Okay, this book took me a while to finish. I started it, read about 40%, then put it down and read Originals, Lying, and Coping Skills, before being able to pick this one back up and finish it. Not that the book is a bad book, it's a very, very good book, one that should be required reading for every American citizen, especially the climate change deniers.
Drawdown is a catalog of 100 technologies that would significantly behoove us as a society to encourage, implement, and embrace. If we were to embrace all of the technologies listed, 99% of them would result in profits, and 1% wouldn't. We could do all of them.
But we won't.
Because we don't care, until we do. And often when we do, it's because we are in crisis mode, not because we were forward-thinking.
I think the best way to read this book is with a group of friends, going through a chapter or two a week, sitting around discussing each one, and then implementing a few. Or as a student, reading a chapter / technology a (school) day, and discussing with the class. The latter has the students done within a school year, and they know enough maybe to be inspired to implement some of the strategies. Or as a work group reading and discussing a couple technologies a week, including how encourage or engineer the use, done in a year with two a week.
Reading solo isn't really the way.
When I listen to Sagan's friends talk about all the doom and gloom with climate change, and the sense of hopelessness coming from some of them, I want to hand them this book, suggest they pick 3, and get to work. Change doesn't just happen, people make change happen. That means all of us.
The solutions about farms, soil, restoring lands and forests, women, wind, and water turbines were the most interesting to me.
I strongly recommend this book for its information. I don't recommend trying to read it all in one go.
I didn't go through these quotes, so many are formatted poorly or not at all.
We can never survive in the long-term by despoiling nature; we have literally reached the ends of the earth.
The buildup of greenhouse gases we experience today occurred in the absence of human understanding; our ancestors were innocent of the damage they were doing. That can tempt us to believe that global warming is something that is happening to us—that we are victims of a fate that was determined by actions that precede us. If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us—an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do—we begin to live in a different world.
Confucius wrote that calling things by their proper name is the beginning of wisdom.
I remember my economics professor asking for a definition of Gresham’s law and how I rattled off the answer mechanically. He looked at me—none too pleased, though the answer was correct—and said, now explain it to your grandmother. That was much more difficult. The answer I gave the professor would have made no sense to her. It was lingo.
In November 2016, the White House released its strategy for achieving deep decarbonization by mid-century. From our perspective, decarbonization is a word that describes the problem, not the goal: we decarbonized the earth by removing carbon in the form of combusted coal, gas, and oil, as well as through deforestation and poor farming practices, and releasing it into the atmosphere.
Another impediment to wind power is inequitable government subsidies. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the fossil fuel industry received more than $ 5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies in 2015; that is $ 10 million a minute, or about 6.5 percent of global GDP. Indirect fossil fuel subsidies include health costs due to air pollution, environmental damage, congestion, and global warming—none of which are factors with wind turbines.
Outsize subsidies make fossil fuels look less expensive, obscuring wind power’s cost competitiveness, and they give fossil fuels an incumbent advantage, making investment more attractive.
Critics in Congress disparage wind power because it is subsidized, implying that the federal government is pouring money down a hole. Coal is a freeloader when it comes to the costs borne by society for environmental impacts.
Wind power uses 98 to 99 percent less water than fossil fuel–generated electricity. Coal, gas, and nuclear power require massive amounts of water for cooling, withdrawing more water than agriculture—22 trillion to 62 trillion gallons per year.
Who else besides the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries can take trillions of gallons of water in the United States and not pay for it?
The soft costs of financing, acquisition, permitting, and installation can be half the cost of a rooftop system and have not seen the same dip as panels themselves. That is part of the reason rooftop solar is more expensive than its utility-scale kin.
With producer and user as one, energy gets democratized.
Unlike PV panels and wind turbines, CSP makes heat before it makes electricity, and the former is much easier and more efficient to store. Indeed, heat can be stored twenty to one hundred times more cheaply than electricity.
Human beings have long used mirrors to start fires. The Chinese, Greeks, and Romans all developed “burning mirrors”—curved mirrors that could concentrate the sun’s rays onto an object, causing it to combust. Three thousand years ago, solar igniters were mass-produced in Bronze Age China. They’re how the ancient Greeks lit the Olympic flame. In the sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci designed a giant parabolic mirror to boil water for industry and to warm swimming pools. Like so many technologies, using mirrors to harness the sun’s energy has been lost and found repeatedly, enchanting experimentalists and tinkerers through the ages—and once again today. •
In the United States, a majority of the more than 115 biomass electricity generation plants under construction or in the permitting process plan on burning wood as fuel. Proponents state that these plants will be powered by branches and treetops left over from commercial logging operations, but these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In the states of Washington, Vermont, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and New York, the amount of slash generated by logging operations falls far short of the amount needed to feed the proposed biomass burners. In Ohio and North Carolina, utilities have been more forthright and admit that biomass electricity generation means cutting and burning trees. The trees will grow back, but over decades—a lengthy and uncertain lag time to achieve carbon neutrality. When biomass energy relies on trees, it is not a true solution.
Nuclear is a regrets solution, and regrets have already occurred at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Rocky Flats, Kyshtym, Browns Ferry, Idaho Falls, Mihama, Lucens, Fukushima Daiichi, Tokaimura, Marcoule, Windscale, Bohunice, and Church Rock. Regrets
U.S. coal-fired or nuclear power plants are about 34 percent efficient in terms of producing electricity, which means two-thirds of the energy goes up the flue and heats the sky. All told, the U.S. power-generation sector throws away an amount of heat equivalent to the entire energy budget of Japan.
Since that time, policies have compelled local authorities to identify opportunities for energy-efficient heat production, helped to move power generation from centralized plants to a decentralized network, and incentivized the use of cogeneration generally, and renewable-based systems particularly, through tax policy.
The United States has long lagged behind Europe on cogeneration, in part because of pushback from utilities—notoriously so twenty years ago, when CHP plans at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were challenged by the local utility.
There are four methods used by industry to convert waste to energy: incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma.
One study conducted in the 1980s of a New Jersey incinerator showed the following results: If 2,250 tons of trash were incinerated daily, the annual emissions would be 5 tons of lead, 17 tons of mercury, 580 pounds of cadmium, 2,248 tons of nitrous oxide, 853 tons of sulfur dioxide, 777 tons of hydrogen chloride, 87 tons of sulfuric acid, 18 tons of fluorides, and 98 tons of particulate matter small enough to lodge permanently in the lungs.
Waste-to-energy continues to evoke strong feelings. Its champions point to the land spared from dumps and to a cleaner-burning source of power. One ton of waste can generate as much electricity as one-third of a ton of coal. But opponents continue to decry pollution, however trace, as well as high capital costs and potential for perverse effects on recycling or composting. Because incineration is often cheaper than those alternatives, it can win out with municipalities when it comes to cost. Data shows high recycling rates tend to go hand in hand with high rates of waste-to-energy use, but some argue recycling could be higher in the absence of burning trash. These are among the reasons that construction of new plants in the United States has been at a near standstill for many years, despite evolution in incineration technology.
Truly renewable resources, like solar and wind, cannot be depleted.
Waste is certainly a repeatable resource at this point, but that is only because we generate so very much.
Zero waste is a growing movement that wants to go upstream, not down, in order to change the nature of waste and the ways in which society recaptures its value. It is saying, in essence, that material flows in society can imitate what we see in forests and grasslands where there truly is no waste that is not feedstock for some other form of life.
Plant-based diets have had no shortage of notable champions, long before omnivore Michael Pollan famously simplified the conundrum of eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The case for a plant-rich diet is robust. That said, bringing about profound dietary change is not simple because eating is profoundly personal and cultural.
In 2013, $ 53 billion went to livestock subsidies in the thirty-five countries affiliated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development alone.
Financial disincentives, government targets for reducing the amount of beef consumed, and campaigns that liken meat eating to tobacco use—in tandem with shifting social norms around meat consumption and healthy diets—may effectively conspire to make meat less desirable.
Plant-based diets also open opportunities to preserve land that might otherwise go into livestock production and to engage current agricultural land in other, carbon-sequestering uses.
Around the world, farmers are walking away from lands that were once cultivated or grazed because those lands have been “farmed out.” Agricultural practices depleted fertility, eroded soil, caused compaction, drained groundwater, or created salinity by over-irrigation. Because the lands no longer generate sufficient income, they are abandoned.
These abandoned lands are not lying fallow; they are forgotten.
Bringing abandoned lands back into productive use can also turn them into carbon sinks.
Restoration can mean the return of native vegetation, the establishment of tree plantations, or the introduction of regenerative farming methods.
One of the great miracles of life on this planet is the creation of food. The alchemy human beings do with seed, sun, soil, and water produces figs and fava beans, pearl onions and okra. It can include raising animals for their flesh or yield and transforming raw ingredients into chutney or cake or capellini. For more than a third of the world’s labor force, the production of food is the source of their livelihoods, and all people are sustained by consuming it.
Yet a third of the food raised or prepared does not make it from farm or factory to fork.
In too many places, kitchen efficiency has become a lost art.
Basic laws of supply and demand also play a role. If a crop is unprofitable to harvest, it will be left in the field. And if a product is too expensive for consumers to purchase, it will idle in the storeroom. As ever, economics matter. Regardless of the reason, the outcome is much the same. Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in the global rubbish bin.
National goals and policies can encourage widespread change. In 2015, the United States set a food-waste target, aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. The same year, France passed a law forbidding supermarkets from trashing unsold food and requiring that they pass it on to charities or animal feed or composting companies instead.
Of course, from an emissions perspective, the most effective efforts are those that avert waste, rather than finding better uses for it after the fact.
IMPACT: After taking into account the adoption of plant-rich diets, if 50 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050, avoided emissions could be equal to 26.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Reducing waste also avoids the deforestation for additional farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions. We used forecasts of regional waste estimates from farm to household. This data shows that up to 35 percent food in high-income economies is thrown out by consumers; in low-income economies, however, relatively little is wasted at the household level.
Though cookstoves may seem simple, taking them from concept to reality is as much an art as cooking itself. Family dynamics, from finances to education to gender roles, affect decisions about stoves, which must meet a suite of needs.
Locally attuned, human-centered designs are most likely to win hearts and minds and shift prevailing habits—and, most important, majority share of cooking time.
The two oldest Sanskrit epic poems, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, contain illustrations of a precursor to the home garden called Ashok Vatika.
Because they generate food security, nourishment, and income, on top of ecological benefits, home gardens have been dubbed “the epitome of sustainability” by agroforestry expert P. K. Nair.
Whether the crop being grown is coffee, cacao, fruit, vegetables, herbs, fuel, or plant remedies, the benefits of multistrata agroforestry are clear. It is well suited to steep slopes and degraded croplands, places where other cultivation might struggle.
Moreover, because the livestock yield on a silvopasture plot is higher (as explored below), it may curtail the need for additional pasture space and thus help avoid deforestation and subsequent carbon emissions. Some studies show that ruminants can better digest silvopastoral forage, emitting lower amounts of methane in the process.
From a financial and risk perspective, silvopasture is useful for its diversification. Livestock, trees, and any additional forestry products, such as nuts, fruit, mushrooms, and maple syrup, all come of age and generate income on different time horizons—some more regularly and short-term, some at much longer intervals. Because the land is diversely productive, farmers are better insulated from financial risk due to weather events.
The integrated, symbiotic system of silvopasture proves to be more resilient for both animals and trees. In a typical treeless pasture, livestock may suffer from extreme heat, cutting winds, and mediocre forage. But silvopasture provides distributed shade and wind protection, as well as rich food.
factors. These systems are more expensive to establish, requiring higher up-front costs in addition to the necessary technical expertise.
Fellow farmers are often more trusted than technical or scientific experts, while a successful test plot—perhaps on a rancher’s own land—is the most convincing case of all.
Therein lies the climatic win-win of silvopasture: As it averts further greenhouse emissions from one of the world’s most polluting sectors, it also protects against changes that are now inevitable. •
Tell me: How did it come to pass that virtue—a quality that for most of history has generally been deemed, well, a virtue—became a mark of liberal softheadedness? How peculiar, that doing the right thing by the environment—buying the hybrid, eating like a locavore—should now set you up for the Ed Begley Jr. treatment.
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. • Excerpted and adapted with permission from Michael Pollan’s essay “Why Bother?” in the New York Times, April 20, 2008.
Regenerative agricultural practices restore degraded land. They include no tillage, diverse cover crops, on-farm fertility (no external nutrient sources required), no or minimal pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and multiple crop rotations, all of which can be augmented by managed grazing. The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to continually improve and regenerate the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves plant health, nutrition, and productivity.
When converted to sugars with help from the sun, carbon produces plants and food. It feeds humankind, and, through the use of regenerative agriculture, it feeds the life of the soil.
Increasing carbon means increasing the life of the soil. When carbon is stored in soil organic matter, microbial life proliferates, soil texture improves, roots go deeper, worms drag organic matter down their holes and make rich castings of nitrogen, nutrient uptake is enhanced, water retention increases several fold (creating drought tolerance or flood insurance), nourished plants are more pest resistant, and fertility compounds to the point where little or no fertilizers are necessary. This ability to become independent of fertilizers relies upon cover crops. Each additional percent of carbon in the soil is considered equivalent to $ 300 to $ 600 of fertilizer stored beneath.
A normal cover crop might be vetch, white clover, or rye, or a combination of them at one time.
The possibilities include legumes such as spring peas, clover, vetch, cowpeas, alfalfa, mung beans, lentils, fava beans, sainfoin, and sunn hemp; and brassicas such as kale, mustard, radish, turnips, and collards. Then there are broadleaves such as sunflower, sesame, and chicory; and grasses such as black oats, rye, fescue, teff, brome, and sorghum. Each plant brings distinct additions to the soil, from shading out weeds to fixing nitrogen and making phosphorus, zinc, or calcium bioavailable.
Regenerative farmers are creating crop insurance through diversification, which prevents pockets of infestation by pests and fungi. Along with rotation, there is intercropping, in which leguminous companion crops of alfalfa or beans are grown with corn to provide fertility.
Evidence points to a new wisdom: The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed.
Regenerative agriculture is not the absence of chemicals. It is the presence of observable science—a practice that aligns agriculture with natural principles. It restores, revitalizes, and reinstates healthy agricultural ecosystems.
Most nitrogen fertilizers are “hot,” chemically destroying organic matter in the soil.
Nitrous oxide, created from nitrate fertilizers by soil bacteria, is 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its atmospheric warming effect.
Effective nutrient management is summarized by the four Rs: right source, right time, right place, and right rate.
Research into how producers make decisions has found that farmers are likely to apply more fertilizer than necessary and prioritize information they receive from fertilizer dealers—even with the knowledge that reducing their rate could lower emissions.
Since nitrogen-fertilizer pollution of water bodies is usually considered nonpoint source pollution (i.e., it cannot be easily linked to a single source), regulations are difficult to create and enforce.
That being said, continual application of chemical fertilizers results in loss of fertility, water infiltration, and loss of productivity over time. These impacts can cause farmers to increase fertilization in hopes it will compensate for the overall loss of soil health, which is in actuality a downward spiral.
There are two ways to farm. Industrial agriculture sows a single crop over large areas. Regenerative practices such as tree intercropping use diversity to improve soil health and productivity and align with biological principles. Lower inputs, healthier crops, and higher yields are the outcome.
To top it off, tree intercropping is beautiful—chili peppers and coffee, coconut and marigolds, walnuts and corn, citrus and eggplant, olives and barley, teak and taro, oak and lavender, wild cherry and sunflower, hazel and roses. Triple-cropping is common in tropical areas, with coconut, banana, and ginger grown together. The possible combinations are endless.
Though land is “lost” to trees in the alley-cropping system, the increased yield—without chemical inputs—more than makes up for the loss.
Other variations of intercropping include strip cropping, boundary systems, shade systems, forest farming, forest gardening, mycoforestry, silvopasture, and pasture cropping. Tree intercropping reinforces the idea that human well-being does not depend on an agricultural system that is extractive and hostile to living organisms.
When farmers till their fields to destroy weeds and fold in fertilizer, water in the freshly turned soil evaporates. Soil itself can be blown or washed away and carbon held within it released into the atmosphere. Though intended to prepare a field to be productive, tilling can actually make it nutrient poor and less life giving.
In part, conservation agriculture is already widespread because farmers can adopt it with relative ease and speed and realize a range of benefits. Water retention makes fields more drought resistant or reduces the need for irrigation. Nutrient retention leads to increased fertility and can lower fertilizer inputs.
The oldest surviving work of Latin prose, De Agricultura, by Cato the Elder, includes guidance on compost—deemed a must for farmers.
Nearly half of the solid waste produced around the world is organic or biodegradable, meaning it can be decomposed over a few weeks or months.
Composting processes avert methane emissions with proper aeration. Without it, the emissions benefits of composting shrink.
In ancient Amazonian society, virtually all waste was organic. The disposal method of choice for kitchen crumbs, fish bones, livestock manure, broken pottery, and the like was to bury and burn. Wastes were baked without exposure to air beneath a layer of soil. This process, known as pyrolysis, produced a charcoal soil amendment rich in carbon. The result was terra preta, literally “black earth” in Portuguese.
The pyrolysis process for producing biochar is from the Greek pyro for “fire” and lysis for “separating.” It is the slow baking of biomass in the near or total absence of oxygen. The preferred method is gasification, a higher-temperature pyrolysis that results in more completely carbonized biomass. Biochar is commonly made from waste material ranging from peanut shells to rice straw to wood scraps. As it is heated, gas and oil separate from carbon-rich solids. The output is twofold: fuels that can be used for energy (perhaps for fueling pyrolysis itself) and biochar for soil amendment. Depending on the speed of baking, the ratio of fuel to char can shift. The slower the burn, the more biochar. Pyrolysis is unusual in its versatility. Large, polished industrial systems can produce it, and it can be made in small makeshift kilns.
Theoretically, experts argue, biochar could sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, in addition to averting emissions from organic waste.
Africa abounds with staple tree crops: baobab, mafura, argan, mongongo, marula, dika, monkey orange, moringa, safou, and more.
Today, 89 percent of cultivated land, about 3 billion acres, is devoted to annuals. Of the remaining land in perennial crops, 116 million acres are used for perennial staple crops.
Called “flood” or “basin” irrigation, they rely on submerging fields and remain the most common approaches in many parts of the world.
Surface and groundwater resources are better protected by lowering demand for water use.
The agricultural industry has long argued that the only way we can feed humanity is through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and, more recently, genetically modified seeds. The conventional wisdom is that biological or organic agricultural methods are incapable of feeding the world—mere specialty practices for smaller farmers that are impractical given the world’s food needs.
As Montgomery and Biklé show, the science was incomplete because the role of soil life was unknown at that time. Agronomists and soil scientists of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century had no inkling of what microbial populations were doing in the soil. In the absence of this knowledge, the chemical fertilizer theory of agricultural productivity was untouchable because it did sustain and increase yields, particularly on degraded soils.
Herbivores cluster to protect themselves and their young from predators; they munch perennial and annual grasses to the crown; they disturb the soil with their hooves, intermixing their urine and feces; and they move on and do not return for a full year. Herbivores such as cattle, sheep, goats, elk, moose, and deer are ruminants, mammals that ferment cellulose in their digestive systems and break it down with methane-emitting microbes. Ruminants cocreated the world’s great grasslands, from the pampas in Argentina to the mammoth steppe in Siberia. Put those animals inside a fence, and it is a whole different story.
involves a transitional period from one regime to another. It requires weaning farms off pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. All of these are conclusions agricultural corporations are unlikely to study and fund. The empirical results achieved by long-term adherents describe a two-to three-year period for the transition—about the same length of time as most of the studies that question the results shown by proponents.
Farmers who use managed grazing report that perennial streams that once went dry have returned. On farms with intensive one-to two-day rotations, the capacity to stock cattle on the land increased by 200 to 300 percent. Native grasses reestablished themselves, crowding out weeds. Not having to sow pastures saved time and diesel fuel. Tillage of pastureland stopped as well, conserving fuel and equipment expenses. The behavior of cattle changed. Rather than lollygagging around a stubbly, overgrazed pasture, they moved quickly and in the process ate weeds (which farmers are discovering are protein rich), thus reducing or eliminating the need for weed control.
The results seem to improve when grazing is rapid and intense and rest periods are longer. The protein and sugars of the grasses improve, and the more carbon sugars that are fed to the microbes in the soil, the greater the growth in mycorrhizal fungi, which secrete a sticky substance called glomalin. The organic rich soils are clumped together in small granules by the glomalin, which creates crumbly soil with empty spaces in which water can flow. Practitioners report that their soils can soak up eight, ten, and fourteen inches of rain per hour, whereas before the hardened soils would pond and erode with a mere inch of rain.
He describes the change in his agricultural practices best: “When I was farming conventionally, I’d wake up and decide what I was going to kill today. Now I wake up and decide what I am going to help live.” And he is equally clear where change will come from: “You’re not going to change Washington [D.C.]. Consumers are the driving force.” •
Even though they farm as capably and efficiently as men, inequality in assets, inputs, and support means women produce less on the same amount of land.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent, total agricultural output in low-income countries will increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world will drop by 12 to 17 percent. One hundred million to 150 million people will no longer be hungry.
Just 10 to 20 percent of landholders are women, and within that group, insecure land rights are a persistent challenge.
Bina Agarwal, a professor at the University of Manchester and the author of A Field of One’s Own, captures the range of measures needed: Recognize and affirm women as farmers rather than farm helpers—a perception that undermines them from the start. Increase women’s access to land and secure clear, independent tenure—not mediated through and controlled by men. Improve women’s access to the training and resources they lack, provided with their specific needs in mind—microcredit in particular. Focus research and development on crops women cultivate and farming systems they use. Foster institutional innovation and collective approaches designed for women smallholders, such as group farming efforts. Agarwal’s last tenet is powerful. When women take part in cooperatives
As with all smallholder farmers, diversity in cultivation helps annual yields to be more resilient and successful over time.
Countries that have higher levels of gender equality have higher average cereal yields; high levels of inequality correlate with the opposite outcome.
When women earn more, they reinvest 90 percent of the money they make into education, health, and nutrition for their families and communities, compared to 30 to 40 percent for men.
Girls’ education, it turns out, has a dramatic bearing on global warming. Women with more years of education have fewer, healthier children and actively manage their reproductive health.
Education also equips women to face the most dramatic climatic changes. A 2013 study found that educating girls “is the single most important social and economic factor associated with a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters.” The single most important. It is a conclusion drawn from examining the experiences of 125 countries since 1980 and echoes other analyses. Educated girls and women have a better capacity to cope with shocks from natural disasters and extreme weather events and are therefore less likely to be injured, displaced, or killed when one strikes. This decreased vulnerability also extends to their children, families, and the elderly.
The encyclopedic book What Works in Girls’ Education maps out seven areas of interconnected interventions: Make school affordable. For example, provide family stipends for keeping girls in school. Help girls overcome health barriers. For example, offer deworming treatments. Reduce the time and distance to get to school. For example, provide girls with bikes. Make schools more girl-friendly. For example, offer child-care programs for young mothers. Improve school quality. For example, invest in more and better teachers. Increase community engagement. For example, train community education activists. Sustain girls’ education during emergencies. For example, establish schools in refugee camps.
According to the Urban Land Institute, in more compact developments ripe for walking, people drive 20 to 40 percent less. Urban planner and author Jeff Speck writes, “The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies.” Speck’s “general theory of walkability” outlines four criteria that must be met for people to opt to walk. A journey on foot must be useful, helping an individual meet some need in daily life. It must feel safe, including protection from cars and other hazards. It must be comfortable, attracting walkers to what Speck calls “outdoor living rooms.” And it must be interesting, with beauty, liveliness, and variety all around. In other words, walkable trips are not simply those with a manageable distance from point A to point B, perhaps a ten-to fifteen-minute journey on foot. They have “walk appeal,” thanks to a density of fellow walkers, a mix of land and real estate uses, and key design elements that create compelling environments for people on foot.
What does that look like? It is the opposite of sprawl. Homes, cafés, parks, shops, and offices are intermingled at a density that makes them reachable by foot. Sidewalks are wide and protected from motorized traffic whizzing by. Walkways are well lit at night, tree-lined and shaded during the day (vital in hot, humid climates). They connect effectively to one another and perhaps lead to entirely car-free areas. Points of interest across the road, tracks, or waterway are accessible by way of safe and direct pedestrian crossings constructed at regular intervals. At street level, buildings feel abuzz with life, fostering a sense of safety. Beauty invites people outside. Perambulation can easily be combined with cycling or mass transit, with good connectivity between these different modes of mobility. Many such improvements can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of other transportation infrastructure. Walkability also enhances the use, and thus cost-effectiveness, of public transit systems.
Similarly, Copenhagen’s infrastructure investments have made cycling easy and fast. They include innovations such as the “green wave”—traffic lights along main roads synchronized to the pace of bike commuters, so they can maintain their cruising speed for long stretches. Currently, the city is investing in a responsive traffic light system that aims to cut travel time by 10 percent for bicycles and 5 to 20 percent for buses, making both modes more appealing. At the same time, infrastructure for cars is becoming less accommodating, as with the gradual removal of parking spaces.
As Dutch history reminds us, all cities were once bike cities, before we began shaping and reshaping them for the almighty automobile.
Cycling also raises concerns about safety, reasonably so, but a clear correlation exists between high cycling rates, more cycling infrastructure, and reduced risk of fatalities.
Not only do cool roofs reduce heat taken on by buildings, driving down energy use for cooling, they also reduce the temperature in cities. Recent studies have shown that the capacity of cool roofs to relieve the urban heat island effect is more pronounced during heat waves, when heat islands are particularly intense, sometimes deadly. The growth of cities continues, so making them cleaner, more livable, and better for well-being is essential.
Glass windows were a Roman invention, placed in public baths, important buildings, and homes of great wealth. Although quite opaque, Roman glass was a big step forward from animal hides, cloth, or wood for shutting out the elements.
Density is a defining characteristic of cities. Compact urban spaces allow us to move about on foot and by bicycle, intermingle people and ideas, and create rich cultural mosaics. That density can also enable efficient heating and cooling of a city’s buildings.
Copenhagen’s ongoing shift in fuel sources highlights a major advantage of DHC: Once a distribution network is in place, what powers it can morph and evolve. Coal can give way to geothermal, solar water heating, or sustainable biomass. A city’s wasted heat—from industrial facilities to data centers to in-household wastewater—can be captured and repurposed.
Landfill methane can be tapped for capture and use as a fairly clean energy source for generating electricity or heat, rather than leaking into the air or being dispersed as waste. The climate benefit is twofold: prevent landfill emissions and displace coal, oil, or natural gas that might otherwise be used.
Most landfill content is organic matter: food scraps, yard trimmings, junk wood, wastepaper. At first, aerobic bacteria decompose those materials, but as layers of garbage get compacted and covered—and ultimately sealed beneath a landfill cap—oxygen is depleted. In its absence, anaerobic bacteria take over, and decomposition produces biogas, a roughly equal blend of carbon dioxide and methane accompanied by a smattering of other gases. Carbon dioxide would be part of nature’s cycles, but the methane is anthropogenic, created because we dump organic waste into sanitary landfills.
The amount of methane produced varies from landfill to landfill, as does the amount that can be captured. The more contained the site, the easier and more effective capture can be.
The power of insulation is taken to the extreme with Passivhaus, or Passive House in English, a rigorous building method and standard created in Germany in the early 1990s and intensely focused on saving energy—by as much as 90 percent over conventional comparisons. This approach zealously focuses on creating an airtight envelope for a building, to separate inside from outside below, above, and around all sides. The result is a structure so hermetically sealed that warm air cannot leak out when snow is on the ground and cool air cannot escape when the dog days arrive.
To realize the massive financial and emissions savings that are possible, a building-by-building approach to the world’s 1.6 trillion square feet of building stock (99 percent of which is not green) is probably not the way to go. The Rocky Mountain Institute is piloting a more industrialized strategy in Chicago: Limit the scope of retrofitting to a set of highly effective, broadly applicable measures; pursue additional measures on the basis of impeccable analysis; and undertake multiple buildings simultaneously to gain economies of scale.
Water is heavy. Pumping it from source to treatment plant to storage and distribution requires enormous amounts of energy. In fact, electricity is the major cost driver of processing and distributing water within cities, underlying the sums on water bills.
Utilities use the phrase “non-revenue water” to describe the gap between what goes in and what ultimately comes out the tap.
To borrow a description from the New York Times: “A steady, moderately low level of pressure is best—just as [with blood flow] in the human body.” Too much pressure and water looks for ways to escape; too little and water lines can suck in liquids and contaminants that surround them. Water utilities face a quest for pressure that is “just right.”
Even under conditions of first-rate pressure management, leaks can and will happen. The torrential bursts that cut off service and submerge streets are not actually the worst from a waste perspective: They demand attention and immediate remediation. The bigger problem is with smaller, long-running leaks that are less detectable.
The issue of water loss exists around the world. In the United States, an estimated one-sixth of distributed water escapes the system.
Buildings are complex systems in the guise of static structures.
Energy courses through them—in heating and air-conditioning systems, electrical wiring, water heating, lighting, information and communications systems, security and access systems, fire alarms, elevators, appliances, and indirectly through plumbing.
Primary forests contain 300 billion tons of carbon yet they are still being logged, sometimes under the guise of harvest being “sustainable.” Research shows that once an intact primary forest begins to be cut, even under sustainable forest-management systems, it leads to biological degradation.
A 2015 estimate of the world’s tree population: three trillion. That count is substantially higher than previously thought, but more than 15 billion trees are cut down each year. Since humans began farming, the number of trees on earth has fallen by 46 percent. (Today, forests cover 15.4 million square miles of the earth’s surface—or roughly 30 percent of its land area.)
The benefits of forest conservation are many and various: nontimber products (bush meat, wild food, forage and fodder); erosion control; free pollination and pest and mosquito control provided by birds, bats, and bees; and other ecosystem services.
An effective agenda to save the forests requires a collective understanding of ecology, the danger posed by global warming, political will, local buy-in, and noncorrupt governance.
Without question, the Amazon is the greatest single natural resource in the world. Rainforests are being cut down at a rate that will eliminate them in forty years.
It is difficult to estimate what it would “cost” to save it all, but estimates place it at about 4 percent of the $ 1.2 trillion the world spends on weapons every year.
As awareness grows about the role blue carbon plays in curbing (or contributing to) climate change, it is also becoming apparent that wetlands are critical to coping with its impacts. Sea level rise due to melting ice and thermal expansion and increased storm activity threaten coastal communities, and shoreline ecosystems are vital protection from battering waves and rushing waters. That is especially true as man-made barriers—levees, dams, embankments—prove increasingly inadequate. The shielding and buffering function of wetlands makes it even more crucial to ensure that they are healthy today and resilient for the future.
The optimal scenario, of course, is to safeguard coastal wetlands before they can be damaged and keep a lid on the carbon they contain.
Bamboo is not a plant that needs encouragement.
You can sit by timber bamboo in the spring and watch it grow more than one inch an hour. Bamboo reaches its full height in one growing season, at which time it can be harvested for pulp or allowed to grow to maturity over four to eight years. After being cut, bamboo re-sprouts and grows again.
The Western aid and development model for addressing poverty has been dismantled by both Africans and many studies, yet it persists. In Mark’s work, people are growing three things: trees, crops, and wisdom. Foreign aid, sacks of genetically modified corn, and handouts come and go, but if we are to successfully address global warming, we should learn to trust the capacity of people everywhere to understand the consequences and imagine place-based solutions on a collaborative basis, and not force solutions upon them, however well intentioned.
“The great thing about agro-forestry is that it’s free. They stop seeing trees as weeds and start seeing them as assets.” But only if they’re not penalized for doing so.
Peat is a thick, mucky, waterlogged substance made up of dead and decomposing plant matter. It develops over hundreds, even thousands of years, as a soupy mix of wetland moss, grass, and other vegetation slowly decays beneath a living layer of flora in the near absence of oxygen. That acidic, anaerobic environment has preserved human remains, so-called “bog bodies” from the Iron Age and earlier. Given enough time, pressure, and heat, peat would become coal.
Today, though these unique ecosystems cover just 3 percent of the earth’s land area, they are second only to oceans in the amount of carbon they store—twice that held by the world’s forests, at an estimated five hundred to six hundred gigatons.
It can take thousands of years to build up peat, but a matter of only a few to release its greenhouse cache once it is degraded.
Indigenous communities are among those most dramatically impacted by climate change, despite contributing the least to its causes. They are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental change because of their land-based livelihoods, histories of colonization, and social marginalization.
Preventing loss of forest is always better than trying to bring forest back and cure razed land. Because a restored forest never fully recovers its original biodiversity, structure, and complexity, and because it takes decades to sequester the amount of carbon lost in one fell swoop of deforestation, restoration is no replacement for protection. •
The Miyawaki method calls for dozens of native tree species and other indigenous flora to be planted close together, often on degraded land devoid of organic matter. As these saplings grow, natural selection plays out and a richly biodiverse, resilient forest results. Miyawaki’s forests are completely self-sustaining after the first two years, when weeding and watering are required, and mature in just ten to twenty years—rather than the centuries nature requires to regrow a forest.
Shubhendu Sharma’s company Afforestt is developing an open-source methodology to enable anyone to create forest ecosystems on any patch of land. In an area the size of six parking spaces, a three-hundred-tree forest can come to life—for the cost of an iPhone.
Because afforestation is a multidecade endeavor, what properly enables it are provisions for up-front costs, developing markets for forest products, and ensuring clear land rights in order to maintain continuity between planting and eventual harvest.
Mass transit is one manifestation of the public square, in which people of many stripes encounter and share space with one another. As Adam Gopnik put it in The New Yorker, “A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination”—a unique civic experience, as well as a means of conveyance.
The appeal of cars is strong and culturally entrenched in many places (less so among younger generations), and shifting habits is difficult, especially if behavior change requires more effort, more time, or more money.
Public transportation is most successful where it is not just viable but efficient and attractive. One key piece is making the use of multiple modes more seamless, such as a single card to pay for metro, bus, bike share, and rideshare, or a single smartphone app to plan trips that use more than one.
Roman concrete was used in creating the magnificent Pantheon temple in Rome. Completed in 128 AD, it is famed for its five-thousand-ton, 142-foot dome made of unreinforced concrete—still the world’s largest almost two thousand years later. If it had been built with today’s concrete, the Pantheon would have crumbled before the fall of Rome, three hundred years after its dedication. Roman concrete contained an aggregate of sand and rock just like its modern kin, but it was bound together with lime, salt water, and ash called pozzolana, from a particular volcano. Blending volcanic dust into the mixture of opus caementicium even enabled underwater construction.
Today, concrete dominates the world’s construction materials and can be found in almost all infrastructure. Its basic recipe is simple: sand, crushed rock, water, and cement, all combined and hardened. Cement—a gray powder of lime, silica, aluminum, and iron—acts as the binder, coating and gluing the sand and rock together and enabling the remarkable stonelike material that results after curing. Cement is also employed in mortar and in building products such as pavers and roof tiles. Its use continues to grow—significantly faster than population—making cement one of the most used substances in the world by mass, second only to water.
bio-based plastics may or may not be biodegradable. Polyethylene (PE) shopping bags made from sugarcane or corn are not. But bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA), like you might find in a disposable cup, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which can be used for sutures, are both bio based and biodegradable under the right conditions. (PLA degrades only at high temperatures, not in the ocean or home compost bins.)
If current trends continue, plastic will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing bioplastics is that they are not conventional plastic. Bioplastics cannot be composted unless separated from other plastics, and few will compost in the garden bin. They require high heat to be broken down or special chemical recycling. If bioplastics are intermixed with conventional plastics, conventional recycled plastic is contaminated, rendering it unstable, brittle, and unusable.
Using water at home—to shower, do laundry, soak plants—consumes energy. It takes energy to clean and transport water, to heat it if need be, and to handle wastewater after use. Hot water is responsible for a quarter of residential energy use worldwide.
Reducing average shower time to five minutes, washing only full loads of clothes, and flushing three times less per household per day can each reduce water use by 7 to 8 percent.
The impacts of climate change are compounding population pressures. During droughts, for example, demand for irrigation goes up, while quality and quantity of supply declines.
Nuclear and fossil fuel plants use enormous quantities of water for cooling—nearly half of all withdrawals in the United States. A single kilowatt-hour of electricity can have twenty-five invisible gallons associated with it.
The industry calls this a renewable fuel, but that stretches the meaning of the concept. The process is heavily dependent on diesel, oil, gasoline, electricity, and subsidies. When fully calculated, corn-based ethanol produces slightly more energy than was required to produce it. If you add emissions from land use, groundwater depletion, loss of biodiversity, and the impacts of nitrogen fertilizers, the benefit to the atmosphere is debatable. Corn’s highest and best use is as staple food for people who are hungry, not as ethanol powering an SUV.
How cars are owned and utilized today could not be any less efficient. About 96 percent are privately owned; Americans spend $ 2 trillion per year on car ownership; and cars are used 4 percent of the time. The contemporary car is not a driving machine but a parking machine for which 700 million parking spaces have been built—
The greatest impediment may be how powerfully embedded the desire to possess one’s own car is. Privately owned, traditional automobiles are likely the most meaningful competitors for AVs, both culturally and functionally. They are symbols of personal freedom—not just in the United States—and displacing them will be no small task for the four-wheeled robots of tomorrow.
It may require a generational shift in attitude. People without a car at home may feel marooned or trapped.
On the other side, a time could come when people are banned from driving because in a world of self-directed, connected vehicles, individual drivers are a danger to everyone else.
Drivers not wanted: taxi, Uber, UPS, FedEx, bus, truck, and town car. Also eliminated: insurance agents, auto salesmen, credit managers, insurance claims adjusters, bank lending, and traffic reporters on the news. What goes the way of the cassette tape: steering wheels, odometers, gas pedals, gas stations, AAA, and the many outlets for individuals to service their own cars, from body shops to car washes. Good riddance to: road rage, crashes, 90 percent or more of all injuries and auto-related deaths, driving tests, getting lost, car dealers, tickets, traffic cops, and traffic jams.
Actual miles traveled could go up, not down. The reason is simple: When the cost of a service or object goes down, consumption invariably increases. Automated bookable cars at one’s door could see individuals moving farther away from the city, especially if they can work within the car rather than drive.
The urban landscape could morph into people-oriented areas, with broader sidewalks, narrower streets, more trees and plants, voluminous bike lanes, and parking lots converted to parks. The emphasis will shift from transport to community.
Fundamentally, LBC is not about leading, but about living. Buildings can function more like a forest, generating a net surplus of positives in function and form and exhaling value into the world. Buildings, in other words, can do more than simply be less bad.
The Imperatives Limits to growth. Only build on a previously developed site, not on or adjacent to virgin land. Urban agriculture. A living building must have the capacity to grow and store food, based on its floor area ratio. Habitat exchange. For each acre of development, an acre of habitat must be set aside in perpetuity. Human-powered living. A living building must contribute to a walkable, bikeable, pedestrian-friendly community. Net positive water. Rainwater capture and recycling must exceed usage. Net positive energy. At least 105 percent of energy used must come from on-site renewables. Civilized environment. A living building must have operable windows for fresh air, daylight, and views. Healthy interior environment. A living building must have impeccably clean and refreshed air. Biophilic environment. Design must include elements that nurture the human and nature connection. Red List. A living building must contain no toxic materials or chemicals, per the LBC Red List. Embodied carbon footprint. Carbon embodied in construction must be offset. Responsible industry. All timber must be Forest Stewardship Council certified or come from salvage or the building site itself. Living economy sourcing. Acquisition of materials and services must support local economies. Net positive waste. Construction must divert 90 to 100 percent of waste by weight. Human scale and humane places. The project must meet special specifications to orient toward humans rather than cars. Universal access to nature and place. Infrastructure must be equally accessible to all, and fresh air, sunlight, and natural waterways must be available. Equitable investment. A half percent of investment dollars must be donated to charity. JUST organization. At least one entity involved must be a certified JUST organization, indicating transparent and socially just business operations. Beauty and spirit. Public art and design features must be incorporated to elevate and delight the spirit. Inspiration and education. A project must engage in educating children and citizens. •
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For example, how and why do Amazonian rainforests create clouds even in the dry season? It turns out that ten percent of the Amazon’s annual rainfall is absorbed by the shallow roots of certain scattered shrubs, then pushed downward through taproots deep into the soil bank. When the rainless months come, the taproots lift up the water and pump it out into the shallow roots, distributing it to the whole of the forest. Many species of plants throughout the world perform this hydraulic “lift,” watering a multitude of plants under the forest canopy.
The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.
Simard’s work was among the first to prove that fungi branch out from the roots of a single tree to connect dozens of trees and shrubs and herbs—not only to their relatives but also to entirely different species. The “Wood Wide Web,” as Simard calls it, is an underground Internet through which water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and defense compounds are exchanged. When a pest troubles one tree, its alarm chemicals travel via fungi to the other members of the network, giving them time to beef up their defenses.
However, placing too high an emphasis on the individual can lead to people feeling so personally responsible that they become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes has described how individuals respond to being besieged with science that describes climate change in the language of threat and doom. Fear arises and becomes intertwined with guilt, resulting in passivity, apathy, and denial. To be effective, we require and deserve a conversation that includes possibility and opportunity, not repetitive emphasis on our undoing.
Individuals cannot prevent the torching of Indonesia rainforests by corrupt palm oil corporations or put an end to the bleaching and coral die-off of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Individuals cannot stave off the acidification of the world’s oceans or foil the onslaught of commercials dedicated to fomenting desire and materialism. Individuals cannot halt the lucrative subsidies granted to fossil fuel companies. Individuals cannot prevent the deliberate suppression and demonization of climate science and scientists by anonymous wealthy donors.
What individuals can do is become a movement. As McKibben writes: “Movements are what take five or ten percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number.”
The economic data we have collected shows clearly that the expense of the problems in the world now exceeds the cost of the solutions. To put it another way, the profit that can be achieved by instituting regenerative solutions is greater than the monetary gains generated by causing the problem or conducting business-as-usual. For instance, the most profitable and productive method of farming is regenerative agriculture. In the electric power generation industry, more people in the U.S. as of 2016 are employed by the solar industry than by gas, coal, and oil combined. Restoration creates more jobs than despoliation. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future rather than stealing it.