Monthly Archives: January 2009


I lack all relevant scientific expertise, but biochar sounds very promising to me. Basically, the idea is that you burn “biomass” (crops, trees, used paper, kitchen waste, etc.) with minimal oxygen. You can accomplish this by getting a fire going and then covering the biomass with soil while it smolders–the ancient technique–or by burning it in a special kiln, or even by microwaving it. This process produces the following products, in a ratio that you can control:

1. A stable form of carbon that will not return to the atmosphere for at least hundreds of years. This product also makes an excellent fertilizer.

2. Various valuable chemical byproducts.

3. Three forms of fuel: solid (charcoal), liquid (oil), and gas.

If all we wanted to do was mitigate global warming by removing carbon from the air, we could grow crops (which pull carbon out of the atmosphere), burn them in kilns, and store vast quantities of biochar in its stable form. But that’s expensive to do on a massive, global scale. The other uses of biochar–as fertilizer and fuel–make it economically valuable.

When people burn biochar as fuel, they do put carbon back in the atmosphere. But the fuel is highly efficient, and you can keep the residue as stable carbon. The result is a fuel that actually lowers atmospheric carbon when you combine its production and its use. If we substitute biochar for coal or oil extracted from under the earth and then burned, the benefit is huge. Likewise, if instead of creating arable land by setting rain forests on fire, we turn trees into biochar fertilizer, we can produce productive farmland with dramatically less damage.

Biochar could be produced on an industrial scale by firms or agencies that would sell biofuel to replace fossil sources, such as coal and oil. It could also be produced by households or villages for their own local use. That opens the possibility of a decentralized process that could be socially empowering. To get this going, it might be helpful (I’m speculating here) to invest public funds in developing new kilns and processes.

Nothing is a panacea, and some skeptical points are listed here. But overall, this sounds like the most promising strategy I’ve heard of.

micro-politics in a committee room

I spent two days of this week with a federal advisory committee, deciding what questions to ask on certain official surveys. I was struck (as I sat with my colleagues in an underground hotel room), that various combinations of “discourses” were governing the discussion:

  • A bureaucratic discourse. We were operating within an elaborate structure of bureaus and offices, contractors, and committees, each with its own roles and powers. This structure can be visualized as a hierarchy or a flow chart or (alternatively) as a temporal sequence. (First the Background Variables committee reviews the instrument, then it goes to the Governing Board. Etc.)
  • A legislative discourse. Various federal laws govern the collection of data from kids. Unlike the rules of a bureaucracy, these statutes are miscellaneous and incomplete. There is a law against asking kids about certain sexual activities, for instance. That law just stands there on its own, trumping all other considerations.
  • A business discourse. Much of this work is conducted by for-profit or non-profit corporations. They are governed by bids, contracts, and budgets.
  • A statistical discourse. Many of our decisions are influenced, or even determined, by statistics. For instance, a question is bad if it doesn’t produce an interesting variation in responses. A set of questions is better if it produces responses that correlate with one another.
  • A psychological discourse. Questions about human attitudes, cognition, and responses to stimuli arise repeatedly and are sometimes settled by appeal to lab research.
  • A discourse of kids and schools. Great authority is (rightly) accorded to commonsensical generalizations about what happens in kids’ lives or in their schools. People say things like, “They all text each other nowadays. Does that count as ‘writing’?” Many participants are parents or grandparents and like to mention their own offspring.
  • An academic discourse. Many of us are professors or deans, so issues about college teaching, graduate students, grants, sabbaticals, and tenure arise from time to time.
  • A computer discourse. The data are no use unless they are stored on computers in useful ways. We often discuss details about how the data are organized and analyzed.
  • A discourse of upper-middle class travel. We have all gathered in Washington, DC–most of us traveling by plane and staying in a Holiday Inn. We go out to a restaurant together for dinner. There is much chatter about food, flights, and weather.

Each of these discourses confers power or status. If you wanted to get a particular item included on the survey, you could probably improve your chances by impressing colleagues with your savvy as a traveler or by talking like a knowledgeable parent–or by letting everyone know that you have downloaded the previous years’ data and done a fancy statistical analysis. In other words, status transfers (I suspect) from one domain to another.

It strikes me that some people gravitate to issues that can be decided by applying rules. They are relieved, for instance, when a decision can be made automatically by superimposing the rules of statistics and the bureaucratic structure. Other participants chafe against such limits and feel comfortable making case-by-case value-judgments.

Some people jump at the chance to express opinions when their favored discourses arise. If you’re a statistics jock, you speak up whenever an issue is statistical. If you have a nine-year-old at home, you mention anecdotes relevant to the fourth-grade data. It’s partly about making pleasant conversation, partly about contributing good insights–and partly a matter of status and power. This is not to say that everyone is trying to maximize their influence. Some are sincerely modest and diffident. But power is present.

No setting could seem less like the “agonistic” political spaces that impressed Hannah Arendt. She admired ancient Greek agoras and revolutionary assemblies in which people expressed their inner selves in heroic speeches and deeds. I’ve been hanging out with nerds in a hotel conference room. But politics is everywhere, and that’s not a bad thing.

bringing a Maine mill town back together

(Washington, DC) Jesse Ellison has a good story in Newsweek about how Somali immigrants are helping to revive the decayed mill town of Lewiston, Maine. At first, there was severe conflict between the older residents and the newly arrived Somalis, who represented the first substantial black population in the state. The mayor, famously, tried to stop more Somalis from coming. But now the conflict has subsided, jobs are returning, income is up, and crime rates have declined–all thanks in part to immigration.

I visited Lewiston last fall to meet with folks at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College. I also know some people at the National Civic League, which awarded Lewiston its All-America Award in 2007. So I can add a few background points to the article.

First, it turns out that Somalis chose to settle in Lewiston, a traditionally French Canadian Catholic town, because they believed its culturally conservative values would be comfortable for their families. That means that the powerful cultural clash that ensued was ironic. But I think one reason the French Canadians were resistant was that they needed people to acknowledge their own history of discrimination in New England. Once that was recognized, they could proceed to a dialogue about what to do next.

Second, I’m told that young people wrote the whole application for the All-American City Award. In general, students from Bates and the other area colleges are making a big difference through research, service, writing, and activism projects that help connect the city’s communities. (For instance, this photo essay.)

measuring what matters

(Washington, DC) I am here for a meeting of a federal committee–one of dozens–that helps to decide which statistics to gather from public school students. We are especially focused on socio-economic “background variables” that may influence kids’ success in schools. What to measure often boils down to what correlates empirically with test scores or graduation rates. For instance, a combination of parents’ income, education, and occupation can explain about 15%-20% of the variance in test scores. And so we measure these variables.

But the mere fact of a correlation between A and B doesn’t mean we should measure both. We could look for correlations between the length of students’ noses and the weight of their earlobes. Instead, we look for covariance between parental income and the total number of questions a kid can answer correctly on a test that we write and make him take. Why? Because of moral commitments: beliefs about what inputs, outputs, and causal relationships matter ethically in education.

So it’s worth getting back to fundamental principles. These would be mine:

Continue reading

collaborative problem-solving: the fake corporate version

I am back in DC (for the third trip in two weeks), and this time I am greeted by hundreds of Chevron ads asking Metro riders to “join” the company in saving energy by making various personal sacrifices. The real audience for these posters, I presume, consists of policymakers, reporters, and other “influentials” who may ride the Metro.

A generous estimate suggests that Chevron spends less than 4% of its “capital and exploratory budget” on renewable fuels. So, of the $16 billion-$20 billion that it spends every year developing new energy sources, 96% goes to extracting more carbon fuel from under the earth’s surface to be burned.

The company tells different stories in its ads and in its filing for the SEC. The latter is meant to be read by investors. It is full of sentences like this: “An aggressive 2000 well drilling program in the Gulf of Mexico Shelf enabled the company to develop opportunities to offset field declines in production to less than 2 percent between years.” The word “renewable” does not appear in the SEC filing; “conservation” appears only in the context of a legal settlement for “alleged air violations at Chevron’s El Paso Refinery.”

Chevron’s “will you join us?” campaign might offend us on several levels–it’s patronizing, misleading, and designed to protect activities that harm the earth. For me, an added insult is Chevron’s misuse of the spirit of voluntary cooperation that is so prevalent right now. Yes, we need to come together to protect the environment, using a range of strategies that includes private behavioral changes, initiatives within organizations and communities, technological innovations, and government action. People seem to be in the mood to show responsibility and to work together on solutions. It is utterly galling to see that spirit appropriated for a PR campaign designed to protect the prerogatives of a world-class corporate polluter.