How do we save planet Earth? By rethinking our relationship with earth itself. It is time to stop treating soil like dirt and start giving something back.
A few years ago, a very dear friend of mine had got into the ocassional and rather pleasant habit of ringing me up in the middle of the night in order to set about the important task of getting the world back into some sort of shape.. while everybody else was busy snoring.
The middle of the night is good for things like this, you feel like the world belongs just to you and your partner in crime… and, free from the clutter of everyday life there is more space for big ideas. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that breaking up your night with a spot of chin-stroking conversation (and, according to the upcoming link which you have to click on now, the stroking of other body parts too) is far from new, and in fact it appears that the whole idea (and for many of us, sadly, it remains little more than an idea) of an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep a night seems to be a rather modern phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if efforts to amalgamate our sleep into a single homogenous span wasn’t just a response to the emergence of electric light but also related to the needs of a newly industrialising society and the increasing time management that accompanied the rise of factory shifts and punch-cards, but I digress.. unfortunately this will happen from time to time so I better get my apologies in early. Tangents do and will happen.
The question that night was this.. “If there were just one thing that we could do, to you know, put the world to rights, what would it be?” We spent some time, working backwards and forwards through some of the ‘big’ problems, thinking about how they might be fixed, what got in the way of being able to do so and so on, and then…. hey presto, we hit gold, the mother-lode, the silver bullet, the foundational step that could induce a long change of positive change around the globe resulting in everything finally getting a bit better.
And the answer? Well it was obvious really… all we needed to do was to create a multi-billion dollar media empire with the resources and influence to act as a counterweight to the right wing titans of Murdoch and co. With this behemoth we could challenge the established neoliberal messages of elite story-tellers, and usher in a new generation of political parties. These in turn would pass the kind of transformative legislation that would finally start to engender a fairer and more equal society for people and planet. Instead of it being the sun wot won it, we could be the king-makers for a new generation of progressive politicians and policies and lo, behold! a brave new world awaits.
Suffice to say, this was a train of thought that took place while most sensible people were asleep and (quite possibly) as a result of this it could certainly be argued that we suffering somewhat from rather grandiose levels of delusion. But the thing is, it really felt like we might be on to a winner. Wouldn’t that really be something? Maybe things really could change, it could all change? As fun as this thought experiment was at the time, as beguiling as the possibilty of sweeping wholesale systemic change remains, a thought experiment was all it was. It should not be too unsurprising that neither of us, some years later, have quite got around to building this left-wing multi-media agent of change.
It’s not just us that have failed either. Despite a few high profile and rather embarrassing set-backs, the Murdoch empire continues to tirelessly push a regressive neoliberal message onto the general population, safe in the knowledge of its ability to act with almost total impunity. While the emergence of member owned independent media outlets such as the Bristol Cable represent a small but highly significant step towards a genuinely free and fair media (and as such deserve both our support and whole-hearted participation) the power and influence of organisations such as News International show little sign of waning in the near future.
And so, where does this leave us? In a big heap of shit. Or if you look at it another way, with compost.
It was in response to the no doubt well meaning but rather problematic documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ that my attention was drawn to the wonderful capacity of soil to ‘fix’ carbon in the ground. We all know that forests store a big old hunk of carbon and cutting them down to ranch cattle is a pretty stupid thing to do in light of the impending global catastrophe that is climate change. What I wasn’t so aware of is the fact that, according to a report published by the most appropriately named soil association, soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and five times as much as forests. Not only that, but this carbon is largely stored in soil in the form of humus, a stable form of carbon with am average life-time of hundreds to thousands of years.
Simply by restoring degraded land we can increases the amount of carbon locked into the ground. Even highly conservative estimates, (based only on the carbon stored in the top 15cm of soil), suggest that restoring the soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store between 1 and 3 billion tons of extra carbon annually, equivalent to somewhere between 3.5 billion and 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. (To put that into context, annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are roughly 32 billion tonnes.) That is a whole lot of carbon.
And it gets better! Given that carbon not only gives soil its capacity to retain water but also its structure, and fertility, restoring degraded soil also helps to prevent flooding and increases the amount of plant-life and therefore animal (and human) life that it can support. And how do we improve the soil? Reducing overgrazing, tillage frequency, and varying the types of crops that we grow all help. And another thing that helps? Returning organic matter back into the soil….. hang on, that sounds like? Yes! At last, we come to Compost!
Next question then. Where do we get the compost from? If the worlds cultivated land has lost between 50 and 70% of its original carbon stock aren’t we going to need rather a lot of compost? More good news! Of the 18 million tonnes of Municipal Waste that went to landfill in the UK in 2013, 50% of that waste was biodegradable… thats up to nine million of tonnes of waste – in the little old UK alone – that could potentially be generating nutrient rich compost (or biochar, but we will come to that in a bit) fit for the restoration of depleted soil!
Every single tonne of biodegradable waste in a landfill produces between 200 and 400 cubic metres of landfill gas. As of 2004 that meant that waste treatment, including landfill, released nearly 32% of the UK’s methane emissions despite increasing efforts to capture it and use it to generate electricity. That, according to my rough calculations is equivalent to an awful lot of cow farts. Because composting undergoes aerobic decomposition as opposed to the anaerobic decomposition going on in landfill sites, it produces CO2 instead of methane. This is significant when you listen to the good old guys at the EPA who suggest that Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.
So… composting seems to make sense right? The more compost we make, the less waste needs to go to landfill and the less methane is produced. At the same time, the more compost we have, the more we can improve the fertility of the soil, which then allows it to absorb more carbon out of the atmosphere and to support more plant and animal life (including us hungry, hungry humans). Sounds like one of those rare and precious win-win situations? Correct. In fact, as ‘The Donald’ (and how could I not mention dear Mr Trump during the discussion of a subject area that includes not only hot air but also excrement) himself might say, compost wins so much that you are going to get tired of winning. As an organic fertiliser, compost has a whole range of advantages over its chemical cousins. You can read about them here if you really want to, or somewhere else.
If we are going to talk about compost, and we just did then we also really, really need to talk about biochar, because biochar is seriously badass. Whilst not compost and therefore – if you are an annoying pedant – not sitting completely comfortably under the banner of a compost revolution, compost and biochar go together like, well, like a perfect combination for synergistic production and utilisation. Many materials that make good compost, such as food waste and wet manures, have 60-70% moisture, high nutrient levels, and low lignin content. They are not easily used for biochar production as a large amount of heat would be needed to dry the materials first. Similarly, ideal feedstocks for biochar such as field residues or woody biomass have 10 – 20% moisture and a high lignin content, making them less suitable for composting.
OK, but what is biochar? Biochar, is basically charcoal (biomass burnt in the absence of oxygen) and it has some pretty amazing properties. It has an enormously high surface area and is extremely porous. This means that when mixed into the ground, it is highly effective at holding onto water and nutrients as well as providing a perfect home for ‘friendly’ soil micro-organisms (Yakult you have a lot to answer for). This makes it the perfect extra ingredient for boosting the fertility of even the most violently ravaged of soils, and (you guessed it) for increasing the rate at which carbon is sequestered. Research at Rice University in Houston suggests that biochar has an effect on cell signalling between soil microbes and between microbes and plants. (If you want to know more about the ‘wood wide web’ [hahaha], and how plants talk to each other via microbes, click here.) By changing the temperature at which bio-char is produced, they reckon it is possible to produce different batches tailored to the specific microbial diversity required. While this maybe sound a little bit high-tech compared to good old composting, it should probably come as no surprise that people have been making biochar for a very long time, in fact, the indigenous populations of the Amazon region were using it to create large swathes of extraordinary fertile terra preta (literally black earth) in a region of the world otherwise known for its highly infertile soils, and they were doing this at least 2,500 years ago. Nice one.
So where have we got to? We have established that a left-wing juggernaut to challenge the supremacy of News International and the broader right-wing press could very well play an important role in transforming society into a more sustainable, caring version of itself… yep. Unfortunately, we have also established that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, despite the wonderful work of organisations such as the Bristol Cable (yes I just plugged them again, if you are lucky enough to live in bristol, go here and become a member right now, I dare you) who are chipping away at the existing hegemony.
And then I spent quite a lot of time talking about compost and biochar… So?
As comforting as it is to think that there might be silver bullets; simple singular and complete solutions to the big problems that seem to continually threaten to engulf us – and to enslave, oppress and destroy much of what is good and/or (depending on how positive you are feeling) alive on the planet, in most cases there just aren’t. These big complex problems actually just seem to pose even bigger and more complex questions with regards to what to do about them… big complex questions that leave us ‘little’ people often feeling helpless, depressed and like the only answers we can come up with are unachievable or incomplete.
On a lighter note therefore, my sister and I recently stumbled across the humorous linguistic pairing of Petite Mort and Grande Mal as the perfect name for a new Deadpool era super-hero double team. We, being properly modest and that, think it is pretty hilarious and, also, that we are pretty bloody clever. But in the context of this post at least, Humble Compost and Magical Bio-Char are the real super-heroes. Sure they don’t offer a solution to all of our problems; they aren’t going to make News International go away, nor are they going to get rid of lobbyists, or stop old Etonians from skull-fucking pigs, but helping to restore the health of the earth is a very real step towards making the world a better place that we all can, and should, play a part in.
Over the course of human history countless great civilisations have fallen because of their failure to prevent the degradation of the soils upon which they were founded. Whether you think our current society is great (or not), even if you have started pondering at what point in time we stop qualifying as a civilisation at all, the fact remains that about 1% of global land is currently being degraded every year. It doesn’t take a total maths genius to work out how long that gives us before everything starts looking pretty grim indeed.
I recently came across the concept of doughnut economics which provides a pretty good way of thinking about the multiple boundaries that we must respect in order to effectively balance the need for environmental sustainability and social justice. Sounds good right? Well, improving soil fertility seems to fit pretty well into this doughnut.. From the environmental perspective it provides an under-utilised strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change, an opportunity to restore denunded land, to reverse habitat loss, and to increase biodiversity, all whilst reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. From the human perspective it is a real winner too.. the use of composted organic fertilisers and biochar is a low-tech and accesible solution that can help support poor and small-scale farmers not only by increasing the productivity and yields of exhausted land, but also by helping them to break free from an expensive chemical (fertiliser) dependency that sucks money out of their pockets and into the pockets of large western owned multinationals. And it’s not just farmers either. Whatever you views on multinationals in general, its worth noting the particularly dubious – to say the least – social and environmental records of some of the ones that make fertilizers. Don’t believe me? Look no further than *drumroll please* Koch Fertiliser LLP, part of Koch Industries the monstrous conglomerate owned by the aptly named Koch brothers. For more information about these charming folks click here!
A lot of us try and make a difference through ethical consumption.. by buying stuff which is better for the environment, for people e.t.c. As anybody who has really tried to do this as thoroughly as possible will know, this is a seriously difficult and frustrating challenge given the massive number of different factors one has to consider to make a truly informed choice, and the absence of available information regarding many of these factors. Then you come across the concept of cultural capitalism and a further truth becomes ever more painfully apparent. Whatever the choices you make with regards to your consumption, you have a much higher chance of assuaging any nagging feelings of guilt and moral responsibility that you might feel than you do of actually contributing to the kind of systemic change that is urgently required to address the multitude of global problems that makes us feel so guilty in the first place. Bummer.
I haven’t met a single person who (even if it is secretly hidden under a nice thick layer of world-weary cynicism) doesn’t want their time on this planet to have some kind of meaning, who doesn’t want to feel that before they hop-skip and jump off the mortal plane that they have left some kind of a positive imprint behind them, or performed some act of goodness that will leave behind even the tiniest trace to outlast them. I know that the late night conversation between my friend and I that was the starting point for this piece has repeated itself countless times and in countless forms all over the world. Between ourselves many of us are trying to puzzle out if there is anything that we can actually do, to find the elusive tool-kit that might allow us to tip the scales back in our favour.
Thinking about compost reminds us that there are very real and simple steps that we can take to undo some of the damage we have inflicted on the planet. Not only this, but it demonstrates how taking simple steps to address one problem can help to remedy a whole multitude of other problems. And here finally is the crux of it all..
There are still things that individuals – as helpless and powerless as we might sometimes feel – can do to benefit human wellbeing and the planet, and some of these things don’t require us to create large hierarchical organisations or vast coalitions, to build powerful media empires, or even to use social media. We don’t even have to negotiate the complex moral dilemmas of opaque global production chains… Sometimes, you just need a good fork.
What greater epitaph could there be than ‘she left the world a little richer, a little more fertile and a little more full of life’? Making compost (and don’t forget that sweet bio-char baby), is not an act of consuming the worlds resources but an act of production, the heroic production of a better, richer, world, one spadeful at a time. It offers us a chance to transform some of the detritus of our imperfect lives into something that, just for a change, we can give back to the earth, and without the gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands and concurrent feelings of remorse, dread and moral bankruptcy that accompany so many of the compromised decisions that – as unwilling participants in an inherantly oppressive and unjust global economic system – we are forced to make.
Most importantly of all, compost reminds us of our own roots, of the profound connection between soil, soul and society… and finally, that in the rotting, fecund stench of our own existence, the seeds of hope spring anew.
¡Viva La Compost Revolution!