" ( Hansen says that production of biochar is the only way he sees to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. He has been seconded by Dr. James Lovelock (co-originator of Gaia theory).

Biochar works by locking up the carbon in organic material into a very long-lived form, as opposed to just chucking it into the landfill where it will decompose and off-gas either CO2 or methane, depending on whether the decomposition is aerobic or anaerobic, respectively. I suggest doing some wikipedia research on biochar, terra preta, and pyrolosis (the process that creates biochar), as well as reading the Hansen article posted above.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Biochar is off-topic for this post, but so what? It's interesting. Here are the non-obvious points about it that I like:

1. You can eat it, and feed it to chickens, cows and pigs. This cuts down on flatulence, which is mostly methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. Don't laugh, cow farts are significant global-warmers!

2. You can use it to filter water. Even really polluted water can be cleaned up, first by adding some kind of chemical oxidizer, then by filtering it through charcoal. If you plan to collect your own rainwater, or recycle gray water, you might as well make the charcoal for filtering it as well.

3. You can use it as fuel. Yes, this defeats the goal of carbon sequestration, but we do need some fuel, and it's better than many alternatives: it's a renewable fuel, non-toxic, light and compact enough for many uses. Its storage life is infinite.

Tony said...

Dmitry, when you say "you can eat it", do you mean that literally or are you referring to its uses as a soil amendment? Biochar is something I'm very interested in, even though it's off-topic.... Thanks!

Dmitry Orlov said...

Tony -

If you go to a health food store, it will be called "activated charcoal". In emergency rooms, it is standard procedure to administer a dose of it suspended in water in case of overdose or poisoning, because its huge surface area causes it to mechanically adsorb all sorts of chemicals. If you want to feed it to chickens, you have to starve the chickens for a bit, so they start pecking at it, but once they do, they like it and go on doing it even after you start feeding them again. It improves the quality and quantity of their poop and is generally good for them. Albert Bates is a good source of this sort of info:

Anonymous said...

Talking about cows and methane... One way to reduce flatulence in ruminants is to feed them grass (which is -would you believe!- what they are meant to eat). Feeding them grains causes more flatulence as their guts can't deal with grains as well as with grass. Maybe if cows were allowed to eat the way they should we wouldn't need to consider feeding them activated charcoal.

Anonymous said...

@ CharlesF.Oxtrot
Its really simple.
1.Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
2.Sigificant amount of that carbon is converted to charcoal.
3. Charcoal, which is stable (doesn't convert back to CO2, is burried underground, thus being permanently removed from the atmosphere and...
4. Improving the soil.

While I don't believe such program would ever be introduced on a scale that would actually make a difference, I consider as quite reasonable that it would have a noticable positive impact if it had been introduced.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Gaia is self regulating. Rather than extinction, we're looking at decimation. For those of us who believe in rebirth, there should be enough animals and insects remaining to accommodate 5 billion human souls. And then there are the devas and pretas.

RebelFarmer said...

Biochar is not the only solution for massive sequestration of CO2. In moderate climates it is more simple to use Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW) as amendment. Or simply stop ploughing and leave all crop residues. The advantage of biochar in tropical regions is that it resist well to decomposition. Compost or fresh organic materials just rot away to quickly, leaving no trace of stable humus. In moderate climates, stable humus is best formed by lignine rich material. As much as 30% of the original C content of RCW is transformed in stable humus, so as efficient as biochar but without the need of heating, etc.. The process can sequestrate as much 10 tons of CO2 per hectare per year, as long as the soil is humus deficient, which most soils are nowadays...

See for background info on RCW:
- Ramial Chipped Wood: the Clue to a Sustainable Fertile Soil (2007), by Diane Germain, Ph.D., P. Eng.

RebelFarmer said...

Found the reference for humus build up:

A study in Belgium showed that with RCW you can build 4 tons of humus per year per hectare for the first 20 cm.

If your humus content was a typical 2%, and you want to bring it back to 3% how much humus carbon is added?

A first 20 cm of 1 hectare weights
2000 m3 x 1,34 = 2700 ton
2% = 54 ton humus
3% = 81 ton humus
Difference is 27 ton humus = 16 ton C

(carbon = 58 weight% of humus)

Growth of 4 tons dry weight humus = 2,3 ton C.

10 years x 2,3 ton C = 23 ton C.

So 4 tons of humus per hectare is more than sufficient for bringing the humus content from 2 to 3%!

1 ton C = sequestration of 3,65 CO2
23 ton C = sequestration of 85 ton CO2

For this you need to bring two times an amount of 300 m3 of RCW on a hectare of land (so 60m3 per year per hectare).

This is about the side production of 3 hectares of forestry (branches/pruning), normally considered as "waste" and very often burned.

Cities and village garden also produce enormous amounts of ramial wood "waste" that are currently flooding composting units.

I think it is more efficient to let the soil "compost" it directly.

For a real large application without forests or cities in the surroundings, you can think of a combined system of planting hedgerows or agroforestry. 50 trees planted on one hectare of agricultural land will reduce only the plantable surface with 10%, but in many cases the productivity stays the same, due to better and deeper good soil structure. 50 trees or 500 m of hedgerows of 2 meter width deliver 4-5m3 RCW per year per hectare. This quantity can be added to the crop residues, and in this way will still built up humus faster and more efficient (in terms of transport and handling) than adding this quantity of humus by means of compost.

6damon9 said...

The biochar delusion:
1. Man will need carbonaceous bio-stuff for energy production, construction, or food, just to survive
2. Biochar energy use (collection, transport i/o, pyrolyze, bury; build systems) reduces total energy available for "basic needs"

If Climate Change were the only problem we faced, building & operating the process at the necessary scale would be ironic testimony to our plight. It would be resource-intensive Industry in a resource-intensive Economy, providing employment & generating "value", attempting to mitigate the Environmental effects of our Industrial Economy.

Biochar is Economic Schizophrenia, or a Resource Ponzi Scheme, that could only make sense near the lofty summit of Maslow's hierarchy...

But it's moot; Peak Oil will resolve CC in the long-term, and trump CC in the interim. To avoid a disquisition, let's just say it will be a rough ride down, dominated by energy deficit & the consequences. Increasing austerity will continually force reassessment of "basic needs", & biochar will be an unaffordable luxury.

Pangolin said...

Those of you advocating Ramial Chipped Wood as carbon sequestration and soil amendment ignore the fact that it only builds soil carbon year-on-year in climates where the ground freezes.

Mulch simply does not cut it in Tropical or Subtropical soils. It must be endlessly harvested from elsewhere and put where you want it. That isn't carbon sequestration but rather, transport.

Biochar is NOT a resource Ponzi scheme. Within the limits of the ability for plants to satisfy biochar's initial nitrate sink the addition of biochar to unmodified soils generally produces more crop and more fiber per hectare/year than soils not modified with biochar. The science is absolutely solid on this.

In particular during periods of drought stress production of biochar amended soils will greatly exceed (up to 400%) controls in multi-year trials. It isn't magic. The application has to be within constraints to produce increased yield.

Now can somebody please swat down the idea that climate change goes away if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow.

RebelFarmer said...

As I said, Ramial Chipped Wood decomposes quicker and better in tropical regions than in moderate regions. This means that it has less a function for carbon sequestration here.
But carbon sequestration is the last reason why farmers apply RCW at this moment. The biggest reasons are limitation of evaporation and increased water retention, and energy and nutrients for soil life.

In moderate regions only white rot can break down the lignine in RCW.
(I don't see what frost has to do with this??). The result is a large percentage of stable humus.

RCW and Mulching are the most suitable soil amendments for an energy efficient and local closed agricultural system. RCW can come from clippings of trees on field borders, Mulching comes from crop residues. Involving animals in the cycle complicates the issue, especially when land is scarce.

6damon9 said...


re. Resource Ponzi: I have no doubt that buried biochar acts as a beneficial soil amendment, thus increasing yields. However, through a quick Gedankenexperiment, it seems obvious that overall it will consume more resources than it's "worth". This last term, of course, a moving target; but my premises grow stronger as our resources diminish and we become destitute.

I'll put it another way:
(1) How to pay? What will we give up, exchange, for this new capability? (I think most people are starting to realize we can't borrow infinitely, and nothing's free.)... ok, assuming you've magically cleared this hurdle...
(2) How long will we run a non-essential industrial system, just to bury perfectly good fuel? (ok, do we bury lots of garbage now, but this wasteful practice will change with our fortunes. ditto fertilizer, when push comes to shove!) i.e., If you had to choose between cooking & home heating versus burying, which will win?

Think of ethanol as biofuel... I'd be happy to read a critical analysis on biochar, if one exists.

re. swatting ... Climate Change: I'm afraid you may have misunderstood my statement -- "Peak Oil will resolve CC in the long-term, and trump CC in the interim." Long-term means just that, some (very) long time from now, whether man is around or not. Sadly, to me, the latter appears quite probable. And while we survive, I think we'll always be motivated by more immediate concerns, as outlined in my previous post.

Sticomythia said...

Pangolin wrote:

> Now can somebody please swat
> down the idea that climate
> change goes away if we stop
> burning fossil
> fuels tomorrow.

Climate change is a paper tiger. You're supposed to think that, as an individual or community, you are powerless. Only the State has the power of policy.

The Black Swan may be, that climate change is not created by Man, but simply is. The greater cycle of long ice ages with short 15k interregnums, places us at the end of one of the 15K interregnums. A short warming trend inside a larger cooling trend.

Carbon sequestration (soil building) also simply is. Eventually, in the cycle, enough carbon comes out of the atmosphere into the soil, to trigger the large cooling trend. Glaciers cover and scrub soil, no sequestration, warming starts anew.

The works of Man do not produce enough atmospheric carbon to rival the loss of the planet's carbon sink: the massive loss of topsoil globally. This is significant.

Modern (fossil-fuel-based, subsidised) agriculture has thrown a curve ball to the cooling trend. Rebuilding the topsoil is a massive task, I don't think government are competent or even relevant. It has to be done at a local level.

Here in Vermont, I'm surrounded by liberal lefties in a 'sea of green'. They drive the recycling in their hybrids to the recycling centre, drive to the mall in Burlington, drive to the pep talks, and (in short) drive everywhere because there's no public transport to speak of. I can't even find a bike rack to lock my bicycle up, or a bike path on the road to avoid being clipped by somebidy's Prius.

Not driving, makes you 'look poor', a stigma that is bad for real estate values and bad for the Recovery. So much for Environmentalism.

Anonymous said...

"Rebuilding the topsoil is a massive task"

Rebuilding topsoil in human life time cycles is impossible.

Far more topsoil has been lost by human mismanagement in the last 80 years (roughly an average US life time) than will ever be 'created' back to replace it in ten times those human life cycles.

Assuming you could even foster a mindset of soil conservation among the Sheeple People for 800 years (impossible), you would still never recreate the lost topsoil in anything approaching the span of several human lives, the damage is far too great, local or government, never gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

We need to involve people with no intention of breeding in the project of saving humanity, too. We are not an insignificant fraction of the population, at least in the developed world where most of the problems start.