Saturday, June 26, 2010


As President Obama substitutes the suave General Petraeus for the impetuous General McChrystal to lead counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Buffy Sainte Marie's song "The Universal Soldier " tells who we really should be looking at. As usual, the enemy turns out to be us.

More about Buffy...

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, America's clarion voice of respect for land and people (and my personal literary guru), has severed his life-long relationship with the University of Kentucky and withdrawn all his papers from the university's archives due to its unholy alliance with the coal industry.

[UPDATE 1 - 24 June 2010: Detailed report on Mr Berry's protests against coal industry influence at the UK.]

[UPDATE 2 - 24 June 2010: Breaking news and online resources at Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky.]

Here's the local editorial reaction from the Lexington [Kentucky] Herald-Leader.

Berry has serious message for UK's future

Transferring his donated personal papers from the University of Kentucky to the Kentucky Historical Society is an act of principle for which Wendell Berry deserves commendation.

But really, we would expect no less from the noted novelist, essayist and poet.

He has spent a lifetime promoting respect for nature — for the land that can nourish us and for the landscape that can have a nurturing influence on us.

It seems only natural then that he would find some way to express his displeasure when his university, the one where he both studied and taught, crawls in bed with an industry that blasts mountains apart, fills adjacent valleys with rubble and destroys or pollutes waterways in the pursuit of profit.

UK — indeed, the whole state of Kentucky — endured a few days as the butt of a national joke after the school's trustees agreed to paste "Wildcat Coal Lodge" on an unnecessary new basketball dormitory in exchange for donation of the $7 million construction cost.

Now, we're seeing a more serious consequence of the decision to sell the university's soul — a severing of ties between one of Kentucky's most esteemed men of letters and the state's flagship institution of higher education.

While a short drive still will gain UK students and faculty access to the papers Berry is transferring, the loss of the relationship between the university and writer himself will be felt.

And it's likely others of Berry's intellectual level who might be thinking of associating themselves with UK in the future will look at Wildcat Coal Lodge and decide their knowledge and skills will be better appreciated elsewhere.

The lost benefits of their scholarship will never be known or quantified because their presence will never be felt on the campus. But the loss will be real, nonetheless.

More about Wendell Berry here.


Saint John by Odilon St John by Redon

Although the traditional representation of John the Baptist is of a fierce wild man performing baptisms in the River Jordan, somehow I have preferred Redon's more delicate dreamlike vision which offers a mythical symbolism of St John standing at a portal brimming with new-found hope and light.

On the Night of São João (June 23-24) giant bonfires are lit across Brazil symbolizing this time of hope and transformation.

Fire of Transformation

May it be so.

Viva, São João.


(To see 1000's of masterpieces of art check out Mark Harden's Artchive.)

Monday, June 21, 2010


CLIMATE PROGRESS, the leading blog for those concerned about global warming, has a new post debunking the myth that the Internet is an energy hog as previously reported across the web and here.

According to Joe Romm and his associates,

For some reason, the power used by computers is a source of endless fascination to the public. Most folks think that the power used by computers is a lot more than it actually is, and that it’s growing at incredible rates. Neither one of these beliefs is true, but they reflect a stubborn sense that the economic importance of IT somehow must translate into a large amount of electricity use. That incorrect belief masks an important truth: Information technology has beneficial environmental effects that vastly outweigh the direct environmental impact of the electricity that it consumes.

So Google, Youtube, blog, and flickr as much as you want. If you are worried about your carbon footprint, buy 100% green power and do an efficient retrofit on your house to cover your emissions — and let the Internet keep saving people energy and resources.

Whew! Finally, one less thing to feel guilty about as we try to become more aware of our impact on our increasingly fragile and vulnerable earth systems. What a lovely gift of news on this Solstice day -- a whole new way to see the "clouds."



via Daily Kos

by brasilaaron
Thu Jun 17, 2010 at 11:20:12 AM PDT

Terra Preta do Indio means "Indian Black Earth" in Portuguese (in Brazil Indian is a term frequently used where in the US we would say Native American) and is a remnant of indigenous agricultural practices of the Amazon region. They are often also referred to as Amazonian Dark Earth (ADE). It is generally a highly fertile and dark soil that is prized by Amazonian farmers whereas most native upland soils of the Amazon are highly weathered, nutrient poor red or yellow clays and easily exhausted by even brief bouts of agriculture.

ADE are a somewhat magical combination of charred vegetable remains, bones and pottery shards. I say magical beause nobody has been able to figure EXACTLY what made them this way or how to reproduce them effectively.

I became fascinated by ADE while writing a term paper in grad school and pretty much everything that I am going to write about has been researched, presented and written about extensively in the excellent book called "Amazonian Dark Earths: Explorations in Space and Time" eds. Bruno Glaser and William Woods which covers pretty much every aspect of their discovery, description and research as does the excellent book "Amazonian dark earths: origin properties management" by Johannes Lehmann,C. Dirse Kern and Bruno Glaser. Most of my diary will draw from these books. There is also an excellent Terra Preta Nova (TPN means New Black Earths) research group at Cornell University headed by Dr. Johannes Lehmann and also a TPN research group at the Universidade Federal de Piracicaba in the state of Sao Paulo, Brasil.

This is an extremely condensed version of how ADEs formed:

Amazonian peoples, intentionally or not, combined charred wood, organic remains including bones and shells, and pottery shards in the soil. Over time areas where these products were combined changed from the normally highly oxic, highly leached, infertile red or yellow clays of the Amazon into very deep, dark, extremely fertile soils. The darkness of these soils reflects the extremely high levels of carbon (C) in the soil; some of this C is the charred material itself and much of the C is the organic material formed off of the charred substrate. It is not entirely clear to what extent each of the varying components is responsible for the altered characteristics of these soils, but what is clear is that these soils can remain fertile for hundreds of years or under continuous agricultural exploitation. Normally, Amazonian soils become depleted and unproductive after as short as 3 years of use due to extremely rapid oxidation (decomposition) of the C-based organic material. The TPN groups are trying to figure out how to reproduce the properties of these soils.


Amazonian Dark Earth begins with carbon (C) and carbon is a curious thing. It is the building block from which all life is constructed. It forms complex bonds and structures that allow it to resist decay, to various degrees, and can form the substrate which can allow for soils to become fertile, which promote further growth and re-structuring of the C atom and its molecule derivatives. When trapped in high pressure, low-oxygen environments for millions of years, it can form petroleum, coal and natural gas. Its gaseous form in the atmosphere helps keep the planet warm. Lately, humans have developed technology that can allow for this life-giving atom to threaten our existence on the planet through poisoning (as we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico and Niger Delta and Ecuadorian Amazon basin etc etc etc) or potentially through massive climate change. So how can carbon help save us from ourselves?

Capturing Carbon

Anybody who knows gardening knows that if you throw composted matter or manure in the garden you can create dark soils that are teeming with fertility. The secret is partly the nutrients like N, P, K, Ca and others bound in the decayed organic matter, but also the decomposing C itself, which helps build all sorts of biotic communities in the soil. These biotic critters improve the tilth of the soil and increase water-use efficiency. These biotic communities also accumulate carbon in the soil, this is a form of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Anybody who has paid attention to the "global warming" debate knows that one of the catch-words for solving the problem is sequestration of the C in the atmosphere. If we can sequester C in the garden with compost, why not just compost everything in the world and sequester all the carbon and presto-whamo, global warming will be put on the skids? Well, as it turns out organic carbon will eventually decompose and release CO2 back into the atmosphere. So while adding organics to farming soil is undoubtedly a good thing, it is principally from a fertility aspect, and not a long-term C-sequestration aspect. World wide, agriculture is the largest source of C into the atmosphere, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Pyrolized C and Amazonian Dark Earths

When organic material is pyrolized, or charred, as in making charcoal, C forms a peculiar ring which is highly resistant to decay, unlike normal organic C. Carbon-dating has put some pieces of charcoal in ADE sites at 2,000 years old, so we know that pyrolized C can remain undecayed for at least 2,000 years. It could almost be considered "permanent" sequestration considering that the life-span of organic C in tropical soils is up to 10 years. Recent research on pyrolized C has yielded decidedly mixed reviews on this subject, which is why I stated earlier that it is unclear how each of the components of ADE affect the result.

But this is where ADE soils get interesting, it appears that aside from sequestering C in the soil simply by being C-based, charcoal may provide structure for biotic communities within the soil to proliferate in various ways. First, the surface area of the charcoal itself provides lots of nooks and crannies for bacteria and fungi to hang out. Second, and most important because this gets at why these soils become and stay so fertile, is that pyrolized-C acts as something of a "nutrient sponge", holding onto to essential plant nutrients like P, K, N, Ca, Mg and others for easy exchange. Otherwise these minerals would leach out of the bottom of the soil and be lost to the ecosystem, which is why Amazonian soils are so tragically nutrient poor. The soil biota feeds off of these easily exchangeable nutrients captured by the bits of charcoal and create an extremely fertile, C-rich soil environment. It appears that as long as there is abundant charcoal in the soil, there will be an opportunity to create these C-rich soils which could sequester C for long periods of time.

What to do about it

Many agronomists have been testing various methodologies for applying charred organic material to soils with varying amounts of success at fertility enhancement and sequestration potential. One way to reduce the C-input potential of agriculture would be to char organic residues on farms and apply them back to the farming soil. This would provide benefits such as increased soil aeration, increased water efficiency, increased fertility as well as C-sequestration. However, traditional methods of producing charcoal can produce massive quantities of methane and nitrous oxides, which have even greater greenhouse "forcing" effects. So, to prevent the creation of even more powerful greenhouse gases, a machine needs to be used that can capture the gases, which can then be burned for the pyrolizing process itself or used in other ways.


Agricultural practices world-wide are one of the largest driving forces of greenhouse gas emissions through burning (slash-and-burn ag. is often cited as a culprit) and through decomposition of soil-bound C. I remain strongly convinced that applying charred organic material to agricultural soils remains the single most effective mechanism that we have to combat climate change because it can be practiced on an extremely wide scale and pretty much every type of farmer can do it, ie., we don't need to go super high-tech to do it. An ancillary benefit will be enhanced soil fertility, which has the C-positive effect of reducing the demand for new, non-agricultural soils to be brought under the plow. Using char in your garden or farm does not automatically make the resulting food organic, but using char can go a long way towards making organic farming more practical, effective and cost-friendly. Plus, deep, black, soft soil is a beautiful thing to behold, and create.


Pai Guiné is a preto velho ("old black man") spirit of the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Umbanda:

Preto Velhos are spirits of old slaves who died in captivity or after being beaten or flogged by their masters. They are wise, peaceful and kind spirits that know all about suffering, compassion, forgiveness and hope. They also often prescribe herbal remedies. The female counterpart of this spirit is the Preta Velha ("old black woman") who demonstrates maternal compassion and concern.

In Umbanda, "Saravá" is used as a greeting possessing the sense of "Save your strength!" It acknowledges the force of God and Nature that are within the person, as does the Indian mantra "namaste", which means the God that is within me salutes the God that is within you.


Contemplating Coherence

According to the Columbia encyclopedia:

coherence is a constant phase difference in two or more Waves over time. Two waves are said to be in phase if their crests and troughs meet at the same place at the same time, and the waves are out of phase if the crests of one meet the troughs of another. The waves are incoherent if the crests and troughs meet randomly. Coherence underlies a variety of physical phenomena, such as interference and diffraction. Coherence is also responsible for many of the remarkable properties of laser radiation; laser light is coherent, which is to say that the light waves from a laser are all in phase.


To have all parts connected in a proper way.

That's my personal prayer on this Solstice day.


el silencio: The queue to see the end of the crisis
"The queue waiting to see the end of the crisis.", originally uploaded by el silencio.

"Some cypresses still believe in God, and they are happy", originally uploaded by el silencio.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Healing Ourselves and Mother Earth    (H.O.M.E.)


It's Solstice time again -- June 21, 2010 7:28 AM EDT -- the shortest day of winter here in Brazil and the longest day up north. Soon the arc of the sun will reverse and start its journey toward the balance of Equinox. Its been hard to follow world events lately -- the gusher in the gulf, new oil exploration across Peru, dams and roads planned across Amazonia, massive oil-drilling off Brazil's coast, and now a threatening movement in the Brazilian Congress to dismantle the forest code that has just begun to reduce deforestation. We can count on Nature to manage its cycles and return to balance but what about us humans?

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Naomi Klein visited the Gulf coast with a film-crew from Fault Lines, a documentary programme hosted by Avi Lewis on al-Jazeera English Television. She was a consultant on the film

This story repeats endlessly, not only for the last 40 years in the Gulf but globally. Here's the NY Times story of the last 50 years of oil in Nigeria, the legacy of oil extraction in Ecuador documented in the film CRUDE, and Riki Ott on the lessons of Exxon-Valdez in Alaska.

And, what does the future hold? Oil leases and exploration are spreading across all of the Peruvian Amazon (including Indigenous Reserves) and serious oil exploration is on-going in the globally most-diverse Juruá watershed of Brazil's State of Acre.

All I can do is to give you the best picture that I know of what is at stake, of what will be lost forever. That picture would come from the botanist David Campbell who studies the forest in Acre's Juruá watershed and writes in his award-winning Land of Ghosts:

I now have data from a total of 18 hectares. A hectare is an area of only 100 by 100 meters, and 18 hectares [less than 50 acres] is just a mote in the vast Amazon Valley. But that small area seems a universe to me. Its diversity is stunning: more than 20,000 individual trees belonging to about 2,000 species -- three times as many tree species as there are in all of North America. And each tree is an ecosystem unto itself, bearing fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, aerophytes, orchids, lianas, reptiles, mammals, birds, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, mites and uncountable legions of insects. The number of insect species alone -- especially of beetles -- may exceed the combined total of all the other species of plants and animals in the forest.

The Amazon River and its forest are the last continent-sized stretch of untrammeled wilderness on Earth and the greatest expression of her biodiversity. The Amazon Valley, in fact, has more species than have ever existed anywhere at any time during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth. Yet just at this moment of peak biotic eloquence, we know that inevitably most of it will be lost. Over the next several decades Earth will lose hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of species. Most of this extinction will occur in the tropical forests and especially in Amazonia. In the course of a generation or two, the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed as a wilderness and as a functioning ecosystem. It is an old story, stale by now. Yet the loss of this place, I'm convinced, will be the most egregious event of a generation of atrocities.


Caught in the oil spill
Caught in the oil. AP Photo / Charlie Riedel

Writing in the, Naomi Klein nails it. Here is a full re-post of her report and analysis with which I could not agree more.

Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

Naomi Klein
The Guardian, Saturday 19 June 2010

Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a high school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in US history.

"Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to," the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.

And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to "doing better" to process their claims for lost revenue – then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they have read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil in massive quantities was really perfectly safe.

But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a coast guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that "the coast guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up".

"Put it in writing!" someone shouted out. By now the air conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O'Brien approached the mic. "We don't need to hear this anymore," he declared, hands on hips. It didn't matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, "we just don't trust you guys!" And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the floor you'd have thought the Oilers (the unfortunately named school football team) had scored a touchdown.

The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would "make it right". Or else it was President Barack Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would "leave the Gulf coast in better shape than it was before", that he was "making sure" it "comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis".

It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded completely ridiculous, painfully so. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles from here, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground – shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish – will be poisoned.

It was already happening. Earlier that day, I travelled through nearby marshes in a shallow water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a 2 metre (7ft) blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lit stick of dynamite.

And then there is the grass itself, or the Roseau cane, as the tall sharp blades are called. If oil seeps deeply enough into the marsh, it will not only kill the grass above ground but also the roots. Those roots are what hold the marsh together, keeping bright green land from collapsing into the Mississippi River delta and the Gulf of Mexico. So not only do places like Plaquemines Parish stand to lose their fisheries, but also much of the physical barrier that lessens the intensity of fierce storms like hurricane Katrina. Which could mean losing everything.

How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be "restored and made whole" as Obama's interior secretary has pledged to do? It's not at all clear that such a thing is remotely possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around. The Alaskan fisheries have yet to fully recover from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and some species of fish never returned. Government scientists now estimate that as much as a Valdez-worth of oil may be entering the Gulf coastal waters every four days. An even worse prognosis emerges from the 1991 Gulf war spill, when an estimated 11m barrels of oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf – the largest spill ever. That oil entered the marshland and stayed there, burrowing deeper and deeper thanks to holes dug by crabs. It's not a perfect comparison, since so little clean-up was done, but according to a study conducted 12 years after the disaster, nearly 90% of the impacted muddy salt marshes and mangroves were still profoundly damaged.

We do know this. Far from being "made whole," the Gulf coast, more than likely, will be diminished. Its rich waters and crowded skies will be less alive than they are today. The physical space many communities occupy on the map will also shrink, thanks to erosion. And the coast's legendary culture will contract and wither. The fishing families up and down the coast do not just gather food, after all. They hold up an intricate network that includes family tradition, cuisine, music, art and endangered languages – much like the roots of grass holding up the land in the marsh. Without fishing, these unique cultures lose their root system, the very ground on which they stand. (BP, for its part, is well aware of the limits of recovery. The company's Gulf of Mexico regional oil spill response plan specifically instructs officials not to make "promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal". Which is no doubt why its officials consistently favour folksy terms like "make it right".)

If Katrina pulled back the curtain on the reality of racism in America, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP's recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

"Everything is dying," a woman said as the town hall meeting was finally coming to a close. "How can you honestly tell us that our Gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our Gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know when you don't know."

This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday's congressional testimony, Hayward said: "The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear" on the crisis, and that, "with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime." And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as "Pandora's well", they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don't know.

BP's mission statement

In the arc of human history, the notion that nature is a machine for us to re-engineer at will is a relatively recent conceit. In her ground-breaking 1980 book The Death of Nature, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant reminded readers that up until the 1600s, the Earth was alive, usually taking the form of a mother. Europeans – like indigenous people the world over – believed the planet to be a living organism, full of life-giving powers but also wrathful tempers. There were, for this reason, strong taboos against actions that would deform and desecrate "the mother", including mining.

The metaphor changed with the unlocking of some (but by no means all) of nature's mysteries during the scientific revolution of the 1600s. With nature now cast as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity. Nature still sometimes appeared as a woman, but one easily dominated and subdued. Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in the 1623 De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum that nature is to be "put in constraint, moulded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man".

Those words may as well have been BP's corporate mission statement. Boldly inhabiting what the company called "the energy frontier", it dabbled in synthesising methane-producing microbes and announced that "a new area of investigation" would be geoengineering. And of course it bragged that, at its Tiber prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, it now had "the deepest well ever drilled by the oil and gas industry" – as deep under the ocean floor as jets fly overhead.

Imagining and preparing for what would happen if these experiments in altering the building blocks of life and geology went wrong occupied precious little space in the corporate imagination. As we have all discovered, after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, the company had no systems in place to effectively respond to this scenario. Explaining why it did not have even the ultimately unsuccessful containment dome waiting to be activated on shore, a BP spokesman, Steve Rinehart, said: "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now." Apparently, it "seemed inconceivable" that the blowout preventer would ever fail – so why prepare?

This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago, Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads: "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?" Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this was actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behaved in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the revealing ways in which they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent "$39bn to explore for new oil and gas. Yet, the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20m a year."

These priorities go a long way towards explaining why the initial exploration plan that BP submitted to the federal government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase "little risk" appears five times. Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to "proven equipment and technology", adverse affects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, "Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels". The effects on fish, meanwhile, "would likely be sublethal" because of "the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill [and] to metabolise hydrocarbons". (In BP's telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)

Best of all, should a major spill occur, there is, apparently, "little risk of contact or impact to the coastline" because of the company's projected speedy response (!) and "due to the distance [of the rig] to shore" – about 48 miles (77km). This is the most astonishing claim of all. In a gulf that often sees winds of more than 70km an hour, not to mention hurricanes, BP had so little respect for the ocean's capacity to ebb and flow, surge and heave, that it did not think oil could make a paltry 77km trip. (Last week, a shard of the exploded Deepwater Horizon showed up on a beach in Florida, 306km away.)

None of this sloppiness would have been possible, however, had BP not been making its predictions to a political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered. Some, like Republican Lisa Murkowski, were more eager than others. The Alaskan senator was so awe-struck by the industry's four-dimensional seismic imaging that she proclaimed deep-sea drilling to have reached the very height of controlled artificiality. "It's better than Disneyland in terms of how you can take technologies and go after a resource that is thousands of years old and do so in an environmentally sound way," she told the Senate energy committee just seven months ago.

Drilling without thinking has of course been Republican party policy since May 2008. With gas prices soaring to unprecedented heights, that's when the conservative leader Newt Gingrich unveiled the slogan "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" – with an emphasis on the now. The wildly popular campaign was a cry against caution, against study, against measured action. In Gingrich's telling, drilling at home wherever the oil and gas might be – locked in Rocky Mountain shale, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and deep offshore – was a surefire way to lower the price at the pump, create jobs, and kick Arab ass all at once. In the face of this triple win, caring about the environment was for sissies: as senator Mitch McConnell put it, "in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty". By the time the infamous "Drill Baby Drill" Republican national convention rolled around, the party base was in such a frenzy for US-made fossil fuels, they would have bored under the convention floor if someone had brought a big enough drill.

Obama, eventually, gave in, as he invariably does. With cosmic bad timing, just three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the president announced he would open up previously protected parts of the country to offshore drilling. The practice was not as risky as he had thought, he explained. "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." That wasn't enough for Sarah Palin, however, who sneered at the Obama administration's plans to conduct more studies before drilling in some areas. "My goodness, folks, these areas have been studied to death," she told the Southern Republican leadership conference in New Orleans, now just 11 days before the blowout. "Let's drill, baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!" And there was much rejoicing.

In his congressional testimony, Hayward said: "We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event." And one might well imagine that a catastrophe of this magnitude would indeed instil BP executives and the "Drill Now" crowd with a new sense of humility. There are, however, no signs that this is the case. The response to the disaster – at the corporate and governmental levels – has been rife with the precise brand of arrogance and overly sunny predictions that created the disaster in the first place.

The ocean is big, she can take it, we heard from Hayward in the early days. While spokesman John Curry insisted that hungry microbes would consume whatever oil was in the water system, because "nature has a way of helping the situation". But nature has not been playing along. The deep-sea gusher has bust out of all BP's top hats, containment domes, and junk shots. The ocean's winds and currents have made a mockery of the lightweight booms BP has laid out to absorb the oil. "We told them," said Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oysters Association. "The oil's gonna go over the booms or underneath the bottom." Indeed it did. The marine biologist Rick Steiner, who has been following the clean up closely, estimates that "70% or 80% of the booms are doing absolutely nothing at all".

And then there are the controversial chemical dispersants: more than 1.3m gallons dumped with the company's trademark "what could go wrong?" attitude. As the angry residents at the Plaquemines Parish town hall rightly point out, few tests had been conducted, and there is scant research about what this unprecedented amount of dispersed oil will do to marine life. Nor is there a way to clean up the toxic mixture of oil and chemicals below the surface. Yes, fast multiplying microbes do devour underwater oil – but in the process they also absorb the water's oxygen, creating a whole new threat to marine life.

BP had even dared to imagine that it could prevent unflattering images of oil-covered beaches and birds from escaping the disaster zone. When I was on the water with a TV crew, for instance, we were approached by another boat whose captain asked, ""Y'all work for BP?" When we said no, the response – in the open ocean – was "You can't be here then". But of course these heavy-handed tactics, like all the others, have failed. There is simply too much oil in too many places. "You cannot tell God's air where to flow and go, and you can't tell water where to flow and go," I was told by Debra Ramirez. It was a lesson she had learned from living in Mossville, Louisiana, surrounded by 14 emission-spewing petrochemical plants, and watching illness spread from neighbour to neighbour.

Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. After two months, we still have no idea how much oil is flowing, nor when it will stop. The company's claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August – repeated by Obama in his Oval Office address – is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.

The flow of denial shows no sign of abating either. Louisiana politicians indignantly oppose Obama's temporary freeze on deepwater drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. Palin mused on Facebook that "no human endeavour is ever without risk", while Texas Republican congressman John Culberson described the disaster as a "statistical anomaly". By far the most sociopathic reaction, however, comes from veteran Washington commentator Llewellyn King: rather than turning away from big engineering risks, we should pause in "wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld".

Make the bleeding stop

Thankfully, many are taking a very different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us. And thanks to BP's live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth's guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen", he observed what many had felt: "The Gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "we are haemorrhaging". Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop". And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.

The experience of following the oil's progress through the ecosystem is a kind of crash course in deep ecology. Every day we learn more about how what seems to be a terrible problem in one isolated part of the world actually radiates out in ways most of us could never have imagined. One day we learn that the oil could reach Cuba – then Europe. Next we hear that fishermen all the way up the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are worried because the Bluefin tuna they catch off their shores are born thousands of miles away in those oil-stained Gulf waters. And we learn, too, that for birds, the Gulf coast wetlands are the equivalent of a busy airport hub – everyone seems to have a stopover: 110 species of migratory songbirds and 75% of all migratory US waterfowl.

It's one thing to be told by an incomprehensible chaos theorist that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. It's another to watch chaos theory unfold before your eyes. Carolyn Merchant puts the lesson like this: "The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined." Predictable outcomes are unusual within ecological systems, while "unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual". And just in case we still didn't get it, a few days ago, a bolt of lightning struck a BP ship like an exclamation mark, forcing it to suspend its containment efforts. And don't even mention what a hurricane would do to BP's toxic soup.

There is, it must be stressed, something uniquely twisted about this particular path to enlightenment. They say that Americans learn where foreign countries are by bombing them. Now it seems we are all learning about nature's circulatory systems by poisoning them.

In the late 90s, an isolated indigenous group in Colombia captured world headlines with an almost Avatar-esque conflict. From their remote home in the Andean cloud forests, the U'wa let it be known that if Occidental Petroleum carried out plans to drill for oil on their territory, they would commit mass ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff. Their elders explained that oil is part of ruiria, "the blood of Mother Earth". They believe that all life, including their own, flows from ruiria, so pulling out the oil would bring on their destruction. (Oxy eventually withdrew from the region, saying there wasn't as much oil as it had previously thought.)

Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world – in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests – as did European culture before the scientific revolution. Katja Neves, an anthropologist at Concordia University, points out that the practice serves a practical purpose. Calling the Earth "sacred" is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe.

If we are absorbing this lesson at long last, the implications could be profound. Public support for increased offshore drilling is dropping precipitously, down 22% from the peak of the "Drill Now" frenzy. The issue is not dead, however. It is only a matter of time before the Obama administration announces that, thanks to ingenious new technology and tough new regulations, it is now perfectly safe to drill in the deep sea, even in the Arctic, where an under-ice clean up would be infinitely more complex than the one underway in the Gulf. But perhaps this time we won't be so easily reassured, so quick to gamble with the few remaining protected havens.

Same goes for geoengineering. As climate change negotiations wear on, we should be ready to hear more from Dr Steven Koonin, Obama's undersecretary of energy for science. He is one of the leading proponents of the idea that climate change can be combated with techno tricks like releasing sulphate and aluminium particles into the atmosphere – and of course it's all perfectly safe, just like Disneyland! He also happens to be BP's former chief scientist, the man who just 15 months ago was still overseeing the technology behind BP's supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. Maybe this time we will opt not to let the good doctor experiment with the physics and chemistry of the Earth, and choose instead to reduce our consumption and shift to renewable energies that have the virtue that, when they fail, they fail small. As US comedian Bill Maher put it, "You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash."

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward's "If you knew you could not fail" credo, the precautionary principle holds that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health" we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. "You act like you know, but you don't know."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

(and laughter too)

Nothing more. Just good wishes for health and happiness during this Solstice Season and beyond.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Obama's speech on the out-of-control Deep Water Horizon well gusher was underwhelming.

Here are some reactions gathered by The Daily Dish:

What stood out was that for all his praise of the House climate bill and talk about the "consequences of inaction" and so forth, not once did he utter the phrase, "It's time to put a price on carbon." And that suggests to me that this speech was primarily about containing the damage to his administration, and was not the pivot point in the energy debate that many people were hoping for.
The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech (transcript here) is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn. That Ray Mabus is going to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. A plan! Hurrah! That we're gonna make BP pay for everything. Roger that. And then this: "I have established a National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place." A commission! So much for "going big."
To repeat what I and other political scientists said before the health care speech last year -- there's a lot less going on here than meets the eye.  These speeches don't really matter very much.  He's fighting a spin war on the oil spill, and to the extent that matters this is part of a series of markers he's laying down to convince opinion leaders open to convincing that he and the federal government are doing a good job.  On the energy/climate bill...what matters more than anything he said is what happens next
My general sense of the matter is that there was really very little Obama could have said at this point that would have satisfied anyone.   We’re already 57 days into this mess and he’s been talking about it non-stop.  Absent some surprise announcement that he’s been working with James Carville and come up with an instant solution, he wasn’t going to give us anything new of significance.
Even with those very low expectations, though, this was a shockingly underwhelming speech. 
Whether he's taken command of the response is immaterial now; it is now his spill to fix. Obama ran for office on the promise of restoring Americans' faith in their government's ability to solve modern problems. The economy aside, this is the biggest test of whether he can bend the curve of history in that direction.
It may be too much to ask a president, even a president with near-imperial powers, to contain something that is uncontainable, but Obama has taken responsibility for doing so, and his follow-through will be vital.
Basically, [Obama is saying he just wants some kind of bill. His standards are very low. I can't necessarily blame him -- the votes aren't there in the Senate and he can't conjure them up. He needs something that at least begins the process of transitioning to a clean energy economy. But with the public uninterested in climate change, interest groups mostly advocating for the status quo, and moderate Democrats unwilling to take another tough vote, he's not going to get much.
A bill to mitigate climate change isn't a jobs bill, as Nancy Pelosi has argued, and it's more than just a bill to make sure China doesn't capture to much of the renewable-energy business. It's going to be a big bill with some unpopular stuff in it because it's trying to do a hard and important thing. And if Americans have been told that this bill will be all goodies -- all jobs and energy and so forth -- it's hard to imagine them sticking around once they hear that the price of electricity is going to jump up, even if only by a little bit.
All that said, I think the politics of this are rapidly moving toward an efficiency and innovation-investment solution, and that bill does look more like goodies and can be sold on these grounds. That still leaves the question of how to pay for it, but at least it matches where the polling is on this subject. The downside is that it doesn't match the actual problem we're trying to solve.
All of this piling-on is fair enough so far as it goes: Certainly last night’s speech will not echo down through the ages alongside Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and it was more than a little irritating to sit through an Oval Office address with so little meat on its bones. But while the pundit class is free to use the occasion of a toxic oil spill to defend the environmental benefits of fossil fuels, or to explain that what a nation coping with 9 percent unemployment really needs to hear is a re-run of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, the president of the United States faces far more significant constraints. And given those constraints, and the cultish spirit in which too many Americans approach the office of the presidency, I thought Obama probably did the best he could last night — even if that “best” mainly inspired a sense of the limits of the president’s powers, and sympathy for the thankless aspects of the job.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Silver Lining

Some see big opportunities.

Many environmentalists have hoped that the tragedy of the Gulf Gusher might move (finally!) US society toward renewable energy. That indeed might be a "silver lining" but it's not really looking that way. Although one poll is noticing a shift in attitudes toward fossil fuel consumption, the main Gallop poll reported no significant shifts in its results for the month of May.

Indeed, President Obama has waffled on off-shore drilling and signaled mostly for more of the same:

"As Mr. Obama put in on March 31, “Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable homegrown energy.”

What exactly is "renewable homegrown energy?" Unfortunately, the only "homegrown energy" in the US energy matrix is corn ethanol. Corn ethanol has been severely criticized by scientists since a startling report in early 2008 indicated that it was probably worse for emissions and global warming than using gasoline.

Ignoring the science, Obama has maintained a cozy relationship with Midwestern agro-energy interests, especially since the time of the Iowa caucuses which were so critical to his drive for the Democratic nomination.

Now, with the pressure on to find non-fossil fuel energy source, the corn ethanol industry is lobbying for an even greater dependence and subsidization of its dysfunctional program and the Obama Administration is apparently moving toward an even deeper embrace. For the corn ethanol folks, this is more than a silver lining. It's a bonanza of boondoggle that won't solve anything.

And, in perhaps an ultimate irony, Brazil sees silver lining in BP spill: more rigs.

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 11 (Reuters) - Brazil could benefit
from the BP Gulf of Mexico spill as a U.S. moratorium on
offshore drilling boosts available rigs for the country's deep
water oil exploration program.

Even as an ecological catastrophe makes the future of U.S.
offshore drilling less certain, Brazil is plowing ahead with a
$220 billion five-year plan to tap oil fields even deeper than
BP's (BP.L) ill-fated Gulf well, which is still leaking crude.

With an estimated 35 rigs idled in the Gulf of Mexico,
Brazil is already receiving inquiries from companies looking to
move their rigs here, where vast discoveries in recent years
may soon turn the country into a major crude exporter.

"What is bad for some may be good for others," said
Fernando Martins, Latin America Vice President for GE Oil and
Gas, which provides services to drillers in Brazil.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Last March Foster Brown and I video-taped Frei Heitor's vigorous explanations of the problems facing Amazônia and the world -- money and oil.

Frei Heitor Turini, is an 84 year old Italian missionary with the Servants of Mary who has been unrelenting in the struggle for the forests and peoples of the Amazônian hinterlands and is well known for his political outspokenness in Acre. He wastes no time in getting down to the unholy trinity of power, money and oil, an opinion that was struck as well on the pages of today's NY Times where Willian D. Cohan said:

The Gulf of Mexico spill, like the financial implosion, was largely the product of people taking risks and knowing they wouldn’t be held accountable if things went wrong.

President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he intends to hold BP fully responsible for the costs of damages and cleanup which is already straining relations with England which has been the closest ally of the US Middle East policy and whose economy is very intertwined with BP (for example, many British pension funds are dependent on the payment of BP dividends). Unraveling the unholy alliance of power, money and oil is not going to be a simple task.

Sunday, June 06, 2010



Frank Rich's opinion piece in this Sunday's NY Times is a must read. Here is the money quote:

Obama’s excessive trust in his own heady team is all too often matched by his inherent deference to the smartest guys in the boardroom in the private sector. His default assumption seems to be that his peers are always as well-intentioned as he is. The single biggest mistake he has made in managing the gulf disaster was his failure to challenge BP’s version of events from the start. The company consistently understated the spill’s severity, overestimated the progress of the repair operation and low-balled the environmental damage. Yet the White House’s designated point man in the crisis, Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, was still publicly reaffirming his trust in the BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, as recently as two weeks ago, more than a month after the rig exploded.

This is baffling, and then some, given BP’s atrocious record prior to this catastrophe. In the last three years, according to the Center for Public Integrity, BP accounted for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors” — including 760 citations for “egregious, willful” violations (compared with only eight at the two oil companies that tied for second place). Hayward’s predecessor at BP, ousted in a sex-and-blackmail scandal in 2007, had placed cost-cutting (and ever more obscene profits) over safety, culminating in the BP Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured 170 in 2005. Last October The Times uncovered documents revealing that BP had still failed to address hundreds of safety hazards at that refinery in the four years after the explosion, prompting the largest fine in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (The fine, $87 million, was no doubt regarded as petty cash by a company whose profit reached nearly $17 billion last year.)

No high-powered White House meetings or risk analyses were needed to discern how treacherous it was to trust BP this time. An intern could have figured it out. But the credulous attitude toward BP is no anomaly for the administration. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs was praised by the president as a “savvy” businessman two months before the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Goldman. Well before then, there had been a flood of journalistic indicators that Goldman under Blankfein may have gamed the crash and the bailout.

It’s this misplaced trust in elites both outside the White House and within it that seems to prevent Obama from realizing the moment that history has handed to him. Americans are still seething at the bonus-grabbing titans of the bubble and at the public and private institutions that failed to police them. But rather than embrace a unifying vision that could ignite his presidency, Obama shies away from connecting the dots as forcefully and relentlessly as the facts and Americans’ anger demand.

There's more here.


[OOPS! The Agence France-Presse (AFP) has blocked this video from being embedded on other (non-paying) websites. To watch it, you must click TWICE on the video window -- once to bring up the refusal notice and again to go to the AFT post of it at YouTube. (The Mainstream Media still doesn't understand the open-source movement but that's another story.)]

The biochar movement has been growing quickly, primarily as a result of speculation that it may provide a counter response for global warming. As you can see in the video, the media sound-byte mongers are already claiming that it may be a "silver bullet." This may overwhelm biochar's main promise which is to establish a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature resulting in health, renewal and restoration for the whole earth community. The true harvest of biochar must be healthy soils and not merely carbon credits.

You can keep posted on the many exciting developments at the website of the International Biochar Initiative.

Saturday, June 05, 2010


Caught in the oil spill
Caught in the oil.                                                                    AP Photo / Charlie Riedel

AP Photographer Charlie Riedel's images of seabirds caught in the oil slick on a beach on Louisiana's East Grand Terre Island. More horrible images here.


ThisIsForNeda — June 01, 2010 — FOR NEDA reveals the true story of Neda Agha-Soltan, who became another tragic casualty of Iran's violent crackdown on post-election protests on June 20, 2009. Unlike many unknown victims, however, she instantly became an international symbol of the struggle: Within hours of Agha-Soltan's death, cell phone photographs of her blood-stained face were held aloft by crowds protesting in Tehran and across the world. With exclusive access to her family inside Iran, the documentary goes to the heart of who Neda was and what she stood for, illuminating the larger Iranian struggle for democratic freedoms through her powerful story. Directed by Antony Thomas.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Juan Manuel Santos
Juan Manuel Santos

Despite the major opinion polls predictions of a neck-and-neck race for President of Columbia, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos trounced Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá whose talk of a new, clean politics captured the imagination of middle-class Colombians. But the final count gave Santos 47% of the vote compared with just 22% for Mockus.

The "realist view" of The Economist contends that while Mockus' unorthodox and non-partisan style appealed to the urban middle classes, that Santos was perceived as more able to deliver security and economic opportunity to the less well-off masses across the country. However, since neither candidate achieved an absolute majority, there will be a face off in a second round scheduled for June 20.

The honest idealism and radical inventiveness presented by Mockus was covered well in this in-depth report from the Harvard Gazette which stressed that a whole new style of democratic participation was emerging. Of course, emerging is only the beginning of achieving. But, without doubt, a movement for the future has been unleashed, one that is worthy of our continued hope and support.

anatanas mockus