Terra preta the only way to save our civilization?

James Lovelock appears to be marginally more positive about our civilization’s capacity to avoid collapse, because of terra preta in a New Scientist interview One last chance to save mankind.  He says:

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.

One thought on “Terra preta the only way to save our civilization?”

  1. Hello,

    I am writing to seek your assistance for a book I am researching, tentatively entitled THE CANARY NARRATIVES: How Twenty Million Lost Their Homelands. I am in search of remote communities, indigenous and non-indigenous, that have been forced to abandon longstanding, traditional homelands as a consequence of climate change. I am hoping to describe in detail the experience of about a dozen communities existing in as many different ecosystems – montane, island, arctic, riverine, desert, forest, savannah, coastal etc.— that have been so devastated by storm, drought, flood, heat, wildfire, disease or other consequences of global warming, that the place that once supported them became unlivable and people were either forced off their land by fate or opted to relocate.

    Two examples I am already researching are Shishmaref, a storm battered coastal community in northeast Alaska, whose residents recently voted to relocate, and Lateu, a village on Tegua Island in Vanuatu I visited two years ago that has since been forced to move to higher ground by rising ocean levels. I have others in mind but need more to choose from.

    If you know of even one community that has shared this experience, could you tell me as much as you can about it and perhaps provide the names and coordinates of others familiar with the community, particularly people with direct and immediately experience with the decision making process that lead to evacuation. I am particularly interested in finding tropical, montane, alpine, desert and riverine communities.

    Thank you,

    Mark Dowie
    (dowie@earthlink.net)

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