Farms are ecosystems too

This post is the third in a series about exploring Montana’s organic farming movement as I move from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro my travels on Grist. 

Monoculture farmland is the concrete of rural America.

Concrete makes urban settings feel detached from ecology, as if cities were somehow not part of nature. As my friend Neil Baunsgard and I ride bikes across our great continent’s agricultural heartland, the celebrated amber waves of single-species grain create a similar effect. It may not feel like it, but both concrete and crops are really just nature that’s been transformed by people and our machines.

Humans engineer both paved surfaces and monoculture fields to dedicate pieces of land to just one function — constructing cities and feeding them, respectively — at the expense of diverse ecosystems. The specialization of land, like its better-known brother the specialization of labor, treats life itself like a mere cog in the economic machine.

Healthy land needs diversity. Have you ever seen a patch of wild nature occupied by just one species? Farmers generally recognize the value of hosting many species on their land, particularly in light of mounting evidence that greater biological diversity on the farm correlates with fewer pests.

But to make ends meet, farmers must supply commodity crops at the whims of consumers who don’t have to think about where their groceries come from. Even for folks who do try to make sustainable eating choices, supporting biodiverse grain production in lands far away often takes a back seat to buying local veggies and fruits at the farmers market. I certainly never paid much attention to the sources of barley in my beer or the lentils I buy for soup before I began this exploration of Montana’s organic farming movement and was surprised by grain growing’s immense scale.


Walking through an organic crop of a heritage wheat variety. Some might call it a monoculture. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Two days after the first stop on our northern plains farm tour, Neil and I find ourselves at Vilicus Farms, a 4700-acre organic operation just six miles from the Canadian border. Liana Nichols, an apprentice at the farm, met us in Havre, Montana, with a pickup truck to haul our bodies and bicycles 36 miles north to the remote, agrarian home. She is our guide and host for the visit, since Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband Doug Crabtree, who own and run the farm, are out-of-town this weekend. “The crazy part about living here is it’s incredibly isolated,” says Liana. “If I’m out on a tractor for a day, I see nobody.”

A few days before, Liz Carlisle, author of the book that inspired me to visit organic farmers in Montana, assured me that Vilicus was well worth visiting, even though it’s far off our route along U.S. Highway 2. She said it was a unique place because of its large-scale biological diversity and the level of rigor in the farming apprenticeship program — it’s like a professional graduate school. Anna Jones-Crabtree tells me they are growing 16 different crops this year, which she says is typical for Vilicus. Crops are planted in strips, each a mile or half-mile long but just 240 feet wide. Twenty-foot buffer areas separate neighboring strips.

Liana shows us colorful maps on the farmhouse wall that show what’s planted in the farm’s sixty-odd strips, along with the history of plantings that have populated each strip over the past five years. At the bottom of each plot’s map, a chart tracks what sorts of work have been done on each strip this year — dates of tillings, seeding, and empty rows below for scouting, swathing, harvesting, and more tilling. The diagrams’ red, green, blue, and yellow ribbons accentuate Vilicus Farms’ diversity.

Vibrant maps of the Villicus Farms' narrow strips display each ribbon-like field's current plantings, recent history, and task checklist. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Vibrant maps of the Villicus Farms’ narrow strips display each ribbon-like field’s current plantings, recent history, and task checklist. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Hanging out in the farmhouse at Vilicus is a cultural shift from our last two weeks on the road through rural Montana. Organic bulk goods like tulsi rose tea and white wheat berries fill neatly labeled sealed jars on wooden shelves above the kitchen counter. A bucket for food scraps to be composted sits just around the corner, and metals and paper are also separated from the rest of the waste stream, even though the Crabtrees have to take them over 200 miles to Helena for recycling. To Neil and I, it’s reminiscent of home. Liana agrees that it “feels wrong” to throw beer cans in the garbage with everything else, which we’ve had to do through much of the rest of Montana.

Just outside, newly delivered solar panels and parts wait to be installed next to the garage. There aren’t many solar arrays in the area, despite the sunny climate. Liana explains that the local electric cooperative is apprehensive about member-customers generating their own power, afraid that jobs may be lost if production decentralizes.

After eating a tasty dinner of microwave-baked potatoes topped with leftover chili and collectively draining a growler of Duck Face IPA, the sweet-yet-bitter, famously sneaky nine-percent-alcohol offering from Havre’s Triple Dog Brewery, the three of us head off down the procession of narrow fields, stopping at a strip of waist-high green wheat. We’re roguing this mile-long belt of organic grain, which means weeding by hand.

A few years ago, the Crabtrees were blacklisted by one buyer of organic wheat because their crop was contaminated with rye. Many organic farmers plant rye to crowd out weeds because it’s an aggressive species, capable of taking over a field. But when that land goes back to producing high-value crops like wheat, rye itself turns into a pest plant as leftover seeds germinate among the intended crop. Rye’s assertive vigor then becomes a liability. Roguing is the only way to remove it. And roguing is a big human effort.

Now, a rare lull in the farm’s endless cycle of chores — and the presence of a couple of pairs of enthusiastic, unskilled, suburban hands — allows for hiking through the field and picking out rye grass. As the early summer sun tumbles majestically to the western edge of Montana’s truly big sky, we wade through wheat, plucking weeds from the soil and stuffing them in garbage sacks. It’s easy to spot the rascal rye plants; they stand about a foot higher than the surrounding grain. It occurs to me that we’re basically maintaining a monoculture, albeit a monoculture of chemical-free wheat.

A renegade rye sticks up out of the wheat field. Photo: Neil Baunsgard

A renegade rye sticks up out of the wheat field. Photo: Neil Baunsgard

At Vilicus Farms, monoculture is an illusion, a temporary snapshot in an evolving cycle of diversity. Even in strips inhabited by a single, reigning cash crop, like the wheat field we’re roguing, the Crabtrees rotate between a wide variety of plant species over subsequent seasons, continually experimenting with original, and often unorthodox, successions of short grains, pulses, oilseeds, and other grasses. They keep detailed records to track what works best, aiming for sequences that maintain nutrients and moisture in the soil, prevent perennial weeds from establishing, and support a healthy ecosystem of tiny life underground. Where diversity in space isn’t practical or commercially viable, diversity through time can create ecological well-being.

Elsewhere on Vilicus Farms, multiple species do inhabit a single plot of land. Flax is a common companion of khorasan wheat, an ancient variety that fellow Montanan Bob Quinn has trademarked as Kamut brand in an attempt to ensure that it’s always produced fairly and ecologically. And in the 20-foot buffer ribbons that separate the farm’s 240-foot-wide fields, a mix of flowering plants creates a nourishing environment for pollinator species, intentionally adding beneficial animals to the diverse flora. The USDA remunerates the Crabtrees to maintain this pollinator habitat through its Conservation Reserve Program, a scheme that ecological economists would call “payments for ecosystem services,” which means rewarding farmers with cash for generating environmental benefits that help everyone. No private party would pay them to dedicate a bit of land to hosting bees and other pollinating bugs, even though it will be useful to all the neighbors.

But programs like the one that pays the Crabtrees for maintaining pollinator habitat are, at this point, relatively scarce. In today’s agricultural capitalism, the ecological values of certain crops and practices seldom align with the dollar values that they earn in commodity markets. Farmers must try to keep their land healthy and fertile for the long-term while also remaining financially viable right now. They make trade-offs to balance these goals, measuring costs and benefits in two ways that often contradict each other.

To put in place more mechanisms that make it worthwhile, or even economically possible, for farmers to harvest biodiversity, there must be evidence of the environmental and agricultural advantages of multi-species systems. With substantial proof that a wide variety of life is good for the medium- to long-term productivity of a farm, growers may adopt practices that foster diversity even without additional financial incentives. Toward this end, the Crabtrees’ operation certainly does its part.

All the student-interns at Vilicus must complete a capstone project as part of their apprenticeship, much like in a degree-granting academic program. Liana tells us about her plans to analyze how the Crabtrees’ diversity of plants affects microbial diversity in the soil. She’ll extract soil samples from different strips, plate and incubate them, and then examine the sorts of enzymes that are present in each sample, using that as a proxy for what goes on below ground. This information can be used, in conjunction with the Crabtrees’ meticulous records of what’s been planted in each strip, to compare the impacts of different crop rotations and intercropping combinations on biodiversity in the soil, a characteristic closely linked to fertility. In short, Liana wants to show how diverse life aboveground fosters diverse life underground. The opportunity to apprentice at Vilicus, says Liana, is an “awesome platform for studying all sorts of things.”

Yet it’s difficult to expect farmers to go crazy experimenting, Neil reminds us, because unlike agricultural researchers, they actually have to make sure they get a yield. The balancing act between environmental mindfulness and economic prudence gets even more complicated when results are uncertain in terms of all variables. Liana says she’s interested in how to link ecological research with real farm issues, and isn’t quite sure if that means going back to school for a graduate degree or not.

A wonderful sign on the kitchen wall in the Crabtrees' farmhouse. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

A wonderful sign on the kitchen wall in the Crabtrees’ farmhouse. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

In her debut book, Lentil Underground, Liz Carlisle writes, “Perhaps most insidious thing about monoculture is that getting out of the habit of working with other species has also gotten us out of the habit of working with one another.” For organic farmers in Montana, sharing knowledge might be the most important piece of the real sharing economy that could help make large-scale agriculture work better for both humans and the nonhuman environment. The wild experimentation and careful documentation at Vilicus Farms can contribute to a collective understanding of how to farm more sustainably.

A few days further east along Highway 2, we’ll visit Matt and Sonia Johnson, who have also had success interseeding Kamut and flax as companion crops, to grow and be harvested together. Evidently, organic farmers on the northern plains have shared knowledge about these two species’ compatibility. The flax isn’t a weed competitor at all, Matt tells me, but at least it’s growing where weeds would otherwise grow. As Anna Jones-Crabtree says: Mother Nature does not like to be naked.

It’s not easy to manage two crops in one field, however. Standard agricultural machinery isn’t made to sow, care for, and reap more than one species in a given space. “You’ve kind of got to get two plants that mature at the same time,” says Matt. After harvesting Kamut and flax together, the Johnsons separate them using a machine that was originally designed to get contaminant seeds out of conventional grain crops. This technique for segregating the bigger Kamut berries from the tiny flaxseeds addresses another impediment to farming ecosystems rather than monocultures: Buyers want single products that they can package and distribute.

The Johnsons, though, have found that they can benefit from growing multiple species in tandem even if only one is a crop for harvest. While planting wheat or another grain, a broadcast seeder scatters sweet clover seeds all over and between the neat rows of plantings. Clover, a legume, crowds out problem weeds and delivers nitrogen from air to ground. It’s also a biennial — meaning that it lives for two years — so sweet clover will become next year’s soil-building crop, either to be swathed for hay or grazed by the Johnsons’ cattle herd, whose digestive systems will turn the clover into fertilizer and deposit it directly on the field.

Matt and Sonia have established a rough outline of an eight-year rotation of cash crops, cover crops, and combination plantings, with each 400-acre block at a different point in that sequence. Matt says they’ve pared down their variety a little because growing tons of crops and storing them separately gets to be a lot of work, but planting something different each year allows, for example, a legume like lentils or clover to put nitrogen in the ground for wheat to gobble up the next year. If it’s a dry year, sometimes the Johnsons will till an entire crop into the soil instead of harvesting for hay or seed, so that moisture and organic matter is preserved for next year instead of taken from the land. It’s an example of farmers foregoing a little cash right now for the long-term health of the field, which is never an easy decision to make in a profession that operates on margins thinner than the Crabtrees’ strip fields.

What excites me about these farmers’ novel techniques for incorporating biodiversity into agriculture is not that they’ve figured out a flawless method for producing our daily bread. Heck, as I discussed in my last post, it’s not even clear that organic systems are any “better” or “sustainabler” than no-till conventional farming for raising dryland grains on the northern plains, if such distinctions can be determined at all.

What’s cool about this organic movement is that they recognize earth’s preference for heterogeneous communities of life and they are fearlessly yet respectfully exploring ways to incorporate diversity into their fields so that one day farms may begin to resemble vibrant ecosystems that spit out nutritious food instead of uniform fields monopolized by identical rows of a chosen crop.

Humans farm somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of our planet’s land area. Some conservationists advocate producing food as intensively as possible, so that we can reduce agriculture’s footprint and devote more space to wilderness. Meanwhile, others encourage wildlife-friendly farming with lower yields, to protect species everywhere even as more land is used by humanity.

But environmental scientist Claire Kremen, of the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote a paper arguing that this “either-or” framing isn’t very useful. Instead, research should focus on which specific agricultural practices promote biodiversity while maintaining or even increasing output. Kremen concludes that pretty much anyone concerned about the ecological impacts of feeding humanity could get behind a vision of “large protected areas surrounded by a relatively wildlife-friendly matrix of favorable land uses and corridors.” Amen.

The world could be a food forest. Growers that experiment with rotations, intercropping, mixed crop-livestock systems, and so on, like the Crabtrees and Johnsons, help get agriculture started in that direction.

Right now, most ecological research examines what’s left of the wild. On the northern Great Plains, this group of organic renegades that social scientist Liz Carlisle calls the “lentil underground” is building and sharing a body of collective knowledge about how complex communities of life interact on real, operating farms. And that’s important.

What I learned at Vilicus Farms is that fresh-ground organic Kamut flour makes for scrumptious muffins. Were a bit of rye mixed in, I’m sure they would have only tasted better, more complex, if you will.


Taking a break from riding the beautiful, desolate road back to Havre, Montana. You didn’t think those yellow stripes in the middle of the road were twice the length of 6-foot-tall Neil, did you?


Till or Spray? The question facing dryland grain farmers

This post is the second in a series about exploring Montana’s organic farming movement as I move from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro my travels on Grist. 

On Montana’s northern plains, some organic growers’ neighbors reportedly began referring to them as “weed farmers” a few decades ago. These organic pioneers had started to seed small, green plants in hopes of strengthening their soil. These little leguminous plants were nitrogen-fixers, species whose roots host nodules of bacteria that bring nitrogen from the air into the ground, converting it to a form usable by plants and thus fertilizing the soil without industrial chemicals. To conventional grain farmers, though, it seemed peculiar, perhaps pathetic, to intentionally grow plants that looked like the ones they tried to eliminate from their fields. In an agricultural culture that glorifies pure, unblemished waves of erect-standing grain, raising puny legumes and purposefully intercropping multiple species in one field appears unmanly, an affront to the dominion over nature that God has granted humanity. Or at least that’s what I learned reading Liz Carlisle’s book Lentil Underground while taking a break from bike touring.

Neil Baunsgard and I are exploring this world of organic grain farmers as we cross Montana’s north by bicycle, part of a west-to-east transcontinental journey. At our first stop, Rick Winkowitsch’s farm just north of the town of Cut Bank, the immense scale of grain production took us by surprise. How our grains are grown affects a lot bigger land area than, say, the organic veggie farms we support at the local farmers market.

But whether organic methods could make dryland grain growing truly sustainable remained unsettled, in my mind. Chemical-free farming is clearly a lot of work, both in terms of human labor and fossil-fuel burning. Leaving more variables in nature’s hands meant a lot less guaranteed success, it seemed.

And then there’s tilling. Organic farmers in Montana typically turn the soil before seeding a crop to quash whatever is currently growing there. Tilling soil exposes it to erosion, disturbs its microorganisms, and can cause moisture loss — a big deal in a region that gets just a few more inches of rain annually than a desert.

Rather than tilling, conventional grain growers can simply make a quick pass with the sprayer to exterminate weeds in preparation for planting. Applying herbicides keeps the dirt in place, preserving topsoil, moisture, and tiny life. Yet herbicides can be harmful to the farmworkers that spray them and the broader ecosystems they infiltrate. Organic and conventional systems both have upsides and downsides.

We quickly learned from Rick’s land that being an organic “weed farmer” doesn’t just mean intentionally growing species that look like weeds; it also means constantly battling weeds that really aren’t welcome, since it’s super difficult to eradicate unwanted flora from one’s fields without the help of chemical herbicides. To make matters more difficult for isolated organic growers like Rick, the weeds have evolved incredible resilience because the herbicides that the conventional-farming neighbors spray wipe out all but the very strongest weed individuals, whose progeny then populate the land. Vegetative invaders don’t pay attention to property boundaries. Visiting Rick’s farm became a guided tour of the cutting edge of chemical-free weed control in Montana.

Rick was particularly proud of his V-blade, a machine that cuts off weeds’ roots without turning the soil. The V-blade allows Rick to plant his grain seeds six inches deep and then run the machine over the whole crop, slicing existing plant life just two inches below the soil’s surface. The nutrients and moisture from weeds or cover crops that inhabited the field previously then return to the soil. With the right conditions, the new crop gets a head start on competition, and can bask in full sunlight and shade out competition below.

As we continue our tour across Montana’s “Hi Line,” every organic farmer we visit will want to tell us about the biggest problem weeds in their neck of the plains, and their innovative methods for dealing with them. Rick speculated about the potential to use steam or heat to kill weeds without plowing. One organic farmer featured in Lentil Underground even ordered a spider-like machine from Austria that can pull up shallow-rooted weeds right in between rows of growing grain.

Mostly, organic farmers control weeds by carefully crafting crop rotations — if you grow the same crop a few years in a row, perennial weeds will become established. Alternating nitrogen users like wheat with legumes that put nitrogen back in the soil, for example, meets one ecological need of the land, so there’s no open casting call for unwanted plants to come perform that unfilled role.

Most growers in this region also include a “summer fallow” in the multi-year cycle, when they don’t seed any crop and allow the weed seeds in a field to germinate. Then, organic farmers till these weeds back into the soil before planting the next crop, hopefully eradicating any pest plants that have established themselves. Summer fallow in dryland farming also allows the next year’s crop to have more than one year’s moisture at its disposal. With no crop sucking up water, only to be taken from the field at harvest, the soil can hold on to some of that wetness for the following growing season. Northern Montana east of the Rocky Mountains gets less than 15 inches of precipitation per year, so fully utilizing every last drop of moisture is critical.

Yet — counterproductive to the goal of preserving wetness — tillage can cause moisture loss through evaporation. And after tilling, bare ground can’t absorb rainwater as well as soil with some greenery on top. Reduced moisture is a high price to pay for trying to control weeds in an organic system.

Rick's V-blade, which undercuts weeds without fully turning the soil, which would expose it to erosion and moisture loss. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Rick’s V-blade, which undercuts weeds without fully turning the soil, which would expose it to erosion and moisture loss. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

The next evening, after about 70 miles of pedaling east along Highway 2 from Cut Bank, Montana, Neil and I meet an old-timer named Arlo at a summer picnic in a tiny town called Chester. During an engaging conversation about everything from the regional effects of climate change to Seattle’s urban planning, we learn that Arlo’s family farms winter wheat, spring wheat, peas, lentils, feed barley, and malt barley, a diversity of crops much like many of the organic growers we’re visiting in Montana.

I ask Arlo why his family started growing nitrogen fixers with their grains, expecting an answer about feeding the soil. Instead, Arlo begins an in-depth explanation of when, where, and how he injects nitrogen fertilizer into the ground with a grain crop. He stops himself after a minute or two. “What was the question again?”

“Why did your family start growing legumes?” I ask.

“Oh, the lentils get sold to India, mostly,” Arlo replies. He goes on about the grain elevator down the road that we had just biked by, how he delivers lentils there to be hauled by train to the west coast for shipment around the world. His answer is all about growing what can be sold on global markets, not about growing what’s healthy for the land or the life it sustains. And yet, growing lentils and peas for financial reasons doesn’t make their root nodules fix less nitrogen. It’s good to hear that non-organic growers are diversifying their farms, too.

Then, unprompted, Arlo tells me about “no-till” farming. Rather than tilling weeds back into the ground after summer fallow, Arlo sprays them away with a jug of Round Up — he stretches his hands wide to show me how much of the herbicide he uses.

Chester, Montana's Thursday afternoon picnic in the park, a much-needed hearty meal on a 98-mile day of cycling. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Chester, Montana’s Thursday afternoon picnic in the park, a much-needed hearty meal before the homestretch of a 98-mile day of cycling. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

Neil and I ride off into — er, away from — the sunset with the perception that farming with chemicals is gross. Our liberal upbringings and environmental education has taught us that Round Up is unequivocally bad, as is its manufacturer, the agribiz giant Monsanto. Arlo served as a caricature to reinforce our bias against business-as-usual industrial agriculture.

But there must be another side to the story; local extension agents, conservation groups, and government ag agencies like Natural Resources Conservation Service all support chemical farming practices. Patrick Hensleigh, Montana’s NRCS state agronomist, tells me that he believes no-till is simply a better system than what he calls “conventional tillage,” which is practiced by organic farmers. “The chem fallow certainly will hold more moisture,” he says, referring to the practice of eradicating weeds with herbicide instead of tillage during a fallow season. Moisture is clearly the all-important limiting nutrient for plant growth here on the dry plains.

Hensleigh prefers no-till practices to organic farming for more reasons than just moisture. “Every time you till, you’re affecting soil microbes, especially fungi, which take time to establish,” he says. Yet organic advocates have repeatedly insisted to me that spraying herbicides creates a sterile soil environment, which makes intuitive sense — applying a substance that’s supposed to kill living things should kill tiny living things in the ground, right?

The view over our shoulders as we pedaled away from the late-night summer sun in northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

The view over our shoulders as we pedaled away from the late-night summer sun in northern Montana. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.

We bike 28 more miles, making it our longest day on the trip thus far, and arrive in Hingham, Montana, just as dusk falls. We’re staying at a house that belongs to my Uncle Mike, who trades pulses — lentils, chickpeas, and other “grain” legumes — on global markets. A resident of Spokane, Washington, he bought the place in this gravel-road town to keep an eye on possibilities for business; the region is fast becoming a production hub for lentils and peas. In fact, Montana — far from its typical twentieth-century cycle of wheat, wheat, and fallow — is now the number one producer of pulse crops in the United States. Conventional growers have followed the organic movement toward seeding a variety of crops, with solid results both economically and environmentally.

Clark Jones, who farms a few plots of land across Montana’s north, has diversified his farm more than most farmers, growing mustard, peas, safflower, and corn in addition to the typical array of grains. Alternating between an assortment of crops with different attributes has allowed Jones to eliminate summer fallow from his rotation, a rare feat in dryland farming. Instead of letting fields sit naked, Jones allows subsurface moisture to accumulate the year before seeding a water-intensive crop by planting shallow-rooted crops that don’t require as much moisture. And keeping the ground covered ensures that when precipitation does fall, it gets absorbed into the soil rather than running off.

“It also helps with the control of weedy species: By rotating the different types of crops, from broadleaf to grassy crops, you’re able to use different chemical families to help control the weeds,” Jones says. Plus, he tells me that he is able to apply 20 to 25 percent less nitrogen fertilizer on a cereal crop following a nitrogen-fixing legume like clover or lentils, reducing the environmental (and geopolitical) impacts of producing and using synthetic nitrogen, which really screws up ecosystems when too much gets in the water.

Jones says no-till farming has virtually eliminated wind erosion and greatly reduced water erosion, too, because there’s always crop residue holding the soil in place. Despite the price of organic wheat hovering around four times that of conventional wheat in recent years, Jones hasn’t seriously considered transitioning away from chemicals. He follows the guidelines issued by university extension services to make sure he doesn’t over-apply chemicals, the same as any farmer concerned about limiting costs.

For the eco-conscious grower, the ultimate goal might be to prevent weeds instead of killing them — to create the perfectly harmonious, robust farm ecosystem that holds uninvited visitors at bay. But right now, farmers have to choose between tillage and chemicals, between farming weeds and poisoning them.

There’s no right or wrong answer; investigating the trade-offs and how farmers navigate tough decisions is the interesting part of this tour of dryland farming on the northern plains. Tools like Rick’s V-blade can help organic farmers disturb the soil less, while farming biodiversity can allow conventional growers like Clark Jones to summon more sustenance from the earth with fewer chemicals. The sharing of knowledge about farming in a smarter way may be more important than strict adherence to organic or zero-tillage standards. As my Uncle Mike texted me when I told him I was writing about organic farming in Montana: I’m still not sold on organic; most people can’t afford it. Basically, it’s complicated.

1% for the planet. Why Davos doesn’t matter

Today is the last day of the 2015 World Economic Forum, a weeklong meeting of the global elite addressing the biggest issues we face: climate change, inequality, and terrorism, among others. Politicians, business leaders, diplomats, and a few celebrities paid about $40,000 each to attend the gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where they’ve yakked about how to solve problems like how 2014 was the hottest year on record and how the richest 1 percent of humanity will own more wealth than the other 99 percent combined by the end of 2015.

One question: Who decided we should listen to proposed solutions from the same movers, shakers, and money makers whose decisions got us into this mess? Around 2,500 attendees flew in on 1,700 private jets and a few hundred helicopters, yet the media hangs on their every word, certain that these high-society, high-carbon elites have smart things to say about stopping climate change.

Jo Confino of The Guardian recognizes the problem:

Despite all the talk, the wealthy elite gathered in Davos gain too much status, wealth and power from the maintenance of our destructive economic system to spearhead its transformation.

Not only has the Davos crew has reaped enormous riches from the way things are, but these plutocrats’ obscene affluence also shields them from the negative ramifications of their choices and actions.

Confino illustrates this “prosperity trap” beautifully by detailing how massive cannons shoot artificial snow above Davos to create immaculate ski slopes for the rich and powerful, even as the sky becomes more and more reluctant to coat mountains in white, thanks to the atmospheric warming for which this jet set is disproportionately responsible.

How can we trust these people to fight a problem that hardly affects them? Climate change ranks so low among business leaders’ concerns that this year’s global survey of CEOs failed to even included it among the top 19 issues.

What’s more, money and status effectively segregates the elites from the less fortunate billions who do suffer as the climate changes and the economy takes over the earth.

The 99 percent are not represented at Davos, much less the vulnerable populations whose poverty the forum aims to tackle by any means short of sharing their vast wealth. Women make up just 17 percent of participants, despite the forum’s focus on creating social inclusion. And two-thirds of conference-goers hail from just two continents, Europe and North America, but in reality the global super-elite have more in common with each other as one-percenters than with fellow citizens of their home countries.

Because radical options are off the table at a discussion of delegates so heavily invested in protecting brutal business-as-usual, German journalist Christiane Kliemann wants us to forget Davos:

“It is high time to take our future in our own hands and to realize that our current economy is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.”

This post purposefully does not include anything anyone said at the World Economic Forum. I don’t care what they say, and neither should you. I’ll be done thinking about the whole shindig forever one more paragraph from now.

In case you’re curious, the conference’s discourse is summed up best by this satirical video entitled, “Growth first. Then these other things can be dealt with, whatever they are.” (Think I’m exaggerating? Break the no-paying-attention-to-Davos rule for one moment and scan this summary.)


This fellow’s on hiatus

So I’m writing for Grist for the next five or so months as a Gristfellow. That’s why I’m not doing anything right now at the bliss point. I’ll probably cross-post anything that’s boring enough for this site, but please check out what I’m creating in the fellowship. And I don’t mean just right now — I haven’t written anything super-cool yet anyway. Pass by Grist regularly or sign up to receive one of their digests. It’s all good stuff. I’m just hoping I learn a bunch from the editorial team while I’m part of it!

The atmosphere is everybody’s property

In an article that appeared yesterday on Dollars & Sense as well as, Jim Boyce of UMass Amherst first breaks down all the climate policy we talk about into demand-side (encouraging energy efficiency, subsidizing renewables, investing in mass transit) and supply-side (putting a price on carbon emissions) approaches to reducing emissions. Then he does a really good job describing the latter: a carbon tax and a cap-based system, what they might look like, and how they differ. If you have trouble grasping these so-called ‘market-based’ climate solutions, this article is for your understanding of that debate. And if you already know all that stuff, the way Boyce explains it will probably be interesting and may even give you a new perspective on some aspects (it did for me).

A tax sets the price and allows the quantity of emissions to fluctuate. A cap sets the quantity and allows the price of emissions to fluctuate.

Then the piece goes on to advocate for a market-based policy that treats the atmosphere in a manner consistent with popular opinion: it’s a global commons — we all own it, so nobody should accumulate private wealth by profiting from using it as a waste dump. Even as we reduce emissions, there are huge profits to be made from burning fossil fuels. Let’s share them equally.

Notably, Boyce argues for applying the pricing system when fossil fuels “enter the economy” — when oil gets on a tanker or changes hands to slip into a pipeline; when coal leaves the mountaintop-removal operation or the strip mine; when natural gas leaves the fracking well. This method of pricing takes the costs straight to dirty energy companies and spreads them around the economy from there, such that goods whose production, distribution, or use involves a lot of carbon emissions will get much more expensive. So high-consumption wealthy regions can’t escape the economic costs by simply sending polluting industries to poorer areas. Instead, they might be forced to grapple with the big C: Consumption, the economic boogeyman we’ve been so reluctant to address.

In a world where emissions are ‘capped’, reducing consumption in rich nations would leave more atmospheric space for poor ones to consume and emit while they work to meet material needs and provide basic human rights. And if we split the revenues from auctions of limited carbon permits on an equal per-person basis, the least well-off members of society will benefit the most, since they contribute so little to climate change. Furthermore, over half the population would gain income greater than their increased expenditure from paying for the carbon in their lives, because shares of the global carbon footprint skew so heavily toward the wealthiest few.

Don’t take it from me. Read the damn article!

SolarCoin and social equity, part II

This is the sixth post in the Electricity-Backed Currency blog series — check out the SolarCoin page to learn the basics and link to the first five posts in the series

Originally posted at Triple Pundit on June 24, 2014

Our energy systems must transition away from fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate chaos. What’s more, this shift to carbon-free energy has to happen fast — even more quickly than the rate at which renewables are currently replacing oil, gas and coal.

SolarCoin-accepted-here3SolarCoin is a novel strategy for accelerating investment in solar power. If it scales up — meaning that people begin treating SolarCoins as money — then it could work toward achieving the clean energy economy we need to save the climate.

But it’s not inherently socially equitable. In fact, as I show in SolarCoin and social equity, part I, SolarCoin has the scary potential to contribute to accelerating the growth of wealth inequality.

Getting SolarCoins

There are two ways to be eligible to claim SolarCoins: you can have a roof or yard with solar panels or you can own a solar project with capacity greater than ten kilowatts (kW). (The cutoff was set at 10 kW to distinguish household solar systems from commercial arrays.) Each megawatt-hour (MWh) of solar electricity generated earns one SolarCoin.

Beyond claiming SolarCoins for generating electricity, there’s a third method for getting some of the digital money: you can trade for them in online currency markets.

All three ways to acquire SolarCoins for your digital wallet present substantial barriers to the poor. People with no roofs, no yards, no access to credit, and no dollars to trade (nor experience using the interwebs for currency exchange) stand to benefit most from holding SolarCoins, especially if they get them while they’re cheap and the currency gains value in the future. Yet society’s least wealthy populations have scarcely any chance to put up solar panels, own a solar power installation, or trade for SolarCoins online.

Fortunately, there are ways to increase access to SolarCoins through each of these pathways.

Residential solar

The explosion in leased solar power systems means more people have access to earning  dollars and SolarCoins for producing solar electricity. Graph: Climate Policy Initiative

The explosion in leased solar power systems means more people can earn dollars and SolarCoins for producing solar electricity. Graph: Climate Policy Initiative

For residential solar systems (under 10 kW capacity), SolarCoins are earned by the resident of that property, not the owner of the solar panels. This way, the solar leasing boom gets SolarCoins into the hands of all the people using that power, instead of just piling up digital money in the coffers of companies like Sungevity and SolarCity that put panels on homes and rent them to the residents.

Each solar generating facility has just one ‘claimant,’ yet it is plausible that multi-family dwellings with rooftop solar could split SolarCoin claims. If apartment communities team up to lease solar panels, they can share the revenues from selling power and the earned SolarCoins.

Also, granting SolarCoins to more people increases the value of the digital currency (think about how the value of US dollars is supported by its worldwide acceptance as valuable money). A new currency only works as useful money for transactions if lots of folks have it and businesses accept it, which will be the case if they can use it to reward customers, pay employees, or buy inputs.

So with policies that facilitate multi-family solar projects, a growing number of people can become residential solar electricity producers. These groups can earn SolarCoins, which in turn benefits the entire SolarCoin community by increasing its exchange value. But only the wealthy can own large solar installations, right?

Solar ownership

Community solar projects extend the opportunity to own a share of a large solar power installation to a wider population — those with roofs unsuitable for solar because of shade or unfortunate tilt; renters and condo-dwellers who don’t control their roofs; and those who can only afford a small investment in solar. Below I propose a new way to spread SolarCoin-earning investments to even more people, but keep in mind that the same benefits apply to any community solar project that decides to split SolarCoin revenues among those who share ownership.

Mosaic, a solar project crowd-funding platform, helps address unequal access to solar investment opportunities. The minimum investment to finance a Mosaic project is $25.

Here’s how Mosaic works: A ‘borrower’ seeking to finance a solar energy project uses Mosaic to connect with investors looking for a steady return. After the installation starts producing electricity, the revenue from selling that power pays back those who invested in it, plus interest.

Mosaic helps solar installations get built by connecting small and large investors with projects seeking financing. If those investors earned SolarCoins in addition to the return on their investment, everybody wins -- the investors, the borrowers, the SolarCoin community, Mosaic, and our global climate. Image: Mosaic.

Mosaic helps solar installations get built by connecting small and large investors with projects seeking financing. If those investors earn SolarCoins in addition to the return on their investment, everybody wins — the investors, the borrowers, the SolarCoin community, Mosaic, and our global climate. Graphic: Mosaic.

SolarCoins could provide extra incentive to invest in solar power for anyone with $25. The borrower of a Mosaic-funded installment (who owns the array) could claim SolarCoins for the megawatts of electricity produced and then distribute them to investors in proportion to their share of the project’s up-front costs.

This way, Mosaic investors would earn a rate of return and SolarCoins. Three main benefits would arise from this arrangement.

First, everyone who loans to Mosaic projects would get a bigger reward. Beyond the fixed monthly payments that return their principle investment plus interest, Mosaic investors would be paid in SolarCoins.

Second, people without large sums of money to invest could earn SolarCoins for their ownership stake in large installations. Finally, growth in the SolarCoin economy means growth in the money value of SolarCoins.

A mutually beneficial partnership between Mosaic and SolarCoin would mean additional incentive to join both communities — the former could promote more returns to investors, and the latter would see an increase in value as more people hold and transact the currency.

Online exchange

But what about rich folks’ inherent advantage in accumulating SolarCoin through online currency trading? Anyone can turn dollars into bitcoins into SolarCoins, so people with lots of dollars can pile up stacks of digital money.

This problem is a harder nut to crack — it’s difficult to dream up any new currency that doesn’t favor the already-wealthy. But one invention exists that allows anyone with web access to get some SolarCoin in their digital wallet, for free.

Third-party charitable faucets, like this site, give away small amounts of SolarCoins in order to grow SolarCoins’ value as a means of exchange by spreading the currency into more hands. From a social equity standpoint, faucets give cash-strapped regular Joes and Janes the chance to take part in this new social economy.

Yet plenty of room for innovation remains in the quest to grow the SolarCoin community with less bias toward well-off people. What if we could each receive one SolarCoin for signing a petition advocating progressive legislation that favors low-carbon energy (or burdens fossil fuels)?

How about everyone with zero dollars invested in fossil energy companies gets ten SolarCoins? Poor people would be able to cash in immediately, and folks with investment portfolios would get a SolarCoin bonus for joining the global movement to divest from dirty energy!

SolarCoin could provide an extra push toward choosing to divest from fossil fuels by rewarding anyone with no money in dirty energy stock. Graphic: Ekavi Beh.

SolarCoin could provide a push toward choosing to divest from fossil fuels by rewarding anyone with no money in dirty energy stock. Graphic: Ekavi Beh.

Money for good

These ideas barely scratch the surface of possibility for digital (and physical) currencies to make our money economy more socially just and environmentally mindful. And remember, strategies for getting a new currency into more people’s hands can increase that currency’s value, as long as its supply remains reasonably scarce overall.

Thus, for the SolarCoin community, measures like a reward for divestment are not only progressive but  self-interested. The same can be said for partnering with Mosaic or creating multi-family collectives to help more people become solar power producers.

In summary, growing the SolarCoin community to include people who can’t get solar panels easily will not only offset or reverse some of the currency’s built-in unfairness; it will also increase its value — which in turn drives investment in solar power.

The next post in the series will explore one more way that cryptocurrencies like SolarCoin promote social equity and benefit some of our society’s hardest-working and least-compensated members. Stay tuned!