Soil Will Save Us?


Why are doomsayers always so cheery? My friend Jim Kunstler–author of 2005's The Long Emergency, a fantastically prescient book about our unsustainable oil- and derivatives-fueled economy, and subject of Ben McGrath's recent story in The New Yorker, "The Dystopians"–is one of the more playful thinkers I know, really optimistic in manner if not in outlook.

Now, we have an interview with Jame Lovelock in New Scientist.  He is the author of the Gaia theory, which, as far as I have grasped it from cursory non-study, argues that the earth behaves as one largely self-regulating organism, in which life contributes to the conditions that promote life.

Lovelock tells New Scientist that nine-tenths of the earth's population may disappear in the 21st century, thanks to global warming:

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.

When the interviewer suggests that this is a depressing outlook, Lovelock begs to differ: "Not necessarily. I don't think 9 billion is better than 1 billion."

Glad he can see the bright side of mass starvation. 

When asked, however, whether anything can save us, Lovelock argues that we have to focus on the carbon sent into the atmosphere by the natural decay of plants and animals, because it dwarfs the carbon we're producing.  He suggests that biochar is the only plausible answer–in other words, the slow burning of organic matter and then burying it in the soil, where its carbon is tied up for a very long time.

This idea is the brainchild of scientists who've studied the fantastically fertile soils of the Amazon–and determined it is the charcoal put into them long ago by the pre-Columbians that makes them so superior.  We've posted about it before here. Nature had a very good story on the subject, but you have to be a subscriber to access it.

Biochar sounds good to me–grow fantastic crops and save your species at the same time.


  1. The problem with biochar is it doesn’t take the carbon far enough out of circulation. Global warming is the result of carbon that was removed from the carbon cycle being added back in. That carbon was removed when the coal beds and oil deposits were laid down and entombed. Until we can recreate that kind of removal with that kind of time frame we will not really solve the problem. The fact that we click away on our computers talking about global warming while power plants around the world spew more ancient carbon back into the system generating the electricity we need to power these computers just points out how far we are from a real solution. Mass extinction IS probably going to happen. Sequestering carbon in the soil for a few years or a few hundred years doesn’t really change the net amount in the system. We have to reduce that amount and stop adding new carbon or else…

  2. Emma Marris’s piece in Nature is available here

    Alan’s pessimism is appealing to me, mostly because I just do not have the imagination required to envision humans sacrificing very much, or cooperating, country to country, on mass efforts to reduce carbon emissions. That doesn’t mean I won’t use the right kind of lightbulbs and grow some of my own food and recycle obsessively. But essentially I am one of the doomsayers. Ignorance, of which I have huge amounts when it comes to understanding climate change/global warming, will do that to us.

  3. We do not have the capacity to understand our current population. Its doom or look the other way? Hope my neighborhood is spared the culling. The green revolutions of last century gave us a problem we haven’t had for 1000000 years of man. 6 billion and growing. Mars anyone?

  4. So planting trees is going to save the world but everytime you dig a hole you release carbon into the atmosphere…….

    Regular cultivation on farms releases carbon into the air as well.

    Scientists and biologists claim organic farming cannot produce enough food per acre to replace traditioanl farming.

    And digging up lawns to replace them with gardens releases carbon into the atmosphere too!!! So much for replacing the white house lawn with an underperforming organic garden which must be cultivated…………….

    So what next?

    Terrariums big enough for us to live in?

    Oh we tried it Biosphere 1, 2 etc. That failed too.

    Back to the large lawn that give off oxygen,
    filters runoff and gives the kids a place to play instead of the street!!!!!!


    The TROLL

  5. You know, I love your website, but your unquestioning belief in global warming or ‘climate change’ and the willingness to try a potentially dangerous and environmentally damaging experiment to “correct” it, makes it hard to read sometimes.

    As a group you all are so thoughtful and questioning about what the marketing campaigns of large companies try to sell you, perhaps you could consider that there is a political aspect to global warming and apply some of your cynicism to the rhetoric surrounding it.

    I don’t have a problem with people believing in global warming if the effects of it are positive for the world; recycling, hybrid cars, organic gardening…but when the discussion turns to these crazy and dangerous experiments it is truly frightening to me how naive the masses can be.

  6. Michele, why am I not surprised that you are good friends with Jim Kunstler?

    My question on this idea for carbon sequestration is why burn it first releasing carbon in the process? If it is buried deep enough, which isn’t really that deep, just feets, the rate of decay that releases carbon can be slowed or stopped. Even better maybe it can be deposited on the deep ocean floors where it might turn back into coal and oil.

    Actual wood products should be farmed, harvested and turned into useful items instead of burned and buried. That holds the carbon even better. We could bury other carbon crops, as long as we can still have mulch, compost and my favorite, wood chips fresh from the trimmers truck.

    Alas I can easily see the bodies sprawled and decomposing across their front lawns, fighting and bitter to the end for that patch of grass and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere from their decay as a final insult.

  7. lc, compared to some other geoengineering proposals, biochar sounds pretty benign.

    There is pretty much uniform scientific agreement about global warming. Who knows, the future may prove every single climate scientist wrong. But I’m not a scientist and am therefore forced to believe them when scientists tell me something as a very large group.

  8. I just read something that said the human population is expected to top out by 2050 at around 10-13 billion. And if you read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature we are close to having pulsating chicken breasts on shelves as we grow them vs. the entire wasteful chicken.

    How many scientists say we have to do something overnight with CO2? Too many. And let’s look to the larger issue of the environment realeasing CO2 (and methane which is far more potent!): warming the planet causes plant decay, particularly in stuff locked up in Canadian, Alsaksn, and Siberian tundras. There’s the problem. As we pump out more greenhouse gases WE ARE THE PROBLEM as frozen soil thaws. Then we are screwed–unless we refreeze soil?

    We are in the 6th great mass extinction–let’s admit this, and admit we’re gonna go with it to some degree.

  9. Benjamin, Lovelock too sees synthesized food in our future. Yuk! I won’t even eat a supermarket chicken, let alone meat grown in a lab, because they already taste too disgusting for me.

  10. OK, first, the population of the US excluding immigrantion is almost static with a 0.5% increase per year. Many industrial nations have negative poulation growths like Japan and European countries.

    The interview is correct that natural causes far outweigh man made causes of carbon dioxide. The International Panel on Climate Control states that 97% of all CO2 is natural. 3% is man-made. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere 338 parts per million (.000338)(.0338%) is impossible to warm the earth. The .00001 part of man-made CO2 warming the earth is an absurd accusation.

    Even more absurd is stating that warming is a problem when there has been no warming since 1998 and the last two years have shown cooling at historic rates unmatched in instrument recorded time. A full 75% (.75 degrees celcius) back to the temperatures 100 years ago.

    This is atributable to the lowering of solar activity which over more than 400,000 years has shown to be directly in sinc with the lowering and raising of temperatures.

    Lovelock’s idea of burning organic material and burying it as a way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere displays a basic ignorance of sixth grade biology where he should have been tought about the photosynthesis of plants where carbon dioxide is broken down into carbon for carbohydrates in plant material and oxygen is released into the atmosphere.

    Lovelock obviously is trying to make a living off of misinformation and fear.

  11. The best way to leave a better world to our children would be to have less of them. T Coraghessen Boyle wrote some time back in NRDC magazine that ten years of universal chastity would help out Mother Earth immensely.

    Probably not very likely

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