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.
and one of my favorite writers, William Bryant Logan, whose book Sproutlands was a recent treat.