All right, so you’ve mastered some steps to greening your life [insert hearty applause], but so far no fairy dust has descended to save us from... well, ourselves. Crap. It’s time for a mass retuning, so when next we look down at the earth beneath our toes, we’ll see our maker, stocked with a kick-ass operations manual for how to make things right. Here are five planet-rescuing ideas to tweak your new earthly sensibility.
Mention char in everyday chatter and most people will think you’re talking about salmon’s cousin. Tell them it’s more closely related to the stuff lining your hibachi and that it could help keep us from choking ourselves on global warming emissions and you’ve sparked a whole ’nother conversation.
Turns out what was once smouldering vegetation charred in ancient times doesn’t just make for soil as fertile as a barrel of bunnies hopped up on musk; that soil can lock up climate-changing Co2 better than anything lab coats have cooked up. After thousands of years, this black gold Brazilians call “terra preta” (and enviros call biochar or agrichar) still holds more than twice as much carbon as other soil.
So what does that mean for all of us freaking about the current “party-like-it’s-1999” destruction of our planet?
Think of char as the Mob janitor on a planet with a lot of bloody C02 on its hands. Adding our own version of char (made from agricultural or wood waste cooked at low temps without oxygen) to depleted farmland across the planet has the potential to sequester gigatonne upon icecap-melting gigatonne of the CO2. Scientists are still scratching out the details, but U.S. and Brit minds say a good 10 per cent of fossil fuel emissions could be offset in those nations. Others say more.
What’s growing clear is that while we’ve been treating soil like dirt for decades, kicking it when it’s down with dose after nutrient-draining dose of chemical pesticides, char might soon have us kissing the ground.
With a good dose of the low-tech matter, that once nutrient-robbed farm won’t just lock in Co2 and let 40 per cent less potently earth-warming nitrous oxide escape into the atmosphere, but it’ll also yield double or triple its present crops (without water-polluting, dead-zone-fuelling fertilizers).
And the slow cooker that makes the char can also spit out carbon-negative bio-oil for transport, heat, electricity, even hydrogen.
Talk about multi-tasking a miracle.
More than just a fun-gi
If I were to were to pull out a megaphone and yell, “Mushrooms will save the world,” you’d probably tell me I was on some. Well, sorry, kids, this has nothing to do with Jerry Garcia and astro-planing, though there is a quiet revolution underfoot that would put the 60s to shame. To listen to mycology guru Paul Stamets tell it, mushrooms can and should be the unassuming foot soldiers in a planetary rescue.
While your relationship with fungi probably starts with the sautéed kind and ends with those taking over your shower curtain, mycelia, aka mushrooms, are indeed a kingdom of their own. They’re rulers of decay and regeneration, nature’s ultimate recyclers. In charred, barren environments where all life’s been stripped, mushrooms are always the first to pop up.
Your traditional Chinese doc has long been wise to the healing power hidden inside ’shroom stems, but what of their ER skills on land?
The hungry sponges can sop up E. coli runoff from factory farms, keeping local waterways clear and clean (call it myco-filtration). Sprinkle spores on soil after a dirty oil spill and eight weeks later you’ll have a full-fledged ecological revival (call it myco-remediation).
Their powers as a natural termite pesticide are being studied. And the U.S. defence department is even looking at mushrooms to decontaminate chemical weapons like sarin nerve gas.
Stamets’s punchline? Protecting national forests where these mushrooms grow should be a matter of national defence. You can join the battalion by growing your own.
Goodbye, Environment Canada, hello, Super Ministry for the Future
So you’ve shifted the way you see fungi, and perhaps you’re even pining for carbon credit card debt. Now how do we stop the government from ghettoizing earth issues like a crappy Greens N The Hood remake?
There’s one resolute way to harvest the kind of planet-rescuing synergy we need. That’s right, good citizens of Canada, it’s time for a SuperMinistry of the Environment. Not like the kind China just announced that failed to establish meaningful power over on-the-ground polluters, but one that has the inter-jurisdictional weight to put green issues front and centre in every department, from Finance and Transport to Agriculture and Energy.
This ministry’s budget would make up for all the years of slashing and burning to programs and inspectors. It would be mandated to fork out 1 per cent of our GDP to fight climate change and dramatically chop our emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, no matter who’s in the PMO’s office.
Indeed, David Suzuki has advocated an overarching SuperMinistry of the Biosphere for years. Run-of-the-mill departments like Finance would fall under the sub-departments of Water, Atmosphere and Terrestrial, a structural shift that would make it a cinch to establish a national green energy grid free of coal and nukes and kick off $100-a-tonne green carbon tax.
The problem with the system right now, says Suzuki, is that “there’s no mechanism to hold politicians accountable after they’ve left office” for their intergenerational crimes of draining our oceans and choking our air. “In Finland,” he tells NOW, “a Committee for the Future vets government policy for long-term implications. We need that.”
The moment we get it, we’ll know we’re primed for the biggest rethink Canada’s ever seen.
Simon says, “Act like a leaf”
At the heart of all the world’s topsy turvy planet-skewering problems lies one arrogant illusion: that people are separate from nature. And that’s exactly the myth Kenny Ausubel, founder of the boundary-smashing Bioneers, is trying to unravel. Why are we fighting nature, resisting it at every turn, when our battle with it clearly only spawns dirty, glaringly inefficient technology?
It’s Sesame Street 101, really: cooperation makes it happen. Imagine what could happen if we worked with nature’s systems, mimicking them, even?
Enter bio-mimicry, the single most important emerging field of science you’ve never heard of.
It all started with Velcro’s founder stealing nature’s blueprint for burrs back in the 50s. The last decade has seen an eruption of new players cluing in to how a new, or rather deeply primordial way of thinking could solve 90 per cent of the world’s problems, says Ausubel.
Inspired by ivy growing on buildings, one sustainable design co. has crafted brilliant solar panels whose leaf-like design not only harnesses the sun’s energy but also snags wind power as they rustle in the breeze. A building in Zimbabwe has no air conditioning or heating – just crafty ventilation channels modelled, oddly enough, after local termite mounds.
A round of Simon Says with agile humpback whales has researchers realizing that adding simulations of their fin tubercles to airplane wings could improve fuel efficiency by a jaw-dropping 30 per cent. Adding those tubercle lines to wind turbine blades, the Wind Energy Institute in PEI discovered, makes them sturdier in storms and quiet enough to please noise-sensitive NIMBYs.
In true nature style, the Biomimicry Institute is putting out a patent-free list of Nature’s 100 Best Designs. Now, there’s a new way of thinking.
Carbon credit card: free Saving the planet: priceless
Let’s be honest here – most Canadians would still rather spend more on a pair of jeans or hockey tickets than on a transit pass or low-flow toilet. So how do you get people to take their carbon debt as seriously as they do their MasterCard payments? British thinkers have dreamt up one ingenious wallet-sized method of bridging the gap: a carbon credit card.
Specifics vary, but the basic premise is simple: every adult would be issued a ration topped up to, say, 5 tonnes of CO2 a year. (Canadians now squander about 9 tonnes apiece annually). Ideally, a carbon price tag would be attached to everything from blueberries in February to 50-inch TVs, but to keep things flowing the UKers will be tabulating their driving, flying and homes’ energy use – all before Ontario has even phased out its old coal plants.
Forget air mile rewards for big consumers; anyone with leftover credit would get cash back. Carbon-heavy lifestyle drained your account before the year’s up? Buy credits off your bike-friendly neighbour. Or if The Weather Makers author Tim Flannery has his way, individuals will jump online to buy credits directly from, say, an Amazonian tribe that’s pledged to convert grazing fields back to carbon-sequestering rainforest.
And while poor households generally rack up less carbon debt than monster-home-owning, jet-setter types, Heat author George Monbiot says low-incomers stuck with drafty old apartments far from bus lanes will need both extra rations and, more importantly, serious service overhauls.