This essay proposes an outlook on how to avoid the problems tied to climate change. The various measures presented here may appear as a total inversion of current concepts. It obviously depends on your point of view. When one looks through a prism for some time, the inverted images that one sees of the world are eventually perceived as normal. Most scientists (all my respects to the exceptions) view the world through a prism telescope. Chances are that our grand-children will judge current views as a kind of upside-down universe. However, what is encouraging is that the measures proposed herein will likely cost much less than what is currently invested in research on solutions that lead to a cul-de-sac, scientifically-speaking.
Ironically, the benefits of the measures proposed to curb climate change lay in the «collateral effects» such as the implementation of sustainable food production and the elimination of worldwide water-related problems (e.g. pollution, shortages, droughts, flooding, erosion, etc.). Not to mention the likely emergence of new «green energy» production techniques that may humble the most discerning thermodynamicists.
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The text within this page was first published in French on www.eautarcie.com : in January 2007
The original text has been adapted and translated by André Leguerrier. First published on this page at www.eautarcie.org : 2014-09-30
Last update : 2015-01-30
Desperate times call for desperate measures! The increase in atmospheric CO2 is growingly perceived as an environmental time bomb that could lead to planetary disaster. At stake, the survival of civilisation or even simply humankind as a species. Simulations of all sorts present alarming conclusions.
The only remedies currently being proposed are the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and/or the development of carbon sinks where excess atmospheric carbon could be stored. Yet thanks to photosynthesis, the plant world is by far the most important carbon sink available, in order to sequestrate atmospheric carbon into biomass.
The current approach is somewhat incoherent, despite the fact it fails to encompass a necessary global perspective. «Everything is being done» (really?) to reduce GHG emissions. Meanwhile, to feed our insatiable energy needs, gigantic means are put forth to seek out new fossil fuel deposits (e.g. shale oil and shale gas). Evidently, the economic decision-makers – and by extension political ones too – do not seem to prioritise a sustainable economy: they rather prioritise profits.
On the one hand, proponents of nuclear energy readily proclaim that « nuclear energy does not contribute to climate change ». On the other hand, there is a mad rush to do scientific research on green energy: preferred sectors of research and development include biogas and biofuels, wood pellets, biomass combustion to produce electricity, etc. Some assert that because green energy sources are renewable, their contribution to the greenhouse effect is nil. This belief is so embedded that it is becoming an unshakable truth, a real dogma. Such an approach leads to a dead-end, as shall be shown herein.
For at least 25 years, I have publicly defended a very practical «down-to-earth» approach for the control of water-related problems, which would have positive effects on worldwide food production. So far, this discourse has been met with total incomprehension and even hostility . I have finally discovered that the crux of this opposition is not scientific, but philosophical .
The current dominant view is anthropocentric. Obviously, this philosophy currently inspires all research and governs all activities. It has taken me years to come to realize that my scientific approach is inspired by a different perspective that has come to be known as biocentric.
Unlike anthropocentrism, centered on man, his immediate comfort and his short-term interests, biocentrism is a long-term vision centered on the biosphere of which mankind is a part. From an anthropocentric perspective, man has fixedly focused on himself, thus mentally removing himself from the biosphere. This vision implicitly holds that the biosphere is in the service of man. Many phenomena and problems observed have proven that the anthropocentric view is harmful to all life on this planet. Problems related to water, food production and climate change are the direct and immediate consequence of this vision. Conversely, one can show that humanity could get out of these problems in less than a half-century by espousing a shift towards a biocentric vision, and the sooner the better. More this shift is delayed, the more painful will be the transition...
From a scientific and technical perspective, the approach outlined herein aims to rehabilitate the biosphere, already heavily battered and much destroyed, without compromising the comfort of man. Seen from this angle, the increasing CO2 content of the atmosphere presents itself as an opportunity that could help create a comfortable living space for humankind in face of an ever increasing population, instead of being some sort of impending disaster that needs to be managed with billions of dollars. Without a shift in this direction, climate change and its consequences will bring their share of disasters that may come to be qualified as «natural», when in fact they would be the result of wrong decisions from the past. Yet, these possible outlooks do not constitute a fatality: they can be avoided if only we would change our vision.
The starting point of our approach is that the Earth’s atmosphere and soil are the work of the biosphere. These are largely interdependent. When the biosphere is left to itself (without human intervention), an equilibrium sets in between the carbon of atmospheric CO2 and the organic carbon activity within the biosphere. The equilibrium has been broken, and without human intervention, the biosphere’s natural self-regulating mechanisms may take many thousands of millennia before a balance is restored. Man can speed up these mechanisms by acting upon the soil’s humus. The basis of all life on land is fertile land, within its topmost layer. Humus is the brown gold of the earth, harbouring a rich wildlife that lives in symbiosis with the plant world. Without these, no animal or human life would be possible.
Farmland’s humus has largely been destroyed by intensive agriculture, while the humus of temperate rainforests has been destroyed by deforestation and forest fires. So-called «energy crops» are pursuing the destruction of our soils. Without humus, earth, the basis of all life on the continents no longer «holds in place». Soil is easily eroded and ultimately ends up in the sea. Such loss is permanent and irreplaceable, at least on a human time-scale. Forest fires, deforestation and the loss of farmland’s humus, not to mention the destruction of wetlands, have released and still discharge huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As a side effect of the lack of humus, water from precipitation no longer reaches groundwater reserves (or very little). It streams directly into rivers where flows become unpredictable, random: very low levels in dry periods and flooding in wet periods. The water cycle is severely disrupted. Add to this the problems of overgrazing and inappropriate traditional agricultural practices in developing countries. All these contribute directly to climate change.
The environmental problems we are currently experiencing (concerning energy, water and agriculture) are rooted in ignorance of the processes that regulate the major natural cycles. Without a comprehensive vision, the risks of making mistakes are heightened. Unfortunately the opinion of «general scientists» does not weigh much against that of high-level scientists, never mind that they only specialise in a specific field. This often leads to incorrect decisions that directly affect the biosphere.
The link between wastewater management and climate change has more to do with agriculture and the production of green energy. We hold that there can be no sustainable food production without sustainable management of urban wastewater. The first essential step starts with the suppression of the current «all-to-the-sewer» system, an absurdity that obeys to the same principles as consumer society’s «all-to-the-trash» system. This concept requires profound changes to one’s mindset on hygiene and bacteria: otherwise, the ideas put forth here are unapplicable.
Human and animal dejecta are not waste, and they are more than a simple resource: they are part of the living world, part of the essential life processes on Earth. Without them, the functioning of the biosphere will be severely disrupted.
Specialists in agriculture and sanitary engineering have not yet discovered the intimate relationship between urban wastewater and agriculture. However, the true culprits of this situation are to be found in the circles of medicine and most especially in the hygienist ideology. Hygienics is based on an incomplete and inconsistent scientific approach. To put it simply, and even simplistically, hygienics is the ignorance of all the relationships that exist and can exist between microscopic organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) and the appearance of certain diseases. The most direct effect of the dogmatic system established by the hygienist ideology is the fact that more than 3 billion people have no access to quality drinking water. Slogans like «Water is a common good», «The democratic management of water», «The right to drinking water for every human being», «Worldwide water solidarity», etc. are only expressions of wishful thinking, without any tangible effect. If we don’t adopt a biocentric vision, these problems will worsen.
But the major drawback of hygienics is that it considers human faecal matter as the «absolute evil». This is why, in matters of sanitation (the word is revealing ), its first priority is to preserve human health, whereas protecting the environment comes last of all, conditional on its «institutional appropriateness».
The pollution load of black water (effluent from toilets and urinals) is not a hazardous waste, insomuch as such wastewater is managed to form humus. It is a precious resource, the value of which can no longer be ignored. Wastewater becomes «waste» only when grey water (soapy water) and black water are combined (i.e. the «all-to-the-sewer» system). This mixture in turn becomes « hazardous » only upon treatment. Without going into the scientific details, treatment destroys dejecta’s molecular structures that are essential for the formation of humus for soils, thereby transforming this into pollution. It deprives the soil of organic structures that are vital to maintaining humus in the soil. The amount of nutrients (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium or N-P-K) is far less important than the place these hold within the molecular structures of excreta . In this sense, the treatment of urban wastewater is a major environmental nuisance that we currently refuse to admit despite the already visible consequences.
The dejecta of over 7 billion people (9 to 10 billion foreseen by the end of the century) constitute a biomass that is comparable to that produced by livestock. Both human and animal dejecta, treated with a very large amount of plant-based material (rich in cellulose) would eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers in food production worldwide. By eliminating the «all-to-the-sewer» system, a new infrastructure would arise, especially around large cities. Hubs that we have coined Integrated Biomass Treatment Centres , would produce essential organic agricultural amendment from human and animal waste, by means of composting, to help regenerate land ecosystems within the biosphere.
This path is inevitable if we are to regenerate farmland’s humus content, and in other soils also. By thus eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, phytosanitary product needs (pesticides and herbicides) would also regress. It is not exaggerated to assert that in such a case, global agriculture would become organic by necessity, without the need for any binding regulation. It will not be necessary to prohibit the use of pesticides since agriculture, having become organic, will no longer need these.
One gram of stabilised humus gram is able to hold up to 50 grams of water, like a sponge. Once humus is regenerated, irrigation needs will decrease. Water from precipitation will no longer run off into rivers but will be absorbed by the soil and plants, and ultimately return to groundwaters that are currently overexploited. River flow will become more regular, the frequency and severity of flooding will also decrease. The effects of drought will ease.
The huge amount of nitrogen-based biomass that could be selectively collected  including such as black water from cities as well as animal manure from farmland will require retrieving all carbon-based plant-sourced biomass available (which presently is most-often burned  for purposes of energy recovery or simply because it is more convenient (!)) in the aforementioned Integrated Biomass Treatment Centres . Cities will sort of become the «umbilical cord» of worldwide food production, which is quite normal considering that the world’s population is growingly concentrated in cities. Since our food is a product of the earth, it becomes obvious that our excreta should go back to the earth, but not anyhow. This must be done in such a way that the great natural cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and water will finally be renewed. What we have coined as a new sanitary engineering will thus help renew man’s place within the biosphere. Future generations will view the treatment of urban wastewater as a past mistake, an unfortunate sidetrack...
Willfully restoring the humus content of farmland is a process that can easily take half a century while requiring the harnessing of all animal- and plant-based biomass available. In so doing, we will observe local climatic improvements in dry or arid regions, as a collateral effect of the restoration of those ecosystems’ soil moisture regimes. It is said that the climate makes the soil, but the converse is also true: soil conditions determine the climate. In dry regions, updrafts will become less frequent and less intense due to the power of soil’s increased water holding capacity and the concomitant extension of plant growth and evapotranspiration. This will improve local rainfall patterns. For example, by implementing a comprehensive worldwide program for sustainable management of biomass, the Mediterranean and Middle East regions would likely become a vast flourishing region of greenery.
Starting today (2014), harnessing worldwide available biomass over a period of decades would sequestrate carbon into soil and plant life in a measure equivalent to the amount of CO2 that has been released into the atmosphere by fossil fuel combustion. In its early years, this carbon sink would absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere than what man can release into it. After several years, one would observe a slowdown in the increase of CO2, which would likely «peak off» somewhere between the years 2050 and 2080. The peak of CO2 would simply correspond to the point of equilibrium between carbon absorption and emission within the biosphere.
Carbon absorption would obviously be greater than what it was during our preindustrial era. To achieve this, it will however be necessary to reforest vast regions that are currently dry, semi-arid or arid. Fortunately this is an autocatalytical process. It speeds up as it progresses, until it reaches a point of equilibrium.
Short of promoting the current energy squandering, consider that the huge amount of carbon released into the atmosphere constitutes an unexpected carbon reserve that can be used to increase active biomass within the biosphere.
One must not underestimate the measurable gaseous exchanges within the atmosphere. Despite the biosphere’s poor health, it exchanges several times more CO2 with the atmosphere than what man rejects into the atmosphere, in one year. One could say that the biosphere «breathes». This «breathing» would become more intense with the biosphere’s rehabilitation, not to mention that a growing ecosystem absorbs more carbon than it emits. Equilibrium is reached when ecosystems stop growing. In the coming 150 years, man should closely monitor the evolution of the atmosphere’s CO2 content and the biosphere’s carbon sequestration capacity. Thus, in the 22nd century, man will most likely come to identify the biosphere’s optimal carbon content within a dynamic equilibrium. Given that our atmospheric carbon reserves (from fossil fuel combustion) are measurable, we can calculate what area of deserts need to be rehabilitated in order to stabilise the world’s climates.
Scientists of the future can then accurately calculate the equilibrium point that is not to be exceeded so as not to trigger global cooling. Sequestrating the carbon that has been released by man, setting it into active biomass, will create vast new areas of greenery for the living world and for mankind (as deserts will regress). If we can curb climate change, we may be able to feed those 10 billion people forecasted by the end of the century. However, in spite of adopting the biocentric philosophy, a challenge still remains: curbing climate change must go hand in hand with curbing population growth.
By burning coal, oil and natural gas, man has done nothing more than release the carbon that was an integral part of the biosphere about 200 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period. From a series of geological accidents, this biomass accumulated underground, undergoing various transformations.
Modern man has taken up part of the underground reserves of carbon for his energy needs, but instead of helping the biosphere to find a new balance, he has continued to destroy it too. In so doing, he has simply reinforced the imbalance created by biomass combustion. Chances are that the destruction of the biosphere – started since Antiquity – has significantly contributed to the increase in atmospheric CO2. What we are proposing is simply to reverse the current trend by taking advantage of this CO2 increase to strengthen the biosphere and especially create (in fact return) new havens in the biosphere to harbour life of all sorts, such as endangered animal species or an expanding world population.
We think it is a mistake to strictly blame fossil fuel consumption for the current imbalance. It would be worthy to initiate research to evaluate the optimum ratio between the atmosphere’s carbon content and the amount of active organic carbon in the biosphere.
Contrary to popular belief, the combustion of biomass for energy purposes is not a «neutral» operation, climatically speaking. In a biosphere that is in equilibrium with the atmosphere, a certain amount of plant and animal biomass can be harvested for energy purposes. The condition is to not reduce the amount of active biomass in the biosphere. Current energy squandering requires gigantic biomass consumption, which helps strengthen the greenhouse effect caused by the squanderous use of fossil fuels.
Considering the current state of degradation of the biosphere and the dilapidated state of our farmland, each kilogram of animal-based (i.e. human) biomass and plant-based biomass that are burned to supply energy is a factor of imbalance. The biological value of biomass (as potential humus) that is destroyed in this way is far superior to that of the very little «green energy» produced. We must remember that even by harnessing all agricultural land for the production of green energy, this activity will only cover a very small proportion of our current energy needs. Energy-wise, burning biomass and its derivatives (biomethane, biofuels, wood by-products) is highly inefficient, presenting a very poor input/output ratio.
In this sense, the production of biofuels and biogas (like biomethane) and the burning of agricultural waste and pellets to produce electrical energy are self-destructive activities. All the more so when this destroys key elements that could be used for the formation of humus (e.g. wood pellets, an ideal resource for Integrated Biomass Management Centres).
For the production of green energy, the solution of the future will be microbiological in nature . One of the really credible pathways is the recovery of heat from composting to heat greenhouses and homes. Indeed, when composting straw that has been impregnated with black water, the temperature can reach 70°C and, if well managed, can be maintained above 50°C for several months. Ongoing experiments in Hungary seem promising on the possibility of using this thermal energy to provide a base heating for homes. Unfortunately, despite my requests, both in Belgium and Hungary, no research institution or university has so far shown any interest in this energy research sector.
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