A Blog where Sustainability Partnerships with Nature

A Matter of Attitude

To follow on from a few of the previous posts I am re-reading with my coffee (first cup, so allow for that)...

A few thoughts on our ability to adopt and adapt new frameworks:
I think where Biomimicry and Systems Thinking will fall down is precisely where we try to use them as 'replacement' constructs for a manipulative engineering strategy in a similarly limited perspective to the tactics now failing us: in other words, incomplete integration.

We need to consider not only how to change our technologies and policies, but equally when a tech solution is appropriate versus when we need to rethink the larger presumptions.

Let's take an example from the early 2011 season of massive floods which have literally deluged every inhabited continent. Obviously rescue and relief come first, but the situation has also inspired a burst of creative responses from the planning and design side of things: floating houses (such as the work of Koen Olthuis and Waterstudio in the Netherlands) , even floating communities and entire cities (such as this proposal for an Embassy of the Drowned Nations) are predicted for the future.

I actually like the proposal for the Embassy, it's exactly the sort of poetic, startling and "creatively in-your-face" statement that can profoundly affect awareness. However, and more pragmatically for more continental communities, the flood response might equally include decisions NOT to rebuild, as has happened too infrequently, but there are communities which have responded by relocating. And that is a legitimate solution: change the problem by altering the need itself.
We need to learn from the integrative qualities of Permaculture, Biomimicry and Systems-Thinking as much as from their specific brilliance. We need to be open to their inspiration and models in a richly diversified cross-linkage of pretty much everything we do, and be open to the idea that various tipping points, pivots, opportunities for transformation and uptake may not necessarily be found in planning, engineering, or industrial design for instance; they may be cultural, personal/psychological, political....
The cultural (including attitudinal) aspects are so fundamental that we tend to be blind to them within our own circles and societies, only identifying them when they crop up as a barrier to cross-cultural communication.


The cultural (including attitudinal) aspects are so fundamental that we tend to be blind to them within our own circles and societies, only identifying them when they crop up as a barrier to cross-cultural communication. As participants in a highly technological society we tend to take an initial approach to nature and the built environment as 'overcoming' versus 'adapting'. I take comfort and strategic guidance from the knowledge that this too is a cultural attitude rather than something hardwired at the species level. Because attitudes can and do change.

How can I be so sure this is cultural? From many years of working with various Indigenous communities, in part as an intercultural translator and bridge-builder. In trying to separate the core distinctions which genuinely characterize Indigenous world views from those of industrialized societies, there is a short list which has more or less been agreed by many cultural groups. Key differences include that Indigenous perspective sees the world as alive rather than a set of commodities, it sees humanity in a respectful relationship to the others sharing our world, and the first and preferred response to situations which we would engineer is to adapt to rather than manipulate the system. They also tend to be more aware of, accepting and comfortable with time factors.

So the fact that there are other cultural perspectives which prefer adaptation over manipulation is encouraging. We don't have to think the ways we currently do. We have choice.

We are in the midst of paradigm change. It is messy. All truly creative process is messy. Biomimicry brings biologists to the design table. We also need expertise and perspective from many other disciplines and everyday experiences to be brought into the conversations, and not in a tokenistic "stakeholder consultation", but as authorities on their own understanding. Innovation is more than new ideas and new strategies; it is about new voices.

That's more than I thought I was going to say. I think I need another cup of coffee :)

Bringing Back the Reefs

One of the unfortunate "Poster Boys" for climate chaos has been coral bleaching, the worldwide die-off or coral reefs, and attendant loss of biodiversity, fisheries, and livelihoods.

Bleaching occurs when stress causes corals to expel symbiotic algae. Several factors can cause bleaching, but, according to Mark Eakin, coordinator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch, the only thing that could cause mass bleaching on this geographical scale is high temperatures maintained over a period of months. "There is some evidence that local factors and other climate-scale factors, such as ocean acidification, sea-level rise and changes in storm intensity, may influence bleaching sensitivity," he says. "But temperature is the big driver." (See Nature 19 November 2010, Coral bleaching goes from bad to worse )

Now under intense and unrelenting stress from environmental changes, those reefs retaining any semblance of their former health and diversity are perversely becoming victims of their own survival as underwater tourists concentrate around them. (I actually wrote about a related issue back in the days before blogs: western conservation strategies which create parks and reserves as islands of wildness --- and thus magnets for Nature-starved millions who essentially "pet them to death").


Like many of the other positive stories ignored by mainstream media, the combined focus of artists, biologists and business (tourism in this case) can come up with some effective responses. We should all take heart, because rather than leaving the case of the corals to advocacy and pressure groups, others have begun to (literally) jump in and get to work with reconstruction and restoration. Not surprisingly, these include gardeners.



The Corals for Conservation program was first initiated in 1999 in Fiji, as ”The Coral Gardens Initiative”. The program focuses at restoring degraded coral reef ecosystems by working in partnership with marine resource owners to develop community-based marine management plans and to implement strategies to rectify problems such as over-fishing and coral reef decline.The program started in Fiji under the name “The Coral Gardens-Living Reefs Initiative”.  In 2008 work was ongoing in five district level sites.  The work has been extended to Samoa and the Caribbean using donor funding.  New countries and sites within a country can be added, as long as there is strong local support and donor funds can be found.


See what I mean? Twelve years in operation and largely ignored by the media. And this is NEWS!


It gets better....


Like the work of Rachel Armstrong with metabolic materials and limestone formation (but much earlier), the process of Electrodeposition of Minerals in Sea Water known as Mineral Accretion Technology was developed by Architect, Marine Scientist, Prof. Wolf H. Hilbertz. Through extensive experimental applications, demonstration projects commenced in 1974, covering artificial reefs, coastal defense structures, shoreline stabilization - erosion control, mariculture, and marine construction.Although initially developed for structural applications, exceptional accumulations and growth rates of marine organisms on accreting structures were observed. The process was further developed as Biorock, where electric currents running through purpose-built steel frameworks speed up the rate of recolonization several fold.


Prof. Hibertz and Biorock have made impressive and in my opinion, phenomenally encouraging work in Bali, where the combination of local fisheries and tourism have started to recover from what seemed an inevitable collapse as the reefs were dying a relatively short while ago. His project is by no means secure, nor are the reefs and the communities which depend upon their health, but he has developed and demonstrated a vital and straightforward technology for restoration of some of Earth's most important habitats. Biorock deserves far more attention and support, and it needs to go mainstream now.


Still other, and obvious/inspiring coral recovery linked to tourism is a joint Jordanian - Israeli venture (already notable just at that) to establish new artificial reef bases
in the Gulf of Aqaba, which lies at the northern end of the Red Sea and is bordered by both Israel and Jordan as well as Egypt and Saudia Arabia farther south. A 1994 peace deal between Israel and Jordan mandated that the two countries work together on combating marine pollution, natural resources issues, and coastal reef protection in the gulf.

Photograph courtesy Eran Brokovich, National Geographic News


These reefs draw tourists from around the world to the neighboring resort cities of Elat, Israel, and Al 'Aqabah, Jordan. And as elsewhere, more tourism and less reef creates a perfect formula for "suffocation via love". The artificial reefs are part of a response which will provide divers more places to visit, and eventually will support new coral growth and and extension of the natural reef system. (See more : National Geographic News, September 25, 2007)

I have saved the best for last. In a lyric fusion of art and conservation, more than 400 permanent sculptures have been installed in recent months in the National Marine Park of Cancún, Isla Mujeres, and Punta Nizuc as part of a major artwork called "The Silent Evolution." The installation is the first endeavor of a new underwater museum called MUSA, or Museo Subacuático de Arte.


The statues are made from a special marine-grade concrete which is not only stable in salt water, but which provides a chemically friendly foothold for colonization by algae, molluscs and corals. Created by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, the Caribbean installation is intended to eventually cover more than 4,520 square feet (420 square meters), which would make it "one of the largest and most ambitious underwater attractions in the world," achieve some relief from the approximately 750,000 tourists who visit local reefs each year. "Part of this project is to actually discharge those people away from the natural reefs and bring them to an area of artificial reefs."

Architecture That Grows Itself

Going beyond "biomimicry" and "bioinspiration", cutting edge research into "metabolic materials" has developed pseudo-cells whose behavior is animate, responsive, and constructive. In this short talk given by Rachel Armstrong for TED Talks, she discusses how a new species of synthetic "cells" have been developed to fix carbon as a very familiar material: limestone. Wait. You just have to watch and see for yourself.


EN: Venice is sinking. To save it, Rachel Armstrong says we need to outgrow architecture made of inert materials and, well, make architecture that grows itself. She proposes a not-quite-alive material that does its own repairs and sequesters carbon, too.


ES: Venecia, en Italia, se está hundiendo. Para salvarla, Rachel Amstrong dice que necesitamos superar la arquitectura hecha de materiales inertes y hacer arquitectura que crezca por sí misma. Ella propone un material "no del todo vivo" que se hace sus propias reparaciones y, además, captura el carbono.



Metabolic Materials: Rachel Armstrong's hope is that, in the future, cities will be able to replace the energy they draw from the environment, respond to the needs of their populations and eventually become regarded as "alive" -- in the same way we think about parks or gardens. Since "metabolic materials" are made from terrestrial chemistry, they would not be exclusive to the developed world, and would have the potential to transform urban environments worldwide.

Multifaceted: A medical doctor, multi-media producer, science fiction author and arts collaborator. Rachel's current research explores architectural design and mythologies about new technology. She is working with scientists and architects to explore cutting-edge, sustainable technologies. Like and unlike the work of Jason de Caires Taylor, Rachel combines art with conservation in a way which is practical, inspired and seems obvious....but only after the fact - -  leaving a smile, a sense of wonder, and the question, "now why didn't anyone think of that before?"

"Scientists need to work outside their own areas of expertise to make new technologies that are pertinent to the 21st century and to collaborate, both with other scientific disciplines and the arts and humanities."
Rachel Armstrong

Certificate in Sustainable Design Innovation - Ireland


TEPUI has co-developed with IT Carlow and the Design Ireland Skillnet a certificate course in Sustainable Design Innovation. This module has now been accredited as an ECTS 10 credit Level 9 module (post- Masters Degree) by the Irish Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC.


This 15-week course ran for two consecutive years, with students coming from a variety of backgrounds, most being mid-career professionals. They included architects, landscape designers, graphic designers, fashion designers, industrial materials designers, planners, industrial product designers, design managers, marketing managers and other business managers with responsibility for new product development (NPD), company strategy and design. In other words, representation was broad, and this served to enrich the exchange of ideas and experiences in the class.


In 2008/2009 and 2009/2010, the program consisted of........................ <--break->

  • Introduction to Sustainable Design

  • Introduction to Biomimicry

  • Design Activism and Social Design

  • Permaculture Principles

  • Practical sustainable design innovation strategies

  • Social and environmental legislative considerations

  • Lifecycle Thinking, Simplified LCA (Lifecycle Analysis)

  • Materials selection and procurement

  • Corporate and Social responsibility

  • Packaging and waste considerations for designers and business

  • Marketing sustainable design

  • Sustainable Design for competitive advantage 

  • Presentation skills

  • Accelerated creativity techniques

The SDI course is focused around continual development of an Applied Research Project, with visiting lecturers representing the cutting edge of their fields.

Because the course seeks to position students at the leading edge of an emerging industry, all content is "live" and subject to change as times and needs suggest.

The course is blessed by a broad network of sustainability practitioners, many of whom presented lectures over the period from 2008-2010. These included:

Mark Bennett, Green Business Officer, Dublin City Council: Social and Corporate Responsibility

Paul Butler, Snr. Commercialisation Specialist at Enterprise Ireland:  Materials selection and procurement/ Lifecycle Thinking, Simplified LCA (Lifecycle Analysis)

Jonathon Crinion, Holistic Design Ecology: Design Ecology and Paradigm Shifts/ Intro to Cradle to Cradle Strategies/ Environmental impacts, supply chain and end-of life considerations

Adam de Eyto: Introduction to Sustainable Design, Product Life Cycle Analysis Lab (Adam is a co-developer of the SDI course)

 Denise de Luca, Project Lead Swedish Biomimetics 3000 and Outreach Representative The Biomimicry Institute: Basics of Biomimicry

Alastair Fuad-Luke: Design Activism and Slo Design
Mike Haslam, Solearth Ecological Architecture: Eco Architecture

Dorothy Maxwell, Global View Sustainability Services Ltd: Evironmental Impacts of Products - The Big Three: Carbon, Energy and Water Footprints Plus
Kate Nolan, ReDress.ie: Sustainable Fashion Design

Brian O'Brien, Solearth Ecological Architecture: Eco-Architecture
Frank O'Connor, EcoDesign Centre Wales:Sustainable Design for competitive advantage  / Marketing sustainable design (Frank is a co-developer of the SDI course)

Paul O'Connor: Why Sustainable Design?, Accelerated Creativity Techniques

Simon O'Rafferty, EcoDesign Centre Wales: Incentives and Support for Sustainability in Design / Social and environmental legislative considerations

Rosie O'Reilly, ReDress.ie: Sustainable Fashion Design

Simon Stringer, Leaf Environmental Ltd :Packaging and waste considerations for designers and Business

Erik van Lennep: From Eco-Design to to Sustainable Design, Presentation and Communication Skills (Erik is a co-developer of the SDI course)

Richard Webb: Permaculture and Landscape Design


National and institutional funding issues did not permit running the course in 2010/2011 as designed and produced by TEPUI, although the need for this training is stronger and more relevant than ever. If you would like to speak with us about running an equivalent training programme for your company, institution or local authority, let us know.


Here's what some of the students and guest lecturers had to say about the course:

  • The Sustainable Design Innovation course content is one of the most well thought out I have seen. It gets the balance and depth just right on key sustainability and design know how to enable professionals to practically apply sustainable design in their areas of expertise. -Dr. Dorothy Maxwell (Technical Director, Global View Sustainability Services; previously, Senior Environmental Specialist for Enterprise Ireland)  
  • This course is not about the plethora of 'Post -It' type solutions available today, It is about fundamental philosophy and knowledge to see through the volumes of misinformation and dubious solutions used to 'Greenwash' products , processes and companies, Outstanding.- David Mavroudis (Architect)
  • There are so many buzz words around sustainability these days. A course like this goes back to first principles and gives foundation to an understanding of what they actually mean and represent. Putting the theory into practice is the place that a course like this can be a catalyst for any person across different disciplines.- Patrick Shaffery (Architect)
  • I would say that sustainability is the way of all future living and that it is really important that we get involved now and at all levels. The SDI course is a fantastic course to get you thinking of moving forwards.- Fiona Lynch (Graphic Designer with Irish Life)


A Renewable World ....(FREE download)

A Renewable World: Energy, Ecology, Equality

by Herbert Girardet and Miguel Mendonca

The post-Copenhagen world requires a fresh look at the big picture. In the absence of international agreements, what steps can be taken nationally, regionally and locally to reduce both carbon emissions and carbon concentrations? The former can be achieved through a transformation in energy production, saving and use, and the latter through biological carbon sequestration. This book sets out examples of these strategies, in policy and practice, from around the world. In addition, the essential question of the active participation of all sectors of society in this transformation is considered through examples of existing initiatives, and the wider issue of democratic reform.

A Renewable World was developed in conjunction with dozens of world experts and features solutions on renewable energy, biosequestration, energy sufficiency, energy for developing countries, green collar jobs, cities, transport, agriculture and food, regional economies, and civil participation and democracy. It seeks to clarify what can be done, and how we can all benefit, long into the future.


"Here’s the book we’ve been waiting for, a thorough, up-to-date, and above all proportionate response to our climatic predicament. When I say proportionate, I mean: it tells us how to solve the problem we really have, not the one we wish we had. It’s truly important!"
Bill McKibben, Founder, 350.org

2009 Year in Review for IBI

The International Biochar Initiative has gone from strength to strength in the past year, and TEPUI are delighted to see (and occasionally contribute to) that progress. They have just released their 2009 Review, and I have included it in this post.

If you can see the potential for this highly scalable technology for rebuilding soil productivity while sequestering significant amounts of carbon, then consider helping out IBI with a membership. Links for all that and more are in the review text which follows:

"IBI has achieved some major milestones in 2009 that we are proud to share. Organizationally, we grew from two part-time staff members in 2008 to six at the end of 2009. We began the process of expanding our board, bringing on new board member David Wayne in October. We drafted IBI's first strategic plan and launched a membership program. We convened a new advisory committee of 39 members from 13 countries to consult on all aspects of IBI's work. Thanks to the hard work of administrative director Lee Parker, we set up all the systems for planning, accounting and reporting that a non-profit organization needs in support of the IBI programs that we are developing to serve the biochar community. Here are some highlights of our program work in 2009:

"Research Support

Objective: To support the development of a knowledge base on biochar characteristics in relationship to soil health, crop productivity, by-product management, bioenergy production and carbon sequestration.

"Biochar Standards - Starting at the May 2009 Asia Pacific Biochar Conference in Australia and continuing to the North American Biochar Initiative conference in the USA, IBI initiated a biochar characterization workgroup that will develop a definition of biochar and a classification scheme across feedstocks, production systems and applications. This work will become a major IBI focus in 2010.

"Biochar Community Resources - We added website resources including a searchable research bibliography, an academic and research program directory, a list of biochar reports and a series of research summaries explaining important aspects of biochar research to the general public.

"Research - IBI Extension Director Julie Major drafted a research gaps matrix to indentify areas that need more attention and funding. Julie and board member Johannes Lehmann reviewed biochar research projects and papers and made numerous presentations at scientific meetings and conferences.


Objective: To promote the adoption of supporting policy mechanisms within the global community regarding the inclusion of biochar in all appropriate policy contexts.

"UNFCCC process - After a successful launch for biochar at COP 14 in Poznan in 2008, IBI Executive Director Debbie Reed pressed forward with the process, attending informal UNFCCC meetings and negotiations in Bonn, Germany in April and June. IBI also hosted a side event at the UNCCD (UN Convention to Combat Desertification) COP9 in Buenos Aires in September. As a result of our joint work with UNCCD, 16 countries and the UNCCD Secretariat itself have made submissions to the UNFCCC to include biochar in the negotiating text for the next climate agreement. At COP15 in Copenhagen, the IBI delegation hosted one side event and participated in several others concerning biochar, marking a new high point of interest in biochar as a climate solution. IBI also continued to educate delegates, high-ranking government officials, non-governmental environmental groups and other conference observers of the benefits of biochar at the COP15, and held several meetings with the biochar community, bringing together interested parties from multiple backgrounds. IBI has also secured UNFCCC credentials as a observer group to the Convention, assuring us a seat at the table as climate negotiations continue.

"National and Regional - Debbie Reed prepared written biochar briefs for the Australian government, the UK Parliament and the European Union Energy Directorate. She also reviewed proposed carbon standard methodologies and white papers on biochar offsets, including one for the state of California and one for the Voluntary Carbon Standard.  Debbie has also provided policy support and strategic advice to multiple members of the international biochar community at the national and sub-national level. 

"US policy - Debbie Reed met with staff at the White House, State Department, EPA, USDA and the Department of Interior regarding the role of biochar as a climate mitigation, waste management, and soil enhancement technology. She has also conducted briefing and educational sessions for many congressional offices and committees in the US House and the Senate. In June, Johannes Lehmann testified at a congressional hearing on climate change impacts. As a result of this work, biochar is now a part of two important pieces of pending legislation, and will be included in a third.

"Project Support

Objective: Expand and facilitate biochar production and utilization demonstration projects globally.

"Developing country projects - IBI is supporting projects through assistance in the areas of agronomy and pyrolysis in several countries. We have been able to help projects secure funding in a few cases. Julie Major visited projects in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Chile, while board member Stephen Joseph provided hands on help with a new kiln design used in a Costa Rica project.

"Extension services - In July, IBI hired Jane Lynch as technical extension director. Jane has been working in Australia with Stephen Joseph to develop testing procedures for biochar kilns and stoves. Through the Ask the Extension Director form on the IBI website, as well as via telephone calls and emails, Jane and Julie have answered dozens of questions each month from farmers, gardeners, project developers and regional biochar groups.

"Training materials - IBI published a Guide to Conducting Biochar Trials written by Julie Major. Julie and Jane are developing additional training materials and guides that we will offer as online workshops in 2010.

"Commercialization - IBI developed a biochar value streams matrix to help guide thinking about commercialization potential of biochar. Many ideas are now on the table and new programs to assist companies will continue to blossom in 2010.


Objective: To be an objective and reliable source of information on biochar policy, production and utilization.

"Presentations - IBI staff and board members maintained a busy schedule of presentations at meetings and conferences addressing scientific societies, agricultural organizations, and newly formed biochar regional groups.

"Conferences and regional groups - IBI co-sponsored regional biochar conferences around the world including the Asia Pacific Biochar Conference in Australia, the North American Biochar Conference in the USA, and smaller regional conferences. We supported the formation of 24 regional biochar groups in 15 countries and regions and provided a page for each group on our website. IBI Communications Director, Thayer Tomlinson, started work on the next IBI international conference to be held in Brazil in 2010.

"Networking - Thayer and IBI Communications Editor, Kelpie Wilson, transformed the IBI website into an information-dense platform with daily news updates and networking features like a member directory, a bulletin board and a blog. Our monthly newsletter kept the community informed about new projects and developments in research and policy, and we answered several hundred individual requests for more information via phone and email.

"Publications - We contributed to the preparation and support of the book Biochar for Environmental Management, released in February 2009. We prepared many fact sheets, white papers and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. We reported on biochar projects and activities around the world.

"Membership - IBI has launched a membership program to widen our support base. IBI is grateful for the start-up funding it has received from foundations and generous individuals. Now the IBI needs to broaden its sources of funding onto a sustainable basis. Our membership program will not only provide core funding, but it will establish a reciprocal relationship between IBI and practitioners and interested parties around the world.

"Please Join IBI today! Those who signal their continuing interest through membership will be welcomed into a reliable community whose opinions will continue to help steer and develop the work of the IBI. We hope you will want to contribute to the realization of biochar's potential as one of the "wedges" that offer a solution to the climate crisis.

To all those who have already joined as IBI Members - a Big Thank You!

"Show your Support--Become an IBI Charter Member

From now until 31 January 2010, IBI invites biochar supporters to become Charter Members of IBI. Charter Members will receive a special gift - the IBI hat - free with your membership dues.

"As you can see, IBI has worked very hard over the past year to advance biochar. Through this work of IBI and others, more people are recognizing that sustainable biochar is a powerfully simple tool to fight global warming. But we need your help to hit the ground running in 2010 to continually expand the services we can offer to the biochar community. Help us raise the resources we need to support greater development of sustainable biochar - become an IBI member!

"Sustainable biochar is one of the few technologies that is relatively inexpensive, widely applicable and quickly scalable. We really can't afford not to pursue it.

Click here to join.



"Call for Abstracts for USBI 2010 Conference

"Recent advances in biochar science and technology will be showcased at Biochar 2010: U.S. Biochar Initiative Conference, hosted by Iowa State University on June 27-30. Join scientists, engineers, policymakers, policy analysts, producers, and users to discuss these critical developments.

Call for Abstracts now open • Deadline for submission: February 1

For Biochar2010 conference information, visit www.biorenew.iastate.edu/biochar2010

"First Biochar Workshop Held in Malaysia

The first Biochar Malaysia Workshop was held December 14, 2009 in Kuala Lumpur and was organized by Dr Amran Salleh. Among the speakers were the Vice Chancellor of the University Putra Malaysia, Dr Nik Mustapha R. Abdullah; the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology speaking for the Minister, Dr. Maximus Johnity Ongkili, and IBI Chair Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University.


"The event provided ample opportunity for lively discussion on the science and technology priorities for biochar in Malaysia and the opportunities and needs for organizing a Malaysian biochar initiative. To read more about the workshop, see: https://www.icc.upm.edu.my/biochar/index.php?content=home "

Are humans creative enough for the coming future?

I am completely sure we are born creative, otherwise we would have not arrived this far.

However I am also convinced that our mainstream education systems are killing this gift. We are taught to be afraid of mistake, and to do everything according to tradition.

There are big changes coming in the next few years: oil and other mineral resources are peaking, and climate change might reach a tipping point soon. In that scenario, our books and university degrees might not suit our needs, and we will need our creativity back.

Thanks, Sir Ken Robinson, for pointing this out at TED talks.


What Is Biochar? A Valuable Soil Amendment

Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.

Biochar ready to apply

"Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil conditioner. "Biochar can be an important tool to increase sustainable food production in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies.

"Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of leaching into groundwater and causing pollution.

"The carbon in biochar resists degradation and can sequester carbon in soils for  hundreds to thousands of years. Biochar is produced through pyrolysis or gasification — processes that heat biomass in the absence (or under reduction) of air.

"Oils and gases co-produced with biochar, in well-designed pyrolysis or gasification equipment, can be used as fuel, providing clean, renewable energy. When the biochar is buried in the ground as a soil amendment, the system can become "carbon negative."

"Biochar and bioenergy co-production can help combat global climate change by displacing fossil fuel use and by sequestering carbon in stable soil carbon pools. It may also reduce emissions of nitrous oxide.

"In the next few decades, the use of biochar should be able to offset carbon emissions by 1 gigaton per year — an amount which could increase in subsequent years."

From the International Biochar Initiative website.


The Promise of Biochar:(Part One of Two) - Video produced by the International Biochar Initiative and Lily Films  for the The United Nations Climate Change Conference discussions in Pozna?, December 2008



The Promise of Biochar: (Part Two of Two)



Charcoal may be inert, but Biochar is biologically active; it is a Living Technology. This presentation discusses the potential of biochar or agrichar to improve the fertility of poor soils, and to sequester carbon. (Focus on first international Biochar conference, in Australia).


Biochar for Environmental Management - Book Review

Biochar for Environmental Management

"There is one way we could save ourselves..." 
In a recent interview in New Scientist James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory, cited biochar as the one chance we have left to save humankind.

Finally, the long-awaited “biochar bible” has been published. I have been reading and reviewing Lehmann and Joseph’s textbook on biochar for the past month, and I am thoroughly impressed. The edited collection of articles treads the difficult line between technical terminology and layperson’s vocabulary without losing any scientific rigor or lapsing into exclusionary jargon. Biochar for Environmental Management covers engineering, environmental sciences, agricultural sciences, economics and policy.

This is a very readable and well organized, up to the minute introduction to the world of biochar. You could teach a full course out of this book, or excerpt discussions and details to backup your own presentations to policy makers, businesses, farmers and community groups.

I have a few personal tests for the usability and appeal of a new book, akin to the “can’t put it down” test. I fully admit a certain nerd-like orientation when it comes to the biosphere, living systems, restoration ecology and climate change so when a book becomes a constant companion at bedside and breakfast table, it wins points. The fact that the information is organized so I can open to chapters at random and eventually get the full picture, or read more conventionally from start to finish tells me that the narrative is well conceived and the information presented holistically. I like that about a book, and the information landscape covered is thorough enough to justify all 384 pages. When plopped onto a desk, this gives the book the sort of gravitas that immediately commands respect.

"If it finds a wide enough readership, it will change our world forever, and very much for the better." 
Tim Flannery, from the foreword to Biochar for Environmental Management

To get a 20% discount for the book you can type TEPUI into the voucher code box when buying the book here.


About Biochar:

”Biochar is the carbon-rich product when biomass (such as wood, manure or crop residues) is heated in a closed container with little or no available air. It can be used to improve agriculture and the environment in several ways, and its stability in soil and superior nutrient-retention properties make it an ideal soil amendment to increase crop yields. In addition to this, biochar sequestration, in combination with sustainable biomass production, can be carbon-negative and therefore used to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, with major implications for mitigation of climate change. Biochar production can also be combined with bioenergy production through the use of the gases that are given off in the pyrolysis process”.

The Editors:

Johannes Lehmann, associate professor of soil biogeochemistry and soil fertility management at Cornell University, is co-founder and Chair of the Board of the International Biochar Initiative, and member of the editorial boards of Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems and Plant and Soil. 

Dr Stephen Joseph is a visiting professor at the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales, Australia and Vice Chairman of the International Biochar Initiative 

Probortunities: A Way Out of the Crisis

(This article was originally oublished in the March 2009 issue of HLI, Horticulture and Landscape Ireland)


The economic bubble has burst, bringing an avalanche of crises with it. We have peaked not just the global oil reserves, but most reserves of industrial metals, clean water, soil fertility and biodiversity. Innovation and critical thinking, as well as leadership have slipped from our cultural vocabulary after decades of self centred gorging within that bubble economy. To come through this will challenge all of our individual and collective abilities.  But, I believe we have three or four fairly “easy” (or at least obvious) avenues to explore, building upon a combination of the strengths and orientation of our sector, and the needs of our time.

Rummaging through our collective toolbox of skills, perceptions and material resources, one of the first things to surface is design. Design is both process and product closely related to strategy and vision, both of which are desperately needed to find a way forward and out of the mess. We need to look at our options and needs through the lens of design, open to new possibilities and start thinking outside the box. If we rigorously apply the process, make it second nature, we will open new directions.

Looking on in exasperation as leadership flounders in the face of a global meltdown, I am thinking of ways to repackage my strategic and design insights to provide support and training for leaders. If we took this up as a challenge to our industry, I foresee localised teams of design consultants coming on to boards and committees at many levels, facilitating the development of sustainability visions and plans to achieve them  I would be delighted to talk with any other design strategists who get my point and are ready for action.

We already work with living organisms and systems in our everyday activity. We understand (even if not always practicing) cycling and conservation of materials, how to grow, the factors of biological productivity. General awareness of all things green has exploded, and despite the recession, there is a genuine desire to maintain the momentum already set in green design, green building, green holidays and more. Climate change, food security, tight budgets: these only serve to underscore the urgency of shifting onto a greener and more sustainable footing.

Technology development and funding have been increasing steadily in the pursuit of more sustainable options, and at the forefront of this trend is “living technologies”: solutions based upon the natural functioning of living organisms and systems to clean our air, water and soils, to produce energy, to insulate our homes and more. The single economic sector still growing, even now, is “green technologies”, or “clean tech”. With a renewed push to bring down carbon and save energy, clean tech continues to interest investors, and will certainly provide the bones of a new economy. The EU recently committed us to significant reductions in CO2 over the coming decades. Pundits have warned the cost will be in the billions of euros (never mind the cost of non-action becoming incalculable). What seems to slip from the discussion is that every euro spent goes into someone else’s pocket. They represent jobs at a time they are desperately needed. We are already members of a crack team engaged in carbon sequestration for millennia. This is what plants do so well, and we are among those best positioned to fine-tune our activities to fit the (re)newed agenda of slowing climate change.

Energy audits, energy efficiency, food miles, urban flooding, water conservation…all topping the list of current agenda, and all within our remit. Living roofs and living facades on buildings are big business elsewhere in Europe and the world, as they directly support such agenda. Constructed wetlands, rainwater harvesting, and “biochar” are other green tech solutions which fit well with our sector.

As fuel costs and the need to reduce emissions conspire to make local food production the most economic option, once again we will be needed to redesign community green spaces, from front gardens to local parks as active components of a local food security strategy. And we know our plants the way nobody else does. We can develop specialty nurseries providing the wealth of edible perennials and woody stock which can be grown in Ireland.

Our sector holds many of the tools required for this transition; many of the skills can be updated, reshaped, properly positioned and better presented to assume our rightful place within a wider and diverse team.

We need to convene a national conference on Living Technologies and developing the green sector. Let me know if you’d like to help.

Erik is founder and CEO of TEPUI, a design consortium specializing in living technologies.

Erik (with Sinead FInn) produced the planning brief for incorporation of green roofs into Dublin's city development plan, is sustainable technologies consultant to the Qatar Foundation's Design Zone project, and teaches Ireland's first Masters level course in Sustainable Design and Innovation. He is a plant explorer, new crops researcher and sometimes orchid breeder.


Right now over 70 percent of the world population is convinced that something serious has to be done about the dangers facing the planet. ...Most of humanity wants to know how to make the change. It's one of those tipping-point times where things can change unbelievably fast...
— Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson
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