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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Carbon Offsets – Trees and Gardens – The Other Low-Hanging Fruit

My first article in this series described a new, public-domain innovation -- how charitable foundations could dramatically impact climate change, peak oil and the credit crunch while taking the sale of conventional carbon-offsets and turning them into immense profits. They can do this by picking financially stable cities in areas with a surplus of renewable energy sources and offering them loans at incredibly favorable rates -- 2% interest on loans repaid in the first few years, 0% if repaid in a year to 18 months, and 10% of the loan would be forgiven if repaid within one year. Because of the time horizon on peak oil and climate change, they would also be forgiving 20% of loans repaid within nine months and 30% of loans repaid within six.

This strategy enables immense profits, because unlike normal carbon offsets, you're not buying the renewables or energy efficiencies outright, but loaning governments the money to make the necessary changes, quickly. And if these funds support projects which "pay for themselves" in the grace period that a government has to repay you, then they make these profitable changes using money that is never "on the books" in terms of tying up their their own cash flow.

In effect, for the governments, these changes are free. But only if you choose "low-hanging fruit," improvements of such remarkable value that a mere 12 months, nine months or six months is enough time to repay you for your investment.

Which brings us to our latest harvest of fruit.

The basic reforestation carbon-offset option, on its face, seems obvious – many organizations are involved in planting trees, and it is one of the two most common ways for companies to provide voluntary carbon offsets to their customers. There are, however, many unexplored ways to leverage the impact of reforestation and the resources devoted to such work.

Let us first consider an option for the industrialized world – planting trees where you can use a built-in, local support system to take care of their maintenance beyond that first planting. In this option, you pay for the seedlings themselves, but probably little else.

Version 1: Schools. Here the seedlings may be planted by students learning about agriculture and global warming. Digging holes, shoveling peat moss and laying down mulch are not complicated activities, and neither is watering a plant during droughts and dry spells. Combined with lessons on rainwater harvesting and, in some cases, with a highly efficient underground watering system, you can teach students many critical, if basic, lessons in sustainable horticulture.

Planting a wide variety of fruit- and nut-bearing trees reduces the risk of blights and parasites adapted to the vulnerabilities of one particular species of tree, and also insures a more diverse and interesting crop. These trees would soon produce a little supplementary food for kids’ and teens’ snacking (dwarf trees in particular grow quickly) and, if planted next to the school, provide shade as well (a well-known method for reducing air-conditioning bills). A large enough orchard could, in time, even provide either some funds from the public sale of fruit, as a resource for school fundraisers, or even to accomplish other municipal goals, such as improving the diet of impoverished children or of the poor in general. To the school, removing a bit of carbon from the atmosphere might be considered a secondary benefit of the exercise. (You would, of course, carefully consider questions like growing space and each tree’s resistance to fire when determining where to plant them.)

Finally, in the United States, the average piece of food travels well over a thousand miles from large industrialized farms before reaching the consumer. Producing food practically at the point of consumption not only eliminates the associated carbon emissions, but in this world of ever-rising fuel prices, should make these fruits and nuts more affordable than any alternative being shipped over such vast distances.

Version 2: A foundation could provide trees to community gardens, eco-developments and certain public buildings (libraries, police departments, city halls, hospitals) – again bearing a diverse crop of fruits and nuts. These new owners, in addition to helping plant the seedlings, already have incentives to take care of the trees, which offer them food and shade. They also already have people engaged in taking care of such agricultural work – community garden volunteers, landscapers, environmentalists, gardening fans, etc. This option can be used by any city with the above amenities.

Version 3: Clearly, planting trees does not have to be for just the industrialized world. The Third World is expected to take the brunt of the damage from global warming, at least initially. In practice, that means equatorial regions – especially Africa – are apt to be facing an agricultural collapse. Already today, the rising price of energy, limited water supplies for irrigation and increased demand for bio-fuels has driven up the cost of food considerably.

Widespread and diverse plantings of food-bearing trees – if done early enough – would greatly enhance the survivability of communities hit by serious climate change, by providing a source of food that can endure drought more easily than most crops (thanks to a deeper taproot). If the trees provided by carbon-offset funds were integrated into existing relief and development projects with their own international support, and contacts and/or trained workers on the ground, most of the organizational requirements and overhead would already be taken care of. Which would mean most of the funds invested could be saved for the trees themselves instead of being frittered away on unnecessary overhead.

And this low-tech, locally controlled reserve food source is particularly suited to regions such as Africa, which can not afford the technologies or food shipments still available in much of the world.

Further, an active charitable foundation’s existing work lets you tread lightly in tree-planting projects. If you already have employees doing good work on the ground who have contacts and are familiar with the area, then you can probably integrate a bit of tree planting into your other relief/development efforts. The trees simply become an additional side project, easily scattered throughout a village or neighborhood. Your people will hopefully also take the time to investigate what local, non-invasive species are available for this initiative, so they can acquire a diverse array of cultivars.

Finally, a fourth option involving trees can be seen in this video.

This permaculture-based desert reclamation – championed by Geoff Lawton – is described here. This technique employs hardy desert trees that produce no fruit, simply because of the benefits these plants brought to the overall project of reclaiming the soil. But the bulk of the trees involved did produce a harvest (in spite of very harsh conditions), and the additional benefit of restoring fertility to a desert landscape can not be underestimated.

Finally, trees are not the only potential source of food that can significantly reduce carbon emissions. As noted earlier, American food travels such immense distances that a school which chose to raise a significant portion of the food provided to their students on campus, either on open school land or in rooftop gardens, could see a reduction in their food budget while producing fresher, more nutritious food, and the organization funding this change could claim a reduction in the school’s "carbon footprint" as well. By the same token, bushes can offer a harvest of berries, even if they hardly provide the carbon sink you have in an orchard full of growing trees.

Other organic alternatives leap to mind, but attempts to create a source of raw materials in combination with a monoculture "crop" such as pine stands or bamboo should be weighed very carefully, especially if your chosen plant is an "invasive species" – something foreign to your local environment. Given the slowdown in construction and manufacturing apt to follow the mortgage crisis and present energy shortfalls, a new source of raw materials may be far less important to your community than affordable food. Your carbon-offset initiatives should be prioritized accordingly, and you should remember, once again, that people buying carbon-offsets will usually be extremely sensitive to environmentally damaging actions and not easily mollified in the face of even a small disaster paid for with their money. Given how many safe offset options are out there, such downsides should loom even larger. Be warned.

Public Relations:
Custom Customer Reports: Whatever you call them, there is an advantage to giving major donors a report (with photographs, video, etc) on one or more major projects accomplished as a result of their donations. Say, 10,000 trees planted in India, a city’s water purification needs dealt with in Indonesia, and seven hospitals taken off the grid using renewable solar and tidal power in San Diego.

These can be useful not just for an individual’s sense of pride, but for purposes of morale and public relations for most for-profit companies as well. Even charities and governments have a vested interest in getting vivid images and reports on all the good their particular offsets are buying.

Plenty of organizations claim to be carbon neutral, but how many can point to major projects undertaken and certified by a respected international charity using their carbon-offset payments? Such images and reports can be shown on company or government websites, included in press releases and otherwise shared with the public. In so doing, they can provide both the purchaser and the seller of offsets with considerable goodwill and free advertising.

This reputation may extend beyond the usual domestic audience. A carbon-offset project credited to a particular company may in fact help an organization that wants to make a good impression on an international customer in that country. It’s a great icebreaker, if nothing else. National governments who are funding major projects to meet carbon-reduction goals may also find substantial diplomatic benefits.

And of course, any particularly enthusiastic, upscale donor/carbon-offset purchasers are a source of further contacts – friends and acquaintances who might be interested in turning their lives and businesses carbon-neutral in such a socially conscious fashion. So giving them something to be particularly enthusiastic about, and something concrete to show to those contacts when it comes up, can only assist you in seeking new funding.

The flip side of this equation is rounding out the articles/segments of both major and minor news providers. Your positive reports on ways in which people of limited means are confronting issues of hunger, water shortages, costly energy (with your organization’s able assistance) can be used to round out the articles of science writers discussing global warming issues, business writers looking at ways to get around the economic crunch of declining fossil fuels and resources depletion, or international reporters discussing dire conditions in this or that region of the world.

Lots of facts and figures coupled with photos helps with newpapers, and a certain amount of key data wedded to video is useful to news networks. All of this public exposure can also be used to collect more contributions, thus expanding the range of the foundation’s good works, and enabling them to become active on an even larger stage (with even more donors).

Naturally, all this PR will create exposure for these offset innovations. The more your organization breaks new ground and draws the public’s attention to your work, the more individuals and organizations will become familiar with solutions they can make use of in their own lives. But if your primary motivation is to create a positive change in the world, you will rest assured that you are doing so, and that many places will still remain which need your help, even if a majority find they can pull this work off without your financing.

Bear in mind, this strategy is not the sole province of present-day sellers of carbon-offsets. Many existing international relief and development organizations would be particularly formidable instruments for this work – or extremely helpful partners. Their inherent competitive edge in these kinds of activities – as explained previously – is considerably greater than that of any for-profit enterprise. And not only do they not require a profit on their humanitarian activities, not only do they have an existing set of projects, contacts, personnel and experience in their relief and development efforts, but their donors will be far more willing to see it make an egregious ‘profit’ than a profit-driven corporation – so long as those excess funds go to other good works, and not to padding salaries or other overhead.

Of all these advantages, perhaps the most easily overlooked is that of having an existing network of projects and contacts, and plenty of experience on the ground. Because of this capacity, sellers of carbon-offsets may be well-served to work with other charities – even if they have existing relief and development projects of their own. Given the funding levels that could be involved in a successful operation, a foundation may soon find its revenues and demand for new projects to be rapidly outstripping its capacity to find new recipients for its largess. Rather than do things poorly or sloppily, they may find it wiser to do a lot of small projects through credible charities with their own management, employees and internal auditing. This option avoids the overhead of creating dozens of small-scale projects for "nothing but carbon-offsets" and the temptation to do vastly oversized projects for the sake of managerial simplicity.

In the same vein, and out of deference to the value of local consultation, organizations may wish to develop a menu of carbon-offset options for specific beneficiaries/project managers to select from. These would be means of offsetting carbon emissions that would be within their technical and financial means. Obviously, this range of options would be apt to expand as larger contributions came in and the foundation experimented with a wider range of techniques. But by offering a menu, and some explanation of each option, you would get immediate feedback on what was best suited for a locality from professionals already (hopefully) embedded in the existing culture and environment.

I make no claims for any of these concepts, only to tell you they are here and they can now be used by anyone. Thank you for listening.

Ralph Cerchione

Renewing the Earth: Public Domain Inventions for a Sustainable Future Solar desalination, solar steel, reversing global warming, etc.
Future Imperative -- A broad look at human enhancement, from gene therapy to accelerated learning, from neural implants to smart drugs, from posthuman evolution to the wildest flights of human imagination.


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