The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, by Albert Bates
A review by Kiko Denzer
Living trees lock up carbon, and burning releases it. That’s (part of) the conflict-ridden equation of global warming. Albert Bates has been at the front lines of the warming conflict since his 1990 title, Climate in Crisis. In this book, he defines biochar as charred (pyrolized) organic matter intended to be applied to soil in farming or gardening. His biochar solution merely asks us to partially burn our waste wood and other carbonaceous matter into charcoal, and add it to our soil where it will lock up carbon and store it underground in a human-fired echo of what Gaia did when she converted ancient forests into coal and oil.
The major difference, however, between deep fossil fuel deposits and a human-engineered biochar solution is that charcoal attracts and holds the nutrients that make for lush and healthy plant growth. So charcoal could be not only the best way to improve soil fertility, but also a cure, of sorts, for global warming.
If you read Charles Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, you encountered a story about a Spaniard named Orellana, the first European to go down the Amazon, who told of stunning riverside cities filled with marvelously attired (but hostile) natives, as well as bands of female warriors who lived without men. Of course, no one believed him, then or now, and modern experts say the entire Amazonian region is a vast and unforgiving wilderness with little tolerance for human presence only marginal agricultural potential. As Mann explains, however, the “experts” are, shall we say, mistaken, and many now wonder if Orellana wasn’t telling a much more interesting truth.
Underlying this new interest in Orellana’s story is dirt — specifically, a rich, dark soil known as “terra preta de los indios,” or “dark earth of the indians.” Consisting of local soil amended with large amounts of charcoal and broken pottery, terra preta crops up throughout the region and, a thousand or more years later, retains such fertility that the locals mine and bag it for sale as potting soil. It may have supported a very real, very rich, and various human civilization such as Orellana wrote of.
But where Charles Mann spends chapters exploring the complicated and disputatious history of anthropology and its effect on our notions about early man, Bates suggests that Orellana’s “natives” had not only manufactured the most fertile soil known to mankind, but had also discovered the biochar solution which might give us a key to climate change. He cites new data* suggesting that, as indians converted untold tons of living wood into untold acres of charcoal soil amendments, they effectively warmed the planet. And when they all died from sudden exposure to European diseases which they were genetically unable to resist, the resulting reforestation of farm land contributed to a planetary cooling cycle that we now know as the “little ice age” — the period between Columbus’ discovery of America and the start of the (coal-fired) industrial revolution.
Bates says his biochar solution can both cool the planet and feed the people. Is it a magic bullet? Maybe. Maybe not. But Bates’ book is worth reading. So is the forward by Dr. Vandana Shiva, who launches the book with a stern reminder that magic or not, a bullet is still a bullet, and that mechanical thinking produces only mechanical results: “To cultivate the future, we need to cultivate life in the soil. We need to cultivate the humility that the soil makes us, we do not make the soil, and we can only serve her processes of making life.”
Me? I just finished grinding up a winter’s worth of charcoal left-over from my wood-fired oven. This spring, it’s going into the compost to be activated so I can put it back into the soil that not only made me, but gave me my lovely wife and children as well. By grace and beauty, we hope not only to live, but to participate in miracles.
* The new data includes this article: “The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing,” by Robert A. Dull; Richard J. Nevle; William I. Woods; Dennis K. Bird; Shiri Avnery; William M. Denevan, which you can download here.
2020 Update: I wrote this not long after Bates’ book came out (in 2010). Since then, I’ve been shifting my work focus. Previously, my primary material was earth; now it’s wood. As a result, I’m trying to learn more about trees. In the same way Chas. Mann’s research into pre-columbian societies has changed our view of the landscape, a number of researchers are changing our view and understanding of trees, forests, and the systems that support them. Here are some references and links to good sources that broadened my understanding, or at least expanded the questions I’m asking:
Supporting the Soil Carbon Sponge, an interview with Microbiologist, climate scientist and founder of Healthy Soils Australia Walter Jehne, from Acres, USA. This includes a fascinating proposal that water and the hydrological cycle may be a larger factor in maintaining a stable climate than carbon — tho, of course, they are inseparably related, because water only moves in and out of the atmosphere when there’s carbon in the soil, and trees in healthy forests.
Diana Beresford Kroger, on “mother trees,” one interview in a series, in the Canadian journal, The Tyee.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World, by Peter Wohleben
and one of my favorite writers, William Bryant Logan, whose book Sproutlands was a recent treat.
Ken Kunst says
Kiko: I am using my earthen oven as I write, baking some lentils/veggies, with a lamb neck and some herbs from my garden, after baking off two loaves of bread. Oh, and I also just baked one of my last butternut squashes from last fall’s harvest! Everything everyone praises about these ovens can be confirmed by my experience! I’ve been using your 3rd edition borrowed from the library (which is always checked out) and had read the other editions as well, and am so glad I finally finished the oven. It’s gotten me obsessed with the whole process and all the possibilities. including the bio-char info too. It really is the most gratifying, creative, life-affirming activities, to not only build something like this, but to learn how it fires, how you time the breads and whatever else you’re going to cook, and how it stores so much heat for so long! I can’t praise you enough for writing this book, with your insights and philosophy, and especially the encouraging meme of “learn by doing”.
I became interested in homemade bread while taking flamenco guitar lessons from a Greek-American named James Katsaros aka: “Jimmy” in Sebastapool, CA. back in the middle 1990’s. He was married to Bronwen Godfrey, who was the bread part of Laurel’s Kitchen fame. Jimmy built a masonary oven in their backyard, and together, they would host bread days, where any number of nieghbors and friends would gather for a festive day of incredible sourdough “desem” bread, foods, guitars, flamenco dancers, and Jimmie’s vast command of Greek philosophy, flamenco music, martial arts, building……It was an incredible time in my Life, but what brought everyone together was not only Jimmie’s generous and hospitable spirit, but Bron’s incredible whole wheat bread. Now that I’m commited to my oven and the process of baking bread for my Family, I finally can appreciate just how much work it must have taken them for those bread days. They used to bake about 25-30 loaves! And I think they were processing the wheat berries with a hand crank corona mill!!
Anyway, I’ll take some photos of my oven to send you sometime. I can’t thank you enough for this Life-changing experience of building my own cob oven.
Ken Kunst, Napa, CA.