Jul 2, 2010

Organic Biochar Development Blog Archive Composting with Biochar

July 2nd, 2010 at 13:29
Compost has to be one of my favourite topics after Biochar, I used to help my father make compost by the ton and boy did it stink, not quite enough carbon and oxygen for my liking, we didn’t have access to enough carbon sources way back then, but now I’m the other way around here, nitrogen is often limited due to dry weather apart from our wet grass growing summer, but you learn to cope and find replacements. I use 4x 400lt black recycled plastic compost bins and a 1500lt wire cage design here, they are open on the bottom and full of earth worms when they are ready to use. I would recommend using at least two compost bins as compost often needs to sit for a couple of months after filling and this allows a second batch to be well under way when you empty and use the first bin.

While the perfect compost process can take years of experience to get right, a quality compost should produce a earthy smelling humus with few lumps of recognisable organic matter, adding chunky Biochar will add hard lumps to your humus compost as Biochar will not break down of rot in even the hottest compost bins, but that’s ok.

A good compost is all about getting the ratio of carbon and nitrogen right, with a sprinkle of oxygen, moisture and activators thrown in. What’s all this carbon and nitrogen ratio talk about, think about Carbon as any dry brown organic matter or woody material, think of nitrogen as anything fresh or green, I class animal manures as nitrogen, same goes for all kitchen waste and the odd road kill or dead rat. If you only use carbon sources in your compost the process of breaking down will take much much longer or might not even happen, if you only use nitrogen sources like fresh grass clippings or kitchen waste you will tend to get a smelly wet pile of yuck to deal with.

Layering Compost is the secret, layers of carbon and nitrogen made in a single batch or as you go composts, how much of each? that depends on what you have access too, as a general rule add 15 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, but it’s sometimes hard to know how much you have added, what I have done here to make composting easier is have a pile of carbon sitting next to your compost bin so each time you add your daily nitrogen kitchen waste you can cover it with carbon matter, while fresh grass clipping are classed as nitrogen if you let them dry out they become a source of brown carbon which is easy to keep next to you compost bin. When you start a batch of compost the first layer should be coarse carbon or a 15cm layer of sticks which create an air vent at the bottom of your compost helping the composting process and reduce the wet anaerobic (without air) issue some compost makers get including myself.

I tend to either make a full batch of compost which does take a little planning like pruning in the morning and composting in the afternoon, or make at least half a bin which is then slowly filled up from kitchen green waste and my pile of carbon matter. Try and keep your carbon layers no more than 5cm thick (2 inches) and keep the nitrogen quite thin, after a couple of layers I like to add one of my many compost activators, these are designed to fire off the tiny organic life in your compost bin which do most of the breaking down, What I use here is, worm wee (vermiliquid), old compost teas, human wee, molasses, honey, some of your last compost and the odd bucket of dead smelly rotting cane toads. I also add rock dust or minerals over layers as I go, a cup full of rock dust or dolomite every 5 layers or so would be about right.

So what about Biochar?? I don’t tend to class Biochar as a carbon source when I’m making compost, why I hear you ask? Biochar will not break down like woody carbon in your compost, it will just fill up like a sponge with moist humus, tiny organic life and minerals, so my thinking is to try and get your Biochar spread as evenly as possible through all of your compost bin, so each time you add a nitrogen layer I add a hand full of Biochar across the whole layer, I have tried adding dense layers of Biochar in past composts and found the larger earthworms had moved through those layers to get higher in the bin but parts of the Biochar layer didn’t get exposed to humus and stayed dry. The other benefit of evenly spreading Biochar into your compost is you will not have to mix it up with a garden fork when it’s ready to use. How much Biochar to add? I wouldn’t add any more than 10-15% Biochar that’s 40-60lt in one of my 400lt bins. If you have access to heaps of Biochar I would think about liquid composting which I will cover in my next post.

When spreading compost either cover it with a thick layer of chunky mulch like sugar cane, hay or lucerne. Digging it in is optional but sunlight will damage humus rich compost creating a hard surface crust, so if you don’t use mulch dig it in.

Just a quick note on things not to add to you compost, plastics, treated green or blue tinted timber, fruit fly infested fruit, fungus infected clippings, any thing that will not break down or has been exposed to chemicals, don’t add meat eating animal manure if you are going to use the compost for food crops as it can contain some nasty bugs. Some people don’t add bones to composts due to rat issues but I do and I have never had any problems here, large beef bones don’t tend to break down so I turn them into Biochar.

Final note, please take care when handling compost, it’s packed with millions and millions of tiny bugs and fungus spores, use a mask and gloves, dampen down the compost if it’s a little dusty or dried out. If you have a chest cold leave it alone as your lungs are already getting bashed about and they don’t need to be exposed to compost bugs, also avoid any open cuts or wounds as I often end up covered in compost after moving it to my wheel barrow then spreading it around my garden.

Amid Church Abuse Scandal, an Office That Failed to Act - NYTimes.com

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1982. The office he led, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been given authority over abuse cases in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm.

July 1, 2010

In its long struggle to grapple with sexual abuse, the Vatican often cites as a major turning point the decision in 2001 to give the office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the authority to cut through a morass of bureaucracy and handle abuse cases directly.

The decision, in an apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II, earned Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, a reputation as the Vatican insider who most clearly recognized the threat the spreading sexual abuse scandals posed to the Roman Catholic Church.

But church documents and interviews with canon lawyers and bishops cast that 2001 decision and the future pope’s track record in a new and less flattering light.

The Vatican took action only after bishops from English-speaking nations became so concerned about resistance from top church officials that the Vatican convened a secret meeting to hear their complaints — an extraordinary example of prelates from across the globe collectively pressing their superiors for reform, and one that had not previously been revealed.

And the policy that resulted from that meeting, in contrast to the way it has been described by the Vatican, was not a sharp break with past practices. It was mainly a belated reaffirmation of longstanding church procedures that at least one bishop attending the meeting argued had been ignored for too long, according to church documents and interviews.

The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church’s credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, an outspoken auxiliary bishop emeritus from Sydney, Australia, who attended the secret meeting in 2000, said that despite numerous warnings, top Vatican officials, including Benedict, took far longer to wake up to the abuse problems than many local bishops did.

“Why did the Vatican end up so far behind the bishops out on the front line, who with all their faults, did change — they did develop,” he said. “Why was the Vatican so many years behind?”

Cardinal Ratzinger, of course, had not yet become pope, a divinely ordained office not accustomed to direction from below. John Paul, his longtime superior, often dismissed allegations of pedophilia by priests as an attack on the church by its enemies. Supporters say that Cardinal Ratzinger would have preferred to take steps earlier to stanch the damage in certain cases.

But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume his own papacy.

As pope, Benedict has met with victims of sexual abuse three times. He belatedly reopened an investigation into the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful religious order — and a protégé of John Paul’s — and ultimately removed him from ministry. He gave American bishops greater leeway to take a tough line on abuse in the United States, and recently accepted the resignations of several bishops elsewhere. And on June 11, at an event in St. Peter’s Square meant to celebrate priests, he begged “forgiveness from God and from the persons involved” and promised to do “everything possible” to prevent future abuse.

But today the abuse crisis is still raging in the Catholic heartland of Europe: civil investigators in Belgium last week took the rare step of raiding church headquarters and the home of a former archbishop. The Vatican under Benedict is still responding to abuse by priests at its own pace, and it is being besieged by an outside world that wants it to move faster and more decisively.

Vatican officials, who declined to answer detailed questions related to Benedict’s history, say that the church will announce another round of changes to its canon laws, as it did in 2001, so that the church can improve its response to the abuse problem.

But the suggestion that more reforms are ahead is a nod to the fact that there is still widespread confusion among many bishops about how to handle allegations of abuse, and that their approaches are remarkably uneven from country to country.

National bishops’ conferences in some countries have adopted their own norms and standards. But several decades after sexual abuse by priests became a problem, Benedict has not yet instituted a universal set of rules.

Scandal and Confusion

The sexual abuse scandal first caught much of the world’s attention in 2002, with reports that the Boston archdiocese had been covering up for molesters for years. But the alarm bells had already been sounding for nearly two decades in many countries. In Lafayette, La., in 1984, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthé admitted to molesting 37 youngsters. In 1989, a sensational case erupted at an orphanage in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. By the mid-1990s, about 40 priests and brothers in Australia faced abuse allegations. In 1994, the Irish government was brought down when it botched the extradition of a notorious pedophile priest.

Bishops had a variety of disciplinary tools at their disposal — including the power to remove accused priests from contact with children and to suspend them from ministry altogether — that they could use without the Vatican’s direct approval.

Some used this authority to sideline abusive priests, minimizing the damage inflicted on their victims. Other bishops clearly made things worse, by shuffling abusers from one assignment to the next, never telling parishioners or reporting priests to the police.

But as court cases, financial settlements and media coverage mounted, many prelates looked to the Vatican for leadership and clarity on how to prosecute abusers under canon law and when to bring cases to the attention of the civil authorities. In the worst cases, involving serial offenders who denied culpability and resisted discipline, some bishops sought the Vatican’s guidance on how to dismiss them from the priesthood.

For this, bishops needed the Vatican’s help. Dismissing a priest is not like disbarring a lawyer or stripping a doctor of his medical license. In Catholic theology, ordaining a priest creates an indelible mark; to return him to the lay state required the approval of the pope.

Yet throughout the ’80s and ’90s, bishops who sought to penalize and dismiss abusive priests were daunted by a bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal process, with contradicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions in Rome, according to church documents and interviews with bishops and canon lawyers.

Besides Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, bishops were sending off their files on abuse cases to the Congregations for the Clergy, for Bishops, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and for the Evangelization of Peoples — plus the Vatican’s Secretariat of State; its appeals court, the Apostolic Signatura; and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

“There was confusion everywhere,” said Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson of Adelaide, Australia.

A new Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 only muddied things further, among other things by setting a five-year statute of limitations within which abuse cases could be prosecuted.

During this period, the three dozen staff members working for Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were busy pursuing other problems. These included examining supernatural phenomena, like apparitions of the Virgin Mary, so that hoaxes did not “corrupt the faith,” according to the Rev. Brian Mulcahy, a former member of the staff. Other sections weighed requests by divorced Catholics to remarry and vetted the applications of former priests who wanted to be reinstated.

The heart of the office, though, was its doctrinal section. Cardinal Ratzinger, a German theologian appointed prefect of the congregation in 1981, aimed his renowned intellectual firepower at what he saw as “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church” — the liberation theology movement sweeping across Latin America.

As Father Gauthé was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine. Later, he also reined in a Dutch theologian who thought lay people should be able to perform priestly functions, and an American who taught that Catholics could dissent from church teachings about abortion, birth control, divorce and homosexuality.

Different Focus for Cardinal

Cardinal Ratzinger also focused on reining in national bishops’ conferences, several of which, independent of Rome, had begun confronting the sexual abuse crisis and devising policies to address it in their countries. He declared that such conferences had “no theological basis” and “do not belong to the structure of the church.” Individual bishops, he reaffirmed, reigned supreme in their dioceses and reported only to the authority of the pope in Rome.

Another hint of his priorities came at a synod in 1990, when a bishop from Calgary gingerly mentioned the growing sexual abuse problem in Canada. When Cardinal Ratzinger rose to speak, however, it was of a different crisis: the diminishing image of the priesthood since the Second Vatican Council, and the “huge drop” in the numbers of priests as many resigned.

That concern — that the irrevocable commitment to the priesthood was being undermined by the exodus of priests leaving to marry or because they were simply disenchanted — had already led Cardinal Ratzinger to block the dismissal of at least one priest convicted of molestation, documents show.

“Look at it from the perspective of priestly commitment,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Cardinal Ratzinger’s and founder of the conservative publishing house Ignatius Press. “You want to get married? You’re still a priest. You’re a sex offender? Well, you’re still a priest. Rome is looking at it from the objective reality of the priesthood.”

After another abuse scandal in 1992 in Fall River, Mass., bishops in the United States pressed the Vatican for an alternative to the slow and arcane canonical justice system. Without a full canonical trial, clerics accused of abuse could not be dismissed from the priesthood against their will (although a bishop could impose some restrictions short of that). In 1993, John Paul said he had heard the American bishops’ pleas and convened a joint commission of American and Vatican canonists to propose improvements.

John Paul rejected its proposal to let bishops dismiss priests using administrative procedures, without canonical trials. But he agreed to raise the age of majority to 18 from 16 for child-molestation cases. More important, he extended the statute of limitations to 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday.

It is not known whether Cardinal Ratzinger spoke up in the internal deliberations that led to the two changes, which applied only to the United States.

But those changes clearly did not go far enough. And as the crisis steadily spread in other countries, bishops and church administrators from across the English-speaking world began meeting to compare notes on how to respond to it. After gathering on their own in 1996 and 1998, they demanded that the Curia, the Vatican’s administration, meet with them in Rome in 2000.

Frustrations Boil Over

The visiting bishops had reached the boiling point. After flailing about for 20 years, with little guidance from Rome, as stories about pedophile priests embroiled the church in lawsuits, shame and scandal, they had flown in to Rome from Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, the United States and the West Indies.

Many came out of frustration: the Vatican had too often thwarted bishops’ attempts to oust pedophile priests in their jurisdictions. Yet they had high hopes that they would make the case for reform. Nearly every major Vatican office was represented in the gathering, held in the same Vatican hotel that was built to house cardinals electing a new pope.

“The message we wanted to get across was: if individuals are to hide behind church law and use that law to impede the ability of bishops to discipline priests, then we have to have a new way of moving forward,” said Eamonn Walsh, auxiliary bishop of Dublin, one of 17 bishops who attended from overseas. (He was one of several Irish bishops who offered the pope their resignations last year because of the abuse scandal, but his has not been accepted.)

Yet many at the meeting grew dismayed as, over four long days in early April 2000, they heard senior Vatican officials dismiss clergy sexual abuse as a problem confined to the English-speaking world, and emphasize the need to protect the rights of accused priests over ensuring the safety of children, according to interviews with 10 church officials who attended the meeting.

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, set the tone, playing down sexual abuse as an unavoidable fact of life, and complaining that lawyers and the media were unfairly focused on it, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. What is more, he asked, is it not contradictory for people to be so outraged by sexual abuse when society also promotes sexual liberation?

Another Vatican participant even observed that many pedophile priests had Irish surnames, a remark that offended delegates from Ireland.

“Prejudices came out,” said Bishop Robinson of Australia. “There were some very silly things said at times.”

Though disappointed, the visiting bishops were not entirely surprised.

“It wasn’t that there was bad will in Rome,” Bishop Walsh said. “They just didn’t have the firsthand experience that the dioceses were having around the world — experience with the manipulative, devious ways of the perpetrators. If the perpetrator said, ‘I didn’t do it,’ they would say, ‘He wouldn’t be telling a lie, he has to be telling the truth, and he’s innocent until proven guilty.’ ”

An exception to the prevailing attitude, several participants recalled, was Cardinal Ratzinger. He attended the sessions only intermittently and seldom spoke up. But in his only extended remarks, he made clear that he saw things differently from others in the Curia.

“The speech he gave was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly,” recalled Archbishop Wilson of Australia, who was at the meeting in 2000. “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward.”

Clarity Comes in a Letter

Even so, the meeting served as much to expose Cardinal Ratzinger’s inattention to the problem as it did to showcase his new attitude.

Archbishop Wilson said in an interview that during the session he had to call Vatican officials’ attention to long-ignored papal instructions, dating from 1922, and reissued in 1962, that gave Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, sole responsibility for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses: solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.

Archbishop Wilson said he had stumbled across the old instructions as a canon law student in the early 1990s. And he eventually learned that canonists were deeply divided on whether the old instructions or the 1983 canon law — which were at odds on major points — should hold sway.

If the old instructions had prevailed, then there would be no cause for confusion among bishops across the globe: all sexual abuse cases would fall under Cardinal Ratzinger’s jurisdiction.

(The Vatican has recently insisted that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office was responsible only for cases related to priests who solicited sex in the confessional, but the 1922 instructions plainly gave his office jurisdiction over sexual abuse cases involving “youths of either sex” that did not involve violating the sacrament of confession.)

Few people in the room had any idea what Archbishop Wilson was talking about, other participants recalled. But Archbishop Wilson said he had discussed the old papal instructions with Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in the late 1990s and had been told that they indeed were the prevailing law in pedophilia cases.

Just over a year later, in May 2001, John Paul issued a confidential apostolic letter instructing that all cases of sexual abuse by priests were thenceforth to be handled by Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. The letter was called “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” Latin for “Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments.”

In an accompanying cover letter, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is said to have been heavily involved in drafting the main document, wrote that the 1922 and 1962 instructions that gave his office authority over sexual abuse by priests cases were “in force until now.”

The upshot of that phrase, experts say, is that Catholic bishops around the world, who had been so confused for so long about what to do about molestation cases, could and should have simply directed them to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith all along.

Bishops and canon law experts said in interviews that they could only speculate as to why the future pope had not made this clear many years earlier.

“It makes no sense to me that they were sitting on this document,” said the Rev. John P. Beal, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America. “Why didn’t they just say, ‘Here are the norms. If you need a copy we’ll send them to you?’ ”

Nicholas P. Cafardi, a Catholic expert in canon law who is dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law, said, “When it came to handling child sexual abuse by priests, our legal system fell apart.”

There was additional confusion over the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases — or whether there even was one, given the Vatican’s reaffirmation of the 1922 and 1962 papal instructions. Many bishops had believed that they could not prosecute cases against priests because they exceeded the five-year statute of limitations enacted in 1983, effectively shielding many molesters since victims of child abuse rarely came forward until they were well into adulthood.

Mr. Cafardi, who is also the author of “Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children,” argued that another effect of the 2001 apostolic letter was to impose a 10-year statute of limitations on pedophilia cases where, under a careful reading of canon law, none had previously applied.

“When you think how much pain could’ve been prevented, if we only had a clear understanding of our own law,” he said. “It really is a terrible irony. This did not have to happen.”

Though the apostolic letter was praised for bringing clarity to the subject, it also reaffirmed a requirement that such cases be handled with the utmost confidentiality, under the “pontifical secret” — drawing criticism from many who argued that the church remained unwilling to report abusers to civil law enforcement.

Reforms, but Limited Reach

After the new procedures were adopted, Cardinal Ratzinger’s office became more responsive to requests to discipline priests, said bishops who sought help from his office. But when the sexual abuse scandal erupted again, in Boston in 2002, it immediately became clear to American bishops that the new procedures were inadequate.

Meeting in Dallas in the summer of 2002, the American bishops adopted a stronger set of canonical norms requiring bishops to report all criminal allegations to the secular authorities, and to permanently remove from ministry priests facing even one credible accusation of abuse. They also sought from the Vatican a streamlined way to discipline priests that would not require a drawn-out canonical trial.

The Vatican initially rejected the American bishops’ proposed norms. A committee of American bishops and Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, watered down the American mandatory-reporting requirement to say only that bishops must comply with civil laws on reporting crimes, which vary widely from place to place.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reserved for itself the power to dismiss a man from the priesthood without a full canonical trial — the kind of administrative remedy that American bishops had long been begging the Vatican to delegate to them.

Even so, the American bishops got most of what they asked for, and Cardinal Ratzinger was their advocate, said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, then the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Americans were allowed to keep their zero-tolerance provision for abusive priests, making the rules for the church in the United States far more stringent than in most of the rest of the world. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also said it would waive the statute of limitations on a case-by-case basis if bishops asked.

Archbishop Gregory said he made 13 trips to Rome in three years, almost always meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger.

“He was extraordinarily supportive of what we were doing,” Archbishop Gregory said in an interview.

Other reforms enacted by American bishops included requiring background checks for church personnel working with children, improved screening of seminarians, training in recognizing abuse, annual compliance audits in each diocese and lay review boards to advise bishops on how to deal with abuse cases.

Those measures seem to be having an impact. Last year, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 513 people made allegations of sexual abuse against 346 priests or other church officials, roughly a third fewer cases than in 2008.

Yet the Vatican did not proactively apply those policies to other countries, and it is only now grappling with abuse problems elsewhere. Reports have surfaced of bishops in Chile, Brazil, India and Italy who quietly kept accused priests in ministry without informing local parishioners or prosecutors.

Benedict, now five years into his papacy, has yet to make clear if he intends to demand of bishops throughout the world — and of his own Curia — that all priests who committed abuse and bishops who abetted it must be punished.

As the crisis has mushroomed internationally this year, some cardinals in the Vatican have continued to blame the news media and label the criticism anti-Catholic persecution. Benedict himself has veered from defensiveness to contrition, saying in March that the faithful should not be intimidated by “the petty gossip of dominant opinion” — and then in May telling reporters that “the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church.”

The Vatican, moreover, has never made it mandatory for bishops around the world to report molesters to the civil authorities, or to alert parishes and communities where the abusive priests worked — information that often propels more victims to step forward. (Vatican officials caution that a reporting requirement could be dangerous in dictatorships and countries where the church is already subject to persecution.)

It was only in April that the Vatican posted “guidelines” on its Web site saying that church officials should comply with civil laws on reporting abuse. But those are recommendations, not requirements.

Today, a debate is roiling the Vatican, pitting those who see the American zero-tolerance norms as problematic because they lack due process for accused priests, against those who want to change canon law to make it easier to penalize and dismiss priests.

Where Benedict lies on this spectrum, even after nearly three decades of handling abuse cases, is still an open question.

Rachel Donadio contributed reporting from Rome.

Jun 30, 2010

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Retrofitting suburbia | Video on TED.com

Ellen Dunham-Jones fires the starting shot for the next 50 years' big sustainable design project: retrofitting suburbia. To come: Dying malls rehabilitated, dead "big box" stores re-inhabited, parking lots transformed into thriving wetlands.

Jun 28, 2010

re:char- capturing carbon and improving soils with biochar

June 27, 2010 - re:char uses biochar to generate carbon-negative energy and improve soils globally. With enough scale, we can capture 2 billion tons of CO2 annually.

Jun 27, 2010

The lost civilization: Finding a reality-based frame of reference in the age of delusion | Energy Bulletin

by Dan Allen

SUMMARY: We are a lost people. Here in the frantic, waning days of industrial civilization, we have almost completely lost our bearings. We no longer know who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, or why we are. And as we prepare to embark on a harrowing descent from our civilization’s peak, it would behoove us to find an honest, reality-based frame of reference. So c’mon everybody -- let’s get out our navigation equipment. It’s time we ‘found’ ourselves!

NOTE: This essay is a follow-up to my short story, ‘The Lost Civilization: A Dream’, posted at www.energybulletin.net/53103. The story ends, chillingly, with the line, “As a dull axe slams repeatedly into the back of my neck, we begin our descent.” …Yikes.


We are a lost people. I think most of us feel it on some level, even if we can’t quite pin it down. We no longer know who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, or why we are. We are adrift on a plane of unreality that we have fashioned ourselves. And we have tragically disabled almost all means by which any true reality can be honestly observed.

The reality we can no longer detect is, of course, as complex as it is increasingly grim: (1) our well-advanced moral and physical degradation, (2) the anti-evolutionary state of our physical and social existence, (3) the late-stage temporal coordinates of our civilization, (4) the alarming and accelerating dilapidation of our biosphere coupled with a deep disconnect from the natural world around us, and (5) the profound loss of any larger purpose for our lives beyond perpetuating economic ‘growth.’

And our ‘lostness’ was, of course, arrived at purposefully. We have been shepherded here, and have arrived here without complaint – even enthusiastically. That we have come willingly, for the most part, does not lessen the evil of those who guided us here. It merely makes us complicit. We are both the victims and co-perpetrators of our downfall.

And as with most ‘wrong turns’ that are unwisely coupled with acceleration, our civilization-scale detour into the realm of the make-believe will not end well. And it will end soon, no doubt. The oil-powered, rube-goldberg contraption that is our industrial civilization is already coming apart at the seams in a steadily worsening orgy of environmental, economic, and social disintegration. The unspeakable tragedy currently playing out in the Gulf of Mexico is but one more entry in a long, growing, and increasingly destructive list of such industrial tragedies. Our civilization is a horror show now and it will become orders of magnitude worse before we reach anything resembling stability in the necessarily lower-energy and lower-complexity societies that follow. And nobody, of course, has any idea when these new steady states may arrive --or if they ever will.

We are simply as lost as lost can be. And hardly anybody in this country knows it yet -- on anything more than a superficial level, at least.


But even if we could finally summon the courage to admit that we are indeed lost as a civilization, what then should we do about it?

Should we jam down the accelerator even harder? This, of course is the Deepwater Horizon, mountaintop-removal coal mining, hydro-fracking shale-gas, and Alberta tar sands mentality. It is the mentality of apocalypse. Should we seek out and destroy those deemed responsible? Well, we might not like what we find. Should we turn on each other and fight for diminishing scraps? It is already known how this strategy ends. These are indeed seductive responses to our predicament, but we should know better.

No, we have a better choice open to us – one that will not ‘save’ us, but will at least allow us to confront our future productively and with dignity. And that is to renounce our cleverly-constructed floating bubbles of unreality and work to reclaim some reality-based frame of reference – some contact with the ever-present and increasingly pressing biophysical reality. We simply need stop for a minute, take a look around, and find our bearings.

For it is only by accurately identifying what is real – by illuminating and dismantling the elaborate web of industrial myths – that we can hope to move forward in any positive way within the coming maelstrom of industrial collapse. And while I suppose the swift and brutal revelation of reality will become the hallmark of our civilization’s decent, perhaps a head-start might make the trip down a little less painful.

So let’s try.

(Note: If you’re in a hurry -- or just pathologically impatient -- you can skip to the ‘Summary’ at the end. But, of course, then you’d miss out on some passably good stuff about rats biting off their feet, humans learning to talk, the slaying of alien mutants, and The Grand Post-Industrial Catabolic Orgy. Your loss.)


Well, let’s start out by stating who we are not. We are not rapacious consumers of synthetic food, mind-numbing electronic gadgetry, pre-packaged amusement, and fossilized sunlight. We are not unfeeling cogs in an elaborate, growth-producing, industrial apparatus. We are not interchangeable employees waiting for ‘recovery’, ‘stimulus’, or ‘job creation.’ We are not machines. Our children are not consumers-in-training. Nor are they machine-gun-wielding storm-troopers or brave inter-galactic slayers of alien mutants. (And they are not sick in the head – their civilization is.)

All this industrial nonsense, of course, defines who we have been PRETENDING to be. But it is not who we ARE.

No, we are discreet biological organisms – each of us. We are similar to each other, yet different in very many ways. Gloriously different. And we each have a calling – something we would gladly do for a lifetime for no money. Just for the joy of it. Something skilled and useful. Something productive. Something beautiful. Something ecologically sane. Something that humbly respects the inviolable Laws of Thermodynamics, the sanctity of life, and the sanctity of human communities.

And even if we don’t know what our calling is, we each have one. It is not your fault if you do not yet know what yours is -- they have been trying mightily to keep you from finding it. But they will be gone soon. So keep trying. Open your eyes, your heart, and let it come to you. It will. Grab onto it. Fall into it.

And in fulfilling our calling we become so much more than the pathetic consumers we have been pretending to be – we become PRODUCERS. We become makers and skilled users of useful tools. And in our necessarily-small, managed domains, we become competent conductors of the timeless ecological orchestra. We renounce our tragic industrial roles as bumbling conquerors and destroyers; as arrogant machine-part-wanna-bes. We become skilled partners with Nature, nurturers and protectors – proud stewards of beleaguered-but-still-glorious Creation.

THAT is who we are, who we CAN be. Enough already with our puerile industrial pretending. Limitless consumers, corporate cogs, and slayers of alien mutants, indeed!


Look for a moment at the following timeline for our species that I scratched together from Nicholas Wade’s wonderful book, ‘Before the Dawn’ (2006). While my timeline is admittedly rough, I think it gives us important insight in answering the question at hand: WHAT are we?

5,000,000 ybp (years before present): Human lineage diverges from chimpanzees and other apes. Still very much ape-like.

2,500,000 ybp: Begin to fashion primitive stone tools. Still primitive head-size, body, and mind.

200,000 ybp: Obtain modern head and brain-size. Still primitive body and mind.

100,000 ybp: Obtain modern body appearance. Still primitive mind with no true language and only simple social structures.

50,000 ybp: Watershed evolutionary time period. Obtain modern mind and behavior, with modern language and complex abstract thought. Invent complex social structures (warfare, religion, trade) and vastly more complex tools. Fitted clothing is worn. A small band of maybe 150 individuals (from a population of maybe 5,000) leaves Eastern Africa to become the descendants of all humans today. But still only mobile hunter-gatherers with no agriculture, and lack of social skills required for larger settlements.

10,000 ybp: Climate stability and advanced cooperative skills allow invention of agriculture and the formation of modern, settled communities – the seeds of ‘great’ civilizations to come. Human influence on biosphere vastly increases.

200 ybp: Start of industrial civilization. Vast quantities of energy from concentrated fossilized sunlight replaces diffuse modern-sunlight-derived energy sources. Entropic destruction of biosphere greatly accelerated.

(Note: If that’s not just the coolest timeline you’ve ever seen, you’re in the wrong species, pal. I very highly recommend Wade’s very enlightening book.)

So what does this timeline tell us? For one, it tells us that we have really become who we are as humans VERY recently, geologically speaking. We are babies in this world – newborns, even. Secondly, it tells us that tight community organization is an evolutionarily-engrained social construct of our species. And I think it is important to note here that this evolutionarily-mandated proclivity towards tight communities is the antithesis of the atomizing industrial social organizations increasingly being thrust upon us.

We are simply not blank slates to be scribbled on with whatever economic ideology and social constructs are currently ‘in style.’ We are not soft clay to be molded into precise geometric patterns that fit snugly inside some ‘brilliant’ new economic, social, or governmental model.

No, we are the products of billions, millions, and thousands of years of evolutionary kneading. We are multi-cellular organisms. We are animals. We are primates. But specifically, we are intelligent, SOCIAL apes with the improbable gifts of language and complex abstract thought.

It is ultimately because of our history as a species that we are humans who simply NEED to be deeply close to other humans. We are evolutionarily predisposed to small, tight communities in which to participate in the intricate social interactions and face-to-face sharing of information that are the hallmarks of our species. That this close interaction and sharing doesn’t go on much anymore is the reason so many of us are going so damn crazy lately. It defies our very DNA. The junk-food mental diet of our modern info-tainment society is literally making us mentally ill.

In other words, industrial civilization has been trying to tell us that we are something we are not – that we CANNOT be. We simply cannot maintain healthy psyches in the atomized consumerist lifestyles industrial civilization is requiring of us. It doesn’t work. The seductive mirage of happiness we feel as we plunge into the immersion pools of our personal entertainment systems is just that – a mirage. It’s fake. It doesn’t work. Is it really any wonder our civilization is going collectively insane?

Social rats kept from being deeply social with other rats bite their feet off. Humans kept from being deeply social with other humans – i.e. kept from participating in real communities -- shoot up schools, they shoot up heroin, and they shoot up local economies. It was the height of foolishness to deny our biological need for community – to pretend that it could be replaced by the thin, saccharine substitute of ‘entertainment’ or ‘service to the country’ or ‘service to the global economy’ or whatever. And we are now, of course, paying a heavy price for this arrogance.

We are biting off our feet.


You’d think that this one would be a no-brainer, huh? We’re beginning the second decade of the 21st century, dummy! Question answered. Next.

But wait. If our stated goal here is honesty, I think we need put aside the vacuous ‘dawn of the new century’ crap and peg this question to some aspects of biophysical reality. Namely, WHEN are we living in terms of the various key biophysical inventories and trends on this planet – trends that will surely define our future as both a civilization and a species. And THAT is not a vacuous question; it’s a vital one. And if we have the courage to look carefully at the accumulated geological and ecological information, the answers that reveal themselves become quite frightening indeed.

First, let’s disabuse ourselves of the ridiculous industrial myths about the present and the future. We are NOT on the cusp of glorious liberation from our evolutionary and ecological constraints – where science and technology will soon have mastered and harnessed the biosphere and its genomes for our own noble purposes. That is a lie. Nor are we are on the verge of possessing access to unlimited cheap energy – or even maintaining our current energy production, fossil or otherwise. That is a lie. Nor are we on the verge of ‘working through the current economic troubles’ and establishing a completely globalized economy run on the eminently fair and self-sustaining principles of the ‘free market.’ That is a lie. Nor are we still in an ecological ‘grace period’ where we have the appropriate societal momentum and sufficient time to avert monumental (and likely catastrophic) changes to Earth’s ecosystems. That is the biggest lie.

Lest you think I exaggerate on our potential for self-delusion here, try verbally inserting any of the above myths into literally any story from any mass media outlet. It will fit in perfectly with both the content and tone. Liberal or conservative -- the various media outlets are impressively united on the core industrial myths.

So, all of that is certainly not ‘when’ we are. No, the FOLLOWING is ‘when’ we are: We are in the early-stage catabolic collapse of the largest, most complex civilization this planet will likely ever see. It has already begun. We have already started down the back-slope of industrial civilzation’s finite life-cycle. We have already begun The Great Simplification, The Great Collapse, The Grand Post-Industrial Catabolic Orgy, The Long Emergency, The Long Descent, The Big One – whatever you wish to call it. It has begun.

And if it feels perhaps less-than-monumental to you at this point, it is for the same reason that any exponential function appears slow at the start – the slope takes a little time to ‘pick up speed.’ See Chris Martenson’s ‘Crash Course’ video for an enlightening tutorial on this. And just realize it can work in the ‘down’ direction even easier than the ‘up’ direction. And as we’ve spent the past 200 years frantically pumping it up, we’ve got a lot of ‘down’ comin’ our way. A LOT of ‘down.’ More ‘down’ than we’ll know what to do with. And all this ‘down’ will mean, as Jim Kunstler says, that just about everything in our society that depends on fossil-energy-derived complexity will cease to function very well – or at all. The simple life, here we come!

For we are losing our access to our beloved fossil energy and all the entropy-defying services it offered. (And likewise for any of the other ‘starting materials’ for our industrial lifestyle – minerals, potable water, clean air, etc.) We are witnessing the unraveling of the nascent globalized economy and all its tenuous connections that this fossil-energy made possible. And frighteningly, for a people so accustomed to the just-around-the-bend promises of immortality, we are entering the time when we will once again be subject to the same pitiless directives of ecology and evolution our species has labored under for 99.9% of our existence.

Oh yea, and did I mention the biosphere itself might be collapsing? Our favorite whipping-boy, the biosphere, seems to be having a bit of trouble. It appears to be collapsing or simplifying in a manner analogous to the human economy – key parts are falling away, and connections between still-existing parts are snapping like over-stressed bridge supports. And while obviously the biosphere has great powers of resiliency, past a certain point (that we’ve likely already passed) the recovery is in GEOLOGIC time, not ‘people’ time -- not on a time-scale that you and I would recognize.

And don’t discount the informed, scientific warnings of James Hansen and others that we may be in the process of climatically snuffing out the entire circus, clowns and all. (Not that even this warning-of-all-warnings would engender even a hint of urgency into the autistic industrial consciousness!)

So yea, THAT’s ‘when’ we are. It’s a little different than what they teach you in school, huh?


Now, I don’t know where you are, but I can tell you where I am.

I am on the northeastern edge of the North American Piedmont geologic province. The terrain is composed of rolling hills. The soil is a (now) relatively thin reddish loam, underlain by a crumbly Triassic shale. It has a particular, pleasant smell – an ancient smell. Occasionally there is a small igneous ‘mountain’ poking up through the shale, surrounded by a heavier, grayish soil that is somewhat less pleasant to me (although not, of course, to the wild organisms that grow there).

The climate is temperate. It is difficultly-but-refreshingly cold in the winter, and gloriously hot and humid in the summer. It rains a sufficient amount – usually -- during the medium-length growing season. The weather is perhaps acting a bit strangely of late for reasons that I know, but can scarcely comprehend.

This is a good place to grow trees. There are oaks, maples, ashes, and hickories of various species, along with many other kinds. Fruit and nut trees also grow well here, some producing more abundantly than others without sprays. Vegetables grow abundantly with proper care, and they tend to be especially flavorful in the red soil. Grass grows richly much of the year, to the pleasure of my sheep and chickens -- and thus myself.

There are abundant birds, insects, amphibians, and mammals here -- at least in the places we allow them to inhabit. There are, of course, far fewer in number and type than could be here. But there are still enough to be ever-present if one opens their eyes and ears to them. I know some of them more intimately than others, but they are all beautiful to me.

Many people have lived here before me. Some have cared tenderly for the land, some have ignored it, and some have abused it horribly. Because of this abuse, it is, in many ways, far less healthy than it could and should be. I am saddened by this.

And there are, of course, many people here now – more than there ever were. Some care tenderly for the land; more ignore or abuse it – more every year. This both saddens and worries me. We perhaps have nascent kernels of real community; kernels that may have the potential to sprout and grow when conditions favor them. But I don’t know. In the coming times of stress, it could just as easily splinter violently across any number of latent differences. We’ll see. Maybe it’ll do both at once.

And so on.

So that’s a bit about where I am. I don’t claim to know even remotely enough about my place, but I’m at least starting to find out where I am. You likely live somewhere much different. What is there? Well, THAT is where you are.

In other words, we are not just anywhere. We ARE of course on the Earth. And we ARE, of course, on a certain region of a certain continent. But more importantly, we are -- each of us, in a very particular place. And each particular place has a very particular human and natural ecology that can and must be learned. Again, THAT is where we are.

It is time for us wake up from the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ industrial delusions of place – where any place is treated essentially the same as any other place; where we can hop around between far-flung places at a whim; where we can confidently depend that products mined or produced in far-off places can be had at a moment’s notice, if only the price is right. We desperately need to start opening our eyes to where we REALLY are, what is there, and what is required of us there.

Because when the fossil fuel security blanket is snatched away – and it will be soon – we will ALL suddenly be exactly where we are -- and nowhere else. We will then need to know our places as intimately as we know our own bodies: What is there and how is it structured? What can we fashion from it to help us live lives of quality? What makes our places healthy and productive? How do we tell when they are unhealthy? How do we restore them to health and sustain productivity? These place-based questions will indeed be THE key questions of the post-carbon era. And it is only by knowing exactly WHERE we are that we will be able to answer them.

So make sure you know where YOU are – and if you don’t, start finding out.


Ahhh, finally the age old question: Why are we here? Well, industrial civilization, that self-proclaimed pinnacle of humanity’s physical and intellectual achievements, has come up with the most inane answer imaginable: to ‘grow’ the economy. Huh? Seriously? That’s the best we could do? And they give Nobel prizes for pointing out new and exciting ways to do this. No worries that, on a finite planet, achieving this perpetual growth means necessarily snuffing out the biosphere in the process -- did you see that quarterly report for Monsanto! The darkness of this industrial goal is further revealed when we realize it shares eerie similarities with the goal of the cancer cell – namely, infinite growth in a finite medium, ‘til death do us part.

As I say to my students when they’re acting absurdly below their intelligence or maturity level -- c’mon.

I can think of scores of better reasons for our presence on this planet than to effectively commit mass suicide. It’s really not hard. What is hard, though, is to think of the BEST reasons – to cut through the crap and figure out the most noble and beautiful reasons we have for continually pushing bits of matter around the surface of this big blue marble.

Religions, of course, have much to say about why we’re here. So do professional philosophers. So do shoe-store clerks, bus drivers, and gravediggers. And so do I. In a previous essay (‘A Land & Community Ethic’ www.energybulletin.net/52973), I suggested (with the help of Aldo Leopold and our other great teachers) that we use the following as a sound justification and guide for our continued presence on this rock:

The Land & Community Ethic: Maximizing the health of human and biotic communities is the highest earthly goal of humanity. Thus, a thing is right when it tends to increase or preserve the health of both human and biotic communities. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

I then went on to flesh out some of the details of this ethic (again, with the help of our great teachers) in terms of the following angles: health, justice, nature-as-standard, scale, limits, ignorance, technology, morality, tradition, and some practical design principles.

While I, of course, was thoroughly impressed with my summarization of the accumulated wisdom of our great teachers, I realize it may be lacking in organization, clarity, and completeness. But I think it’s hard to argue with the basic premise (which is essentially Aldo Leopold’s & Wendell Berry’s – not mine). And I think that any other worthy justification for our presence here wouldn’t be too radically different – even the religious ones.

So I’ll let it stand at that. Come up with your own reason, if you like. But sheesh! --please come up with something better than ‘growing the economy.’ C’mon.


Now, since this has been a long essay, let me just summarize our efforts at finding our bearings as a civilization -- at scraping away the delusions that will certainly hamper our efforts in constructively facing a very trying future. Here they are below – our coordinates, so to speak. We move on from here.

Who we are NOT: Consumers; interchangeable industrial employees.

What we are NOT: Socially-self-sufficient individuals realizing our fullest personal potential in a virtual reality of our own design.

When we are NOT: At the dawn of the information / technological / globalization / unlimited-clean-energy revolution.

Where are we NOT: Just any-place; everywhere and no-where; in cyberspace.

Why we are NOT: To ‘grow’ a potentially-infinite human economy within a finite biosphere.

Who we are: Potential producers; unique individuals with a true personal ‘calling’ -- even if it hasn’t yet been identified.

What we are: Intensely social apes who thrive only within the deep relationships and intricate web of close social bonds that constitutes a real community.

When we are: Beginning the down-slope of industrial civilization’s extended collapse: the Great Simplification, Kunstler’s ‘Long Emergency’, Greer’s ‘Long Descent’.

Where we are: In a very specific physical location with a unique & well-defined (but changeable) human and natural ecology.

Why we are: To maximize the health of human and biotic communities.

So does that clear everything up? OK, good. It’s about time we started being honest with ourselves.

Now let‘s now close with one more ‘being lost’ analogy.


The defining moment of being lost in the woods is not the sudden panicky realization that one is in deep shit. Anybody eventually comes to that conclusion. And neither is it the understandable jumble of Kübler-Ross stages that follow: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

No, the defining, clarifying moment is acceptance -- when one finally sits down on a log, takes a deep breath, and says this: I am lost, but I am alive. I am me – a semi-intelligent and semi-healthy human being. I am in a temperate pine-oak woodland, somewhere in the vast New Jersey Pinelands. It is late Spring. It is beautiful here. My task is to stay alive, stay as comfortable as possible, and find a way to get back home.

In other words, the defining moment comes when we cut through the nonsense, the self-pity, the self-delusions, and finally have the courage to be brutally honest with ourselves about our predicament. It is only then that we can gain the reality-based frame of reference necessary for dealing skillfully with the cards at hand. Only then can we honestly answer the key questions: Who are we? What are we? When are we? Where are we? and Why are we? And only then can we muster our full capabilities as the clever apes that we are, and give ourselves a fighting chance of making at least a passably good lemonade out of the biophysical lemons we’ve been given.

Well, guess what? We are a civilization lost in the woods of delusion, with the hungry wolves of biophysical reality lurking in the shadows, and the storm-clouds of climatic destabilization gathering on the horizon. And we need to find our way back to reality. Soon. And then we need to start figuring out how to live there again – in whatever form it begins to take. But luckily, all the navigation equipment we need to get back to reality involves simply being honest with ourselves and each other. And all the tools we need to live there have already been invented. We just need to reclaim them. And we need to get pretty darn skilled with them pretty darned quick.

So can we do that? Can we at least try?

Good. And again, we should probably start soon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
From the author:

I'm a high school Chemistry teacher in NJ. I'm also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer.

You can contact me at danallen1968@yahoo.com.

My other Energy Bulletin posts include:
The Speech Obama Needs to Give www.energybulletin.net/50370
What 'Lower Consumption' Means www.energybulletin.net/node/50617
A Doomer's Christmas Carol www.energybulletin.net/50773
Cornucopian Man vs. Biophysical Reality www.energybulletin.net/50876
Sasha and Barack Debate the Merits of Peak Oil Preparation www.energybulletin.net/50932
'Generation Limits': An Open Letter to Teenagers www.energybulletin.net/50991
Who Then Will Lead Us? www.energybulletin.net/51070
Peak Oil Rock & Roll www.energybulletin.net/51262
387 ppm and Rising: A Plea for Increased Urgency in Developing Post-Carbon Living Arrangements www.energybulletin.net/51342
Post-Carbon Schools: Back from Hell www.energybulletin.net/51502
The Fierce Urgency of this Spring: Veggie Seeds and Nut Seedlings for Us All www.energybulletin.net/51610
The Infinite Energy Machine and the Myth of Green Energy www.energybulletin.net/51797
That Which May Be Gained: A Return to Scale, Community, and Morality www.energybulletin.net/52210
Conservation and the Community Garden: One Suburban Model That Works www.energybulletin.net/52674
The Lessons of Climate History: Implications for Post-Carbon Agriculture www.energybulletin.net/52833
A Land & Community Ethic: Preliminary Draft www.energybulletin.net/52973
The Lost Civilization: A Dream www.energybulletin.net/53103

c’mon! let's all be truthful to ourselves and get with this reality so brilliantly stated! ... "Because when the fossil fuel security blanket is snatched away – and it will be soon – we will ALL suddenly be exactly where we are -- and nowhere else. We will then need to know our places as intimately as we know our own bodies: What is there and how is it structured? What can we fashion from it to help us live lives of quality? What makes our places healthy and productive? How do we tell when they are unhealthy? How do we restore them to health and sustain productivity? These place-based questions will indeed be THE key questions of the post-carbon era. And it is only by knowing exactly WHERE we are that we will be able to answer them." ... Monte