Looking for the Silverbuckshot

By a bitter irony it is beginning to look as if one of the most effective means of dealing with global warming lies in an agricultural technology invented and practised by people, who were effectively wiped out by the unintended consequences of the European intrusions into the “New World” several hundred years ago.
Without going into its origins James Lovelock makes the case for this technology in an interview in the New Scientist:
“So are we doomed?
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.”

If you are interested in the scientific background to Lovelock’s argument, a good starting point is the web pages of the Terra Preta de Indio – Biochar Soil Management project at Cornell University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
For a good overview, Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent for the FT, has an excellent review of the field and also makes the important point that:
“Even if biochar does not fulfil all of the potential claimed for it, it could still make an important contribution. Al Gore, the former US vice-president and environmental campaigner, likes to point out that the search for a “silver bullet” to solve the problem of climate change has been a distraction. Instead, he argues, though there may be no silver bullet, “there is silver buckshot”. Only by bringing many different methods of cutting emissions or absorbing carbon to bear can we reduce atmospheric levels of carbon to within the limits of safety. And of those possible methods, few are as simple and cheap as biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell makes the point that “biochar sequestration does not require a fundamental scientific advance and the underlying production technology is robust and simple, making it appropriate for many regions of the world”.”
But where things get more interesting, complicated and very controversial is when we look at the history of the technology of bio-char. Depending on which view you take this raises very important questions about our relationship to nature and the world and our relationships with each other and the unintended consequences of those relationships.
But let’s start simply with the opening paragraphs of a summary of a BBC TV programme that first sparked my interest in bio-char or as it is called in South America, Terra Preta de Indio.
“In 1542, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana ventured along the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon Basin’s great rivers. Hunting a hidden city of gold, his expedition found a network of farms, villages and even huge walled cities. At least that is what he told an eager audience on his return to Spain.
The prospect of gold drew others to explore the region, but none could find the people of whom the first Conquistadors had spoken. The missionaries who followed a century later reported finding just isolated tribes of hunter-gatherers. Orellana’s story seemed to be no more than a fanciful myth.”

Now several centuries later, as Charles C. Mann reports, support for Orellana’s account comes from:
“…a small but growing number of researchers believe that the Beni once housed what Clark L. Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, calls “some of the densest populations and the most elaborate cultures in the Amazon”—cultures fully as sophisticated as the better known, though radically different, cultures of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. Although these still unnamed peoples abandoned their earthworks between 1400 and 1700 C.E., Erickson says, they permanently transformed regional ecosystems, creating “a richly patterned and humanized landscape” that is “one of the most remarkable human achievements on the continent.” To this day, according to William Balée, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, the lush tropical forests interspersed with the savanna are in considerable measure anthropogenic, or created by human beings—a notion with dramatic implications for conservation.”
Interesting though the possibility of a lost Amazonian civilisation and the implications of its approach to land magnet may be there is a wider story of the peoples of the Americas and the civilisations they may have created that we need to pay attention to. The gifts from the Americas to the human world have been immense and sparked interactions for both good and ill that still resonate today.
In a long article by in The Atlantic that is worth setting aside some time to read and ponder, Charles C. Mann points to the work of Alfred Crosby, which reminds us that:
“… Every tomato in Italy, every potato in Ireland, and every hot pepper in Thailand came from this hemisphere. Worldwide, more than half the crops grown today were initially developed in the Americas.
Maize, as corn is called in the rest of the world, was a triumph with global implications. Indians developed an extraordinary number of maize varieties for different growing conditions, which meant that the crop could and did spread throughout the planet. Central and Southern Europeans became particularly dependent on it; maize was the staple of Serbia, Romania, and Moldavia by the nineteenth century. Indian crops dramatically reduced hunger, Crosby says, which led to an Old World population boom.
Along with peanuts and manioc, maize came to Africa and transformed agriculture there, too. “The probability is that the population of Africa was greatly increased because of maize and other American Indian crops,” Crosby says. “Those extra people helped make the slave trade possible.” Maize conquered Africa at the time when introduced diseases were leveling Indian societies. The Spanish, the Portuguese, and the British were alarmed by the death rate among Indians, because they wanted to exploit them as workers. Faced with a labor shortage, the Europeans turned their eyes to Africa. The continent’s quarrelsome societies helped slave traders to siphon off millions of people. The maize-fed population boom, Crosby believes, let the awful trade continue without pumping the well dry.”

It is important to remember that these gifts from the Americas were not simply stuff lying around, they were cultivated and thus like Terra Preta de Indio the products of technologies. And technologies are made by people. And if some of the archaeologists, anthropologists and historians cited by Charles Mann are right there were lots of people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived. lots and lots of people, 95% of whom were wiped out by the diseases the Europeans and their animals brought with them.
Now all this is very controversial stuff and Mann quite fairly highlights the opposition to this view, but let’s just suppose their right – what does this do to our story?
Well for a start, it turns part of the picture that many of us hold of our history on its head. The picture I have had is of the Americas as wilderness with a few people, with the exceptions of the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, living lightly off the land.
But Mann is saying there is another, radically different picture building up:
“Problem is, this new generation of anthropologists and archaeologists is saying that as a matter of cold, hard fact the Americas in 1491 were not a wilderness. They were a huge, special garden, planned and maintained by the active efforts of a wildly diverse range of societies. Environmentalists tend not to like this line of argument, because to them it implies that there is no preferred “natural” state—so let the bulldozers rip. And to be fair a lot of anti-green commentators have drawn just this implication. Personally, though, I believe both sides are wrong. Knowing more about what the Indians accomplished suggests that human beings can have a large, long-lasting impact on the landscape without wrecking everything. To me, at least, that seems an incredibly hopeful notion to carry along into tomorrow.”
I find it hopeful too. These days it has become fashionable to see our impact on the world as largely destructive. The story of Terra Preta de Indio suggests a more complex and complicated view. Yes, we can be both deliberately and unwittingly destructive as a species, but also we can be creative and nurturing, actively making a world in which we can flourish and thrive. Sunny, little optimist that I am, I will take a small bet on our ability to muddle through and find the silver buckshot that will ensure a convivial world for our great, great, great grandchildren and beyond. And, just maybe, that world will look a little like the New World of “a huge, special garden, planned and maintained by the active efforts of a wildly diverse range of societies” we Europeans may have inadvertently destroyed. A vision that some, like my friend Nick Routledge are already working to achieve.