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Soil carbon

“In an ecosystem, you can never do only one thing.”

This idea was spoken in my hearing some time in the 1970’s by professor Arthur Kruckeberg; I had had the privilege of briefly studying biology back then. Two very different grassroots movements have caught my imagination since: permaculture and open source. They share a common humanist perspective but I find their distinct implementations of this principle to be noteworthy.

In permaculture, we try to mimic nature by having each element of our system perform multiple functions. In open source, we try to have each coded entity–file or program–do just one clearly identifiable and documented task. Why the difference? I think it is because of the self-healing properties of a natural system, which has half-a-billion or more years of practice behind it. But coding is not even as old as me (working towards my third billionth heartbeat). When code goes wrong, a person has to fix it, you can’t yet leave it to microbes. And to fix a problem in any human artifact, you first have to be able to isolate it.

Of course, both humility and pragmatism require that we recognize that the now all-too-influential human ecosystem is part of the larger one and that we need to bring the two into much better resonance. Much of what we have to do to fix the CO2 problem is in the human and technical realms, but some of it is in natural ones. So for instance we now know that soils can, and before the plow did, store almost unimagineable amounts of carbon. This is said to be one of the most potent ways to take it out of the atmosphere. There are many things we can do: just one example is the making of biochar, which both sequesters carbon and in restoring fertility seems in most cases to help the soil’s own carbon storage processes–pure permaculture. And this could be done anywhere, at any scale. In tropical rainfall climates where it was first developed, biochar might well be the first resort after protection of the forest itself. In the other extreme of heat, arid regions, it is possible that it could be one tool to improve soil moisture as the initial step towards greater biomass. Here in temperate zones we have the option and challenge of preserving and increasing humus, by protecting it from light and oxidation, and supporting rather than attacking the fungi and other organisms which create it–nurturing glomalin as a conscious act. For instance there are those versions of no-till agriculture which do not require that the human microfloral population miraculously acquires resistance to glyphosphate.

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