This is an idea I've been tossing around for a while now. Mentioned it over at Kunstler's blog last night, but thought I'd sit down and draw out a more formal proposal in writing here at Small Batch. The idea comes out of our discussions of supply chain efficiencies - the shorter the supply chain the less embodied energy it takes to run it. Consider a food chain of 3 steps: 1) primary producer grass converts solar energy into lignin, cellulose, and other carbohydrates; 2) grass is eaten by grazing cow, which burns some of the stored energy in the grass for metabolic upkeep, but fairly efficiently converts the rest into beef; 3) cow is eaten by top predator human, who has a very limited conversion rate (let's just call it a remarkably inefficient conversion rate), requires a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals for proper function, and carries on a lot of high energy activities with the caloric energy from the cow he ate.
Every step up the food chain is earmarked by a lower energy conversion efficiency. To quantify, let's say that for every 1000 Calories of grass energy the cow eats, 200 Calories of cow is created. Then for every 200 Calories of cow the human eats, 2 Calories of human is created. So by this example, the human in this short food chain represents a solar energy conversion efficiency of 0.2% (2 divided by 1000). And this entire food chain takes place on one acre of Earth's surface area, with no external inputs, and assumes that any outputs are all returned to the system.
Imagine what happens to that primary solar energy in numerical terms when you start moving the cow from one place to another with oil, bringing him feed that was planted with oil, fertilized with gas, sprayed with oil and gas for pesticide protection, irrigated with water pumped out of the ground with coal, harvested with oil, cleaned and packed with all kinds of industrial human and machine power, shipped with oil, distributed on feed lots with oil, or coal-fired electricity, the cows are watered with water pumped from the ground once again with coal, then the cows are rounded up and shipped to the coal-powered abbatoir with oil, cut and packed with more coal and oil, distributed to market with...you probably get it by now. "Efficiency" in this food chain has long since passed through zero and headed into the red, and we are orders of magnitude away from the conversion efficiency of the first example. In other words, we're fully funding the cost of our food chain with our fossil energy lottery winnings. And growing completely out of touch with actual sustainable production efficiencies in the meantime.
Now let's apply the same logic to so-called carbon "offset" programs. If we are buying carbon offsets from a large firm, housed in an electrified building, running lights, water, heat, fleets, insurance, and 401(k)s for its employees, with even just a few layers of internal bureaucracy (links in the food chain), answering to a regulatory authority, paying taxes to another multi-level bureaucracy, printing promotional materials and internal paperwork (both the firm and the regulating authorities) - my god! Whew, OK, so you can see pretty quickly that any sort of net ecological gain supposedly granted by the carbon offset purchase has long since been eaten up by the complexity of the food chain involved. Dr. Odum's EMERGY accounting rears its ugly head again, and it is not friendly to American business. Even the ones that are supposed to be engaged in beneficial activities.
So, are carbon offsets, as typically administered, a complete waste of time, money, and energy? You bet your ass they are. Just like everything else done at a large scale, there is no such thing as a net gain. Large scale anything deteriorates pretty quickly as cheap energy starts losing its, well, cheapness. Which is where we're headed with energy following peak oil. We can love solar, wind, and hydro, and geothermal, and whatever is the next great savior, we can believe in them with all our hearts and minds, and we can even use them to some benefit in transition, in small, local applications, but the return on our investment will never be as good as it was with cheap and very portable oil. Therefore growth is over. Life from here on will be better described as "adaptation."
And so the contractionary phase of human history begins.
If we're serious about our desire to do something positive for the planet it absolutely must be done at a local level. The old "think globally, act locally" slogan is so worn out, but it is profound in the accuracy of its message. Anything done on a large scale - Heifer International, World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, whatever - is going to have a positive carbon impact. And while the intentions of some of these organizations could certainly be praised, the full energy accounting of their operations points in the same direction as the activities of Halliburton and Monsanto. Maybe just at a slower pace. Heifer isn't racing to destroy the biosphere like some of the others are...
But that's a hard crossroad for most people to get through, the idea that, in order for human activity to be sustainable, it has to be extremely local. The days of the 3000-mile salad are coming to a close. Hell, the days of the 300 mile salad are probably coming to a close. We can't just plug a solar adapter into our long supply chains and keep doing our thing. It's our thing that has to change. Not by some altruistic choice either, but just by the reality of the situation.
And it's not that chaos will necessarily ensue in the descent scenario, ushering in some kind of Mad Max future, as lots of people think, but the length of food chains, the length of supply chains, will absolutely shrink and shrink steadily from here on out, as the market realities of ever-more-expensive energy come to bear. "Buy Local" won't be an option forever.
My sister the psychologist doesn't believe in true altruism - a personal benefit must always be a driver of the action - but this type of carbon sink I'm proposing sets out to disprove her hypothesis, because in order for me to convert donations and offsets to a net positive carbon sequestration, we have to keep the regulatory authorities (e.g. the IRS) out of the mix. Any taxing or regulatory authority adds a devastating link to our food chain, undermines the intention, and eats up most of the investment as metabolic waste. Don't tell the IRS that I compared them to metabolic waste. But seriously, that's what they are in ecological terms. So this has to be very simple: donator/offset purchaser contributes directly to the grower who impliments the sequestration activity. I've taken courses on how to capture carbon effectively, and will design contributions into a master site plan very effectively. More effectively than a hundred experts hand-selected by the most dynamic firm in the land could manage...because it's just me. Here's the take-home lesson from this post. E. F. Shumacher would love it. Small is Beautiful. Large is wasteful. End of story. No further debate required. Just you and me putting carbon back into the soil where it belongs.
I'd almost rather you just did it yourself. After all, wouldn't that be removing another link in the food chain? But an email donation is about as "weightless" as a non-local economy can get. We have 300 acres here in a hot humid climate that I will spend the rest of my life rehabilitating. By the time I die the soil here will be deep and rich, covered in permanent vegetation, and home to many more animals than it is today, both in numbers and species richness. Hopefully there will be more people making their way on this land too. It will serve as an ark of regional biodiversity, and as genetic and theoretical stock for regreening the southeastern United States. Many more gardens and ecologically-sound farming operations will spring from this one. Mineral cycles will be restored. Water cycles will be mended. In exchange I will send you a receipt for the exact amount you invested, showing what part of the system your altruism put in place. I will benefit from it in other ways besides cashflow, like increased fertility, integrated pest management, dietary diversity, and the ability to propogate life-enhancing (saving?) biological materials.
Every month I will post, as I have done since we got to this farm, photo updates and ideas for improvement. As a contributor your input will naturally become more valuable. We will put on workshops to spread these memes, these adaptive ideas, to our neighbors, so that they can benefit from their own self-reliance, and reinforce community strength. You should really do this in your neighborhood, but if you're not quite there yet, or don't know what to do, and you have enjoyed reading about what we do, your contribution will still benefit the larger ecological community, which really just means you. And in time you'll gain enough working knowledge to be able to repeat our successes (and avoid our failures) in a cellular way, adapting to site-specific conditions. Growth by gigantism is a thing of the past; it won't work the same in contraction. Competition and scarcity are not part of this model. This is the creative commons, and we will only improve our situation through open communication and cooperation.
Remember to avoid the Forum today.
All our best from Small Batch.