Plants Suck

Illustration: Corbis

A fair amount of my mail — electronic, conventional — comes from people who Know that they have The Answer to our environmental woes. The Answer varies from year to year — I’ve been doing this long enough to remember cold fusion — but never the tone of Absolute Certainty that their project (hydrogen! flywheels! nuclear power!), and theirs alone, will prevent global warming and put this planet back on its proper course. Often there’s a hint (well, a Confident Accusation) that anyone who doesn’t agree is part of the conspiracy designed to shield the public from The Truth. (There’s also a subset of people who know the true identity of The Problem — often, in their minds, population growth — and are convinced that anyone who doesn’t absolutely and immediately agree is being Politically Correct.)

I never know what to do with such correspondence. On the one hand, I admire people who step forth strongly in a crisis and attempt to offer a solution. I’m more of a ditherer, better at analysis than action. On the other hand, Capital Letters frighten me. After twenty years of studying climate change, if I’m sure of anything, it’s that there’s no one fix that will save the world. The problem is our world — the one we’ve built in two hundred years of burning fossil fuel — which at least in its affluent precincts is based entirely on filling the atmosphere with carbon. It’s so big a problem that we need to change just about everything — from technology to behavior to our sense that the economy must keep growing. And so to almost any monotheist, I’m a heretic.

About a year ago I began getting Capital Letter letters from people advocating a new technology called biochar.

This is an excerpt from the article published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion. Purchase this issue, take advantage of our free trial offer ($19 for six gorgeous issues) for the print magazine, or subscribe to the equally beautiful digital edition ($10 for six issues) for the full text.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.


  1. I work with the organic landscaping arm of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. We train and accredit organic landscapers in the Northeast region.

    Our preliminary look at biochar as a soil amendment in organic land care is promising.

    If anyone “out there” would like to pursue the idea of sequestering carbon and improving the soil at the suburban landscape scale, which is massive, please contact us. We would need help to do this!

  2. For most on 2008, Francis Jeffers and I shared duties of being CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US. Jeffers has worked for Eprida, a very small company active in working with biochar. He says this about the potential.

    “As far as the third world energy picture is concerned- I had no trouble doing simple experiments with a charcoal gasifier that fueled an internal combustion engine generator. It made fifty times more light from electric bulbs than a similar amount of fuel energy would have made if burned in typical kerosene wick lamps. It probably used about 1/1000 the biomass subsistence farmers would have had to grow to raise commodities to sell to buy the kerosene.”

  3. I would add to what Wes passed on, the following:
    In my investigation for EPRIDA and also for Mad Housers Inc., I was taught a method for making charcoal by a homeless fellow from Ghana. The method is very simple and relatively non-polluting, as volatiles and gases (smoke) are flamed off. This method can be adjusted by operator skill, to produce low volatile charcoal similar to the Japanese binchotan charcoal. As in any charcoal making some of the charcoal is too fine in size to be used for fuel and is available for use as biochar, to restore soil and sequester carbon.
    I was able to reproduce a gasifier from Producer Gas For Motor Vehicles, the 1942 Australian manual for running motor vehicles on charcoal. In much of the world during and after WWII many vehicles ran on charcoal gasifiers, not gasoline. However, my binchotan charcoal burned so clean I was able to eliminate the elaborate filtration systems the Australians had resorted to, using such esoteric materials as felt and horsehair.
    It also took only a small tweak to turn the gasifier into a gas-on-demand unit that could be placed on ‘standby’ with an extremely low rate of combustion, and then ramped back up again to make usable gas in a few minutes, even after several days had passed.
    Much of the world resorts to campfires for light at night or in the home. I was able to show this leads to phenomenal waste of wood.
    I compared the light output of a campfire to that of electric bulbs that could be powered by a charcoal gas fueled generator, in addition to comparing it to oil lamps. The results were similar: you could get about 400 times more light per unit of biomass energy turning the biomass into charcoal and running a generator on it.

    Since one of the crying needs around the world is for adequate light at night, these light producing comparisons actually are extremely essential for making energy decisions. Yet, I couldn’t find any record of anybody else doing these measurements. I did them with a ‘paraffin block photometer’ I made for three dollars, in an experiment you might find in a high school science fair. With all the billions of dollars floating around for energy research, where has everybody else been?

  4. Francis I do not know where everyone else is unless that have taken a trip to Egypt – denial. Even Bill’s article left me (one without a subscription) wondering what someone like Danny Day, founder of Eprida, is going to have to say before people can understand that there are much better possibilities for resource choices. Danny’s recent CNN clip is found at:
    It ends with a prophetic statement that should not be missed!

    Our group StepItUpBelchertown has studied a variety of biochar production techniques and nothing compares to the thoroughness that Eprida has brought to the table. We have come to the decision that there is an urgent need to get everyone who knows anything about char production, processor construction, ag. use of biochar, financing of Apollo scale ventures, etc. around a table from which none can leave until a consensus has been formed on a global information and delivery vehicle to at least let people know what is able to be built in their communities in whatever form they are comfortable with using where they are to begin carbon negative energy systems. To this end we have prepared the following:

    From: Alan C. Page, member Phone: 413-323-4401
    STEPITUPBELCHERTOWN – a citizens action group in Belchertown, MA.
    To Whom It May Concern:
    This document advocates for the use of biochar to address the perceived problems which may arise as a result of the impending energy shortage, the global agricultural difficulties, and increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The hopeful aspects of the global use of biochar to counteract these problems have continued to accumulate. There is ample documentation by well-recognized groups. We agree with the opinion of the respected British scientist, Sir James Lovelock that biochar application to soil is the single most hopeful alternative for the maintenance of life on earth! This information has motivated us to use the very limited resources at our disposal to continue our proactive efforts.
    We suggest that there is need for meetings with local and regional groups to consider the following measures:
    1) Region wide-local acquisition and operation of carbon negative energy/biochar production facilities,
    2) Making as much char from our in-state organic wastes as possible,
    3) Facilitation of wide spread application of biochar on forest situations while the appropriate testing of agricultural use is conducted, and
    4) Finding a way to measure and pay for carbon sequestration credits.
    While there is still much to learn about the use of biochar in our area, we believe that existing information based on the current and historical use of biochar in Brazil, Japan and elsewhere demonstrates its effectiveness. The United States lags the world in using this technique and there is need to consider steps to correct our lack of action.
    We believe our efforts will be facilitated by considering the following measures:
    1. Making forest wastes accessible to low impact extraction
    2. Finding ways to make biochar available from existing facilities
    3. Building a base for information transfer within the potential biochar community.
    There is a need to make information available to the processor design, agricultural, power systems operation, and engineering communities.
    We are working with UMASS Amherst through Dr. Richard Stein, retired professor and one of the founders of the Silvo Conte Polymer Science Program, and others to convene a 2009 fall conference on carbon negative energy systems for a national audience. We are also considering developing extension service and video courses dealing with these environmental problems. Similar efforts involving interaction with other campuses, community colleges, and secondary schools are under consideration.
    We believe that there is an urgent need for action and hope that the suggested discussions can be held in the near future to expand on the new information that we know is available but has not been collected in a form for easy use by would be practitioners.

  5. Biochar may very well be important as one thing that can be done out of many. There are those who take it too far, like growing plantations for the purpose of biochar, burning everything considered waste, such as “forest wastes” mentioned in the abov comment. What are forest “wastes” anyway? And shouldn’t they be left to rot and become fertile soil? We need a strong, multi-pronged approach, the foundation of which should be reducing consumption of fossil fuels and moving from a consumer-based economy towards an economy based in reality most especially the reality of the Earth’s ecosystems. There are so many things to consider.

  6. The planet that most humans reside on is an imaginary paradise with no foundation. Unfortunately, this planet has a thin external veneer called the biosphere which exists because the conditions, temperature, moisture regime, and self regulation of waste, is crumbling while we all worry about money and status. If this imaginary stable planet continues to dominate public thought the biosphere will change to eliminate the sources of its damaging agents.

    The neat compartmentalization of all attempts to develop small scale local sustainable systems into a class of industrial solutions is unfortunate.

    As a private research forester, I have found that the small scale continuous care for forests has many unexpected and benign effects. Where we have been able to do the needed work at an appropriate time, the forest just gets better. Our forests are “natural” as opposed to plantations. While there may be clearings made they are not the most common occurrence, they may be needed to allow the healthy development of sapling trees that can replace the trees that are cut for normal products, lumber, pulpwood, fire wood, fence posts, etc.

    Where the public wants to fund a forest to grow as a preserve, it is appropriate for these areas to be set aside, but when an area is owned by individuals who have invested money and time in acquiring and holding the land by buying, paying for maintenance activity, and paying annual taxes, it is essential that the land be able to be managed to provide the funds to maintain that style of ownership. (NOTE: These investors must compete with “prudent” individuals who have no restrictions on their actions as they clip coupons. In fact, most of the problems that now are tearing at the biosphere come from the lifestyle of most non-landowners.)

    So what is waste? The money dominated economy has propelled corporate decision makers to move from a local system of paper production to highly concentrated industrial paper production in the tropics. These “prudent investors” are far removed from a system of local carbon negative energy systems that consume less than one ton per hour of organic wastes. It is up to the local residents to decide what should be included in this feed stock, and how the material should be processed and what should be recovered from the material. That waste could be the tops of the trees cut for lumber production, or it could be farm field residues and manures, or it could be local organic garbage from neighborhoods.

    The need to address the climatic change is the source for the urgency in my prior post and the suggestion that charring residues is better than leaving it to rot and return most of the carbon back into the atmosphere soon after it is grown. We need a proactive benign method of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If we do not find a way to do this soon our progeny will not be able to worry about this kind of trivia. They will be dead!

  7. I’ve looked at biochar and believe is to be an excellent scheme for carbon sequestration and water retention aid in improving soil quality. Unfortunately Al Gore et al, are dead wrong regarding the real issues behind anthropogenic climate forcing and climate change.

    Agriculture generally and agricultural irrigation specifically are the primary causes of anthropogenic warming of the Earth’s climate system.

    We can do far more to save the Arctic and mitigate anthropogenic climate influences by minimizing our agricultural footprints by eating lower on the food chain than could possibly be achieved by reducing our carbon footprints.

    Water vapor is the principal GHG regulating the Earth’s climate system and continental evapotranspiration rates are increased by our industrialized agricultural use and especially the irrigation of ever expanding areas of the planet’s surface.

    For more on this do an internet search for:

    DON’T Do Something To Save The Planet

    And follow the links from there.


  8. It is causing misunderstanding to talk of ‘solutions’. The best that a smart society can do is to make the wisest possible use of the remaining natural capital. I employ the measure
    WoEC (worth/eco cost) in ‘What went wrong? The misdirection of civilization’ for the assessment of proposed measures. biochar, permaculture are some that have a high WoEC. But that does not get away from the fact that natural capital is being used up. For example,a lot of the natural capital is being used for the operation and maintenance of the cities.

Commenting on this item is closed.