Plant a Tree, Harvest the Rain

Water.  That delicious ubiquitous substance that sets our emerald green and aquamarine planet apart from the every other planet in the known universe.  Earth’s oceans hold 97% of all the water found on our planet, but only 2.4% of all water found on Earth is freshwater, of that small margin over 87.2% is tied up in frozen glaciers, ice and snow.  The presence or absence of water is the only difference that distinguishes a lush tropical rainforest from a dry desert, an oasis from certain death.  Our own bodies are made up of 60% water, our brains 70%.  Without, where would we be?

According to UNICEF/WHO, 2 billion people lack access to safe water supplies (2012).  Globally, that’s approximately one in eight people, or three times the population of the entire United States.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year a population the size of Los Angeles, 3.575 million people, die from water-related disease (2008).  Traditional forms of water collection from rivers, streams, and ponds are no longer safe for the 2 billion people who rely upon available surface water sources for their daily drinking, washing, and bathing needs.  As human populations increase, agricultural production increases, which leads to an increase in both use and contamination of water sources.  This especially affects surface water, where agri-chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides wash into rivers, streams, and ponds, and percolate down into groundwater sources, the largest source of available fresh water on the planet (12%).

While rainwater catchment on personal homes is the first step to increasing accessibility to fresh water for personal use, less than 0.001% of the total world water supply is actually found in the rain clouds.  Of the largest source of fresh water, groundwater is tapped increasingly by large agriculture, which extracts the precious resource as readily as oil is pumped from resevoirs.  Indeed, water is the new oil, and Big Ag is the largest consumer, irresponsibly irrigating crops:  flooding swaled beds or utilizing sprinklers that spray water into the air, losing much of the precious resource to evaporation by wind or sun.

To increase water supplies, agroecology can provide solutions proven by nature.  Planting native perennial species, such as fruit or nut trees, not only reduces water dependency from thirsty non-native species, but can also encourage the stabilization of weather patterns as plants absorb groundwater and pump it back into the atmosphere to form clouds (and eventually rain) through the hydrologic cycle.  So plant a tree today, harvest the rain tomorrow, and rest assured your children’s children will have an abundant Earth of plentiful water and food.

References

UNICEF/WHO. 2012. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation.

World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.

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Anthropogenic Climate Change calls for Anthropogenic Solutions

“I am speaking from an area of water that has never been water before. It has always been frozen solid. It is uncharted. There are no depth readings on the map because no ship has ever been able to measure them. No one has ever been anywhere near where we are now. We have sailed for the last 100 miles through open seas in an area that in the past would have only been accessible to the biggest ice-breakers.

Now it is clear water.”

–  Sir Peter Blake, Independent, 2001

Talking about climate change with western society is like talking to an alcoholic who just refuses to admit he has a problem, though his breath stinks and there are a pile of empty bottles surrounding him.  There is undeniable evidence all around us, in every corner of the Earth, that the climate is changing.  From the unseasonably warm March in Wisconsin (Monday, March 19th, Milwaukee, WI was shockingly enjoying weather warmer than Honolulu, Hawai’i and its early spring has seen temperatures remain at nearly 80° F over the previous two weeks), to the relentless rains throughout the tropics that has extended the rainy season far into the dry season (ruining corn, bean, and squash crops in subsistence farming cultures such as those in Guatemala), a changing climate is a phenomenon increasingly difficult to deny.  Speak to any farmer, gardener, or beekeeper, or wildlife ecologist with their feet firmly planted upon the earth, and you will hear strange tales of early blossoms, early bee activity, early mosquito activity, or depending on where you are:  late rains, late dry season, late cultivation, late harvests.

In fact, I was just in the highlands of Guatemala at the end of February, and the villagers of a small remote pueblo called La Pila, southeast of Patzún, pointed to their powdery mildewed corn stalks and snow pea plants and explained to me that their crops had failed because of climate change.  They can no longer plant their crops at the end of the rainy season as they used to because the rainy season has not stopped to give them an opportunity.  This means that annual plants that are susceptible to molds and mildews when exposed to excessive moisture are in danger of dying from too much rain.  For a culture who lives directly off the harvests of their annual crops, this means their families have no food and as a result, the men of the village have to leave their villages to find work to buy food that has been shipped in from afar.  For those considered “lucky”, some men are able to find enough work to earn as much as Q25.00 ($3.20 USD) a day, but this is not nearly enough to feed a hungry family.  What struck me the most was the tone of this dignified Kaq’chi’kel Mayan man, as he spoke intelligently of climate change as both an obvious phenomenon and the greatest challenge facing his people.  In this moment, I was newly astounded and ashamed at the arrogance of western culture, those privileged few who refuse to acknowledge the changing climate or the impact that human industry and their own consumption has had in accelerating the changes.

 “Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

-John Muir

Geologists and climatologists and even anthropologists have long understood that the Earth’s climates shift throughout the centuries.  Arctic and Antarctic glaciers have provided scientists with a clear idea of our global climate history:  by drilling deep into an ice sheet, scientists can analyze the air bubbles that have been long trapped between the layers of ice and begin to put together a time line that includes CO² variance, volcanic eruptions, and temperature changes as indicated by oxygen isotopes.  The UN Environment Programme has provided a record reaching back over 800,000 years through the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), and has seen that extreme climate changes have indeed occurred over the course of history.  There is good reason to believe that our Earth is currently experiencing, in part, a natural cycle of climate change.  Changes such as the amount of energy received from the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit and changes in the way the ocean and atmosphere interact with each other occur regularly throughout the history of the Earth.  However, these natural changes are being compounded by anthropogenic changes in land use, deforestation, a growing world population, and an increase in greenhouse emissions.  In 2005, for example, burning fossil fuels released approximately 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.   EPICA’s analyses of ice coring in the Antarctic indicates that the climate is warmer now than it has been since the beginning development of civilization, agriculture, and urbanization (J. Bouzel et al., 2007), a trend that coincides precisely with the development of the industrial revolution.

Despite the controversy surrounding human-caused climate change, this idea is not new.  In the years preceding his Nobel Prize in 1903, Swedish chemist and physicist, Svante August Arrhenius, introduced the connection between CO² levels in a warming atmosphere and human activities that increase CO² levels, such as coal burning (Nobel Lectures, 1966).  Arrhenius’ hypothesis wouldn’t be demonstrated scientifically until David Keeling, from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i, produced annual measurements of CO² concentrations that indicated a substantial rise from 315 ppm in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011 (NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011).  In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to review scientific evidence on the causes and effects of human-caused climate change, and is comprised of scientists and government representatives from over 130 countries worldwide.  In 2007, the IPCC published an extensive report representing over 6 years of research by over 2,500 scientists, stating that there is a 90% probability that recent rapid climate changes result from human activities (AR4, 2007).  Some changes, such as the increased size of the hole in our protective ozone layer, are referred to as having a 99% probability of being caused by humans and carbon emissions (2007).  The report indicates effects of these climate changes such as a global warming of the climate by conservative estimations of  3°-8° F (1°-6° C), resulting in rapid arctic glacial melting and flooding of global sea levels by 3-6 ft. (1-2 m), putting cities such as London, Mumbai, Boston, Miami, and New Orleans under water (2007).

In 2011, NASA’s Earth Observatory reported: “before the industrial age, the ocean vented carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in balance with the carbon the ocean received during rock weathering. However, since carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased, the ocean now takes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Over millennia, the ocean will absorb up to 85 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but the process is slow because it is tied to the movement of water from the ocean’s surface to its depths” (NASA 2011). Draft diagram of the carbon cycle.(Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov)

Already we are seeing these changes faster than even the IPCC report estimated.  In 2009, government officials of Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific that is located between Hawai’i and Australia, spoke with the UK about the very real threat of rising ocean levels submerging their small island, and the prospects of “climate refugees” : people displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters.  The prospects of mass global migration in an already compressed world brings certainty to future conflicts along political borders.  According to a documentary entitled, Climate Refugees (2010), “for the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.: (2010).   Indeed, for the first time in history, these natural disasters and projected political conflicts result from rapid ecological changes that are largely anthropogenic, changes such as   “increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes” (Climate Refugees, 2010).  

You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem

–  Albert Einstein

It is clear to me that we cannot begin to address solutions to climate change with the same degree of denial that has contributed to its anthropogenic acceleration.  Like an alcoholic struggling to come to terms with his addiction, before we can begin to undo all the harm we have done, we must first understand the depth of our involvement and admit our part in it all.  With this in mind, Cape Farewell, an innovative non-profit organization has begun to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” Since 2003, the organization has worked in partnership with scientific and cultural institutions to deliver a climate program centered around engaging the public, “using the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation of climate focused art which is disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, digital media and film” (2003).  All this is to begin the dialogue that challenges our communities to look at how they interact with each other and with the Earth and its resources in a new way.

My hope lies with the young creative minds, who see the ecological and social profit in planting trees that bare fruit while they cycle carbon emissions back into the soil, in areas where massive deforestation has led to desertification and food insecurity.  My hope lies with the solution-oriented minds who look to Nature’s pattern of resiliency for clues as to how science and engineering can reintegrate with cycles of renewable energy and waste cycling.  My hope lies with those social entrepreneurs who see that economic abundance is only possible when the Earth’s natural ecological abundance is intact.  Climate change has been accelerated in just a few generations by models of industry that are incompatible with the very Earth it stands upon.  The future of how humans live upon the Earth, how we design our homes, food systems, energy systems, waste cycling, and ecological restoration depends on creative, innovative minds that are unbound by traditional forms of thought that have led us down this path of ecological, economical, and cultural destruction.

Resources

Cape Farewell.  http://www.capefarewell.com/climate-science/the-science.html. 2003.

Climate Refugees. http://www.climaterefugees.com/, 2010.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Assessment Report 4 (AR4), 2007.  http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/

J. Bouzel et al.  EPICA Dome C Ice Core 800KYr, Deuterurm Data and Temperature Estunares.  UN Environment Programme, 2007.

NASA Earth Observatory.  http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/printall.php, 2011.

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011.

Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966.

Toxicology and Remediation in Agroecology Systems

“In the 21st Century, every garden is a bioremediation project”

Ben Falk, Whole Systems Design, LLC

The Problem points to the Solution.

As human populations increase and spread outwards from urban areas, trails of industrial toxicity follow our every move.  Urban and suburban areas are constantly exposed to toxins from industrial manufacturing that seep into our soils, leach into our water sources, and hover in the air we breathe.  Our farmland is treated like an industrial production site, soaked with chemicals in the form of agro-fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that stick to the food we eat and wash into the water we consume daily.  These toxins include carcinogens (cancer-forming chemicals), endocrine disrupters (chemicals that disrupt hormone functioning), neurotoxins (attack nerve cells), mutagens (chemicals that change DNA in cells) and teratogens (that  cause abnormalities during embryonic development) that take on familiar forms throughout our homes and communities.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring served as the voice of the canary in the mine shaft, exposing the toxic biomagnification of pesticides like DDT on the food chain.  Today, the siren is still ringing and has reached popular media.  In 2008, Dr. Joseph Mercola, founder of http://www.mercola.com, the second most popular wellness site after WebMD, published a listing of the most common household items that pose serious environmental and human health concerns over continued exposure.   In 2010, TIME magazine published a full listing of 10 most common toxins found in U.S. households, warning parents of the risks for exposure.  The following is a summary comprised by Professors William P. and Mary Ann Cunningham (2012):

Atrazine most widely used herbicide in America.  More than 60 million pounds are applied per year, mainly on corn and cereal grains, but also on golf courses, sugarcane, and Christmas trees.  Disrupt endocrine hormone functions in mammals, resulting in spontaneous abortions, low birth weights, and neurological disorders.  In 2003 the European Union withdrew regulatory approval for this herbicide, and several countries banned its use altogether. 

Phthalates are found in cosmetics, deodorants, and many plastics (such as polyvinyl chloride and PVC) used for food packaging, children’s toys, and medical devices.  Known to be toxic to laboratory animals, causing kidney and liver damage and possibly some cancers.  Endocrine disruptors have been linked to reproductive abnormalities and decreased fertility in humans.

BPA (BIsphenol A) a key ingredient of both polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, is one of the world’s most widely used chemical compounds.  Used in items ranging from baby bottles, automobile headlights, eyeglass lenses, CDs, DVDs, water pipes, the lings of cans and bottles, and tooth-protecting sealants.  Traces of BPA are found in humans nearly everywhere…In one study of several thousand adult Americans, 95% had measureable amounts of this chemical in their bodies.  Unbound molecules can leach out, especially when plastic is heated, washed with harsh detergents, scratched, or exposed to acidic compounds, such as tomato juice, vinegar, or soft drinks.  BPA is linked to a myriad health effects, including mamary and prostate cancer, reproductive organ defects, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, liver-enzyme abnormalities.

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) used to make nonstick, waterproof, and heat stable, stain-resitant products such as Teflon, Gortex, Scotchguard, and Stainmaster, in airplanes and computers to cosmetics and household cleaners.  Shown to cause liver damage as well as various cancers and reproductive and developmental damage.  In 2005, EPA announced the start of a study of human health effects of these chemicals.

Polybrominated diphenyl etheres (PBDEs) is a flame retardant used in textiles, foam in upholstery and plastic in appliances and computers.  150 million metric tons (330 million lbs) of PBDEs are used every year worldwide. European Union has already banned PBDEs.

Perchlorate is a waterborne contaminant left over from propellants and rocket fules.  Tests of cow’s milk and human breast milk detected perchlorate in nearly every sample from throughout the U.S.  Can intefere with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland, disrupting adult metabolism and childhood development.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are found in pesticides and are extremely widespread: found from Tropics to the Arctic.  POPs bioaccumulate in food webs and reach toxic concentrations in long-living top predators such as humans, sharks, raptors, swordfish, and bears.

One year after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power reactors were severely damaged by climactic earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis that ravaged the island nation, they are still emitting high quantities of radioactive cesium, radioactive strontium, and other isotopes that cause cancer and birth deformities.  Arnold Gunderson, Energy Advisor from Fairewinds Associates in Vermont, found that areas from 30-60 km from the site are so contaminated with radioactivity that “people should not ever return.” In Tokyo, 250 km away, five samples were taken from soils and all were found to contain radioactivity strong enough to be considered nuclear waste by U.S. standards.  Despite the warnings provided by Fukushima, over 60 nuclear energy plants continue to be built today with no means for mitigating nuclear disasters.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”
― Rachel Carson

One would think that such a glaring problem that affects so many areas of our lives would bring instant reform of industrial and agricultural practices. Despite widespread scientific research, analysis and stark evidence of the environmental and human health impact of these industrial chemicals,  these toxins are still being used daily.

What is the Solution to this toxic mess?

Fortunately for humans, Nature has been practicing sound ecological remediation and restoration for ions and can provide a model for dealing with our self-imposed mess.  In a 2007 workshop intensive with microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Soil Food Web, Ingham introduced the concept of restoring deadened soils by following natural succession models of landscape regeneration.  For example, when a natural disaster hits (such as a volcanic explosion), the first pioneer species to inhabit the deadened areas are bacteria, soon followed by cyanobacteria, protozoa, nematodes, microarthopods and fungi, who break down toxicities left in the soil and make it suitable for plant growth (Ingham 2007).  Catering to these early successional microorganisms and/or innoculating soils with key pioneer microorganisms can accelerate the process of restoration in damaged landscapes.

When it comes to toxic landscapes, Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running, and other mycologists have come to understand that fungi in particular “are adept as molecular disassemblers, breaking down many recalcitrant, long-chained toxins into simpler, less toxic chemicals…Since many of the bonds that hold plant material together are similar to the bonds found in petroleum products, including diesel, oil, and many herbicides and pesticides, mycelial enzymes are well suited for decomposing a wide spectrum of durable toxic chemicals” (Stamets 2005).  Harnessing this unique ability and innoculating poisoned landscapes with mushroom species is the work involved in mycoremediation, using fungi to degrade or remove toxins from the environment.     

Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) breaking down bunker C oil (PAH) in soil test, Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, 1999 (Stamets 2005)

In 1998, Stamets and a small research group from Batelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Sequim, Washington set aside 4 piles of diesel-contaminated soils from a maintenance yard operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in Bellingham, WA.  The group placed the piles onto 4 large sheets of 6 mm black plastic polyethylene tarps at the Bellingham site.  Each pile was 3-4 ft tall by 20 ft long and 8 ft wide, and in one of the piles they included a layer of oyster mushroom sawdust spawn that was roughly 30% of the pile (Stamets 2005).  Two other piles received bacterial treatments and the last pile was an untreated control.  Four weeks later, only the fourth pile infused with mycelium showed any signs of life.  Not only were there large oyster mushrooms growing out of the pile (some as large as 12 inches in diameter), but the soil was sprouting seeds and showing clear signs of recovery.  Batelle Laboratory reported that total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPHs) had plummeted from 20,000 ppm to less than 200 ppm in 8 weeks, making the once heavily contaminated soil acceptable for highway landscaping (Stamets 2005).  Even more interesting, upon further testing of the oyster mushrooms sprouting from the pile determined that no petroleum residues were detected n the oyster mushroom itself.

This trial, one of but hundreds conducted by Stamets and his associated mycologist research team, demonstrates the potential in utilizing mycoremediation techniques in urban, suburban, and even rural settings where chemical toxins have contaminated soils.  Many mushrooms naturally absorb radioactivity and some species are even hyperaccumulators, with an ability to absorb and concentrate radioactive elements at thousands of times above levels in the surrounding areas.  In Mycelium Running (2005), Paul Stamets provides an introductory list of no less than 18 species and the common chemical toxins that they break down (96).  He then goes on to cite 36 species that bioaccumulate six heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, radioactive cesium, lead, mercury and copper (106).  Many of these potent mycoremediators are familiar to most households.  For example, the North American masutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) accumulate arsenic, and shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) accumulate both arsenic and lead.  Button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus), found in grocery stores around the country, hyperaccumulate cadmium.  Wild turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus pulmonarius) remove mercury from soils and aquatic systems (Stamets 2005).  Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster can look to these fungi friends for answers to the grave radioactive contamination still facing their nation, one year later.  For further information regarding specific species, refer to www.fungi.com.

In areas where water is contaminated due to runoff or leaching of chemical toxins, mycofiltration systems can be inexpensively built.  Stamet’s use of mycorrhizal-infused filters has been shown to filter:

  • pathogens including protozoa, bacteria, and viruses
  • silt
  • chemical toxins

and has been shown favorable results in reducing contamination when installed around:

  • farms and suburban/urban areas
  • watersheds
  • factories
  • roads (Stamets 2005).

References.

Cunningham, William P. and Mary Ann.  Environmental Science:  A Global Concern, Twelfth Edition.  New York:  McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012.  76-93. PRINT.

Gunderson, Arnold.  Gundersen: One Year Anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi.  RT, March 2012.  (VIDEO)

Ingham, Dr. Elaine.  Soil Food Web Course.  Davis, California.  2007.

Mercola, Dr. Joseph.  http://www.mercola.com

Stamets, Paul.  Mycorrhizal Running.  Berkeley:  Ten Speed Press, 2005.  PRINT.

Walsh, Bryan.  “Environmental Toxins:  The Perils of Plastic”  TIME magazine. 2010.  http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1976909_1976908_1976938,00.html