Editor's Choice

Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth

March 01, 2019


Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper's new book explains how we can rebuild our economy and reverse climate change by reversing the flow of our carbon economy.

Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth by Albert Bates & Kathleen Draper, Chelsea Green Publishing, 288 pages, Hardcover, February 2019, ISBN 9781603587839

I was intending to review a book called The Enlightened Capitalists this week, and had written about 1,000 words on it before deciding to shelve it. It is a large saga of a book about individuals who have attempted to do well by doing good in the Anglo-American industrial tradition—an economic paradigm that leaves little room for addressing societal needs over or at the same level as satisfying investor interests. The question it grapples with is as daunting as its almost 600 pages—“Are socially virtuous business practices compatible with shareholder capitalism?”

That this fundamental question is left unanswered is, I think, actually a strength of the book. But the “favorite living philosopher” he quotes in leaving that question unanswered in the very last sentence of the book, Garrison Keillor, turned me away from the book in a way beyond just ending it. With that caveat, I would still recommend it to anyone interested in building a socially responsible business, as there is a lot to learn from the two dozen examples—mostly through showing how they were undone—the book offers.

I am still working my way through the book I turned to after setting The Enlightened Capitalists to the side at noon yesterday, but I am already finding myself wanting to tell everyone I know about it. And while I probably don’t know you, dear reader, personally, I would like to tell you a little about Burn by Albert Bates the Kathleen Draper. First off, whereas The Enlightened Capitalists reaches back two hundred years, to the very beginning rumblings of the industrial revolution, to bring us stories of courageous businesspeople trying to do good within the industrial economy (a worthy task accomplished well by author James O'Toole), Bates and Draper explain how the burning of fossilized carbon—which has literally fueled that economy—has brought about the scourge of climate change that threatens our very future:


Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BC but it was the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in the eighteenth century that gave fossil energy traction, literally. In perfect parallel, expansion of the human population tracked expansion of the supply of available energy, railroads, and factories. Thomas Malthus, running the mathematical equations for population, and the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Svante Arrhenius, doing the same for climate change roughly a century later, accurately predicted the outcome once humanity was swept up in the enchantment of seemingly unlimited energy.


The prediction was not that all would be well. A once stable world population of humans that changed very little over the course of human history has ballooned, increasing by 30 percent every twenty years, digging up and burning up ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels, warming the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, and bringing about a scourge of climate change that threatens our very future. But the problem isn’t carbon, it’s that we’ve altered the natural carbon cycle, and “have allowed ourselves to get disastrously out of balance with it.” In fact, as the authors tell us in myriad ways throughout the book, carbon is the answer:


Once we understand carbon—and how, in particular, we can go from squandering carbon to banking it in a virtuous cycle of improvement we refer to as “carbon cascades”—we can begin to see the massive opportunities it presents, rather than only the threat of planetary proportions we’ve all been focused on.


While most people believe that silicon is the element that will drive the future, but as the authors not, silicon “has never been known to form the basis of life.” That is the sole purview of carbon, and potentially a reconstructed carbon economy. (Also of note is that the giants of Silicon Valley and the tech economy are not exactly helping, as “Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are quietly helping Big Oil destroy the climate.”) The solution, according to the authors, is “low-tech, easily sourced, sustainably produced biomass,” and includes ideas like “steady-state economics, B-corp public banks and credit unions, permaculture, regenerative design, natural climate solutions, microenterprise hubs, and ecosystem restoration.”

And a primary repository of that carbon will be biochar.


Rediscovered in the latter half of the twentieth century in the famous terra preta do indios—the Amazonian dark earths—biochar has become the subject of increasingly intensive scientific research, and for good reason. It possesses a variety of remarkable attributes amenable to many different services and products, nearly all of which ultimately help rebalance atmospheric carbon and improve ecosystem health.


The authors explain how, while it has most widely been put to agricultural uses in the past (both authors have entire books dedicated to the subject), “Evidence is rapidly mounting that the potential of harnessing carbon to reverse climate change extends far beyond agriculture.”

After a brief history of climate science, how we came to discover CO2 levels were rising, and how hard fossil fuel industries and their allies in government have tried to distort or bury the evidence of it, the authors, in two sentences, destroy the argument that clean energy is not economically feasible:


At less than 5 cents per kilowatt, its CAPEX (capital cost) is now below OPEX (operating cost) for even the newest fossil plants. In other words, there is really no economic excuse for not halting pipelines and coal trains and no business case to be made for either new or existing nuclear, oil, coal, or gas.


They then begin making the case for an alternative, presenting what is no less than a glimpse of “an eco-civilization retooled to reverse climate change.” They describe marine permaculture that uses a lightweight carbon lattice to grow kelp forests in the sea that “can be harvested for food, feed, fertilizer, fiber, and biofuels,” while also cooling the waters around them, sparking algae and plankton growth, and attracting the larger marine life that feeds on it. The kelp can also be charred and used to build “coral-restoring coastal filter barriers.” The kelp leaves that aren’t harvested or consumed by wildlife “die and drop into the deep sea, sequestering carbon for centuries.” They look at direct air capture (DAC) systems that use the captured CO2 to grow algae for “production of food, fiber, medicines, biogas, and chemicals,” and are even powered by the very gasses they produce. It does come with a caveat:


However, unless converted to biochar, the withdrawal is still temporary because the CO2 remains in a labile form and returns to the carbon cycle either as food or fuel. Combining anaerobic digestion, algal DAC, BECCS [bio-energy with carbon capture and storage], and biochar would provide a whole solution.


Three Cornell University scientists suggest BEBCS (biomass energy with biochar capture and storage) may be the answer, as it not only removes CO2, but stores that fixed carbon in soil, where it “improves the fertility of degraded or less fertile soils, improves soil-water management, and supplies other services.”

The BEBCS process that produces Biochar is created mainly from feedstocks of agricultural residue and byproducts of forest management, and can be used in place of fertilizer in agriculture—not by decomposing and acting directly as a fertilizer itself, but by becoming “a long term habitat for worms, bacteria, and fungi, increasing crop yields and adding fertility back to the soil.”

But that is not all. Pyrolysate, created in pyrolytic carbon capture and storage process (PyCC), uses more contaminated sources of carbon unsuitable for use in agriculture, like “sewage treatment plants and livestock manure, or contaminated carbon products presently going to landfills.” And that also has potential commercial uses—put into the concrete used in bridges, the asphalt used in highways, even in high rises. We could literally rebuild the infrastructure of our economy as a carbon sink.

As I said earlier, I am still making my way through—or, rather, at the moment bouncing around in—the book. But I plan on starting over from the beginning and getting my head around it all more thoroughly. And, in the spirit of the book's concluding chapter, “Civilization 2.0,” that:


The only way to endow the future with a chance of reversing climate change is to transition as rapidly as possible to a habitation pattern (an economy) that does not push carbon into the atmosphere and oceans but draws it in. That change, the late economist David Fleming urged, “will depend for its existence on a deep foundation in culture.” It cannot concentrate to scale. It must spread.


Reading this book made me acutely aware that I want to help it spread, and that I can start simply by helping spread word of the book today. I would like to write more when I’ve finished digging into every last corner of the book, which I plan on doing straightaway. It contains a lot of science that I am unfamiliar with, and a lot of math, which isn't my strongest suit, but it is exciting in both its breadth and specificity. It encompasses a civilizational challenge, and the operational ways we can address it—indeed the ways some already are, because these solutions are viable, profitable, and shovel-ready. If fact, the authors believe that:


Those who get into carbon cascades early may find wealth opportunities on a par with the great railroads, steel mills, and steamships of the nineteenth century. It’s not the Industrial Revolution, but it’s a carbon copy.


“Civilizations are living entities,” write Bates & Kathleen Draper, “with regular cycles of birth, growth, and death.” It’s time to turn the carbon paradigm on its head, time to create a new, virtuous cycle of growth so that the one were on doesn’t bring about the death of our civilization.

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