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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Biochar Debate: Charcoal's Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility » User review


  • Mar 27, 2010
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I was attracted to this little book for two reasons: 1) "biochar" is apparently the same thing as the "terra preta" (dark fertile soil) found near the Amazon River and attributed to a now-disappeared civilization which created it, and I wanted to know more about how they did it, and 2) because the book postulates that use of biochar is supposed to help reduce global warming, and I'd like to know how it does that. These are complicated issues; the book deals with the creation and effects of biochar, but the author's main agenda seems to be around rethinking the current initiatives (such as those in the Kyoto agreement) that various nations are undertaking to contain global warming. Biochar, he says, has a role to play, but it is only a part of a larger solution to a fairly desperate crisis facing humanity.

Biochar, for those who don't know, is created from organic material that is burned into charcoal (using a process called pyrolysis). The "terra preta" discovered in the Amazon jungle is black because it contains a large amount of charcoal. The theory is that the ancient people who once lived in the region discovered a way to add charcoal to the soil, and this gave them a very fertile, productive soil that supported a large population and, amazingly, that soil is still there and still fertile. What happened to the people who created it? The best theory is that they were all but wiped out by a pandemic brought by Europeans.

The same fate (the being wiped out part) may face many more populations across the globe if nations don't begin to act more forcefuly on global warming. But what should they be doing? How does biochar fit into this scenario? Biochar, as we know from the example of the terra preta, can enrich the soil and keep it fertile for long periods. That would benefit the world through production of more food without soil-degrading and energy-consuming chemical fertilizers. But the real payoff (if I understand the author's point) is that biochar mixed into soil basically sequesters carbon, taking it out of the atmosphere. This is a good thing to do and has the effect of reducing carbon emissions that cause global warming. So far so good.

But the author also discusses current ways of counting carbon that use market mechanisms for buying and selling "carbon credits" and are supposed to provide incentives for nations and their citizens to use less carbon. But, that often doesn't happen. The author clearly does not think market forces can ever solve the problem of global warming. He says that small farmers the world over are the main producers of food, and most of them do not even operate in the global market. He thinks their main motivation for using biochar is not going to have anything to do with buying and selling carbon credits, but will simply come from the better production of food they will get by incorporating biochar into their soil.

The book makes many interesting points, but the author seems to wander all over and I got to the end still scratching my head trying to figure out what I had really learned here. Yes, I do know more about biochar than I did before reading this, so I guess from that standpoint the book succeeded. I didn't learn anything new about the people who created the terra preta, but I can't help but think about how their civilization disappeared back into the jungle. Could that also be the fate of our current global economy? When it comes to the big picture of what my country (USA) and other countries should be doing to avert a coming disaster from global warming, I admit that I am still confused.

However, I'd love to get my hands on some biochar or find a way to make some out of my yard wastes so I can improve the yield of my little backyard garden. I live in a place where the soil is basically sand, and I fight a constant battle to improve the soil enough to grow some tomato and cucumber plants. Clearly, the author had a larger purpose in this "briefing" book, but he DID convince me that biochar could help me and everyone else grow more of our own food, without resorting to chemical fertilizers, which he points out, actually deplete the soil. Perhaps millions of people with backyard gardens could make a difference. Or maybe not. Maybe we're all facing Armageddon over global warming, and there's not much any one of us can do about it. I just don't know.

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More The Biochar Debate: Charcoal's... reviews
review by . February 07, 2010
At this point in the scientific argument, few if any people with any credibility doubt the reality of global warming, in fact that is really no longer the issue. The debate is over the economic consequences of proposed solutions, which drives the last remaining doubts being expressed over global warming. Given the enormous scale of the problem, any effective solution will have costs that are also enormous. Government intervention is fraught with political problems as wealthy interests are willing …
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Theresa Welsh ()
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"A brilliant synthesis for everyone concerned with solutions to climate change, enhancement of our soils and the future of energy policy. An enjoyably readable introduction to the vital field of biochar. Highly recommended."--Hunter Lovins, founder and President, Natural Capitalism Solutions; cofounder, Rocky Mountain Institute; and coauthor ofNatural Capitalism

"Our planet is in an existential crisis. While scientists fret and economists debate, politicians dither and business leaders derail. There is a disconnect between physical reality and political reality. And yet, the physical one always trumps; did we imagine it otherwise? James Bruges has got this right. Biochar offers us a last chance to cheat death, but we'll only be given one try. Fail and our epitaph will be a hard black layer writ in the strata: Here Lies the Human Experiment, R.I.P."--Albert Bates, author ofThe Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbookand founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology

"A brilliant, readable review on the critical need to restore our degraded lands back to fertility-be it to sequester greenhouse gases naturally, support forests, improve soil moisture or increase crop yields. Bruges outlines how supporting natural terrestrial sequestration is the cost-effective, proven practice to extract carbon from the atmosphere, and that this can be augmented via the use of soil amendments such as biochar. He concludes with examples that ...
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ISBN-10: 160358255X
ISBN-13: 978-1603582551
Author: James Bruges
Genre: Science
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
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