Brenda Cooper

Backing into Eden

We’re doing such a lousy job of caring for the Earth that we’re skating really close to the edge of some dangerous places, some futures where we don’t want to go.  We can’t keep doing the same things the same way.

But of course we won’t.  Humans are all about change.

Backing into Eden explores how we got here, what tools we have now, and what tools we might have in the future. I’ll use this as a place to develop ideas, recommend books and webpages, showcases success, and hopefully change things for the better.

Note that I also deliver talks on this subject:  contact me if you are interested!

Recent Posts on Backing into Eden


A Year Without a Winter

I’m really excited to share some news. If you read my newsletter, you heard this story.  If you don’t, and you want new stories about once a month, you can sign up here.

Here’s my news…..I finished my first-ever work as a fiction editor. This project, the anthology A Year Without a Winter, was full of adventure and lessons.

Back when I was working on my MFA, I had to do a big project.My choices were “do a fun project” or “write a paper.” Project sounded like more fun. I decided to edit an anthology.

I made some queries, lined up writers, found an experienced editor to work with, and then he and I tried to sell our idea to publishers.


So I gave up on that project, and started calling people I knew and asking for help. This worked. The writing business is peculiar  – it’s a rhythm of rejection and happiness. You do your work, and you occasionally get an unexpected reward.

Some of you may remember that I had a story in the optimistic science fiction anthology Hieroglyph, which was a Neal Stephenson project co-edited by Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn. I’d only met Ed a few times, but I liked him. He runs the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, and he said he had a project for me.

I said great.

Little did I know that I would have a two-year journey that ended up doing me little good toward my MFA, but taught me life lessons.

Ed paired me with his able senior assistant Joey Eschrich, and we set off to find four writers who might like to visit ASU, chat with climate scientists, join a slumber party in a concrete relic in the desert, and then write stories about the experience.

This was not as easy as it sounds.

We managed to round up four utterly awesome writers: Tobias Buckell, Nancy Kress, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh. I knew Toby and Nancy, but had barely met Nnedi or Vandana. I knew – and admired — all of their work.

The writers, editors, and friends at Arcosanti

We had four writers. We also had four editors. So the four editors spent months planning an event for the four writers.

When we all got together, Climate scientists regaled us with uncomfortable facts. I had no idea that the ocean could lose enough oxygen to do real damage. The move to clean power was doable if we abandoned fossil fuel fast. Etc.

Dehlia Hannah, the primary curator of this whole concept, linked the idea of a climate-change driven “Year without a Winter” to the “Year without a Summer” two hundred years ago, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

We drove for hours to Arcosanti, which is an elegantly weird community in the high desert in Arizona. There, we read to each other, met many more spiders than I felt like meeting, saw marvelous stars and views, broke into a kitchen for early coffee, and played a fun card game about the future.

All this to set up for the four stories.

Which are excellent.

I’m really proud that I had any part in them at all.

They are – or will be — available separately.

  • Nancy Kress’s “Cost of Doing Business” explores an unusual political and scientific solution to climate change, championed by a charismatic and ethically ambiguous billionaire. It will appear in Asimov’s Science Fictionin the next few months.
  • Tobias Buckell’s “A World to Die For” is a ripping yarn, a reality-bending thriller that uses real climate science to give us a new way to see how bad things really could become. It is out now, in the January 2018 issue of Clarkesworld.
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” draws on folklore, botany research, and machine learning to consider the unique challenges posed by climate change in a rural community in Nigeria. It will be published digitally in February 2018, on Slate magazine’s Future Tense channel.
  • Vandana Singh’s “Widdam,” is in the January/February 2018 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

But wait! There’s more. Joey and I edited the fiction, with help from Cynthia Selin, the Director of the Center for Study of Futures at ASU. There’s also non-fiction, art, and more collected together into a beautiful academic volume. The book will be out from Columbia Press in May of 2018. But you can pre-order it now. The fiction alone is worth it, but the whole package is even better.

If this all sounds more academic than my usual pursuits, well, remember that it was rooted in my MFA. And by the way, I did have to write a paper after all.

Things I learned:

    • Wrangling writers is tough. Wrangling academics is as bad.
    • There is weird money in academia. This can pay for cool things.
    • I am a good content editor. I kinda fail at line editing (Joey kept finding things I missed – and in fact, I sent this newsletter to him and he found things I missed).
    • Editing takes a long time.
    • Editing provides a bit of pride in ownership. I’m proud of all of the writers and their stories.

If you want to learn more, here’s a link to an interview with me and Joey and Vandana about the project.


Reading Recommendation: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life is one of the best books I’ve read on the future of Earth.

He states the problem clearly….after beginning with an apt description of what we (mankind) are like and then stating that we have little time to spend on the wrong trajectory, he says:

“Meanwhile, we thrash about, appallingly led, with no particular goal in mind than economic growth, unfettered consumption, good health, and personal happiness. The impact on the rest of the biosphere is everywhere negative, the environment becoming unstable and less pleasant, our long-term future less certain.”

Yet even though Wilson pulls no punches throughout the book (which is frightening on many levels), he is hopeful. He sets a huge goal. He means exactly what is in the title. Set aside half of Earth (landmass) for biodiversity. Leave it alone. Let it recover and grow. This is the moonshot solution for biodiversity.

It’s not impossible.

Unlike many authors with roots in the environmental wHalf Earth Coverorld, Wilson embraces technology and progress. He sees innovation as enhancing our ability to save the world. In short, in the future, we will know more about the other beings inhabiting the biosphere beside us, we will be able to monitor and understand them better, and we will have tools to build an economy that is not based heavily on the destruction of natural resources. He clearly understands the connected future we are moving into and the positives and challenges of the increasing rate of change. In chapter 16, he writes:

“The collective human mind, hyperconnected and digitized, will flow through the entirely of the life we have inherited far more quickly than was possible before. We will then understand the full meaning of extinction, and we will come to regret deeply every species humanity will have carelessly thrown away.”

In many ways, this is a futurist’s book about the ongoing loss of biodiversity. That doesn’t mean we need to (or can!) wait for the future before we act. Rather, we must do more of the conservation we are already doing. Much more.

We also need to spend a lot more time and resources on practical field science – I did not for example, realize how many species we haven’t even discovered yet (there is a great case made for this in the book).  I felt like I learned something, which is a reader cookie for me if I’m going to spend hours on a science book.  Note that it pairs well with The Sixth Extinction, which I read and recommended already, but which I intend to re-read this month.

I highly recommend that everyone read Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. It is readable – Wilson wrote this book for all of us to understand. His style is accessible and conversational.

Even if you think you understand the problem, and the solutions, the book should be owned by us all for the beautiful descriptions of the best places in the world that fill the center of book, in chapter 15. It reads like poetry. I listened to parts of it three times (chapter 15 and the last few chapters).  Yes, it’s a research book for my current novel, and I’m getting to use it as part of my MFA, but more importantly, it’s a very good book.


Backing into Eden: Akumal and the Sea Turtles

Photo Credit Local Quickies

Turtle in Akumal Bay, photo credit Local Quickies

I spent the last week vacationing in the Mexican Riviera Maya, which runs from Cancun west along the Caribbean sea. The first time I came here, in 1998, a long somewhat sleepy highway ran along the coast and hand-made signs led to beach locations. We stayed in a small hotel, the Blue Parrot Inn in Playa Del Carmen. There was only one large resort in Playa, and another under construction at that time, and the tourist road, 5th avenue, was somewhat sleepy.  The population of Playa was under 40,000 people. Playa has since grown so that it resembles a smaller and lower version of Cancun, which is a nightmare of a place where humans ruined a beautiful, ecologically critical location by scattering bits of Las Vegas across a pristine beach, no offense if you are a “Vegas Guy” but this is unacceptable. In Playa there is some city planning and locals are proud of the three story height limit.  Today there over 150,000 residents. That’s almost 200% growth in less than twenty years. Almost all of this growth is fed by the tourist industry.

On this trip, I stayed in the Princess Riviera Maya, which is one of a long string of resorts that follows the coast, as if someone had taken a hundred cruise ships or more, split them open, and folded them out flat. Huge busses show up in lines every morning and take people to Mayan theme parks, snorkeling locations, and ruins like Chitzen Itza and Tulum.

One of my best memories from the first trip was when my son (who turned eighteen that year) and I went to hike the Na Pali coast and snorkeling in Akumal. At the time, it was a sleepy seaside Mexican town only a little swelled by ex-pats and dive shops. I remember that it had a large tourist hotel.  Essentially, we simply drove up near the beach, parked, and walked across blazing white sand to the ocean. We were immediately surrounded by huge sparkling schools of multicolored fish, so many that it looked like a river of fins. The reef below us was full of purple and red and orange and brown. Colorful life  blossomed and swam and moved everywhere we looked. Sea turtles and angelfish and parrotfish, barracuda and a hundred other species we had no names for. The ocean was full to bursting. We were enchanted.

I believe there were no more than about ten others snorkeling the beach the day we were there.

Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies

Snorkelers politely surrounding a turtle, photo credit Local Quickies

I didn’t get to Akumal on our middle trip, but I went there on this trip, with our family eighteen-year-old for whom I am a handy extra adult. The large schools of glittering fish were gone. Most of the color had faded, at least if my memory serves me at all. The quiet was certainly gone…the entire bay is ringed with high-end resorts and tourist shopping and restaurants. Most Mexicans can no longer afford to live there. We did see a number of turtles, a single barracuda (very big!), two rays, and some squid. I spotted one parrotfish, a few yellow angels, and a number of smaller and less distinctive fish. The coral was almost all brown and white, with a few pale purple colors.

We shared the water with hundreds of people. Hundreds. I would bet a thousand people snorkeled there the day we did.

It has become wholly unrecognizable as the place which enchanted David and I almost two decades ago. The picture above is what happens to sea turtles when one is spotted: snorkelers float nearby and watch for up to two minutes, being careful not to come too close to the turtles.  Our guide made sure we were careful. In spite of that, I felt intrusive. This must happen to each turtle something like a fifty times a day.

Our guide, Gil, grew up in Akumal. He now lives on the other side of the large, busy highway and yet he can still be found on the Akumal beaches almost every day. He is part of a collective working to save the bay, and to save the turtles. The collective works together to take snorkeling trips out, to monitor people’s behavior and make sure they resect the coral and the turtles. They share any money they make evenly between all of the guides in the collective.

According to Gil, the bay was even worse a few years ago, and it is now rebounding. We watched for turtles who had not yet been tagged – which meant that they were new young ones who appear as juveniles (apparently there is a specific set of juvenile years that the turtles spend in Akumal eating a specific sea grass). We saw at least two, maybe three untagged turtles. Gil reported that the turtle population last year was about fifty-five and that now it may be sixty or more. He is very proud of the work that he and his collective are doing, much of which seems to be managing tourists in such a way as to create a win-win situation. Others in Akumal protect nesting sites, herd baby turtles to the beach, and help educate the tourists.

In spite of how the differences in the reef  saddened me, this was a real and unexpected “Backing in Eden” moment for me. The entire bay is known and mapped. Almost every turtle is tagged, and they get a yearly doctor’s visit. A fragile and nearly–destroyed ecosystem is beginning to bounce back. The locals are in on the preservation efforts, and my be driving them. The turtle’s chances of survival are increasing.


As always, more links for you to follow. Fewer than usual since the connectivity down here is nasty and I didn’t need to go the Internet for the lesson. The one came to me in person.

Centro Ecologico Akumal:

A great tale of the work being done in Akumal

Interesting because it talks about conservation and the reviews, of course, are written by tourists.

The tour company I went with, Local Quickies, which seems reasonably ecologically conscious.


Stop. Talk. Think.

I’ve been off discussing the future at the World Future Society this month.  It’s a topic I engage in fairly regularly online and other places.  This is the most important conversation we can have a society.  Perhaps telling your family that you love them or walking your dog and chatting with neighbors is more important on some daily soul-building level.  But I believe that dinner and water cooler and political conversations should be at least partly consumed by the tsunami of change we’re riding.  Yet, I’m amazed at how often I am finding mistaken thinking or lack of thought around our future (including, I’m sure, in myself).  I hear us carrying our own false knowledge forward or falling into sound-bite land.  When I catch myself doing this, its usually because I haven’t taken time to stop, talk, and think.

We’re living in a decade when the rate of change is increasing quickly, and as we climb the curves of this change, the things we know become outdated really fast.  Things we “know” become untrue a few years after they were the best truth we had available.  For example, I was just talking to a friend about desalination, and she mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out what to do with the extra salt.  I did some research and in fact, the leftover brine has been (and in some cases is) a problem.  But plants in Tampa have figured out how to return it to the ocean safely, and others have suggested ways to perhaps use that salt on roads in the winter.  This is a rather pedestrian example, but in many cases things that were problems have been turned to opportunity, or had acceptable workarounds created for them.  It’s important to assume our knowledge at any given point is wrong, and to go proof it.  The knowledge we thought we owned may no longer be true.  It’s not new math, it’s a new world.

Two friends enjoying the viewWe spend a lot of time on the Internet, which means we’re bombarded by misinformation constantly. Depending on where we spend that time, the signal to noise ratio can be pretty awful.  I’ve always tried to avoid commercial television because the commercials are created by people who spend a lot of money (a LOT of money) to influence my thinking.  There’s no reason to assume I’m immune to that.  The Internet appears to have MORE advertising than a typical half-hour TV show used to have.  So it’s even more dangerous.  Add the polarized political atmosphere and corporate money flowing into politics like an engorged river of lies, and we probably intake more junk than real information. Let’s take a non-pedestrian example this time. People have conflated a single company’s business practices (much of which I disagree with, but which aren’t actually as evil as they’re made out to be) with a whole technology, and have turned GMO foods and animals into evil, no matter who created them or for what.  Yet we’re almost certainly going to need this tool in the fast-changing adjustable climate-dominated world of tomorrow. The vitriol, hover, is so thick that it’s nearly impossible to have a rational conversation even in places where the audience is generally rational and thoughtful.  On the internet, lies abound, and truths get picked up and exaggerated until they become lies.

Knowledge itself is changing and lies are regularly presented to as facts.  There isn’t much we can do about that – it’s an external reality.  But we can stop and think and talk.  We can take quiet meditative time.  We can make ourselves read whole essays and articles instead of skimming them for titles.  I started this post yesterday, partly in reaction to a sound-bite of mine which has been getting retweeted (“What we grow up knowing and what we will die knowing will be different.”)  Yesterday morning, I read an excellent essay in the New York Times, “No Time to Think,” by Kate Murphy.  She did a nice job of expanding on something that disturbs me.  Often it feels like I get up, give myself half an hour to read or FaceBook over coffee, and then I’m off and running with no real stops until I pass out for the night.  On a good day, I get in an hour of dog walking, which is good thinking time.  Many days, even that is rushed.

The best thing we can do for the the future is to spend some time with it, either in quiet contemplation or in thoughtful conversation.  We have big problems to solve, and running around distracted by someone else’s soundbites isn’t going to solve them.  Stopping and thinking clearly is more likely to help.


Reading Recommendation: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction CoverThis sharp, shocking book covers the anthropocene extinction. Kolbert neither flinches nor reprimands, which creates a very powerful read.  I read her “Field Notes form a Catastrophe” years ago (and heard her talk out here somewhere – maybe at Town Hall?) and that book helped to convince me that climate change is happening faster than any of our models suggest.  The sixth Extinction convinced me that extinctions are happening even faster than I thought, and helped me understand the varying nuances of the primary cause, which is, of course, us.

Kolbert gives us information she has been gathering in the field through a series of short and readable vignettes.  These stories are then surrounded and peppered with additional information, creating good readability.  I’m often a bit tired and stressed with all of the hats I wear, and it’s become rare for me to find non-fiction that keeps me flipping pages and reading “one more chapter.”

I highly recommend this book to my futurist and science fiction writing friends, as well a the animal lovers I know.  Or really, any humans.  🙂


Backing into Eden Chapter 20: Fire.

Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers.  They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.

I asked him why that fire was so bad.


Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”

At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.

“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”

How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.

I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.

Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record.  Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.

Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.

  • We already occasionally do controlled burns today; it may become the norm to burn through wild lands regularly.  On purpose.  We’ll have accurate enough weather forecasts to be sure the weather helps instead of hurts, and we may even be able to control the weather.  Once more, this will take a different approach to land management and ownership.
  • We’ll have far better tools for firefighting. Technology such as drones and robotic firefighters will have become more widely used. While this may give us extra muscle in a firefight, in reality we may benefit the most from more information. Knowing where and how a fire is likely to spread can provide a lot of information about how – and whether – to fight it.
  • We may use the tools of genetic engineering to design plants that are more fire resistant, perhaps planting these at the wildland/urban boundary or as urban street trees. I couldn’t find any evidence that this is considered feasible yet, but genetic engineering is still in its dangerous infancy and will mature quite a bit over the next few decades.

Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.

We will also be grateful for our firefighters.  This picture was a found object on my bike ride in Bend, Oregon, just a few days ago.  This is a place that knows the danger of fire.

As always, here are some links:

Wikipedia article on the Tasmanian bushfires

Forest fires and warming planet could accelerate deforestation in Amazon, Science News, April 15th, 2014, by Brooks Hays

Climate Change Increasing Massive Wildfires in the West, USA Today, April 19th, 2014, by Doyle Rice.



Backing into Eden – Gardening the World: A Parable is published by the World Future Society

The World Future Society took a short parable of mine as an article for The Futurist Magazine.  It was an interesting process to create it – they asked for what I interpreted as a more serious article, but this is what wanted to come out and play.  I usually have more control of the tone of my writing than this, but they must have liked it since it showed up in their magazine and on their website.   It may morph into the beginning of the Backing into Eden book which I hope to get to right after I finish Edge of Dark (my next novel).SONY DSC


Travel Recommendation: World Future 2014 “What if?”

I often do book recommendations.  Seemed like time for a bit of a travel recommendation. This one is especially for science fiction writers and fans.  The World Future Society’s annual meeting this year is themed “What if?” – a core question for science fiction fans, and certainly the starting question for many science fiction books and stories.

wdslogoI’ve been helping them some with organizing the a science fiction symposium within the convention, and the speakers are fabulous.

  • Glen Hiemstra has been my futurist mentor from, and in a life a long time ago, I was his first webmaster.  He’s one of the best futurist keynoters I know; thoughtful and thought-provoking both.
  • I’ve recommended Ramez Naam for his fiction books Nexus and Crux and for his non-fiction The Infinite Resource:  The power of ideas on a finite planet.  Mez is a crack speaker, and doing a lot of international travel to talk to global audiences.  He’s also local to me, and one of our fastest-rising stars in Seattle.
  • Madeline Ashby is also one of our new, fresh voices in science fiction and a fellow futurist. Read my interview with Madeline as a 2012 guest post for SF Signal.  I really enjoyed her books, iD and vN.
  • One of my oldest and best friends from Florida introduced me to Brad Aiken, a doctor who writes science fiction about the future of medicine.  We were both part of a group dinner in San Antonia last Worldcon, and I found him smart and well-spoken, and very, very knowledgeable.
  • I’m looking forward to meeting Trevor Haldenby, an exciting futurist who is using science fictions storytelling in his scenarios.  I haven’t seen him work, but I’ve heard from others who have, and I think he’s going to be great.
  • In case that’s not enough, we’ll also be joined by techno-philosopher Gray Scott,  by volcano surfer Zoltan Istvan, and by the outgoing CIO of the World Future Society, Timothy Mack.  And more.

In addition to the symposium, many of us will also be speaking in the other tracks of the conference.  I’ll be there talking about my Backing into Eden concept blog, with a particular focus on ethics and GM animals.

So what happens when a techno-philospher, a volcano surfer, and a CIO walk into a bar…come to the World Future Society Science Fiction Symposium and you might just find out.

wf2014_logo_rgb_for_webThe conference is in Orlando in July, and registration is open.  There’s even a discount if you sign up by the end of April.  Join me for some of the best conversations of the year.


Backing into Eden Chapter 19: Earth

I live in Washington State, and all the news for the last two weeks has been the unthinkable Oso mudslide.  Slides are not unusual here, although I have never heard of one with this much destructive force.  It got me reflecting about the relationship between earth and water.

The desert near my parent’s home in Mesa, Arizona can do well with very little water while parched farmland turns into a spiderweb of empty cracks with the same amount of rainfall. 

As the climate changes, soil changes. When the balance transforms dramatically, we can get flood or drought, and the soil – described by the World Wildlife foundation as, “the fragile skin of the Earth,” can change consistency or place and richness. It can become incapable of sustaining the same life that it was once in balance with.

Soil is complex.  It’s made of eroded rocks, silt, sand, dead plants, living organisms, water and air.  Soil composition varies from place to place, but always the basic elements are in a dance and the points of balance matter.

This series is about gardening the Earth, and if there is anything gardeners know, it’s to tend to the soil.

Plant in dried cracked mudThe US Department of Natural Resources suggests that we change our way of thinking, and begin to treat soil as an organism, that we imagine it as something that can experience health and disease, as something that can be nurtured.  Something living.  This is directly in line with the concept of humans as caretakers of the environment.  So let’s explore some ways to do that:

  • Early in this blog series, I discussed frameworks for land use and held up the Forterra NGO in Washington state as an example.  Forterra works to create large connected ecosystems where natural processes can maintain health.  One of their tools is land-swaps, which allows for aggregation and protection of wild lands.
  • One lesson form the Oso landslide is that data can help.  We had LiDar and ortho-photography of the hillside that came down on Oso, but not much of it was transparent to the people living in the way of the slide.  Had that information been easily available, it’s possible some people would have made different decisions.
  • We knew the hillside was dangerous, but there were no tools to keep people from living there:  almost no local government can afford to seriously challenge property rights.  The laws are on the side of the people who want to do whatever they like on their land whether or not it makes sense for safety, ecology, or the greater good.  Short of limited eminent domain, local governments lack tools. This is where NGO’s like Forterra can develop and use methods to both aggregate land and leave the original landowner in an acceptable or even improved situation.
  • Many farming and urban gardening practices damage soils. There are social movements and business drivers working to recognize and correct this problem; these should be supported and expanded.  Urban farmers can use natural fertilizers and pest management, even if they are harder and slightly less effective.  It’s important to create healthy organic soils in gardens of all sizes.
  • Organic growing methods produce food that is better for us and better for soil health.
  • Overgrazing does damage, but managed grazing is actually good for soil.  Traditional farmers are beginning to use better grazing techniques, and some entire ecosystems are being restored with the use of wild grazing herds.
  • There are more dramatic possible solutions.  Thanks to our household seventeen year old, I found an article by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (linked below) that contemplates a synthetic creature – a designed biological entity – that heals soils.  We may not want manufactured life in our yards, but there are a lot of seriously contaminated places where futuristic synthetic biology might be very useful.

Soil- handful,female hands, humus soil

  • Healthy soil is a carbon sink.  There are estimates that soil has lost more than 50% of its carbon, releasing most of it into the air as CO2.  But healthy ground is partly made of decaying plants. As a double-win, healthier soil grows more food and keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.

Soil is critical.  So is learning more about the world we walk on.  Doing research for this blog series and general research on fracking, I’ve learned that there are living organisms far below the surface, some as far as two miles below the surface. We know almost nothing about these organisms, but to me they seem to be yet more proof of the tenacity of life.  Perhaps they are the type of life that we will find on Mars some day, or even living on the moon.  Perhaps they perform functions we need in order to have the right balance in the soil on the slopes above our houses.
Climate change management is about the air that we breathe, but it’s also about water and land, about the soil on which we walk and on which we depend for food. It’s about the earth we live on, and the land that we don’t want to have thundering down onto our heads and turning our houses to splinters.


WWF Threats:  Soil Erosion and Degradation

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Soils

Latest Aerial Imagery of the Oso Landslide, Seattle Times, April 1, 2014

Ecologists turn to planned grazing to revive grassland soil: the Salt: NPR, August 5th, 2013, by Luke Runyon

Soil as Carbon Storehouse:  New weapon in Climate Fight?, Yale Environment 360, March 2014, by Judith D. Schwartz


Designing for the sixth extinction, Project 2013, by Alexandra Daily Ginsberg

Learning from my soil: the 2014 garden dialogue, Resilience, February 25th, 2014, by Claire Schosser

What lies beneath: Tiny organism thrive below Earth’s surface, Livescience, December 29, 2013, by Tia Ghose


Backing into Eden Chapter 18: The Element of Air

Every year, we science fiction fans are given the opportunity to vote on a host city for a future World Science Fiction convention.  This year, the vote will be between Kansas City and Shanghai.   I’m certain that I’ll be voting for Kansas City.  I’d LOVE to see the Great Wall, but I’ve seen pictures of the air in China lately, and my instincts suggest I may not want to take the health risks associated with a visit.  I’ve read that some of China’s elite are leaving for health reasons.  China is also beginning to have a hard time convincing people from western countries to work there.  Other places have even worse air.  A recent Guardian article wonders if Kathmandu is actually “unlivable” because of poor air quality.   India is only ranked slightly ahead of Kathmandu at 174th out of 178, based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index.  There are plenty of other pain points in air quality:

  • It’s only March, and carbon dioxide levels have already exceeded 400 PPM this year, a number that wasn’t crossed until May in 2013.  The “safe” levels are below that number, and many think they are below 350 PPM or even lower than that.  What’s at risk?  According to many, life as we know it.
  • Depending on which source you focus on, air pollution is estimated to kill between two and four million people a year right now.  This isn’t a future climate-change scenario.  It’s happening now.  Slow, painful, and early death doesn’t get the press of dramatic death, but it’s just as real.
  • A recent article suggested that the pollution in China is so bad that it impedes photosynthesis (and thus the uptake of carbon dioxide and creation of oxygen).  Severe pollution is yet another scary feedback mechanism, where the damage we’re doing increases the damage (like open ocean in the arctic absorbed more heat and creates more open ocean in the arctic).

There’s more, but that’s enough bad news to convince almost anyone that as much as we need to pay attention to water, we also need to focus on air.

Exhaust smoke and air pollutionThe elephant in the room is the collection of pollution that is damaging the atmosphere and leading to climate change. Carbon is the most talked about part of this elephant.  Programs to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are being developed and implemented in many places, but the amount of carbon is still rising dangerously.

The problem is complex, but nonetheless there are three primary sources of air pollution.  These are fossil fuel use (from coal plants to gasoline cars), deforestation, and the release of methane.  If we focus on those three items, we can make a significant difference.

We can directly affect the amount of carbon released by personal transportation. “Alternative transportation” includes walking, bicycles, electric cars, subways, trains, shared cars, bus rapid transit, and more.   Most have a carbon cost, but they are all better choices than gas-powered cars with single occupancy drivers.

For the coal plants, we need regulation with teeth, and to capture that carbon at the source.  There is technology for that now, and we should be using it.  MIT keeps a page with a list carbon capture projects worldwide, and it appears that there is a lot more planning than implementation happening at the moment.   Mostly, we need to move away from coal, but to do that while maintaining a healthy economy we may need to spend a few decades in ‘capture and sequester’ phase.

Deforestation has a lot of causes.  One simple way to look at it is deforestation is a result of the inability to express and move value around.  The value to the world of a plot of healthy rainforest is far greater than corporation or individual farmers get from the land after they burn the forest off.  But we don’t have any way to recognize that.  Even though some programs are trying to do just that, in general the hungry farmer can’t use conservation to feed his or her family.  This is changeable.

We’re back to another root I’m seeing.  Cattle.  Cattle-ranching drives a lot of the deforestation.  Eating beef, of course, drives cattle-ranching.  The vast water-cost of feeding cows came up in last week’s blog about water, and cattle come up again in this blog under the topic of methane.  I didn’t set out to write about becoming vegetarian,  but it’s beginning to look important.  More on that topic in a future whole chapter.

Deforestation fills the atmosphere with black carbon, or soot.  In addition to deforestation, soot is released from diesel engines, from fires (including household fireplaces and cooking fires), and from some industrial processes.  Soot absorbs solar radiation, and interacts in complex ways with forces for both warming and cooling.  Scientific sentiment is beginning to suggest that reduction in soot worldwide may slow global warming significantly.

In the United States, we are reducing black carbon emissions through more controls on diesel fuels and other methods.  Since soot is not as persistent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reductions in the release of soot can have a fairly quick payoff.

Methane is another abundant greenhouse gas.  There are a number of natural reasons for this, but there are also anthropogenic causes.  Coal and coal plants and even natural gas production, transportation, and use release methane.  And for a nearly comical source of even more methane?  Cows. One more reason we should seriously consider shifting our sources of protein.

Air pollution comes from a lot of sources, and the intricacies of our atmosphere are not completely understood yet.  I suspect that before we made the air dirty enough to see after the industrial revolution, humanity simply took it from granted that air was free and clean.  We need to both act now on the things we do understand (it can be done; California’s air is far cleaner than it used to be) and to do a lot more basic research.

We breathe each other’s air.  The wind mixes our air together and blows it across political boundaries.  Chinese air affects the United States, and our air affects China.  Even more than water, the same air flows across all of us, and it is up to all of us to work together to clean it up and keep it clean.  Think of it as housekeeping 101.

As always, here are a few links to follow if you are interested in diving any deeper: