Climate change is almost impossible to relate to. We’ve all seen pictures of polar bears standing on melting glaciers with endless water surrounding them. We all hear about, or sometimes experience, the strange changes in weather patterns. But mostly it’s an idea, something that looms in the distance we can’t quite see. Even for those of us who believe in it, climate change can feel like an impossible issue to address. We buy a Prius, or go to the farmers market to lower our carbon footprint, but there’s usually a certain sense of futility in these actions, like trying to drink up a quickly rising ocean through a straw.
Answers are dangerous. We are not presenting charcoal as a solution to climate change. To promise that is a failure in the scientific method and in personal humility. But we are saying it might be. Because here’s a fact, while there’s still so much we don’t know about charcoal—how different production methods and different woods interact in different soils—we do know this: every pound of charcoal sequesters 2.93 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. When you make pure carbon, that’s what happens. It’s just chemistry.
And it could do more than that. A lot more. It could increase the nutrients in our food, because nutrient density in our soils is nutrient density in our bodies. It could reduce fertilizer runoff into our water systems. It could decrease the amount of irrigation we use in our warm weather climates. It could economically incentivize forest thinnings, decreasing our fire danger and helping return our land to old growth ecosystems.
It could do this for a long f**king time. We can’t think about charcoal like a fertilizer, something we buy each year to put on our fields or gardens. We have to think about it as something that decreases the amount of fertilizer we put on our soils each year. Charcoal is, potentially, an investment, a mutual fund that keeps improving the soil for hundreds and thousands of years.
Will this happen? We don’t know. We’re not claiming anything. But there is some good science to indicate this could. The only way we are going to find out is through local research and the ways local research can show larger trends.
So I’m going to be a bad journalist here. I’m supposed to pretend like I don’t have an opinion. But of course I do, so here it is:
A number of academic researchers have scoffed at the historical argument for charcoal. They say we can’t conclude anything significant from this without more “hard” research. And I agree. Let’s do more research. Forage is trying to further this through our data system and partnerships with academics. If you want to be involved, let us know, we’d like to work with you. But to say that charcoal’s history means nothing because you can’t document it on a spreadsheet is a fundamentally western-centric view point. It’s a notion of progress rooted in the idea that we’ve only moved forward without leaving anything behind.
I do not mean to romanticize indigenous cultures, or worse fetishize them. But I will say there was an efficiency to their subsistence lifestyle. I know because I live one. When people make each part of their life they don’t have time to procrastinate on Facebook. For all the efficiency we have created through industrialization, we have also lessened our ability to understand what is essential. If almost every ancient culture, including the origins of the west—Greece and Rome—used charcoal for agriculture, that forces me to assume it held some essential purpose.